A Walk With Jesus Through His Last Week — Wednesday

The Gospel writers don’t have much to report about Jesus’ activities on Wednesday during the day, but there are some assumptions that we can make based on Luke 21:37, “Now during the day He was teaching in the temple, but at evening He would go out and spend the night on the mount that is called Olivet.” So, it is safe to say that Wednesday evening (our Tuesday evening) Jesus had gone to the Mount of Olives (probably Gethsemane, where He was later arrested) and that Wednesday morning He went to the Temple to teach. This verse also makes it unlikely that the dinner in Simon the leper’s home happened on Tuesday or Wednesday evening (our Monday or Tuesday evening), since Bethany is another 1.5 or 2 miles (perhaps an hour’s walk, because of the hilliness of the road) away from Gethsemane.

It is not known exactly when Judas went to make arrangements with the chief priests to betray Jesus. It could have been Monday evening (our Sunday evening) right after Jesus rebuked him for criticizing Mary for anointing Jesus with the expensive perfume in Bethany. Or it could have been after Jesus began spending the night in Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, perhaps Wednesday evening (our Tuesday evening). Knowing where Jesus was planning to be overnight would be advantageous to know where to lead the authorities for a quiet, non-public arrest. My personal conclusion is that it was Wednesday evening.

The Mount of Olives would have been a most convenient and beautiful place to “camp out” for Jesus and His disciples. The Mount of Olives faces westward toward Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley. It is directly across from the former site of the Temple, which faced eastward, making a walk from the Mount of Olives to the Temple only a short half to three-quarter mile walk. As the sun arose in the morning, it would brilliantly light up the white facade of the Temple, which was reportedly one of the most beautiful buildings in the world at the time.

Wednesday would have been the 13th day of the month Nisan, a day spoken of as the Day of Preparation. It is about this point when the question is raised about why Jesus would be be preparing to eat the Passover (as many of the Gospel writers clearly state He was), when the priests and the rest of the nation would be preparing for Passover on Nisan 14th and celebrating it on Nisan 15th. The simple answer is that God originally set Passover as being Nisan 14th (Day of Preparation would be Nisan 13th), but rabbinic tradition had changed the dates, so that during Jesus’ lifetime the Day of Preparation had become Nisan 14th and Passover Nisan 15th — as it is even today. Jesus and His disciples were simply observing Passover as God had originally instructed. Thus, Jesus’ disciples asked Him where He wanted them to prepare the Passover meal. Jesus gave them instructions about how to identify where the meal was to take place, and left the remainder of the preparation details to them to arrange. The rest of that day, at least for Jesus, appears to have been spent teaching and perhaps healing in the Temple — despite the weight of grievous anticipation of the next 36 hours or so that surely must have been bearing down on Him. 

So what can we learn?

One observation that I’d like to make is Jesus’ choice of day to celebrate the Passover. Rather than following the traditions (man-made changes to God’s will), Jesus chose to follow the original command. This is not just Jesus’ lone example (although that would be enough for any disciple, right?), but it is the constant call of the prophets throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

  • Isaiah 8:20 “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.”
  • Jeremiah 6:16 “Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”
  • Jeremiah 7:23 ““But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.’”
  • Malachi 4:4 ““Remember the law of Moses My servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel.”

And even in the stories of the Old Testament, there are evil kings (e.g., Jeroboam and Ahab) who departed from God’s original patterns and great hero kings (like Hezekiah and Josiah) were those who sought to restore God’s original commands and patterns.

This call to restore the original continues through the New Testament, too. Jesus Himself criticized the traditions of the rabbis that contradicted the original commands of God; and Paul urgently charged men like Timothy and Titus to hold to the standard of sound words (e.g,. 2 Timothy 1:13) rather than be lured by the corrupted traditions (cum doctrines) of men.

Bottom line here: God doesn’t appreciate human innovation when it comes to His commands and will.

Secondly, we should observe the trust and focus of Jesus even on the brink of His arrest, kangaroo court of a trial, intense suffering, and cruel death. Still healing, still teaching, and letting tomorrow worry about itself. How could He do that? His implicit trust in His Heavenly Father. Yes, a brutal 36 hours lay ahead of Him — but Sunday was coming!! There was exquisite pain and shame yet to endure, but His Father was completely and absolutely in control.

Given our current circumstances of quarantine across the country, we might find a perfect example to follow and find the peace and comfort we all long for. But even beyond this, it gives to us the right example in enduring persecution and difficult times that we may yet be facing — keep focusing on the good works before us, leaving worrying for the those without God’s hope, and relax knowing that we win in the end — Sunday’s coming!!

See you tomorrow, Lord willing.

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A Walk With Jesus Through His Last Week — Tuesday

You might be wondering how anyone might be able to determine what day was which in this walk through the last week of Jesus on earth as a man. The Gospel of Mark actually provides us a day by day account of the last 5 days with “on the next day” phrases. If we assume the first of these day (Mark 10:46ff) being Sunday, then knowing Monday (Mark 11:12), Tuesday (Mark 11:19,20), Wednesday (Mark 14:1), and Thursday (Mark 14:17). Using Mark as an timeline and outline, we are now on Tuesday.

Tuesday of Jesus’ last week was a thoroughly busy day. It began with Jesus and His apostles and some disciples walking from Bethany to Jerusalem. On the way those following Jesus noticed that the fig tree that He had cursed the day before was completely withered, which gave Jesus the opportunity to do some on the road teaching about the power of prayer (as we referred to yesterday).

Arriving at Temple, Jesus appears to have been confronted quickly by the chief priests about the authority with which He was “doing these things”. We don’t have a clear antecedent to what “these things” might be; they could be His miraculous healings, His raising Lazarus from the dead, His teachings, or perhaps even His cleansing of the Temple of the money changers and livestock merchants. Of these four possibilities, it would seem that the teachings and the cleansing of the Temple are the most likely antecedents; the authority for the miracles would seem to be obviously God. This, however, highlights once again the the blindness of Jesus’ critics, who couldn’t seem to make the connection between the miracles and their logical conclusions about who Jesus was and the authority that His teachings carried.

Jesus’ response to them was a counter-challenge. Generously paraphrased it amounts to “I’ll answer your question only if you answer Mine: Who gave John the Baptist his authority to preach and baptize?” The chief priests instantly found themselves in a no-win situation; any answer they gave would make them look bad. If they said that John got his authority from God, then Jesus would ask them why they didn’t believe John’s testimony about Himself. If, on the other hand, they said that John didn’t have any authority from God, they would become very unpopular, since the people believed that John was a legitimate prophet from God. So, the chief priests gave the only safe (but embarrassing) answer, “We don’t know.” So, Jesus refused to answer their question, too, and supplied us with a deft strategy for dealing with malicious critics.

But Jesus didn’t drop their challenge entirely. He went on in His teaching to tell a scalding parable about the wicked vine-growers (alternatively known as the parable of the landowner). In this parable Jesus depicts a landowner who lets us property out to vine-growers expecting a portion of the harvest as payment. When the vine-growers fail to pay the land owner sends servant after servant to collect payment, only to have those servants abused and killed. The landowner finally decides to send his son to collect, thinking that they would respect his son, but the wicked vine-growers, seeing an opportunity to kill the heir and take the land for themselves, kill the landowners son, too. Then Jesus asks the obvious question, “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” The obvious answer: He will come and destroy the vine-growers, and will give the vineyard to others. Then Jesus quotes the Psalm (118:23) that prophesies, “The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief corner stone.” This prophecy against these wicked chief priests could not have been clearer, and it made them even more determined to find a way to stop Jesus.

Mark (11:13) tells us that it was these same chief priests and who sent other religious leaders to come challenge Jesus in the Temple courts, so the next few hours of Jesus at the Temple is filled with clearly hostile questions intended to stump Him or make Him look bad in the people’s eyes.

It started with some Herodians. They began by trying to flatter Jesus, hailing Him as one who was truthful and deferred to no one, but then gave Him a problem they thought would make Him guilty of treason in the eyes of the Romans or a collaborator in the eyes of the people — “Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” Jesus’ response was beautifully simple, (paraphrased, of course) look at the denarius in your own purse and tell me whose likeness and inscription is on it. Then, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.

Sadducees joined the effort to bring Jesus down in the eyes of the people with what they considered an unanswerable question about the resurrection. What if, they proposed, a man married a woman and then died before they had children — and then her brother marries her (under the Levirate law) but also dies before they have children — and then she marries the next brother, etc. down to the last of 7 brothers and then the woman dies. If there really is a resurrection, whose wife will she be? Jesus, agains, skillfully diagnoses their errors and answers them brilliantly. Their error: they didn’t understand either the Scriptures or the power of God. The answer: there will be no marriage in the resurrection and, yes, there will be a resurrection, testified to by a verse right out of Exodus (3:6), “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” — the stress being placed on the present tense verb “am” (as opposed to the past tense, “was”). Jesus concluded, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken.”

Another came asking what the greatest command might be. This was a question of great concern to many a religious Jew, since there were so many laws that must be observed, let alone all the traditions. Would it be keeping Sabbath, would it be keeping kosher laws, would it be keeping the holy days? Could it even be whittled down to the 10 commandments? What was the one command that, if you kept it perfectly, you could rest assured that you would be saved? Jesus’ answer might have surprised many, essentially it was the well-known “Shema” of Deut. 6:4,5 — there is one God and you shall love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And then Jesus adds, for good measure, the second commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This answer was so profoundly correct, that even the scribe who seems to have asked the question as a trap, was impressed and said so. And this seems to have shut down the oppositional questions — for the moment.

But Jesus had a question for them to ponder from Psalm 110:1 which prophesied that the Messiah would be both a son of king David and One that king David called “Lord”. Fathers, especially a king, never called their sons “Lord” — unless their son was indeed of higher status, like God.

Jesus’ day also consisted of pointing out the hypocrisy of some of the religious leaders who prayed long prayers for show and then privately oppressed the poor. He also sat across from where Temple contributions were deposited and watched while rich men dropped in bags of silver or gold with an accompanying loud thump; and also as a poor widow dropped in a few small coins that probably couldn’t even be heard as they hit the bottom of the box. Jesus’ commentary on the value that God placed on such gifts has lived on in precious memory now for centuries. It illustrated what a great difference there is in giving disposable income and giving one’s rent and food money.

Toward the end of the day, Jesus and the apostles left the Temple on their way to the Mount of Olives, where they planned to spend the night. As they left, the apostles commented on the beauty of the Temple, but were shocked to hear Jesus predict that not one stone would be left on another. When they arrived at the Mt. of Olives, probably Gethsemane, the apostles asked Him to explain what He meant and when this end of the world (as they understood it) scenario would make place. Jesus then uses what is known as a double prophecy to predict what would happen in the near term (AD 70) and what would happen in the longer term (the end of time).

Now what can we learn? Actually, too much for one blog, so I’ll condense a few observations.

Jesus’ answer to the Herodians encourages us to be good citizens of the physical authorities (as much as that is possible, while being good citizens of God’s eternal Kingdom — always.

The criticism and warnings that Jesus provided to the Jewish leaders in the Temple needs to be heeded by modern religious leaders, too, this writer included. God holds leaders to a higher standard and they need to read Scripture carefully, objectively, thoroughly, and practically.

The scribe who came asking what the greatest commandment might be gives us insight and hope that not every skeptic’s heart is cast in concrete. It is way too easy to write people off completely if they ever express skepticism about Christianity or an inclination toward something worldly. Jesus’ and the apostles’ early converts included a lot Jewish priests (see the book of Acts), Pharisees (e.g., Nicodemas), and tax collectors and sinners.

Beyond the conversion of the scribe, the answer Jesus gave about loving God first and second loving others is, of course, worth pondering. Jesus’ priority guidance is to love God first and then to love our neighbor.

The hubris of the Sadducees, believing that they could trap Jesus with their proof-texted resurrection question should make all us take greater care in our Bible study. Correct Bible study needs to include to important things 1 pay attention to details, and 2) use the “sum” of Scripture and not just “some”. These are still the shortcomings of many a would-be theologian.

Lastly, the prophecy about the destruction of the Temple put side by side with the true end times is something that should be studied, not for trying to figure out exactly when the Lord will be returning (that will NEVER happen), but for the sake of fortifying ourselves in perseverance and hope against the great forces of worldliness that will persecute every disciple of Christ.

See you tomorrow, Lord willing.

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A Walk With Jesus Through His Last Week — Monday

I certainly hope that everyone is doing well today. I pray that all of my readers (as I write, we are almost all under “stay at home” orders because of the COVID-19 pandemic) are staying healthy and maintaining strong faith in the God Who keeps us as the apple of His eye (Psalm 17:8) and good humor despite the trials of staying at home, concern about finances, and the anxiety of not knowing what tomorrow might bring. 

We left off yesterday with Jesus leaving the Temple in the evening for Bethany. That evening is, according to the Jewish reckoning, Monday. He stayed at the home of Simon the leper (there’s bound to be a great story there that we may never know until we get to Heaven). Although the evening’s meal was at Simon the leper’s house, Martha (sister of Lazarus and Mary) was serving as hostess. Lazarus was there and also Mary. Although we do not know all the details, there are indications that Mary might have taken on the task of washing feet of the diners that evening; however, as she came to Jesus’ feet, she offered a most expensive present. 

Over Jesus’ feet  and head she broke and poured an alabaster vial of expensive perfume, pure nard (according to John 12:3). This caused no little kerfuffle among some of those present. John notes that it was Judas especially who was offended that such an extravagant “waste” had occurred; a vial of such perfume was worth as many as 11 months’ wages. Judas, John makes clear was not merely a budget hawk, but rather was offended that it had not been sold and put into the common purse over which he presided and out of which he often helped himself (otherwise known as theft or embezzlement). 

Jesus rebuked the indignant stir among the disciples and defended Mary’s gift. Indeed it was extravagant, but Jesus accepted it as a burial anointment before His coming death and burial. He continued to defend Mary’s gift by reminding those who thought it would be better used to help the poor that they would always have the poor to help, but they would not always have Him —again alluding to His impending death. This gift of kindness, these “flowers” before His funeral, Jesus said, would be remembered about her everywhere that the Gospel was preached, and indeed it is found in three of the four Gospel accounts. This rebuke, however, seems to have had motivated Judas to perhaps seek revenge by speaking to the chief priests about betraying Jesus.

The next morning Jesus left Bethany and on the way passed a fig tree. He looked for figs, but there were none, because it was not the season for figs. The season for figs is generally from mid-June through August, yet it was early April. Nevertheless, Jesus pronounced a curse on the tree. Later that day, on their return to Bethany, the disciples noticed that the fig tree had withered. Jesus used the fig tree as an illustration of the power of faith-filled prayer, that we’ll talk about later in this post.

When Jesus arrives at the Temple, Mark tells us that he found that the money changers and other merchants had returned to turn the house of prayer into a marketplace once again. And again, Jesus drove them out. Some have suggested that since Matthew and Luke note that Jesus cleansed the Temple on Sunday, that Mark must’ve have been mistaken. Others grasp at this so called discrepancy and try to discredit the Scriptures as be man-made and full of factual errors. But the truth is that both could be true. John records yet another cleansing of the Temple in the early part of Jesus’ ministry. Could it not be that Jesus did this several times in the course of His ministry and that the Gospel writers are merely reporting different instances? In fact, it makes good sense that if Jesus was incensed at this marketplace atmosphere once, He would have been incensed many times. One wonders if every time the merchants saw Jesus walking through the Temple gates they started urgently finishing up whatever business they were conducting and began bagging coins as fast as they could. Incidentally, archaeology has discovered coins in the water drains of the Temple in Jerusalem from Jesus’ era. In my mind’s eye I can see the tables being overturned by the Lord, coins rolling everywhere, including toward the drains and dropping in for us to discover as token evidence of this very incident. One by product of this cleansing of the Temple was anger from the chief priests, who allowed merchants to “rent” space in the Temple. Merchants being driven away equalled no income for them. It was just one more reason they had to get rid of this pesky Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus, on this Monday before His death, appears to have spent the rest of His day in the Temple. Because of raising Lazarus and the wonders He performed in healing the blind and lame who came to Him, Jesus naturally drew crowds and appropriate praise and celebration especially from the children who had come to the Temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” You’ll recall from yesterday that “Hosanna” was a word loaded with praise-for-God meanings. These spontaneous outbursts of praise  provoked criticism, again, from the chief priests and scribes, who saw it as blasphemous. Jesus responded simply, “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies You have prepared praise for Yourself’?” As if to say, “Are the kids recognizing something that you are ignoring? “ And of course, they were — signs, healing miracles, and even the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

What do these things mean to us?

First, Jesus’ teachings in connection with the fig tree is a powerful one. There are some who have a hard time getting past Jesus withering a tree, just because it didn’t have any fruit out of season. This wasn’t petty revenge, however, it was intended to teach the disciples and us something important. It was to teach us about the power of faith-filled prayer. It is way too easy to lose faith in prayer, when we don’t see immediately results or the results we were expecting; and that’s why there is as much teaching in the Bible about it as there is. There are a lot of reasons why prayers disappoint, but the one that Jesus wanted to point out here, not long before His death, is lack of faith. Praying in faith is not about how earnestly you pray, nor about how much oomph you might put into it. Rather, it is about what you are willing to do in conjunction with your prayer. Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Mark (11:24) were, “Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.” Paraphrased, Jesus is saying that after our petition in prayer we should then turn around and act like God is going to give it. I like to to use the illustration of Israel as they crossed the Jordan River. The priests were commanded to march forward toward the river, which was in flood stage, even though the waters were not held back until the soles of the priests’ feet touched the water. Too often we ask for things in prayer and then wait for God to do everything like a cosmic waiter — then feeling disillusioned because our faithless prayer wasn’t answered. 

What about this possible third cleansing of the Temple? We must realize that trying to right bad situations won’t happen overnight. It takes persistence, perseverance, and consistency. Do don’t give up trying to encourage a non-Christian spouse, trying to correct a wayward child, trying to change injustice or error. Jesus’ efforts were many times ineffective — like cleansing the Temple, trying to correct the Pharisees, or getting the apostles to quit fighting over who would be the greatest — but He didn’t give up; and neither should we.

Lastly, it is almost inexplicable that they chief priests and scribes should be seeing the same miracles, seeing the same signs, hearing the same wonderful and true-to-the-Scriptures teachings and be seeking to put Him to death. And yet they were! The only explanation can be that they were so invested in the status quo of financial gain, prestigious position, certainty of their own righteousness, and their traditional teachings that they could not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Now we could cluck our tongue as such blindness or we could realize that we ourselves are not immune from this kind of blindness. Being faithful to God means staying humble, listening carefully, examining everything closely, and being fiercely loyal to God above all.

See you tomorrow, Lord willing.

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A Walk With Jesus Through His Last Week — Sunday

As I mentioned yesterday, this week is sometimes known as “Holy Week” in the larger world of Christendom, so I thought perhaps it might be an interesting topic for this blog to follow Jesus along through the last few days of His physical life on earth. At the end of each day we’ll try to draw some important observations for ourselves.

Jesus’ day on Sunday appears to have started on the other side Jericho, because the first we hear of that day Jesus is passing through Jericho in which He meets a man named Zaccheus. Jesus’ passage through almost any town created a stir, and in Jericho it turned into something like a parade in town with people lining the streets to see the famous rabbi, prophet, healer Jesus. Everybody wanted to see Jesus, including Zaccheus.

But Zaccheus had a special set of problems. Zaccheus was a chief tax collector, meaning that he had other tax gathers under him. He was viewed as a Roman collaborator and traitor to his people and therefore without morals — it was assumed that he cheated and gouged those from whom he collected taxes . Presumably, nobody wanted to make a place for him to see Jesus and be associated with him. To top it off, he was also too short to look over the shoulders of the crowd to get any sort of decent glimpse of Jesus passing through. His only chance to see Jesus was to climb a sycamore tree.

We don’t know what it was that drew Jesus’ attention to Zaccheus, but Jesus noticed him and called him down by name, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house,” probably for rest and lunch. Zaccheus was surprised and thrilled; and he gladly received Jesus into his home. But just at this point another old problem popped up; anyone he associated with got painted with the same brush of suspicion and shame that stained Zaccheus and every other tax collector. The crowd muttered and disapproved of Jesus going to his house.

Of course, Zaccheus was used to hearing ugly things said behind his back, but this time was different, this time he had been noticed and valued by Jesus. He had been called out by named would be hosting this righteous teacher. It was the perfect time to set things right, so Zaccheus turned to Jesus and, in front of the whole crowd, promised, “…Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). Zaccheus’ repentance shown in his generous giving to the poor and reparations to anyone he might have cheated prompted Jesus to rejoice, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

As Jesus was leaving Jericho, two blind men called out to Him,“…Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David” (Matthew 20:30). Use of the phrase “Son of David” was tantamount to recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. The crowd tried to discourage them by telling them to leave Jesus alone, but the blind men cried out all the more. Jesus, in compassion, turned aside from His departure for a moment to ask them what they wanted, and He gave them their sight. And they began following Him on the road to Jerusalem.

Jesus continued on His way to Jerusalem. It is about 15 plus miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, but it’s a pretty hard 15 miles — uphill, winding, dusty, narrow, and dangerous. He likely arrived in the Jerusalem area (Bethany) in the latter part of the afternoon. But His day’s events were not yet finished. Jesus sent disciples ahead to find a donkey and colt for him to ride into the city. When His disciples returned with the donkey and colt, they threw their cloaks on the donkey’s and colt’s backs and Jesus rode them down the road that led down the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley and on to the city of Jerusalem itself. During this ride into town crowds gathered along the side of the road throwing palm fronds on the road, a traditional symbol of welcome to a triumphant, returning king, and shouting, “Hosanna in the highest!” a cheer that implied a call to God for salvation. 

Because of this reception and especially because of the cry, “Hosanna!” some of the Pharisees in the crowd, who thought this to be blasphemy, rebuked Jesus to discourage the people from saying such a thing. Jesus response wasn’t exactly what they expected of a respectable rabbi, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” — as if say “The whole creation has been practically bursting with excitement to confess my divinity, and you want me to tell these men to hold back?”

As Jesus continued approaching Jerusalem He could see the entire city; her beautiful Temple, its gleaming walls, its palaces, the ancient city of David, and the myriad people in the city (citizens and visitors here for Passover) — and suddenly He was struck by the centuries of sin, disobedience, and faithlessness of its inhabitants that was about to reach its great, dreadful climax in the crucifixion of its Messiah. And struck too by the horrific penalty it would pay in AD 70 for this last foul sin. And Jesus wept over it, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matthew 23:37). The word “unwilling” being the most heartbreaking part of all.

As a last act of His very busy day, Jesus went into the Temple itself, but upon entering it, He was greeted with the cacophony and chaos of merchants, money changers, and sharp dealings that belonged in the marketplace rather than house of prayer that it was supposed to be. The chief priests had given these merchants permission — for a price, of course — to set up shop in the court of the Gentiles to change the unclean denarius for a clean shekel for the Temple tax and purchase ritually pure animals for sacrifice. Outraged with this desecration, Jesus began to turn over the tables of money changers and drive the animals out with cords. 

There’s so much to learn in these stories

Our Lord, who seeks and saves the lost, never overlooks even one of us — not a Zaccheus, not the blind men in Jericho, and not you or me. You’re not too insignificant, you’re not too sinful, you’re not too hated or despised by others, you’re not too ruined, and you’re not too late, yet. Jesus is not too preoccupied with big problems or important people to see you and hear you. So actively seek Him like Zaccheus, persevere in prayer like the blind men, and you’ll be both heard and found.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees, when they rebuked Him for accepting the crowds adulation of “Hosanna!” has always struck me and appealed to me, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” This theme of inanimate creation crying out their witness of the Creator, groaning and suffering under the curse from the Garden of Eden, or (as here) scarcely being able to be restrained from bursting forth a confession of Jesus’ Godhood is one that you will run across from time to time as you read through Scripture. They are used in Scripture as a means of shaming men in their so-called wisdom and intellect that denies God; even the dumb rocks know better, know their Creator and Redeemer!

And how deeply tragic is the scene of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. It reminds me of the appeal of God to Israel at an earlier time, “I have spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, Who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts (Isaiah 65:2).” The LORD’s appeal to His people to return down through the centuries had only occasionally been heard, and then for only a short time. Jesus’ tears were the tears of a husband (see the book of Hosea) who loves his wife, but whose heart has continually been pierced by her unloving, faithless, rebellious, and wandering ways. And even now, though she would soon “crown” her rebellion with putting Him to death, He still mourned the sure consequences of condemnation that she had so richly earned. The LORD spoke through Ezekiel, “Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel (Ezekiel 33:11)?’”

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A Walk With Jesus Through His Last Week

Tomorrow starts a week that is sometimes known as “Holy Week” in the larger world of Christendom, because it is the week before the anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus. There are many dates that we’d like to know in the Bible with more precision, like the date of Christ’s birth, etc. But the day of His resurrection is one that we do know for sure, it is the Sunday after Passover, a date we can know for sure every year. This is not to say that what we call Easter should be made a high holy day, because we celebrate Christ’s resurrection every first day of the week as Christians have done from the beginning of the church. But I thought perhaps it might be an interesting topic for this blog to follow Jesus along through the Gospels on the last few days of His physical life on earth. At the end of each day we’ll try to draw some important observations for ourselves.

Before I begin with the Sunday before His death, I’ll start with a point of interest, that I believe that Jesus was put to death and buried on a Thursday rather than Friday. This is not the traditional view, but neither is it a radical one. The first hint that it was actually on a Thursday is that a death and burial on a Thursday fits Jesus’ own prophecy that He would be in the tomb three days and three nights. Jesus said,“for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40).” If Jesus was buried on Friday, and if He arose on Sunday before dawn (as all the Gospels affirm), He would only have been in the tomb 2 days and 2 nights — if you count as the Jews did, Jesus would have been in the tomb… 

Day (6AM to 6PM)Night (6PM to 6AM)
Friday day (one hour of the day)Saturday evening (6PM to 6AM)
Saturday day (6AM to 6PM)and Sunday (6PM to His resurrection)

Burial on Thursday, however, gives Him 3 days and 3 nights… 

Day (6AM to 6PM)Night (6PM to 6AM)
Thursday Thursday day (one hour of the day)Friday evening (6PM to 6AM)
Friday day (6AM to 6PM)Saturday evening (6PM to 6AM)
Saturday day (6AM to 6PM)Sunday evening (6PM to His resurrection)

But what about the day after the crucifixion being the Sabbath day? John 19:31, 32 tells us, “Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him;” The answer is not obvious to the non-Jew, but every high holy day (and Passover was a “high day”) was considered a Sabbath (see Leviticus 23:4-8, Numbers 28:16-18). Passover was given to be a specific date in a specific month, so just like our Fourth of July, it was on a different day of the week every year, not just a Saturday. On the weeks in which there was a holy day like Passover, 6 out of 7 times there would be two Sabbaths celebrated that week — one for the holy day and one for the 7th day. In this case, it would appear that these two Sabbaths were be back to back, a Friday Passover Sabbath followed immediately by a Saturday Sabbath. When we understand that there could be, and likely were, two Sabbaths back to back that week, the three days and three nights prophecy lines up perfectly with a Sunday resurrection, the Sabbath objection disappears, and Jesus’ crucifixion on Thursday rather than Friday makes sense.

All this, for the most part, doesn’t matter a whole ton — the crucifixion of Jesus happened, the resurrection on the first day of the week happened. However, fixing the date of Passover to a Friday, along with other historical markers in the Bible (the story of the wise men, the rule of the governor Quirinius, and the rule of Pilate) does help us to set this world-changing event more firmly in history. The Friday Passover that fits best with all the other historical marker is April 11, AD 27 making the date of Christ’s death and burial April 10, AD 27 and the date of His resurrection, Sunday, April 13, AD 27. The ability to place this date into an historical context is just one more evidence (among many others) that the crucifixion really happened, the resurrection was real, we are really saved from sins, and we have a real hope (confident expectation) of eternal life.

See you tomorrow, Lord willing.

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A Thoughtful Response to Threats Down Through the Centuries

I recently ran across this quote from C.S. Lewis that I believe could be useful to us all during the current COVID-19 crisis. He wrote it in the early days of living in a world that now had the atomic bomb, the early days of the cold war. But supply “coronavirus” for the “atomic bomb” or “atomic age” phrases and see what you think…

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

God has things in control today just like he did at the dawn of the atomic age and every other existential threat God’s people have ever faced. Jesus’ words must be borne in mind continually these days, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).

Keep praying, stay in God’s word, live faithfully. With the Lord’s help, we’ll get through this together.

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The Best, The Most, From the Heart

Luke 21 (also Mark 12:41) tells the story of Jesus sitting in the Temple near the Temple’s treasury contribution box. The Lord had observed a number of rich people come through and drop in their bag of silver coins. Jingle! Thunk! Jingle! The bigger the “Jingle and Thunk” the prouder the giver seemed to strut away. But then along came a poor widow. You’d be excused for thinking that she wouldn’t be giving anything; she was clearly poor, she was clearly a widow, she had no coin bag to see, and what she was about to give was easily held in the palm of her hand. And when she did put in her contribution, the sound was probably so soft that it wouldn’t have been noticed at all in a noisy place like the Temple — two leptons, the smallest coin, the least valuable coin, in the Roman world. Noisy or not, however, Jesus noticed and was impressed enough to make a comment that we should sit up and take notice of: “Truly, I way to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live.” 

What made it so note worthy? There are two things to consider.

There is a difference between giving some and giving all. Although the rich had put in greater actual amounts, she had put in more proportionally. The rich had give out of their disposable income, but she had given away her grocery and rent money. Most certainly God appreciates all of our gifts, when they are given with the right heart, but the widow’s gift crossed the world’s line of “good sense” by giving not 100% of her surplus had but 100% of all she had.

There is also a difference between giving when you have prospects of obtaining more in the near future and giving without prospects of getting any more. None of the wealthier givers, as far as we know, gave 100% of their money; but if they had, it still would not have been as great a sacrifice as the widow’s gift. The wealthy had prospects of earning more later in the next business deal, the next work day, the next crop, or however they made their living. Some widows of Jesus’ day could rely on family to support them, but there were other widows who had no financial prospects being too old and a woman (Paul calls them “widows indeed” in 1 Timothy 5). The widow of this story appears to be in this latter category, so when she gave her two copper coins it was not just emptying out her purse for now, it was giving with no prospects in sight. This was a sacrificial gift founded on a deep love for God and a trust in the Him to meet her needs; this was a true giving of herself.

It was these two characteristics of the widow’s gift that made it the most and the best gift received at the Temple treasury that day. By seeing the widow’s gift through Jesus’ eyes, the apostles doubtlessly felt both deeply impressed and humbled. It could not have failed to leave a life-long lesson on their discipleship.

Perhaps we, too, feel inspired and challenged by a faith and love that would prompt such financial sacrifice; maybe next week we’ll give more to the Lord in the collection plate. But you know, there are more ways to give to the Lord than in dollars and cents. There’s time. There’s effort. There’s commitment. There are skills, talents, homes and cars and every other possession given into our stewardship. There’s lots of ways to give to the Lord like the widow; but the key principle is whatever we give — little or much, 10% or 100% — should be given trustingly, lovingly, and completely.

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Am I in God’s Place?

In Exodus 50:19 Joseph uttered these profoundly thoughtful words. His brothers were terrified that Joesph might be plotting revenge on them and their families for all the wrong they had done to Joseph as a boy by selling him as a slave to traders who sold him to the Egyptians. Their beloved father had died and Joseph was second in command in all of Egypt, there was almost nothing that he couldn’t get away with. So, as his brothers begged for their and their families’ lives, Joseph reminds them that revenge is God’s prerogative, not his. 

If only we could remind ourselves of this deep truth, not only when it comes to revenge and grudges, but even more broadly about God’s exclusive prerogatives. 

For instance, setting true moral boundaries is God’s prerogative, not ours. The world has always wanted to set the bar for morality and these days has set the bar especially low. Sexual morality, in modern times, has few “forbiddens”; honesty and truth has become a very fluid thing, changing with the individual; immodesty among women and men, it would seem, is applied largely to bare nakedness of the rawest kind; the neighbor we should love is defined by political labels; greed and materialism have become positive motivators to success and progress; the ends seem to constantly justify any means; and hatred is tolerable, if it is against one’s political opponents. The list could go on, but the truth is that we are not the legitimate setters of the bar for right and wrong; God is. We may want to set the moral boundaries, when we desire to do something sinful; but it doesn’t work that way. We must not set ourselves in God’s place.

True spiritual teachings are God’s prerogative, not ours. Somehow, the world seems to have decided that spiritual truths can be changed as easily as changing the ending of a fairy tale we don’t like. But spiritual truths are no more changeable than physical truths. That gravity pulls toward the earth, that rocks are hard, that light travels at 186,000 miles a second, etc. are physically non-negotiable laws of the natural world. And similarly, disobedience to God is sin, the wages of sin is death, Heaven and Hell are eternal places, etc. are spiritually non-negotiable laws of the spiritual world. The same God who created the physical reality also created the spiritual reality. We sin by God’s definition, we can be saved by God’s way, and we will spend eternity in places that God Himself prepared. We are not the writers of these laws or the creators of these realities, God is. We may want to be the authority for spiritual truth, when Biblical truth becomes inconvenient or is not to our taste; but it doesn’t work that way. We must not set ourselves in God’s place about spiritual truth.

Judgement, too, is God’s prerogative, not ours. I am not the judge. You are not the judge. No man-made panel, no man-made appointee is the judge. This is God’s prerogative alone. In His word He has told us what will condemn us and what will redeem us. Similarly, in His word He has told us what is doctrinally true and what is not. And God’s word even gives us examples of His judgment — that it is sure, that it is just, and that for the sinful it is severe. This allows each reader of the Scripture to accurately know for himself ahead of time, ahead of the day of judgment, how God will judge each man’s words, deeds, and thoughts — against His moral standard. And how God will judge each man’s teachings and practices — against spiritual reality. It also allows those who have read God’s word to warn others of how God plans to judge mankind. It is not my right, not any other Christian’s privilege, nor any worldling’s place to either condemn or justify anyone, on the basis of human preference. As Jesus Himself put it, (John 5:30) “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” We may think that we’d like to call the shots on judgement or whether there’ll be a judgement at all, but that’s not the way it works. We must not imagine that we can set ourselves in God’s place about judgement.

Satan, the Scripture implies, fell from Heaven through pride and trying to usurp God’s place. Joseph was indeed wise, much wiser than many, when he passed on revenge against his brothers and said, “Am I in the place of God?” Let’s recognize our real place in this world, we are human, we are the creation; we are not God, not the Creator. 

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The Value of Hospitality to You (Cheerful Obedience in Hospitality)

One of the greatest demonstrations of love and sacred duty in the near eastern world was and still is hospitality. When you invited someone into your home, you offered them almost every privilege of family including food, protection, and help; the story of Lot and the angels in the city of Sodom illustrates it. In the first century Christian world it continued to be an important Christian moral duty. Hebrews 13:2 teaches, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The Greek work literally means “love of strangers”, but it applied to more than strangers like itinerant preacher, prophets, or apostles showed up in town; it also applied to times when the church needed a place to meet (Romans 12:13). 

But in modern times the teaching about hospitality seems to have been moved to the back row of the Christian virtues. It is probably because we live busy lives, usually have two income families, and find it a lot of work. So, are we, therefore, excused from hospitality? By no means! What we need to do, instead of finding reasons why we should be excused, is find ways to be cheerfully obedient. May I humbly offer a few helps toward that goal?

It must be conceded that hospitality can be a lot of work, but consider who we’re offering it to — the Lord. Remember the passage that tells us about the Judgement? Jesus tells us,“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?…’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” (Matt. 25:37-40). Remember, it’s not the Smiths that you’re really entertaining; it’s the Lord. Who wouldn’t be anxious to do that, no matter how much work?

Second, remember in the midst of all the work you may be doing, the brethren came to your house not to inspect your house and critique your meal, but to see you. Sometimes we get all caught up in the folly of the world and think we need to present a perfect house, meal, etc. While we needn’t take the other extreme, we do need to realize that we’re family and that we’re all going to appreciate whatever effort was possible. Wasn’t that a great deal of Martha’s problem? She missed the joy and opportunity of hospitality to Jesus and the apostles as she tried to be the perfect hostess.

Even beyond these things, however, hospitality gives you the chance to be a good steward. We occasionally mistake the definition of stewardship to mean preservation of what we have. The parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14ff) tells us what the difference between good stewardship and bad stewardship is. The two good stewards in this story were those who used the master’s money to invest and increase their master’s assets; the bad steward was the one who just preserved the master’s money. In other words, it is the proper use (by the Lord’s definition) of what we’ve been blessed with that makes us good stewards; but the Lord specifically defined poor stewardship in this parable as non-use. Now we can safely add deliberate abuse to that definition of poor stewardship, but you get the idea. And if we understand blessings like our homes (apartments), our energy, and our food as a stewardship (as they certainly are), then use of them in a God-commanded way like hospitality is a perfect use and stewardship of them, and the perfect way to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23). 

Lastly, it gives us the chance to be better connected, have better fellowship with one another — a huge priority in the church. The introduction of the TV into the family living room began an antisocial trend in our culture that has only deepened over the decades. Rather than seeking community socialization, we began to be content to stay at home and be entertained. It got worse with computers and grew worse still with mobile phones and their always-on electronic anonymous social networks (there’s a real oxymoron there) and text messages — isolating us more and more. On the other hand, hospitality is to the church what the dinner table is to the family; it is the place to reconnect with a real person with a real voice, real tears, real laughter, real concerns, and real encouragement. 

So, yes, hospitality is work, just like washing feet; but it can and should be cheerfully and joyfully obeyed. When we do, we gain so much

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“Just the Facts, Ma’am”

A friend recently forwarded me a report in the news about a man, Emile Ratelband, a Netherlands media personality, who wants to change his age legally from 69 to 49, because he “identifies as a 49 year old”, and because it will make him better able to attract younger women on an online dating site and more hirable for certain jobs. So, he wants his birth certificate changed to reflect how he identifies. We’ve all been told in recent years that we need to allow and accept those who “identify” as another gender, let them change their gender on their birth certificate, compete athletically against those of their opposite birth gender, go to the restroom or locker room of their choice, etc. It would appear more and more that truth and facts in this world really have become completely a matter of how we feel. Instead of delusions being a psychologically abnormal state, there is a deliberate effort being made to make delusion the norm. Facts and truth are becoming so fluid as to be pretty much nonexistent. The absurdity of it would be hilarious, if it weren’t so shockingly frightening.

But as many of us might recognize, this has been going on a long time in the world a long time now. 

In spite of the proofs for the existence of God — nothing comes from nothing, design, and the moral proofs — some refuse to believe what they cannot see. Yet, they’ll accept the “big bang” or the eternality of the universe without any (ANY!) proof that can be seen — and in spite of the scientific facts and laws mentioned just above. 

The Bible’s teaching about creation is rejected often not on the basis of any fact, but on the basis of what “everyone else” says it must be. Indeed, in spite of the fact that there has never been a single true transition between species discovered (the missing link is still missing after over 200 years of looking for it), many are “just certain” that evolution must be true. But the facts don’t support the evolutionary claim.

As people read that Jesus is the way, the truth, and life, and that no man comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6); some would almost immediately respond that it simply couldn’t be true. “There are many ways to the same Heaven (just by different names).” But the facts don’t support this religious claim.

As people read what the book of Acts has to say about how to become a Christian (including Acts 2:38 and Acts 22:16), there is often a quick rejoinder that salvation is by faith alone; because that is what a prior minister told them one time. “I accepted Jesus into my heart and said the sinner’s prayer and now I feel in my heart that I am saved.” But the facts don’t support this religious claim either.

Despite reading passages like Revelation 20:15 as it speaks of the condemnation of the lost in Hell, it’s not unusual to hear, “I just can’t believe that a loving compassionate God could possibly send anyone to a place like Hell. I feel that the part about Hell must not really be true.” But the biblical facts don’t support the wishful thinking.

Spiritual truth after spiritual truth is often rejected by men on the basis of how they feel. So men feel their way to the “right” church, feel their way to worship that is in spirit and in truth, feel their way to unity, feel their way to morality, feel their way to doctrinal truth and more. Constantly groping for but never arriving at the truth, because they don’t read or believe the Bible (the one absolutely true source of spiritual knowledge). 

God made man and woman in His image, including our emotions; but emotions are not what determine truth. No one can simply wish something to be true and have it become true. That’s magical thinking — and no Harry Potter isn’t true either. Anyone interested in getting to Heaven must realize this and operate in the spiritual world with the same rational approach as we do in the physical one.

In early television there was a police drama entitled Dragnet in which the lead detective, Sergeant Friday, frequently encouraged his witnesses with “Just the Facts, Ma’am”. Maybe we’d all do a little better in this world — but especially in the spiritual world — if we just stuck to factual truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — the Bible.

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