Matthew 1:1-16, JESUS THE JEW

Today I start a series of commentaries on the gospel of Matthew. I plan to write one post once per week on this topic for a while, to see how they are received.

When studying a gospel account of Jesus’ life, we should first consider the author’s intentions. Every gospel author sought to offer a particular and unique understanding of Jesus. Comparing Matthew’s opening line to the one in John’s gospel, for example, we find that John is mainly concerned with Jesus as God, while Matthew is more interested in Jesus the man. Specifically, Matthew sets out immediately to present Jesus as a Jewish man, the “son” of David, who is the “son” of Abraham. From a Jewish point of view, these are arguably two of the most important Jews who ever lived.

At the outset, then, we find Matthew writing as a Jew, to Jews, about a Jew.

He quickly places Abraham in Jesus’ genealogy to establish Jesus’ Jewish credentials. And with David, he goes further to establish Jesus as the right kind of Jew. It is Matthew’s contention, after all, that this Jew is the messiah, and all Biblically literate Jews were aware that the messiah would descend from David, as can be seen in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Later in Matthews’ Gospel he will record the Pharisees’ understanding of this, and he will show that a pair of blind men understand it, which indicates that it was known even by Jews who could not read the Hebrew scriptures.

Matthew’s Jewish approach is also seen in his use of the word “son,” which is a kind of metaphor meaning “descendant.” This metaphorical treatment is seen again in the genealogy to follow, where, because several kings are left out of Matthew’s list, some of the “fathers” are really grandfathers or great grandfathers. Matthew’s symbolic use of these nouns and his omission of certain generations from the lineage are common in the Jewish tradition. One finds it often in the Talmud, and it is likely there are also generations missing from the genealogies in the Torah’s book of Genesis. If not, then Abraham was born only 2 years after Noah died and his grandfather Nahor died before his great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather Noah. Also, if the Genesis genealogies did include every generation, then Moses’ grandfather would have already had 8,600 descendants before Moses died. This is very unlikely.

Rabbinic tradition holds that the scriptures speak on several levels. Especially when reading scriptures intended for a Jewish audience (most of the New Testament and all of the Hebrew Scriptures, or “Old Testament”), these levels of meaning should be kept in mind. The four most common are:

P’shat (“simple”) – the plain sense meaning.
Remez (“hint”) – the implied, or broader meaning.
D’rash (“sermon”) – the meaning gleaned in connection with other scripture.
Sod (“concealed”) – the mysterious, or divinely hidden meaning.

In presenting Jesus’ genealogy, we find Matthew revealing his Jewish roots with a generous use of remez. Note the “…father of…” pattern he establishes. A careful reading reveals three breaks with this pattern. Each break hints at something.

First we notice that he only mentions brothers twice (Judah’s brothers and Jeconiah’s brothers).

By emphasizing Judah “and his brothers,” he reminds Jewish readers that not all Jews are equal in God’s eyes simply because they are Jews. Remember what Judah and his brothers did to Joseph. As Paul wrote elsewhere, the Torah makes it clear that one’s bloodline is not enough to claim God’s favor. The “promise” given to Abraham must also be accepted, as Abraham did, with belief.

With his enigmatic reference to Jeconiah “and his brothers,” Matthew provides another hint intended to direct a Jewish reader’s thoughts to several important truths. Jeconiah is another name for Jehoiachin, the king taken into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar. Given the later events of Jesus’ life, this should remind Jewish readers that God can use human weakness and suffering to achieve His will, something even Jesus’ disciples failed to understand at first. It was also Matthew’s way of hinting that the messiah would not be an earthly king. This hint also answers one Jewish objection to the genealogy. In Jeremiah, the descendants of king Jeconiah (Jehoiachin) are cursed with rejection from “the throne of David.” How then can Jesus be a “son of David’s” and a “king”? Matthew directs us to the solution. Joseph’s ancestor Jeconiah belonged to the line of David through David’s son Solomon, while Mary’s connection with the throne of David was through Solomon’s brother Nathan, who was of course also in the Davidic line. This is one reason why the virgin birth is so important, since it means Mary was Jesus’ “natural” parent while Joseph was a “step-parent,” thus Jesus actual blood line was not through Jeconiah. (We will explore the virgin birth in an upcoming post.)

Note that both Nathan and Solomon were sons of Bathsheba, the famous adulteress. This brings us to a second remez Matthew embeds within his genealogy of Jesus. He violates the “…father of…” pattern five times to mention women.

Next week I will explore the implications of Matthew’s enigmatic references to women here in this first section of his gospel. In the meantime, I encourage you to identify the women Matthew mentions in the genealogy (one of whom is not listed by name), ponder their similarities, and consider what those similarities imply about Jesus and his Way.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:06 AM 4 comments  

THE OAK LEAVES, by Maureen Lang



This week's novel, The Oak Leaves, is about a child with a mental disability, something I've been thinking about a lot these days since the same scenario plays a major part in Winter Haven, the novel I am currently wrapping up.



Maureen Lang thought she’d write about her experience with Fragile X Syndrome (a genetic form of mental retardation) “someday.” After all, having a child who requires round-the-clock care doesn’t make for the upbeat, escapist reading most romance novelists prefer to write about. Still, Lang wanted to include Fragile X in a story because so few people have heard of the disorder that affects her 12-year-old son. So she put the tale in the middle of a love story.

The Victorian romance of Cosima Escott is interspersed between the pages of a glimpse into the contemporary life of Talie Ingram as her world is forever altered by her son’s diagnosis of Fragile X Syndrome.

If there’s one thing Maureen Lang would like readers to take away, it’s that God loves us all, even through the trials He allows into our lives. And one more thing…the next time you happen to see a family with a disabled child…send a smile their way!

From the back cover:

Talie Ingram has an ideal life: a successful, devoted husband; a beautiful one-year-old son; and another on the way. But her world is shattered when she discovers a shocking family secret in the nineteenth-century journal belonging to her ancestor Cosima Escott. Only in reading Cosima’s words can Talie make peace with the legacy she’s inherited and the one she’s passed on to her son.

Media Reviews:

From the very beginning, Lang, a romance novelist and author of Pieces of Silver, deftly navigates back and forth in history… It’s Cosima's lingering voice—her determination and faith—that inspires Talie to reconcile her son's diagnosis of fragile X syndrome (a disability Lang's own son suffers from) with her belief that God is merciful.
Publisher’s Weekly

A tender account of unconditional love and the deeper joy that results from overcoming the odds, Lang's latest is recommended for all collections and is an essential read for those with fragile X syndrome in their families.
Library Review

“…A lush and moving tapestry of love, fear and faith…spellbinding… Flawlessly plotted, filled with flesh-and-blood characters and a radiant faith…Very highly recommended.”
Christian Book Previews

Available at a store near you or order The Oak Leaves by Maureen Lang online.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 12:44 PM 2 comments  

THE CURE on DearReader.com


If you would like a free sample of my upcoming novel
The Cure you can get an email with a few pages of the opening chapter by signing up at Suzanne Beecher's wonderful site, Dear Reader. Just click on the link and fill in the blanks for your free chapter. Suzanne's site is a great way to get a "taste" before you buy. Enjoy!

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:47 AM 0 comments  

THE ELEVATOR, by Angela Hunt



My friend Angie Hunt has a brand new novel out. I haven't read it yet, but you can bet it's on my short list. Angie's last few novels included one about a gorilla who teaches a scientist about God, and a group of people who think they're on vacation but are really in hell. What can I say about a novelist with such a fertile imagination, except . . . Get caught in The Elevator!

Here's the back cover copy:

THREE WOMEN . . . ONE MAN . . . A GATHERING STORM

In the path of a devastating hurricane, three very different women find themselves trapped in the elevator of a high-rise office building. All three conceal shattering secrets —unaware that their secrets center on the same man.

The betrayed wife, eager to confront her faithless husband, with rage in her heart and a gun in her pocket . . .

The determined mistress, finally ready to tell her lover she wants marriage and a family . . .

The fugitive cleaning woman, tormented by the darkest secret of all . . .
As the storm rages ever closer, these three must unite to fight for their lives in the greatest test of courage — and faith —any woman could ever face.

Reviews of The Elevator:

“Prolific novelist Hunt knows how to hold a reader’s interest, and her latest yarn is no exception . . . Readers may decide to take the stairs after finishing this thriller.” --Publishers Weekly

"...a brilliantly plotted novel...the hurricane approaching the Florida coast is no match for the storm brewing inside the claustrophobic confines of a high-rise elevator. ...Be prepared to lose some sleep until you reach the last page!" Liz Curtis Higgs, best-selling author of Thorn in My Heart

"Hunt traps three women in an elevator during a hurricane, dangling them, and the reader, from a tangled web of interconnected deceit, failure, crime and fear. ...The Elevator...creates the perfect set-up to keep you turning pages long after the rest of the house has fallen asleep. ...Loved it." Lisa Samson, award-winning author of The Church Ladies, Songbird and Straight Up.


Comments about The Elevator from Angie Hunt:

Where’d the idea come from? Easy—the cover of Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. I had picked up that book for my book club to read, and I found myself staring at the cover, which featured the shoes of four different people against a background of sky. Then I naturally began to think about people trapped in a crucible . . . like an elevator. And though that’d be tense, what would make the situation worse? Maybe the arrival of a hurricane? Next thing I knew, I pretty much had the plot synopsis in my head. All that remained was working it out . . . and finding a way to keep a reader’s attention (a bit of a challenge when most of the book is set in an elevator!)

And now I’d like to offer you fifteen fun things to do the next time you’re caught in an elevator!

1. Grin at another passenger for a while, then announce, “I’m wearing new socks!”
2. Make race car noises when anyone gets on or off.
3. Whistle the first seven notes of “It’s a Small World” over and over and over . . .
4. Open your purse, peer inside, and ask, “Got enough air in there?”
5. Stand silent and motionless against the back, facing the wall, until everyone else gets off.
6. Greet everyone getting on with a warm handshake and ask them to call you Queen of the Universe.
7. Meow.
8. Start a sing-along. “Kum by yah” works well.
9. Say “DING!” at each floor.
10. Listen to the elevator walls with a stethoscope.
11. Push the buttons and pretend they give you a shock. Smile, and then go back for more.
12. Pretend you are a flight attendant and review emergency procedures and exits with the passengers (you’ll know all about these after reading The Elevator!).
13. Take pictures of everyone aboard with your cell phone—even if it doesn’t have a camera.
14. When there’s only one other person aboard, tap them on the shoulder and pretend it wasn’t you.
15. Hold a copy of The Elevator, read it, and keep moaning, “Why didn’t I take the escalator?”

The Elevator is appearing now in bookstores around the country. For more information, visit http://www.blogger.com/www.angelahuntbooks.com. Or click

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:33 AM 0 comments  

A Juneteenth Kind of Karma

(Spoiler alert—if you have not read River Rising but you think you might one day, you may want to skip this post, because I’m going to give away a big part of the story.)

A while ago I promised to post more background on River Rising. One thing some readers may not know—even some African Americans may not know this, sadly—is that the idea of a “lost plantation” which survived after the end of the Civil War is based on fact. Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1965 and Johnson surrendered to Sherman on April 26 of that same year. While some isolated Confederates continued to resist, these two dates represent the official end of the War Between the States. Yet slaves in Texas kept on working for their “masters” until June 19, more than a month and a half after the Confederacy had fallen, and fully two and one half years after Abraham Lincoln had set them legally free with his emancipation proclamation.

Even though their Texan “masters” were fully aware of the facts, the slaves received no word of their freedom until the day Union soldiers arrived in Galveston with the good news. From then to now, African Americans in Texas have celebrated that good news with a holiday called “Juneteenth,” which is coming up in just five days, on June 19th. It is widely believed by historians that this deception was perpetrated by plantation owners in the hope of gleaning one last harvest. All I did in River Rising, was envision that one last harvest turned into another, and another, for fifty-two seasons in a profoundly isolated place.

Thinking about Juneteenth made me consider what it means to be free, and yet not know.

It seems to me that one of Jesus’ most wonderful gifts to us is the ability to live life in the moment. This is a goal of every world religion. Somehow we can sense that living in the moment is a pathway to contentment. Buddhists and Hindus in particular have a strong focus on this goal, which commonly morphs itself into “New Age” thinking.

One of the main enemies of contentment is worry about the future (which I discussed last week in “Fearful Faith”). Another enemy is guilt about the past. Unlike the “Be Here Now” mindset of the New Age movement, Christians have no need to concern themselves with guilt, or reaping what we have sown, or “karma.” Christianity agrees with other religions that the woes of life do have a cause, and we do indeed deserve the trials we get, but the good news is that Jesus died to put an end to payback. On the earthly plane, our actions have results we often cannot avoid. An unfriendly person will not have many friends, for example. But in cosmic terms, in terms of our relationship with God, Jesus cut the karmic cycle once and for all. Because of his sacrifice in our place, because all has been forgiven through Jesus for those who will believe they are forgiven through Jesus, guilt about past actions is unnecessary.

In spite of this, some Christians choose to stay in bondage. Some act as if they think Jesus died to save them from their sins, then rose again to hold those sins against them. Others are consumed with worry, even though they know their Father loves them and can be trusted with the future.

Christians can behave like slaves who have been freed, but do not know.


So, Christian, how can you break the bondage of past and future? The Bible’s answer is you can’t. But Jesus can. In fact, he already did. All you have to do, like those slaves who were not really slaves in Texas, is trust the Good News you have already heard. If you’re a Christian yet you feel the weight of a guilty past or a fearful future, I hope you’ll meditate upon the fact that guilt and worry are acts of faith in something other than the Lord. They act out the fact that you have chosen to believe you cannot trust your Savior. Isn’t it time you acted out what you really believe? “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:18-26) But sometimes “doing is not doing” as the Buddhists say. You don’t have to overcome your past. You don’t have to be brave about the future. Let Jesus do that for you. Remember the Good News you once heard and believed, trust your past and future to the Lord, and act like the free person you already are!

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:20 AM 2 comments  

RETURN TO ME, by Robin Lee Hatcher

Here's a blurb about a new novel written by Robin Lee Hatcher, along with a link to "Chapter-A-Week, where you can go and read the opening chapter of the book to see if it's your cup of tea. I haven't read the book, but I know Robin. She's a brilliant woman, and deeply committed to good fiction. I think I'll try doing this every week, to see if anybody finds it interesting or helpful....

RETURN TO ME
by Robin Lee Hatcher
Zondervan, June 2007

Discouraged and destitute, her dreams shattered, Roxy Burke is going home. But what lies beyond the front door? Rejection … or a brighter future?


When Roxy Burke left home for Nashville, she swore she wouldn't come back until she was a star. But it's desperation that drives this prodigal back to her family, and no one is prepared for what happens next.


Roxy has crashed and burned. She's squandered an inheritance, lived a wild life, and wasted her talent. Desperate and ashamed, she now must return to her father and sister, neither of whom she's talked to in seven years. Roxy's father welcomes his daughter with love and tenderness. But his easy acceptance is hard on Roxy's sister. After years of being the dutiful daughter, Elena feels resentment and anger toward her wayward sister. Even more problematic is the reaction of Roxy's former boyfriend. Once a rebel, Wyatt has given his life to Christ and plans to enter the ministry. He and Elena are engaged, but Roxy's return raises questions that could mean the end of Elena's perfect future. The Burke family faces the return of the prodigal and must reach out for healing. Will they each be able to accept God's grace?

Read a chapter of this new title at ChapterAWeek and order it online at Amazon.com.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:29 AM 0 comments  

Box? What Box?

Lately I’ve been excited to see lots of people finding ways to love their neighbor in powerfully unique ways. For example, this week my wife, The Lovely Sue, told me about a coworker, Mark, who goes to Saddleback Church—you know, the one Rick Warren started. Mark is involved in a program over there called P.E.A.C.E. That stands for: P – Plant new churches. E – Equip servant leaders. A – Assist the poor. C – Care for the sick. E – Educate the next generation. Their focus right now is Rwanda. Sounds like standard missions stuff, right? But they’ve taken it way outside the box with one simple idea.

Every time they send a small group on a missions trip, that group is tasked with (among other things) identifying a serious, practical need among the people that they meet. It might be a failed water well. It might be a collapsed foot bridge. The team comes home to southern California, tells the church about it, and then another team is sent fully prepared with a plan, hand-picked skills and all the resources needed to drill a new well or build a new bridge. And here’s the brilliant part: while they’re drilling wells and building bridges, they’re also looking for the next need, which they return to tell the folks in California about, who then equip another team to go and do the same, in a self-perpetuating way that goes on and on and on solving one desperate problem after another. With this simple idea these people can now deal with a specific well that needs drilling in a specific tiny village in the middle of nowhere on the far side of the world.

To imagine what it must be like for the poor of Rwanda when these Californians arrive, visualize a mechanic knocking on your door and saying, “Hi, I’m Sven from Norway, and I heard about your car’s dead battery so I thought I’d fly over to replace it for you.”

Except we’re not talking dead batteries. We’re talking life and death problems…solved. And these Christians just keep showing up with solutions. All it took was one person to connect a church with Saddleback’s city-sized resources to one simple, imminently practical idea. And this is just one example of people ignoring the box to make a real difference. You want another?

Chances are you’ve never heard of the Digital Bible Society, but they are unsung heroes who have quietly made it possible for anyone in China to receive a Bible. Four Bibles, actually. Plus 175 commentaries, dictionaries and other study tools. In traditional Chinese, or simplified Chinese. With interlinked video dramatizing key Biblical stories. Absolutely free. But that's not the amazing part.

In years past, D.B.S. arranged for these Bibles to be smuggled into China by missionaries. The risk involved becomes clear when you realize that those versions on CD came complete with a special program that deleted all traces from the user’s computer every time the software was shut down. With the advent of the Internet in China, and a slightly less oppressive attitude toward Christianity (at least until the Beijing Summer Olympics are over in 2008) D.B.S. is now focused on downloads straight from the Web. But here’s the fascinating thing: all of this was done on a volunteer basis by a handful of middle class people, programmers mainly, who live near Houston, Texas, had no connections with Chinese missions work before founding this ministry (or with any other missions work except through their own churches) and not one of these people is Asian, or speaks one word of Chinese!
When one of their contacts in China realized to his astonishment who had created and delivered the Bibles and theological library now spreading throughout his country he said, “I know some fools that God is using!”

And in a further demonstration of their foolish refusal to admit there is a box, D.B.S. is now working on the same thing in Russian and Arabic.

Want another example? Check out this story in the current edition of Smithsonian magazine. Jimmy Carter is fighting malaria over in Ethiopia. Of course it’s not exactly news that the President Carter is a social action activist and advocate for the poor. And since malaria is spread mainly by mosquito bites, it’s not exactly revolutionary that he’s passing out mosquito nets. What caught my attention is the nets themselves. Some unsung hero has figured out a way to weave insecticide right into the fabric, so the deadly mosquitoes are not merely kept away from sleeping Africans, they are killed on contact with the nets! What an ingenious idea, far outside the box, and how marvelous that Jimmy Carter is over there, using it to save lives.

Consider another little idea I saw in a recent New York Times article about an exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt. Unfortunately, you have to have a NYT subscription to view a photo in their archives, but here’s the idea in a nutshell: Every day across the undeveloped world women and children carry water home from streams and ponds. Water weighs more than eight pounds per gallon, and it shifts around when you carry it, making this a grueling task. It is well known that people who carry water containers balanced on their heads (the ancient, traditional way) end up with severe neck and back problems. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a better way? Imagine a plastic drum, filled with 20 gallons of water. That’s well over 160 pounds. Now imagine a hole down through the center of the drum, like a donut. Then flip the drum over on its side in your imagination, slip a rope through the hole in the center, give the rope several feet of slack, loop it around and tie off the ends. Now step into the looped rope, pick it up and start pulling. What do you have? 20 gallons of water rolling along behind you, as easy as pie! Even a child of nine or ten can roll that much water home. This, dear readers, is a flat-out miracle for people who have carried water the same way for a thousand years or more. It is so far out of the box as to leave the box completely behind. Yet it is such a simple idea.

Consider what you know. Your particular set of skills and information are a unique combination, unmatched by anybody, anywhere. Somewhere amongst all the things you’ve learned in life is a solution to a problem that can make life better for a lot of people.

All you have to do—and it’s not easy—is step back from the way you’ve always seen what you know, and see it from the point of view of someone in dire need. As with all difficulties, the way to start is, pray. Ask the Lord to show you how to look at what you know from a whole new paradigm today. Ask Him to show you how to love your neighbor with all of your mind, and see what wonders will occur.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:37 AM 6 comments  

Fearful Faith

A few weeks ago, an old friend asked me if Jesus ever worried. It’s a reasonable question. After all, on the Mount of Olives the night before his crucifixion we read that Jesus was deeply “distressed and troubled,” even to the point of “anguish.” It sounds like Jesus might have been worried, to put it mildly. But how can this be when we are commanded to “be anxious about nothing”?

I used my handy-dandy Bible software to look into these terms, and found out that the word “troubled” in the original Greek description of Jesus’ frame of mind literally means “heavy,” but is never used that literally in the Greek New Testament. Instead, wherever it is found it is a metaphor we still use today. It means a “heavy heart.” So Jesus was sad as he waited on the Mount of Olives. But he was more than sad. He also felt “distress,” a Greek word I found in only three other places: once to describe a crowd’s reaction to Jesus (they were overwhelmed with “wonder" or awe), and twice in the story of Jesus’ resurrection when three women arrived at the empty tomb, saw an angel there, and were “afraid.” So this last Greek word definitely means Jesus felt some form of fear, but was it worry, awe, or outright terror?

I considered worry. I imagined they were coming to nail me to a cross. I might describe the emotion of that moment with many words, but “worry” did not come to mind. Terrified, horrified, scared to death? Absolutely. But worried? Surely that’s like saying, “I was worried when the lion chased me through the zoo.” The depth of the understatement gives a lie to the assertion. Also, I remembered Jesus himself commanded us not to worry in his Sermon on the Mount. Since he forbade worry or anxiety, I know worry is a sin. And since Jesus never sinned, I know Jesus never worried.

Was it awe on Jesus’ mind as soldiers massed across the valley to come and take him to the cross? Again I wondered if any right thinking person would feel an emotion like awe at the prospect of the cross. Surely not. Surely that would be as crazy as a man who stares at a Ferrari in the instant that it runs him down and thinks, "What an awesome car." The Bible says Jesus felt “anguish,” a Greek word which is the source of our word “agony” in English. So whatever his predominant emotion that night, we know it was not “wonderful” in any sense. On the contrary, it was very painful, and wonder does not cause us pain. Finally, I asked myself what, if anything, could cause a sense of awe in the second person of the Trinity. Bear in mind that Jesus is well accustomed to seeing Almighty God, since they are one. When I considered that, it became obvious that nothing on the earth could fill Jesus Christ with awe.

Having dispensed with the possibilities of awe and worry on the Mount of Olives, I was left with terror, plain and simple. Waiting for Judas and the soldiers, Jesus was quite simply terrified.

This should cause no one surprise. Terror is a God-given survival mechanism, a response to a fallen world where Roman crosses and man-eating lions can exist, a blessing which can add speed to fleeing feet and strength to fighting hands. Because it is God-given, it is fitting to assume Jesus felt it when appropriate. Any sane man, sinner or not, would be terrified of the cross, and Jesus was eminently sane. Indeed, in his flesh Jesus was like us in every way except he never sinned.

So by divine example it seems a healthy fear of terrifying situations is allowed, even though we must not worry. Yet worry is so much like fear. How can I know the difference?

Fortunately, Jesus gave a simple test for this. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." I used to read this in terms of today. Today I must not worry about tomorrow. But then I looked at what he says about tomorrow: “Tomorrow will worry about itself.” In other words, if I have entered into tomorrow, if I face a trial this very moment, fear may be appropriate. But if it is still today, then the command is clear: I must not worry, because it is a sin.

What if I know “for a fact” that something bad is going to happen tomorrow? Is it still sinful worry to fear it in advance?

Yes, it is still sin. First of all, I am not God, so unlike Jesus I know nothing “for a fact” about the future. Secondly, I have Jesus' own teaching against worry, mentioned above, which contains no exceptions. Thirdly, I have his example. Jesus showed no sign of fear earlier that night at the last supper before his Passion. He was sad for Judas, but far from worried. On the contrary, he told his disciples he had been looking forward to their dinner together. Imagine, knowing for a fact you would be hanging on a cross in about 12 hours, yet looking forward to your next and final meal! Given the fact that Jesus, unlike us, had certain knowledge of the terror coming with tomorrow, why was he not yet afraid? He refused to be afraid because the time for tomorrow’s troubles had not yet come.

The message here is clear. If I truly trust the Lord, I will live only in this moment, now. Anxious thoughts about tomorrow mean I do not trust God’s future plans for me. Worry equals faithlessness. That’s why Jesus abhors worry, and absolutely forbids it.

If Jesus, knowing the cross was coming, had worried about it in advance, he would have sinned. That would have made the Passion meaningless because his perfection—in part because he never worried—made his sacrifice for me sufficient. If he had sinned by worrying, the penalty he paid would not have been enough to make up for anybody’s sins except his own. But the power of the cross depends not only on Christ’s sinlessness. It also depends upon the terror Jesus felt in the moments just before the Passion. If he had not been so fearful that his sweat fell like blood, then that too would have made the Passion meaningless. Terror causes agony, and the cosmic justice at the heart of the cross required a perfect man who paid the full cost for our fallen world, not a Teflon god who was immune to some part of its suffering.
What does this mean for Christian life today? Contrary to popular belief, fear at the proper time is not a sign of faithlessness.

I need not condemn myself for fearfulness when terror is the most natural response to the moment I am in. Indeed, from now on I will try to take some comfort from the fact that fear is an opportunity to honor God. Always, always, always I will strive to let tomorrow worry about itself. But when tomorrow is upon me, and I am quite rightly afraid because of what is happening right here and now, I will try to give my fear to God as a holy offering, by praying just as my Lord Jesus did…

“My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (Matt 26:42)

One way or another, something will control us when we face life’s desperate moments. Fear can drive us to the point of godless panic, yet note how calmly Jesus rose up after he had prayed, “Your will be done.” Never again throughout the Passion did he seem afraid. Knowing the pain would be terrible upon the cross, still Jesus stood calmly before Caiaphas and Pilot, because he also knew his Father was in control. He had aligned his actions with God’s will in the midst of his worst fears, and when God’s will is truly the desire of a believer’s heart, terror melts away.

Are you afraid? Offer your fears to God as Jesus did. You can be sure our Father will grant the courage you need to meet the trial at hand. Sometimes God gives swift feet to flee the hungry lion, but “Thy will be done” is no guarantee of a painless future. Sometimes God expects us to stand still on the mountainside and let the soldiers come. Either way, by placing ourselves confidently in the Lord’s hands, we turn fear into a holy thing, an offering of faith to God, who can be trusted with this moment, and with tomorrow. Then, even in the worst of circumstances we can boldly say with Paul, “If God is for us, who [or what] can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:31 AM 2 comments  

The Cult of Personality

In a recent discussion with several Christians, I heard a sense of personal betrayal due to the number of moral failings by men who claim to be evangelical leaders. One such man was mentioned in particular, a very high profile case. The feeling was a trust had been broken. Some felt violated. All were very sad. The problem, it was agreed, has something to do with a disturbing trend in evangelical Christianity today, the headlong rush to agree a Christian leader is “anointed,” to form a cult of personality around these high profile preachers.

In the big picture, I certainly agree that the cult of personality within the church is wrong. But it’s no good blaming the people on the TV set. After all, we are the ones who put those people way up on those pedestals. The problem lies in us.

Here are two mistakes we Christians make when we put men up so high:

Unhealthy allegiances. When it comes to trust, there are only three levels, which I will call “divine, human and inanimate.” Inanimate trust would be the belief that a chair will support our weight, for example, and does not apply here. Regarding divine trust, the Bible says we can learn from great teachers and prophets, but spiritually our trust should be in God alone. And common sense suggests that healthy human trust can exist only when we have an actual relationship on a personal level. Regardless of how much we feel we have in common with a religious leader or how wise they seem to be, to feel a bond of trust with a stranger on the television is unhealthy, like the poor souls who form obsessive attachments to movie stars. This means the only legitimate forms of trust that can be broken when a Christian leader falls are limited to God first, and then the leader’s family, friends, and (in many cases) the direct members of his ministry. If there is no personal relationship, there is no real trust to betray. Yet the cult of personality often leads to talk among Christians about “forgiving” Christian leaders whom we do not even know, and who have done absolutely nothing to us personally. Since these men are total strangers and not our pastors, family members or friends, since they have violated no personal trust with us, the “forgiveness” we discuss must mean forgiveness on the spiritual, or divine trust level. This reveals two flaws in our thinking. First, we are not God, and “who can forgive sins [against God] but God alone?” Second, no fellow sinner could betray our spiritual trust if our spiritual trust is truly in God alone, so unless we have made little gods out of these men, what is there for us to forgive?

Doing God’s job. We also should not let the “cult of personality” trick us into pretending we have a right to hold Christian leaders to a higher spiritual standard. Paul makes it clear that Christian leaders must meet certain strict criteria, but they are all earthly, in the sense that they can be seen or heard and verified. True, James warned that a higher standard is required of teachers, but what he actually wrote is they “will be judged more strictly,” and only God can judge the sins within a human heart, because only God has the moral right to do so in a world where “all have sinned and fallen short.” Yet when these leaders fall, we so often dig a spiritual pit at least as deep as the pedestal was high. For example, the Christian leader my friends were discussing had already confessed and repented as the Bible says he should, and as far as we know his actions since then have given no reason to doubt his sincerity. Nevertheless, many Christians continue to speak about the man as if his remorse and his desire for spiritual healing are insincere. How could we know that? Some say they know it because he only confessed and repented after he was caught, as if God will not accept a Christian leader’s repentance if it comes along that way. But such thinking ignores the David/Bathsheba story (among others), since repentance after being caught in sin is just what David did. Of course David's remorse and plea for forgiveness was accepted by the Lord. Indeed, it’s very common for God to begin the confession-repentance-reconciliation process by first “catching” believers in their sins. (Who among us has not experienced this personally?) So it’s unwise to let the cult of personality tempt us to skepticism about a fallen leader’s remorse, as if they are a special case, as if we have a right to demand some added proof before God will take them back. The Lord will indeed judge them more strictly (God might take a son’s life as he did with David, for example) and we must certainly require (with sadness) that they step down from their ministry, but we create our own danger from the cult of personality when we presume to make judgments about the condition of their hearts before the Lord.

It is important to note that one of Paul’s requirements for an “overseer” is that “he must have a good reputation with outsiders.” Yet evangelical Christianity has become a laughingstock among unbelievers in America today. This is partly because we have followed human leaders' agendas instead of remaining focused on the Gospel. It has happened before, and God’s solution is always the same, as Samuel once said to the whole house of Israel. "If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines." (1 Samuel 7:3, NIV)

Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:12 AM 3 comments