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The Fig Tree Withers August 3, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 21:18-22.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus returns to Jerusalem. He is very hungry and sees a fig tree – yet it is diseased and fruitless. He curses it – and it immediately dies.

His disciples marvel at this turn of events; He states that just as He has displayed His power by causing that fig tree to die, they can display His power – if they trust in the revelation of God and petition Him.

Thoughts: Here, Jesus curses a fruitless fig tree. Ryle offers some insights on this point:

Finally, is not everyone who claims to be a Christian but does not bear fruit, in awful danger of becoming a withered fig-tree? There can be no doubt of it. So long as a person is content with the mere leaves of religion – with a reputation for being alive while he is dead, and a form of godliness without the power – so long his soul is in great peril.

When I read passages that condemn those who do not bear fruit, I often think of other believers, wondering if they are actually withered fig-trees. Yet I fail to assess my walk with God; indeed, I merely assume that I am bearing fruit. Thus, this passage challenges me with this simple question: am I bearing fruit? Am I bringing glory to Him through my words and deeds? I believe that I am bearing fruit, but I could be wrong on that point. One thought is that as long as I continue to wrestle with the weaknesses in my walk with Him (e.g. failing to love other believers who may have offended me), He can enable me to bear fruit through those struggles. Indeed, I believe that my willingness to wrestle with those weaknesses reflects my dependence on Him – which is pleasing in His sight.

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The Healing of a Boy with a Demon June 9, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 17:14-23.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus and His disciples encounter a man in a posture of reverence. He asks Jesus to have compassion on his son, as his son has life-threatening grand mal seizures. Moreover, His disciples have not healed his son – indicating that they have failed to appropriate the power that He has given them.

Jesus responds by:

  • bemoaning the failure of all of His contemporaries
  • casting out the source of the boy’s grand mal seizures – a demon
  • asserting that the faith of His disciples needs to grow.

He also predicts that:

  • He will be betrayed to the Jewish leaders – who will kill Him
  • God the Father will raise Him from the dead after three days.

His disciples are despondent, as they fail to comprehend these predictions.

Thoughts: Here, we see that the nine disciples who did not witness the Transfiguration failed to cast out a seizure-inducing demon. Ryle offers some thoughts on this point:

Second, we see in these verses a striking example of the weakening effect of unbelief. The disciples anxiously inquired of our Lord, when they saw the devil yielding to his power, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” (verse 19) They received an answer full of the deepest instruction: “Because you have so little faith” (verse 20). Did they want to know the secret of their own sad failure in the hour of need? It was lack of faith.

When I first read through this passage, I found fault with these nine disciples. Shouldn’t they have been empowered by Jesus’ repeated demonstrations of His divine power? Why did they fail to grasp the power that He had given them? After pondering this point, I realized that even Peter, who had witnessed the Transfiguration, would later deny Him three times. Clearly, the timing was not right for God to display His power through these nine disciples. One potential modern-day application of this point is that patience is a salient feature of the Christian life. We often bewail our weaknesses and lament our inability to serve as flawless vessels of God’s grace. Yet this passage reminds us that in this life, we will not be completely sanctified; we will fall short of perfection. Can we trust in God to perfect us in His timing? Can we hew to a long-term view of our walk with Him?

The Faith of the Canaanite Woman May 13, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 15:21-28.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus leaves Galilee and goes to the southern mountains of Lebanon. A woman from the area of Syria and Lebanon comes to Him and declares that He:

  • has supernatural power
  • is the Messiah.

Since her little child has been demonized, she asks Him for mercy.

Initially, He does not grant her request. Yet she is persistent, asserting that even though He is a Jew and she is a Gentile, He can heal her little child.

He finally proclaims the greatness of her faith, and He heals her little child.

Thoughts: Here, we see that Jesus initially responds to the Canaanite woman’s request with two (apparently) dismissive comments. Ryle offers some insights on this point:

The saying which then came from our Lord’s lips sounded discouraging: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (verse 24)…The second saying of our Lord was even less encouraging than the first: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (verse 26).

When I read through this passage, I was confused by these two comments. In particular, what was the purpose of His comment in verse 24? If His intention was to cause the Canaanite woman to display the depth of her faith in Him, did she hear that comment? Was He only addressing the disciples in verse 24? Did He also divinely ordain this encounter as a vehicle for increasing the disciples’ faith in Him? In any case, this passage can challenge us as believers: what is the extent of our faith in Him? Can we truly look beyond short-term losses and focus on long-term gains – namely, our rewards in heaven? Persistence in the face of setbacks is counter-intuitive; thus, we need the assistance of the Holy Spirit to overcome our instincts. Indeed, we must painfully rest in Him as we encounter setbacks in our walk with Him.

A Dead Girl and a Sick Woman March 2, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 9:18-26.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus performs two miracles:

  • raising the daughter of Jairus – the chief elder of the synagogue in Capernaum – from the dead
  • healing a woman who has an issue of blood.

In both instances, He responds to a display of faith in Him.

Thoughts: Here, we see that Jesus raises a young girl from the dead. I still struggle to connect with the miracles that Jesus performs in the Gospels. In particular, while I have experienced God at work in my life, I have never observed Him resurrecting anyone from the dead. Thus, I continue to require His grace to maintain my faith in Him as the actual author of such miracles in the Gospels. My sinful nature remains skeptical of this fact; without His assistance, I would swiftly reject this account as a mere fable.

On a somewhat-related note, I am curious as to whether any readers have had a near-death experience; if so, how did God work in that situation?

Jesus Calms the Storm February 4, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 8:23-27.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus and His disciples encounter a storm on the Sea of Galilee. The strength of that storm causes the disciples to panic and they beseech Jesus to save them. In response, He:

  • rebukes them for their lack of confidence in Him
  • calms the storm.

The latter action overwhelms the disciples.

Thoughts: Here, a storm reveals the disciples’ lack of confidence in Jesus. While we know that they sinned in this instance – given Jesus’ rebuke – I can empathize with them. Indeed, I am convinced that I would have shared their reaction to the storm had I been in that boat with them. In particular, I believe that they were exercising their natural instinct (possibly resulting from evolution) to survive. Their response highlights the central conflict in the life of a believer between the:

  • sinful nature (with its instincts)
  • spiritual nature (i.e. the Holy Spirit).

When we are confronted by trials and temptations, our spiritual nature displays confidence in God – while our sinful nature doubts Him. How can we display more confidence in Him in these instances? I believe that He calls us to “actively” trust in Him, though I struggle to respond in concrete ways.

The Faith of the Centurion January 28, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 8:5-13.

Summary: In this passage, a centurion approaches Jesus in Capernaum and requests Him to heal his paralyzed servant. Jesus declares that He will go to the centurion’s house and heal his servant. The centurion then displays the depth of his faith in Him by asserting that He can heal his servant at that moment – as He is sovereign over all disabilities. Jesus responds by:

  • drawing a sharp contrast between the saving faith of the Gentiles and the worthless faith of the Jews
  • healing his servant at that moment – thereby displaying His sovereignty over all disabilities.

Thoughts: Here, a centurion acknowledges the sovereignty of Jesus over all disabilities. This caused me to consider the depth of my trust in traditional and modern medicine. Many believers – either knowingly or unknowingly – assume that the answers to important questions of health and wellness lie in our corpus of medical knowledge. Yet one can make the following inference from this passage: Christ is also sovereign over our corpus of medical knowledge. How can we properly acknowledge the sovereignty of Christ in this regard? Perhaps we can:

  • continue to give thanks to Him for the advances in our medical knowledge that have occurred throughout human history, as He is the source of all knowledge
  • view any insurmountable barriers in this realm as signposts pointing to His kingdom – which will be free of all diseases and infirmities when it is fully realized.

The Man with Leprosy January 27, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 8:1-4.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus departs from the mountain where He has just preached the Sermon on the Mount. A leper approaches Him and declares His faith in Jesus’ ability to heal him. Jesus responds by healing him; He then tells him to obey the command in Leviticus 14:1-4.

Thoughts: My small group recently discussed the Transfiguration of Jesus. Each of us struggled to connect with the events in that passage, especially since we were not present on that dramatic occasion. Now I also struggle to connect with the events in this passage; while I believe that Jesus did heal this leper, I think that belief is closer to mere intellectual assent than a conviction. To help us overcome this stumbling block, one of the other group members posed the following queries:

  • How can we open our eyes to God and His work in today’s world?
  • Do we believe that He continues to perform miracles in our lives?
  • What constitutes a miracle in God’s eyes?

Indeed, if we believe that God does not perform miracles today, then we essentially attempt to place limits on His power and authority. We need the discerning – and humbling – power of the Holy Spirit to overcome our biases in this regard.

A Tree and Its Fruit January 19, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 7:15-23.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus warns His disciples to be wary of their religious leaders, since they are deceptively dangerous – like a ravenous wolf dressed in a sheepskin. Indeed, they promote sinfulness in their teachings, revealing their sinfulness – like a thornbush that naturally produces thorns.

He then asserts that those who merely offer a verbal profession of faith in Him have not been saved; if they had been saved, their deeds would have revealed their genuine faith in Him.

Thoughts: This passage caused me to ponder the following question: how can we tell if we are bearing good fruit? Our attempts to answer this question are hampered by the following realities:

  • only God can answer that question with complete certainty
  • the standard that He applies in assessing the quality of our fruit may not constitute a quantifiable metric.

For example, consider a long-term missionary living among a tribe of unbelievers who passes away without converting even one member of that tribe. Has this missionary necessarily borne less fruit than an evangelist whose sermons cause many to dedicate their lives to Christ? This – admittedly extreme – example leads me to believe that in terms of bearing fruit, a believer must begin by assessing their personal relationship with God. If we sense that we are becoming more like Christ – as revealed by our thoughts, words and deeds – then that could be a sign that we are bearing good fruit. We must also be attuned to any clues that God provides in that regard; for example, He may use other believers to evaluate our fruit.

Strolling Through the Book of Lamentations September 29, 2017

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I recently strolled through the Book of Lamentations with the aid of a commentary by Calvin.

This post includes a summary of Lamentations and my thoughts on that challenging – yet important – book.

Summary: In this book, the author presents a plethora of laments concerning:

  • the decline and fall of Jerusalem and Judah
  • the desecration – and destruction – of the temple by the Babylonian soldiers
  • the executions of nobles
  • random killings by the Babylonian soldiers
  • widespread famine
  • the suffering of infants – and their deaths at the hands of their mothers
  • widespread rapes
  • child slavery
  • the exile of his compatriots
  • the glee of the enemies of Judah in response to her downfall
  • the insults of those who oppose his ministry.

Yet he asserts that these calamities are the natural result of the sinfulness of his compatriots, as God cannot ignore their evil deeds.

Thus, he exhorts his compatriots to:

  • reflect on their evil deeds
  • repent of them
  • beseech God to forgive them of their sins.

It should be noted that he wrestles with God throughout this book. On the one hand, he:

  • struggles with the fact that God has brought these calamities on His people
  • wonders if these calamities constitute an overreaction on His part
  • wonders if He has permanently abandoned His people.

On the other hand, he:

  • declares his confidence in God – given His permanence
  • entreats Him to punish the enemies of His people – especially the Edomites
  • entreats Him to punish those who oppose his ministry
  • entreats Him to restore His people to His favor.

Thoughts: This book contains many haunting phrases, including, “The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed festivals” and “He made ramparts and walls lament; together they wasted away.” Perhaps one could argue that anthropomorphisms are a valuable tool in the hands of a poet. On a related note, I wish that I could read Hebrew – as that would have given me an even greater appreciation of this book. For example, each of the first four chapters constitutes an acrostic poem in Hebrew; the beauty of that structure is lost in translation, though. Clearly, it is praiseworthy when the Holy Spirit works through His servants to leverage the power of language for His glory.

In verse 10 of chapter 3, the author compares God to a bear and a lion. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

Harsh is the complaint when Jeremiah compares God to a bear and to a lion. I have already said that the apprehension of God’s wrath terrified the faithful of that day so much that they could not sufficiently express the depth of their calamity. We must also bear in mind that they were expressing themselves in a human way. They did not always curb their feelings but said some things that they deserved to be rebuked for.

Calvin’s thoughts raise the following question: when we, as believers, wrestle with God in our prayers, what constitutes appropriate dialogue in that context? Clearly God has given us the ability to think and reason; how much latitude, then, does He allow us in terms of questioning His will? He knows that we are not omniscient and that we lack His ability to see the future; does He account for those limitations when evaluating our difficulties in comprehending His will? How can we properly struggle with God in our prayers while maintaining our confidence and trust in Him? One must wonder if God disapproved of at least some parts of this book…

This book is replete with jarring images of the pain and suffering that pervaded Judah after the Babylonian invasion. While these images make for unpleasant reading, one thought is that they provide us with a better understanding of the infinite holiness of God. While we cannot measure the extent of His holiness, we can learn more about it in light of His response to sin. Indeed, it is evident that the people of Judah had committed a plethora of sins before the Babylonian invasion. Each of these sins had offended His infinite holiness – compelling Him to respond in a manner that defended His holiness. As modern-day readers, this book should spur us to ponder the extent of His holiness; moreover, in light of His permanence, we should consider whether our words and deeds properly reflect His holiness.

Overall I found this book to be a challenging read, as it contains seemingly contradictory messages. On the one hand, the author expresses his confidence in God in verses 21-24 of chapter 3:

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.

On the other hand, the author seems to express doubts concerning God and His faithfulness in verses 19-22 of chapter 5:

You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long? Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.

Perhaps these seemingly contradictory messages are included to highlight the emotional turmoil within the author as he wrote this book. While the power of the Holy Spirit was upon him at that time, he was not immune to human weaknesses and frailties. As modern-day readers, we cannot ignore the extent of his pain concerning the downfall of his nation. On a related note, those of us who live in First World countries may have difficulty feeling empathy with the author. We often hear of calamities in less prosperous nations, yet since we often do not know those who have been directly affected by these events, it is relatively easy for us to gloss over them.

The Storm January 5, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 27:13-26.

Summary: In this passage, Paul and his companions were buffeted by a violent storm as they sailed along the coast of Crete. The storm almost caused their ship to disintegrate; in order to save it, they discarded their cargo and the tackle. When the storm refused to abate, they began to lose hope – yet Paul exhorted them to continue battling it, asserting that God would deliver them from it (since He planned for him to stand trial before Caesar in Rome).

Thoughts: Here, we see that Paul and his companions were beset by a hurricane. I must admit that I have difficulty relating to their struggles in this passage, as I rarely travel by sea. I do occasionally travel by air, though, and this passage reminded me of a eventful flight to Houston several years ago. On that occasion, we had to pass through a thunderstorm on our final approach. The ensuing turbulence led to a bout of nausea; I was extremely grateful to God when we landed safely. Indeed, one of God’s attributes is His immutable sovereignty over nature.

In verse 21, we see that Paul and his companions did not eat for a prolonged stretch as they battled the hurricane. When I meet them in the next life, I would like to learn how they resisted the storm on empty stomachs. Were they fueled by adrenaline as fierce waves crashed onto the deck of their ship? Were some of them on the verge of death? Did God give Paul supernatural strength to exhort his companions – just as He gave His Son supernatural strength to resist the temptations of Satan after His baptism? Also, I assume that they drank fresh water during the storm; how did they preserve their supply of fresh water at that time?