Friday, April 22, 2016

The Four Gates: Matthew: 21: 1-11

The best way to understand what went on in Jerusalem during Holy Week is just to tell the story.

Jesus arrived in Bethany on the east slope of the Mount of Olives, which rises east of Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. As you look at Jerusalem from there, you are just even with the temple mound. There were four gates before you, in almost a direct line to the Holy of Holies. First, there was the Eastern Gate of the city, which led into the temple and the court of the Gentiles. Then there was the Kosher Gate, which lead into the court of the Jews. Then there was the door of the Holy Place in the temple where prayers for the nation were offered. Finally, there was the inner curtain entrance to the Holy of Holies itself. 

It was the belief of the Jews that when the Messiah came, he would enter through these four gates into the Holy of Holies and declare Himself king. When He did, the revolution against the Romans would start. If Jesus dared to enter those four gates with the people at his back, it is doubtful that Rome itself could have prevented His ascension to David’s throne.

The Eastern Gate is in the outer wall of the city, at the end of the Palm Sunday road. It is the nearest gate to the temple, opening directly into the outer courts. As Jesus rode a donkey along that road, he passed the tombs of Haggai and Zachariah. Zechariah 9: 9 predicted.  “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

All along that road are graves where the Jews have been buried to welcome the Messiah.  It was believed that when the Messiah came that the graves would open up and the dead would live again. Jesus descended through this field of graves, but the time was not yet for them to open.

A little way down the slope, he stopped a moment to rest on a rock, looked at the city, and began to cry, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often would I have gathered you into my bosom, and you would not!" (Matt 23:37) This was the weeping of a lover, who loved His people more than life itself.

By passing through the Eastern Gate He fulfilled the ancient prophecy. The Lord had come into his temple. The people shouted and cheered. They laid down their coats and palm branches and cried out "Hosanna" which means "Save us!"  They wanted him to go on through the Kosher Gate, but instead, Jesus just disappeared.

The Beautiful Gate was the really important one for the Jews. Only Jews were permitted on the other side. If Jesus were the Messiah of the Jews, he would go through that gate. Jesus didn’t do this. But the next morning Jesus arrived again at the outer courts of the temple through the southern gate, where most of the Jews and the Gentiles entered. There He was in a huge marketplace. He ran furiously among the tables, overturning the merchants and whipping them with a makeshift flail. He was angry at what they had done to His father’s house “My Father’s house is a house of prayer” He shouted, “You have made it a den of thieves!”  Then disappeared again.

The next day he returned to discuss the law with the rabbis and priests. They tried to make him say something that would get him in trouble. They questioned him about the law, claiming that He offended it. He replied that the law was to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. They accused him of offending against Abraham and Jesus replied, "Before Abraham was "I Am" In that statement Jesus claimed to be God. They took up rocks to stone Him, but before they did he He left again.

In the inner courtyard of the temple was the gate to the actual the Nicanor Gate. The actual gate was a building where only priests were allowed, containing the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The priests went in to offer incense, which were the prayers of Israel before God. All he had to do was to declare himself Messiah to enter that Holy Place. It would cause a riot to be sure, but it would start the revolution. If He emerged from those hidden rooms unscathed, the whole nation would acknowledge him as king. But Jesus never crossed those two gates the way they thought he would.

But before the week was out, not only would He open those gates, but, He would tear them off their hinges!

Before a priest entered the holy place, two things had to be done. First he must wash-- no one came before God's presence dirty. Next, he offered up sacrifices. A blood sacrifice was required. 

Thursday night, Jesus led His disciples to an upper room in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. There Jesus washed them, at least their feet. Jesus had been washed two days before by a woman at Bethany, who washed His feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Next they offered up the lamb sacrifice that was part of the Passover "This is my Body--this is my Blood".

Then He led them to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He offered up a prayer for his people, just as the priests in the temple were offering up their prayers for Israel.

Then after He finished praying, pandemonium broke loose! His enemies poured out of their secret hiding places, led by one of His own disciples—Judas! He was taken to the high priest's house and tried for blasphemy and treason.

Meanwhile the fourth gate, the Holy of Holies, remained closed. It wasn't really a gate per se, but an enormous curtain. Behind that curtain only the High Priest could enter once a year to offer up the annual sacrifice before God as atonement for the sin of all the people.

Jesus performed this act on the cross.  This was His Holy of Holies. He went where only the Son of God could go and offered up the one perfect sacrifice—one that no longer needed to be done annually but covered all sin for all time. He gave the only atonement you and I will ever need--the sacrifice of His body on the Cross.

On the modern map of Jerusalem, you may notice what lies directly west of the Temple mound, on a direct line from where Jesus began his Palm Sunday trek. It is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which contains both the probable location of Calvary and the empty tomb. The Rock of Calvary is enclosed within its walls, and you can touch it with your own hands. Jesus made a way for us to touch God with our own hearts, which was denied to the people of His day. By claiming God’s sacrifice, we touch His love, His blessing, and His power.

It is recorded that when Jesus died on the cross, inside the temple the huge curtain was torn from its rings and ripped down the middle. And for the first time since the foundation of the temple, the Holy of Holies was exposed to the world and anyone can go in.
God has opened the Holy of Holies to you.  He has bought out access into the presence of God with his blood.  Now, everyone who can see it can cry, "Praise God, the Messiah has come".

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Fruit of the Spirit: Faith

The seventh fruit of the Holy Spirit is faithfulness.

Faith is a vital and indispensable characteristic of the Christian life. We cannot be a Christian if we do not have faith. It is the one condition God places upon our salvation. “For it is by grace through faith we are saved” Ephesians 2:8.

God’s requirement of faith can be a stumbling block to many believers. Some Christians worry about how much faith they need to have to please God. They worry that they may not have “enough” faith to receive salvation or an answer to prayer. If you have any faith at all, Jesus says that you can move mountains. But Jesus says in Matthew 17: 20,
“If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you."  

A mustard seed was the smallest seed they knew at the time. If you have the tiniest grain of faith, it is enough. A mountain of doubt will not prevent God’s grace from finding you, but the tiniest particle of faith is enough to seal you to Him.

Don’t worry that your faith is weak—act on the faith that you have, and that will be enough.

Faith is a unique quality in the Bible, since it is both a gift and a fruit of the Holy Spirit. He gives us faith (some people receive a great amount of faith) but faith is also something that grows in us the longer we walk with God. Faith is both a gift and a fruit of the Holy Spirit. God gives us faith, some people he gives a great deal of faith, but it is also something that develops within us. Faith develops in us as we walk with God. 

When I first became a Christian, my faith was very weak. I surrendered to Christ over the protests of my very doubtful self. But I discovered that my capacity for faith was a lot like congress—I hardly ever get an unanimous vote on anything being true or false, but it is usually only by a majority vote of my brain cells that I do anything! Somewhere there is always a doubtful minority.

Nevertheless, as I have grown older, that vocal minority has gotten smaller, and the voices of faith have grown stronger. I believe in Jesus more than I did as a child, and continue to grow stronger in my faith with every passing year. Jesus has become increasingly real to me, and my faith in Him has proven right a thousand times over.

But if we think faith is just about what we believe, then we have it wrong. Faith is not just belief, but it is a whole live experience, involving the head, heart, and habits.

In our heads, faith is the basis for all our reasoning and thinking. We cannot reason without belief. Even skeptics believe in the power of skepticism! Their faith in questioning is unquestioned in their minds. If a skeptic can have faith in doubt, then why can we not have the same kind of faith in God’s Word? The scientist believes without question in the scientific method, yet there is no real absolute proof that the scientific method is the only way to be certain about anything. In fact, we all believe in many things that we never question, that we simply suppose (another word for faith) to be true. The lawyer accepts without question that laws must be followed. The Christian accepts the Bible as his basis for reason, the same way a lawyer accepts obedience to the law. It is the only way we can rationally make decisions.

We believe that some things are right and wrong because we have faith in the Bible. We may argue whether or not the Bible meant to say what we think it says, but we do not question whether or not the Bible is wrong, only whether our interpretation of it is wrong. We may question what Jesus looked like, and exactly what He said, but we do not question whether or not He lived, or whether or not He is God. It is part of what it means to be a Christian to believe in something. The certainty of Christ’s divinity grows in us every day.

Intellectual faith begins with a decision. We decide what we are going to do base on our thought, opinions, and lives. That decision is based on a lot more than logic. It’s based on what we deeply, and sincerely know to be true, before we ever start looking for answers. As Augustine once said, we do not know in order to believe, but we believe in order that we may know. But once we know and are convinced then we must stake our lives upon it.

In our hearts, faith governs our feelings. Faith is the reason we feel what we feel. Faith comforts us when we are down, and lift us up when we are rejoicing. Without our emotions, faith would be pretty weak, but we react emotionally to the things we really, truly believe.

If you want to know which parent a little child trusts the most, then there is an easy test. Just scare them. They will instinctively run to either their mother or father, depending on which gives them the greatest sense of security. 

The same thing works with adults, too. If you want to know where your real faith lies, see where you run when you are scared. Do we run to God, or to food, the bottle, drugs, to the company of a friend, or do we just try to forget it by binging on video games or mindless television? 

If you don’t like to be scared, get happy. Where do you want to go to celebrate? Do you offer thanks to God, or do you just go out and have a party? Our emotions reveal our true faith.

Faith also restrains our emotions. If you are scared, why don’t you run away? If you are angry, why don’t you hurt somebody?  It is because something restrains you. That “something” is your true faith. Our faith in God keeps us going when everything else says to quit.

The classic movie Chariots of Fire portrays a true example of this. Eric Liddell won the 400 meter dash in the 1924 Olympics, earning the title of the fastest runner alive. Liddell did it, he says, because of his faith in God. Separated from God, he had no power. But when he saw his running as part of his glorification of God, then he was able to outrun everyone in the world. It was his faith that gave him the power to run to God’s glory.

What motivates you to do great things? Nothing but our faith can give us the emotional power to overcome everything else.

In our habits, faith is called “faithfulness.”  This is the particular aspect in which faith is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. This is faith put into practice over a long period of time. Eugene Peterson calls it “a long obedience in the same direction.” Day after day, moment by moment, we make a habit worshiping, thanking, and obeying God. 

Imagine a person who sets out on a ten mile hike. He doesn’t think that he will be able to walk ten miles. Everything he knows about himself so far tells him that he can never walk ten miles. Emotionally, he is afraid to walk ten miles. But he does know how to take one step in that direction. He takes that step, then another. He walks to the end of the street, then to the edge of town. Still, he doesn’t think he will finish, but by this time he has got in the habit of putting one foot in front of another. He may not believe it, but he is doing it. He has developed the habit of walking. All he has to do is to keep putting one foot in front of another. Eventually, he will walk ten miles. His mind and heart may not agree, but his body is doing it because he is being faithful to the habit.

Faithfulness is a habit. We are faithful to our husbands and wives because we are in the habit of not cheating. We are faithful to our countries, because we are in the habit of obeying laws and saluting the flag. We are faithful to God because we have developed the habit of praise and worship.

Don’t ever belittle the power of simple habits in our lives. Our faithless minds and emotions may tell us that habits of faithfulness are not important, but they are all important.

What’s the most important decision you make in your life? Many people will say it is where you go to college, what you do for a living, or who you may marry. I would suggest that your most important decisions are the little ones not the big ones like when you wake up, what you have for breakfast, what you wear, and how you spend your money.  These decisions become habits, which have long range consequences. They can change your life forever.  

Christian decisions fail for a lot of reasons, but the main one is this—we fail to recognize that making a decision for Christ is not a one-time decision. It’s something we do every moment of every day. It’s not just what we decide to do on Sunday that determines the outcome of our lives, but what we choose to do every day of the week. It is our faithfulness to Christ which has the ultimate power to change our lives. Once we have committed ourselves to Jesus once, then we continue to commit ourselves to Him daily. 

Hebrews 11 is called the “hall of fame of faith” It is a long list of people who were successful in faith in God. But when you read the list, you discover few people who did miracles. Instead, we read of people who waited a long time, and overcame, people who endured suffering, withstood demonic attack and were patient for reward. Their faith was not just head knowledge, or even heart feelings, but habits they followed every day.

If we are to be followers of Jesus, then faith must be a habit to us. We must be faithful every day.