Flashback Episode — Cheap, Hollow Worship: Mark 15:16-20

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After Jesus had been tried by the religious leaders as guilty and by Pilate and Herod as somewhat guilty but guilty because it was easier than dealing with a riot, the soldiers lead Jesus away to crucify Him. However, before Jesus faces the cross, or even the long road to the hill where He will be crucified, there is one last stop to make, and this stop is not an easy one for Jesus, and it’s not a pleasant one for us to read either.

Our passage comes from Mark’s gospel, chapter 15, and we will be reading from the New International Version of the Bible. Starting in verse 16, Mark tells us that:

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

These five short verses contain one of the cruelest portions of the entire Bible, but pushing past the cruelty, we discover some amazing ideas – especially after what we have read leading up to this point.

First, Mark tells us that the soldiers put a purple robe on Jesus. Whether this was put on over the robe that Herod had put on Jesus, or whether this was a different robe entirely, we don’t know, but similar to Herod dressing Jesus up like a king, these soldiers do the same thing.

However, from Jesus’ conversation with Pilate, we discover that Jesus doesn’t see Himself as a king, even though He tells Pilate that He has a kingdom. While Jesus is headed towards the cross, He is fulfilling the mission He came into this world to accomplish, and while this mission ultimately ends with Him being crowned King in Heaven after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, the premise that Jesus came to be a king on earth was a man-made twisting and misinterpreting of the Old Testament scriptures. Jesus came to lift God up and not to draw people to focus on Him, and in this mission, we discover another amazing idea tucked within this short, dark passage.

When the soldiers dress Jesus up as a king to mock Him, they do so using the man-made premise that Jesus came to be the king of the Jews and the passage tells us that they paid homage to Him. Other words we could use in the place of homage are respect, reverence, honor, and even worship. However, with whatever word we use to describe the soldiers attitude towards Jesus, the homage they paid Jesus was empty. Not only did the soldiers shallowly point the focus on Jesus, which is something Jesus never came to receive, they also give Him shallow, empty worship – which is fascinating, since Jesus, as a member of the Godhead, would be worthy of true, heartfelt worship.

While the soldiers are behind the abuse and the mocking of Jesus, I am sure that Satan was behind the empty worship, because Satan knows that Jesus deserved more. Satan knows that Jesus deserves true, heartfelt, genuine worship, and when given the opportunity, Satan is more than willing to cheapen the worship God receives in any way he can.

Not only did Satan cheapen the worship that the soldiers mockingly gave Jesus, he tries to do the same with each of us today. Satan first will try to get us to discount coming to God. If this doesn’t work, then he will try to crowd our lives with so much busyness that we don’t have any time to come to God. If this doesn’t work, he sends distractions our way to cheapen the time we spend with God. And if this doesn’t work, he will send people to ridicule and mock us for following God. When we come to worship God, the last thing Satan wants us to give to God is the one thing that God wants when we come to worship Him – and that one thing is our hearts.

Jesus came as God’s Messiah not just for the Jews, but for the entire human race. While the Jews were God’s people, God never intended for the Jews to arrogantly live out this calling. God chose a people to be a representative for Him for the world and to show the world what He is like. The Jews failed God in this regard, and I’m not so sure that many Christians today are doing any better.

There are plenty of Christians who get this right, but there are plenty of self-proclaimed “Christians” who don’t understand God’s mission for His people. God isn’t interested in seeing His people debate with each other over non-trivial issues. Instead, God wants a people who reflect His character to the world while obeying His commandments because they have been transformed through His love. God’s character is love, God’s commandments are built on the foundation of love, and the Holy Spirit is the only Source we have for truly living out God’s love in the world today.

While Jesus received empty homage from the soldiers leading up to the cross, when we come to Jesus to give him honor, respect, love, and worship, let’s genuinely and humbly give Him our lives, our minds, our attitude, and most importantly, our hearts!

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

Always seek God first in your life. When you come before God to worship Him, be humble, be present, and be willing to give Him the gift He wants the most. The gift God wants isn’t our money or our stuff; the gift God wants is our hearts. When we worship God, with every gift we bring, we should include our heart with it.

Also, always pray and study the Bible for yourself to grow a personal relationship with God. A personal relationship with God is the best way to know God’s will for your life, and a personal relationship with God is the best way to learn what He wants to teach you. While pastors, speakers, authors, or even podcasters can give you ideas to think about, only the Holy Spirit can direct you to what God wants to teach you personally through His Word.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or even get distracted away from where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Flashback Episode: Year of the Cross – Episode 42: During the last stop Jesus makes before heading down the road to Calvary, we discover an amazing, subtle theme within one of the cruelest passages in the entire Bible.

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Choosing Truth over Tradition: Matthew 23:37-39

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As we continue moving through Matthew’s gospel, we come to a passage where Jesus shares a brief message to the city of Jerusalem. In a subtle way, this message isn’t truly for the city of Jerusalem, as in the walls and structure of Jerusalem, but for the religious leadership living in Jerusalem, both during the first century while Jesus walked the earth, as well as during the earlier and later centuries.

Let’s read Jesus’ message for Jerusalem, and discover what we can learn from His message for us living today. Like all our passages in this Year in Matthew, our passage for this episode is found in Matthew’s gospel, and this episode we will focus in on the end of chapter 23, reading it from the New Century Version. Starting in verse 37, Matthew records Jesus saying:

37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone to death those who are sent to you. Many times I wanted to gather your people as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you did not let me. 38 Now your house will be left completely empty. 39 I tell you, you will not see me again until that time when you will say, ‘God bless the One who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

In the chronology of the gospels, some people believe this message was actually given before Jesus entered the city on a donkey. If this is the case, then this would be something Jesus shared on the last trip to Jerusalem before He entered the city on a donkey.

However, Matthew includes this message after Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey with the procession, leading me to wonder if Jesus shared this message again during this week leading up to His crucifixion with the intention that it foreshadows His second coming. While there are many reasons to believe Matthew brought in an earlier teaching into His gospel here, Matthew wouldn’t have done this without a reason. Because Matthew includes this after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, Matthew wants to point us forward to a future time when Jerusalem will see Jesus.

On the surface, this message and event seem to be very narrowly focused on the Jewish people and specifically the spiritual leaders living in Jerusalem. The message begins by calling Jerusalem by name not once but twice. One might think that Jesus was sharing this just for the religious leaders alive during the first century, but leading into this message, Jesus summarizes the response the spiritual leaders had towards the messengers God sent.

Jesus’ summary of Jerusalem’s response to those who God sends them is that they killed the prophets and stoned to death God’s messengers. The religious leaders’ response is one of continued rejection of God. What is interesting to note is that earlier in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus challenged the Pharisees and religious leaders on this same point. Jesus calls the religious leaders out for how their ancestors rejected God’s messengers, before a few generations later deciding to honor God’s messengers after the punishment and disaster they had predicted actually happened.

One might think that the spiritual leadership would have realized this and changed their ways, but Jesus’ message to Jerusalem tells us that no such change was going to happen. Because of this, many people see in Jesus’ message a prediction of a future where God turns His attention to another group of people instead of the Jews. Some people also believe that this passage suggests God will stop sending prophets and messengers after Jesus.

However, in this passage, while I can understand the logic in both these ideas, I don’t see the context of Jesus’ message being one of outright rejection by God, and I don’t see this passage suggesting that God will stop sending messengers. Instead, I see the context of this passage, and really a big theme in this passage, relating to God giving the Jewish nation protection. God isn’t going to force His protection onto a group of people – especially a group of people who are actively rejecting Him.

With the message Jesus shares, I see God expanding His focus, which does not mean rejecting the old in favor of the new. While prior to this, God had focused on trying to teach and share His blessings through a specific nation of people, this ultimately failed, not because of God’s plan not being good, but because sin-tainted humanity is not that reliable.

Also, the focus of this passage is on the broad group and structure of the religion and not on the individual believers. I do think that this is significant to pay attention to, because Jesus is not saying that from this point in history, or from a specific point in history, no more Jews will be saved. Instead, I believe this message emphasizes how God will broaden His focus because the Jewish religious structure and the culture of the Jewish religious leadership had proven it was more interested in protecting its tradition over being dedicated to God.

Jesus loves the Jewish people just as much as He loves the non-Jewish people. This message is not a rejection of the individual who comes to God asking for help. This message isn’t even a message of rejection for a group of people, Jews in this context, who decide to earnestly seek God with their hearts and lives. Looking at first century history, the Jewish leadership actively rejected Jesus, and in the years and decades following Jesus’ return to heaven, the Jewish community pushed the new Christians away, first by trying to persecute them, but also later by adjusting their worship to be unwelcoming towards a follower of Jesus.

Some might still believe this message was only for those living in the first century world. However, in my mind, this message has much bigger implications. In His message to Jerusalem, Jesus emphasizes that leading up to the first century generation of religious leaders, the Jewish religious leadership had rejected God’s messengers. Unfortunately, this same theme is present in the Christian church following Jesus’ time on earth. The hundreds, if not thousands, of different denominations represent different divisions of God’s people because of one group’s rejection of a messenger who may or may not have been from God.

While there are those in Christianity who focus on unity above everything else, the challenge with this belief is the same challenge Jesus gives to Jerusalem. Regardless of the point in history we are looking at, it is very easy for the leadership in any religious organization to become closed-minded and to reject the messengers God sends their way.

Regardless of the denomination one is looking at, regardless of the “not-a-denominational-church” one is looking at, and regardless of the faith community one is looking at, the temptation is present to reject the messengers God sends in favor of holding onto tradition or compromising further from the truth.

The remedy for this condition is humility. The remedy for a community is to test every belief they have and test it with the weight of the scriptures. The remedy for the leadership of a church is to place the truth of the Bible over the traditions of men, and to support or defend these truths with what is written in God’s Word!

While this approach won’t be popular from our secular world’s perspective, or from the perspective of those who value tradition or unity over truth, placing the truth of the Bible over the traditions of men is the only way for a church or community to stay united with Christ.

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

As I regularly challenge you to do, intentionally seek God first in your life and dedicate your life to serving God and His truth over traditions that lead away from Christ.

Also, continue to pray and study the Bible for yourself to stay firmly connected with God and to build a strong foundation for your belief in His truth as revealed in His Word. The Bible is the test we are called to use when evaluating traditions and spiritual truth, and it is the only safe place to go when trying to discern God’s character. While the Bible records some challenging events for us to unpack, the Bible is the clearest picture we have into God’s character and His unfailing love for all of humanity.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or walk away from where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Year in Matthew – Episode 41: In a message Jesus shares to the religious leadership of Jerusalem, discover how this truth is relevant and important for every group of believers both before and after those living in the first century. Discover how this challenge is a challenge for even those of us living today!

Join the discussion. Share your thoughts on this passage.

Flashback Episode — Replacing a Murderer: Luke 23:13-25

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After Pilate’s conversation with Jesus, and after Herod has sent Jesus back without finding anything worthy of death, Luke’s gospel describes the shift that took place that transitions from Jesus simply being released to Jesus being crucified. In Luke’s gospel, we discover two fascinating ideas present in this transition.

Our passage for this episode is found in the gospel of Luke, chapter 23, and we will read it from the New International Reader’s Version of the Bible. Starting in verse 13, Luke tells us that after Herod had sent Jesus back:

13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people. 14 He said to them, “You brought me this man. You said he was turning the people against the authorities. I have questioned him in front of you. I have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Herod hasn’t either. So he sent Jesus back to us. As you can see, Jesus has done nothing that is worthy of death. 16-17 So I will just have him whipped and let him go.”

18 But the whole crowd shouted, “Kill this man! But let Barabbas go!” 19 Barabbas had been thrown into prison. He had taken part in a struggle in the city against the authorities. He had also committed murder.

20 Pilate wanted to let Jesus go. So he made an appeal to the crowd again. 21 But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

22 Pilate spoke to them for the third time. “Why?” he asked. “What wrong has this man done? I have found no reason to have him put to death. So I will just have him whipped and let him go.”

23 But with loud shouts they kept calling for Jesus to be crucified. The people’s shouts won out. 24 So Pilate decided to give them what they wanted. 25 He set free the man they asked for. The man had been thrown in prison for murder and for fighting against the authorities. Pilate handed Jesus over to them so they could carry out their plans.

In this passage, Luke tells us that Barabbas had taken part in an uprising against the authorities and that Barabbas had committed murder. In an interesting, though disturbing twist, the religious leaders are guilty of both of these things. The religious leaders are set on murdering Jesus who has done nothing that would legally warrant death, at least in the eyes of both governors in the area, and the religious leaders and their crowd of supporters are getting so worked up over this one issue that they probably would have started a riot-rebellion in the city, just like Barabbas.

Also, in an odd sort of way, the religious leaders, while claiming to support Rome, are really allying with one of Rome’s enemies. By requesting Barabbas’ release, these leaders say with their actions that they would rather be led by a rebellious murderer than by a loving, miracle-worker who happened to push them spiritually.

Another thing I find fascinating in this passage is that Jesus willingly takes the place of a commandment-breaker. Not only is Barabbas guilty of murder, which is breaking one of the least contested laws in the Ten Commandments, Barabbas is also guilty of rebelling against the rulers of the land. While there is little that we can redeem from Roman culture that is worth mentioning here, God clearly saw the Roman Empire rise into power, and through Daniel’s prophecies, we discover that God may have even directed some of the events to take place.

While governments are not always positive, and while many things in governments around the world are not redeemable in any way, shape, or form, it is worth noting that these negative governments are only in place because God has let them be in place. While sometimes rebellion makes sense, I think that the attitude David has in the Old Testament may be a better approach to facing human governments.

In the Old Testament, David knows he will ultimately replace Saul as king of Israel. The prophet Samuel has anointed him, and he has the respect of many of the people after defeating Goliath. However, David is unwilling to press forward into the position everyone knows He is destined to be. Multiple times, David has the upper hand against Saul, and every time, David restrains himself and his men from lifting a hand against Saul, the ruler of the people. Saul repeatedly sets out to kill David, and while every time fails, many of these times result in Saul calling off the pursuit after David has clearly shown that he does not wish to harm Saul.

Barabbas is the complete opposite of David. Barabbas would likely have killed the emperor of Rome if he were given the chance. And Barabbas was the sinner Jesus chose to replace that weekend. Since Jesus was part of writing history, He could have picked any time and anyone to replace. Jesus chose to take the place of one of the worst people in society to show us God’s love towards us, and to give us a picture of God’s loving us while we were still rebellious sinners.

There were always going to be three crosses that weekend, and the center cross would have had Barabbas on it if it weren’t for Jesus. Jesus died that weekend not just for Barabbas, but for every rebellious person, every sinner, and everyone who has broken God’s law at any point in their past and at any point in history. With Jesus’ death, He is able to promise us a new life with Him and a future eternal life with God forever.

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

As always, be sure to seek God first in your life. Thank Jesus today for what He did for you and I on the cross that weekend, and thank Jesus for the gift He offers to you and me when we place our faith, belief, and trust in Him.

Also, be sure to always pray and study the Bible for yourself to learn, grow, and discover the truth that God has for your life. While pastors, speakers, authors, or even bloggers or podcasters can give you ideas to think about, always filter what you hear, see, and read through the lens of the Bible. The Bible has stood the test of time as a reliable guide for our lives, and when something in our lives doesn’t make sense, the Bible should be the first place we look to for an answer.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, or rebel away from where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Flashback Episode: Year of the Cross – Episode 41: When the religious leaders demand that Barabbas be released, we discover that Jesus loved humanity enough to step into the punishment of a rebellious murderer. Jesus was willing to take the worst possible punishment of the worst reputable person in society on Himself, because God loves each of us that much.

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Giving God what is Truly His: Matthew 22:15-22

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As we continue in Matthew’s gospel moving through the week of Jesus’ crucifixion, we come to an event that stands out in my mind as both brilliant on the part of those who wanted to trap Jesus, and brilliant on the part of Jesus for His response avoiding the trap. During this week, it seems as though the religious leaders amplify their attempts to discredit Jesus, or at the very least, during this week, the gospel writers direct their attention onto these leaders’ challenges more than in the earlier portion of Jesus’ ministry.

Our passage for this episode focuses on one of the more interesting challenges in my mind. We can find it in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 22, and we will read it from the New Century Version of the Bible. Starting in verse 15, Matthew tells us:

15 Then the Pharisees left that place and made plans to trap Jesus in saying something wrong. 16 They sent some of their own followers and some people from the group called Herodians. They said, “Teacher, we know that you are an honest man and that you teach the truth about God’s way. You are not afraid of what other people think about you, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 So tell us what you think. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Before continuing to read Jesus’ response, I want to pause and explain this seemingly no-win scenario. The Pharisees and the Herodians were enemies, but in this one instant, they temporarily ally in order to catch Jesus say something wrong.

From how I understand this event, the Pharisees claimed all life was dedicated to God, and this conflicted with allegiance to the state government that the Herodians supported. In contrast, the Herodians promoted allegiance to the state, and in this case to Herod and Rome, and their big emphasis was on the payment of taxes to support Rome.

Both sides emphasized money, and the Pharisees taught that money should go to the church first, whereas the Herodians taught that taxes should be paid first. Paying taxes was a form of giving allegiance, and the Pharisees taught that allegiance should only be given to God, while the Herodians taught that taxes and allegiance should be given to Rome.

In the minds of these two groups, together they could trap Jesus saying something He shouldn’t, and either Jesus would be discredited among the Pharisees and the religious system, or He would be in trouble with the government.

However, Jesus knew and saw this trap. Continuing reading in verse 18, Matthew tells us:

18 But knowing that these leaders were trying to trick him, Jesus said, “You hypocrites! Why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me a coin used for paying the tax.” So the men showed him a coin. 20 Then Jesus asked, “Whose image and name are on the coin?”

21 The men answered, “Caesar’s.”

Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

22 When the men heard what Jesus said, they were amazed and left him and went away.

In Jesus’ response, we see an example of answering the issues at hand while avoiding the trap of choosing one side at the expense of another. Those challenging Jesus only saw two possible outcomes, because they had their focus entirely on the money portion of the debate. It never crossed their minds that all money with Caesar’s image was simply being loaned to them by the Roman government.

The response Jesus shared is brilliant because it amplified what we actually give God as being more than simply money. Looking at God’s blessing from the other direction, God has blessed us with so much more than money and what we are called to return to Him is more than simply money. While God can bless us with money, and while we are called to give tithes and offerings, God has given us much more than money, and without the other things God has blessed us with, money would be irrelevant.

Society also has more benefits than simply giving us money, but the majority of society’s benefits are supported in part by the monetary system of the society we are in, and in many ways, this makes money a more central theme in the society portion of this discussion.

I have heard people use this passage to support paying taxes and to refute the necessity of paying taxes. However, I believe both sides of this debate miss the much bigger challenge in Jesus’ response.

Leading into Jesus’ reply, we find an interesting description of Jesus shared by those bringing Jesus this challenge. Whether it was a Pharisee or a Herodian who asked the question in verse 16, he opens the question by saying, “Teacher, we know that you are an honest man and that you teach the truth about God’s way. You are not afraid of what other people think about you, because you pay no attention to who they are.

In my mind, this is an interesting way to describe Jesus. First, Jesus is described as a teacher, as an honest man, and as someone who teaches the truth about God’s way. Either this opening is an empty compliment from someone who doesn’t believe this, or it is a window into how these leaders understood Jesus, even if they didn’t like Him. Next, Jesus is described as someone who isn’t afraid of what other people think about Him and as someone who doesn’t pay attention to who other people are.

Is this an accurate description of Jesus?

As I look at Jesus’ ministry, I would agree that this is an accurate description. As I read the gospels, I see Jesus fulfilling the role of a teacher, Jesus living honestly, and Jesus teaching the truth about God’s way. I also see Jesus as someone who isn’t afraid of what other people think about Him. About the only potentially questionable descriptor is the last one, which is someone who doesn’t pay attention to who other people are.

Does Jesus ignore or not pay attention to who other people are?

In the context of the religious leaders of that day, the answer is definitely a yes. In first century culture, the religious leaders looked at race, nationality, age, and gender among other things to determine who to pay attention to and who to interact with. In contrast, Jesus didn’t selectively choose to help others based on physical appearance or any characteristic present. Jesus only focused on helping the specific need that an individual had, and He did this to show to those present that God is interested in helping each of us exactly where we need help.

With this framing of Jesus’ character and ministry, what can we then see in Jesus’ reply about taxes?

In my own mind, I see Jesus minimizing money to simply being a cultural tool that we use in the context of the society we live in. We pay tax to help support the society we live in, and specifically the services within our society.

To contrast this, Jesus challenges us to give to God what is God’s. When looking at our lives and when looking at what the Bible teaches, what is clearly God’s?

The clearest answer I see for this question is that our breath is God’s. At creation, God breathed life into humanity, and in many places in the Old Testament, the breath is described as returning to God when we die. Some might call this breath our spirit, but regardless of how the Hebrew word is translated, what God gave us when He created us returns to Him when we die.

God is not interested in our breath returning to Him before our mission on this earth is finished. Instead, God has loaned us breath so that we can fulfill the mission and purpose He has placed us on this earth to fulfill. In this challenge Jesus shares, I see Jesus challenging every person who has breath to dedicate their breath, or we could say their spirit, or we could say their lives, to God and to the mission He has placed us on this earth to accomplish!

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

As I always challenge you to do, continue seeking God first in your life and choose to place Him first. Choose to give God what is God’s and to dedicate your breath, your spirit, and your life to Him and fulfilling the purpose He placed you on this earth to accomplish.

If you don’t know what God has placed you on this earth to do, be sure to take this question to God in prayer. Through prayer and studying the Bible for yourself, you are able to grow a strong, personal relationship with God, and the closer you grow to God, I believe the clearer you will be able to see His mission for your life.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or give up on where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Year in Matthew – Episode 40: When some religious leaders bring the perfect trap question to Jesus, discover how Jesus both masterfully answers the challenge, and how Jesus amplifies our gifts to God as being much more than something money can buy.

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