Jesus at Nazareth (Part Five)

Luke 4:16-30

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked (4:18-22 NIV).

People look forward to special events, like birthdays and anniversaries or vacation trips. In our time, we look forward to the end of the pandemic and all its restrictions on social activity. Followers of Christ more importantly look forward to the second coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is the next great event in God’s plan for his people. Come, Lord Jesus!

With this is mind, think back to Christ’s return to his hometown of Nazareth after the start of his public ministry in Judea and parts of Galilee. Everyone has anticipated what this former local carpenter but now preacher and doer of miraculous signs would say in their synagogue. Jesus has read from the opening lines of Isaiah 61. What would he say about them? Luke tells us two general things that Jesus said.

First, the Lord Jesus said that the Scripture he had just read had been fulfilled. This was an astounding claim for a man, even a prophet to make. Jesus claimed that what he was doing (his preaching and doing of signs and wonders) was the fulfillment of this Scripture! He asserted that this text was about him and his works. This was not the only time that Jesus told people that the Bible was a book about him (cf. John 5:39; Luke 24: 25-27; 44-48). But it was surely a shocking proclamation from a guy from their hometown.

They did not grasp the significance of Jesus’ message. Their minds went in a different direction, as the rest of this passage shows. They heard Jesus saying that he could do supernatural acts like healings, and they were prepared to accept that part of his message. And to see Jesus perform signs and wonders among them! However, the spiritual part of his message, that he could restore a person’s relationship with God, they totally missed. This is not unusual, even in our time. People love to hear that Jesus can get them out of their personal troubles. If a preacher promises healings and financial prosperity from Jesus, that Jesus will make their present life better, then people will flock to Jesus. But if a preacher declares that Jesus can meet a person’s spiritual and moral needs, that he can provide a new and secure relationship with the living God, that Jesus is concerned about an eternity living for the glory of God forever… well frankly, people aren’t too interested in those matters. So then, his hearers in Nazareth spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips….

Second, Jesus spoke gracious words. Here was the Son of God announcing to people that he had lived among that God was gracious. God freely welcomes alienated, oppressed, burdened, enslaved people to him. God rejoices when those in spiritual need come to him to have their needs met, to receive an eternal welcome from the King of the universe, to fill them with joy (Psalm 16:11). God is good; he enjoys being gracious to people who deserve wrath. The words of Christ Jesus are gracious words for people, for he reveals God to us. Are we glad for his gracious words? Do we praise God for his Son through whom the news of our salvation came?

The last line of the above text reveals that some of Jesus’ audience had their doubts about Jesus. They couldn’t see how Joseph’s son could do such things. They liked the sound of the words, but they couldn’t see how he could meet their expectations. The same is true for many who hover around the edges of true Christianity with its supernaturalism. Their attitude is “how can these things be real? They cannot since miracles can’t occur. And so they remain on the sidelines. But what of you? Will you trust in Jesus Christ who died and rose again that we may have true freedom?

Grace and peace,

Study of Psalm 123 (Part Two)

A song for pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem.

I lift my eyes to you, O God, enthroned in heaven. We keep looking to the Lord our God for his mercy, just as servants keep their eyes on their master, as a slave girl watches her mistress for the slightest signal. Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy, for we have had our fill of contempt. We have had more than our fill of the scoffing of the proud and the contempt of the arrogant (Psalm 123:1-4 NLT).

People are never far from trouble. We thank the Lord God for every reason to rejoice and to celebrate. We ought to do both. However, even when we experience lawful pleasures (like the delight of a skillfully prepared meal or the beauty of a spectacular sunset), we may feel our happiness interrupted by a sad phone call, an unexpected repair bill, a difference of opinion with friends, or in our time, the ongoing reality of the pandemic and civil unrest.

With this in mind, we might be able to be sensitive to the angst of the old covenant people on their way to Jerusalem to keep the Lord’s appointed festivals. After the time of Solomon, there were few happy times. The histories of the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were marred by civil conflict, oppression from Assyria and Babylon, struggles with lesser nations, and religious decline. Godly people always consider departure from the true God and the accompanying moral evil to be serious trouble. So those on the journey to Jerusalem had reason to sing, “We keep looking to the Lord our God for his mercy.”

Afflicted people need mercy. When we seek mercy in this sense, we ask God to show compassion toward us in our misery and to rescue us from it. When we seek mercy in regard to our relationship with God, we ask God for forgiveness and restoration to fellowship with him. Probably both senses are in view in this song. As already noted, old covenant Israel was usually an oppressed people. The reason suffering came to them was because of their unfaithfulness to the law covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 28:15-68; etc.) So then, as the people journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate before the Lord, their hearts would also be filled with sorrow for their sins and sorrows. Each time this song would be sung, it was an opportunity to cry out again for deliverance. “We keep looking to the Lord our God for his mercy.”

So then, this song is for believers in the true and living God, in the midst of their experience of trouble. When it is sung, it ought to be sung with a sensitivity to trouble. The Spirit of God wants us to see our misery and to cry out to God for its relief! Thus this song is far from a glib “Praise the Lord anyhow” view of our troubles. The Spirit teaches us that we can sing during affliction. We can join the art of music with our troubled emotions. Beauty can arise from the ashes of persistent sorrow, broken dreams, and that gnawing sense that things ought not to be as they are. We can sing, because “We keep looking to the Lord our God for his mercy.”

This is part of the walk of faith. We know that we need mercy, and we also know that we can look to the Lord God for such mercy. So, as the travelers made their way up to Jerusalem, they could walk in hope, hope in God. Do you walk in this hope?

Grace and peace,

Study of Psalm 123 (Part One)

A song for pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem.

I lift my eyes to you, O God, enthroned in heaven. We keep looking to the Lord our God for his mercy, just as servants keep their eyes on their master, as a slave girl watches her mistress for the slightest signal. Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy, for we have had our fill of contempt. We have had more than our fill of the scoffing of the proud and the contempt of the arrogant (Psalm 123:1-4 NLT).

Next in the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) is this short song. The human writer and the time of the writing of this song are unknown. Neither is important to understanding it. Like the others in this collection, it was composed for the worship of the Lord during the physical journey to Jerusalem, particularly at the required Festivals. Envision large groups of God’s old covenant people walking to the chosen city together. The very journey is celebratory and exciting. They move from the regular events of life to focus on the true and living God.

Like the previous psalm, it begins in the singular, but quickly moves to the plural. I lift my eyes to you… We keep looking…. Both singular and plural are important in the worship of the living God. Each believer must seek the Lord with his or her heart; all believers must join together in seeking God. One encourages the many; the many inspire the one. We can feel apathetic alone, and the zeal of others ignites a fire in us. A whole church might be listless, but the joy of one new worshiper can stir the existing ones to pursue God anew. While many of us have been able to gather digitally during the Covid-19 governmental restrictions against gatherings of many people, it has not been the same as meeting in person. We are glad for how we’ve been able to meet, but I wonder if some have begun to forsake the gathering of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25). What will church gatherings look like in a couple months? You can be part of leading the way back to wholehearted worship.

The writer of Psalm 121 had to learn to lift up his eyes higher than the mountains to God. This lesson has been learned and the writer of this song lifts his eyes directly toward the Lord. In our day of religious confusion, many think it spiritually chic and sophisticated to lift up their eyes to nature, due to their pantheistic views. (By the way, what a deceptive term pantheism is, because if everything is god, then nothing is god. “God” or even “god” means a supreme being or deity of whatever conception.) Biblical teaching rightly directs us to the Lord God who is supreme over all people, forces, and things.

As the pilgrims journeyed toward Jerusalem and the temple, they sang of the one true God who reigns above the earth: O God, enthroned in heaven. The sovereignty of God is a major theme of the Bible. God tells us in the true story of his glory that he reigns, he rules, he is in charge of all things. This is a great comfort to the people of God, because this present world seems out of control. God reassures our troubled and confused hearts that he is still on the throne. The Spirit inspired the writer of this psalm to make that theme the first line of this song as they approached Jerusalem.

When we draw near to God, it is good that we remember that God is on the throne of the universe. We easily become overly familiar with the Holy One. We come to our Father, but he is in heaven. We might struggle to hold these two truths together. We need to view God as King while we also see him as Father. Our God who loves us is also holy and the absolute monarch. This provides us with much comfort and encouragement, when we acknowledge both in our lives. Together, these truth can transform our lives. Our Father-King is a reason to sing!

Before we leave verse one, we ought to notice our responsible action. I lift my eyes to you…. These words call us to refocus on the Lord (cf. Colossians 3:1-4; Hebrews 12:1-2). The purpose of the song is to rekindle adoration for the Lord in our worship. This cannot happen until we deliberately set our thoughts on him. O Lord God, use this song to refocus our hearts on you!

Grace and peace,

A Shelter for God’s Afflicted People (Part Three)

Isaiah 14:32

What answer shall be given to the envoys of that nation? “The Lord has established Zion, and in her his afflicted people will find refuge” (NIV).

What will God’s afflicted people find in Zion? They will find refuge.

Tragically, Israel under the law covenant never found this. After Isaiah’s time, they experienced seventy long years of captivity after Jerusalem fell. Read Jeremiah’s wailings over the fallen city (the book of Lamentations) to sense their anguish. When they began to rebuild the temple, they wept (Ezra 3:12), and the walls of the city were still lying in ruins (Nehemiah 1). Even when Nehemiah led them to rebuild their walls, they were never free. By the time of Jesus, a dark deception clouded the minds of their leaders. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin (John 8:31-34 ESV). They failed to bow before the Lord who offered them the greatest refuge.

Finally, great destruction came to the earthly Jerusalem, as the Lord Jesus prophesied (Matthew 24:1-3; 15-25) when the Romans destroyed their city under the command of General (later Emperor) Titus. The lament of Jesus over Jerusalem was fulfilled: Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Matthew 23:38-39 NIV). Weep for all those who try to find safety in an earthly Jerusalem.

Yet the church will surely receive this refuge. We are children of the Jerusalem that is from above (Galatians 4:26). We have come to the real Jerusalem. But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22a NIV).

  • It will be a place of glory and joy. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwellingis with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away (Revelation 21:1-4 CSB)
  • It will be a place of holiness. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27 ESV).

In this present age, the real church, a gathering of followers of Jesus Christ, imperfect as she still is, functions as this refuge for God’s people. The church is:

  • A place of acceptance. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:7 NIV)
  • A place of encouragement. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near (Hebrews 10:25 NLT).
  • A place of comfort. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too (2 Corinthians 1:5 ESV).
  • A place of peace. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful (Colossians 3:15 NIV).

The task before us is to show to those not yet believers the glory of our Rock of Refuge, the Lord Jesus Christ. Do you know Him? It matters not where you are today. We are concerned about you, that you have the hope of glory in Jesus Christ. And we want you to know joy and peace as you trust in him now. We invite you to our Shelter, the confident expectation of sharing eternal life in Christ!

Grace and peace

A Shelter for God’s Afflicted People (Part Two)

Isaiah 14:32

What answer shall be given to the envoys of that nation? “The Lord has established Zion, and in her his afflicted people will find refuge” (NIV).

For whom has the Lord established Zion? “His afflicted people”. The Lord Jesus knew well what kind of people he was coming to save, and it is not an attractive group to the proud of the earth. He calls us poor in spirit, mourners, meek, hungry and thirsty, and persecuted (Matthew 5:3-12). Yes, it seems like Jesus is King, but King of the misfits. Brothers and sisters, consider your calling: Not many were wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world—what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one may boast in his presence (1 Corinthians 1:26-29 CSB)!

So then, the Lord reaches out to a needy people. Most people don’t like to think of themselves as needy, but rather as self-sufficient. Look at their needs. They were persecuted by God’s enemies. Israel’s great enemy at the time was Assyria, which was perhaps one of the original terrorist states. The church’s enemies now are the many antichrists and other deceivers that have arisen in “the last days”. Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour (1 John 2:18 ESV). Some are bent on physical destruction (2 Corinthians 11:23-25). Some are masters of deception (2 Corinthians 11:4). We also must realize that many people would like to see Christians and churches destroyed.

We must do all that we can to help those oppressed. Surely we should pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering. And we must stand for the truth when so many in the professing church put little value on the truth. Most so-called “churches” are more interested in drawing a crowd than in saying, “This is what the Lord says….”

They were harassed by sin. Israel’s tragic problem was that they could not keep the law or old covenant. It was a yoke that they could never bear (Acts 15:10). The Church’s ongoing struggle is that we rejoice in the one who has fulfilled the law and has himself become a new covenant for us—our Lord Jesus Christ! Yet we still struggle against remaining sin. The traitor within mars our sweetest moments.

We want to reaffirm that we followers of Jesus are all strugglers. You will not find any perfect people in any local church. While believers strive to follow our risen Lord, we often fail. Yet we know there is power in the blood of the Lamb, and we accept one another as Christ has accepted us (Romans 15:7) to bring glory to God.

They suffered the weaknesses of the flesh. Israel’s constant problem was a wrong way of thinking. They supposed that they could become righteous through the law (Romans 10:2-3). The Church also has a problem. We wrongly imagine that we can make progress by human effort: living by sight instead of faith, or by doing good works, or keeping laws, standards, rituals, programs, or getting involved in power politics, and even turning ministers into heroes or superstars (1 Corinthians 3). To rely on any of these reveals a reliance on the weakness of the flesh (Galatians 3:1-3).

The true Christian way of life is by faith in Christ through the power of the Spirit and according to the Scriptures. The product in the lifestyle is love for God and people. It is our privilege and duty as the people of God to reach out to all people regardless of skin tone, ethnicity, social status, educational level, economic wealth or poverty, political preferences, or religious background. We must do this now, and we begin with our closest neighbors. Start with a friendly greeting. Look for other ways to show personal concern and kindness. Please, for Christ’s sake, show others that you genuinely care.

Grace and peace,

A Shelter for God’s Afflicted People (Part One)

Isaiah 14:32

What answer shall be given to the envoys of that nation? “The Lord has established Zion, and in her his afflicted people will find refuge” (NIV).

The last three months have been unsettling, to say the least that could be said. We live in desperate times, and not only because of Covid-19 and the many lives that have been lost to it. Most people are rightly cautious about getting too close physically to others that they do not know, or even those they do know. The economy is shaking, and now our nation is correctly reeling over the protests against oppression that has been too long ignored. Who knows where this will end? I make no pretensions to being a prophet and I shrink from making predictions.

This could unsettle us, if we should fail to think and to act Biblically. However, the Christian knows that mankind has been part of a war between God and the forces of evil since the day when Adam rebelled against the Lord God. Since that time malevolent beings (Satan and the other evil spirits, and people who gladly walk in their ways) have been seeking human destruction. In the immediate context of our text, we can see two peoples that actively sought the destruction of God’s people in Old Testament times: Assyria and the Philistines. Yet God brought both down, as he will bring down all the enemies of his people whom he loves.

The living God wants us to know is that he has established a place of shelter for his afflicted people. There is a safe haven, a place of refuge, and all those who are in saving union with the risen Christ are part of that shelter. Let us think about this together.

In our text, Zion is called the place where God’s people will find refuge. What is Zion? At the time this text was written, the days of the old covenant shadows, it was the earthly Jerusalem.

  • In one sense, Jerusalem was the joy of the whole earth. It was the place where God revealed his glory, met with his people, and protected them (Psalms 48:1-14; 87:1-3).
  • In another sense, it was a place of bondage, since Jerusalem was under the law covenant (Galatians 4:24-25). Now the law was holy, righteous and good (Romans 7:12). But since the law and its sacrifices could never cleanse the conscience (Hebrews 9:9-10), the people could not freely approach God. The laws with its rules and rituals allowed them to have come in their midst, but the people could not come near. The law demanded holiness, separateness. Exodus 19 provides good teaching on this point.

In the days of the new covenant reality, the time in which we live, Zion is the heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 12:18-24).

In the fullest sense, we still look for this city (Revelation 21:1-22:6). We are “scattered exiles” (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11) on a journey through this world to the heavenly city. Here we have no city with foundations (Hebrews 11:10). We wish that there were such a city now! But that city is impossible in a world of frustration and bondage to decay (Romans 8:20-21). Hopefully, now that we live in desperate times, we will realize that our hope is not in this world.

Yet in another sense, we are part of this city that is from above, and we are starting to enjoy its benefits now (Ephesians 2:19-22; Philippians 3:20; 1 Peter 2:4-10). And so we are caught in this tension between the “now” and the “not yet”.

Christians tend to polarize in regard to this tension. Some want to act as if the “not yet” had already occurred. The Corinthians were an example of this (1 Corinthians 4:8). Others act as if nearly all of the blessings of the new covenant are “not yet”, and so fail to experience joy and peace in believing.

Every follower of Jesus Christ and every local church should strive to reflect as much of God’s glory in the blessings that we now can experience and of the hope that is set before us. People should be able to say, “These Christians know what true joy is. They are filled with joy!” And people should also say, “And what a confident expectation flows out of these Christians. They are people who clearly have a living hope (1 Peter 1:3-9)!”

Grace and peace,

A Forgotten Aspect of Godliness

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive (Colossians 3:12-13 CSB).

In this letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul teaches us about the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ in all matters. His preeminent lordship means that he has the right to reorder or restructure the way of life of his people. In other words, by the Spirit he tells us how to live godly. Colossians 3:1-17 is a great text about this. Paul starts with the basic idea of being Christ-focused (3:1-4), next he presents ungodly ways that we must put off (3:5-11), and then he tells us the “new clothing” all followers of Jesus Christ are to wear (3:12-17).

Seven qualities of true godliness are presented in these two verses. More follow in the remainder of this section. Forgiveness is probably the most discussed of these seven. People have much difficulty forgiving others, though everyone wants to be forgiven when we have sinned. Most people sense their need for patience, though impatience is easily dismissed as a mere character flaw. Compassion and kindness are applauded, while humility and gentleness are looked down on, though neither is well-understood. That brings us to the one aspect of relational godliness that is forgotten or ignored: bearing with one another. I have taught the Bible for over forty years, and in my experience at least, people are rather “ho-hum” about bearing with or putting up with others. Certainly, we want others to put up with our sins, mistakes, failures, and general quirkiness. Yes, you and I might look at our own strangeness as originality, but others view our peculiarities as eccentricity, oddness, or simple weirdness. All such matters provide numerous occasions to put up with each other.

As members of the Christ’s body, the church, we need to bear with each other. We might be in the same local church (gathering of believers) or small group or Bible study. Since God our Father has put us together, he wants us to develop our relationship as brothers and sisters in his family. Let’s think of some actions and reactions that are not bearing with one another.

  • When we become annoyed and angry with others because of their sins, flaws, and quirkiness, we are not putting up with them. This should be obvious.
  • It does not mean that we ignore their sins and fail to confront them in love. If we do that, we are simply running from problems.
  • During a conversation with someone, when we desperately seek a way out of the conversation, we fail to put up with them.
  • Likewise, if we avoid connecting with someone, because we get irritated by them, we fail to bear with them. This never helps a relationship to develop, because we need to interact with each other.
  • When we act toward them in impatience, looking eagerly for the opportunity to set them straight. I call this the “grinding your gears” approach. You’re not clobbering the other person yet, but you wish you could! That is not bearing with another person.

When do we bear with one another?

  • When we commit to invest time in improving our relationship with the other person. Paul wanted the Colossian believers to develop a close relationship in their local gathering. This will involve emotional pain on our part, because we do not merely flip an internal switch that stops the irritation we feel. It also will require our own growth in grace and the knowledge of the Lord (2 Peter 3:18).
  • When we listen to their story and seek to understand it. This will take effort to concentrate, because we might want to bail out mentally while they tell their story.
  • We must be willing to wait for the other person to change. Some people are very broken by what has happened to them and their concurrent wrong reactions to those events. Picture yourself helping someone to walk again after an accident. The process takes time. That is easy to tell ourselves, but difficult to implement practically.
  • We need to model good patterns of communication to the other person and perhaps tell them how to communicate properly. Certainly, you cannot start here, because hurting people must know that you truly care and desire a better relationship before they show interest in what you think you need to tell them.
  • We ought to pray for the person that we seek to put up with. God works where we cannot: in our heart and in their heart. Pray.

Clearly, this is a complex matter, since relationships among two sinners, including saved sinners, are complicated and complex. But we are new people in Christ, we have the Bible, and the Holy Spirit lives within us to help us. So then, let’s start to put up with people, even when we find it very difficult and frustrating.

Grace and peace