Sunday, January 01, 2012

Christmas Grace (Luke 1)


There is a tradition that Jonathan Edwards, third president of Princeton and one of America’s greatest thinkers, had a daughter with an uncontrollable temper. But, as is often the case, this weakness was not known to the outside world.

A worthy young man fell in love with her and sought her hand in marriage. “You can’t have her,” was the abrupt answer of Jonathan Edwards.

“But I love her,” the young man replied.

“You can’t have her,” said Edwards.

“But she loves me,” continued the young man.

Again Edwards said, “You can’t have her.”

“Why?” asked the young man.

“Because she is not worthy of you.” “But,” he asked, “she is a Christian, is she not?”

“Yes, she is a Christian, but the grace of God can live with some people with whom no one else could ever live.” (from Illustrations of Bible Truths # 936)

Christmas is often associated with words such as joy, peace, worship, praise and goodwill, but the first good news of Christmas is that of grace.

What is Christmas grace? Why is grace a strength and not a weakness? How does grace make life worth living? How do we embrace grace?

Cast All Cares to the Lord
26 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:26-29)

Fresh out of business school, the young man answered a want ad for an accountant. Now he was being interviewed by a very nervous man who ran a small business that he had started himself. "I need someone with an accounting degree," the man said. "But mainly, I'm looking for someone to do my worrying for me."

"Excuse me?" the accountant said.

"I worry about a lot of things," the man said. "But I don't want to have to worry about money. Your job will be to take all the money worries off my back."

"I see," the accountant said. "And how much does the job pay?"

"I'll start you at eighty thousand."

"Eighty thousand dollars!" the accountant exclaimed. "How can such a small business afford a sum like that?"

"That," the owner said, "is your first worry."

Christmas is the best of times despite the worst of times. Soon to be rocked by scandal, reviled by society and rife with questions, Mary understandably was “greatly troubled” (v 29) or “dia-tarasso” in Greek - shocked, stunned and shaken. The angel’s presence, ironically, did not ease her mind or help things out; instead, it stressed her out. Six months ago (Luke 1:24-26) an angel’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth’s family, specifically to the husband Zechariah, was the talk of the town, a tall tale at best, a terror even to skeptics. Zechariah was silent and unable to speak (Luke 1:20), remaining speechless since until who knew when.

Christmas is, in fact, the occasion of three “troubles” or “tarasso” in Greek. The first “trouble” describes how Zechariah was “startled/troubled” and was gripped with fear by an angel’s appearance (Luke 1:12). The last “trouble” sent shock waves, stirred a city, spawned much discontent and stimulated for change, recounting how King Herod, along with all Jerusalem, was “disturbed” by the magi’s news (Matt 2:3).

Sandwiched between two “troubles” is the mother of them all. Half a year after Zechariah’s trouble, Mary was “greatly troubled” (v 29) by an angel’s appearance and announcement. This Greek word (dia-tarasso) makes its first and only occurrence in the Bible, meaning “total, thorough, throughout” (dia-) and verse 12’s “troubled” (tarasso). Zechariah and Herod were troubled (tarasso) (Matt 2:3), but Mary was greatly troubled” (dia-tarasso). No one could imagine the tension, her turmoil and test. NASB translates it as “very perplexed.” Although Mary did not hear about her pregnancy yet, no biblical character had the same experience, no one could understand her feelings or share her emotions, and no one was in like quandary. You can say she was stretched to the limit. No wonder, her “wonder” (v 29) or “dia-logizomai” has the same preposition “dia” attached to it.

One can imagine the “great trouble” and the full impact of the angel’s sudden appearance, ironically the same angel, especially if upright and blameless relative Zechariah had experienced the same and ended up mute (Luke 1:12). It was an uninvited déjà vu moment and an unwanted “oh-oh” and “oh-no” experience.

But readers can see Mary was tough and tender, trusting and triumphant. Although she was confused to the limit, she was visited and comforted by the best. It was such extraordinary news that God sent one of his top angels to send the message with a message to rejoice. There are only two top named angels in the Bible –Michael and Gabriel. Michael brings bad news to God’s foes (Rev 12:7), and Gabriel brings good news to God’s friends (Luke 1:19, 26). The New Testament begins with Gabriel and ends with Michael. The news Gabriel brought was one: The Lord is with you (v 28). The Christmas message in Matthew is “God with US” (Matt 1:23), but the message of Luke is “the Lord is with YOU.” (Luke 1:28).

Count on Grace from the Lord
30 But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." 34 "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" (Luke 1:30-34)

The 2011 Cannes Film Festival winner “The Tree of Life” champions the superiority of grace, with Brad Pitt acting as the father unhappy about and unfulfilled with his work. To a southern couple from Texas were born three boys in the 1950s. The three boys’ happy childhood were wrecked by a bitter, harsh and abusive dad, but rescued by a loving, sweet and tender mother. The boys were not allowed to call the father (Brad Pitt) “dad.” They have to close the door again 5o times if not done properly or too noisily. Every request to their father (e.g. passing the salt) must be accompanied by the title “Sir.”

The oldest son’s rebellion ranged from stealing neighbors’ underwear to harboring thoughts of killing his father. He was a successful architect as an adult but he could not shake off his frustrations, until he embraced his mother’s grace, love and forgiveness. His mother’s voice guided him to the right path, often whispering in the background:
“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow…Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. It accepts insults and injuries…Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
“No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”

“Grace” is more uncommon than you think. Have you noticed how often grace is mentioned in Matthew and Mark? Not at all, because it occurs for the first time in the New Testament, both the verb (v 28 “highly favored”) and the noun (v 30 “favor”). Shockingly the word is absent from the gospels of Matthew and Mark, but it occurs four times in John (John 1:14, 16, 17) and eight times in Luke (Luke 1:30, 2:40, 2:52, 4:22, 6:32, 17:9), the most among the four gospels. Eight of its total 12 times in the gospels is related to Jesus or Mary. It is not too far-fetched to speculate that it is reserved for Mary’s occasion. No one deserves a better honor, tribute, praise and salutation.

What is GRACE then? It’s been said, Grace means God giving us what we do not deserve. An acrostic for grace says, “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.” No one can quite epitomize, exemplify and embody grace like Mary. No one needs it, nurtures or normalizes grace for everyday living like Mary either. We can examine grace from the divine and human perspective. First, from God’s perspective:
1. It is a gift (2 Cor 8:4 - gift) or a present from Him. The word grace itself means gift.
2. It is a relationship with God (Luke 2:52 – Jesus grew in favor with God and man),
3. It is acceptance and approval by God through what Christ did on the cross,
4. It is the character of God – Jesus was full of grace and truth (John 1:14). We have all received grace upon grace…grace and truth came by Jesus Christ (John 1:16-17). Luke 4:22 – Jesus’ gracious words.
5. It is the exaltation from God (Luke 1:48 - bless).

From the human perspective to Mary as a recipient it means:
1. Living a life of gratitude (Luke 6:32-342 Cor 8:16), also translated “thanks” (2 Cor 2:14, 9:15).
2. Living a life of rejoicing. See Luke 1:47 - “rejoiced.” Philem 7 - translated as joy.
3. Living a life of abundance. (Luke 1:42, 1:45 “blessed”)
4. Living a life of courage (v 30)
5. Living a life with enough. My grace is sufficient (2 Cor 12:9)

There are many ways to see God’s untold, undeserving yet unveiled favor, in terms of time, role, purpose, character, residence and revelation, examining verse 30, verses 31-32a and 32b-33.

vv 30, 31-32a, 32b-33:
 TIME - Current, Coming, Ceaseless
ROLE - Mary’s Child, God’s Son , David’s Heir
MISSION - His Person , His Power , His Promise
NATURE - Man, Maker, Messiah
RESIDENCE - Presence on Earth, Preexistence with God, Permanence in Reign
REVELATION - Savior: His Deliverance, Son: His Divinity, Sovereign : His Dominion

Are you carrying a heavy burden today? Is a cloud of darkness boxing you in? Cast all your anxiety on the Lord because He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).

Choose to Live for the Lord
38 "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:38)

In the movie Captain America, Steve Rogers was a ninety-pound asthmatic weakling who never gives up fighting bullies although he was often rescued by his best friend. Receiving many rejection letters, he futilely uses many addresses to enlist in the army. An army scientist was impressed with his determination to succeed and cleared the path for him to join, hoping to use him as an experiment to create a super soldier to fight Hitler’s army.

Steve was a failure in all physical exercises. In one test, however, all recruits jumped away from a fake grenade thrown to the ground, but Steve grabbed it and covered it with his body, at the same time yelling for his fellow soldiers to leave.

When asked why he chose a scrawny, small fry like him instead of a strapping big guy, the scientist answered that he saw the good and courageous side of Steve, and that the powerful serum he created was not for everybody because it made “good people great and bad people worse.”

What kind of a woman did God choose to be the mother of Jesus? Mary was a graceful, giving, godly, good and gentle servant of God. Chronologically, the first servant (v 38) in the New Testament is a woman, the second servant being Simeon (Luke 2:29). In other gospels, the same word (doulos) is recorded much later (Matt 8:9, Mark 10:44, John 4:51). The climax of Luke’s account is not the proclamation of Gabriel or the promise of Jesus but the permission of Mary, especially the expression coming from her mouth (v 48). Her head comprehended it, her body conceived it, but her heart must confess it! A conversion and a conviction must happen, and not just a command or commission taking place.

The story moved from Mary’s troubles to her turnaround, and now to her trust. She reacted timidly, responded tentatively the second time, and rebounded triumphantly the last time. The first time she said nothing, the second she sought clarification, the third she sang praises. Note that Mary had no choice previously. The angel did not ask her before conception if she was willing to be the mother of Jesus. The first announcement was, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” (vv 30-31). She was speechless until the angel’s second speech, for a reason. Also, Gabriel did not ask for her opinion, her endorsement and her consent. Presently, however, she had a choice on how to live her life - in fear or in faith, believing or begrudging, trust or distrust, hope or hopelessness, joy or judgment.

God had blessed Mary, a Jewish commoner from Nazareth, to be the mother of the Lord (Lk 1:43). Mary knew that she was not necessarily the most qualified, the most resourceful, and the most deserving. The only unique reason why God chose her was “grace” - that she was a descendant of David.

Before, Mary did not have to say yes and sign off to be a mother. Yet Mary now was more than the bearer and mother (Luke 2:34); she was a servant (v 38, 48), a believer and a leader (Acts 1:14). Mary’s response was short but decisive. She answered the angel Gabriel, “(Behold) I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Lk 1:38) Her life presently was one of confidence in God, cooperation with Him and commitment to Him. The “behold” (v 38) declaration means to see, listen, pay attention. It is designed to add interest, involvement, intensity to it, to echo the angel’s cry and call of conviction, confidence and certainty previously in verse 31 and 36. She became the first servant in the New Testament.

Conclusion: The greatest gift God gave to us for Christmas is to send the Savior, but the greatest gift we give to Him is to be a servant. As a servant (doulos) ask yourself: Am I distinguished in service? Am I obedient in tasks? Am I unflagging in effort? Am I lowly in attitude? Am I organized in life? Am I strong in body?

Who When Where

26 angel Gabriel


27 virgin 2x





28 Lord

31 a son


32 Lord God

father David

33 Jacob

35 Holy Ghost

the Highest

the Son of God

36 cousin Elisabeth


38 handmaid of the Lord

26 sixth month

33 for ever

never end

36 in her old age

26 Galilee


29 in her mind

31 in thy womb

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best That You Can Be (Titus 2)


The story is told of a man and an angel who were walking along together. The man was complaining about his neighbors. “I never saw such a wretched set of people,” he said, “as are in this village. They are mean, greedy, selfish, and careless of the needs of others. Worst of all, they are forever speaking evil of one another.”

“Is it really so?” asked the angel.

“It is, indeed,” said the man. “Why, only look at this fellow coming toward us! I know his face, though I cannot remember his name. See his little shark-like, cruel eyes, darting here and there like a ferret’s, and the lines of hardness about his mouth! The very droop of his shoulders is mean and cringing, and he slinks along instead of walking.”

“It is very clever of you to see all this,” said the angel, “but there is one thing that you did not perceive—that is a mirror we are approaching.” (from Illustrations of Bible Truths # 149)

You’ve got to give your best to others get the best from others.

In chapter 1, Paul advised the young minister Titus to straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). After rending Titus to exercise his authority in appointing leaders in the church, Paul next taught the young minister Titus how to act as a young minister and how to attend to the various groups in church.

Speak Honorably to Adults
1 You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine. 2 Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. 3 Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. (Titus 2:1-5)

One manager with a high tech company in Chicago shared how his subordinates were always coming into his office emphasizing the high priority of one thing or another.

He would listen to them and tell each one to leave their papers on the desk. Then as they were about to walk out the door, he would say, “Don’t forget Rule Six’

A young man once said, “Rule Six yes, of course.”

Then he turned to walk out but stopped and asked, “What is rule six?”

Rule Six is as follows: “Don’t take yourself too seriously.”

“Thank you sir, I’ll remember that. But what are the other rules?”

The reply was, “There are no other rules.”

In chapter 2, Paul begins with the need to speak sound doctrine. The verb “teach” (v 1) is essentially and technically “speak” in Greek, translated so by KJV, NASB, and ASV. The first teach is an imperative but the second “teach” (v 2) is missing in Greek, so the first “teach” dictates the passage till verse 5. At his young age as a rookie minister, Titus was not to act like a scholar, a sage or a superior, but to speak tenderly, truthfully and tactfully to his seniors. Speak/teach (v 1) is in the imperative mood, meaning it is obligatory and not optional, demanded and not discretional, stipulated and not secondary, firm and not flexible, insisted and not ignored. Titus should be attentive and active and not be afraid of or anxious to avoid the task at hand.

For the church to grow, she must practice “sound teaching.” The word “sound” features more prominently in Titus than any other New Testament book. What is this “sound” (“hugiaino”) doctrine or teaching (didaskalia)? Elsewhere it is translated as healthy (Luke 5:31), well (Luke 7:10) safe and sound (Luke 15:27). The word “sound” is an extension of the word “growth.” It means solid and not suspect, sure and not swaying, sensible and not sensational or sentimental hogwash. Sound teaching is the key to a strong, stable and steadfast church. A church without sound doctrine is like a chair without legs, a skater on thin ice, and a body without backbone.

What is sound doctrine like in action and how does it apply to men and women? For older men, it means to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance (v 2). How are they related? Temperate comes from the word vigilant and watchful – this is about circumstances; it appears most in Titus. Worthy of respect has to do with honor – it has to do with character. Self-control has to do the mind in Greek - control. The word “sound” reappears to qualify the words “faith, love and endurance” – to be comprehensive.

Older women (v 3), surprisingly, are mentioned for the only time in the Bible. Their task is three-fold to themselves, to younger women and outsiders. They themselves are to be reverent in their behavior, tongue (slanderers), diet or intake (wine) and contribution (teach what is good). Next they are to teach younger women to be sober/reverent (v 3), to devote their lives and attention to their husbands and children, to influence them, not to ignore them. Note, Paul instructs older women to “teach” younger women, but not Titus to teach ( NIV version) older men!

To outsiders - that no one will malign/blaspheme the word of God (v 5). The word of God is not spoken ill of, does not fall into disrepute, is not cause for controversy.

Share Helpfully to Youth
6 Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. 7 In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness 8 and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. (Titus 2:6-7)

Former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell said:
“Not long ago, I visited a Boys and Girls Club in a poor area in Florida. I was talking to a group of kids sitting on the floor around me about my own childhood. My family wasn’t rich; in fact, we lived in a tenement in the Bronx. But, I told the group, my parents had created an enveloping family environment that gave sustenance, structure and discipline to our lives. We were taught to believe in ourselves. As I spoke, a 9-year-old boy raised his hand. “General,” he asked, “do you think if you didn’t have two parents you would have made it?”

That kid cut me right to the quick. He was saying, “This isn’t my world you’re talking about. Can I still make it?” My answer was: “Yes, you can.” That boy may not have had what I had growing up, but, I said, “There are people here who care for you, who will mentor you, who will watch over you and teach you right from wrong.” (“Why service matters: there are problems governments can’t solve, so it’s up to the rest of us - before it’s too late” Newsweek 2/3/97)

To his seniors the young Titus should stick to his “speaking” role, but to young men he is to “encourage” (v 6) them – the second imperative in the chapter, which is one of my favorite verbs in the Bible – “para-kaleo,” or “side-call.” “Para” means parallel or by the side, and kaleo is “call.” Paul did not want Titus to lord over others nor lose his authority, so he taught his protégé to draw others to his side, to be approachable and not be aloof, to listen more than lecture as young people are more likely to be influenced by peers and partners than parent or professional figures. They respond more to authenticity than to authority, to reason than reprimand, to cheer than chastisement.

How can we get the best out of the young? Paul has a four-fold advice for Titus to pass along. First, to exercise good judgment, or to be sober minded/self-controlled (v 6). Sober minded or “sophroneo” means to be in the right mind, to be sound in judgment, to be clear and not convoluted in thinking, not to be extreme, go crazy, or over-think things.

The second exhortation to young people is to exemplify good behavior, which is “in everything set them an example by doing what is good.” (v 7). The word “example” has been translated elsewhere as deep as a nail “mark/print” (John 20:25), pattern (Acts 7:44), and model (1 Thess 1:7). The personal pronoun “them” is missing in Greek because emphasis is not to do it for “others” bur rather to be who you are - an example. “Set” is “showing” in Greek, a participle, which means unfaltering, unfailing, unflagging, not spotty or in spurts.

The third is to ensure good teaching. Other than 1 Timothy, the noun “doctrine” is central to the Pastoral epistles, including 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. This word occurs only six times outside these three books but an astonishing 15 times in the Pastoral epistles, 8 times in 1 Timothy and thrice in 2 Timothy and four times in Titus (Titus 1:9, 2:1, 2:7, 2:10). The early church was not grounded in sound preaching but in sound teaching. Preaching is just the communication – occurring just once in Titus (1:3), teaching, which occurs four times in Titus, is the content.

The fourth is to embrace good reasoning (again from the same root word of “sound” teaching) information, interpretation and instruction that cannot be “condemned,” or to have knowledge against (akatagnostos)

The four are related. The first is to guard against misjudging things, the second against misrepresent Christ, the third misleading others and the fourth misusing facts.

There is reason for Paul’s four-fold advice: so that those “opposed” (v 8), or cause to be “anti” in Greek, may be ashamed, or “turn upside down” in Greek, when they do not have anything bad to say about them. The early church was always under the gun or microscope, everything is scrutinized.

Serve Humbly at Work
9 Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, 10 and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. 11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. 15 These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you. (Titus 2:1-15)

One of the most touching employer-employee stories in Hong Kong is from the family of Wing Lung Bank (永隆銀行) founder Wu Jie- yee (伍絜宜). In November, 2010, Wu’s trust fund donated HK$20 million to the cancer research development center at the Baptist University, which promptly changed the center’s name from Centre for Cancer and Inflammation Research to the Shum Yiu Foon Shum Bik Chuen Memorial Centre for Cancer and Inflammation Research (岑堯寬岑碧泉紀念癌症炎症研究中心) in honor of two deceased sisters who served his family members faithfully for many decades.

The Shum sisters devoted their lives to the care of the family who loved them in return (“Maids honored for their love and loyalty,” The Standard November 11, 2010), from wartime, when the sisters were in their 20s, till the next 60 over years, when they were in their 80s and 90s. The older did household chores, the younger one working in the kitchen, both have their respective jobs. When the day was rainy, they prepare umbrellas for the family members so that they do not get wet. Through the years the sisters raised six siblings as if they were family.

The role of slaves has always been a hot potato for believers and a hot topic to historians, many which are critical of Paul and Christians for not doing enough to abolish slavery. Paul, however, challenged slavery in another way in another book. He reminded slave-owner Philemon that his runaway slave Onesimus is “not a slave but above a slave, a dear brother” (Phm 16) in the Lord.

In Titus, Paul uses two infinitives (“to”) two positive roles for slaves (v 9) and two negative examples. The first role is to be obedient – an infinitive (“to”), the second is “to be” –another infinitive – to be well-pleasing. The first addresses the arrangement and the second the attitude. To “show” or “show-ing good” (v 9) is actually a participle, which is the “how” in Greek. Shockingly, unlike to older or younger people, Paul did not use an imperative to force slaves, knowing the plight of slaves and the power of their owners demands a more sensitive approach. The two negatives, which slaves can handle, are not to talk back with their tongue and not to steal things with their hands.

“Subject” or “submit” (hupo-tasso) in Greek is to arrange oneself under, not anything different from wives who have to subject themselves to their husbands (2:5) and citizens to (Titus 3:1). The first preposition “under” has to do with a slave’s position at work, but the second is the quality of work, to be well-pleasing (eu-arestos) in Greek, not just pleasing. This word occurs nine times in the Bible, all eight of them in the context of pleasing the Lord (Rom 12:1 “pleasing to God,” Rom 12:2 “his pleasing…will,” Rom 14:18 “pleasing to God,” 2 Cor 5:9 “to please him,” Eph 5:10 “what pleases the Lord,” Phil 4:18 “pleasing to God,” Col 3:20 “this pleases the Lord,” Heb 13:21 “what is pleasing to him.” The contrast is with tongue and hands. To talk back (anti-lego) is to be contradictory, caustic, and cynical. Pilfering or stealing (v 10) applies only incident in the Bible, with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:2, 5:3). Stealing has nothing to do with money but honesty because Ananias and Sapphira stole their own money. Note that contradicting and pilfering are participles.

“Show” (endeiknumi) in verse 10 is showing or indicating, a participle. Greek tells us what they are to show is faith or the awkward “fully trusted” (v 10) translation in Greek. To a person of faith, the workplace is not a prison but a platform.

In conclusion, Paul exhorts all believers – young and olde, men and women, free or slave - to live self-controlled (same root as v 2’s temperate) , upright (which is righteous) and godly lives in this present age (v 12). The first has to do with themselves, the second to do with society and the last to do with the church.

Too Big Not to Fall (Rom 12)


What is a church? The church is not a place but a people, an organism and not an organization, a community and not a club, a body and not a building. It’s more “who” than “what” or “where.”

It’s been said:
“I am your church. Make of me what you will, I shall reflect you as clearly as a mirror. If outwardly my appearance is pleasing and inviting, it is because you made me so. If within my spiritual atmosphere is kindly, yet earnest; reverent, yet friendly; worshipful, yet sincere; sympathetic, yet strong; divine, yet humanly expressed; it is but the manifestation of the spirit of those who constitute my membership.

But if you should, by chance, find me a bit cold and dull, I beg of you not to condemn me, for I show forth the only kind of life I shall receive from you. I have no life or spirit apart from you.

Of this may you always be assured: I will respond instantly to your every wish practically expressed, for I am the reflected image of your own soul.”

Previously, Paul commanded believers, in the imperative mood, not to conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind (v 2).

What kind of church is pleasing to God? Why did God put us together? How do members of the body relate to one another?

Watch For Haughty Behavior
3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. (Rom 12:3)

A haughty lawyer once asked a sterling old farmer, ‘Why don’t you hold up your head neither before God nor man.”

“Squire,” replied the farmer, “see that field of grain? Only those heads that are empty stand upright. Those that are well-filled are the ones that bow low.”

“Think…highly” (huper-phroneo) in verse 3 is a single Greek word. The prefix to it is huper (hyper) and the verb is parallel and an extension of the verse 3’s other two “think” (phroneo), which is the function of the brain. The brain is the cognitive center and the clearing house of the body, passing information and delivering messages to parts of the body signalling them on what to think, how to feel and how to act. “Hyper-think” means “to esteem oneself overmuch” and it implies to be vain or arrogant, to be big-headed instead of level-headed, to have an exaggerated, elevated, excessive and egotistical sense of your own importance. It’s been said that bullies and criminals are more likely to suffer of 'High Self Esteem disorder' or unrealistically high self-esteem.

The solution, on the other hand, is not to put oneself down and let others win. The contrast with hyper thinking is not adopting a Charlie Brown mentality, having a low, negative self-image, feeling insecure,” but “to think soberly” (sober judgment in NIV), which is a verb, meaning to be sound, sane and stable in thought. Its noun form, surprisingly, could also mean discipline, prudent, moderate, not to be narcissistic, opinionated or thoughtless. Interestingly, as I was preparing this message at a cafeteria the song “Born to Be Wild” was blaring in the store. There are but six references to this word in the Bible. The word first appears in the Bible for the demon-possessed man who was healed by Jesus, sitting, and clothed, and in his “right mind” (Mark 5:15, Luke 8:35). The apostles Paul and Peter like using this word in the imperative mood. In the Pastoral epistles, Paul especially targeted young people, commanding Titus to encourage (in the imperative) young men to be self-controlled (Titus 2:6). Peter commanded believers to be “clear minded (sober)” and self-controlled unto prayer (1 Peter 4:7), as God had distributed, divided or dealt him or her.

The last verb in verse 3 “given” (merizo) is not the usual “give” but “parts,” mostly translated as divide, distribute or dealt. Only NIV translates it as “give.” The noun form is the word “part.” NASB translates it as “allotted,” ASV as “dealt” and RSV as “assigned.” That’s because Paul did not want them to think they have it all. What they have is a part, a piece, a portion, not even a chunk, so they should be humble in attitude, balanced in thinking and down to earth, not to brag about abilities, advantages and advancement.

Walk Harmoniously With Others
4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Rom 12:4)

A young man dreamt that he had walked into a store where an angel was standing behind the counter. He hastily asked the angel, “What do you sell in this store?”

“Anything. You name it,” said the angel.

So the young man began saying, “I would like to order the following: A democratic government in Chile, and end to all wars in the world, a better deal for the marginal nations, the removal of all the squatters settlements in South America.”

At this point the angel interrupted and said, “Excuse me, young man; you did not understand me correctly. We don’t sell fruits and finished products in this store. We sell only seeds.”

Verse 4 begins with the number “one,” which is placed before “many,” due to Paul’s emphasis on “one” right off the bat. By the way, seven is not the favourite number or the most popular in the Bible. It occurs a paltry 88 times in the New Testament, compared to “one,” 282 times in Greek. What does one mean? Why are we one? One means a unit, union, unison, yet unity does not mean uniformity; it is to be interdependent and not dependent and it is a fact and not a feeling. Previously, Paul says “we have many members” and “all members have not the same function” (v 4), but he switches to “we are” (v 5), which is the climax. “We have” is possession but “we are” is the person, many elements but one entity, belonging versus being.

Next, what is Paul’s most popular contrast to “one” in the verse? The casual answer is “many,” but the correct answer is “members,” because “many” occurs one more time than “many.” It is the key word worthwhile for Paul to mention and repeat in verses 4 and 5 and it is plural in Greek and KJV, including verse 5, occurring three times, as many times as “one.” Further, “many” is a number, “member” is a relationship, and Paul did not want them to think of the church in terms of size, amount and figure.

What is a member? A member is a limb or a part of the body. It refers to an eye or a hand in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:29-30), a tongue in James (James 3:5), the foot and the ear in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 12:15-16). So a member is an indivisible, inseparable and irremovable part of the body. No member is invisible, insignificant or ignored. No one is too small to see, to serve or to shine. On the other hand, no member is dead, disabled or detached. 1 Corinthians 12:13 reminds us that by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body and were fed, drinking and watered from the same Spirit. But notice members got to function (v 4).Paul prefers to use the word “praxis” because the verb form “practice” means to perform repeatedly or habitually. He avoids using the word “doing” because praxis is a natural and normal, better than “work,” which is more like a job. This word occurs merely six times in the Bible, the other translations are works (Matt 16:27) and deeds (Luke 23:51, Acts 19:18, Rom 8:13, Col 3:9). We all have a part to play, we are all partners in a partnership, so we all have to participate.

The highlight of the high point in the verse (v 5) and chapter, however, is not “one” or “many,” both occurring three times in the chapter. One word trumps them in occurrences in the chapter. Can you spot it, extending all the way to verses 10 and 16, altogether four times in the chapter. From “one” to “members,” Paul ends with “one another” or “all the others” (v 5). What does it mean “members one of another” mean? Paul will repeat the line “one another” three times a few verses later, emphasizing love, honor and thinking:
“Be devoted (love) to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” (Rom 12:10)
“Live in harmony/think (phroneo) with one another.” (Rom 12:16)
The first is from the heart, the second is for the face, and the last is for the mind (phroneo).

Work Hard with Gifts
6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. (Rom 12:6-8)

Here are my favourite “team” or “teamwork” quotes:
There is no “I” in TEAM.
Teamwork means more “we” and less “me.”
TEAM = Together Everyone Achieves More
Teamwork means never having to take all the blame.
Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success. Henry Ford

Paul changes tone in verse 6 and talks about gifts (charismata) rather than merely members. The gift of salvation is singular but the gifts of the Spirit are plural, which implies that the gifts are not given merely to the pastoral staff, the deacon board and the committee members.

The seven gifts mentioned are intriguing: prophecy (interpretation), ministry or diakonia (involvement), teaching (instruction), exhorting (inspiration), giving (investment), ruling or leading (influence), and showing mercy (intervention).

There are a few things to learn about the gifts of the Spirit from this passage. First, the first two – prophesying and serving - are actually nouns while the last five are participles. My theory is that the first two, which focuses on the praxis and not the person, is best used within the church, not outside. Paul also avoided a land mine by not talking about the prophet but the prophesy and does not favour them prophesying (verb) freely. Service is an integral part of the early church (Acts 6:1, 4).

Second, the last five are all in the present participles (-ing), which means continual, generous and active. Remember, while we are supplier providing the supply, the source is always God.

Third, the Greek for “his” is missing altogether in the seven gifts, primarily because the gifts are never “his,” “yours” or “mine.” It belongs to God, is bestowed upon the church, and is a benefit and a blessing to all parties, from you and through you , but never for you and to you.

Here are the seven “IN” gifts done “WITH”:
Prophesying - Interpretation
Serving - Involvement
Teaching - Instruction
Encouraging - Inspiration
Contributing - Investment
Leadership - Influence
Showing mercy - Intervention

Prophesying With Scriptures
Serving With Sacrifice
Teaching With Substance
Encouraging With Support
Contributing With Surplus
Leadership With Speed (spoude)
Showing mercy With Sweetness (hilarotes)

Conclusion: We are all contributors, committed to cooperate in God’s service. Are you faithfully using the talents, treasures and time God has given you? Do you play your part, pray for partners and participate in person?

A New Beginning (Neh 9)


Dan Crawford (1870-1926) spent most of his adult life serving as a missionary in Africa. When it was time to return home to Britain, Crawford described to an old Bantu the kind of world he was about to return to. He told him about ships that ran under the water, on the water, and even those that flew above the water. He described English houses with all of their conveniences, such as running water and electric lights. Then Crawford waited for the old African to register his amazement.

“Is that all, Mr. Crawford”? the aged man asked.

“Yes, I think it is,” Crawford replied.

Very slowly and very gravely, the old Bantu said, “Well, Mr. Crawford, you know, that to be better off is not to be better.” (The Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching & Preachers, Warren Wiersbe, p. 188)

The Jews that returned with Nehemiah had completed the building the walls of Jerusalem in a record-breaking fifty-two days (Neh 6:15). Previously in chapter 7, all the people assembled on the seventh month to hear Ezra the scribe read from the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel (Neh 7:73-8:1). In chapter nine, 24 days later, the Levites, in turn, led the people to respond to God’s word.

What makes us truly better, not just better off? How are we reconciled to God? Is it more material prosperity or spiritual revival?

Reconciliation to God Begins with One’s Contrition
1 On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. (Neh 9:1)

Two little boys were playing together one afternoon. They had not been playing long when the larger boy took advantage of his weaker playmate. Georgie, the smaller one, too proud to complain, withdrew some distance and sat by himself, manfully winking back the ready tears.

After a short time, the larger boy grew tired of his solitary play and called, “Say, Georgie, come back. I’m sorry.” Georgie, warned by previous experience, did not respond to the invitation at once. “Yes,” he replied cautiously, “but what kind of sorry? The kind so you won’t do it again?” (from Illustrations of Bible Truths # 604)

The book of Nehemiah is a story of two halves, the first half about rebuilding the walls and the second half about rebuilding lives. The first is physical repairs and the second is spiritual awakening. Previously in the book Nehemiah on his own mourned and “fasted” and prayed (Neh 1:4), but this is the first instance that the congregation as a whole was “fasting,” wearing “sackcloth,” sprinkling “dust” on their heads, and “separated themselves” (v 11). Fasting was a late development in Israel’s history that began after the Pentateuch, as late as nearing the end of the book of Judges (Judg 20:26) in the new land. The most famous and most-mentioned case of fasting in the Bible is David fasting for his dying son (2 Sam 12:16x2, 21, 22, 23), but the most serious case of fasting, without a doubt, was observed by the exile community in Esther’s time, when Jews in every province were in great mourning, their fasting was accompanied by weeping, wailing and crying (Est 4:3, 9:31). Many lay in sackcloth and ashes (Est 4:3). Fasting in the exilic and post-exilic period was unlike most previous fasting. From exile onwards, fasting in the three books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther (Ezra 8:21, Neh 9:1, Est 4:3, 9:31) was always corporate, never personal. No one was left behind. The person, the neighbors, the community all joined in it.

Wearing sackcloth is an outward sign of regret, remorse, and repentance. It is an acknowledgement of the need for God’s renewal, revival, and reawakening. Wearing sackcloth has a rich and grand history. The first person in the Bible to wear sackcloth is Jacob, who was hit so hard by the news of Joseph’s death that he wore sackcloth (Gen 37:34). He mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters failed in their bid to comfort him (Gen 37:34-35).

You might be surprised to know of the three post-exilic non-prophet books of Nehemiah, Esther and Ezra, Nehemiah is the only book that reveals the sprinkling of dust (v 1), which was a lost practice by the time of the kings. Samuel was the last to do it when the ark was captured by the Philistines (1 Sam 4:12). It is a sign of one’s lowliness, worthlessness, defenselessness, helplessness, and powerlessness.

Reconciliation to God Begins with One’s Correction
2 Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. (Neh 9:2)

Once a professing Christian sold a bale of poor hay to a certain colonel who rebuked him, and the church member whined, “I am a soldier too.” “You!” exclaimed the colonel in disgust. “What kind of soldier are you?” “I am a soldier of the cross,” said the skinflint with a detestable flourish of the hand. “That may be,” said the colonel, “but you’ve been on a furlough ever since I knew you.” (from Illustrations of Bible Truths # 940)

More important than the external acts of fasting and wearing sackcloth is the commitment to correction. They separated themselves from all foreigners. By the way, the Bible is not against foreign wives; Ruth is a foreigner and has a book dedicated to her. The foreign wives in question are idolatrous wives. “Separate” or “divide” is a sharp contrast or break. No chapter is as sharp as Genesis 1. It occurs first and most in Genesis 1, is first used in the Bible for the separation of light and darkness (Gen 1:4), water under the expanse from the water above (Gen 1:7) and day from the night (Gen 1:14). So, separation means having no fellowship, having nothing in common, having nothing to do with someone or something. It is to put space between two objects, not sharing a bed, a house any a gap, break, a room. The teaching is strongest in Leviticus, where it differentiates the holy and unholy, the unclean and clean (Lev. 10:10), climaxing from animals to people, and that God’s people are to be holy to me because the Lord is holy, and He had set the Israelites apart from the nations to be His own (Lev 20:25-26). The act must not divorced from its aim – to be holy to Him.

The act of separation is a distinctly post-exilic practice not seen in previous historical books even though it was spelled out in the Pentateuch. In the continuing chapter (Neh 10:28-33), those who separated themselves included priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants (10:28), and nobles (10:29). The act of separation is not for the sake of separation. The purpose is to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord (v 29), including not giving their sons and daughters in marriage to the neighboring peoples (v 30), not working on the Sabbath and other holy days, resting the land an cancelling all debts every seventh year (v 31), giving their fair share to support the house of our God. The first and second concern neighbors, the second fellow Israelites, and lastly the house of God. Why? They did not want to walk in the sins and wickedness of their forefathers (v 2).

The final thing I want to say about separation is that the purpose must take priority over the practice, or it will descend into legalism, as it had happened in Jesus’ time and to many fundamentalist churches. A form can quickly become formality if the purpose of formation is lost. The form must be examined in the light of its function. For example, churches use to segregate the men and the ladies, but the practice is seldom practiced today because the purpose is lost. I once met a couple who no longer attends a church that forbids mixed-sex seating. When I asked them why they no longer go to their home church, they replied, “It is too hard seating in separate rows with kids.” I would add, It is inconvenient, impractical and almost impossible to do so.

Also, note that correction without the intake of God’s word (v 3) is futile, fruitless and fleeting.

Reconciliation to God Begins with One’s Confession
3 They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God. 4 Standing on the stairs were the Levites-Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani and Kenani — who called with loud voices to the Lord their God. (Neh 9:3-4)

Confession must not be mistaken with castigation. True confession is asking for pardon, no asking for punishment. It ends with worship (v 3). It is not the Catholic version, as portrayed in the move “The Da Vinci Code,” where the adherents of the extreme Opus Dei sect inflict punishment and pain upon themselves as penalty for their sins. The shocking scene in the movie is that the sect members practice self-flagellation with whips and other instruments of torture to appease their Catholic guilt. True confession focuses on God’s attributes. It is not about “You,” not “me.” The personal pronoun “You/Thou” occurs 40 times in KJV and 74 times in NIV. Our God is righteous (v 8), ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness ( v 17), gracious and merciful (v 31), great, mighty and terrible (v 32), and just (v 33).

The Israelites confessed (v 2, 3) their sins, which they spent a quarter of the day or three hours doing (v 3). The confession is important because it is the post-exilic community’s first collective act of confession so far. Previously the word “confess” appeared long time ago when Nehemiah confessed the sins the Israelites have committed against God (Neh 1:6). “Wickedness” or “iniquities (KJV),” (v 2) like sins, are plural, even though it was singular previously (Neh 4:5), in its other occurrence in the book. Sin and wickedness both occur in the account of Cain and Abel, the latter translated as punishment (Gen 4:13) in the story. Like Nehemiah (Neh 1:6), the Israelites confessed the sins of the fathers (v 2) as well as theirs. In doing so they confessed they were no better than their fathers.

There are many references to “crying to the Lord” in the Lord (NIV – called with loud voices), especially in the book of Judges (Judg 3:9, 15, 6:6, 6:7, 10:10, 1 Sam 7:8, 7:9, 12:8, 12:10, 15:11). What makes the crying to the Lord in Judges unique is not merely crying out or crying out to the Lord, but crying out to the Lord “in a loud voice,” a phrase which won’t be repeated in the Old and New Testament again.

The prayer tells of three periods of history by the statements introduced by the pronoun “Thou are Lord/God”: (1) Neh 9:6 “Thou, even thou, art Lord alone; thou hast made heaven…”, (2) Neh 9:7 “Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose Abram…”, (3) Neh 9:17 “Thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not.” The first is His creation of the world, the second His choice of Abraham and lastly His compassion to Israel.

What did they confess to? The classic verse in the chapter is in verse 16: “But they, our forefathers, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and did not obey your commands.” (1) “Proud/arrogant” occurs three times in the chapter (vv 10, 16, 29), more than any chapter or book in the Bible passage. (2) “Hardened/stiff-necked” also occurs three times in the chapter (vv 16, 17, 29). Pride is the heart’s attitude, hardened is the body, hear “not” is the ear. The phrase “hardened their necks (harden + neck)” makes its debut in the Bible shortly before the exile (2 Kings 17:14). Nehemiah is the champion chapter in the Bible on hardening; it has the most “harden (their) necks.”

The word “hear” occurs seven times in the chapter (vv 9, 16, 17, 27, 28, 29x2), three times for God/Thou “heard” the Israelites (vv 9, 27, 28), three times for the Israleies not hearken to God or his commandments (vv 16, 29x2), and one time falt “refuse to obey” (v 17).

The word “provocation/blasphemies” (vv 18, 26) are the most occurrences in the Old Testament; not only that, it is “great provocations” or “awful blasphemies” in NIV. The law (Moses’ time, v 34) and the prophets (continual time, v 30) served to “testify” against the Israelites Neh 9:34), but it was in vain.

The focus of the prayer is from verse 17 on, a four-fold praise of God’s “great” attributes, including “great kindness (chesed),” translated as “abounding in love” in NIV (v 17), His great compassion/mercy (vv 19, 27, 31), and great goodness (v 35). God “left/abandon” them in the hands of the enemies to rule over them (v 28), but never “desert/abandon” them (vv 17, 31), just as he did not abandon them in the wilderness (v 19).

Conclusion: God is gracious (v 17, 31), ready to “pardon” – first occurrence in the Bible (Neh 9:17) and merciful (9:17), slow to anger and abounding in love (v 17). He does not forsookest them not (vv 17, 19, 31).

Bear the Cross to Wear the Crown (Matt 16)


Being a disciple of Christ is quite costly in many parts of Asia and Africa even though it is quite a tame or mild affair in the Western world. In Iran, 32-years old pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, leader of a network of Iranian house churches, was charged with apostasy in 2010 for refusing to recant his religious beliefs and convert from Christianity to Islam. Four days of trial under the threat of a death penalty did not change the pastor’s mind, who insisted that he was a Christian and no longer Muslim, so he was sentenced to death by hanging.

Later Nadarkhani’s charges were revised when Christian organizations protested, but it made little change; now “he is a Zionist and has committed security-related crimes, including repeated rape and extortion.”

It is just as unsafe to be a disciple of Christ today as it was in Jesus’ time. If you accept Jesus for food, fun and friendship, you could be in for a rough ride and rude shock. Being a disciple is associated with discrimination, danger and death for some folks.

What are the risks, responsibilities and rewards ahead for followers and disciples of Jesus? How can we guard ourselves against low and lukewarm Christian commitment?

There is No Greater Gift Than to Share His Crucifixion
21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (Matt 16:21-23)

Everybody but John had signed up for a new company pension plan that required a small employee contribution. The company paid all the rest. Unfortunately, 100 % employee participation was needed; otherwise the plan was off. John’s boss and his fellow workers pleaded with him over and over, but to no avail. John said that the plan would never pay off.

Finally, the company president called John into his inner office. The president said, “John, here’s a copy of the new pension plan and here’s a pen. I want you to sign the papers, now, and if you don’t you’re fired.
John signed the papers immediately. The president asked, “Would you mind telling me why you didn’t sign earlier?” John answered, “Nobody explained it to me so clearly before.”

Note that Jesus addressed the disciples (v 21), those who were with him long-term and for the long haul. When the disciples arrived at the comfy coast town of Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:13), midway from the hometown of Galilee to the destination of Jerusalem (Matt 20:17-18), Jesus dropped a bombshell on them and warned them of the cost of discipleship. Jesus’ words did not begin with a “might” or “maybe,” but a “must” (v 21) – so it is not a request but a requirement, not an option but an obligation, not a choice but a certainty. On top of that, the word “must” is doubly forceful because it occurs for the first time in the book of Matthew, the all-important first word after the explanatory “that,” not just an afterthought footnote - “that must to Jerusalem to go.” “Must” in any language or book is a regular word, but a rare find in Matthew. For example, it appears the first time early in Luke (Luke 2:49) and in John (John 3:7), halfway in Mark (Mark 8:31), but not quite as late and overdue as in Matthew, yet the understatement in the book serves to highlight its importance and heighten the tension.

The next word startled the disciples as well. The word “suffer” (v 21) marks its debut in the book. To say that they were surprised at the deferred disclosure or belated revelation is an understatement. It was more of a shock than a surprise to the disciples. After all this time, three good and glorious years together, they were stunned, staggered, shell-shocked, stupefied and stumped by the bad news. In gets worse in Luke’s gospel (Luke 9:22) - “suffer” and even the word “kill” occurs for the first time.

The disciples couldn’t be more disturbed, distressed disillusioned, distraught, and disappointed that Jesus was the crucified King and not the Conquering King, so much so that they missed the forest for the trees and majored in the minor, failing to hear Jesus’ declaration that He was a more than just a suffering Messiah; He was the Risen Savior. Jesus underscored that he must rise again (Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22, John 20:9). He revealed his suffering twice in Matthew (Matt 16:21, 17:12), but countered it six times in Matthew with his resurrection(Matt 16:21, 17:9, 23, 20:19, 26:32, 27:63) – three times more than the talk of suffering, but all that was lost on the disciples.

None was as upset as Peter with Jesus’ negativity, seen as nonsense and nuisance to his ambitions. Weren’t the disciples supposed to storm Jerusalem, sit on thrones, and share in the kingdom? Next, the author used the word “began” to contrast the sharp and stark disagreement between Jesus and Peter. Jesus “began” to explain to his disciples (v 21), but Peter took him aside and “began” to rebuke him. “Rebuke” is as strong a word as any to reflect how Peter alarmed, annoyed and appalled at Jesus’ prediction. To accentuate how serious the word is, it is used up to now in the book for Jesus “rebuking” the winds and the sea (Matt 8:26) and “charging/rebuking” them not to make His healing of the multitudes known (Matt 12:16). It is a strict reminder, a severe rapping and a sharp rebuttal to Jesus. As if it wasn’t strong enough, the single Greek word translated as “be it far from you” in KJV but absent in NIV occurs for the first and only time in Matthew (v 22) or the gospels. The amusing thing in the second part of Peter’s double negation (“be it far” + “never”) is the phrase “never Lord” is as ironic and as contradictory a phrase as you can find. When you call Jesus Lord, you never say never; as in prayer you say “Amen, Lord” instead. Notice how Peter did not learn; he repeated the gaffe in Acts when he opposed eating unclean animals (Acts 10:14’s “not so” debuts in the Bible).

To Peter’s hostile opposition, Jesus introduced the first of four imperatives in the text: “Get behind me” Satan (v 23). This imperative is usually translated as a neutral, positive and simple “Go” in the Bible and seldom with the negative connotation of “Get behind,” except in this instance and in the case of Jesus’ temptation by the devil (Matt 4:10). In both cases Satan is addressed, which is not flattering or pleasant to Peter. Why? Because like Satan, Peter thinks of wisdom and ways of the world.

There is No Greater Goal Than to Stay the Course
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matt 16:24)

The following words were written on the tomb of an Anglican Bishop in the Crypts of Westminster Abbey:
“When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world.
As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change my country. But it, too, seemed immovable.
As I grew into my twilight years, one in last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it.
And now as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realized: If only I had changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country and, who knows, I may have even changed the world.” (Anonymous)

After the “must” in verse 21 are three imperatives in verse 24 – deny, take-up, follow. “Deny” occurs 11 times in the Bible but merely refers to two instances, twice referring to this incident (v 24, Mark 8:34) and mostly for Peter’s denial of Christ (Matt 26:34, Mark 14:30, Luke 22:34). Incidentally this is the third debuting word in the passage, the others include “must” and “suffer.”

Two words are translated as “deny” in Matthew, the first is the normal “deny” (arneomai) which is strong enough as it is: “But whoever disowns/denies me before men, I will disown/deny him before my Father in heaven.” The second “deny” is “deny + out” (apo-arenomai), with the preposition “out/away” prefix added. The first “deny” is strong but the second is super strength with the preposition affixed. Ironically, both are used for Peter’s denial. The normal strength “strong” is used when Peter more than once denied Christ (Matt 26:70, 72), but the super strength “deny” (“apo-arneomai”) refers to Jesus one-time prediction that Peter would deny him out (Matt 10:33). Which one do you think is the case here? Answer: deny out. The small “out” means to totally, thoroughly, utterly, fully – unreserved, unregretful, irreversible. For example cast out and cast you out (eg. parents “chew me out,” madman “curse me out,” robbers “clean me out”). It means completely, comprehensively, convincingly, categorically and conclusively.

To deny oneself means to place God and not self on the seat of the heart’s throne, to say yes to selflessness and no selfishness, to be God-centered and not self-centered. To borrow the title from the first chapter of Purpose-Drive Life, “it is not about me.”

Next, the cross is associated with crucifixion, condemnation and contempt. Heb 12:2 says Jesus “endured the cross, scorning its shame.” The first (deny self) has to do with the person, while the second (bearing the cross) is with the path or process of discipleship. The path or process is not marked by success, status or safety, but by suffering, shame and setbacks. In Luke it is taking up “his cross daily” (Luke 9:23), so it does not mean physical death because we only die once. Disciples are never called to carry Jesus’ cross but “his cross” (Matt 10:38, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23, 14:27). It means to be identified with Christ and not identical in His sufferings, to acknowledge and not avoid the identification before others, to identity with Him by our attitude and actions.

The first (deny self) has to do with the person, but the second (bearing the cross) is with the path, and the third (following Christ) is with the purpose. More than suffering and shame, it ends and triumphs with “submission,” to follow Christ. The word “follow” is bigger than life in Matthew. Three words or phrases occur in the book more than any book – follow (25 times), follow me (5 times), follow him (13 times). To follow him means submitting, surrendering and subjecting your will, wishes, wants, worries, world to him.

There is No Greater Glory Than to See His Coming
25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. (Matt 16:25-27)

A young man was traveling in a far country. It was getting late in the day, and he knew that he needed to stop to rest. However, he was thirsty and needed to find water before he slept. He met a white haired old man sitting on a rock by the side of the road. The young man asked him if he knew of a place where he could find water to drink. The old man said that if the young man stayed on the path he would come to a small stream. However, it would be after dark before he would reach the stream. The old man told the traveler that he could safely drink there. The old man further said that if he would pick up a handful of pebbles from the stream bed, the young man would be both glad and sad. The young man thanked the old man and continued on his journey.

Sure enough, even though it was quite dark, the young traveler found the stream. He took a drink. The young man thought it silly to pick up pebbles, but just for curiosity he picked up a handful and put them in his pocket. He then found a place to sleep a short distance away from the stream. When he woke up, the young man remembered the pebbles. He shoved his hand into his pocket and brought them out. As he looked at them in amazement, the young man simultaneously felt great sorrow and great happiness for there in his hand lay beautiful, sparkling jewels. Quickly he rushed back to the stream to get more. He frantically searched through many hands full of ordinary pebbles, but the opportunity was gone. As he looked at the beautiful jewels, the young traveler felt so sad that he did not pick up many more. At the same time he was happy that he had at least picked up those that he had.

Jesus used three reasons or explanations (“gar”) to contrast the joy of following the way of the Lord versus following the ways of the world. The second parallel “gar” or reason is, unfortunately, missing in NIV. Within the three reasons is a progress in time – one’s life (v 25) or birth stage, the world (v 26) or busy stage, and “forfeiting/losing one’s soul” (v 26) or burial stage. “Life/soul” is past time (given at birth), “world” is prime time (in the present), and “forfeiting his soul” is past tense (dead and gone).

“Gain” (v 26) occurs for the first time in the Bible and is derived from the noun “lucre” or money. To understand why Jesus said the soul has no financial “gain,” we must first define a soul, which is contrasted with the world. In the medical world, the heart or the mind is the best indicator of life or death, but I suggest one’s breath is the best judge in the biblical world. Its first debut in the KJV in Genesis 2:7, when the Lord God formed him from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

In this sense, what is real estate to a breath? The answer is, a real waste of breath. One’s bank account, bank deposits and bank portfolio qualify for nothing when one is dying, dead and departed. The truth is we have only one chance at “life”(v 25), one choice between “life” and the “world” (v 26) and one certainty – the Son of man coming in glory (v 27). After one’s entrance at birth (v 25) and earnings in career (v 26) is the exit at death (v 27). Would the gift of life (v 25) and goods in the world (v 26) endear you to the glory of Christ (v 27)?

The three stages can be further contrasted this way. The first stage is the B for “becoming” stage: your birth, your being, your beginning, your breath, your baby steps. The second stage is the P stage for “pursuing”: power, profit, popularity, possessions, and pleasure. The third stage is the R stage, for His “returning”: the resurrection, revelation, reward, righteousness and rejoicing.

B for “Becoming”: Birth, Being, Beginning, Breath, Babysitiing.
P stage for “Pursuing”: Power, Profit, Popularity, Possessions, Pleasure

R for “Returning”: Resurrection, Revelation, Reward, Righteousness , Rejoicing

You will not be judged for the deed to life, which is God’s gift to you, but your deeds in life, which is your gift to God. Life is not measured by one’s longevity, likability or liberty but by one’s legacy – Do you choose Christ? Are you crucified with Christ and committed to Him. At the climax (v 27), the miracle life gives way to the Maker of Life. The gift of life is nothing compared to the Giver of Life. Creation meets its Creator. A billion may buy a pricey bed but not a precious breath. Eternal billions means nothing for the supply of eternal breath.

Up to now in Matthew there is talk of the glory of the kingdom of the world (Matt 4:8) and Solomon in all his glory (Matt 6:29), but nothing compares to the Son of man coming in the glory of his Father (v 27). According to Matthew 24:30, it will be “great glory,” its three usages in the New Testament all refers to one event – His coming (Mark 13:26, Luke 21:27).

Finally, do not confuse the resurrection with the rebirth of life (offered by Buddhism) and the reversal of life (offered by scientists).

Conclusion: Disciples who share in the risk and responsibilities of discipleship will reap recognition and reward in Christ. Is your Christian life characterized by three declarations: I must deny myself, I must die to Christ, and I must decrease? The world and this life is passing and perishable but the world to come is permanent and precious. Do you know your life is brief, bleak and barren without Christ? Are you willing to share in the abundant life, the eternal life, the blessed life He promised? Life is precious simply because you were born, but that Jesus was crucified – He died for you. Without Christ, the glamorous life you will currently will be replaced by the grim life. Would your forsake earthly gain for eternal gain? Will you forsake the poverty of the riches of this world for the power of the resurrection in the next?

Familiarity Breeds Contempt (Luke 4)


One cold night, as a sheik lay in his tent, a camel thrust the flap aside and looked in. “I pray thee, Master,” he said, “let me put my nose within the tent, for it is cold outside.” “By all means,” yawned the sheik, who was bored and listless from having reposed on his pillows all day. “Do so if you wish.”

The camel poked his nose into the tent. “If I might but warm my neck also,” he said presently. “It's all the same to me,” answered the sheik. So the beast stuck his neck inside, and contented itself a little while by looking about.

Soon the camel, who had been turning his head from side to side, spoke up again. “It will take but little more room if I put my forelegs within the tent when he said: “Master, I'm keeping the flap open by standing here like this, I think I ought to come all the way inside.” “Whatever you like,” the sheik nodded, moving over some more so the beast might enter.

So the camel came forward and crowded into the tent. No sooner was he inside then he looked hard at the sheik. “I think,” he said, “that there is not enough room for both of us here. It will be best for you to stay outside, as you are the smaller. Then there will be room enough for me.” And with that he pushed the sheik out into the cold and darkness (William J. Bennett, The Moral Compass 237-38, NY/Simon and Schuster/95)

It’s been said, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Jesus said, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” The Chinese say, “Local ginger is not spicy.”

Jesus grew up in Nazareth (Luke 2:39, Matt 2:23) but he left Nazareth to live in Capernaum (Matt 4:13), supposedly the Galilee of the Gentiles (Matt 4:15), when he was harshly and soundly by his hometown. What can we learn from Jesus’ rejection? Why did Jesus even bother to preach in Nazareth?

Be Single-minded When Others are Superficial
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” 20 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, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 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. (Luke 4:14-22)

A few days ago (March 31, 2011), we were watching TV together where a man asked his wife, “If I and your brother were to fall into the ocean together, who would you save first?” “Of course my brother. He’s my only relative.” The man was disappointed, but the wife explained, “You know how to swim. You don’t need me to rescue you.”

So my wife added, “Who would you save in a sinking boat: your mother or me? Not wanting to get into trouble, I said, “Of course you.” My wife said, “Wrong. You should save your mother because I am bound for heaven but your mother has not accepted the Lord.”

Have you ever wondered by Jesus bothered to return to a hostile crowd and environment? The bookends to this episode of Jesus hostile reception in Nazareth is His powerful ministry “throughout out the whole countryside” (v 14) and his ministry in Capernaum (vv 31-34). Previously, everyone through the whole countryside praised him (v 15). Later the people were amazed at his teaching in Capernaum (v 32), where he cast out an evil spirit from a demon-possessed man. The phrase “power of the Spirit” is exclusive to Jesus, not applicable to anyone else in the Scriptures. The response to Him was tremendous. Not one person had anything unflattering, unfavorable or unfriendly to say to Him.

The power of the Spirit, internal strength, is compounded by external witness. Word of mouth was at an optimum. Jesus debuted as a teacher in Galilee, teaching in their synagogues - plural, and everyone praised him (v 15). He was never short of admirers in all places except for one place - Nazareth. He “taught” everywhere but his hometown, the synagogue where he attended, where he got as far as to “read” but never got to “teach” the people, like he did through the whole countryside (v 14).

Jesus revealed Himself as the Messiah by referring to Isa 61:1, where the verb “anointed” (v 18) or “mashach” is the root word for “Messiah” in Hebrew. The word “anoint” occurs merely five times in the New Testament, all exclusive to Jesus (v 18, Acts 4:27, 10:38, 2 Cor 1:21, Heb 1:9)

So Jesus came with grand introduction, much pomp and great fanfare, but all fell flat in his hometown. There was no better place or prouder moment for Jesus to trumpet His claim or credentials, no greater homecoming. It was a hometown proudest moment, no bigger way to pay back homefolks and to make his parents proud. “All” is repeated three times -- everyone praised him (v 15), the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him (v 20) and all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips (v 22). Why? They were unimpressed because they were all too familiar with his father, mother and siblings (Matt 13:55-57).

Be Straight-forward When Others are Self-righteous
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: 'Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.'“ 24 “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed — only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:23-27)

A man went back to the pet shop where he had purchased a parakeet several weeks before and said, “You have a hell of a nerve selling me that talking parakeet.” The owner was rather surprised, since he remembered this particular customer because he had been so insistent about buying a talking parakeet.

“What’s the matter?” asked the owner. “Won’t the bird talk?”

“Oh, he talks all right,” replied the bird’s owner, “but how would you like to live with a sarcastic parakeet?”

“I don’t think I quite understand,” replied the owner of the pet store.

“Well,” said the man, “when I took the bird home, every morning for a solid week I would stand outside his cage and say, ‘Can you talk?’ and for a solid week I got no answer. So one morning I was relay disgusted, and I said, ‘What’s the matter stupid? Can’t you talk?’ And that parakeet looked at me and said, ‘I can talk , all right, but can you fly?’” (Toastmaster General’s Favorite Jokes 173, George Jessel, Castle Books)

Verse 23 is unique because Jesus used two imperatives to highlight the locals’ sarcastic remarks in their heart and their scornful demand from him: heal, do. This is one of four listed derisive challenges made to Jesus with the use of “yourself” in the imperative mood in the gospels, including “throw yourself down” (Matt 4:6), “save yourself” (Matt 27:40, Mark 15:30, Luke 23:37) and “shew thyself to the world” (John 7:4) – the last one from his brothers. Jesus did his fair share of miracles in Capernaum. The notable ones include healing the centurion servant (Matt 8:5-6, Mark 1:21-23), driving out an evil spirit, and healing the paralytic man (Mark 2:1-5), healing many of various diseases (Mark 1:34), including Simon's mother-in-law (Mark 1:30) and even a man of leprosy (Luke 5:12). He was called Jesus of Nazareth (Matt 26:71, Mark 1:24, 10:47, 14:67, 16:6, Luke 4:34, 18:37, 24:19, John 1:45, 18:5, 18:7, 19:19, Acts 2:22, 6:14, 10:38, 22:8, 26:9) but, sadly, he never did any miracle in Nazareth.

Jesus pointed to a prophet’s rejection and used popular ones such as Elijah and Elisha to emphasize his point. Elijah and Elisha were the prophets with the most miracles in Israel. No prophet rivals either of this tandem. Most are superior with with words, nut inferior in miracles. Elijah stayed with a widow in Zarephath for three years (1 Kings 18:1), which was a long time receiving support from an outsider. Living off a wealthy woman’s support is not an easy thing for a man to do, let alone a widow’s support, but God rather him live off a Gentile, a woman, and a widow than with his own people, how shameful and shocking is that. The widow represents the neediest of needy financially in society. The last person God wanted Elijah to live with is a fellow countryman, knowing the locals’ small-mindedness, selfishness, and stinginess. God preferred him to live with a single parent of the opposite sex than a fellow countryman of the same country.

Elijah’s case was no worse. The target of Elijah’s opposition was the king of Israel, and Elisha against the Syrians. Elisha never dealt with the Syrian army, but the Syrians were most active during Elisha’ ministry, almost the only enemies. To the end Elisha, after healing Namaan, never pocketed a cent from the general’s gratitude. Namaan represented the powerful, picky, proud, the type Elisha had the most problems with, but still he healed him. Not only was Naaman the first leper to be healed in the Old Testament, he was the only person. The righteous king Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died (2 Chron 26:21).

Be Self-controlled When Others are Stiff-necked
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. (Luke 4:28-30)

Husband to wife: When I get mad at you, you never fight back. How do you control your anger?

Wife: I clean the toilet bowl.

Husband: How does that help?

Wife: I use your toothbrush.

“Furious” means “filled with wrath” in Hebrew and KJV, not mere “wrath.” “Wrath” itself occurs for the only time in the gospels, in this incident, to emphasize how explosive, extreme and exaggerated the response was. This word is not lightly used, so that it appears once also in seven other books ranging from Acts to Hebrews (Acts 19:28, Rom 2:8, 2 Cor 12:20, Gal 5:20, Eph 4:31, Col 3:8) but finds and fulfills its potential most in Revelation, an outburst not normal and encouraging, leaving the bulk of its use to Revelation, where it occurs as many as 10 times (Rev 12:12, 14:8, 14:10, 14:19, 15:1, 15:7, 16:1, 16:19, 18:3, 19:15). The locals were not only angry but were “filled with wrath,” which is its only instance in the Bible. There is no anger like mob anger. There is no way to coral, control, contain, counter their anger.

In Hebrews 11:27, it refers to Moses, who forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king. Out of the ten times in Revelation half of them refers to the “wrath of God” (Rev 14:10, 19, 15:1, 15:7, 16:1) that is poured upon the earth.

Even then, this is the only instance of an individual is nowhere except here is “filled with wrath” used. The Jews did not invite him to the hill, but followed that up with taking him to the brow of the hill to throw him down the cliff (v 29). A brow (eye-” brow” or forehead) is the brink of a precipice. They were so angry they could not think straight. All they wanted was to exact blood. They were ready to kill and murder. Nobody said “stop,” “wait” or “think.” Instead of driving him out of town, they went further by taking him to a hill. “Throw him down the cliff” (kata-kremnizo) is “down-cliff,” the latter (kremnizo) is translated as “steep bank” (Matt 8:32, Mark 5:13, Luke 8:33). How steep? Both Mark and Luke explain Jesus was on a mountain (Mark 5:11, Luke 8:32) when he cast a herd of swine out of a demon-possessed man.

Conclusion: Popularity is overrated. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4:34)

Hear God's Voice Today (Heb 3)


A man who dined regularly in his favorite restaurant complained about the bread. It wasn’t fair, he emphasized, that other restaurants served lots of bread. But here he gets only one piece. So the next time he came in, they served him four pieces. He still complained it wasn’t enough.

On his next visit his server brought him a dozen pieces of bread. The man still complained.

For his next visit they put a large basket of bread on the table. But still he complained. “The other restaurants give all the bread you can eat.”

They decided to be ready for him the next day. They had an enormous loaf of bread prepared. It was six feet long and two feet wide. Four people carried the loaf to his table. They plopped it down in front of him. It took up half the table and hung over both sides. The chef stood back, pleased with himself, to see how the customer would react.

He looked over the loaf and commented, “So, we’re back to one piece again, are we?”

The early church believers were rattled, worried, and unsettled by many things, none more threatening than execution for their faith and exclusion from the Jewish community. The book of Hebrews reveals that Timothy was just released from prison (13:23). The word “prison” or “bonds” occurs twice in the book (Heb 10:34, 13:3), rivaling Ephesians and Philemon for the most occurrences in the Bible. The purpose of the book was to cheer the believers who were constantly pressured, persecuted and punished.

What are believers to do in the face of death and destitution for their faith? How did the church survive the odds? Why did the church eventually triumph in history?

Examine Your Heart
7 So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, 9 where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. 10 That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, 'Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.' 11 So I declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest.'“ (Heb 3:7-11)

Two students of the Talmud came to their rabbi and wailed: “Rabbi, we’ve committed a sin!” “What have you done?” “We looked with lust upon a woman!” “God preserve you!” cried the rabbi. “You’ve committed a terrible sin!” “We wish to do penance, Rabbi!” “In that case, I order you to put peas into your shoes and walk about that way for a week. Then perhaps you’ll remember not to commit such a sin again.

The two penitents went away and did as the rabbi told them. Several days later they met on the street. One was hobbling painfully and looked haggard, but the other one was calm and smiling. So the hobbler said to his fried reproachfully, “Is this the way you do penance? I see you haven’t followed the rabbi’s orders. You didn’t put peas in your shoes!” “Of course I did!” insisted the other. “But I cooked them first!”

Today is repeated three times (vv 7, 13, 15) and a contrast with forty years (vv 9, 17). It is to stress that today’s behavior must be completely different and a total break from the past. What happened for forty years in the wilderness? The “not” or “never” (me) in verse 7 is most impressive, strategic and well- placed and best positioned because it does not occur in the book until now. The writer of Hebrews did not use it previously to maximize its impact currently. The book uses 62 times the normal “not” (ouk) but 25 times “never” (me). No New Testament book uses this “not” so late from chapter three on. Only five books uses this from chapter two on – Mark 2:4, John 2:16, 2 Cor. 2:1, Eph. 2:12 and 1 John 2:4.

“Harden” occurs six times only in the New Testament (Acts 19:9, Rom 9:18, Heb 3:8, 3:13, 3:15, 4:7), four of which are in Hebrews, three alone in this chapter (Heb 3:8, 3:13, 3:15), so the writer couldn’t push his point or press his position more pointedly and painfully. All three times the Greek “me” (never) admonition is placed first before “harden.”

The verb “harden” (skleruno) is derived from the word “skleros” and “skelos,” with the nearest English equivalent of “skeleton.” It’s been said, “Adult human bones are very strong. Their tensile strength is as strong as stainless steel. It is about 20 times more difficult to smash a human femur (upper leg) bone than it is to break a equal weight piece of concrete.

Verses 9-11 detail their conduct (v 9 “where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years”), the charge (v 10 “their hearts are always going astray”), and its consequences (v 11 “they shall never enter my rest”).

Expel All Doubt
12 See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.

A new arrival in heaven was surprised to see a suggestion box along Main Street. The heavenly newbie turned to a more seasoned resident and asked, “If everything is perfect and everybody is happy in heaven, why is there a suggestion box?” “Because some people aren’t really happy unless they complain.”

The first imperative in this passage is in verse 12: “See to it” (blepo) or “take heed” (KJV). The imperative form of the same verb (“see to it”) occurs 27 times in the Bible. While the verb has its roots in the eye, it has more meaning than meet the eye. Other translations include “Watch out” (Matt 24:4, Mark 12:38, 13:5, Luke 21:8, Gal 5:15, Phil 3:2, 2 John 8), “See to it” (1 Cor 16:10, Col 2:8, 4:17, Heb 3:12, 12:25), “Consider/consider carefully” (Mark 4:24, Luke 8:18, 1 Cor 10:18), “Be careful” (1 Cor 3:10, 8:9, 10:12), “Be on your guard” (Mark 13:9, 23, 33), “Be careful” (Mark 8:15), “Look” (Acts 3:4), “Take care” (Acts 13:40), and “Be very careful” (Eph 5:15). So see includes the heart, mind, and spirit.

What the readers are to watch out for: unbelief (v 12), which is stated twice in the chapter as well as book (vv 12, 19), the same kind suffered and shown by the Jews in the gospels and Paul talked about (Matt 13:58, Mark 6:6, Rom 3:3, 4:20, 11:20, 11:23). Unbelief is a matter of the heart, which is stated four times in the chapter (Heb 3:8, 10, 12, 15). This Greek word (apaistia) can mean faithlessness in the negative sense and unfaithfulness in the positive sense. The first mean disbelief and the second is disobedience. KJV and ASV (American Standard Version) rightly translates “sinful, unbelieving heart” as “an evil heart of unbelief” (v 12).

“Turn away” (aphistemi) is departing. The mild translation for this is “leave” or “depart” Luke 2:37) but the sterner meaning is “fall away” (Luke 8:13 “Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.”), “desert” (Acts 15:38, as in Barnabas’ desertion), “abandon” (1 Tim 4:1), where it says “In later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” Why do people leave? What are the major reasons?

Encourage One Another
13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.

Neal Krause, a sociologist and public-health expert at the University of Michigan, has tried to quantify some of those more amorphous variables in a longitudinal study of 1,500 people that he has been conducting since 1997. He has focused particularly on how regular churchgoers weather economic downturns as well as the stresses and health woes that go along with them. Not surprisingly, he has found that parishioners benefit when they receive social support from their church. But he has also found that those people who give help fare even better than those who receive it — a pillar of religious belief if ever there was one. He has also found that people who maintain a sense of gratitude for what’s going right in their lives have a reduced incidence of depression, which is itself a predictor of health. And in another study he conducted that was just accepted for publication, he found that people who believe their lives have meaning live longer than people who don’t. “That’s one of the purported reasons for religion,” Krause says. “The sign on the door says, ‘Come in here and you’ll find meaning.’” (“The Biology of Belief,” Time, Feb. 12, 2009),8599,1879016-1,00.html

Last year, researchers studied 34 students at the University of Virginia, taking them to the base of a steep hill and fitting them with a weighted backpack. They were then asked to estimate the steepness of the hill. Some participants stood next to friends during the exercise, while others were alone.

One of the strongest antidote against unbelief is not just to encourage one another but to encourage one another daily (v 13), which is the last imperative in the chapter. What is encouragement? George M. Adams says ““Encouragement is the oxygen of the soul.” Anatole France, French writer and winner of the Noble Prize in Literature observes that “nine tenths of education is encouragement.”

Nothing rouses and revives lonely, lost, and lukewarm and listless believers like encouragement. Encouragement is derived from the word “courage,” so encouragement is to impart courage or instill confidence in others, to bring out the best in others, to strengthen those who are defeated, down and defenseless. It is bound in the word of courage.

Encourage (para-kaleo) means to call alongside or “beside (para) call (kaleo).” The preposition “para-” (beside) is opposed to “above,” “against” and “apart.” The preposition "para" (beside), where English words parachurch or parallel share the same root, means to walk side by side, to walk in the shoes, to walk with the wounded, the weak and the weary. It is to be there for the person, to be by the person and with the person. Show you understand is better than say you understand. Encourage (para-kaleo) is opposed to superiority, antagonism or indifference. It is not to be condescending, condemning or criticizing, also not to provide answers and solve problems.

There are five things considered deceitful (v 13) in the Bible: the deceitfulness of riches (Matt 13:22, Mark 4:19), the deceitfulness of lusts (Eph 4:22), the deceivableness of unrighteousness (2 Thess 2:10), the deceitfulness of sin (v 13) and the deceitfulness of self (2 Peter 2:13).

Conclusion: It’s been said, “The devil’s greatest tool is discouragement.” Are you a companion or a critic? Do you know someone who needs encouragement today? Can you send the person a letter, an e-mail or a text? Have you prayed for a person who needs encouragement?

Caution is Better Than Cure (Josh 9)


I have been exercising and swimming in a pool for 30 minutes a day since 2003 due to my weak knees from too much basketball. The hardest thing to avoid in swimming is swimmers themselves. In the States swimmers in a lane are required to swim to one side one way and return the other side to avoid bumping into one another.

Even so, four types of swimmers are difficult, almost impossible, to avoid: the splashers, swimmers who closed their eyes, butterfly stroke swimmers (the butterfly lovers) who literally “own” the swimming pool with their wings spread, backstroke swimmers who cannot see with the back of their eyes, and the elderly who swim where they please.

I discovered another type of pool hog in Hong Kong that I did not see in the States. In the States, pools are divided by ropes into three lanes and are longer in length, whereas in Hong Kong pools are shorter and rounder, so a few swimmers take unorthodox approaches: they swim around the pool and often get in and cut into the path of others, and other swimmers swim diagonally or crossways. In short, look out when you swim and swim with your eyes open. I have no problem because I can only dog paddle.

The story of the Gibeonites is important because it was the last hurdle the Israelites faced before entering Canaan. The success of Joshua’s army grinded to a halt upon meeting their tricky neighbors. After this incident the rest of the way was plain sailing. Before and after this incident, no individual, tribe or nation could withstand the Israelites’ onslaught. This time is the only time the new generation failed to rely on God and Joshua stumbled in his leadership.

Why do people lose their guard? What keeps people alert? How do we keep focused?

1 Now when all the kings west of the Jordan heard about these things — those in the hill country, in the western foothills, and along the entire coast of the Great Sea as far as Lebanon (the kings of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites)— 2 they came together to make war against Joshua and Israel. 3 However, when the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, 4 they resorted to a ruse: They went as a delegation whose donkeys were loaded with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. 5 The men put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and moldy. 6 Then they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and the men of Israel, "We have come from a distant country; make a treaty with us." 7 The men of Israel said to the Hivites, "But perhaps you live near us. How then can we make a treaty with you?" 8 "We are your servants," they said to Joshua. But Joshua asked, "Who are you and where do you come from?" 9 They answered: "Your servants have come from a very distant country because of the fame of the Lord your God. For we have heard reports of him: all that he did in Egypt, 10 and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan-Sihon king of Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth. 11 And our elders and all those living in our country said to us, 'Take provisions for your journey; go and meet them and say to them, "We are your servants; make a treaty with us." ' 12 This bread of ours was warm when we packed it at home on the day we left to come to you. But now see how dry and moldy it is. 13 And these wineskins that we filled were new, but see how cracked they are. And our clothes and sandals are worn out by the very long journey."

A prospering business consultant was approached by a downsized executive. “Can you teach me how to make big money in consulting?” asked the executive.

“Absolutely,” said the consultant.

“How much will it cost me?”

“That’s my trade secret,” said the consultant, “I charge by the question.”

“How much do you charge?”

“One hundred dollars per question.”

“Can you prove to me that charging by the question works?”

“Sure, but you realize that will be your fifth question” (Bits and Pieces 4/24/97)

Joshua 9 begins with a transition to the west, more specifically to the kings in the hill country, in the western foothills, and along the entire coast of the Great Sea as far as Lebanon (the kings of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites). “Hill” and “coasts” made their debut in the book.

The Gibeonites knew they had to do something. The fact that all these kings banded together 同心合意 (v 2) could only mean the rest were desperate, demoralized and devastated. They came up with an unlikely plan that worked. The whole thing was unscripted and unexpected. First, a “delegation假充使者” (v 4) made a strong impression on Joshua, unsurprisingly that the word occurs for its only time in the Bible. It was a formal, impressive affair. The word “ruse假充” means trickery, not outright deception. The odd repetition in the passage is the unlikely word “old舊,” which occurs five times in the Bible, but four of which are listed in the chapter as old sacks 舊口袋and wine bottles 舊皮酒袋(v 4), old shoes舊鞋 and garments舊衣服 (v 5, KJV). The problem was not that of the Gibeonites, but the Israelites who never checked. They accepted the strangers’ words and gave them the benefit of the doubt. It was not that they never asked, which they did, but they never bothered to double check.

The Gibeonites/Hivites never told them who they were, which was what Joshua asked (v 8) but never examined or followed up. They sidestepped the question but answered the next one, nevertheless: where they were from (v 7). It didn’t occur to Joshua that their answer grew more extreme and more ridiculous by the minute - from “distant遠方” (v 6) to “very distant甚遠.” (v 9, 22). Unsurprisingly, Joshua dropped his guard and repeated “very distant” (v 22) but not “distant” (v 6). As they say, People hear what they want to hear.

My guess is that they were duped by the offer of servants in the new land. The Israelites were more than eager to make a treaty with the Hivites, who they were at war with (v 1) when they heard this phrase repetition: “your servants,” as many as four times (vv 8, 9, 11, 24). It was terse enough: We are your servants我們是你的僕人(v 8). Isn’t that ironical? The Israelites were servants in Egypt (Deut 15:15, 16:12, 24:18, 22), in the house of bondage (Deut 5:6, 6:12, 7:8, 8:14, 13:5, 10). A fellow countryman or Israelite, as a servant, has its limits. They can be servants or slaves only up to six years; then they had to be freed and compensated liberally (Deut 15:12-14), but there is nothing against foreign slaves and free labor. They seemed to have forgotten their dark history and were tempted by greed. The strangers also used the word “very” to maximum effect: very distant country (v 9) and very long journey (v 13). Much severe than the Hivites intent to deceive them was the Israelites self-inflicted deception. The Israelites’s decision was hurried and hastened by the Gibeonites three usage of the word “now” (vv 6, 11, 12).

14 The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord. 15 Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath. 16 Three days after they made the treaty with the Gibeonites, the Israelites heard that they were neighbors, living near them. (Josh 9:14-16)

In February 2011 I received a letter from the US government telling me that my brother and sister that I had petitioned for to come to the States over ten years ago can now enter the States, but I must return to the States and find local employment in order for the government to complete the immigration reunion. The only legal way I could return to Hong Kong was to be a missionary of an American organization.

I resigned from teaching in a Hong Kong seminary but a church in Hong Kong was willing to find a sponsor for me in the States on the condition that I return to the pastoral ministry in Hong Kong. Well, it did not work out after months of negotiation because my heart was set on teaching, not the pastorate.

Three months later an organization I had earlier lost contact with and dropped negotiating altogether came into the picture again. This time it was plain sailing, especially when they told me they have recruited 200 new Master’s students alone in Asia in one year. It is a missions organization that teaches intensive courses worldwide. I could do the minimum and travel four times a year, each trip lasting two to three weeks. The pay is fair for the work, and I am free to raise support or work for others part-time. Better still, they allow me to live in Hong Kong to be with my wife when there are no trips.

It is not easy to find out the will of God, but it’s impossible when you do not ask.

How long did they have to wait? Three days (v 16). Three outstanding people in the Bible – Joseph, Daniel, and Joshua, but Joshua had his human weaknesses too. Only in this chapter do we see the great difference between Joshua and Moses. In the past I have often appreciated Joshua more than Moses, but now I see things differently, thanks to my dear wife, who I once asked: “Would you prefer to be Joshua to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land or to be Moses to lead them out of Egypt? Without a doubt or pause, she said, “Moses.” I followed up, “why?” She replied, “Because he had wonderful walk and communion with God. He saw God face to face. The second time I asked her, she said, he preferred to take poeple out of pain.

Joshua’s fellowship with God was unlike his mentor Moses’ relationship with God, nothing near its quality. Moses spoke to God for simple and small matters (Ex 19:23, 17:4, 33:12, Num 11:2, 12:13, 16:15, 27:5, 15); it was a lifestyle to Him. In Joshua’s case, it was mostly the Lord who initiated speaking to Joshua (Josh 3:7, 4:15, 5:2, 5:9, 5:15, 6:2, 27, 7:10, 8:1, 18, 10:8, 11:6), with the only exception when Joshua complained to God after Achan sinned and when Joshua summoned the sun to stand still (Josh 7:7, 10:12). This time, when it mattered most, when things seemed unruffled and not urgent, Joshua and company failed to seek God or inquire Him (v 14).

The only knock against Joshua is that he was too bureaucratic, action-oriented, pragmatic, professional. The seriousness of the oath, made prominent by the text in the repetition of the word “swear” four times (vv 15, 18, 19, 20), but it was lost on Joshua. However, there was no backing out, no going against one’s word, especially when human lives were at stake. Anther foolish thing was the involvement of the princes, who showed up for the first time in the book, in decision-making. The nation was fast moving from God-appointed leadership to princes (vv 15, 18, 19, 21) and royalty, who made their presence and pressure felt, and the majority. It is not a matter of whether they asked or what questions he asked, but who he asked; in this case, God.

16 Three days after they made the treaty with the Gibeonites, the Israelites heard that they were neighbors, living near them. 17 So the Israelites set out and on the third day came to their cities: Gibeon, Kephirah, Beeroth and Kiriath Jearim. 18 But the Israelites did not attack them, because the leaders of the assembly had sworn an oath to them by the Lord, the God of Israel. The whole assembly grumbled against the leaders, 19 but all the leaders answered, "We have given them our oath by the Lord, the God of Israel, and we cannot touch them now. 20 This is what we will do to them: We will let them live, so that wrath will not fall on us for breaking the oath we swore to them." 21 They continued, "Let them live, but let them be woodcutters and water carriers for the entire community." So the leaders' promise to them was kept. 22 Then Joshua summoned the Gibeonites and said, "Why did you deceive us by saying, 'We live a long way from you,' while actually you live near us? 23 You are now under a curse: You will never cease to serve as woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God." 24 They answered Joshua, "Your servants were clearly told how the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you the whole land and to wipe out all its inhabitants from before you. So we feared for our lives because of you, and that is why we did this. 25 We are now in your hands. Do to us whatever seems good and right to you." 26 So Joshua saved them from the Israelites, and they did not kill them. 27 That day he made the Gibeonites woodcutters and water carriers for the community and for the altar of the Lord at the place the Lord would choose. And that is what they are to this day. (Josh 9:16-27)

Do you know the difference between a boss and a leader? It’s been said:
1. The boss drives people; the leader coaches them.
2. The boss depends upon authority; the leader on good will.
3. The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.
4. The boss says ‘I’; the leader says ‘we.’
5. The boss says ‘Get here on time’; the leader gets there ahead of time.
6. The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown.
7. The boss knows how it is done; the leader shows how.
8. The boss makes work a drudgery; the leader makes work a game.
9. The boss says ‘Go’; the leader says ‘Let’s go.’”
10. The boss justifies or lays blame - the leader takes responsibility.

Joshua established himself as a great leader when he intervened and interceded on behalf the Gibeonites, even when he failed in his role previously with his impatience, inattention and ignorance. Formerly he was part of the problem previously, later he was part of the solution. The Gibeonites distinguished themselves in their service to the Lord (v 27) before the exile and to the people after the exile.

The word “live” is more prominent in chapter 9 (vv 15, 20, 21) than other chapters of the book, mostly because the book is also a celebration of life Ex 15:24

Why were the Gibeonites allowed to live? Because they were never enemies to begin with. The Amorites, who will show up in the next chapter, were the true enemies (Josh 7:8, 10:13). The Gibeonites were never called that. Give them credit, they were the first non-Israelites to fear Israel, not only fear but “so fearful” (v 24) in Hebrew, the positive kind exhibited by foreigners such as Abimelech and his men in the days of Abraham that God honored (Gen 20:8).

The place and the people of Gibeon will hold a special place in Israel’s history in the future. Kings in their prime such as David (1 Chron 16:39-40) and Solomon (1 Kings 3:4) worshipped there because it was the most important high place (1 Kings 3:4).. The tabernacle of the Lord was at Gibeon (1 Chron 16:39-40). After the exile, the men of Gibeon returned with Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Neh 3:7). Of the 50,000 strong returnees (Neh 7:66) from exile, more than 800 (Neh 7:25, 29) were from Gibeon and her three sister cities (Josh 9:17)

Not all was lost to the Israelites. The Israelites learned a lesson the hard way, but merely at a fraction of the cost. In a weird way, they passed the test in a unique and unusual way. Tue, they grumbled (v 18), just like their fathers did (Ex 15:24, 16:2, 3, 7, 17:3, Num 14:2, 14:27, 29, 36, 16:11, 41, 17:5), but it was not constant grumbling, unlike their forefathers (Num 17:5). They grumbled but never repeatedly, recklessly, or resentfully. Unlike the past with Moses, the Israelites did not raise their voices to Moses and wept at night (Num 14:1), did not threaten to go back to Egypt (Num 14:4) or threaten to stone the leaders (Num 14:10).Also they were dissatisfied with the leaders (v 18), not Joshua.

Conclusion: A leader is not one who is free of mistakes, but one who learns from his mistakes. Do you trust in your own judgment? Are you a mediator? Do people trust in you? Can you handle failures, setbacks and obstacles? Be a good listener and a gracious learner too.