Daily Living by Daily Dying (Matthew 16:21-27)

Many of the monuments at the Antietam National Battlefield have symbols upon them. They are not immediately obvious in most cases. The prime exception is in the West Woods area, where you drive into a beautiful tree-lined park setting. Entering between two cement pillars along the Hagerstown Turnpike, many guests will notice and comment upon seeing cloverleaf symbols upon them, as well as on the large obelisk monument in the middle of this park area.

The first guess is that these symbols represent the Irish Brigade – a famous Civil War unit in the Federal Army that indeed fight at Antietam, but not in this location. They entered the battle in the area of the 1897-constructed observation tower.

Rather, the pillars originally supported an iron gate with the inscription “Philadelphia Brigade Park.”  This Union outfit featured four regiments from the Philadelphia area who were a part of the Second Corps of the Federal Army. The cloverleaf symbol (called a trefoil, used also at times in history to depict the Trinity), was the chosen emblem of the Second Corps of the army. A circle was the First Corps, for example, and an iron cross depicted the Sixth Corps. Varied colors then also depicted the divisions within a corps – a red symbol always being the first division of said corps, white for the second, blue for the third.

These symbols were called “corps badges” and were devised by General Hooker in the spring of 1863. But, but … Antietam was in 1862!  Correct!  These badges were on uniforms, hats, flags, etc., and became symbols of great pride. And even though not yet invented at the time of the September, 1862 Battle of Antietam, they adorn many of the monuments put there by veterans who returned decades later to recall the sacrifices of their fallen brothers and comrades.

Many of us take pride in varied symbols, be they of a favorite sports team, business association or line of clothing. It is all about identity. Being associated with the symbol and what it represents says something about our values without even a word being spoken.

We all like to be a part of a winning outfit. And surely there was a lot of personal excitement in being called to be one of Jesus’ disciples … to drop the fishing enterprise and follow the Messiah around the country and be a part of the preaching, the miracles, the crowds, etc.  Cool!

But likely the disciples did not anticipate the opposition that was profoundly present at so many places. It was disconcerting for sure that the “deep state” religious leaders in Israel were so routinely opposed to Jesus and the message of the Kingdom. Much of this looked rather dangerous even. Violence was narrowly averted on several occasions (like when the hometown folks in Galilee in Luke 4 took Jesus up to a cliff to toss him over the edge!).

As the time for Christ’s final work was approaching, Jesus began to rather explicitly tell the 12 exactly what was going to be his upcoming experience …

Matthew 16:21 – From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

How could this be? This is not at all what the disciples signed up for when agreeing to drop their nets and go fishing for men. Jesus – the Messiah (as in the previous paragraph Peter was applauded for hitting the nail on the head with this declaration) – was surely not going to be killed!!  And Peter says so to Christ …

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

For sure, Peter had the wrong picture, not that he was the only one. He was simply the one most willing to verbalize what the others were likely also thinking. The mission of the Kingdom, the work of the Messiah – all of this was to be a grand success of righteousness prevailing.

And truth does prevail; God does reign victorious. The Kingdom will be perfectly established. But, as in war, there is a price to be paid and battles to be won. There is an evil system to be defeated. To expect nothing but victories is to not understand the nature of the conflict.

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

This is counterintuitive thinking for sure. To be a part of the winning outfit eternally, we must give up the natural expectation as to what constitutes victory and security. The natural self says to fight for gain in this world and prioritize self. But the true disciple does not view success in life in this manner. Rather, the guiding principle is to follow Christ whatever the cost, even knowing that the cost could be the loss of everything material. Though it may seem that Jesus is turning the world upside-down, in fact he is turning it right-side up. But the world will not receive that.

Again, not recognizing the work of Christ for what it is, the masses of people will hate the symbol of this work of Christ – the cross. Nothing was more despised and dreadful in the Roman world. Emblematic of the worst death possible for the worst people possible, it was the last of things to find one’s personal identity by open identity with it.

Yet the calling of the gospel is to be willing take up the cross, as Christ did – to bear the shame and reproach of it all. Be counterintuitive. Embrace the conflict, because the appearance of loss is turned ultimately to greatest of victories. In what is perhaps the ultimate summary statement about faith in Christ, Paul writes …

Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

This may seem like daily dying, but it is daily living.

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Loving Your Enemies (Matthew 5:43-48)

Yesterday was one of those sermons that I did not feel good about, once it was done. I feared it maybe had too much of a “just love, love, love people no matter what and let them walk all over you” kind of feel to it. Yes, there are times when you have to make a stand for something that is right, but even then, there is a right way to stand for what is right, right?

Talking about stuff that is counterintuitive is sort of counterintuitive as well. But let me share some of the main thoughts again, perhaps with some additional twists.

As I said, the past week was a bit strange with my wife being gone with our business family on a trade show trip to Wisconsin. She’ll soon be home, which is really a good thing since I can’t figure out why all the appliances other than the refrigerator have stopped working at the same time. The dishwasher isn’t loading and washing the dishes, the stove isn’t cooking anything, and I’m sure I’ve not heard the washing machine running at all this past week!

Speaking of home appliances, is my understanding that the most efficient way to heat your home in the winter is not how you might think … to turn off the heat completely overnight, and then fully heat the house again in the morning. It is actually (as I understand it) better to turn down the heat, but not exceptionally far, rather than allow the house to entirely cool for 6-8 hours. As objects in the home cool, they become a “sink of coldness” that causes more energy demand to heat up everything than if not allowed to get so cold.

This type of thinking is what we call “counterintuitive” … counter to what intuition would lead one to expect, something not easily understood in an instinctive, unconscious way. As we grow in faith and in the knowledge of the Scriptures, we learn that God’s way often is not the way of our instincts. Love your enemies? That is indeed opposite of our instincts and thereby fits as an appropriate topic for this series.

We think it best to defeat enemies by doubling down in like manner as to what they’ve done to us. Perhaps a best strategy would seem to be that “the best defense is a good offense”… to bury them before they bury you. Or there is the “shot across the bow” strategy – to make a pre-emptive strike or action of warning that they should not be so foolish as to mess with you.

So yes, to resist such intuitive action and actually love an enemy is, in a word, counterintuitive.

And loving an enemy was beyond what was the conventional wisdom and teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

When Jesus is quoted in the gospels as saying something like “you have heard it said, but I say to you …” he is speaking of the commonly-heard teaching of the leadership of that era – Jesus often correcting their misinterpretation or misrepresentation of a text. And that is what we have as we turn to Matthew 5 …

Matthew 5:43 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

  1. To Be Better

Yes, be better than just loving those who love you or leave you alone; rather, extend kindness beyond that to even those who hate you and treat you poorly.

This text is specifically a response to a misinterpretation of the Old Testament commandment to love your neighbor as your love yourself (Leviticus 19:18 – Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.).

The Pharisees taught that you should love your neighbor, your fellow Jew, but hate those outside of that – implying that this was God’s way of judging them.

But the passage, both then and now, begs the question, “Who is my enemy?”

a. Someone more than just a nice friend or brother.

So Jesus is not just saying here: “I have two commands: one that you love your neighbor and one that you love your enemy.” Rather, his teaching is, “I have one command: love your neighbor, and by that I mean even if your neighbor is an enemy.”

b. Those who persecute you – those who intentionally seek to harm you.

Jesus says to pray for those who persecute you.  In many parts of the world today, Christians are being persecuted for their faith by those who seek to harm them. Today, some will be martyred for their faith. And in many of those settings, those Christians seek to be a blessing to those around them who mean to harm God’s people and eliminate the message of the gospel.

In our context it likely means something much less deleterious, but can feel rather harmful all the same …

… perhaps it is a person at work who seeks to thwart your success to enhance their own position in some fashion.

… perhaps it is a person in the community who resents the places of blessing, success and leadership where God has placed you. Maybe they’d like to see you taken down a peg, even though you’ve done nothing to harm them.

… perhaps it is a neighbor who finds something about your home or lifestyle to be odious to their own convictions or lack of convictions.

Jesus says, “Yes, love them. Love them. If they even seek to kill you, love them. If they take away your job, love them. If they seek to ruin your reputation, love them. If they destroy your home, love them. Love your enemies. Be that kind of person because of the life change that has happened within you.”

Specifically, the exhortation is to pray for them. I have always found it is difficult to sustain hostility toward anyone whom I pray for regularly. Praying takes the steam out of the situation. It humanizes the enemy, and you simply find yourself more and more seeing them through God’s eyes and heart.

c. Those of an opposing belief system and lifestyle – He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

These are people who simply have little in common with your worldview and way of living. You may not think of them as an enemy, nor them of you in such terms; but there is little in common relative to the big questions of life. Likely, they don’t “get” your lifestyle, and perhaps they even find it to be a bit sanctimonious… all that going to church that you do and serving in faith endeavors.

And probably you don’t “get” their lifestyle either – how it is so limited in scope to material things and the stuff merely of this world.

But quietly looking down upon them helps nothing. Feeling superior because you have the confident truth about the issues of life that comes from knowing God does not change anything or project anything that is unique.

But actively praying for them and loving them in varied ways of communication and interest in their lives is the stuff that goes beyond just being nice to people who are nice to you.

So, be better than simply loving those who love you or who are not a problem.

BUT there is a step beyond this …

  1. Be Beyond Better – 5:46-47

Matthew 5:46 – If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Rightly dealing with enemies in a Godly fashion means more than just letting them alone or being nice to them if they are nice to you someday. It means taking the initiative to specifically love them and connect with them – perhaps by expressing care for them and for needs that they have.

I have imperfectly attempted to do this over the years with people whom I know have opposed my ministry. Extending invitations, praying with them in times of need, sending a note or greeting – it does not always work, nor is it always received warmly. But it almost invariably diffuses the situation.

The passage uses a couple of great illustrations…

Tax collectors – the most odious characters in the Jewish/Roman dominated culture. Even these cheats are nice to people who are nice to them … so only doing that (as the teachers taught) was to be no higher on the ladder of good character.

Pagans – those with no faith whatsoever.  They care for their own people and interact freely with them. “Come on,” Jesus says. “Be better, better beyond that.”

The great American civil rights leader Martin Luther King wrote one of his most moving sermons on the title “Loving your enemies”. He was in jail at the time, imprisoned for daring to suggest that African-Americans should have the same civil rights as other Americans. During his lifetime he had received multiple death threats, he’d been maliciously accused of being a Communist, his house had been bombed, and he was jailed over 20 times. Yet in this sermon he said, “hate multiplies hate…in a descending spiral of violence” and is “just as injurious to the person who hates” as to his victim. But “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend” for it has “creative” and “redemptive” power.  And time has only reinforced his primary teaching.

Going above and beyond in love, even to one who has not earned it or deserves it, can have lifechanging effects.

Again, this sort of love is not easy to do … to be better … to be beyond better.  But we can ratchet that up even another notch from Christ’s teaching … verse 48 …

Matthew 5:48 – Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

  1. Be Best!

What?  Perfect!  Isn’t pretty good, good enough?  Now I’ve got to be perfect?!

Well, the word perfect here could also be translated and carry the sense of the word “complete.”  It does not mean sinlessly perfect, rather it means to be completely mature in being fully like the Father.

This means to have a view of the world and its peoples that is a macro view of creation and life. It is to understand the sinful nature of mankind due to the curse that goes back to Adam and Eve. It is to understand that the natural man has a bent toward selfishness. It is to understand there is no hope apart from God, and what he accomplished through the work of Christ. It is to understand that this fallen world is moving toward completion and toward a new heaven and new earth.

When you understand these things, you have a view such as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5 … So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view… Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors…

Indeed, everything about this world is entirely changed when you look at it through eternal eyes – when you have a spiritual, macro view of life related to eternity and God’s master plans.

OK… so maybe you’re a little more convinced than you were when you began reading that you need to lighten up on those people who don’t have you on their Christmas card list. Maybe you’re even thinking of being neutral at least, or perhaps nice if the opportunity presents. But perhaps you’re not sure about this “better, beyond better, best” approach. You’re maybe asking the question still, “WHY should I do this?”

Here is an answer for you … Because it was done for you!

Romans 5:9 – Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

You see, we were all enemies of God in our sinful condition. We were lost and spiritually dead and upon a path toward death and separation from God in a literal hell that God prepared originally for Satan and his cohort, fallen angelic hosts. Because, in Adam and Eve, we joined that doomed team in rebellion against God, with a curse that comes down to each of us at the moment of conception, not just at birth.

It was while we were spiritually in the condition of enemies of God that God, in grace, sent Jesus to die for us. He did not do it because we did anything to earn it or because we were sweet, good and lovely. Quite the opposite, as the previous paragraph in Romans 5 says … You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

So having been the recipient of grace and love of the highest caliber, can we justly hold on to hatred of those who are even categorically our enemies?  That really does shoot to the heart of it all, doesn’t it?

I suspect we all have some introspective wrestling to do. Do you have someone like that in your life that you need to connect with this week?

Strength through Weakness (2 Corinthians 12:1-10)

Our opening devotional for the summer “Counterintuitive” series will look at the theme of being strong by being weak. That seems so wrong, doesn’t it?  We would think (being intuitive) that our strength comes from working hard to be strong and aggressive and in charge! And though we are not discrediting responsibility and disciplines in the Christian life, we are highlighting that over and over the Scriptures (and Christ himself) teach us that our strength is not in ourselves. In John 15, what did Jesus say we could do without him?  NOTHING.

There are more than merely a couple passages we could highlight for this theme, but let’s choose Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, Greece … chapter 12 …

2 Corinthians12:1 – I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.

What we are doing here is beginning in the middle of the story. We need to recall some of the background of this 2nd Corinthian letter to understand what Paul is saying here.

In spite of the proclivity of the Corinthians toward worldly and licentious living, Paul had a great love for this church and its people. He had poured out his heart for them in serving them with his teaching and leadership. But some outside teachers had come into the church, claiming super-apostle authority for themselves and belittling the Apostle Paul’s authority and message.

Exactly who these opponents were is not precisely known, though they claimed themselves to be in the authoritative line of Moses – able to interpret his writings accurately.

Among criticisms of Paul were…

–           He lacked their authority and credentials connected to the church in Jerusalem. They produced some sort of documentation of their greater authority – and though Paul knew this to be very suspect, it was impressive to many of the Corinthians.

–           They said that Paul was very suspect because of his many travels and unusual adventures.

–           They implied that Paul was in this ministry business for personal gains, especially related to offerings being collected for the poor in Judea.

–           Their view of Paul was that he was not personally very impressive – perhaps not in appearance or public posture, especially being critical of his lack of speaking abilities. For an example of this criticism, Paul says in 2 Cor. 11: 5-6 – I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.”  I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.

So Paul has been put into an unenviable position of having to defend himself and his teaching – not because he needed assurances personally, but because he knew that the truth of the real gospel message was at stake. Therefore, he had to lay out his credentials for the Corinthians to be reminded of – credentials that came from an equal background as his critics, along with an impressive list of incredible experiences that God had sustained him through. Much of the 11th chapter is given to this. So Paul was saying … hey, I’ve got credentials, not just on paper, but from the real life of ministry – presenting the gospel in a world that largely rejects it, just like they rejected Christ.

So in chapter 12, Paul says he must go on “boasting.”  Having given his background credentials, he goes to a second line of authentication – about “visions and revelations,”

Paul really did not believe that his arguing and boasting about credentials was stuff that would build up the church, but he continues by telling them a story from his own experience. Being a bit uncomfortable about boasting about himself, he writes about himself from a third-person sort of view …

12:2 – I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

This was an experience that Paul had that was very early in his Christian life. He was “caught up” to heaven – the same word in Greek (harpazo) that is used to speak of the rapture of the church.  He calls it both “the third heaven” and “paradise” – words that would speak to that generation of the heavenly realm.

Paul could not honestly say if this was in the material body, or merely a spiritual experience – only God knows. But there he heard and received communications that were for he alone – not something he could share. So this was quite an extraordinary experience.

Paul continues to talk about himself in the third person …

12:5 – I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations.

Paul says he is willing to “boast” about such a thing, not because it is he himself, but because of what Christ had done with such a weak person as Paul had been – knowing of his previous career of hostility to the gospel message.

But Paul continues to show his discomfort with this external game of talking about who had the most spectacular experiences, but he says that if he has to play this game, he’s not a fool, because what he is saying is fully the truth (implying that the claims of his critics were likely to be very suspect).

Yet Paul continues to refrain from going on and on with more details about these “surpassingly great revelations” … as drawing attention to it would draw attention too much to himself, and too much away from the preaching and accomplishments of the gospel.

These revelations were indeed apparently totally amazing and unique. And we can sorta understand that in light of the ministry that God had given Paul. He was really THE main man to make the spread of the gospel happen; it was a huge calling and ministry, along with all of his writings that inform us and all of God’s people over the past 2,000 years! So to keep Paul from ever falling into any measure of self-aggrandizement, God in grace gave something else to the Apostle …

12:7-9 – Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

So what was this thorn in the flesh?  What we can say for sure, beyond the purposes of producing humility and dependence upon God, it was something sourced ultimately in Satan. And though Paul apparently on three occasions went very specifically to the Lord to have this thing removed, we can see that God allowed it to stay in his life so as to produce ultimately greater good and results than would be otherwise achieved.

So again, what was this malady?  Many suggestions have been made about certain physical ailments. We don’t know. But perhaps the two best suggestions might be …

  1. An eye problem – poor vision … also maybe something a bit grotesque?
  2. A speech malady – that would take away from the personal impression – forcing the listener to be impressed more by the content than the presenter.

The answer he got from the Lord is that God’s sustaining grace would be sufficient for him to endure in the midst of the problem, and that God’s power was more evident in the midst of the obvious weakness. Really?  That seems a bit counterintuitive also, but, we have all known people who have great impact in life and communication because of their victory over very obvious limitations.

So Paul’s conclusion was …

12:9-10 … Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul says that here is where real boasting can take place. This thing that appears to be a great loss is actually a great winner!  He had learned that when he was weak, Christ’s power was strongest in and through him. So this was something to be happy about and to be content about having. All the bad things (seemingly) that happened to him were in fact the prime contributors to the good things that happened through him.

So what do we learn from this passage today? Can we list some takeaway points?

  1. Earthly/Worldly Credentials are of Minimal Value. We are drawn to honor strength and beauty. But being impressed with worldly credentials and skills alone is to be merely intuitive, merely instinctual… senses that are of this world alone and not cognizant of the larger picture.
  2. Deficiencies Position Us to Receive Christ’s Sufficiencies. It is true that natural skills and the work of the flesh can take some people rather far, but not far enough. And it is commendable to be responsible and seek to work hard. But at some point, the true work of serving God is a spiritual work that needs spiritual empowerment.
  3. Our Weaknesses are Windows for God’s Power to be Seen. Think of some of the most powerfully-used people we have known. Is it because of his exceptional giftedness and extraordinary abilities that God uses them? More likely it is because they live moment by moment as a window through which God’s power can be seen.

Why does all of this work?  It is because when we recognize our weakness and even embrace our sufferings, we are most like Jesus himself. The Scriptures say that he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. When we serve others, when we are ridiculed, when we suffer persecution, when we submit to the frailties of life in a fallen world … THEN, we are most like Christ who did all of those things, depending daily upon the Father in prayer in submission and obedience.

In a sentence, here is the big idea of this theme: God allows things to happen to us, so that change can happen in us, so that ministry can happen through us!

And that is counterintuitive, not merely intuitive, not merely instinctual.