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Gethsemane October 7, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 26:36-46.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus – who is in deep anguish, knowing that He is away from home – and His disciples come to a garden called Gethsemane. He tells them to wait at the entrance while He pours out His heart to God. After bringing Peter, James and John with Him into the garden, He tells them that He is surrounded by sorrow – enough to kill Him.

He then:

  • tells them to keep watch over Him and pray for Him – and for themselves
  • goes a stone’s throw from them and prostrates Himself
  • calls on His Father, praying that if there is another way for His divine plan of salvation to be fulfilled, then He should let it happen
  • resigns Himself to the will of His Father
  • returns to His disciples and finds them sleeping
  • rebukes them, noting that although they have a renewed spirit, it is often defeated by their humanness.

This sequence of events is actually repeated two times. He then tells them to arise, as those who have come to arrest Him have arrived. In particular, they should go and meet Judas, who has come to deliver Him up.

Thoughts: Here, Jesus wrestles with His impending suffering and death. Ryle offers some insights on this point:

Why is the almighty Son of God, who had worked so many miracles, so heavy and disquieted? Why is Jesus, who came into the world to die, so ready to faint at the approach of death…There is but one reasonable answer to these questions…the real weight that bowed down the heart of Jesus was the weight of the sin of the world, which seems to have now pressed down upon him with unique force…

When I strolled through this passage, I focused on Jesus’ impending physical suffering – influenced by my vivid memories of The Passion of the Christ. Yet Ryle’s thoughts compelled me to ponder Jesus’ impending spiritual suffering. In particular, we cannot begin to comprehend the intimacy of the union that He enjoyed with His Father and the Holy Spirit. When He assumed the burden of the sins of the world, that intimate union was marred (albeit temporarily). Imagine the depth of the anguish and pain that must have engulfed Him at the mere thought of being separated from the Father and the Spirit! How could He emerge victorious over those torturous feelings? Indeed, this passage sheds valuable light on the intimacy of the Trinity.

Jesus also rebukes His disciples for failing to keep watch and pray for Him – and for themselves – “for one hour.” This caused me to ponder the fact that I have never prayed continuously for even one hour (to the best of my knowledge). While I attended several prayer meetings as a graduate student, the prayers during those meetings never lasted an hour. While I do pray before I sleep, those prayers never exceed twenty minutes. Perhaps this is related to the fact that I rarely wrestle with God in my prayers (though I will wrestle with Him after hearing about a tragic event, as that causes me to ponder the inevitability of evil and suffering in this world). At this point, I fail to appreciate the value of wrestling with God in prayer, as I believe that His will is paramount and that He will accomplish it regardless of my struggles. This raises the following questions:

  • is God pleased when believers wrestle with Him in their prayers?
  • will wrestling with Him actually enrich my prayer life?
  • how can I refrain from sinning when wrestling with Him?

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.

The Little Children and Jesus July 2, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 19:13-15.

Summary: In this passage, people are bringing their babies to Jesus so that He would bless them and pray for them. Yet the disciples attempt to drive them away.

Jesus is furious with His disciples, as His grace extends to babies. He then blesses and prays for many babies before departing.

Thoughts: Here, Jesus blesses and prays for many babies. Ryle offers some insights on this point:

Let us begin from their very earliest years to deal with them as having souls to be lost or saved, and let us strive to bring them to Christ; let us make them acquainted with the Bible as soon as they can understand anything; let us pray with them, and pray for them, and teach them to pray for themselves. We may rest assured that Jesus looks with pleasure on such endeavors, and is ready to bless them.

At my previous church, I served as a Sunday School teacher for a class where the majority of the students were in high school. I enjoyed serving in that capacity, especially since at least some of the students sharpened their understanding of God in the process. When I decided to volunteer as a Sunday School teacher at my current church, though, I was assigned to serve in a K-2 class. Serving in this capacity has been challenging, as I am unsure as to whether the students are drawing closer to God (e.g. most of the kindergartners are actually illiterate). Thus, I was glad to read Ryle’s above-mentioned quote; I must remain confident that God does look “with pleasure on” my teaching and that He will work, in His timing, to draw these K-2 students to Himself.

Prayer December 10, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 6:5-15.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus notes that the:

  • Pharisees pray in order to be seen by men; thus, they only receive the applause of men
  • Gentiles pray mindlessly.

In contrast, Jesus exhorts His disciples to:

  • shun the applause of men in their prayers
  • know the Person to whom they are praying.

He then instructs them to pray that:

  • the attributes of God would be glorified
  • the kingdom of God would be established at His Second Coming
  • all mankind would perfectly submit to the laws of God
  • God would supply their daily necessities
  • God would be merciful to them
  • God would enable them to be merciful to others
  • God would not allow them to run into sin
  • God would preserve them from the power of evil.

He concludes by restating the importance of mercy – as a repentant heart naturally expresses itself via acts of mercy.

Thoughts: In verse 10, we see that we should earnestly desire the Second Coming of Christ. Ryle offers some thoughts on this point:

This is the time when sin, sorrow and Satan will be driven out of the world. It is…a time that is to be desired more than anything. It therefore fills a foremost place in the Lord’s Prayer.

I can say that when I am in a good mood, I rarely pause and ponder the kingdom of God. It is only when God jolts me out of my complacency – e.g. when I am reminded of the evil and suffering that plague this world – that I pray that He would swiftly establish His kingdom in this world. Indeed, accounts of evil and suffering constantly remind us – as believers – that this world is imperfect and that we should long for the complete realization of the kingdom of God. One thought is that we can display this longing to unbelievers by persisting in our acts of service.

In verse 12, we see that we should ask God to forgive us – as we have forgiven those who have offended us. Ryle offers some thoughts on this point:

Its object is to remind us that we must not expect our prayers for forgiveness to be heard if we pray with malice and spite in our hearts towards others. To pray in such a frame of mind is mere formality and hypocrisy…Our prayers are nothing without love. We must not expect to be forgiven if we cannot forgive.

This section of the Sermon on the Mount continues to challenge me, as it exposes the obstacles that plague my walk with God. Lately I have pondered God’s ability to forgive us in light of our propensity to sin. One thought is that His ability to forgive stems from His understanding of His identity. When He forgives us, His glory is not diminished – even if we fail to accept His forgiveness and/or continue to offend Him. Perhaps my inability to forgive others reflects my lack of understanding of my identity in Him. If so, then I need to grow in that understanding – on a daily basis – in order to extend forgiveness to others.

Jeremiah’s Prayer March 3, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 10:23-25.

Summary: In this passage, Jeremiah prays that God would:

  • discipline him – yet not in anger, lest he be destroyed
  • punish Babylon for its war crimes against the people of Judah.

Thoughts: This passage spurred me to ponder this question: when is it proper for believers to pray that God would punish others? Perhaps we should consider those actions that are clearly sinful, e.g. rape, pillage and murder. Those of us who follow the news know that these sinful deeds still occur today; we immediately recoil from their inherent wickedness. Yet our desire for God to punish those who commit these sins is, in some sense, mitigated by our desire that they repent of them and seek mercy from Him. How can we know that they will never repent of their sins? Perhaps we should place these evildoers into God’s hands and ask that He would deal with them as He sees fit, as we lack His wisdom and foresight. He knows their hearts and can determine if they have hardened beyond the point of no return.

The Stoning of Stephen June 10, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 7:54-8:1a.

Summary: In this passage, the members of the Sanhedrin responded to Stephen’s rebuke with a paroxysm of rage. They dragged him out of Jerusalem and – with the approval of Saul – stoned him to death. Before Stephen passed away, though, he prayed for:

  • his ultimate salvation
  • God to forgive his murderers.

At that time, he was full of the Holy Spirit.

Thoughts: In verse 60 of chapter 7, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his murderers. Calvin offers some insights on this point:

We know that we are all commanded by Christ to do what Luke tells us Stephen did, but nothing is harder than to forgive injuries so completely that we wish well to those who want our downfall. Therefore, we must always look to Stephen as an example.

In terms of doing good to others, one should consider the following cases:

  • doing good to those who do good to us; this could be viewed as a straightforward application of quid pro quo
  • doing good to those who are indifferent to us; this can be a difficult task – especially if we have high expectations of the other party
  • doing good to those who harm us; I wonder if anyone can do this without hesitation.

I would say that I have no struggles with the first case, as I strongly believe in the concept of quid pro quo. In terms of the second case, I have improved over the last few years – especially when I spend time with younger believers. I still fall short when it comes to the third case, though; I often find myself inwardly cursing those who harm me – even if I do not respond outwardly to their actions. Clearly I do not fully understand the concept of grace; thus, I need God’s help when it comes to loving those who harm me.

The Believers’ Prayer May 6, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 4:23-31.

Summary: In this passage, Peter and John rejoined their fellow believers and recounted their meeting with the Sanhedrin. This spurred the believers to pray to God, where they:

  • declared that people have always opposed Him and the Messiah – as evidenced by Psalm 2:1-2 and recent events concerning Jesus
  • appealed to His sovereignty in light of this opposition
  • asked Him for the strength to preach the Gospel message – and perform miracles to authenticate it.

God responded to their prayer in a mighty way; thus, they were able to boldly proclaim the Gospel message.

Thoughts: It is amazing that the believers in the early church were willing to boldly proclaim the Gospel message and bring glory to God – even in the face of threats from the Jewish aristocracy. My conjecture is that they knew that they had to decrease in order for God to increase. Thus, they viewed the threats of the Jewish aristocracy as verbal assaults on God Himself – as opposed to assaults on their standing in their community. As modern-day believers, we should also strive to magnify God in our lives – while avoiding the temptation to protect our reputation at all costs. If others insult us for adhering to “blind faith,” we should remember that Jesus had many opponents while He conducted His earthly ministry; why should we shun the insults that our Master endured?

The Seventh Seal and the Golden Censer January 14, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Revelation 8:1-5.

Summary: In this passage, John observes God the Son opening the seventh seal for the scroll that He has received from His Father. After a prolonged silence, seven angels are given seven trumpets. Another angel stands at the altar before the throne of God and uses a golden censer to offer incense – and the prayers of believers – to God. This angel then fills his censer with fire from the altar and hurls it upon the earth – with a spectacular result.

Thoughts: This passage reminds us that God does hear the prayers of persecuted believers. Henry offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 5:

These were the answers God gave to the prayers of the saints and the tokens of his anger against the world, denoting that he would do great things to avenge himself and his people of their enemies. Now all things are ready, and the angels carry out their duty.

While believers endure persecution, they naturally wonder:

  • does God hear my prayers?
  • is God willing to answer my prayers?
  • is God able to answer my prayers?

This passage provides affirmative answers to all three of these questions; this stems from the fact that the actions of persecutors are unrighteous and unjust. God cannot let unrighteousness and injustice go unpunished; if persecutors do not seek the forgiveness of Christ, then God will punish them for their actions. Modern-day believers who experience intense persecution can draw strength from this passage as they continue to honor God and patiently wait on Him.

The Prayer of Faith November 4, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on James 5:13-20.

Summary: James begins with the following instructions regarding prayer:

  • if any believer is in an afflicted state, they should pray
  • if any believer is of a good mind, they should sing psalms to refresh their spirits
  • if any believer is without strength, they should call the teaching elders of the church to lay hands on them and anoint them with oil to the honor of Christ.

He notes that the prayer that is made out of faith will restore a weak believer to health – by God’s power; moreover, if their disease has been contracted due to special sins, those sins will be forgiven. This should spur weak believers to confess these special sins to each other and pray that they may be relieved. Indeed, the prayers of those who have been justified by faith are earnest and yield results.

James then supports this point by citing the example of Elijah, who was subject to all kinds of human weakness. In particular, Elijah prayed earnestly that it would not rain in Israel; his prayer yielded the intended results. After that, Elijah prayed earnestly that it would rain in Israel; again, his prayer yielded the intended results.

James concludes by asserting that if a believer should commit errors both in faith and in manners, and another believer converts them, then the latter believer is an instrument of the former believer’s salvation from eternal death.

Thoughts: In this passage, James exhorts his readers to confess their sins to each other and pray for each other. Manton offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 16:

It is foolish to hide our sins until they are incurable. When we have unburdened ourselves to a godly friend, conscience finds a great deal of ease. Certainly they are then more able to give us advice and can better apply the help of their counsel and prayers to our particular case and are thereby moved to more pity and commiseration…It is indeed a fault in Christians not to disclose themselves and be more open with their spiritual friends when they are not able to extricate themselves out of their doubts and troubles.

Now I have participated in several small group fellowships; in most of those meetings, it was difficult for the attendees to confess their sins to each other. In particular, when the attendees shared prayer requests, the requests usually fell into one of these categories:

  • work (e.g. meeting deadlines, dealing with unpleasant managers, job-hunting)
  • family (e.g. sick parents, siblings experiencing life changes, unsaved relatives)
  • friends (e.g. unsaved friends).

It seemed that the attendees had difficulty sharing prayer requests on personal topics (e.g. struggles with lustful thoughts and harboring bitter feelings towards other believers). Now James is not commanding believers to share any of their personal struggles when they attend their small group meetings – yet he is calling each believer to ensure that they have at least one person in their lives with whom they can share their personal struggles. Indeed, James seems to assert that if we keep our personal struggles to ourselves, then we will damage our spiritual health. Of course, this is an area where I need to grow as a believer…

Now that I have completed my stroll through the book of James, I have been inspired to (re)engage in some social concerns ministry. Indeed, my impression is that James calls his readers to shift their focus from fruitless pursuits such as making money, pandering to the wealthy, and engaging in disputes over the Gospel message with other believers. James wants his readers to focus on providing for the needs of widows, orphans, and the poor. Thus, I should use my gifts and abilities – along with my time – to bless those whom God has called me to bless. Before I embarked on this stroll, I had never associated this letter with social concerns; now I am inspired to demonstrate my faith with the appropriate deeds.

Trials and Temptations July 28, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on James 1:2-18.

Summary: James begins by exhorting his readers to esteem it as a matter of chief joy when they are suddenly attacked with afflictions from pagans and non-believing Jews. This stems from the fact that they have been taught by the Spirit – and experience – that afflictions exercise the grace of faith and perfect patience. Moreover, patience must be perfected so that the whole image of Christ would be completed in them. Now when they lack wisdom for bearing afflictions, they should direct serious and earnest prayers to God, who gives bountifully and indefatigably to those who pray earnestly to Him. Yet they must place their confidence in Him at those times – instead of entertaining uncertain thoughts like wicked men. Indeed, those who entertain uncertain thoughts about God can expect nothing from Christ, as they have no constancy of soul.

James then asserts that a Christian who has been made low – on account of opposition for being religious – should boast in his sublimity. On the other hand, those who are noble and honorable should boast in having lowly minds – since they will pass away, just as the flower of the field fades. To establish this point, he notes that the rich eventually lose their wealth even while they pursue it.

Now James asserts that believers who patiently and constantly endure afflictions are blessed, because when they are found approved, God will freely give them heavenly glory; indeed, He has promised heavenly glory to those who suffer for Him.

James then tells his readers that when they are tempted to sin, they should neither say nor think that God is forcing them into evil; this stems from the following truths:

  • God cannot be drawn into evil
  • God does not seduce anyone.

Instead, their corrupt nature seduces them, triggering the following sequence of events:

  • they are drawn into evil
  • actual sin is brought to effect in them
  • actual sin settles into a habit in them
  • their souls are handed over to damnation.

Now James lovingly reminds his readers to refrain from wandering by believing that God forces them into evil. To assist them in this regard, he asserts that all special blessings come from heaven; indeed, they come from God – who is like the Sun that gives out its light to all the planets – and He always remains the same. James concludes by citing the following example of a special blessing from heaven: according to God’s will, they have been born again through the Gospel message – showing their dignity and their prerogative.

Thoughts: In verse 2, James exhorts his readers to esteem afflictions as matters of chief joy. Manton offers some insights on this point:

But you may object, does not the Scripture allow us a sense of our condition? How can we rejoice in what is evil…I answer (1) Do not rejoice in evil: that is so far from being a fruit of grace that it is against nature. There is a natural abhorrence of what is painful, as we see in Christ himself… (2) Their joy is from the happy consequences of their sufferings…To be called to such special service is an act of God’s special favor. Far from being a matter of discouragement, it is a ground for thanksgiving…

I recently discussed the problem of evil and suffering with a friend; at that time, I cited the example of Job, who, after losing his family and his possessions, gave praise to God. My friend remarked that it would be rather unnatural for anyone to immediately praise God after experiencing such a traumatic sequence of events. That is a good point, and it leads to the first point in Manton’s quote. Whenever believers face difficulties in this life, I believe that God allows them to experience feelings of sorrow and disappointment, as that constitutes a natural and reasonable response to their circumstances. Believers, though, must not allow those feelings to master them; instead, they must (often painfully) shift to a long-term focus and consider how God can be glorified in the midst of their sorrow and disappointment. I certainly need to improve in this regard; while it is relatively easy for me to recall previous trials and give praise to God for working in the midst of those difficulties, I need to be able to praise God in the midst of future trials.

In verses 10 and 11, James exhorts prosperous believers to boast in having a lowly mind, as they – and their possessions – will pass away. Manton offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 10:

This includes the noble, the honorable, those who have outward excellence, and especially those who remain untouched by persecution…A rich person’s humility is his glory…You are not better than others because of your possessions but because of your meekness…If we want to be made low in the middle of worldly enjoyments, we should think about how uncertain they are…It is mad to be proud about what may perish before we perish, just as it is the worst of miseries to outlive our own happiness.

I am fairly certain that Manton would place me in the category of “the rich” – as opposed to the category of “believers in humble circumstances,” especially since I live in a country where I am not being persecuted for my faith. Thus, I should view this passage as a challenge for my Christian walk. My thought on the topic of “the proper attitude for a ‘rich’ Christian” is that it is closely related to the topic of how believers should spend their time. Do we allow our material wealth to dictate how we spend our time, or do we allow God to dictate our daily activities? How can we maximize our productivity for God in this life? Do we need to follow the example of Paul, who often went without food, clothing and shelter as he preached the Gospel message? I constantly struggle with this topic, as I can participate in a panoply of relatively unimportant – yet tempting – activities on a daily basis. I do pray that God would enable me to use my time more wisely for Him, where I know that I am being productive for Him.