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Seven Woes September 2, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 23.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus addresses His disciples and the crowd, noting that the Pharisees – and the scribes – have authority. Thus, if they read from the law of Moses, then they must be continuously obeyed. Yet they are hypocrites, as they pile on regulations that must be obeyed by all without caring for those whom they burden. Thus, they should not be continuously obeyed.

Indeed, the Pharisees – and the scribes – perform their religious works to be seen by others. For example, they:

  • wear large phylacteries
  • have large fringes on their garments
  • desire to sit by the host at banquets
  • desire to sit on the raised platform at the front of synagogues
  • desire to have their excellence acknowledged in the marketplace.

In contrast, His disciples should not desire to have their excellence acknowledged by others, since only He is excellent. Moreover, true excellence lies in serving others, as those who push themselves down will be pushed up, while those who push themselves up will be pushed down.

He then divinely judges the Pharisees – and the scribes – as hypocrites, as they:

  • keep people from entering the kingdom of God
  • convert Gentiles to their movement – who eventually surpass them in their hypocrisy
  • are liars and morons, as they fail to keep their vows and then assert that their vows actually had no meaning, as they were only declared in reference to the temple and/or the altar
  • tithe from their kitchen items while failing to honor God in truly important matters such as justice, mercy and faith
  • appear to be pious – yet plunder others, demonstrating their unrestrained desire for gain
  • appear to be righteous – yet are full of lawlessness
  • commemorate prophets and assert that they would not have sanctioned their lynching by their ancestors – yet plan to kill Him, the greatest prophet of all.

Thus, He damns them to hell, noting that He will send preachers to them. He knows that they will reject these preachers – thereby increasing their condemnation. By stoning them, allow the Romans to crucify others and persecuting the rest, they provide further evidence of their guilt. Indeed, they will be judged when the Romans invade Jerusalem in AD 70.

He then weeps over Jerusalem, as He wants its denizens to enter His kingdom – yet they reject His grace. Therefore, God has abandoned them – yet they will eventually acknowledge Him as their Messiah, thereby fulfilling a prophecy in Psalm 118:26.

Thoughts: In verses 23 and 24, Jesus condemns the Pharisees and the scribes for fixating on trivial matters – while neglecting critical issues – in their worship. Ryle offers some thoughts on this point:

They made great ado about tithing “mint” and other garden herbs, as if they could not be too strict in their obedience to God’s law…and yet at the same time they neglected great plain duties, such as justice, mercy and faithfulness; this again was a great sin.

One thought is that many believers derive pleasure from setting (quantifiable) targets and achieving them, e.g. “tell five strangers about Jesus at this outreach event.” Yet weightier issues are often difficult to quantify, causing believers to struggle with them. We ponder questions such as:

  • what does it actually mean to love God and to love one’s neighbor?
  • when our sinful nature resists our holy desire to actually obey these commands via concrete actions, how can God emerge victorious in that regard?
  • when we fail to perform “great plain duties,” how should we respond to our failures?

These are challenging questions, yet we must address them.

In verses 29-32, Jesus condemns the Pharisees and the scribes for their hypocrisy regarding their commemoration of the prophets of God. Ryle offers some insights on this point:

A passage from the Berlenberger Bible on this subject is striking enough to reproduce here: “Ask in Moses’ time who were the good people; they will be Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but not Moses – he should be stoned. Ask in Samuel’s time who were the good people: they will be Moses and Joshua, but not Samuel. Ask in the times of Christ who they were: they will be all the former prophets, with Samuel, but not Christ and his apostles.”

This is an interesting point; a (potentially) related observation is that we may not react strongly to criticism if we sense that it is not directed at us. Moreover, if we perceive the accuracy of these rebukes, then we may think more highly of those who present them. Yet when we are criticized, our passions are inflamed, and we lash out at those who rebuke us. Indeed, we often find it difficult to maintain restraint in the face of criticism and evaluate it objectively – especially when those who rebuke us make no attempt to soften their words.

In verses 33-36, Jesus asserts that the Pharisees and the scribes are responsible for the deaths of the prophets of God. Ryle offers some insights on this point:

The blood of the early Christians shed by the Roman Emperors; the blood of the Vallenses and Albigenses, and the sufferers at the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre; the blood of the martyrs who were burned at the Reformation, and of those put to death by the Inquisition – all, all will yet be accounted for.

As a believer in a First World country, I often forget that many of my fellow believers have paid the ultimate price for their beliefs. Thus, this passage is a sober reminder of the cost of our shared faith; it also reminds me of the importance of consistent prayer for believers who are being persecuted. I also anticipate meeting many martyrs in the next life and learning how God empowered them to hold fast to their faith – even to the point of death.


Promise of Restoration June 9, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 33.

Summary: In this passage, God reiterates the main point of the previous passage: He will bring His people out of exile in Babylon; moreover, He will restore them to their homeland.

In particular, He will:

  • allow His people to get married in their homeland
  • allow shepherds to tend their flocks in their homeland
  • re-establish the priesthood – so that He can be worshiped forever.

To lend further weight to these assertions, He appeals to His sovereignty over all celestial bodies.

Thoughts: Here, we see that God continues to assert the boundless nature of His love for His people. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verses 19-21:

He shows that God’s covenant with the people of Israel will be no less strong than the settled order of nature. The sun, moon, and stars are constant in their progress. This settled state of things is so fixed that in a great variety of circumstances there is no change. We have rain and then fair weather, and we have the various seasons, but the sun continues its daily course.

One thought is that this section of Jeremiah constitutes a lengthy love letter from God to His people; the language that He employs displays His ardor for them. Just as a soldier would be encouraged by a photo of a loved one during an extended tour of duty, God would want His people to be encouraged by this letter during their lengthy exile in Babylon. I hope to meet at least some of the exiles in the next life and learn how they responded to this love letter.

We also see that God will re-establish the priesthood in perpetuity. The meaning of this assertion is not entirely clear, given that the Levitical priesthood has been inactive for quite some time. In contrast, the meaning of His assertion concerning the Davidic dynasty is more clear, given that Jesus Christ is a descendant of David in His human form; moreover, we believe that the reign of Christ over all creation will never end. One thought is that while the Levitical priesthood will never be re-established, God has installed Christ as His perpetual High Priest (note that Christ is a member of the tribe of Judah in His human form). Christ always stands before His Father, having offered Himself once for all time as a sacrifice for sins; now He regularly intercedes for us with His Father. Thus, in that sense, Christ is our King and our High Priest. Now I am merely speculating here; alternate interpretations are welcome.

Jeremiah Buys a Field June 6, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 32.

Summary: In this passage, we see that Jeremiah’s prophecies of judgment have compelled King Zedekiah to confine him to the royal palace in Jerusalem.

God then instructs Jeremiah to purchase the field that belongs to his cousin, Hanamel son of Shallum. This ostensibly mundane act is designed to convey an important message to the people of Judah: God will allow them to dwell in peace in their homeland – after their exile in Babylon.

Indeed, He wants to encourage His people in the midst of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. He reinforces this point by reiterating His message from the previous passage.

Thoughts: In verse 17, Jeremiah asserts the omnipotence of God based on His act of creation; God affirms this fact in verse 27. This assertion reminds me of a praise song that was a staple of the worship sets at my old church during the early 1990s. Indeed, I never thought that one could write a praise song using material from a book about a “weeping prophet,” but this verse has disabused me of that notion. I should note that I have not heard this song in a worship setting in many years; if any readers have been more fortunate in that regard, that would be neat.

The key event in this passage involves Jeremiah purchasing the field that belongs to his cousin, Hanamel. Calvin offers some insights on this point:

This seemed strange, for the enemies had possessed that part of the country, and no Jews could venture out into their fields. The prophet must have seemed insane to buy a field that was then in the possession of the enemy. But this was the way God intended to show that after the Jews had been deprived of the possession of the land for a time, they would go back to it, so that everyone would return to his own property; and thus everything would be totally their own, after God had shown them mercy.

I am curious as to how God compelled Hanamel to make an offer of his field to Jeremiah. Did Hanamel sense that God was working through him in this regard? Did Jeremiah understand the point that God was making in verse 15? Did Baruch son of Neriah and the other witnesses in the royal palace understand the significance of this transaction? What were the thoughts and emotions of the guards in the royal palace at that time? Did the guards make an effort to prevent Hanamel and Jeremiah from carrying out this transaction?

Here, we see that Jeremiah uses seventeen shekels of silver to purchase the field that belonged to Hanamel. Perhaps these seventeen shekels of silver are analogous to the acts of worship and service that we perform as believers. In particular, one could say that Jeremiah was effectively making a deposit on this field; since it was occupied by the Babylonians, it was unclear as to whether he would ever acquire it. Similarly, we perform acts of worship and service in anticipation of an eternal reward – yet we cannot see that reward at this time. Instead of losing hope, though, I sense that God calls us to emulate the faith that Jeremiah displays here. He calls us to make a (spiritual) deposit on eternal treasures – on a daily basis – and trust that He will give them to us in His timing.

Restoration of Israel June 3, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 30-31.

Summary: In this passage, God instructs Jeremiah to declare this message to His people: He will bring them out of exile in Babylon and restore them to their homeland.

Moreover, He will:

  • not inflict a lasting punishment on them for their sins
  • inflict a lasting punishment on the Babylonians for the war crimes that they will commit against them
  • rebuild Jerusalem
  • heal their land
  • place a new king – from the house of David – over them
  • establish a new covenant with them
  • permanently remove their sinfulness
  • enable them to respond to these actions with praise and thanksgiving
  • never leave them nor forsake them.

Thoughts: This passage contains a brief description of the work of God the Son and God the Spirit in restoring His people to a proper relationship with Himself. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 9 of chapter 30:

It was the office and work of God to raise up Christ. We must always come to the fountain of God’s mercy if we want to enjoy the blessings of Christ. We will find in Christ whatever is necessary for our salvation.

Also, verses 33 and 34 of chapter 31 describe the work of God the Spirit in this regard. The truths that are contained in these verses should spur us to reflect on the nature of the Trinity – and rejoice in the fact that we worship God in Three Persons. Each member of the Trinity is invaluable in God’s great plan of salvation. In contrast, only God the Father plays a role in the old covenant – and that covenant was not effective in maintaining His relationship with His people. When He introduced that covenant, though, He already knew its primary purpose – to point to a new covenant that would also glorify the other (two) Persons who share His nature.

Here, we see that God’s love of His people is boundless. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 37 of chapter 31:

But God brings before us these strange and impossible things so that we may know that he will at length be reconciled to his people after having justly punished them…The prophet reassures them that God cares for them and would gather his scattered seed.

The beauty of these verses is evident, as they are replete with phrases including

‘Only if these decrees vanish from my sight…will Israel ever cease being a nation before me’


‘Only if the heavens above can be measured…will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done.’

The extent of God’s love of His people is amazing – especially as there is nothing in them that would merit His favor. As modern-day believers, we should ponder this point. Why has God chosen us? Why does He love us so much that He sent His own Son to die for our sins? It is difficult to even begin to formulate answers to these questions – yet we can still rejoice in His love for us and rest in His loving arms on a daily basis.

Given that this passage was written to the people of Judah, I am curious: how – and when – did they first hear it? Was it read to them before they were transported to Babylon? Or was it read to them during – or even after – their time in Babylon? How did they respond to the abundant promises in this passage? Did they interpret this passage as a long prophecy concerning a political Messiah who would restore the glory that Israel had enjoyed during the reign of David? What was their understanding of the new covenant that is described in this passage? Did they merely assume that God wanted them to recommit to the old covenant that He had established with Abraham?

God’s Answer March 16, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 12:5-17.

Summary: In this passage, God begins by warning Jeremiah about his relatives – as even they have rejected his prophecies. He then addresses his complaint from the previous passage, asserting that He will punish His people for their sins and smite their land. He concludes by addressing the pagan neighbors of Judah who have appropriated her land; in particular, He will not punish them forever based on that sin – but only if they promise to worship Him.

Thoughts: In verse 7, we see that God will punish His beloved people. Now although I am not a parent, I do have a hazy notion of the thoughts and emotions that a parent experiences when they discipline their misbehaving child. In particular, recently I volunteered as a teacher for a K-2 Sunday School class at my church; that experience reinforced the importance of setting boundaries for the students and communicating the consequences of misbehavior. While I did not enjoy rebuking the students for their actions, I found it helpful to adopt a long-term perspective on this point; basically, I want to inculcate them with habits that they can employ as adults.

In verses 14-17, we see that God extends an offer of salvation to the pagan neighbors of Judah. This is a valuable reminder that God’s love is not confined to Jews; indeed, He desires that all people enter a covenant relationship with Him. As a Gentile, I am especially thankful for this fact. Of course, my recent stroll through the book of Acts reveals that preaching the Gospel to Gentiles has its attendant challenges, including the importance of overcoming roadblocks that are unique to the target’s culture, religion, etc. For example, believers should consider how to properly engage with those who adhere to polytheism.

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.