We had a wonderful experience worshiping at Westminster Cathedral in London on the Sunday after Easter. The pastor delivered a powerful message about the resurrection of Jesus. He talked about how the disciples of Jesus thought the story was over, and then Jesus appeared to them behind closed doors. The story that they thought was over was alive again. He made the point that when Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” it wasn’t a wish. It was a present reality. A gift. Then Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
“On Pentecost Sunday Jesus’ breath of the Spirit becomes a gale-force wind of the Holy Spirit,” the Westminster Pastor said. Indeed. The sound was like that of a rushing wind. Tongues of fire appear on the Apostles. Then they begin to speak in languages they had not previously known. The people there – Parthians, Medes, people from Mesopotamia and many others hear the message of Jesus in their own language.
God was speaking to them in the languages they thought in. They dreamed in those languages. They spoke to their dearest ones in those languages. God was speaking to them in their heart language. He wanted them to know deeply and certainly that his love and salvation was for them. And us. God has seen to it that this message has been declared to all people throughout the ages. No matter our ethnicity, cultural status, age, sex, or size: God’s love in Jesus is for you.
We cannot believe in Jesus or come to him by our own reason or strength. But the Holy Spirit has called us by the Gospel and enlightened us with his gifts. And that same Holy Spirit has inspired believers down through the ages to share the Gospel message. And we are the recipients of his work. The gale-force wind of the Spirit is still blowing. And even today, as God promised through the prophet Joel, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Join me in praying these psalms on this Lord’s Day
To you, O Lord, I call; my rock, be not deaf to me, lest, if you be silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit. 2 Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.
3 Do not drag me off with the wicked, with the workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors while evil is in their hearts. 4 Give to them according to their work and according to the evil of their deeds; give to them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward. 5 Because they do not regard the works of the Lord or the work of his hands, he will tear them down and build them up no more.
6 Blessed be the Lord! For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy. 7 The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.
8 The Lord is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed. 9 Oh, save your people and bless your heritage! Be their shepherd and carry them forever.
Psalm 58:10-11 [NLT]
The godly will rejoice when they see injustice avenged. They will wash their feet in the blood of the wicked. 11 Then at last everyone will say, “There truly is a reward for those who live for God; surely there is a God who judges justly here on earth.”
Psalm 88 [NLT]
Note: Read this as if it were Jesus’ prayer when he had been arrested and put into the pit in Pilate’s house.
O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out to you by day. I come to you at night. 2 Now hear my prayer; listen to my cry. 3 For my life is full of troubles, and death draws near. 4 I am as good as dead, like a strong man with no strength left. 5 They have left me among the dead, and I lie like a corpse in a grave. I am forgotten, cut off from your care. 6 You have thrown me into the lowest pit, into the darkest depths. 7 Your anger weighs me down; with wave after wave you have engulfed me. Interlude
8 You have driven my friends away by making me repulsive to them. I am in a trap with no way of escape. 9 My eyes are blinded by my tears. Each day I beg for your help, O Lord; I lift my hands to you for mercy. 10 Are your wonderful deeds of any use to the dead? Do the dead rise up and praise you? Interlude
11 Can those in the grave declare your unfailing love? Can they proclaim your faithfulness in the place of destruction? 12 Can the darkness speak of your wonderful deeds? Can anyone in the land of forgetfulness talk about your righteousness? 13 O Lord, I cry out to you. I will keep on pleading day by day. 14 O Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you turn your face from me?
15 I have been sick and close to death since my youth. I stand helpless and desperate before your terrors. 16 Your fierce anger has overwhelmed me. Your terrors have paralyzed me. 17 They swirl around me like floodwaters all day long. They have engulfed me completely. 18 You have taken away my companions and loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend.
Psalm 118:1-4, 24 [ESV]
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” 3 Let the house of Aaron say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” 4 Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
24 This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Psalm 148 [ESV]
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! 2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts!
3 Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! 4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord! For he commanded and they were created. 6 And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, 8 fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word!
9 Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! 10 Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds!
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! 12 Young men and maidens together, old men and children!
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven. 14 He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. Praise the Lord!
Our time at seminary was challenging in many ways. We were two rather willful and self-defined (selfish???) individuals learning to live together, each dealing with our own issues as well as trying to navigate interfacing with the other. Diane’s degree (a B.S. in Biology) yielded a job as a cook in a local cafeteria. She would often say, “I pulled all-nighters for this?!?” She really did earn her PHT (Putting Hubby Through) degree! Then there was the challenging of getting up to speed on Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament History, Lutheran theology, preaching skills, and relational dynamics with others in my class. On top of that we were poor. Really poor. We survived, but it was lean pickings many months.
During those days, I bought Diane a little decorative wheel barrel that had a potted plant. It sat on our kitchen window shelf with “Bloom Where You’re Planted” on the side. It was a challenge to do so. In fact, we were always looking forward to things in the future: our first call, first child, first home and all things future. In the face of some of those challenges someone reminded us, “God knows your address.” In other words, your place in the world is not unknown to God. In fact we have a place in God’s heart.
When the Apostles were praying about the replacement for Judas, they prayed, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen…” This same thought has come to the fore in my work of helping congregations through the Call process for a new pastor. The first bullet point on the checklist that I share with any Call Committee in this process is “Bathe the entire process in prayer.” This has been an actual fact and practice, not just an item on the checklist. And the thought that God already knows who will be the next pastor of a congregation engaged in this process is comforting to those who trust God and seek his will.
God already knows not only who the next pastor of a congregation will be. He also knows all your needs, your challenges, fears, hopes, hurts, and desires. Sometimes he must look past your desires (too often tainted by sin), and in his grace give us better things than we want. Because God’s knowledge is inexorably connected with his love, grace, faithfulness, and power, we can be confident that all will be well when we entrust ourselves to his provision, direction, and plan. It is a plan for our eternal good. I need to keep that firmly in mind. I suspect you do too.
I’ve had some further thoughts about our little Greek word, “δεῖ.” That’s one of the advantages of taking a portion of Scripture at a time, meditating on it for a week, and writing reflections. The little Greek word, “δεῖ” is small but powerful. It’s the word behind the phrase, “Scripture must be fulfilled,” specifically the “must be,” in that phrase. Another way to translate the word is “it is necessary.” The word crops up in the gospels time and again. And this is what came to me since yesterday’s post.
Matthew reports that Jesus told his disciples, that “he must go [it is necessary] to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” This begins it all. Jesus’ destiny on earth was to be enthroned on a Roman cross, the culmination of a life of teaching, serving, calling people to repent and believe, healing and forgiving sin. All that was necessary for you and for me and our salvation. Jesus did what was necessary for us because he loved his Father and us.
Then we have the necessity of Judas’ replacement, spoken of here by Luke. God’s plans must move forward. The Apostles are an essential part of that plan. They would be the ones proclaiming the message of Jesus in the languages of the many people gathered in Jerusalem for this grand Pentecost Celebration, the Feast of Weeks. They would also be instrumental in opening the doors to the Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15. Having seen the work of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they would surely be open to the idea that the Gospel message was open to all people.
Then comes the Prodigal Son parable when the father says, “‘We had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:32). This echos the celebration of the angels of God when one sinner repents, says Jesus. (cf. Luke 15:7, 10) Joy is a necessity in the Kingdom of God. It is our source of truest strength. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and a beautiful adornment for all the faithful.
So here is the progression: Jesus’ suffering and death, secures our salvation. That mission continues through the Apostles and all believers who share the gospel message of salvation. Then comes the ultimate celebration of joy, and the praise of God’s glorious grace. Reminds me of a favorite song I’ve shared before, but worth sharing again…
The little Greek word, “δεῖ” is small but powerful. It’s the word behind the phrase, “Scripture must be fulfilled,” specifically the “must be,” in that phrase. Another way to translate the word is “it is necessary.” The word crops up in the gospels time and again. Jesus uses it in the Prodigal Son parable, when the father says, “‘We had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:32). Matthew 16:21 reads, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go [it is necessary] to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” This little Greek word, dei (pronounced day-ē with a very subtle ē at the end), packs a powerful punch.
In the case of Scripture being fulfilled, as in this passage, Peter makes the point that Judas’ action was foretold in Scripture, and it was sure to happen. I don’t believe there is much benefit to determining whether or not God caused Judas to betray Jesus, or that it was Judas’ fate because God predestined it to happen. There is a difference between knowing something is going to happen, and causing it to happen. If a prophet of God prophesies it, he does not cause it to happen. But if God says it will happen, it will happen. And God has said that one of Jesus’ disciples would vacate his office and someone else would take his place.
This was all part of God’s plan. And God’s plan will not be thwarted. Not by a betrayal of one of the 12 of Jesus’ disciples. Not by the misguided actions of fearful disciples. Peter cutting off Malcus’ ear, or denying Jesus, or the other disciples fleeing him when Jesus was arrested will not thwart God’s plan. Self-righteous priests and conspiring Roman soldiers will not prevent God’s plan for the redemption of the world through Jesus Christ, his only Son, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for the spreading of the word and the conversion of millions.
That’s good news for us who want to see God’s plan succeed. We can be sure that his will is done and his kingdom will come among us and through us to others. We can be certain that the ultimate glory of God’s grace will be realized. We may see people get in the way of God’s plan, they may plot and scheme to undercut the mission of God. But God will prevail – not just in the sense of sovereign power, but more importantly in the sense of abundant grace. For that I am thankful to God!
Luke makes a point about Judas’ ending and the ignomy of his legacy. And it isn’t pretty. Falling headlong, bursting open in the middle and bowels gushing out is not a pleasant description. Judas’ infamy is well earned for betraying Jesus, selling him out for the price of a slave, then trying to take it all back. Then comes the sad end of suicide and the ugly end described here. His legacy is one of deceit, ungodly regret, and death.
The Bible is no fairy tale book. It does not sugarcoat sin. And whether it’s the harsh reality of David’s sin with Bathsheba (the death of their child), or Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), or this description of Judas’ end, we’re not spared the realities of sin’s consequences. The wages of sin is death. A man reaps what he sows. God punishes sin with sin. We cannot say we have not been warned.
Paul writes to the Church in Corinth:
Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents,10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. – 1 Corinthians 10:6-12
It’s easy for us to distance ourselves from the kind of evil displayed in the life of Judas. But we must take this as a warning. We must not imagine that we are invulnerable. We must guard our hearts, and not give in to temptation. And if we do give in, we must repent immediately, and return to the paths of righteousness on which God leads us. May we not leave an ignominious legacy!
I’ve enjoyed my encore ministry, working with congregations in strategic planning and in the process of calling a new pastor. One of these congregations is in need of some scenario planning. That involves considering several possible scenarios for future ministry decisions and making some plans according to those scenarios. Some of these end up with clever names: He stays/We Grow; He stays/We decline; He leaves/We grow; He leaves/We decline. Or, School thrives/We expand; School thrives/We limit; School falters/We recruit; School Falters/We limit. We don’t know what the future brings, but we make plans that take into consideration the possibilities of which we are aware.
The Apostles were not doing scenario planning on this occasion. They were doing scenario living. They were living out a deflection in the trajectory of God’s mission they did not know they would need to consider. They trusted God and were committed to the Great Commission Jesus had given them. They realized, also, that they needed to have a 12th Apostle to join them in giving witness to Jesus’ resurrection, and providing leadership and stability for the fledgling church.
Little did they know how dramatically this need would become evident in the years to come. The Day of Pentecost was at hand. Three thousand new believers would be baptized that day. The message of Jesus would spread to foreign lands and even the Gentiles would be brought to faith. This would create a crisis that would require the Apostles’ guidance and decision as to how the church would receive these new believers.
And there is the matter of Jesus’ resurrection. The Apostles would serve as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. This was the cornerstone the Christian faith. That message would be an essential part of the witness of the church, and the truth that would define Jesus’ followers, and drive his mission.
These men were no longer fishing for fish. They would be fishing for men, women, and children. They would not be hanging around for long waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit. They would be filled with the Spirit and would speak the word of God in the languages of the various people gathered on the Day of Pentecost. The needed to restore the number to 12, based on the scripture: Let another fill his office. (Psalm 109:8)
God is setting the table for a remarkable expansion of his kingdom. He is using these Apostles in a singularly unique manner. All this was unfolding in real time for the 11, soon to be 12. It was the same for the other 100 plus believers.
The believers were living in times of defining moments. And so are we. What was guiding them should also guide our decision-making processes. Prayer, discernment, and a desire to further God’s kingdom should be top on our list of decision-making criteria – if we want to be part of God’s work in the world today. That is God’s will for us. And it is right, blessed, and good.
Join me in praying these psalms on this Lord’s Day
Be exalted, O Lord, in your strength! We will sing and praise your power.
Have mercy on me,[a] O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. 5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. 6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right[b] spirit within me. 11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; 19 then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Hear, O my people, while I admonish you! O Israel, if you would but listen to me! 9 There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. 10 I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it..
Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. 2 Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. 3 Full of splendor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. 4 He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and merciful. 5 He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever. 6 He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the inheritance of the nations. 7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy; 8 they are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. 9 He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name! 10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!
O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you! 2 Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!
3 Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips! 4 Do not let my heart incline to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with men who work iniquity, and let me not eat of their delicacies!
We’ve been praying a lot these last few days. Traveling with friends who share a common commitment to calling on God and praying for one another has added a new facet to our prayer life. When our 3:33 PM alarm goes off, we stop and each of the four of us offer a prayer for the people in our Life Group. We also pray at noon for a sister in Christ who is leading an important ministry with InterVarsity. Then comes my 9:00 PM alerts. Texts from two different call committees, plus an additional reminder on my calendar for a third remind me to pray for these three churches and the pastors who will one day serve God’s people there.
Prayer is the life-breath of a follower of Jesus dedicated to seeing his kingdom come. It is the life-line for those who are facing challenges, troubles, and needs. Prayer is the discipline of the believer who is living life in his or her god-given vocation as mother, father, baker, barber, banker, or beautician. It’s what we do as we wait to see how God is going to act, as well as what we do as we are in the vortex of God’s work in and through us.
So after the disciples see Jesus taken up into the clouds of heaven, having been told to wait in the city to see the promise of God come true (the gift of the Holy Spirit), they pray. Luke tells us that the eleven Apostles “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” These were exciting and challenging times. The Mission of God was on the cusp of take-off. But they were waiting. And praying.
Many times we must wait: For the birth of a child. For the return of a son or daughter. For a job promotion. For a vacation. For the results of a medical test. While we wait we might choose to stew and fret. Or we can pray. To that end, I love to pray the Lord’s Prayer.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven; give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.
I especially think about the first few lines, concluding with Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
When is the last time you’ve asked a silly question? Have you ever been asked a silly question? Do you have favorite responses to questions your children ask? My favorite answer to our children’s “Why?” questions was, “Because the sky is blue when the sun shines.” Our sons did not like that answer. I was saying, in effect, “Because that’s just the way it is.” I didn’t want to explain myself to them. I didn’t want to answer to them. Sometimes I should have obliged.
This passage has one of my favorite questions in the entire Bible. “Why do you stand there looking up into the sky?” I have an answer to this question! “Because we’ve never seen anything like this before in our lives!” The angels’ question is more telling than you might think. For 33 years the angels have seen things that they cannot comprehend. What is God doing? Why did he take on flesh? How is it possible that the Creator, the Son of God lets himself be treated so horrifically? These are the sort of things that into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:10-12). For the angels mysterious and intriguing things have been happening for 33 years. Now things are returning to the way they should be. Christ is risen and reigning.
For the disciples this was no cheap trick. This wasn’t just a curiosity. This was a remarkable display of Jesus’ true glory and exaltation. His work as a man on earth was done. This was the visible display of the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. To at least some extent this would be difficult for them. He was being taken from them. Soon the Holy Spirit would be poured out–a gale-force wind would fan into flame the spread of the Gospel. But for now they are left staring into the sky.
As a result of Jesus’ ascension we no longer see him on earth. True. But we can take great comfort that Jesus is reigning with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He is interceding for us (Romans 8:34).
Today is Ascension Day. Ascension Day occurs during the week rather than on Sunday. As a result, many people miss this feast and the great importance it has for the life of the believer. Remembering this day is of no apparent importance to the followers of Jesus. But perhaps I can ask a question of you: If Jesus is on the throne in heaven, is he also on the throne of your heart? Does his reign and rule bring comfort to you in times of difficulty? Do you need to celebrate that today?