In the Beginning

Genesis 1

January 29

How one starts a story has quite a lot to do with how the rest of the story plays out. 

Once upon a time…

A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

And my personal favorite in fiction:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Today we start the story of creation, and the first four words tell us quite a lot. 

In the beginning God…

Anything and everything that comes next depends on this text and, as such, these words are fascinating. 

Apologetics is an art form and a science. Apologetics means, simply, “defending ones faith,” and so Christian Apologetics is about giving reasons for why we believe anything we believe. Why do we believe the Bible is the word of God? Why do we believe Jesus is the Son of God and Messiah? Why do we believe God exists at all? These are good questions and it’s important that you have general answers to them. 

But Genesis 1:1 doesn’t answer them. Genesis 1:1 assumed God is. There is no argument for or against him. There is no argument about other gods or goddesses, about how this book is his word versus other books that say conflicting things, nor does it defend the “contradictions”that some non-believers point out in the text. 

Genesis 1:1 just says “God created.” Simple. Easy. Plain. 

But of course, it is anything but simple and easy and plain. 

I could spend quite some time talking about my own interactions with the text, trying to understand it and science at the same time. I could work to show you whether this text is poetry or narrative and how the text in chapter 1 relates to the order of creation in chapter 2. I could tell you that through strong but loving conversations with important people I have worked out the perfect explanation to the text. I could tell you exactly how you should read this text, end of story, done, nice and easy. 

I could tell you that, but I won’t. 

My own interactions with the text have been difficult. 

People smarter than me read this text literally verbatim as the God’s-eye view of what happened in Genesis. Other people, still smarter than I, say “it’s a metaphor and symbolical account of creation and we need to understand how to read this literately.”

I have come to some strong conclusions but truthfully I hold them loosely because I know what a struggle it was to get to where I am, and I could change tomorrow. 

The only thing I can tell you with certainty is that this text tells us with all seriousness that God is not a distant observer of space-time, nor one and same with the universe, but a powerful mover-and-shaper of all things by the word of his mouth. 

And because the story starts this way, it changes how the rest of the story plays out. God makes light and calls it good, and the metaphor of light is good in the rest of Scripture. God calls for the earth to bring forth plants. He invites creation to participate with him in the creative act, it would seem. God makes the creatures of the ocean, from the great “tanninim”, which could be interpreted as sea monsters, whales, or dragons, worshipped by other cultures. God creates with his mouth the very things that others worship, because all things exist due to his will. 

Speaking of the will of God for creation, that brings us to the most important part of Genesis 1 in our reading today. 

Humanity is part of but also the fulfillment of creation. God not only makes us, but he makes us in his image. He not only invites us to participate in the creative act, but even invites, empowers, and also demands that we rule over creation. And this is not one man given this role, but humanity, the many as both male and female. We ALL are made in the image of God.

Whatever we think about Genesis 1, what we learn is that humanity is made in the image of God, meaning we have value and worth given by God which cannot be taken away. We learn that God created so that there would be a people who would love him, as Genesis functions are the precursor to the central story of the Old Testament, the Exodus. And we learn that when God looks at his creation, with humans in the midst of a world he lovingly called into being, he says it is 

“Very Good.”

-Jake Ballard

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. How do you interpret Genesis One? I encourage you to accept church tradition/theology and challenge church tradition/theology, to accept scientific discoveries and challenge scientific discoveries. In both “church” and “science”, we find truth. But, we need to balance truth with wisdom, and see that much that comes from both “church” and “science” are interpretations and value judgments, rather than simple, plain truths. How will you continually seek to understand God’s word? Who do you turn to listen to about church tradition, theology, science and how to interpret each of those factors?
  2. Even though Genesis One assumes the existence of God, and doesn’t try to argue for him but just proves him via his actions with his people, how do you answer the questions presented above? : “Why do we believe the Bible is the word of God? Why do we believe Jesus is the Son of God and Messiah? Why do we believe God exists at all?” What is your answer for your friend who might ask you any one of these questions. If you don’t have a ready answer, then are you “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”?(1 Peter 3:15)
  3. Too often we are told that humanity and all life is a cosmic accident brought about by the random chance of amino acids bursting forth into life in a hot pool of water millions of years ago (a bad interpretation of science, see above). However, this is not true. You are not a cosmic accident, but the keystone of God’s creative act. How does it make you feel that you are part of the final creation of God in Genesis One? Do you believe that God made this world and then declared that it is all very good? How can you honor the role to rule over creation that God has given you and how might you enjoy the very good creation of God this week?

How the Story Ends

Matthew 28

January 28

This week has been rough. My daughter was sick; it’s been snowy and cold; my younger kids are in a “destroy-the-house-and-dad’s-sanity” kind of mood. To top it all off, these have not been easy devotions to write, and probably not easy to read. Judgements and woes, apocalypses and parables, betrayals, regrets and death. 

But that’s not how the story ends. 

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of watching Jesus Christ Superstar, a musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber, and if you’ve seen the original version, something is striking about the end. It ends with them burying Jesus after the crucifixion. The name of the final song is “John Nineteen:Forty One”, a sweeping and somber orchestral piece. That verse reads : “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” It’s poetic and tragic and sad and moving and compelling. 

But that’s not how the story ends.

Life can be hard. Sometimes it’s our kids or friends having a cold, which today means a “COVID scare”; but sometimes it’s our mom or dad diagnosed with something terminal. Some days are snowy and cold; sometimes a coldness creeps into our souls that shuts out the world around us. Sometimes our physical house is a disaster; sometimes our emotional home, the relationship within the walls, seem broken beyond repair. 

But that’s not how the story ends. 

On the first day of the week, two women who loved and cared for Jesus go to where his body was laid. They know the location, they were there when the door was sealed just days ago. But the body isn’t there. An angel, in the form of a man, says to them “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying.” And they are told to go to Galilee, for that’s where they and all the disciples will see him. But before that, he greets them on the road. And he says “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.”

But that’s not how the story ends. 

See, Jesus meets them in Galilee. And he gives them a command. In the Greek, the only command is “make disciples.” That is the commission we are given, given to every Christian since the resurrection until the last moment. Is what you are doing in life making disciples? Jesus says that they should make disciples by going, by baptizing, by teaching them. Those are indispensable parts of the commission. But it doesn’t mean “go on a mission trip and baptize and teach someone over there.” It means “whoever isn’t a disciple, go to them, love them, pray for them, if they accept the message baptize them, and then as they walk beside you in life teach them.” That’s the great commission. 

But that’s not how the story ends. 

Jesus tells them that he will be with you, WITH US, ALWAYS. He says he will not forsake us, even until the end of the age. That means that as long as this world endures, Christ is with us. There will be a day where we may not be alive, and we will sleep, awaiting resurrection. But Christ will bring a new age in. 

But that’s not how the story ends.  

Because the story doesn’t end

Instead, because of the resurrection of Jesus to life, because God has shown with power that Jesus was the genuine article, the real deal, the true Messiah, then when he said that we who believe in him will have eternal life in his name, that is a guarantee we can trust. Those who follow Jesus begin their story now, will begin a new stage in the resurrection, but their story will continue on forever. We will truly be able to write our last chapter as “They lived happily, eternally, ever after.”

And that’s how our stories will start

-Jake Ballard

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Take a moment to think about, journal about, and pray about where you are in your story. Are things really good, and you are connected to your loved ones and God, thriving and growing closer together? Or is your story really difficult to read right now, much less live through? Are you asking the author of our stories to show you how HE reads your story? Would our life look different if we examined it from God’s eye? What would change because of the perspective? What would stay the same? How might this view alleviate your anxiety and worries?
  2. The great commission should fill us with hope and purpose, not shame and guilt. Jesus has died so our sin, guilt, and shame might be nailed to the cross. Jesus is raised to empower his followers to make disciples for the good of the world. How can you start to fulfill the great commission today? Are you ready to change the world through the power of God? Do you believe that God wants and expects you to be radically fulfilling the calling to make disciples, no matter your age, your schooling, your gender, your race, or any other factors?
  3. If you want the true beginning of your story to read “They lived happily, eternally, ever after…”, then will you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior today? Will you repent of sin and trust that he has forgiven them? Will you trust that he will never leave you nor forsake you but will be with you “until the end of the age” and into the age after that?

Betrayal, Regret, Beating, Condemning, Tearing and the Grace of God.

Matthew 27

January 27

Quite a long title, but Matthew 27 is quite a long chapter. So much happens; more than we will have the space to touch on here. 

Betrayal and Regret

Yesterday, we read about the two betrayers of Jesus. I want to finish that story thread. In the first portion of Matthew 27, we see Judas regret betraying Jesus. But Peter also regretted what he did. He went out from the courtyard and wept bitterly. However, it is not in the betrayal that these men were different, but in trusting the grace of God. 

Judas, in an act of cowardice and pain, hung himself. For those of us who have been harmed by a friend or family member taking his or her own life, we all know that the act is coming from a place of pain, hurt, and torment. In some more clear moments, we also see the selfishness of the act, the self-centered-ness of it. I know this is a painful topic, but please hear this with all love and grace : Judas is at his worst in this act. All Judas focuses on is his own pain, his own hurt, his own shame, his own betrayal, and therefore takes his own life. He acts in a way to stop what he did and the consequences acting upon him. Not every suicide is like this, but Judas’s suicide clearly was. His regret cost him everything. 

Peter, on the other hand, does not focus on himself. Peter sees the pain of his master Jesus, the hurt Jesus is enduring, the shame Jesus is feeling, the fact that Jesus is being betrayed. Peter regrets his choice, but he also trusts in the grace of God. That grace is not free. It costs Peter everything, even his own life. But it gives so much more. Grace is Jesus sitting across the fire from Peter after breakfast and saying “Peter, do you love me?” Grace restored Peter to a place of leadership among his brothers. Grace is what led Peter all the days of his life. Grace is what will raise Peter in the last days, and will say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Peter believed, in his worst moment, in the moment of his greatest weakness, that the grace of God could reach him even there. 

Beating and Condemning

It is the grace of God that pushed Jesus to be condemned. The crowds shout for his death, though they cannot even find a compelling case against him even among the liars. The crowds get a prisoner back free for appeasement and they want the insurrectionist Barabbas rather than Rabbi Jesus. Pilate washes his hands of the matter, but he is as guilty as those who claim the blood of Jesus on their heads. 

But we stand in no better place. The blood of Jesus covers our heads. We circle the King enrobed in scarlet, asking him to prophesy and speak who hit him. But he remains silent. But it is the grace of God that he remains silent. He knows that the blood on the heads of the Jews, the blood on the hands of the soldiers, the blood that covers each one of us as we stood condemning him, is the same blood that will wash away their sins. He could call twelve legions of angels to rescue him (Matt. 26:53) but instead he remains silent so that his death might save the world. It is the grace of God that held Jesus to the cross, not the nails, nor the Romans or Jews. Grace.

Tearing the Veil

At the death of Jesus one of the immediate effects was the tearing of the veil. This seems like a minor detail; of course in the midst of darkness, earthquakes, and storms there will be some torn tapestries. But this is not a small thing. This is the veil in the heart of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the temple was the holy place. Inside the holy place, behind the veil, was the holy of holies, where at one point the Ark of the Covenant sat. When the Jews would sacrifice, the priest would go into the Holy Place and sprinkle the blood of the bull before the veil. 

The death of Jesus brings about the end of sacrifices. There is no need to continue to sacrifice and have the blood sprinkled before the veil. The veil is torn. But even more glorious and gracious, the Holy of Holies is no longer kept away from people. The center point of the dwelling of God on the Earth was in the Holy of Holies. But because of Christ, God dwells in us. We, the collective church, have become the temple as we are built together in love. (1 Cor. 3:16, Eph. 2:21) It is by the grace of God that the Veil was torn and the dwelling place of God is now in the hearts of people, just as one day the dwelling of God will be upon the earth. 

In the midst of earthquakes, darkness and storm, some may think it was the terror, or madness, that drove the Roman soldier to say, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”

But I don’t. I think it was the grace of God.

-Jake Ballard

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. To be very clear: if you are struggling with mental issues, especially thoughts of suicide, get help today. You are loved, you are cared for, and no one wants you to go that way. During the pandemic, anxiety, depression, and self harm levels have also risen. You are not alone! Your church family and pastor love you, as do your brothers and sisters here on SeekGrowLove. If you do not have a safe person to contact in your family or church, please reach out to the national suicide prevention hotline : 800-273-8255 or https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org OR you can call or text the crisis text line : https://www.crisistextline.org
  2. There was strain of the devotion today that implied we were guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus. While we weren’t there, and it may not be our ancestors (because guilt isn’t passed from parent to child that way), it is because of our sins that Christ died. Have you ever considered your actions worthy of this kind of ignoble death? Do you recognize that the love of Christ FOR YOU kept him on the cross? Do you see the grace of God FOR YOU that allow his son to be a sacrifice? 
  3. While those questions are difficult, do you also see the grace of God in tearing the veil? Do believe that God himself dwells IN YOU and especially in US as we gather as believers? What amazing grace we see from God in being and becoming his temple. Have you said along with the Roman Centurion by the grace of God, that Jesus truly is the Son of God?

Memes and Remembrances 

Matthew 26

January 26

At this point in our reading, things start to get serious, so before we get into that I’d like to give you this meme for your sharing pleasure. I hope that you can enjoy the humor, because the stories and questions today should give us time to pause and think, to pray, and to trust in the grace of God. 

We start with this meme because of the story in verses 6-13. While there are multiple proposed solutions to how many times Jesus was anointed (see note), at this point I lean to the idea that Jesus was anointed with oil in two different scenarios, the one recorded in Luke, and the one recorded in Matthew, Mark, and John. In Matthew a woman pours very costly perfume on Jesus, and the disciples were livid. “HOW MUCH GOOD COULD WE HAVE DONE WITH THAT MONEY?!” They all berate the woman. But Jesus recognizes the act of utter worship and adoration that this woman desired to give him.

When Jesus said “you always have the poor with you” was he saying that we shouldn’t give to the poor? After all, if we give to the poor person in front of us, won’t there be another the next day, right? For the latter question, yes there will always be another poor person. But for the first question, Jesus was referencing Deuteronomy 15:10-11 “Give generously to him, and do not let your heart be grieved when you do so. And because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything to which you put your hand. For there will never cease to be poor in the land; that is why I am commanding you to open wide your hand to your brother and to the poor and needy in your land.” Jesus wasn’t saying “don’t give” but instead “if you are so concerned about the poor, you will be able to give to them with OTHER gifts.” In fact, Judas was berating the woman because he would have had access to the funds for himself, as he stole money from the group. Maybe other disciples were upset that this woman was showing greater devotion for Jesus than they were willing to show. Jesus is, in effect, calling their bluff : “If you truly want to serve the poor, you’ll be able to do so the rest of your life. She is choosing to serve me now!”

The rest of the chapter is full of familiar stories that we remember during the Season of Lent, Passover and Easter/Resurrection Sunday every year. 

Jesus at this time institutes the act of communion, a time to remember what Christ has done for us. To be fair, Jesus does not begin something new, but changes the focus of something ancient. Passover is a holy Jewish meal that signified God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt. Jesus says it’s no longer just about that. Now, this bread that was about fleeing slavery is about the body broken for us to free us from sin. The wine is now about the blood of Jesus spilt for the forgiveness of our sins. 

Judas decided to betray Jesus and feigns offense when Jesus accuses the disciples there is a betrayer in their midst. Jesus knows what he has decided and is not fooled by his act. But we shouldn’t miss that Peter ALSO betrays Jesus. Judas desired money. Some postulate that Judas was trying to force Jesus and God to bring the Kingdom now. But whatever his motives, the betrayal was still evil and unjustified. But the betrayal of Peter was just as significant and just as thorough. Peter’s betrayal was fueled by self-preservation and fear. Both denied their Lord, their Savior… their friend. 

Jesus is broken hearted by what is happening to him. He knows that the woman who anointed his feet just days before was preparing him for burial, but still he did not want to die. He asks God if he can be spared, not only from the pain of death, but the rejection he is about to receive from God on behalf of all people. Jesus is about to have all sin heaped on him. God is about to cut all ties from his Son, and their connection will be severed so sin can be destroyed. Jesus, in his love for all of us, decided to follow the plan of God. He decides that he will drink the cup of the wrath of God, so that those who trust in Christ will not have to drink that cup themselves. 

While we began with a meme, we need to take time for serious remembrance of what Christ decided to do for us. 

Let us remember the anointing and worship of the woman. 

Let us remember the poor that Jesus calls us to serve. 

Let us remember Jesus by taking communion as we are able. 

Let us remember Peter and Judas so that we may not betray Jesus like they did. 

Let us remember a savior who was willing to die for us, who was willing to take the cup of wrath, and was willing to do the will of God so that we may have grace and peace and life. 

-Jake Ballard

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Are we willing to anoint the feet of Jesus with everything we have? Are you willing to give extravagant worship to Christ that others call outrageous, because you know how you have been forgiven? How deep does your love and worship go?
  2. Go back to yesterday’s question 3 (are you taking care of the least of these?) Ask yourself those questions again. Are you serving the poor, giving to them no matter how many there will be in the land? Or is your heart hardened by the reality of this world? Will you ask God to change your heart and make you love the poor?
  3. Have you participated in the grace of communion recently? The next time you do, take a moment to reflect on the thousands of years that the faithful people of God have celebrated this meal and emblem, first as freedom from slavery in Egypt, and now, through Christ as freedom for slavery from sin. How does it make you feel that you participate in thousands of years of history along with all of God’s people?
  4. In our sin, do we betray the savior who loves us? In what ways can we overcome the sin we have so we do not betray and deny our savior and lord?

Note: For an explanation of multiple ways of interpreting the passages see: https://answersingenesis.org/contradictions-in-the-bible/how-many-times-was-jesus-anointed/ AIG believes there were THREE events, but I think that even that would be a bit of a stretch. 

Parables of the Future

Matthew 25

January 25

In today’s chapter, there are three parables: the Parable of the the Ten Virgins, the Parable of the Talents, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. 

It is important to note that parables are earthly stories that teach spiritual truths. Jesus creates images that his hearers would understand, and applies them to spiritual realities. The Parable of the Talents section will go into more detail about interpreting parables.  

The Parable of the Ten Virgins

In the first parable, we see ten women who are waiting to guide a groom to his bride. Five of these virgins were wise and prepared for the coming of the groom by have enough oil to last all through the night. Five were foolish, unprepared, who have to run off and fill up their supply of oil while the groom is on the way. They weren’t ready for the bridegroom and his coming, and they were not allowed in because they were late. 

Obviously, we can see the parallel with our faith. The point made by this story is simple and spelled out for us in verse 13: “Be on alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” We must be prepared for the coming of Christ, ready for his return. 

But what does it mean to be ready for his return?

Parable of the Talents

In the second parable, a master goes on a long journey, and gives talents to his slaves. When we read “talent,” remember that the word HERE means “an amount of money”. A talent is a VERY LARGE amount of money, about 6,000 denarii. A denarius is one days wage. 1 Talent would take a working person 16 years to save. (see note) Five talents, two talents, and one talent are all VAST sums of wealth, and the King gives them to his slaves and entrusts that money into their care according to their abilities. When the master returns, he rewards those who use his wealth to make more, but punishes the one who hides the money away and does not use it. 

Again, we should start to see some connections to our own life. It is important to remember that this is a parable. Jesus is using images from the world around him to teach a spiritual point. The talents given by Jesus, the King, to us, his slaves, are decidedly not always money. There may be people who follow Christ who are dirt poor. Moreover, it should not be considered specific abilities or spiritual gifts. Because this story is a parable, one-to-one relations don’t always work. For example, what is the oil and who are the oil sellers in the parable of the ten virgins? Don’t think too hard on it, because those are silly questions. The parable is about being ready for the return of Christ. I’m making a similar point for this parable: don’t try to define what the talents are (spiritual gifts, or natural abilities, or other) but think of them as the blessings of God in our life generally. And that makes the point clear: We can either use the blessings God has given us to produce more blessings for ourselves and others while risking and sharing, or we can bury our blessings and avoid the risk of interacting with others. 

If you use the talents with which you are gifted, you will receive the reward the master gives. He says to both the one with five talents as well as the one with two : “Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (21, 23). Note the words aren’t different, though the blessings are. We are to use our blessings that we have been given. We are not to worry about not having as much as the next person or whether we can see the fruit of them using their blessings. It is for the master to judge them, not another slave.

Finally, Jesus, our master, EXPECTS us, his slaves, to gain on the blessings given. For the slave given one talent, even if the talent was just “put in the bank”, then it would have been better. Instead, the slave played it safe, and is punished for his unfaithfulness. The one who is was unfaithful has their blessings revoked and the blessings were given to the faithful. (Another reason we don’t think of talents as specific spiritual gifts or natural abilities. It seems doubtful that God would take the spiritual gift or natural talent from one and give it to another.)

We need to be ready at all times for the return, and that is by using our blessings to bless others. Jesus puts a fine point on this teaching by saying the final parable of the chapter. 

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats

In the final parable, all humanity is imagined as a herd of animals, sheep and goats. The final judgement, that comes at Christ’s return, has him separating sheep and goats. Jesus tells the sheep that they fed, watered, invited, clothed, and visited the great king by doing it for the “least of the brothers of mine.” When we care for other Christians, we are caring for Jesus, the great king Himself. Moreover, many Christians have understood a greater implication. Because Jesus is human, he views all of humanity as brothers and sisters. This is why Paul says in Galatians 6:10 “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” Not ONLY believers, but especially believers. It starts in the family and radiates outward. However, the goats did not feed, water, invite, clothe, or visit the great king. When they did not care for their brothers and sisters in Christ and for their human family, they were not caring for the king. 

And what happens to each group is shocking. One is given eternal life, life in the age to come, life that lasts forever because it is in the presence of the One who is Life. And the other is punished, and the punishment, death, will be eternal and final. 

These three stories teach us what it means to be ready for the return of Christ which is promised in chapter 24. To be serving the least of these, both in and out of the family of believers, with any and all blessings that God has given us, actively waiting and expectantly watching for the coming of Christ. It is not staring at the sky while twiddling our thumbs nor is it quietly serving with no Kingdom messages. It is serving the least, blessing them, and sharing with them the Gospel of the Kingdom. That’s the message of the parables.

-Jake Ballard

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Are we the wise or the foolish virgins? Will we be found prepared, without knowing the day or the hour? Will we be running around when he comes, hoping to be found ready?
  2. Are we faithful with the blessings of God we have been given? Are you using the gifts God has given in an effective way?
  3. The sheep seem to be surprised that they were serving the King, and the goats are surprised they weren’t serving him. Are you taking care of the least, the last, the little and the lost? When have you fed or given water to the poorest in your community? When have you given clothes to those who have none or invited them into your homes? It is tempting to say “I give to charities that do that” but Jesus won’t be asking the charity if THEY cared for the least of these, he will be asking you and me. Will we be in surprise that we served or in surprise that we did not?

Note: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/HarperCollinsBibleDictionary/t/talent

Consumed with the Vision

Matthew 24

January 24

Do you know someone who had a quote or a phrase that they said so often that you can hear it in their voice? Maybe it’s Jerry Seinfeld’s “What’s the deal with…” or you can see a cute electric mouse and hear “pika-pi”. I think most people at Timberland Bible Church can hear these words in my voice : “That’s good news! That’s gospel message! That’ll preach! Can I get an amen?!”

I bring up this aural phenomenon because it happened to me while reading Matthew 24. Every time I read Matthew 24:14, I am transported back to my grandparent’s house. I am sitting at the kitchen table, and James Mattison, who I knew as Papa Jim, is telling me about his ministry in Africa. I had asked, “Why did you go?” right before we ate lunch. And he opened his worn down Bible, though he quoted the verse by heart. “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” I can hear and see him, but I can also feel him : I still see his composure brimming with energy, I can still hear his confidence tempered with humility, but I FEEL his burning conviction. It was not someone else’s duty to speak this gospel to the world. It was his. Malawi, Mozambique, Africa needed the gospel of the kingdom of God to be preached to them. It was imperative, and Papa Jim knew it was his imperative.

James Mattison was consumed by the vision of Matthew 24. He knew it inside out and backwards. But most of all, he knew what it entails. Lots of Matthew 24 is worrisome. Things look bleak, destruction is coming, the end is scary. But that isn’t what Jim was focused on. Primarily he knew that the end had to come so that the perfection of the Kingdom could come.  He also saw in this teaching commands, commands that I want you to see. He was consumed by three truths of Matthew 24. 

  1. No matter what comes at the end, there is given to the faithful the strength to endure it all. Jesus says the one who endures (in Revelation, the parallel phrase is “the one who conquers”) will be saved. (24:13) But that enduring is not merely hanging on. 
  2. In verses 42-51, Jesus declares that he will return like a thief in the night, like a master on a long journey. The ready and alert won’t be caught off guard, and therefore they will keep doing what the master has commanded them. 
  3. And what Jesus has commanded each of us is to preach the gospel of the Kingdom. Technically, in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus commands us to make disciples (more on that later), but part of that is to teach people to follow the commands of Jesus. Preaching the gospel of the Kingdom and teaching all Jesus commanded us is the call for Christians. Let us continue so that the master might find us working. 

You may not be called to Africa and in fact most of you AREN’T. You are called to where you are. To endure, to be ready, you need to be consumed by the vision that we see in Matthew 24. Will you listen to the call of Jesus, and tell others the gospel of the Kingdom?

-Jake Ballard

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Are you consumed by the vision of Matthew 24? James Mattison believed it was his imperative to preach the gospel to the world, especially Eastern Africa; to where are you called? Are you listening for the call of Jesus at all, and if you are telling others of your faith, do you tell them about the gospel of the Kingdom?
  2. Do you feel like you have been skimming by, enduring, or conquering the last year? Do you feel like you AREN’T enduring or conquering? How can you be empowered?

The Anger of a Gentle Man

Matthew 23

January 23

I’ve heard a quote from an author of fiction. In The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss writes “There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.” While we could think about every point, the one most important to the author, and for our reading today, is the last one : what does it look like to kindle the anger of  a gentle man?

Jesus was a man of gentleness.(Matthew 11:29) He did not “break a battered reed” or “extinguish a smoldering wick”(Matthew 12:20), meaning he was careful to not be aggressive in his movements and actions. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter and as sheep are silent so was he. (Acts 8:32) But, we must never assume that Jesus was timid. The same man who accepted his sacrifice as the plan of God(Matthew 26:39) and who felt the lost-ness of the people in his gut (Matthew 9:36) is also the man who turned over the tables (Matthew 21:12) and called out the Pharisees like we see today. 

Why did Jesus rail against the scribes and the Pharisees in the way he did? It is interesting to note it is not about theological disagreement. If you compare Jesus’s teaching to the teachings of the Pharisees, they are similar on most counts. It’s not about what they say, but about what they do… or rather, what they fail to do. They claim that to be righteous, holy, dedicated, people must behave in specific ways. However, they then do not help people meet those demands. Jesus tells a healed man to take his mat and go home; instead of praising God for the miraculous healing, the Pharisees complained the man was carrying his mat! They were so focused on the letter of the law, and keeping it so that they would be seen as holy, that they were unable to see the Holy One who was in their midst.

Because of their hypocrisy, their “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” mentality, Jesus pronounces seven or eight woes upon them (the second woe, “devour widows houses” is not in the earliest manuscripts). Jesus is angry enough at their actions to ask God to bring a curse upon them; that is what these woes are. They block people from the kingdom, they attack the weakest in society, they convert people not to truth but to their own misconception of God and scripture, they twist the words of promises and vows, they focus on the minutiae of law keeping while ignoring mercy and justice, they strive to look holy while not BEING holy, they claim they would have listened to the prophets while plotting to kill God’s greatest prophet, Jesus.

WHAT ANGER! You can feel the white hot accusations that Jesus rails against these men. He does not treat the woman caught in adultery, or the sinner at the well, or the demon-possessed, or Zacchaeus this way. Jesus says “go and sin no more”, he says “I, who speak to you, am he [the Messiah]”, his presence demands that demons flee and that Zacchaeus give back what he has stolen. But we don’t see his anger on the people, because they recognize that they are broken sinners. The scribes and Pharisees are committing the greatest sins, because while being blind to the light of the world, they claim that they see. 

Jesus’s anger is replaced with sorry in verses 37-39. Can you hear him cry out, lamenting over the people who are currently rejecting him? How often I wanted to gather you in! How I longed for you. But you were unwilling! Jesus knows that he does not have long left. He knows the ultimate rejection is coming and is venting his final words towards the city and its leaders before he is killed for the sins of the world. He is *the* man of gentleness, showing anger to those who harm the faith and obedience of others. 

-Jake Ballard

Questions for Reflection or Discussion

  1. When you picture Jesus, who do you picture? A kind teacher, expressing words of care? A strong Lord, decreeing his will to his followers? A fiery prophet, defending faith and expressing woe to those who disobey God? In what ways would your faith life be different if one of these images were lacking, or one placed above the truth of the other two?
  2. Should we assume Jesus only speaks this way to the hypocrites of his day? In what ways might you and I be hypocritical? Is Jesus shouting at us to wake us up and have us change our ways before it is too late?
  3. If you do not have a relationship with Jesus, I warn you that this gentle Lamb will one day come as the Roaring Lion, the Carpenter of Nazareth will come as the King of creation. Are you ready for the wrath of God displayed in the return of Christ to judge those who sin on the earth? (Revelation 19:15) If you are not, what can you do today to take the next step to make Jesus both your savior and your lord?

*Note: Jake Ballard has never read The Wise Man’s Fear or any other book by Patrick Rothfuss. Neither Jake nor Seek-Grow-Love condone any other part of his work or works or the views expressed therein. 

A New Heart

Judgement, God’s Will, and Salvation

Ezekiel 25-36 in one day!

While we have been thinking about the importance and beauty of God’s word in Psalm 119, we have also been reading Ezekiel. I want to lead you on a speed run through Ezekiel 25-36. 

For the most part, Ezekiel is given a message of judgement against the nations. These nations are those who have harmed the people of God. Many of the Minor prophets got similar messages which could be summed up in modern words as, “You have hurt and abused God’s people, and he will give you justice.” The nations that are judged in these chapters are Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon and Egypt. He spends quite some time on both Tyre and Egypt, and even speaks to their kings directly. The praise he gives in his lamentations over these nations is rather grand. Read Ezekiel 28:11-19. God had blessed the King of Tyre, given him so much, and yet look how far he fell! I hope you can see why a number of people have thought that God started talking about Satan here; an angelic powerful force from the beginning of the world falls to the pit because of pride. I don’t think the text is specifically talking about Satan, but that the King of Tyre represents the satanic spirit and lives his life parallel to the Satanic fall. In these laments, I don’t think God is necessarily mocking their fall. I don’t think he wants to bring the evil back on their head (see 36:11), but the nations and their rulers acted pridefully and never sought the good of his people. God does not allow that to go unpunished. 

And so God sends in his man. So now we get to see the Israelite King or General or War Hero who vanquishes his foes and becomes King over the Kingdom…

Right?

No, God didn’t work that way. God instead says, “I will strengthen the arms of the King of Babylon and put my sword in his hands.” (30:24) God used Babylon. The same Babylon that would later take his people into captivity, the same Babylon that would later be used as the image of the proud nation, as the one who exiles the people of God. What is God doing using Babylon?! 

He’s doing what God always does; His will. 

God is smart enough, wise enough, powerful enough, good enough, loving enough, to take all the broken pieces and people in this world, with their free will and desires and urges and traumas and prejudices and hatreds and pains and hopes…

And God can use it for the good of his people

and the working of his plan. 

Babylon acted in freedom, maybe even sin, and God can take that and make it work for him. 

God can give true freedom to love him or reject him, to walk in righteousness or sin, and he can still work out his will in people. 

You have this freedom. In Ezekiel 33:10-16, God tells his people, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Are you living a life of wickedness, separated from God? I stand, like Ezekiel, as a watchman(33:7), begging you to see the truth. To turn from that sin and live! If you choose to believe in the God of this prophecy, the God of the Torah, the God of all Scripture, who gave us these words and the Word, made flesh in Jesus Christ, If you choose to follow him, then the promise from Ezekiel 36 will happen in you. “ Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.” (25-28)

May you trust in the saving power of Jesus Christ. 

May you turn from sin and judgment. 

May you turn to righteousness, hope, and love. 

May you have YHWH, the one true God, be your God today. 

May you all be the people of God. 

-Jake Ballard

Jake Ballard is pastor at Timberland Bible Church. If you’d like to hear more from him, you can find Timberland on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/TimberlandBibleChurch/ ) and on Instagram (https://instagram.com/timberlandbiblechurch?igshid=t52xoq9esc7e). The church streams the Worship Gathering every Sunday at 10:30. Besides studying and teaching God’s word, he is raising three beautiful children with the love of his life, loves Disney (especially the princess movies), and believes that Christmas music is acceptable from the first Sunday in Advent to January 6th. If you’d like to reach out to talk Bible, talk faith, or talk about your favorite Christmas Song (and why Mariah Carey sings it), look Jacob Ballard up on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/jacob.ballard.336 ) or email him at jakea.ballard@yahoo.com
God bless you all!

Read or listen to today’s Bible reading plan passages at BibleGateway.com here – Ezekiel 35-36 and Psalm 120-122

The Whole Counsel of God

Psalm 119 Part 5 (verses 153-176)

Psalm 119 is a beautiful testimony to the words of God. The psalmist meant to refer to the Torah, the first five books, called books of the Law.

But is that ALL that the psalmist spoke about?

The psalmist referred to what he believed were the words of God, but that is because he only regarded the first five as God’s revealed word. However, the church has come to recognize more than that. First, we believe God revealed himself to Moses in the Torah, and that through a lengthy editing process we have those first five books in their form today. However, other books, books of history, like Joshua and Ruth, were also recognized as being inspired by God. Note how that sentence was worded. It was not that “the church claimed they were inspired” or “the church or councils chose them for the Bible.” The church and church councils only recognized the inspiration already in the text. We saw it in the books of the prophets like Isaiah and Malachi, in the apocalypse of Daniel, and even in the Psalmists own words of 119! Later, we would recognize God’s voice in the writings of Paul, in the Gospels, in other letters, including the letters of Peter, John, and the apocalypse given to John. 

These 66 books compose the Scriptures, in both Old and New Testaments. When we read Psalm 119 and the psalmist’s passion for, meditation on, and memorization of scripture, for us this covers ALL these books. The psalmist was this passionate about Leviticus, how much more should our soul sing when reading the Gospel account of the salvation of humanity! How much more should we rejoice in committing to memory the words of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. (John 1)

Read Psalm 119 (or, hopefully, re-read it!) and focus on what we have seen over the past few days:

As you read Psalm 119, see the artistry of one who so deeply loved God’s words, and allow it to show you the beauty of God’s scripture from Genesis to Revelation. 

As you read Psalm 119, praise God for the fact that he would reveal himself in the scripture and how much more he would reveal himself through his beloved Son Jesus Christ. 

As you read Psalm 119, recognize the Torah’s important role in beginning the Revelation of God to his people, and may it propel you to continue to walk in God’s way through the life and teachings of the fulfillment of the Torah in Jesus. 

As you read Psalm 119, pray, meditate and memorize God’s words so that they may be a lamp unto your feet and a light to your path, and that you might keep your way pure. 

As you reads Psalm 119, may you fall in love with the words of God, the Word of God, and ultimately, with the God who loves you. 

-Jake Ballard

Read or listen to today’s Bible reading passages at BibleGateway.com here – Ezekiel 33-34 and Psalm 119:153-176

Spiritual Disciplines and Psalm 119

Psalm 119 Part 4 (verse 121-152

Before you click away, don’t be scared, turned off, or apprehensive of the words “spiritual discipline”! It’s a shorthand term for something like “the practices and habits that, when performed in love for God, move our hearts and minds to such a place that God can change us.” You can see why “spiritual disciplines” is easier. Psalm 119 has, implicitly and explicitly, four of these practices running through the text. If continually done, these practices and habits can put us in a place to live the best kind of life, the kind of life God wants us to live. 

Prayer

First, the psalm itself is a prayer. The psalmist is constantly calling on God. God is the “you” in the psalm. “You have ordained your precepts” and “By keeping it according to your word” are both ascribing worth and prestige to God. He is the God who gives precepts. He is the God who gives his word. The ground of every discipline is prayer, speaking to God and allowing space for him to speak back. In verse 147 this is the most clearly said. “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I wait for Your words.” The psalmist speaks and is ready to listen. The psalmist has cultivated a prayer life in God as he opens the pages of the Torah and begins to read. 

Bible Reading

Second, an extremely important spiritual discipline is Bible reading. While we should be open to hearing God’s voice in a miraculous vision from heaven, in speaking in tongues, and in prophecy (all which may have a place in the Christian life), the most common and most sure way to hear the words of God is to open a Bible and start reading. What an amazing gift it is that we can do this on computers, tablets, and in our homes. The psalmist would have to wait to go find a scroll in the temple to be able to read or hear the words of the Lord. The psalmist delights in the commandments of God. (See verse 47) Twice in two verses (47-48) he says that he LOVES the commandments of God. How can we love a book we never read? The psalmist knew that the only way to ground his life in truth was in God’s words. “Your Law is truth.”(142) He also knows that it’s not just a truth “out there” that we assent to and merely know, but truth that we can live by. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”(105) Do you read the word of God to know truth and to know how to live truly?

The third and fourth discipline is also founded on this one. Simply reading God’s word is necessary to be able to spend more time with it. 

Biblical Meditation

And spending time with God’s word is the way to define “Biblical meditation.” Meditation has grown in popularity in the west in the past few years. In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Yoga, meditation is quieting the inner voice so that enlightenment and oneness may connect you to everything else. (At least, that is the claim of these philosophies and beliefs.) In these practices, one wants to detach and empty oneself from the world. In modern, western meditation, self-emptying is a part, but so that one can fill up with visions of the future they would like to make manifest, or they speak words of affirmation over themselves. You focus, but the focus is on you. 

In Biblical meditation, you engage your mental faculties on God. You pour over his words. You take words into your mind, but so that they can travel the 18 inches from you brain to your heart. “I will delight in Your commandments, which I love. And I shall lift up my hands to Your commandments, which I love; and I will meditate on Your statutes.” (47-48) The psalmist loves God’s word, so he wants to allow them to rumble and roll around in his head and heart. Meditation is allowing the words to tumble in your mind. To read with love is different than to read to understand. When I read a love letter from my wife, I don’t parse every word to make sure I have the proper tense of the verb. But I do mull over the words in different ways. Each turn of phrase leaves a sweet taste in my mouth as I sound them out. When we were apart before we got married, every “I miss you” text felt like a dagger. And the same is true for the words of the Torah. We mull them over and feel the pain when we are no longer with the Father who loves us and the God who made us. The psalmist in his delight of God meditates. “I will meditate on Your precepts and regard Your ways. I shall delight in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word.” (15-16) It seems the psalmist reads early in the day so that the words can be there all day long. “How I love Your Law! It is my meditation all the day.” (97) And meditating on God’s word, focusing on his words to the exclusion of everything else, is both facilitated by and facilitates the final discipline. 

Bible Memorization

How many verses of scripture do you know? 

Did you know that by 10-13, most Jewish boys were expected to memorize the Torah?

Someone said recently “Well, they memorized their whole Bible!” And I said “Yes, but it was shorter!” 

But, I don’t have the Bible memorized, not even an entire book. I do have sections down, many verses memorized. But I could always learn more. 

Meditation helps memorization and vice versa. When we read a verse in the morning and spend time thinking about it, and allow it to be the focus of our thoughts through the day, then we will have an easier time memorizing. If we memorize verses, then we will be able to have then stick in our heads. 

The psalmist clearly did this. “I have treasured Your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against You.”(11) The psalmist treasured up the words of God in his heart, meaning they were not just known but acted out. BUT, to be acted out, they must be known, memorized. In the midst of temptation the psalmist wasn’t fumbling around for a Bible, or a scroll. “The snares of the wicked have surrounded me, but I have not forgotten Your Law.” (61) The way of life was know to them. He understood that it was vital to memorize God’s law. It was life or death! “My life is continually in my hand, yet I do not forget Your Law.” (109) He knew that following the words of God was because God was the one who gave him life through his birth (73) and the one who gave him new life every day. (93)

Brothers and sisters, 

May you connect with God through prayer in a new and powerful way today,

May you hear his voice as you read his words, in this and every book of the Bible, 

May you hold his words in your mind, 

And as you have them memorized, may they transform your heart. 

And may God bless you this day and every day. 

-Jake Ballard

Read or listen to today’s Bible reading plan passages at BibleGateway here – Ezekiel 31-32 and Psalm 119:121-152

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