The Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 16:1-4; Mark 8:11-13

The Sign of Jonah

Today’s is a short passage from Matthew and Mark, with a somewhat obscure reference to the prophet Jonah.  It provides a glimpse into the duplicity of human hearts, Jesus’ call for sincerity, and what our Lord considered his greatest sign of all.

The Pharisees come to Jesus arguing with him and demanding a sign.  Perhaps you have been in a similar situation, at least as that pertains to argument.  An unbeliever or skeptic comes to you arguing certain points of the Bible, of which he knows just enough to be ignorant.  When I say ignorant, I mean he is ignorant of the Bible as a whole.  He has more than likely read or heard of something in it that he thought was strange, perhaps something about clothing or diet in the Pentateuch.  He knows that you don’t observe that rule, and then interrogates you according to some method he has strategized for weeks.  No matter what you say, he has anticipated your response and answers accordingly.  You see the glee in his eyes as he catches you off-guard on some obscure biblical point.  He feigns sincerity as he only wishes to know more about the Bible, which is, of course, hogwash, and you both know it but can’t say it.  (I speak like a man of experience, don’t I?)

Well, Jesus refuses to engage such people, knowing that it is quite pointless to cast pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6).  He sighs deeply, indicts the Pharisees’ hypocrisy in knowing weather-related signs but not the “signs of the times,” and tells them that the only sign their “evil and adulterous” generation would receive is the “sign of Jonah.”  Jesus referred to Jonah on another occasion when addressing the Pharisees saying, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).  This, of course, is a reference to our Lord’s death and resurrection, his time in the tomb bodily and among the dead spiritually, until his resurrection, both bodily and spiritually, on the third day.

And it is this sign that conquers death, the grave, and hell, a sign that no unbeliever can understand until he comes to saving faith in Jesus Christ.  No amount of argument will convince anybody, especially someone who just wants to argue for the sake of argument.  We do live among an evil and adulterous generation; keep your hearts pure and be careful before whom you cast your pearls.  When sincere, this sign can conquer the hardest heart.

Saturday in the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Matthew 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-9

How Quickly We Forget

The greatest task to which God calls us as his disciples is faithfulness.  It is faithfulness that conquers the temptations and trials that the flesh, the world, and the devil throw at us.  Hebrews 11 provides us with the great “Roll Call of Faith,” people of the Old Testament who endured and conquered because they “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth,” people who were seeking a heavenly homeland.  Because of this desire which they pursued by faith, “God is not ashamed to be called their God” (Hebrews 11:13-16).  Our problem (one of many, that is) is that we are so forgetful.  God grants a great deliverance in our lives, or answers a prayer that we so desperately wanted answered, and then … we forget.  We forget what God did for us, or, more accurately, we don’t believe that He can or will deliver again.  This is why so many of the psalms recount God’s great deeds on behalf of the Children of Israel, to remind them of their God’s great power and willingness to save.  He wants us to recount His great deeds in our own lives as well.

So when we read this passage of our Lord’s feeding of the four thousand, knowing that not so long ago he miraculously fed five-thousand, and hear the disciples respond this time the very same way they responded before – “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd,” – why should we be surprised?  The disciples are behaving just as we behave.  The Bible describes us as dull of hearing, stiff-necked, hard-hearted, and stubborn.  It seems that we have to learn the same lessons over and over again.  If we listen closely, we may hear Jesus’ words to his disciples on another occasion: “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you?  How long am I to bear with you?” (Matthew 17:17).  We see our own reflection in our Lord’s disciples at every turn – their sins, their follies, their failures – we understand.

And this is why we must recount the deeds of our Lord every day, to remind ourselves of His great faithfulness.  We may recount His great deeds in Scripture, or the ones He has performed in our lives.  By recounting them, we do not make the same mistake as the disciples who forgot that their Master had just fed five thousand some months back.  And as we saw in Hebrews 11, setting our sights on the eternal city whose builder and maker is God, we increase our faith as we pant for that city, embracing our alien status on earth.  Our greatest task will be faithfulness all of our lives while in exile.  So recount His great deeds and pant for heaven to remain faithful.

Friday in the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Matthew 15:29-31; Mark 7:31-37

God Does Things His Own Way

Today we take a short passage, but one which explains a great truth about God’s ways.  Matthew gives a summary version of Jesus’ healing ministry around the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis, a region where Jews lived among Gentiles.  Mark, instead, gives a singular account about a deaf man with a speech impediment.  Some people bring the man to Jesus and beg him “to lay his hand on him.”  Mark highlights how Jesus heals the man: “And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.  And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’  And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”

I want to emphasize again that it seems that Mark purposely gives us the details of this healing.  We have seen Jesus heal from long distance on other occasions; indeed, just yesterday with the Canaanite woman, and another time with the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13).  Jesus just speaks a word and a storm is hushed.  So why so many steps with this particular healing: taking the man aside privately, placing his fingers in his ears, spitting and presumably placing his spittle on his finger when touching the man’s tongue, sighing, and telling us the very word Jesus said?  Why all this?

Well, let’s discard what we know isn’t true.  To begin, Jesus did nothing for show; “faith-healers” may do that today, but Jesus – never.  Nor did Jesus have to heal the man in this manner; we’ve already seen that.  Ultimately, I cannot say why Jesus chose to heal this particular man in this singular way.  But there is one point I would like to make.  In theology we often speak of “secondary causes or means.”  What we mean by this is that God can and does use the things He created for His own purposes, in this case, Jesus’ unique healing of this man.  But God actually uses secondary means all the time.  A weatherman can tell you all about clouds and the water cycle, and he will be correct.  He can even make fairly accurate predictions based upon his knowledge of a variety of weather-related matters.  A doctor can use medicine or some therapy to heal you.  On the other hand, God can use a storm to bring judgment on a city, or a disease to express his judgment on mans’ sin.  All of these belong to God’s sovereign and holy will.  He need not do things directly, and generally He doesn’t.  We are to see His hand in everything and seek to discern His will and way in the world through His word.  This is not easy and we must always be humble in this task.  But the point is that our God never sleeps; He does what He pleases with HIS world.

Thursday in the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30

The Faith and Humility of a Pagan

Jesus leaves Galilee and heads northwest to the pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon.  These were great seafaring and commercial cities on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea – the ancient Phoenicians.  I often think of these cities being among those which lamented the overthrow of “Babylon” in the Book of Revelation (19:11-19).  Jesus goes there not wanting anyone to know his whereabouts, perhaps to rest, but we don’t know.  But he has officially left the land where Jews live and is now squarely in the midst of pagan territory; that is, non-Jews, gentiles, idolaters, people who were not of the covenant God made with Abraham.

It is here that an interesting event occurs.  Jesus could not be hidden even in a thoroughly pagan land.  A “Canaanite” or “Syrophoenician” woman comes begging him to heal her daughter.  She says, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”  “Son of David” is a Messianic title which indicates this pagan woman knows something of the true faith, and, furthermore, correctly applies the title to Jesus.  Then we are confronted with several things that happen which bother us because we see Jesus behaving in a way that seems out of character.  First, he doesn’t even acknowledge her.  This doesn’t keep her from pursuing him; she is determined to have her daughter healed by Jesus.  The situation apparently becomes embarrassing as the disciples urge Jesus to send her away.  Jesus tells them that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” seemingly indicating that he will do nothing for her.  When he does reply to her, he sounds downright harsh: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  This statement affirms what he had just said to the disciples about being sent only to Israel.  But then she answers (seemingly without skipping a beat): “Yes, Lord: yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Jesus then commends her faith and pronounces her daughter healed, which the woman discovered when she arrived home.

What we must understand is that Jesus was testing her faith.  He healed other pagans (the centurion’s servant), so that wasn’t the problem.  But for some reason or other, Jesus thought it best to test this woman’s faith and thereby show God’s people the humility that is required of them, which is here expressed better by a pagan than themselves.  It is a shame to God’s people that unbelievers can and do often best them at manifesting godly qualities.  May God’s people be humble enough to learn and do likewise.

Trinity Sunday

John 14-16; 2 Corinthians 13:14

The Doctrine of the Trinity: The Bedrock of the Christian Faith

My guess is that most Christians understand that they are supposed to believe in what we know as the doctrine of the Trinity.  They understand that since the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and since, of course, the Father is God, then God must be three in some mysterious way.  But they also know that there is only one God.  Most Christians don’t lose sleep over this mystery; they simply say they believe it (which I’m sure they do), and move on.

I would like to take this devotion on Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost as is fitting since all three persons of the Triune God are now revealed to us) to show you that the doctrine of the Trinity is not some esoteric teaching that only the initiated can understand.  I want to show you that this doctrine is actually very practical and is the very foundation of our faith – which means we need to understand it.  Bear in mind, we do not mean that we can understand the doctrine to the point that we exhaust its meaning; of course not.  We mean only that we grasp of it what God has revealed to us.  (Indeed, if you take the time to read the passages above and seek the Trinitarian references in them, you will go a long way towards understanding matters all by yourself.)

Before I proceed with each member of the holy Trinity, I would like to explain a few things about the doctrine as a whole.  For starters, what is the best illustration we can use to help us understand how God can be three in one?  There is nothing that will be a perfect illustration because we simply have nothing in our experience or world that approximates God.  But the best I have ever heard comes from an ancient theologian, St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), who compared God’s triune self to the human mind.  His argument went like this: A person only has one mind; however, within that mind, we can distinguish three operations: a memory, an understanding, and a will.  We cannot separate or divide them.  For example, one cannot understand something without using one’s memory (take mathematical concepts, for instance), nor can one use one’s understanding or memory without willing to do so, even though one is not aware of willing to do so when one is willing it.  This is the case for all three: we can never use one without the other two.  We can distinguish the three operations but never separate them.  However, we are still aware that one of the three is the primary one we are using most in a particular moment.  For example, if I am trying to memorize my lines for a church drama, the primary operation my mind is using at that moment is my memory, but of course, not without my understanding or my will.

So it is with God when He works in the world.  As one God, all three persons are involved in the action.  For example, the Father creates the world, but in conjunction with the Son (Proverbs 8:22-31; John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16-17) and the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1:2).  Still, we think of the Father as the primary actor in creation.  Likewise, the Son was the primary actor in redemption, not the only actor, as the Father sent him, and the Spirit prepared his body from the Virgin, but, still, it was the Son who was incarnated and crucified, not the Father or Holy Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit is the primary actor in the application of Christ’s redemption to us.  So this is how we understand our God’s three-in-oneness: the three are distinguishable but not separable, always working as one God in the world, but with one of the three “playing the lead role,” so to speak, in some activity.

So how does the Bible define the role and tasks of each one of the three:

First, the Father:

1) The Father is the Origin, the Fount, the Beginning of the Son and the Holy Spirit.  We do not mean by that that there was ever a time when the Son or Holy Spirit was not; we only mean that in some mysterious way, which we shall never fully understand, the Son was begotten of the Father, while the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father – from all eternity.  He is also the Father who initiates everything that the Triune God does in the world, be it creation itself or the plan of salvation.  So the Father is the beginning of all things within the world, and even within the holy Trinity itself.

2) He is the Sender or the One who sends.  He sent the Son in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4), and He and the Son together sent the Holy Spirit ten days after the Son’s ascension into heaven on the day of Pentecost (John 14:16, 26; 16:7; Acts 2).

3) The virtue we associate with the Father is love (John 16:27; 2 Corinthians 13:14).

Second, the Son:

1) The Son is the Mediator, the go-between, between us and the Father (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:15).  His special task is as the agent of redemption sent by the Father.  The Son accomplished the plan of redemption which the Father initiated by sending him, through his life, death, and resurrection.

2) The virtue we associate with the Son is grace (2 Corinthians 13:14; Galatians 6:18; Philippians 4:23; 1 Thessalonians 5:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:18; and almost all of Paul’s letters, especially his greetings and closings).

Third, the Holy Spirit:

1) The primary task of the Holy Spirit is the application of the redemption that was accomplished by the Son (John 16:7; Romans 8:1-39; Titus 3:5; 1 John 4:13).  There are many tasks that the Spirit does, the primary being birthing us anew in Christ (John 3:5-8), the next in importance being leading us into all truth through the Spirit-breathed sacred Scriptures (John 14:17; 2 Timothy 3:14-16).

2) And the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us is always that of the Son (John 16:12-14); that is, the Spirit does not speak on his own but of the Son, just as the Son spoke not on his own but of the Father (John 5:19-47).  This is why the Spirit is sent from both the Father and the Son – to bind the Spirit to the Son as the Son is bound to the Father.  When people divorce the Spirit from the Son, who is himself the Word of God, whose words are recorded in all the Scriptures, and not only the gospels but also in the words of the apostles and the prophets, they invariably fall into false teaching.  In sum, the Spirit speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures, and never apart from them – this is vital to understand and practice.

3) The virtue we associate with the Holy Spirit is power (Romans 15:13, 19).

This order must always be kept: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, lest we confuse the three with one another and mix their essential roles and operations.  It is the order of the plan of redemption: the Father who initiates the plan, the Son who accomplishes the plan, and the Holy Spirit who applies the plan.  This is how they work in the world.

As to their own relations with one another, we only know that the Father is the Unbegotten, the Son is the one Begotten of the Father, and the Spirit is the one who Proceeds from the Father and the Son.  That is all we can know of God in His essence.  We can describe Him as infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, etc., but none of those descriptions tell us who He is in and of Himself.  That, we shall never comprehend fully – and getting to know God and worshiping Him as God will make heaven all that it is supposed to be for His redeemed people who will have no other desire in heaven but this: To know God and enjoy Him forever.

And so I hope you see how fundamental and eminently practical is this doctrine of the holy Trinity.

Wednesday in the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

John 7:1; Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23

It’s What God Says that Matters

I suppose we all have our own little customs or traditions, things we do with family or holidays and anniversaries we celebrate.  Or maybe you have your own routine, and you don’t like it when someone interrupts it.  Well, churches have traditions as well, some more important than others.  Indeed, the Church Year that these devotions are centered around is a tradition, a good one I feel as I write in the “Introduction” to the different seasons, but surely not necessary to being a Christian.  But I would argue that it is a much more important tradition than what side of the stage one places the piano in the sanctuary, or worship center as they are now often called.

But we must always be wary of thinking our traditions equal to the word of God, especially when the hypocrisy is so obvious.  The Pharisees had a tradition that one should wash one’s hands before eating, certainly a practice of which your mother would approve.  But it was not for hygiene but for a religious tradition that they observed it.  When they confronted Jesus with his disciples’ carelessness in this matter, Jesus cited their voiding the Fifth Commandment by allowing someone to vow that income, which he would have used to care for his aging parents, for “sacred” use instead.  The effect was that one relieved oneself of taking care of one’s father and mother in their old age – an obvious breach of the law.  One more matter, though the Pharisees could point to Numbers 30:1-2 as their proof text for this practice, Jesus would not allow the pitting of one biblical passage against another.  The Pharisees were obviously holding to the letter rather than the spirit of the law in Numbers; the Fifth Commandment stands firm.

Jesus refers to the Pharisees as people who “honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me,” who substitute their own teachings for God’s word (Isaiah 29:13).  And he ends the passage dismissing their tradition with the obvious truth that what defiles a man is what comes out of his mouth, not what goes into it.  And so the question now turns to us: Are we honoring the Lord only with our lips, with our own understandings which are tainted with self-interest.  Honoring the Lord with our hearts requires becoming “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” which is our “spiritual worship.” It requires shunning worldly thinking that we may be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind,” so that we may rightly discern the will of God (Romans 12:1-2).  Sin places a cloud before my eyes so that I cannot see as I ought; living with a sanctified and transformed mind, as a living sacrifice to God, allows me to understand God’s will and act accordingly.

Wednesday in the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time (Continued)

I wish to take a moment to speak more about tradition, and this time I want to use a capital “T” when I do it, as in “Tradition.”  I want to make the argument, which some of my Reformed and Baptist brethren may find uncomfortable, that Tradition is a … well, fact of life in the history of the Church, as that concerns her theology.  Again, I am not talking about pianos or even the liturgical calendar, all of which may be dismissed; I am instead talking about what has been handed-down to us by our forefathers and foremothers for almost two-thousand years now.

Let me give an example.  Of course I believe that the New Testament, and even the Old when read in the light of the New, which it now must be with the coming of Christ and descent of the Holy Spirit, teaches the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.  However, as someone who knows Church history, I am also aware that these doctrines were fought over and hammered out in the first four “Ecumenical Councils” in the first five hundred years of that history.  I am aware that we use even today the language and theology of Athanasius, Ambrose, and Augustine to speak of these doctrines, the vast majority of the Church down through the ages totally unaware of this.  I do not place these councils or theologians above Scripture, but I am aware that they have a subordinate authority that we dismiss at our peril.

I do not say that nothing new can ever be said (Matthew 13:52), but I do say that whatever “discovery” one makes from the Bible must be consistent with what Scripture says and how Scripture has been understood down through the ages – what might be called the “catholic” (universal, general, orthodox) teaching of the Church.  You see, having been in the academy for many years, I know (boy, do I know) that people will interpret Scripture in any number of ways – and university/college/seminary professors are the worst with esoteric and subtle arguments that fool the simpleminded.  (I do not say that all of such are this way; I had many good and sincere professors in my years.)  So how does one resolve the matter?  It can’t just be “my word against yours,” nor does an appeal to reason work as people reason in different ways.  And you can’t just say, “Well, the Bible says x,” when they’re just going to reply, “No, it says y.”  It is precisely here that I believe that Tradition (with a capital “T”) has a very important contribution to make.  I knew thirty years ago that the same hermeneutical acrobatics made to justify the ordination of women to pastor could later be used to justify homosexual behavior – and so it has happened.  Of course they misinterpret the Scripture, but I believe the argument, “The general consensus of the Church down through the ages on this matter is x,” is legitimate and even definitive.  But such a position requires humility before previous generations – who were just as holy and wise as we think we are.

Tuesday in the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

John 6:60-71

Seeing Jesus as the Bible Portrays Him

It is imperative that we see Jesus the way the Bible portrays him and not as our imaginations wish.  I often hear people describe Jesus as compassionate and kind (with which no one would disagree), but then speak as if Jesus overlooked sin (with the exception of religious leaders, of course) and welcomed, indeed pleaded, with literally everyone to follow him, regardless of the condition of their hearts or intensity of commitment – kind of a hippy tiptoeing all over Galilee with a ukulele singing kumbaya at campfires.

Here we see the uncomfortable fact that Jesus was content to let people walk away who refused to hear or believe in him.  In this instance, upon hearing Jesus talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, some of his disciples (and at this time there were more than just the twelve) say to him, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”  Jesus responds that if they are offended at this, what will they think if they see him “ascending to where he was before?”  This is a rather cryptic remark whose meaning is debated but may refer to the extreme disappointment these unbelieving disciples would surely experience if (indeed when) their Messiah is taken away into heaven rather than establishing an earthly rule with themselves sharing the power.  These men were after matters of the flesh, not the spirit.  But the point I am highlighting is that when they walked away, Jesus did not pursue them saying, “Oh, come on guys.  It’s all just a misunderstanding.  Come on back and we can work things out.”  No.  Jesus let them walk away.  And there are other such instances.  How about the rich young ruler?  Did Jesus run after him saying, “Look, I was too hard on you back there.  All you need to do is give ten per cent.  Come on back and be part of our posse”?  When another came to follow him, Jesus even discouraged him: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  Jesus wouldn’t even wait for one would-be-disciple to go back and bid farewell to his family (Luke 9:57-62)!  The passage goes on to say that Jesus knew who believed in him and who didn’t, and that he added, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father,” which very truth we have spoken about in recent devotions.

Yes, Jesus is kind, loving, and compassionate; but he is also firm, commanding, and uncompromising.  He is both the Lion and the Lamb, and any teaching that shirks one or the other is bound to go awry.  The one who loves me also tells me, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  Be sure to see Jesus as the Bible portrays him.