The Power of Mercy and Love

Over 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr said that Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. This was because of the common racial separation within most churches. Some churches are working to change that but it's still prevalent.

But there's another type of segregation or division in many American churches. It's been around for a long time. It plagued Jesus and contributed to His arrest and crucifixion.

The trouble is, we—the church—say we want to welcome "sinners" into the church but when they come they often don't feel welcome. Probably hundreds of books and conferences and blog posts address the issue but with minimal impact.

Many things contribute to this dilemma but the real issue is the heart of the matter. A simple story involving Jesus, a religious leader, and a sinful woman illustrates it best.

A story within a story

Jesus told many parables, some short and some longer. Each one teaches a simple truth and is told within a specific context. The setting or situation preceding or following the parable gives insight to the purpose of the parable.

We find a short, simple parable in Luke 7:40-43 where the situation is critical for understanding its truth. Here's the parable—

“Two men owed a moneylender some money. One owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other owed him fifty. When they couldn’t pay it back, he was kind enough to cancel their debts. Now, who do you think will love him the most?”

Jesus was invited to Simon the Pharisee's home for a meal. During the meal, a woman with a bad reputation came in looking for Jesus. Simon's inner thoughts scoffed at the idea that Jesus was a prophet, let alone the Messiah because of this woman's attention to Jesus.

This prompts Jesus to tell this short parable of a moneylender forgiving what was owed by these two debtors. The amounts were considerable. The 500 silver coins were equivalent to twenty months of wages while the 50 coins represented two months wages.

The Pharisee answered Jesus' question at the end of the parable, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.” Jesus agreed but confronted Simon about the Pharisee's self-righteous, judgmental attitude towards the woman.

Those of us in the church too often fit the profile of Simon the Pharisee. We are quick to judge others as less than ourselves and forget the suspended judgment God showed us because of His mercy.

A study of contrasts

The two characters who interact with Jesus are polar opposites. On the surface, Simon the Pharisee represents the religious elite. He was well-learned in the Scriptures and traditions of his faith with an elevated status and reputation.

The sinful woman had a shameful reputation. She was well aware of her diminished status but she knows of Jesus and of His message to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven was near (Matt 4:17).

This woman risked rejection by both Simon and his cohorts and Jesus. After all, she knew what she deserved, unlike the Pharisees who considered themselves to be godly.

Oddly, no one dismisses her. Did she already know Simon and his cohorts from previous encounters? Her many sins (Luke 7:47) were likely known by many men.

Judgment and mercy

This story reveals a powerful picture of judgment and mercy.

Jesus was invited to the home of a prominent religious leader accompanied by other men (Luke 7:49). Women were only present as servers of the food and had little status then.

In those days, people didn't eat at tables with straight-backed chairs but reclined on the floor, often leaning on one arm while eating with the other hand and with their feet extended outward.

The woman approaches Jesus at His feet away from the table of men. At first, she stands weeping then bends down as she wets the Lord's feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and kissing them with affection and respect.

She opens a vial of expensive aromatic oil and begins to anoint His feet. It's an act of submission and worship. She pours her heart out to Jesus with her tears and the oil.

She was an immoral woman and Simon knew it. So he wonders how Jesus could even allow her to touch Him. Surely this Jesus couldn't be a prophet or the Messiah!

Simon couldn't see beyond her past or her gender. He didn't see her as Jesus did.

The power of mercy and love

The parable's powerful message is revealed as Jesus explains why He told it to Simon (Luke 7:44-47). It exposes the superficiality of Simon's self-righteousness.

This sinful woman with the shameful past showed a respect for Jesus unlike Simon.

Guests were customarily greeted with water to wash their dusty feet, a kiss of acceptance, and oil to anoint their wind-blown hair. Simon offered none of these to Jesus.

This woman washed Jesus' feet with her tears and hair, then kissed and anointed them with oil. Her respect was genuine. Her broken heart pursued Jesus in hope of redemption and she received it.

Simon the Pharisee didn't realize his own need of forgiveness because he was so full of himself. Another parable illustrates the strength of this self-righteous condescension towards others (Luke 18:9-14).

Unmeasured mercy and love

The simple truth of the parable and the whole story is summed up here—

“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” (Luke 7:47 NLT)

God doesn't measure out His mercy and love, we measure it. We limit it based on our measure of others and we see ourselves as an exception to the rule. But this is self-deception.

How have you seen this same condescending attitude in your own heart? I know I've seen it in mine!

God's work of redemption is based on the Lord's nature and the power of His mercy and love. It will always be greater than any religious or spiritual status we think we hold.

This woman humbled herself, sought out and pursued Jesus, risked rejection and humiliation, and poured herself out at the feet of Jesus through her tears, kisses, and expensive fragrant oil.

This is a picture of worshipful surrender and submission to the Lord.

If we say we love Jesus, how can we offer anything less to the Lord than this woman did?

The full story in its context is found in Luke 7:36-50

If you're a follower of Jesus and part of a church fellowship, beware of a hardness of heart towards others creeping in and taking hold. It will limit your full devotion to Jesus and it will be felt by others. Self-righteousness excludes others and gives a distorted image of the Lord.

When we are mindful of how great the Lord's forgiveness is for us, we are less likely to look condescendingly upon others. When we find ourselves drifting towards self-righteousness, it's time to repent—to surrender our heart to the Lord and the power of His mercy and love!


If you're wondering if churches are still racially segregated, here's a post regarding that— The Most Segregated Hour of the Week?

The Nature of Encouragement

When you think of encouragement, who comes to mind? Who is an encourager in your life?

What does encouragement look like for you? Words? Actions?

Encouragement can be as simple as a smile and nod of agreement as you share something from your heart. It may be a kind word, sincere gesture of affection, or a timely prayer. 

I've had several people in my life who have been encouragers. I'm thankful to be married to one of them.

Barnabas

There is one person in the Bible, other than Jesus, who was a living example of encouragement. His name is Barnabas. His real name was Joseph, but he was called Barnabas, which means Son of Encouragement. He lived up to his name.

He is introduced to us as the early followers of Jesus formed into a church community. He is an example of the nature of this early community of believers. The apostles (church leaders) gave Joseph the name Barnabas, he didn't name himself. [Acts 4:34-37]

Barnabas was a follower of Jesus, and showed this by example

The early church was torn apart by a zealous Jewish leader named Saul, who would later be known as the apostle Paul.

After Saul (Paul) became a follower of Jesus the Messiah, other believers were afraid of him, including the leaders. They didn't trust Saul and wouldn't accept him as one of them, at first.

Barnabas the mentor

In steps Barnabas. He came alongside this new convert who had proved himself in Damascus where he became a believer.

Barnabas stood up for Saul (Paul). He vouched for him. Because people trusted Barnabas, they accepted Paul. [Acts 9:26-30]

True encouragers are trustworthy

Encouragers see the best in people

Barnabas knew Paul was special, with special gifts as a teacher and leader, and a special calling and purpose in life. When Barnabas was sent to Antioch in response to a great spiritual awakening, he remembered Paul, who was sent to his homeland of Tarsus.

Barnabas knew Paul's gifts of leadership were valuable and needed in Antioch, so he sought him out in Tarsus. (Acts 11:19-26)

Encouragers are humble enough to see past themselves

This resulted in a strong church established as an extension of the primary one in Jerusalem. It is out of this church, which was developed under Paul and Barnabas' leadership, that the first cross-cultural missionaries were sent out.

Barnabas and Paul, as primary leaders, were sent out to preach the gospel, make disciples, and plant churches. (Acts 13:1-3)

Encouragement is an important element in leadership

This partnership produced a great harvest of new believers and new churches. This growth resulted in a need to define what we call the Christian Faith today. (Acts 15) 

Although this partnership continued to have a great impact upon this powerful church body in Antioch, it didn't last.

A dispute broke out between Paul and Barnabas, and this partnership was broken, or so it appears. Why? Because Barnabas wanted to give a young man named John Mark a second chance. (Acts 15:36-41)

Encouragers are messengers of God's grace

Encouragers see beyond themselves

Barnabas is never mentioned in the book of Acts after this incident. Much has been made of this, with some people concluding that Barnabas was wrong in standing up to Paul. But was he?

Encouragers see beyond themselves for the sake of others

In later years, Paul realizes the great value John Mark was to the church. While imprisoned in Rome and writing to the church in Colosse, he says as much, "...Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him)" (Col 4:10)

Later, as Paul sees his life coming to an end during his second imprisonment, he makes a request. He asks for John Mark to be brought to him in Rome. Why? "Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry." (2 Tim 4:11)

Barnabas, who had stood up for Paul and brought him to Antioch, did the same for John Mark. Had he not done so, would John Mark be useful in ministry? Would the Gospel of Mark been written?

Encouragement is valuable and useful

Encouragement isn't just pleasant words and helpful actions. It can include risking our own reputation for the benefit of someone else.

Encouraging others requires genuine humility

Encouragers reflect the nature of Jesus

Barnabas exemplifies the nature of encouragement. Although Jesus is our ultimate example, Barnabas gives us an example that is reachable.

What was Barnabas' secret? It's no secret at all. He was a true follower of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit—the Comforter and Advocate given to believers by Jesus.

Encouragement is intended to be a part of the nature of all followers of Jesus. [see Acts 11:24; also John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7-14]

If you want encouragement, give it away to others

If you want a real-life example consider Joseph, the man called Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement.

Look for someone who needs encouragement today and encourage them!

Thanks for passing the word along ;-)

The Hope and Restoration Embedded in Judgment

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unsplash_MWieland

Everyone loves a happy ending to a story. Well, most of us do. But life isn't as full of happy endings as we'd like. That's why we like them and we want to believe there will be a happy ending to our life story.

We all want and need hope. Hope helps us endure life's difficulties and struggles. Hope was implanted in us by God when He created us in His image. It's anchored in trust which was and still is the basis of a relationship with God.

When Adam and Eve forsook trust in God to embrace a lie, it resulted in a severe consequence—the cycle of death began (Gen 2:17). This was God's judgment. They were forewarned of this but chose to ignore it. Yet, embedded within God's judgment is the hope of restoration—a happy ending.

Promises of restoration

Continuing with the story from last week, King David indicts himself in response to Nathan the prophet's parable. Nathan then tells David what the consequences will be for his sin. They are severe but there is hope embedded in Nathan's words.

We see a glimmer of this hope when Nathan tells David, “The Lord has taken away your sin; you will not die." (2 Sam 12:13 GW)

When reading through the Bible and of the many judgments foretold and pronounced throughout, it's easy to overlook the promises of restoration embedded within those judgments. This is part of the redemptive thread woven through the Bible.

Human perceptions are limited. We see judgment as punishment more than as justice. Justice is a balancing of the scales but God sees beyond balancing the scales of right and wrong.

God desires to bring reconciliation and restoration. Restoration reaches beyond justice as God extends His mercy to bring reconciliation.

The ripple effect

David's response to God's judgment upon his sin reveals why David was a man after God's own heart (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). David didn't blame anyone or any circumstance. He owned his own sin with a repentant heart as expressed in Psalm 51—

I have sinned against you, especially you. I have done what you consider evil. So you hand down justice when you speak, and you are blameless when you judge. (Psa 51:4 GW)

If God forgave David for this sin, why did David need to suffer such great consequences? (2 Sam 12:10-14) What David put in motion by his sin had natural consequences. This is the ripple effect of sin.

Because he was king of Israel—the leader of God's people—the ripple effect of David's grievous sins affected his life and the nation of Israel for many years. This illustrates the law of sowing and reaping (Gal 6:7-8).

The ripple effect of David's sin included (2 Sam 12:10-14)—

  • the sword (warfare) would never leave his household
  • rebellion and division would also rise up against him in an open and shameful way
  • the baby in Bathsheba's womb would die

All of this came to pass, as seen in the following chapters of 2 Samuel.

Where's the hope?

It doesn't seem like there's much of an upside to all of this judgment brought against David, but it can be seen in two ways.

After praying and fasting for seven days for the child to recover from a sickness and live, the child dies (2 Sam 12:15-21). Once again, David's trust in God reveals hope—

As long as the child was alive, I fasted and cried. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But why should I fast now that he’s dead? Can I bring him back? ⌊Someday⌋ I’ll go to him, but he won’t come back to me. (2 Sam 12:22-23 GW)

David understood God's merciful nature and he believed in life beyond death. He speaks of this in Psalms 16:8-11.

Later, David has another child whom God loved. We know him as King Solomon, but the Lord called him Jedidiah—the Lord's beloved. This was a comfort to Bathsheba and a fulfillment of a Messianic prophecy given to David (2 Sam 7:12-16; Matt 1:1, 6).

Repentance leads to restoration

A full understanding of how hope and restoration are embedded in God's judgment with this story requires reading through Psalm 51. It's like a postscript to 2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12.

David's steadfast trust shines throughout this psalm of confession. It's not just a confession of sin but of trust. Yes, David confesses his sin and asks for the Lord's cleansing (Psa 51:1-9), yet there's an underlying confidence in God's restoration of his life.

Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a faithful spirit within me. Do not force me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore the joy of your salvation to me, and provide me with a spirit of willing obedience. (Psa 51:10-12 GW)

Genuine repentance leads to restoration. Repentance isn't so much a requirement as a pathway to restoration. God is merciful in nature (Psalm 103:8; Luke 6:36) so even hope and restoration are in embedded in His judgment.

What are your thoughts on the idea of hope, restoration, and judgment in light of God's mercy?

A Stolen Lamb

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unsplash.com_RLong

Injustice is just so... unjust! It's a wrong that demands to be made right. When it happens to us, those close to us, or the innocent and defenseless it stirs up anger inside of us and we want some type of justice done.

The greater the indifference or wrong on the part of the offender, the stronger the reaction and demand for justice. Sadly, we can be unaware of our own indifference, even a heartlessness when we cause heartache or wrong others. What's worse is when we are numb and hardened to the cries of the victims of injustice.

But it never goes unnoticed. One person, who is able to bring about true and full justice, not only sees it but holds each one of us accountable for our life.

2 men and a parable

Parables are often associated with Jesus but they are common throughout history in many cultures. Solomon, King David's son through Bathsheba, used several parables in his writing in the book of Proverbs.

Before King Solomon was born, the prophet Nathan told King David a telling parable. One he would never forget. It's found in 2 Samuel 12:1-4 (GW). It begins, “There were two men in a certain city. One was rich, and the other was poor."

The contrast and injustice become more clear as the parable unfolds. It tells of a wealthy man with many flocks who took the pet lamb of a poor man to feed a visitor.

The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cows, but the poor man had only one little female lamb that he had bought. He raised her, and she grew up in his home with his children. She would eat his food and drink from his cup. She rested in his arms and was like a daughter.
Now, a visitor came to the rich man. The rich man thought it would be a pity to take one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler. So he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared her for the traveler. (2 Sam 12:2-4 GW)

As Jesus often did with His parables, Nathan used the parable to convey a simple truth but with a catch. As David heard the parable he responded in an immediate and strong way (2 Sam 12:5-6 GW). In doing so, he convicted himself of his own sin.

The back story

One important factor for understanding parables is the setting for the parable itself. It often reveals why the parable is told. We need to read the story in the previous chapter (2 Sam 11) to understand why this parable impacts David the way it does.

David was the great warrior king of Israel but he chose to stay back and send his army to battle without him. One day after a nap, David took a stroll on his rooftop and saw a beautiful woman bathing. Her name was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.

The enemy of our souls had set a trap and David fell for it.

A thwarted deception

David ignored this woman's marriage and had her brought to his palace. When she became pregnant, David tried to cover his sin. He called her husband home from the war thinking Uriah would sleep with his wife while at home and assume he impregnated his wife.

But things did not go as expected (2 Sam 11:8-13). David did not count on Uriah's loyalty to his soldiers and his honorable character, which was greater than his king.

An unnecessary death

The reactions of the very first encounter with the clever adversary of our soul are seen in David's next decision—the murder of Uriah.

King David instructs his general Joab to put Uriah on the front line of battle then pull back from him. He took advantage of Uriah's loyal and honest character (2 Sam 11:14-17). And so, Uriah's unnecessary death was the consequence of David's ill-fated attempt to cover his sin.

The indictment

“You are the man!” Nathan told David. “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and rescued you from Saul. I gave you your master Saul’s house and his wives. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if this weren’t enough, I would have given you even more." (2 Sam 12:7-8 GW)

What we see of David in this story lurks in all of us. His reaction to Nathan's parable reflects our natural unredeemed self.

We condemn ourselves when we cry out for justice on others without realizing our own wrongness and our need for mercy.

None of us are as innocent as we may think. None of us will avoid true justice—the accounting of our life before the One True and Righteous Judge. But we all need His mercy!

Judgment and restoration

Next week, I'll look into the consequences—the judgment—of David's sin with Bathsheba and Uriah and his response to it. It just might surprise you!

Judgment is a part of God's redemptive story. It's like drawing a line for what God says is acceptable in His eyes. It's not mere punishment. It has a purpose. God desires for His judgment to lead to correction and restoration.

Until then—

What bothers you most about David's actions?

His weakness of temptation, the adultery, the attempt to cover his sin, the murder of Uriah, or David's calculating hardness of heart? Why and which do you relate to most?

What we condemn in others is often what dwells in our own heart.

A Father's Trust

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unsplash.com_SVanLoy

"It ain't over till it's over!" This statement attributed to baseball great Yogi Berra has proven true in many sporting events. The most recent Super Bowl comeback by the NE Patriots and the 1980 USA Olympic team's "Miracle on Ice" confirm it.

But great comebacks may not happen as often as we'd like to see. For all the great turnaround stories in life, many other people experience enduring disappointments.

I've lost interest in book and movies, even baseball games (and I love baseball) only to realize later that I gave up too early. A lot of people approach the Bible and all its stories the same way.

God's story of redemption is filled with many unexpected twists and turns, and His story isn't over till it ends—within each of our lives and throughout history.

The back story

A significant development in God's redemptive story begins with a man who is promised a son. This son would make him become the father of many generations. Abraham (also Abram), the father of Israel, would wait 25 years for this promised son.

But there's much more to the story that begins in Genesis 12. As with many intriguing stories, it has sub-plots, twists, deceit, a leading lady, villains, and battles, and much more, including a surprising climax.

This surprising climax gives us insight into how God would bring redemption for all of humanity and it's not at all what you'd expect. In fact, it's one of those surprising and gut-wrenching twists in the story.

An unexpected ask

Isaac, the promised son, was Abraham's treasured son, born to him at the ripe old age of 100 (Genesis 21:1-7). He had another son with another woman (Genesis 16 and Gen 21:9-21), but that's another story within Abraham's story.

When Isaac was at least a teenager or perhaps a young man, God asked Abraham to do something so shocking to us that many get stuck on it and miss the intent and purpose of the story. Here's the shocking ask of God—

Later God tested Abraham and called to him, “Abraham!” “Yes, here I am!” he answered. 
God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” (Gen 22:1-2 GW)

It's important to read the whole story (Gen 22:1-14) in its whole context. The whole context includes a promise that follows the unfolding of this story with the shocking ask of God. But I'll get to that later.

Trust or blind obedience?

An important piece of context is the time and culture of Abraham. The sacrifice of children to the god Molech was common in those days and in that region of the world. Abraham was well aware of this. This was long before Moses and the Law that forbade such practices.

But there's something deeper in all of this. God made a personal covenant with Abraham regarding this promised son connected to the promised land. By this time, God reminded Abraham four times about this promise (Gen 12:1-3; 13:14-16; 15:4-6; 17:4-8).

Perhaps Abraham was puzzled by God's request but he trusted God implicitly. This was not blind obedience.  We gain insight to this as Abraham and Isaac go to the mountain as instructed by God—

Then Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and gave it to his son Isaac. Abraham carried the burning coals and the knife. The two of them went on together. 
Isaac spoke up and said, “Father?” “Yes, Son?” Abraham answered. Isaac asked, “We have the burning coals and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 
Abraham answered, “God will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, Son.” The two of them went on together. (Gen 22:6-8 GW)

God will provide

Abraham's answer to Isaac remains a mystery as they proceed to the mountain for the sacrifice. Abraham built an altar out of rocks, laid the wood on it, tied up Isaac, and put him on the wood.

As Abraham grabbed the knife to slay his promised son, he's stopped by an angel of the Lord and more insight is given—

But the Messenger of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Yes?” he answered. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you did not refuse to give me your son, your only son.” (Gen 22:11-12 GW)

The big picture and the greater story

If you're still hung up on why God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, I understand. But take a step back to see the bigger picture. Seeing the big picture reveals the greater story.

It was never God's intention for Abraham to kill Isaac. It was a test (Gen 22:1). It was an act of trust by Abraham (Heb 11:17-19). It was an illustration of when God would reverse the course of history through His own Son.

This story is a prophetic illustration of God's plan of redemption, as shared about in an earlier post. Redemption is about restoration, not just settling humanity's account with God because of sin. The illustration is seen in view of the life and death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

Some important parts of the bigger picture

  • the mountain in the land of Moriah (Gen 22:2) represents Golgotha where Christ was crucified (Matt 27:33)
  • Abraham saw the place on the third day of travel (Gen 22:4) just as Jesus looked beyond the shame of the cross to His resurrection on the third day (Matt 16:21; Heb 12:2)
  • the men were told to stay behind (Gen 22:5) just as Jesus did with His disciples as He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36)
  • the wood that Isaac carried (Gen 22:6) is a picture of Jesus carrying His cross (John 19:16-17)
  • Abraham's statement that God would provide a lamb (Gen 22:8) is echoed centuries later by John the Baptizer when he see Jesus, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)

But why...?

I realize it's hard to look past the shocking request of Abraham by God. This requires faith. Not an abstract belief but genuine personal trust in God (Heb 11:6).

We all have questions, even doubts when it comes to faith and trusting God. This is the nature of faith. It requires us to see beyond the obvious or at least, what others see or might believe.

The simple lesson for life application is to ask ourselves if we're willing to trust God with everything and everyone in our life. But there's more to it than that.

Not many of us are asked to sacrifice a son but God does ask us to trust Him. Not just hold a belief of trust but to trust Him day in and day out with our life.

This only develops as we know God in a deeper more personally intimate way and that depth of relationship requires time and a willingness to trust God. That's real faith, the kind Abraham had.

How much of your life are you willing to trust God with?