Three strikes

Three strikes and you’re out! Much to my mother’s dismay, I love baseball. I watch a lot of baseball. Because I love to watch baseball, my mother has learned to endure baseball. In my father’s absence, we had a very nearly intelligent conversation about it just the other day. She even knew what a DH was. While Mom doesn’t know nearly as many of the ins and outs of baseball as I do, she does know that three strikes means that the batter is out. Three outs and the inning is over.

One could argue that baseball is in the Bible. You know, in the big inning God created the heavens and the earth… (groan). There was one occasion, though where someone did reach the three strike count. But that didn’t mean he was out.

Jesus, while reclining at the table after sharing the Passover supper with his disciples, announced to Peter that before the rooster crowed, he would deny knowing Jesus three times. Peter was opposed to this idea. He was willing to go to prison or even to death for and with his Lord. Words are all fine and good, but that’s not how things ended up for Peter.

Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Luke 22:60-62 (NIV)

If life were a game of ball, Peter probably would have been out a long time before this, even if he weren’t, the third denial would have been the third strike. The umpire of life would holler from behind home plate, “You’re outta here!” But he wasn’t out. Peter had not been disqualified. In fact, Jesus made preparations for such a situation. He changed the rules.

But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.

Luke 22:32 (NIV)

Keep in mind that this is the same Peter who had cut the ear off one of the guards who had come to arrest Jesus. This is the same Peter who had the courage to step out of the boat, but began to sink into the waves. The same Peter who suggested they build shelters on the mountain of transfiguration for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. But this is also the same Peter who had the revelation of Jesus being the Son of God.

After his third strike, no one would have blamed Peter for walking away. Perhaps the other disciples would have even suggested it. But just as he remembered Jesus’ prediction of his denial, Peter would have remembered Jesus’ prayer for him as well. In that moment of decision, Peter could have turned his back on Jesus or, as was prayed, used that experience to strengthen himself. He chose the latter.

After Jesus had ascended into heaven, the believers sat waiting in the upper room for something. They weren’t sure what, but they were certain they’d know it when it came. Then came the wind and tongues of fire.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Acts 2:4 (NIV)

So when the crowds heard all this noise and recognised their own native languages who went out to speak. John, the one whom Jesus loved? James? Levi, the tax collector? No, Peter, the one who had denied Jesus. And as he spoke to the crowd, maybe Jesus’ words echoed in his mind, “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” That day, three thousand more souls were added to their numbers. What should have been Peter’s downfall became his starting point. He had tasted the bitterness of his own defeat, yet seen in Jesus the sweetness of victory.

Thank God that there is no umpire for life. There is no one behind us to tell us we’re out. The only way we are disqualified from the life we’ve been called to is if we step out of the batter’s box. God will never pull one of His children from the game. He is our Father, cheering us on from the sidelines. He is our coach, giving instructions from the dugout. He is the pitcher, throwing a perfect strike every time. There is no such thing as an out. We get to swing until we hit something. There is nothing we can do that will withdraw God’s call from our lives.

If Peter could stand in front of Jesus and deny ever knowing him, yet just days later, stand in front of thousands declaring him as Lord, we can go on knowing that God has our backs. And our fronts. And our sides. He has called us up to the plate, but a bat in our hands and He will never take it away.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)

Read: 1 Kings 1-2, Luke 22:54-71

The common denominator

Canada (and much of the world) was brought to its knees recently with the news of a horrific bus crash that took the lives of sixteen individuals on or working with the Humboldt Broncos, a junior hockey team. Prayers went out. Millions of dollars raised to cover expenses. The nation grieves. I know that some (if not all) of the victims were believers. It is impossible to make sense of the event. In some way, we all feel impacted by these senseless deaths.

Several attempts were made to kill a certain man. Eventually, in 1994, he was beaten to death. How does that make you feel? Do you feel a similar kind of grief that you felt when you heard the news of the bus crash? What if I told you the man who was beaten to death was mass murderer, Jeffrey Dahmer? Did he get what he deserved?

There is an account of Jesus with his disciples where a similar comparison is made.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Luke 13:1-5 (NIV)

I believe there is little to compare between Jeffrey Dahmer and the Humboldt Broncos, but it is a stark contrast and, when we think about our own responses, it sheds a bit of light on our attitudes.

The disciples shared an account with Jesus painting the Galileans as horrible sinners because of the manner in which they were killed. Jesus compared them to eighteen people who were killed in a tower collapse. By the disciples reckoning, those eighteen must also have been terrible sinners to have died in such a manner. While we might say that Jeffrey Dahmer deserved to die a horrible death, I don’t think anyone would say such a think about a group of young men entering the prime of their lives.

There is one common denominator between us all. Jesus went on to say not once, but twice that unless you repent, you too will all perish. Death is a staggering statistic. One in one will die. Ten of ten who are now living will die. No matter how you place the numbers, there is a 100% chance of death at the end of this life.

Our sin is not the direct cause of physical death, nor will righteousness spare us from it. It is not the manner of our deaths that will define us, but the way we live.

Repentance is the only true guarantee of life beyond this earth. A sinner can die in peace while a believer dies in violence. The only constant is that we are all guilty unless, like Jesus said, we repent. Upon repentance, we receive a guarantee from Jesus himself of life after death. Eternal life. Abundant life.

Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

1 Corinthians 1:21-22 (NIV)

Read: 1 Samuel 7-9, Luke 13:1-21

Teach me

Once upon a time, The Lord’s Prayer was prayed in schools across North America. Children learned it and recited it with regularity. And, while there is surely much argument surrounding such a practice, it certainly made our schools and our nation a better place for it.

Because it was something many of us learned as children, we are often wont to think of the words as childish. Something simple, for kids. We lump it into the category of milk rather than meat. But that was not at all Jesus’ intent.

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

Luke 11:1 (NIV)

Jesus responded to this request with what we have termed, The Lord’s Prayer. There is nothing immature or childish about the method Jesus gave to his disciples. These men were no longer new and immature followers. They had already been sent out on missionary journeys and had been healing and casting out demons in Jesus’ name.

“Lord, teach us to pray,” is a good prayer, and a very needful one, for Jesus Christ only can teach us, by his word and Spirit, how to pray. Lord, teach me what it is to pray; Lord, stir up and quicken me to the duty; Lord, direct me what to pray for; teach me what I should say.

Matthew Henry

I can’t begin to count the number of times I have heard believers (not even new ones) say that they don’t know how to pray or they don’t know what to pray. And I can probably count on one hand the number of times someone has offered them the prayer that Jesus offered to his disciples.

Childish as it may seem to us, The Lord’s Prayer encompasses all we need as believers: a reminder of God as our Father and His holiness, the will for His kingdom to come to earth, the request that our daily needs be provided for, the forgiveness of our own sins along with the aid needed to forgive others, and a way out of the temptation we will surely find ourselves in.

Perhaps if we stopped trying to act like we think mature believers should act and start acting as the children of God we are, we as the Church, might find ourselves in a more advantageous position.

I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.

Luke 18:17 (NIV)

There is no shame in asking for help when we think we need it (and even when we don’t). When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, they were not rebuked, but given words for life. My grandfather, a great minister of the Gospel until the day he moved to heaven, once said in a message that the one word God loves to hear from us is a four-letter word.

H-E-L-P!

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but one of strength. It takes courage to admit when we are not capable of doing something on our own. And God, in His love and mercy, will always be faithful to come to our aid.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.

Romans 8:26 (NIV)

So today, if you don’t know what to pray (or even if you do), start with Jesus’ example. Pray the prayer he gave us. Don’t just say it by rote, really pray it. Think about the words and the power within them. Ask Jesus to teach you what it is to pray.

Read: Judges 20-21, Luke 11:1-28

Do you believe?

I have a special corner of my house that I use almost exclusively for reading my Bible. There’s a comfy couch, pillows, and a blanket from Mexico. Surrounding said couch is books. Lots of books: Bibles in at least five translations and two languages, dictionaries, concordances, sermon references, and commentaries. I love reading through other’s thoughts on what I’ve read. Sometimes theses books confirm my own ideas. Sometimes they open up a new way of thinking. And sometimes, like today, they are downright disappointing and even disturbing.

I read this today in a popular commentary:

The signs authenticated the faith the early believers proclaimed, not the personal faith that any one of them exercised. In light of this and historical evidence it is reasonable to conclude that these authenticating signs were normative only for the apostolic era.

To what signs is the writer referring?

[Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.

Mark 16:15-18 (NIV)

Nothing in Jesus’ commission to his disciples indicates that signs would only follow for a few decades. There is no time frame or limit in this passage. Jesus simply stated that signs will follow believers. Period.

So what happened? Why do we Westerners see so few signs, wonders, and miracles? Ask yourself this question:

Do you believe?

If a well-respected commentary can state that miracles were only for the early apostolic period, imagine what is being taught in our churches all over the world.

Allow me to break this down logically.

Jesus told the disciples to go into all the world and preach the good news. What good news was that? That Jesus had come to save them, to offer a new covenant through his blood rather than the blood of a sacrificial animal. This new covenant would bring eternal life to the spirit of any who accepted it.

Jesus told the disciples to baptize the new believers. Why? Baptism is an outward confirmation of an inward decision. You don’t need to be baptized to be saved, but it is a physical affirmation of a spiritual awakening.

Jesus told the disciples that miraculous signs would follow them.

Observe what power the apostles should be endued with, for confirming the doctrine they were to preach. These were miracles to confirm the truth of the gospel, and means of spreading the gospel among the nations that had not heard it.

Matthew Henry

Here’s my question: If signs and wonders aren’t for today, how is our message supposed to be confirmed? Why did Jesus go around healing people and teaching his disciples how to do the same if he didn’t mean for that practice to carry on? If miracles weren’t needed, why did Jesus bother at all? If the message is supposed to be enough, why is our message getting lost?

I believe in miracles. I have seen them firsthand. I have seen broken bones mend. I have seen stunted limbs grow. I have seen life when there should have been death. And I have seen people come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ because of those things. Miracles aren’t a sign for believers. They are a benefit to us because we believe, but they are a sign to the unbeliever that there is power in the blood that washes away our sins.

At the risk of reducing the Word to a new low, let me put it simply. You’re watching television late at night and a loud Australian appears on the screen with an incredible new product. He spends ten minutes yelling at you, touting the near-miraculous qualities of the product he’s trying to sell. You stay tuned because you’re moderately interested and oddly enthralled. Then he puts the product to use. You’re sold. You dial the 1-800 number before the five minutes runs out and, for just the added shipping and handling, you will receive a second item for free! It wasn’t his words that sold you, it was the product in action.

The Word of God draws people in. And for some, that’s all they need. But others need that extra confirmation. They need to see the product in action. They need to see what it can actually do. And if the world can’t see our “product” actually do anything, what are we really trying to sell?

God didn’t fill His Word with the miraculous only to stop once Jesus left the stage. His Word is filled with wonders because He is a God of wonders. We do Him (and ourselves) a great disservice by setting the miraculous aside when it was a miracle that brought us where we are in the first place.

So I will ask again, do you believe?

Read: Deuteronomy 29-30, Mark 16

Faith and forgiveness

Read: Deuteronomy 3-4, Mark 11:20-33

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your sins. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your sins.

Mark 11:22-26 (NIV)

In Mark 11, we can’t wait to get to the good part about telling a mountain to throw itself into the sea, and then we quickly skip over that uncomfortable part about forgiveness and move on to the next parable.

Who doesn’t want to see a miracle? We should long to see the miraculous. Signs and wonders should be following every believer. But what if the miracle God wants to perform has to do with you forgiving your brother? What if the sign He wants to show someone has you asking for forgiveness from your neighbour?

Not every miracle, sign or wonder has to do with healing or provision. Sometimes they seem so insignificant to us that we wouldn’t even deem to call the event worthwhile. But to the person who’s been forgiven, it can be life-changing.

If grace does not produce joyful obedience it has been abused. Forgiving is the very essence of grace.

The Weston Study Bible

Forgiveness isn’t something we should look at that we need to get out of the way so we can see the mountain move. Forgiveness may be the mountain itself.

When Jesus took the time to explain to his disciples how they should pray, he didn’t include the miraculous, but he did include forgiveness.

This, then, is how you should pray,

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name;
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.'”

Matthew 6:9-13 (NIV)

Jesus then went on to say that when we forgive those who sin against us, God will forgive us, but if we withhold our forgiveness, God will not forgive us.

It would seem to me, then, that as much as it is impossible to please God without faith, it is also impossible to please him without forgiveness.

Grip

Read: Numbers 28-29, Mark 9:1-29

Once upon a time, I wasn’t a believer. You weren’t a believer. And, sometimes, I’m still not a believer. Neither are you. Very few people in this world can claim to go through life with complete and unwavering faith. I am not one of those people. Odds are that you aren’t either. But that’s not the end of the world. Actually, the sooner we all come to that realisation, the sooner we can do something about it.

Mark 9-24.jpg

The man who spoke these words was going through a bit of a tough time.—that’s putting it lightly. For most of his life, his son had been suffering from convulsions caused by an evil spirit. Hearing that Jesus and his disciples were able to cast out demons, the man brought his son to them. Jesus was unavailable at the moment (being deep in conversation with Moses and Elijah) so the disciples gave it a go. They’d been at this for a while now and had experienced great success. But success was not to be found with this case.

Eventually, Jesus returned, rebuked his disciples for their unbelief and told the father that anything was possible if he’d only believe. First he states he believes and then asks Jesus to help his unbelief. Which was it? Did he believe or didn’t he?

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I win him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me he can do nothing.

John 5:5 (NIV)

In John, Jesus had a lengthy discussion about vines and branches. Any branch that doesn’t bear fruit gets cut off and burned up. How does a vine stay connected to the branch? How does a branch bear fruit? How can we keep from getting cut off and tossed into the fire?

Since vines don’t have to devote effort and energy to producing strong stems to hold them upright, they use their energy to grow outward. Vines are among the fastest growing landscape plants.

When it comes to training vines, gardeners often do not realize how important it is to direct growth from the time the vine is planted and throughout its life in the garden.

Dan Gill, Training Garden Vines Right the First Time

I had a Bible school teacher say that faith is our grip on God; grace is His grip on us.

Let’s put all of this information together.

  • I do believe. We have all been given a measure of faith. We’ve been grafted into the vine as branches. Since Jesus is the vine, we gain our strength from him. Our energy doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t be) be spent trying to support ourselves.
  • Help me overcome my unbelief. Just because we’ve been given faith and grafted in doesn’t mean that we immediately become amazing, fruit-bearing vines. It takes work. It takes coaxing. It takes training. God, as the vinedresser, prods us and guides us in the direction He wants us to go. He places us where we can be most fruitful and grow the strongest. Taking our strength from the main vine—Jesus—and holding on to the supports that take us higher, we can grow strong and fruitful.

Faith isn’t a mystical power. Some may say it’s a muscle we have to train. I disagree. I believe that a stronger faith is merely the result of a stronger relationship with the Father. Vines don’t worry about where to grow, they simply flourish where they are placed by the vinedresser. When we know and trust in the one who is training us, faith will come easy.

Let me leave you with a story from Charles Spurgeon.

There was once a good woman who was well known among her circle for her simple faith, and her great calmness in the midst of many trials. Another woman, living at a distance, hearing of her, said, “I must go and see that woman, and learn the secret of her holy, happy life.” She went, and accosting the woman, said, “Are you the woman with the great faith?” “No,” replied she, “I am not the woman with the great faith; but I am the woman with a little faith in the great God.”

Give me a sign

Read: Numbers 24-27, Mark 8:11-38

Mark 8-11-12.jpg

It seems a little bit contradictory that Jesus would say this right after performing some of the most spectacular miracles of his ministry. This would be like asking an Olympic gold medalist to repeat their performance to prove they were good enough and have them refuse. The evidence for their athleticism already exists in the form of the gold hanging around their neck. For Jesus, the evidence of the wonders he had done was all around in the form of the thousands of people Jesus had healed, set free, and fed.

By refusing to perform a sign from heaven for the Pharisees on command, does this mean that Jesus didn’t want to do the miraculous anymore? Of course not! He knew that, if the evidence already available to these men wasn’t enough, one more miracle wasn’t going to do the trick.

He who is not convinced of the value of unseen things from a knowledge of the personality and spiritual message of Jesus will be unmoved by the most spectacular miracle.

J. Newton Davies, The Abingdon Commentary

I’m so confused! Do we want miracles or don’t we?

And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.

Mark 16:17-18 (NIV)

These were some of the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples before ascending into heaven. I think it’s safe to assume that this message was an important one.

But why are miracles for some people and not for others? Harper’s Bible Dictionary says this:

The miraculous healings and exorcisms, then, were unique personal experiences of the salvation brought by Jesus.

As much as miracles prove the existence of a loving God, they are not for unbelievers, but those who believe. Notice that when Jesus healed someone, he often told them that their faith had made them well. Jesus didn’t heal them to make them believe, he healed them because they believed.

It then begs the question: why isn’t the church as a whole seeing miracles?

Do we really believe?