Thursday, January 2, 2020

Oh No, Family Devos!!!

    This may be a familiar expression whispered among children in Christian homes when dad and mom announce that it's time to "gather 'round." What kids don't realize is that, while parents may not vocalize it, they have the very same angst about family devotion time. Especially for those parents who did not grow up in Christian homes (or grew up in Christian homes that didn't do family devotions), this can be a very difficult or even dreadful activity. For those who have forged ahead and made it a regular habit, it may be somewhat easier, but few typically make it past a week or two before it fizzles out as the kids are sawing logs long before dad finishes his "brief" homily.
Why is something that is supposed to be so impactful often just the opposite? And why is something that the pastor makes sound so simple so hard? Why do dads who leave church on Sunday morning inspired to be leaders in their homes and moms who are starry-eyed about their husbands' newfound zeal so frustrated by Monday evening? The basic answer to these questions is that there is simply a lack of understanding of what exactly you're supposed to do for "family devotions." You may see the value in family devotions, understand their impact, and be willing to invest the time, energy, and perseverance necessary to lead your family in this area. But every builder needs a set of blueprints and some tools in order to get started on a project, so let me walk you through a template for family devotions that I've come by through trial and error over the past several years.

Set a time
    Schedules will differ from one family to the next, so find a time that works best for everyone. My kids are still young and we are all home at least three or four nights of the week, so we like to do it at bed time. Don't be legalistic about this; learn to be regular but flexible. My rule of thumb is that, if we are home in the evening, we have what I call our 'Bible Time.' If we're out, we skip it and simply say a quick prayer as a family before bed.

Read the Bible
    This may sound like a no-brainer, but many parents with little children are afraid to read the Bible to them, thinking it will be over their heads. They look for the latest children's story Bible, complete with pictures. I'm not saying that these are all bad, but there is something about reading the Scriptures just the way God had them written that is powerful. Maybe your kids don't understand some things, but over time they will, and they will benefit most from hearing the pure, unaltered word of God from childhood (2 Tim. 3:15).

Use a devotional guide 
    This is not absolutely necessary, but it saves a lot of time in preparation and serves to keep your devotion times focused and interesting. A good devotional guide will list a passage of Scripture to read and provide some questions to ask your children. Some even provide a summary of the passage along with helpful illustrations. This can be an invaluable tool to help guide your family devotional time and follows the biblical pattern of the church coming alongside you as you bear the responsibility to "bring [your children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4). You will also find that your children will be more involved since they already know something about the passage you're discussing. If your children are older, you can follow the same format, but make the question and answer time more of a discussion. Here are a few great resources that you may want to check out:

(this is a devotional that corresponds to the Children's Ministry curriculum of FFBC)

    Avoid short, rote prayers. This does not mean that your prayers have to be super-long, drawn out supplications that put mom to sleep along with the kids, but use this time of prayer to model for your children how to pray. Pray through a couple of points from what you read and discussed in the Bible passage, thanking and praising God for who He is and what He's done, and confessing any sins that the passage has exposed about your family. Ask God to give all of you a heart of love for Him, and obedience to Him, and pray specifically for your children's salvation. Pray for your pastor and the elders of your church, and pick a "missionary of the month" to pray for. Finally, pray for one or two pressing needs in the lives of your family and your church family. This sounds like a lot, but if your prayer is focused it should not be longer than 5-10 minutes. Dad should lead in prayer, but it is good to include mom in the prayer time as well, and if your children are older, allow them to pray, too (perhaps assign them particular things to pray for).

    Yes, sing! This may be the most intimidating part of the whole deal for some parents, but Scripture commands us to lift our hearts and voices to the Lord in praise and thanksgiving (e.g. Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), and we need to teach our children to be comfortable with doing this. Not only this, but Scripture states that singing to one another is a form of teaching, and so through singing we are teaching and reinforcing the truths of the gospel that we are seeking to instill in our children. This means that we need to be careful to make sure that the songs we choose are not merely silly children's songs (although I'm all about some of these!), but that the bulk of the songs are filled with substance. This is a great opportunity to familiarize our children with the great hymns of the faith. I like to pick a "hymn of the month" and that way we sing one song enough times that our children come to know it well.

Keep the focus on the gospel 
    Finally, in everything you do, from what you emphasize in the Bible reading, to prayer, to the song you sing, keep the focus of your time on the gospel. This will keep your family's attention where it should be, exalting God for who He is and what He has done, and declaring our great need for Him and the salvation He offers in the finished work of Jesus Christ. This is what your children need to hear consistently, it is what you need to be reminded of regularly, and it will keep your devotion time from lapsing into a cold, moralistic routine.
There are many different ways to do a family devotion time; these are merely suggestions to help you get started. Some families get very creative and elaborate; some stick to the basics. I suggest you start with the template I've suggested and then begin to add elements or change them up however you see fit. One of the things that our family has added the past couple of years is 'story time.' We wanted our kids to enjoy reading, and kids love it when you read to them. We decided that, if we were careful about what we selected to read to them, we could not only encourage them to be readers themselves, but further reinforce their faith at the same time. Reading about a chapter per time, we have gone through series like the Chronicles of Narnia, and classics like the children's version of The Pilgrim's Progress. If your children are older, you could read more advanced books, or maybe take turns reading. Once you get started with a regular family devotion time, it is really quite exciting to begin to think of ways to improve it. 

Wherever you are with family devotions, I pray that these tips will help you and your children move from dread to delight the next time you call the family together.

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Gospel of Luke: Jesus is Savior

     The Gospel of Luke was intended to provide a document of proof concerning the life and ministry of Jesus Christ for a man named Theophilus (1:1–4). Luke desired that through this work Theophilus “might know the exact truth about the things [he had] been taught” (4). Luke diligently researched all of his information to assure its accuracy, and, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, recorded one of the fullest accounts of the life of Christ. Luke structured his Gospel specifically to show God’s plan and purpose for the Lord Jesus Christ’s coming, earthly ministry, and atoning sacrifice, along with a view toward His second coming and establishment of the kingdom.
     The Gospel of Luke provides the most detailed account of the events surrounding the birth of the Lord Jesus. Beginning with a full recounting of the birth of John the Baptist, Luke introduced him as the unmistakable forerunner of the Messiah, who had been prophesied in the Old Testament, and who would perform his ministry “in the Spirit and power of Elijah…” (1:5–25). John’s father, Zechariah, prophesied concerning his son’s purpose as this forerunner, revealing that the mission of this One whom his son would introduce to the world was to bring fulfillment of Yahweh’s covenant to His people, offering salvation and forgiveness of sins (67–79). 
     While John was still in his mother’s womb, the angel Gabriel appeared to the virgin Mary and announced to her that she would miraculously bear a child. This child’s designation and purpose were unmistakable: His name would be Jesus, for He would be the Son of the Most High who would fulfill the Davidic covenant as ruler over God’s kingdom forever (26–38). When the time came for Jesus to be born, an angel of the Lord declared his birth to shepherds who were tending their flocks in the fields, and his announcement further identified the purpose of Jesus as 
“Savior” (2:1–20). When Mary and Joseph went to the temple to fulfill their obligations under the Law concerning the child, both Simeon and Anna confirmed the identity and mission of Jesus, with Simeon’s proclamation building upon it even further: Jesus would be the Savior, not only of Jews, but also of Gentiles (21–38). Luke’s Gospel gives the only canonical glimpse into Jesus’ childhood subsequent to his birth, and this account shows that He was aware of His purpose from the beginning. He told his parents, who had been searching everywhere for him, “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (41–51).
     Luke 3 records the preaching of John the Baptist, who announced that men should repent and prepare their hearts for the promised Messiah (1–17). When Jesus came to be baptized by John, the triune God testified to His identity, and Luke followed this powerful witness with Jesus’ maternal genealogy which traced His ancestry backward through the Davidic line; all the way back to Adam (21–38). This again presented Jesus as the Savior of all men, not just Jews. Just before Jesus set out in His public ministry, Luke recorded His testing in the wilderness (4:1–13). While Adam had caved in under the pressure of temptation in the garden, the famished and weary Lord Jesus was shown to resist the schemes of Satan. This further validated Him as the One who was qualified to be the Savior of the world.
     Unlike the other Gospels, Luke introduced Jesus’ public ministry with the reporting of His reading a prophetic portion of Isaiah concerning the Messiah and announcing to all in the synagogue that He was the fulfillment of the passage. He then announced the sobering reality that Israel’s rejection of Him would open the door of salvation for the Gentiles, just as had been the case with the ministry of Elijah and Elisha (4:14–27).
     Luke 4:31–9:50 forms the second phase of Luke’s introduction of Jesus’ plan and purpose, recording Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. Luke pointed out that, as Jesus began His ministry in Capernaum, the people were amazed at Him, for His teaching and His works were done with authority (32, 36). Jesus is shown to have authority over demons (4:35–36, 41; 8:26–39; 9:37–43), and these demons even became unlikely witnesses to His identity. He is also shown to have authority through His many miraculous acts of healing (4:38–40; 6:6–11, 18–19; 7:1–17, 21; 8:40–56; 9:11).
In connection with these healings, Jesus is shown to have authority to forgive sins (5:20–26; 7:47–50). Jesus even has authority over nature, as He gave the soon–to–be apostles a miraculous catch of fish, calmed the sea, and multiplied the food to feed the five thousand (5:1–11; 8:22–25; 9:12–17). Jesus is shown to have authority over the Sabbath, and this becomes the beginning of contention between Him and the Jewish leaders throughout the Gospel narrative (6:1–11). 
     Jesus is not only shown to have personal authority, He also delegated His authority to His disciples, giving them power to cast out demons and perform healing (9:1–6). This power was to be an authentication of their message as they spread the gospel of the kingdom throughout the towns and villages of Israel. Jesus’ choosing, training, and sending of these men form a prominent theme throughout the Gospel, and especially in this section. Jesus’ prayerful choice of the twelve whom He named apostles revealed that His plan and purpose would be far reaching (6:12–16). Even the inclusion of Judas Iscariot, who would be the one to betray Him, gave credence to the foreordained plan of God for the Lord Jesus.
     Luke 10:51 denotes a significant break in the narrative of the Gospel, for it is stated that Jesus “resolutely set His face to go to Jerusalem.” From this point on until Jesus’ 'Triumphal Entry' into Jerusalem (19:28), the Gospel of Luke records this journey and the events that took place along the way. This section obviously forms the largest of the Gospel, for here Luke records much of Jesus’ teaching. He had, no doubt, given emphasis to Jesus’ teaching during His Galilean ministry (6:20–49; 7:28; 8:1, 4–21; 9:11), but this section gives even more attention to it. The subject matter of Jesus’ teaching becomes more focused in this section as well, as He relayed, primarily in parables, what the kingdom is like, and how its citizens will conduct themselves (12:1–13:9, 18–18:17; 19:11–27). The teaching carried with it a greater urgency as well, as Jesus was now approaching Jerusalem. The reason for the urgency and tension in Jesus’ teaching was the fact that early on He had foretold His coming crucifixion and resurrection to the disciples (9:22, 44). He continued to remind them of it throughout this latter section of the Gospel, although each time they did not understand (13:18; 17:25; 18:31–33). 
     Another point of tension, however, was due to His constant friction with the Jewish leaders which had begun, as noted above, early on in His ministry. This friction would turn into a full–scale attack when Jesus finally arrived in Jerusalem, and shortly, the Jews would have Him arrested and crucified. Luke records this unfolding drama from 19:28–24:53. In this final section of the Gospel, the Jewish leaders are shown to lead the would-be followers of Jesus into a blood-thirsty frenzy that results in Pontius Pilate’s reluctant sanctioning of His death (22:54–23:49). This ultimate rejection of the Messiah by the Jews was not an unexpected turn in the Gospel of Luke. The plan and purpose of Jesus had been stated from the very beginning of the narrative. Although the Jews’ rejection would result in the destruction of the temple, and great sorrow in the coming days (19:40–44), His death and resurrection would make it possible for a remnant to be redeemed, along with many Gentiles, and God’s promises would ultimately be fulfilled in Christ’s second coming (21:10–36).
     The preface of Luke’s Gospel is balanced by an epilogue that brings the sorrowful climax of Christ’s crucifixion to a joyful resolution. Jesus is confirmed as the Son of God and Savior of the world as He is shown to be risen from the dead. Luke added some interesting details about Jesus’ post–resurrection appearances to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and again to the eleven in Jerusalem. In both instances, He explained how the plan and purpose of God for Him had been spelled out in the “Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms…” (24:25–27, 44–47). Jesus’ final act before His ascension was to commission the disciples as His witnesses who would continue His mission in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit (48–53; cf. Acts 1:1–8). 

Friday, November 15, 2019

Thanksgiving: The Heart of True Worship

After a short lull in festivities following Halloween, the next major event on everyone's mind is Christmas. The retailers have been ready for weeks already, but now the typical American is thinking of decorations and Christmas music, and of course, this year, again, Star Wars. "But what about Thanksgiving?" you ask. Well, we still look forward to it as well, but for most, Thanksgiving has long taken on the same status as Memorial Day: a day off with family (oh, yeah, and yummy food...and football). But the real meaning behind the holiday is all but forgotten, being evidenced by the fact that many now refer to it not as 'Thanksgiving' but 'Turkey Day.'

You may remember the great story of the first Thanksgiving you learned in elementary school about Squanto and the Pilgrims, but it wasn't until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that president Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday, calling on all Americans to entreat God for His divine care to a hurting nation. From that first Thanksgiving celebration to its official recognition, Thanksgiving has been ingrained into the fabric of our country long before it itself had been recognized as such. In the early days, it was certainly called 'Thanksgiving' because it was a way for people to come together in order to thank God for His innumerable blessings. The Pilgrims well knew God's providential care in their lives, and despite horrific difficulty and loss, they turned their hearts toward God with gratitude.

While Thanksgiving may be nothing more than another festivity on the calendar for most today, to Christians, it should be much more than that, for thanksgiving is at the very heart of our worship. In fact, the Bible reveals that a lack of thankfulness is at the heart of all who reject the one, true God who has revealed Himself to them (Rom. 1:21). Repeatedly, Scripture calls us to be thankful. Take Colossians 3:15-17, for example:
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
That's a lot of thankfulness in just a few verses! Obviously gratitude is something that is vital to the Christian life. And while we are typically prone to be thankful only when times are good and we have an abundance, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 reminds us to "give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." It is God's will that we be thankful at all times in all circumstances - the good, the bad, even the ugly! But just like anything God commands, He also supplies. Thankfulness flows out a of a heart that is filled by the Spirit of God, who produces within us the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithful, gentleness, and self control (Gal 5:22-23a).

So how can we cultivate thankfulness? Well, the context of Colossians 3:15-17 is the believer's response to his union with Christ. It is about what we are to do in response to the glorious truth that Christ died for our sins and then rose again, conquering sin and death and hell forever for all who will place their faith in Him. We are to put off old, sinful habits and put on new, godly ones in their place, and one of the glaring characteristics of the flesh is the propensity to grumble and complain. But the Christian is not only commanded to put off this tendency (Phil. 2:14), and to replace it with thankfulness (as we have noted above), and not only has he been given the empowerment to do so through the Holy Spirit, but he has been given the greatest motivation possible. When we think for just one moment about what we deserve for our sin against a holy, righteous God (see Rom. 6:23), and then think about what God has done for us in sending His Son to die in our place, instead of us - taking on all our guilt and shame and paying for it in full at the cross and then crediting to us His own perfect righteousness so that God can declare us not only innocent, but justified in His sight, what other response can we possibly have but thankfulness?! This is the very reason God commands us to "be thankful in all circumstances," because no matter how difficult those circumstances may be, we are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20)! And when we turn our minds away from our difficulties and just for a moment force ourselves to think about the many blessings God has given us, we should be overwhelmed.

Perhaps this Thanksgiving could be a time for you and your family to refocus your attention on God's goodness to you in sending His Son and providing all your needs. Some years ago our family endeavored to make Thanksgiving such a time, and so we began a family tradition we call 'The Journal of Thanks.' It is very simple, really. We have a typical journal that is reserved for one day of the year, and we spend some time going around the table, allowing each member of the family to state what he or she is thankful for over the course of the year. Mommy is the scribe, and this is helpful because we can read her handwriting and that makes it possible for us to spend some time reading the entries from the previous years. We've amassed several years now, and it is always amazing to read back through that journal and be reminded of the way our God has providentially watched over us and provided for us in our journey of life. Whether or not you have a similar tradition, I pray you will take time this Thanksgiving to rise above the smell of the turkey, the roar of the football game, and the stories of Uncle Bob, and give genuine thanks to God for all His blessings, especially for "His inexpressible gift" (2 Cor. 9:15)!

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Gospel of Mark: Jesus is Messiah

     The Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels, and the most abrupt presentation of the ministry and passion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Mark presents Jesus as the long–awaited Messiah (“Christ”) who was to come and die for sinners and return to establish His kingdom through a fast–paced narrative of Jesus’ public ministry and passion. Unlike the other two Synoptics, Mark does not include any information about Jesus prior to the beginning of His ministry. The Gospel begins with the title: “The beginning of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Throughout the Gospel, Mark sets out to prove that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of God, and what it means to be His follower.

The Witnesses
In order to fulfill his purpose, Mark recorded many testimonies of those who affirmed the deity of Jesus. The first of these was John the Baptist. Mark clearly identified John as the prophesied forerunner of the Messiah and recorded John’s message concerning Jesus. (1:2–8). This short testimony is brought to a close at Jesus’ baptism, when a second witness appears. This second witness is actually a dual witness of the Holy Spirit and the Father. (1:9–12). The Father audibly identified Jesus as the Son of God here, and again testified of this fact at the transfiguration of Jesus (9:7). A third testimony which appears twice in the Gospel is from an unlikely source: two demons whom Jesus cast out. On both occasions these demons identified Him as the Son of God (3:11; 5:7). A fourth testimony that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, was Peter’s confession. When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought He was, Peter immediately identified Him as “the Christ” (8:29). Jesus Himself claimed these titles for Himself when questioned both by the Jewish leaders and by Pontius Pilate (14:61–62; 15:2). The centurion who witnessed Jesus breath His last exclaimed, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (15:39). Finally, the angel who greeted the women at the empty tomb indirectly testified to the true identity of Jesus, affirming the fact that He had indeed risen from the dead.

The Words
Woven throughout Mark’s presentation of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, is the message which He proclaimed. This message was an announcement of how one enters the kingdom of God, which is, essentially, to become a disciple of Jesus. Whenever Jesus would call someone to follow Him in the Gospel of Mark, He used the phrase, “follow me” (1:17, 20; 2:14; 8:34; 9:21; 10:21). From the very beginning of His ministry, He called people to “repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15). Jesus’ radical message was that only those who were willing to confess their sin and turn to Him in faith would be worthy of entrance into the kingdom (2:17). No amount of good works could earn one’s way into heaven (10:19). Jesus’ call was for men to humble themselves as little children and to deny themselves, giving up their own lives to follow Him. This would cost them, for not only would they be giving up their own lives, but they would then be identified with Christ, sharing in His reproach and sufferings (8:34–38; 10:15, 29–31).

The Works
Mark presents Jesus as having divine and messianic authority in several different ways. People observed from the outset of His ministry that He taught “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus’ teaching was unlike others,’ for He did not merely sermonize about Old Testament texts, He correctly interpreted and applied them, and added His own revelatory message. Jesus is also shown to have authority to forgive sin, which is clearly something only ascribed to God (2:5, 10–11). Jesus demonstrated His authority over the Sabbath (2:23–28; 3:1–5). As already
noted indirectly above, Jesus is shown to have authority over demons, casting them out by His word (1:23–28; 32–34, 39; 3:11; 5:1–13; 7:29–30; 9:25–26). Jesus also displayed His authority over the temple when He cleansed it of the Jewish leaders’ wicked practices (11:15–17). Jesus’ power over nature is shown in His ability to control the weather, to walk on water, and to multiply physical matter in the feeding of the five thousand as well as the four thousand (4:39–41; 6:38–44, 48–52; 8:1–9; 11:12–14, 20). Jesus displayed His authority by delegating His power to His disciples to cast out demons and perform miracles in His name (3:13–19; 6:7, 13). But the most extensive witness to Jesus’ authority, which stands in a category of its own is the many miracles of Jesus. Some of these miracles have already been mentioned above, but Mark presents the focus of Jesus’ miracles as restorative. Jesus healed all sorts of diseases and ailments in countless people (1:29–34; 40–41; 2:5; 3:1–5, 10; 5:27–29; 6:5, 56; 7:31–37; 8:22–25; 10:51–52). Jesus is shown to have power even over death, as He raised a girl from the dead (5:41–42). Of course, Jesus’ own resurrection is the ultimate testimony to His authority and reveals His own personal power over death (16). The climax of the Gospel of Mark is the passion of Christ, and His atoning work upon the cross on behalf of sinners. Only through His death and resurrection could He not only show Himself to be the only one qualified to save men from their sins, but actually accomplish this by becoming their propitiation. This theme is built up subtly and dramatically throughout the latter half of the Gospel with Jesus’ repeated disclosure of the near future events to His disciples (8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34, 45), and then finally realized in at the end (14–16). 
     Thus, the Gospel of Mark concludes with Jesus fulfilling His role as the Christ, the Son of God in becoming “a ransom for many” (10:45), and then rising again to someday return as the reigning King.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Gospel of Matthew: Jesus is King

     The Gospel of Matthew is the most Jewish of the three Synoptics, as well as the Gospel of John. Matthew presents Jesus as the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament, but he also emphasizes that He is the King. According to Matthew, Jesus is not only “King of the Jews” (e.g. 2:2; 27:11), He is also the King of all believers, for He rules over the “kingdom of heaven”/“kingdom of God" (e.g. 3:2; 11:11; 12:28; 19:24). 

The Rightful Heir to the Throne
     Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as King in at least four different ways. First, Jesus is shown to be the rightful heir to the Davidic throne by His genealogy through His earthly father, Joseph. The Gospel begins abruptly with the announcement of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, who is said to be “the son of David.” Introducing his Jewish emphasis, Matthew traces Jesus’ line back further to Abraham, the first Israelite, but it is worthy of note that he placed David first in order to stress the king motif. The genealogy actually begins in 1:2, and when David appears in chronological order, he is identified with a description (unlike anyone else in the list) as “David the King.” Thus, Matthew underscored Jesus’ kingship at least twice in the Gospel’s opening genealogy.

The One with All Authority  
  A second, less direct, and more general, presentation of Jesus as King in the Gospel of Matthew is the emphasis upon His authority. Early on in His public ministry, His hearers noticed that “He was teaching as one with authority, and not as their scribes” (7:29). Jesus claimed to have “authority on earth to forgive sins” (9:6). In addition to the numerous healings and exorcisms performed by Jesus, His authority over unclean spirits and disease is understood in 10:1 as He delegates it to His disciples and commands them to use it as they go out preaching “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6). Jesus’ authority over the natural realm is displayed in His walking on the water and calming the sea (14:22–33), and His cursing of the fig tree (21:18–22). In 12:8 Jesus is once again shown to have authority, this time over the Sabbath. And finally, at the conclusion of the Gospel where His great commission is recorded, He states, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (28:18). Matthew showed that Jesus is King of the Jews and of all creation through His display of authority.

The Possessor of a Kingdom
    Third, the Gospel of Matthew reveals Jesus as King by way of implication through the fact of its announcement of a kingdom. The message of John the Baptist was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus’ message was identical, and so was that which He commanded the seventy disciples to proclaim in Israel (4:17; 10:7). The concept of a kingdom is absurd without a king, and Matthew makes it obvious who the King is.  John’s announcement of the kingdom is inextricably tied to the introduction of Jesus, as is Jesus’ own proclamation and that of His disciples. This assumption is realized fully in 20:20–28, which records the petition of the mother of the sons of Zebedee on behalf of her sons to be seated in two of the highest ranking positions in the kingdom. She asked Jesus to “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left." This obviously indicates that she knew exactly who the King was and Jesus’ reply reveals that He confirmed this understanding (23).

The King of the Jews
  Fourth, Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as King early on by giving Him this very title. “King of the Jews” was first used for Jesus by the magi who had followed the star to Jerusalem and inquired of Herod where they might find Him who had been born with this designation. It is not used again until 27:11 where Pilate asked Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?” to which Jesus essentially replied, “Yes I am.” Although this title was inflammatory among His adversaries, it was a description of Jesus that was understood and welcomed by Him and His followers. Matthew capitalized on this designation for Jesus more than the other Gospels, once again highlighting both the Gospel’s Jewish flavor and Jesus’ kingship. In 25:31–46, Jesus is referred to simply as “King,” leaving no doubt as to His position.

The Nature of the Kingdom
  It is clear from the data presented above from the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus is King. But what is the nature of the kingdom over which He reigns? He has already been shown to accept the titles “King of the Jews,” and “King,” and His authority has been shown to stretch into the realms of all creation. But the Gospel of Matthew has much to say to help the reader understand specifically what is meant by the frequent term “kingdom of heaven” and its equivalent, “kingdom of God.”

Entering the Kingdom
  In the first public address of Jesus that is recorded by Matthew, He introduced the requirements of citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. All of these requirements are spiritual character qualities as opposed to outward religious duties (5:20). Only those who are willing to humble themselves are worthy of entrance into the kingdom (11:11; 18:1–4; 19:14). Jesus drew a line of separation between those who would enter the kingdom and those who would instead incur judgment (e.g. 7:21–23; 8:11–12; 19:23–24; 21:31). Jesus’ teaching concerning entrance into the kingdom, the conduct of its citizens, and the fate of all who would be excluded continued through parables (e.g. 13:1–52; 18:21–35; 20:1–16).
  This understanding of how one enters the kingdom was one of the major points of contention between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in the Gospel of Matthew, for it was the theme of Jesus’ teaching ministry. Although Jesus “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24), and commanded His disciples to follow this dictum in their ministry on His behalf, He revealed that many Jews would ultimately forfeit their place in the kingdom and give way to the entrance of Gentiles (8:10–12; 21:43). Thus we can conclude from the Gospel of Matthew that the kingdom of heaven is not merely confined to Jews and that it is at least partially a spiritual realm.

Already, but Not Yet
  While the kingdom may be spiritual, the Gospel of Matthew assures the reader that it is much more. The kingdom seems to be something that is anticipated in the future throughout the Gospel, and the idea of someone sitting at Jesus’ right and left hands, mentioned above, seems to point to something more than a spiritual dominion. Forming a balance for the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (25–25) explained more about the nature of the kingdom. This text leaves no doubt that the kingdom is future, and it explains that Christ will return again in the future to “sit on His glorious throne” (25:31). Believers are called to be prepared for His return by serving diligently, and this service will be the basis upon which they will be rewarded greater opportunities in the kingdom (24:42–51; 25:14–30).  All of this indicates that Christ’s reign will be over a future, physical kingdom.
  As already noted, the Olivet Discourse also reveals that the kingdom will indeed be established in its fullness at a future time, although the specific date is unknown (24:36). Christ’s second coming, which will inaugurate the physical kingdom, is described as immanent, and yet contingent upon certain events transpiring prior to it. Therefore, believers are to “be on the alert.”
  The Gospel of Matthew does indeed present Jesus as the King, not only of the Jews, but of all believers. Kingdom citizenship is predicated upon humble submission to Christ as Lord. This initial entrance into the kingdom is a spiritual one over which Christ reigns in the hearts of men, and yet it looks forward to the realization of the kingdom in its fullness as a physical realm over which Christ will reign at His second coming.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Prayer Pointers from a Prophet (Part 3)

In our last post, we made the observation that, as much as prayer is a struggle for all believers, no matter how mature, much of the struggle begins with an inadequate understanding of how to pray. The goal of this series of articles has been to help in this regard. We've looked at four aspects and three attitudes of prayer, and in this final post we're going to add a few more attitudes that are essential to a healthy understanding of prayer.

The Attitude of Scripture Saturation
This may sound like a strange title for an attitude, but follow the logic. All of Daniel’s prayers were clearly driven by particular attitudes which he apparently cultivated throughout his life, but they were also driven by the word of God. We know this because the content of Daniel’s prayers was loaded with the word of God.  The most obvious example of this is found in Daniel 9:2, where he states that his prayer was based upon an observation in the book of Jeremiah, but the prayer is saturated with so many allusions to other Scriptures that critics have used this as an argument against the prayer’s authenticity.  The fact of the matter, however, is that all true men of God are students of the word of God, and Daniel was certainly no exception. His prayers were fueled by his knowledge of the Scriptures.
As mentioned, Daniel’s prayer in chapter nine was sparked by his meditation upon Jeremiah’s prophecy. He was obviously familiar with the Pentateuch, for he exhibits knowledge of  the curse that was promised for disobedience (Lev 26:14–39; De 28:15–68), and borrows from Exodus 32:11 (9:15). Other allusions and parallels could be noted in chapter nine, but even more striking are those found in the prayer of chapter two. Leupold calls this prayer “Daniel’s psalm,” and lists over a dozen quotations or allusions to other passages of Scripture. 
The richness of Daniel’s prayers was obviously rooted in his abundant knowledge of the word of God, and so it should be with the prayers of all believers. Daniel reminds us that we should never be without our Bibles in our regular times of prayer. Nor should we “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) throughout the day without being like the man in Psalm 1 who meditates upon the law of God day and night. This posture, or attitude toward the word of God will spill over into our times of prayer and we will find ourselves praying God’s word back to Him. Not only will this help us to grow spiritually and be a cause of delight for our Lord, but we will become more confident in prayer, knowing that what we pray is indeed in accordance with God’s will.

The Attitude of Humility
In all the dealings of Daniel recorded in his book, he is shown to be humble. From his appeal to the commander of the king’s officials in chapter one to his demeanor in the presence of the various kings before whom he had the opportunity to appear, to his response to the angelic messengers who revealed special revelation to him, he conducted himself in a manner of great humility. This attitude was a foundational aspect of his prayers. Wood comments on Daniel’s seeking of the Lord by prayer and supplications (9:3): “The stress of the verse is on Daniel’s attitude…The importance was not on what Daniel sought, but on his heart attitude in seeking.”  This attitude was humility, as is clear from Daniel’s fasting, sackcloth, and ashes which accompanied his prayer. These practices were not only outward symbols of humility, but served as aids to keep a person in a mindset of humility, reminding him that “he has not even deserved food from God” and that “not even the comforts of good clothing are his right and due reward.”   This was likely not the first time Daniel had employed these measures during prayer.  Another outward sign of Daniel’s humility is that his customary posture during his regular times of prayer was kneeling (6:10).  
Daniel’s outward signs of humility were matched by his words in prayer. The simple fact that he offered thanks to God for the revelation he received in response to his and his friends’ petition concerning the interpretation of the king’s dream revealed that he knew that his abilities were only gifts from the sovereign God of the universe (2:19–23). In chapter nine, Daniel first of all approached God as his Lord, completely surrendering to Him in an attitude of humility.  His confession was obviously undergirded by humility, for genuine confession cannot take place without a deep sense of this attitude. This theme is highlighted in Daniel’s two statements that open shame belonged to him and his people (vv. 7–8). 
Perhaps the most telling sign of his humility is seen in the petition, however. In verse 18 he stated, “…we are not presenting our supplications before Thee on any account of any merits of our own, but on account of Thy great compassion.” Daniel understood that with him and his people there was no hope, and so “he appealed to the only source of hope, the mercy of God.” 
Daniel exemplified an attitude of humility in his prayer life which should be emulated by all who would come before the throne of grace. While we are called to come boldly before this throne, it must always be remembered that it is only upon the basis of Christ’s righteousness, and none of our own that we are able to do so (Heb 4:14–16).

The Attitude of Waiting
A final attitude which characterized Daniel’s prayers is that of waiting. Both his prayer in chapter two and that in chapter nine were answered fairly quickly, but the reference to his regular prayer life in Daniel 6:10–11 reveals that potentially all and more  of the aspects and attitudes of prayer we have observed in him were routinely applied every day, three times a day for years. Daniel knew the Scriptures and he knew his people’s history. As he kneeled time and again with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he likely prayed a similar prayer to that in chapter nine many times. And he waited. He waited upon God, trusting Him that, in His time, He would fulfill His word and restore His people. Even though his heart must have ached over his situation, he remained faithful and patiently continued in prayer.
As the people of God in our day, we must be willing to wait upon the Lord no matter what situation in which we may find ourselves. In the good times as well as the bad we must trust that God has a perfect, sovereign plan for our lives and put our hope and confidence in Him even when it seems as though our prayers go unanswered.

Daniel stands as one of the great figures of the Bible to whom we can look for examples of many things: great courage, great faith, great character, and, as we have seen, great prayer. Daniel modeled several universal principles of prayer found elsewhere in Scripture, giving us a living example of what they look like in practice. By carefully studying Daniel’s prayer life and seeking to apply these principles in our own lives, we will discover that we, too, serve the same great God to whom Daniel prayed and find encouragement and delight in approaching the throne of grace.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Prayer Pointers from a Prophet (Part 2)

Prayer is essential for the Christian life, and yet it can be so difficult, not only because we all struggle with discipline, but perhaps because we really don't know how to pray. In our last post, we took a look at a snapshot of the prophet Daniel and found that he was a man of prayer. We noted his commitment to petition in prayer, the first of seven aspects and attitudes that accompanied Daniel's prayers. In this post, we'll look at three more aspects of Daniel's prayers that serve as examples which we can incorporate in our prayer lives.

The Aspect of Praise
Daniel’s prayers were largely made up of praise. After God had answered the request of Daniel and his friends concerning their rescue from eminent execution by revealing the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel responded with a powerful prayer of praise (2:20–23). Daniel praised and thanked God for who He is and what He had done.  The highlight of Daniel’s praise concerned God’s wisdom and power.  Verse 21 stands among the most salient portions of Scripture which describe the extent of God’s sovereign control of all things: "He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding." Daniel also praised God for His omniscience and gave thanks for the fact that He had given him a taste of His wisdom and power in revealing the meaning of the king’s dream. 
Daniel’s prayer of thanksgiving and praise is a model of a proper response to God’s goodness in the life of a believer.  But, as Daniel models for us in chapter six, praise should be the standard posture of the believer. When coworkers schemed against him and sought his execution, he remained steadfast in his usual habit of prayer (6:6–10). It is likely Daniel was making request for God’s help in this situation, and likely often made petition for his people. Despite Daniel’s burden for his people and their current condition, along with his own personal dilemma, the text states that Daniel’s prayers were offered with thanksgiving; Daniel praised God in the midst of difficulty. Walvoord notes that even though Daniel knew the law which could spell his doom had been signed, his enemies expected him to continue his regular times of prayer, as indeed he did. Although Daniel was a busy statesman, he was not too busy to keep his scheduled times alone with God in prayer each day.  
Just as Daniel recognized the importance of praise, so every believer should make this a priority. Although it is often our sinful tendency to allow the blessings we receive from the good hand of the Lord to go unanswered, we should heed Daniel’s example and offer thanksgiving for His abundant goodness. Times of trial should not be devoid of praise either, however. We must avoid another natural inclination to become anxious and disillusioned when we face periods of hardship. Praise must be upon our lips in every circumstance, at all times. As Daniel praised the Lord each day, so praise should characterize the prayers of believers of every age.

The Aspect of Confession
Daniel’s prayer in chapter nine is largely composed of confession; his plea for mercy did not come before his acknowledgement that Israel had grievously sinned against God. Although Daniel had lived a life of faithfulness before God, he included himself among those who bore responsibility for this rebellion. Leupold notes that Daniel’s confession “is straightforward and without reservations and offers no excuse or palliation of the guilt which its author is only too conscious.”  Leaving no stone unturned in confessing the sins of himself as well as his people, he heaped up terms describing the rebellion of the Israelites,  and indicted every last member of the nation (vv. 5–6). From the greatest to the least of Israel, everyone had been stiff-necked and disobedient, making a mockery of the Lord’s calling and graciousness upon the nation. Daniel contrasted the holiness of God with the wickedness of Israel, stating, “Righteousness belongs to Thee, O Lord, but to us open shame…” (v. 7). Further, Daniel noted that the calamity which had befallen Israel was of her own doing; God was completely just in bringing judgment upon the nation, for it was the very curse He had promised the Israelites if they forsook His law (vv. 11–17; cf. Lev 26:14–39; De 28:15–68).  Daniel confessed that even though this just judgment had come, it had not affected repentance in the people. It is upon the basis of this exhaustive confession that Daniel made his humble plea for deliverance. 
Daniel’s confession is a prime model for the genuine confession of all believers. Rather than a superficial, disingenuous recitation of sin, believers are to follow the pattern set by Daniel of going through the sincere and painful process of naming specific sins and proclaiming personal responsibility for them. We must examine our sins against the backdrop of God’s holiness in order to understand the fullness of our guilt and how much we deserve the severest of punishment as we are reminded of the fact that God is altogether righteous and just. As members of the body of Christ, we would do well to follow Daniel’s example of including ourselves in the confession of the sins of waywardness, lack of zeal, or whatever might characterize the church at large at a given time. All of this must come before we bask in the richness of His grace and forgiveness which He has extended to us through Christ, and certainly before we present our petitions to Him.

The Aspect of Intercession
As we have noted, Daniel bore little, if any personal responsibility for the calamity which had befallen Israel. We have already established that he was no more than a teenager when taken into captivity and speculated that his parents were more than likely among the small, faithful remnant which would account for his commitment to God from such an early age. Daniel is shown to be doggedly faithful from day one of the captivity, and the book paints a broad picture of a man who never wavered. Nevertheless, he included himself as one guilty along with the rest of the nation, thus showing his sympathy with his people.  As Isaiah responded to the vision of the throne room of God, using different language Daniel described himself as a man of unclean lips who lived among a people of unclean lips as well.
In a unique and powerful manner, Daniel here gave us a model of genuine intercession. Just as Job rose up early in the morning to offer sacrifices on behalf of his sons and daughters after their feasting (Job 1:5), Daniel offered up the sacrifices of a broken and contrite heart on behalf of his people (cf. Ps 51:17). Daniel’s use of the first person plural pronoun revealed the intensity of his intercession for the people of Israel. His prayer contained intercession of both confession and petition on behalf of the nation, but Daniel also interceded for God. He asked the Lord to take action in turning away His wrath and restoring Israel to the land in accordance with His word: “For Thine own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Thy city and Thy people are called by Thy name" (9:19).
From Daniel’s example of intercession we learn that genuine intercessory prayer involves sympathy. To simply say a dry prayer, devoid of compassion likely falls upon deaf ears. If we desire our prayers on behalf of others to be effective, we must put ourselves in their shoes, allowing ourselves to feel the weight of their pain and suffering, and even their sin. Above all else, however, we must intercede for God, asking Him to act for the sake of His own glory.

Through Daniel's exemplary prayer life we find fuel that can ignite our own prayers. We must not only ask God for things (petition), but we must first give Him praise, confess our sins, and intercede on behalf of others.