Wednesday, January 29, 2014


"I tell you that of those born of woman there is no one greater than John
-- but the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he."
Luke 7:28; also Matthew 11:11

In a comment on my previous post I was asked to "expand a bit" on what Jesus meant when He said this.  The thoughtful reader had noticed that I glossed over this verse without comment.  So now I can't ignore it, even though I am not quite sure what to say.  (Uni told me to ask Jesus what He meant, but though I did, He has not answered me yet and I don't feel that I'd better wait for His return to receive an answer.)  Anyway here are some thoughts.

First we should notice that long before Jesus made this statement, even before John's birth, the angel had announced to his father Zechariah that his son " ... will be great before (or in the presence of) the Lord..." (Luke 1:15).  I can find no other person of whom this is said, and I suspect that this thought may have been in Jesus' mind.

So John is the greatest of those of human birth and is great even in the presence of the Lord.  But what does Jesus mean when He compares "the least person" to John?

Jesus uses the word "least" (Greek - mikroteros - "smallest"), one other time as applying to persons, when the disciples were arguing as to which of them was the greatest (Luke 9:45-48).  He showed them a child, spoke of receiving a child in His name and concluded, "... for the one who is least among you all -- this one is great" (9:48).

John was, in a sense the last of the Old Testament prophets.  He came as the fulfillment of prophecy -- the Lord's Messenger who would precede the Messiah (Malachi 3:1), Elijah the Prophet (Malachi 4:5).  As such he was the greatest.  But the coming Kingdom that John announced was already present in the Person of Jesus, as Jesus Himself told the Pharisees, "... the Kingdom of God is in your midst" (Luke 17:21).  The new citizens of that Kingdom were already being gathered, even though the Kingdom's complete physical appearing was (and still is) yet future.

We should recognize that Jesus often used hyperbole; He spoke of many things using extreme language and/or superlatives to express the radical differences in His Kingdom from the way things are perceived in the present age -- "the last will be first," "the least is the greatest."  We should be careful of an overly literalistic interpretation of His words.

John was the greatest in the old age, but now that the new age has arrived things are different.  There is room for many "great" persons.  And those who take the position of the least in this present phase of the Kingdom -- those who serve -- will be great in the coming phase.

Will John have a place in the Kingdom?  Of course.  But the beautiful thing is that there will be others who are honored -- those who are least, who humble themselves to serve.  I think that Jesus is telling us that though John is great, others have opportunity for greatness.

Bob, I apologize if I "expanded" too much.  I hope I "expanded" enough.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


He appeared suddenly in the desert -- a wild looking preacher who probably looked as out of place in his day as he would in ours -- his hair and beard uncut, his clothing nothing but the fur of a camel, tied with a leather belt, his diet consisting of nothing more than locusts and wild honey.  He preached a message that would probably not be too palatable to our generation and it would seem not to be too palatable to his own.  And yet people flocked to hear him in great numbers.  His ministry would undoubtedly be regarded as successful were he preaching today, with our regard for numbers as a measure.

John the Baptist is one of the most fascinating characters in the New Testament.  Luke alone in his gospel tells us the story of his miraculous birth to parents who were way beyond child bearing years, that he was a distant relative of Jesus, that he was in some way a fulfillment of prophecy and that he was "filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15).  It is also only in Luke that we read of John's childhood and youth spent in the desert -- just one verse (1:80).

But all 4 Gospels tell us of his public ministry.  John was sent as a forerunner to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, by preaching to the nation of Israel their need to repent and return to the LORD, demonstrating their repentance through baptism.  John even baptized Jesus , witnessed the Spirit's descent on Him, heard the Father's voice from heaven and testified that Jesus was "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).

But then John "quit preachin' and went to meddlin'" as the old saying goes.  He accused Herod Antipas the Tetrarch, who claimed Jewish ancestry, of violating the Mosaic Law by taking his brother's wife.  John was imprisoned by Herod, later to be beheaded.  And as John languished in prison, the man chosen by God, this bold preacher, this forerunner to the Messiah, began to have his doubts.  He began to question whether Jesus really was the one who John thought He was.

The story of John's doubts is told briefly by both Matthew and Luke in their Gospels -- just two verses in each.  Luke's version reads as follows:  "And John's disciples reported to him all these things.  And John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord saying, 'Are you the Coming One or should we expect another?'" (Luke 7:18, 19)

Neither Gospel writer gives us any more than that.  The story moves on.  But we want to stop here and ask what's going on?  What happened to John?  After all he said, after all he witnessed, after hearing these glowing reports which seemingly confirm his message, what is it that causes him to question whether Jesus is really the Coming One?

But as it so often is, the Bible is silent where we'd like it to speak.  We can only conjecture.  We can go to the commentaries, but the scholars seem as befuddled as we are.  There are many possible explanations suggested.

One idea that is sometimes put forward is that John isn't really in doubt, he is simply expressing confirmation of his previous opinions, possibly for the sake of his disciples.  I suspect that those who say this, do so because they don't like to see warts.  But the characters in the Bible are as human as we are.

And that to me is the comfort in this passage.  If someone like John can have his doubts and not be condemned, maybe God can deal comfortingly with mine.

Here is a man who felt God's call from his childhood, who had felt himself a fulfillment of prophecy, perhaps even as a child, as his parents related to him the stories of his miraculous birth, of the angelic message, even the Old Testament prophecies.

Here is a man who saw and heard an amazing witness from heaven confirming his thinking about the Messiah.  Here was a man who saw great crowds of his people turning their lives around because of his ministry.

And now here he was, sitting in a cold damp filthy prison cell, perhaps surrounded by real criminals and not knowing when his death might come.  And his disciples come and tell him about Jesus' miracles.

We can imagine that, though John had been sure that Jesus was the coming Messiah, Jesus was not living up to the popular expectation of what the Messiah would do.  And so the doubts creep in.  "Why hasn't Jesus done what is expected of Him?  Why hasn't He taken over and begun His reign?  Why hasn't He delivered His people?  Why am I -- His forerunner still sitting in prison when He could tear down the walls and free me?  I hear reports about His miracles, even His raising the dead; why doesn't He free me?  Could I have been wrong about Him?  Could He simply be just another healer?"

I know I'm just using my imagination but I and (I suspect) many others can to some extent identify with John -- even those of us involved in the ministry.  We feel we've given our lives over to serve and found that our service is not only unappreciated but condemned.  Oh sure, we've kept our heads (at least literally) but we've found ourselves in the slough of despond.  And maybe we've not asked the questions John did, but we have questioned Jesus.

It is interesting to read what happens when John's messengers come to Jesus.  Jesus doesn't give what we'd see as words of comfort.  He simply tells them to go back to John and relate what He's doing.  And He gives what appears to be a rebuke, though not a harsh one.

"And when the men had come to Him they said, 'John the Baptist sent us to you saying, 'Are you the Coming One or should we expect another?''"  (Luke 7:20)

"At that very hour Jesus healed many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits, and He gave sight to many blind persons.  And He answered them and said, 'Go report to John the things you've seen and heard:  blind receive sight, lame walk, lepers are cleansed and deaf hear, dead are raised, poor are preached the gospel -- and blessed is the one who does not stumble over Me!'"  (Luke 7:21-23)

But interestingly, though Jesus doesn't send comfort to John, He has nothing but praise for him after John's messengers leave.

"And as the messengers from John were going away, He began to say to the crowds about John.  'What did you go out into the desert to see?  A reed shaken by the wind?  What then did you go out to see?  A man dressed in soft clothing?  Look, those who are  dressed in splendid clothes and live in luxury are in royal palaces.  Well, what did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  This is the one about whom it's written, 'Behold I'm sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.'  I tell you that of those born of woman there is no one greater than John -- but the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he"' (Luke 7:24-28).

So what do we get from this story?  I'm not sure, but here are a few thoughts.
·       God allows us to have doubts.  He knows our faith is not perfect.
·       We will never receive all the answers to all our questions in this life.
·       Jesus cares, even when He doesn't do for us what we expect Him to do.

Monday, January 20, 2014


The other day a friend mentioned in an e-mail that the above question came up in a discussion and she wanted my input.  The question seems pretty simple and straight-forward, but like many such questions (especially "Why?" questions) it is not that simple.  Though I can point to a few Bible verses for a simplistic answer, I felt I needed to dig a bit deeper.  It has, of course, to do with the age-old question of the relationship between God's sovereignty and human free (?) will.

For those unfamiliar with the background of this question, a brief synopsis of the story found in the book of Exodus beginning in chapter 3.

The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt.  Moses after a not too well thought out action found himself a fugitive in a far land, where he met the LORD, who called him and assigned him to return to Egypt and free His people.  With some reluctance Moses packed up his family and started back, but before he'd gone too far the Lord gave him a final warning:

"When you get back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I've put in your power, but I will harden his heart so that he won't let the people go!"  (Exodus 4:1)  Not too encouraging!

Thus begins a long dramatic story of the contest between the LORD and the gods of Egypt with Moses performing all sorts of signs and wonders and Pharaoh seeming to relent followed by the statement that "Pharaoh's heart hardened" or something similar.

Before we get too far, we should notice there are 21 references to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart in chapters 4-14 of Exodus.  There are 4 different Hebrew words used and there is a great variety of expressions:

·       In 10 references, the LORD (or the pronoun "I") is the subject -- 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17:

"I will harden Pharaoh's heart"; "The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart."

·       In 3 references, Pharaoh is the subject -- 8:11, 28; 9:3:

"Pharaoh hardened his heart."

·       In 7 references, Pharaoh's heart is the subject -- 7:13, 14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35; 14:5:

"Pharaoh's heart hardened" or "Pharaoh's heart was hard."

As about half of the references refer to the LORD doing the hardening and about half seeming to give Pharaoh the blame for hardening his own heart, we have to ask a second question -- who is responsible, the LORD or Pharaoh?

Though we're told twice that the LORD promised to harden (4:21 and 7:3) before we're told that Pharaoh had a responsibility (7:13, 14), we're not to suppose that Pharaoh is simply behaving like a robot.  We see a hard-heartened self-willed Pharaoh already in chapter 5 when Pharaoh challenges Moses.

"Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go?  I do not know the LORD and besides I will not let Israel go!"  (5:2)

The LORD takes the challenge as we read in the following chapters.  The words "I am the LORD" or something similar are repeated over and over, apparently in reply to Pharaoh's demand, as the LORD strikes Egypt over and over with plagues.  We could say that the whole rest of the story tells of the consequences of Pharaoh's rejection of the LORD.

It's in 9:16 though where the LORD through Moses tells Pharaoh, "For this cause I allowed you to stand (or made you stand) in order to show you my power and in order to proclaim My Name through all the earth!"

So this is the answer to our "why" question.  God hardened Pharaoh's heart in order that His name would be proclaimed.  If I may put this in other words, God used the hardness of Pharaoh in order to let the world know who He, the LORD is.

To answer the question as to who is responsible, we need to go outside the story.  The Apostle Paul comments on this passage in Romans 9:14-18.  There he makes clear that God is sovereign in all His actions whether He has mercy or hardens.

But as I mentioned above, Pharaoh appears in the story as a hard-hearted, self-willed sinner.  And throughout the story he seems to be held responsible for his words and actions.

There appears to be a theme throughout the Scripture:  God hardens people, but the people He hardens have already chosen to be hard.  We don't read of God hardening people who have good intentions or motives.  Perhaps Paul's words in Romans 1:18ff best describe the "process."  People know something of God and His will but reject it.  It is then that God hardens, or as Paul says, He "hands them over" to the consequences of that rejection- further hardening - a mind incapable of making correct moral decisions.

God is the Sovereign Ruler of the universe.  According to Romans 8:28, "He works all things together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."  The "all things" includes even the actions of those who are opposed to Him.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Watching the evening news on TV is depressing.  It seems at times that the whole Middle East and all of Central Africa is filled with continual conflict.  Muslims killing Muslims, Muslims killing Christians.  And what is even worse, Christians killing Muslims.

For many years I have followed the news from The Voice of the Martyrs -- news of persecution and martyrdom, how followers of Christ are harassed, murdered and imprisoned by those who are enemies of the Gospel -- Muslims, Communists, even Hindus and Buddhists.  Uni and I pray regularly for the persecuted Church in those nations where it is ostracized, even outlawed.

But what is the most heart-breaking came out on the news the other evening:  the Muslim dictator of the Central African Republic has been deposed.  Good riddance we might say, Praise the Lord!  Under his government, the minority Muslims population, ran roughshod over the Christian population, killing, burning, driving many away from their homes.  Now the shoe is on the other foot.

We see instead men (and a few women) shrieking into the camera, waving guns and machetes screaming for vengeance.  The newsman tells us that these are "Christian" militia.  These men have amulets hanging around their necks that we're told are magic.  It seems that the word "Christian" is repeated over and over.  It rings in our ears and sounds worse than the worst profanity.  We wish it could be beeped out.

One man waves his gun and knife in the air as he faces the camera.  He tells us excitedly how he pulled a Muslim man off the bus that was passing by, how he slit the man's throat, how he poured gasoline all over this man and how he set him on fire (apparently while still alive).  His excitement seems to increase as he tells what came next.  "I ate his leg!"  This man is regarded as a hero by his companions.

And the reporter keeps repeating the word "Christian" as he explains how these people have been oppressed and now they are out for blood.

Wait!  I say to myself, as I try to wrap my mind around what I've witnessed.  These people aren't Christians -- they're pagans!  Look at all that pagan stuff hanging around their necks and adorning their bodies.  Why does he keep calling them Christians?

But maybe they are.  Is that possible?  They've been persecuted for years; they've suffered the attacks of their Muslim neighbors.  Who could blame them for taking up arms to defend themselves and their families?

Yes, but Christians don't do what these people are doing.  Didn't Jesus tell us to love our enemies?  Didn't He tell us to turn the other cheek?  What gives?

I try to comfort myself by telling myself that these people are Christians in name only, that they've been "Christianized" but not genuinely converted.  Well, maybe.  Probably.

Then I think of Christians in America.  We have groups that call themselves "Christian Militia" here as well; we don't need to go to Africa.  Hate groups, racist groups, cross-burners, "sovereign citizens," all spouting hate in the name of Christ.  Again we can comfort ourselves by saying the same about these groups as we do about those in Africa:  they're not really Christians.  But what about the hatred and violence spouted by some nice Christian people we know?  What about the racism and political extremism?  What about the cruel things we say about those in a different economic class, sexual orientation or political preference?

We might even try to understand those in other lands by recognizing that they are products of a pagan culture (thought this is no excuse), but what about American Christians?  How much are we products of our "pagan" culture"  I'm afraid that like those cannibalistic Christians in Central Africa, our worldview is shaped as much (or more) by the culture around us.

Culture can be to some extent neutral; but there are elements of every culture that are diametrically opposed to the way of Jesus.  We who claim to be His followers, must distinguish those elements and put them away from our thinking and behavior.

As I write this, many things come to mind:  our politics, our entertainment, even our education.  I was tempted to make a list, but that would be counter-productive; it could be legalistic.  But I do challenge everyone who claims to follow Jesus to recognize those elements and put them out of our lives.

"Stop being conformed to this age,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."
Romans 12:2

Thursday, January 2, 2014



Uni and I have been reading in 2 Chronicles, the brief bios of the kings of Judah, from Solomon to the collapse of the Kingdom.  It's not exactly the most encouraging book in the Bible; like most history it has its ups and downs.  Each king is rated with words such as "________ did good in the sight of the LORD,' or "_________ did evil in the sight of the LORD."  A few (out of many) samples:

"... when the kingdom of Rehoboam was established and strong ... he and all Israel with him forsook the Law of the LORD" (12:1).

"And Asa did good and right in the sight of the LORD his God, for he removed the foreign altars and high places, tore down the pillars, cut down the asherim poles and commanded Judah to seek the LORD God of their fathers and to observe the Law and Commandment" (14:2-4).

"And the LORD was with Jehoshaphat ... he did not seek the Baals, but sought the God of his father and walked in His commandments ..." (17:3, 4).  "He walked in the way of his father Asa and did not depart from it, doing what was right in the sight of the LORD" (20:32).

"Ahaziah was 22 years old when he became king ... his mother was his counsel to do evil(!) ... and he did evil in the sight of the LORD ... " (22:2-4).

And on and on.  We read encouraging accounts about a king, how he tore down idols and led a great religious revival and a return to the true worship of the LORD.  But then the next king would lead the people astray into idolatry and the worship of Baal, even human sacrifice.

But these accounts are given only from the perspective of the kings.  What about the people themselves?  Was their faith dependent on the yoyo-ing faith of whomever sat on the throne?  I suspect that though there are occasional accounts of revival among the people, the popular religion of the people of Judah was little affected by that of the kings.  Of course they outwardly conformed --  after all Judah was an absolute monarchy!

There is evidence that the popular religion may have been a syncretism of idolatry and worship of the LORD.  Archaeology has turned up little shrines and idols -- even of Yahweh.  And of course there were the railings of the prophets.  There are also strong indications in the text itself:

"However the high places were not removed; the people still did not direct their hearts toward the God of their fathers" (20:33).

"... they had forsaken the LORD God of their fathers" (24:24).

"... but the people continued acting corruptly" (27:2).

"... the people continued sacrificing at the high places, but only to the LORD their God" (33:17).

Apparently, while great changes were going on at the top, the people were not always affected, whether for good or evil.  They continued on in their syncretistic religion, and even their worship of the LORD was not always tied to that of the priesthood and the temple.  Sure, they did a lot of religious things when required to.  We read that under Asa:

"They entered into the covenant to seek the LORD God of their fathers with all their heart and soul. and whoever wouldn't seek the LORD God of Israel would be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman" (15:12, 13).

Who in his right mind "wouldn't seek the LORD"?

Could it be possible that one of the reasons that the Old Covenant Kingdom eventually failed was that its religion was a top-down religion?  It was forced on people from the top, but the reality didn't always trickle down.  This method was not only the norm under the Old Covenant, but unfortunately it has also been tried many times by those living under the New Covenant:  the medieval Catholic Church, the Puritans' "City on a Hill", many of our hierarchically bound Protestant Denominations, even the "Moral Majority" and other groups on the religious right, and also in many individual churches.

But New Covenant can't be imposed from the top by kings or religious authorities.  It starts in the heart as the LORD promised through Jeremiah:

"... I will put my Law within them and will write it on their hearts and I will be their God and they will be My people.  And they'll no longer need to teach each other and say to each other, 'Know the LORD', for they'll all know Me, from the least to the greatest, declares the LORD, for I will forgive their iniquities and remember their sin no more" (Jeremiah 31:33, 34).  It's an inward work of the Spirit of God.

Jesus didn't come to impose Himself from the top down, He "emptied Himself and took on the form of a slave.  ... He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8).  He didn't choose kings and priests in order to enlist their aid in spreading His Kingdom.  He rather started by putting Himself at the bottom and choosing normal common working people and even society's outcasts to build His Kingdom with.

"You know that those who are supposed to rule the nations lord it over them and their great ones exercise authority over them, but it is not thus with you ... ” (Mark 10:45).