Two questions about Jesus’ amazing teachings

Here’s an interesting little assignment:  Go through the four Gospels and note every time people who heard our Lord Jesus teaching were amazed.  Or astonished.

I did that.  It looks like this…

Matthew 8:27-29; 9:8; 9:33; 12:23; 13:54; 15:31; 22:22,33.

Mark 1:22,27; 2:12; 5:20,42; 6:51; 7:37; 11:18

Luke 4:32,36; 5:9,26; 8:25,56; 9:43; 13:17; 18:43; 20:26.

John 7:15,46.  Apparently John chose to say whether the people believed in Jesus after hearing Him speak, rather than that they were amazed.

Just so you will know, I did not use a concordance or other help, but read through the four gospels with a high-lighter in hand. Twice, in fact.  But it is possible I may have missed one or two references.

Now, I have two questions about this.

One:  Why were the people amazed when they heard Jesus?

Two: Why aren’t we?

Why are we not as amazed and astonished as those who heard Jesus in the first century? In truth, we’re often bored with Scripture’s teachings! Why?

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What we wish for the people of your church as they open God’s Word

Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things from Thy law.  (Psalm 119:18)

If I could do one thing for members of your congregation, I would give them fresh eyes to see the Word of God as though for the first time.

I would give them a new appreciation, a deeper enjoyment, a delight in the Law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2).

We sometimes envy those who have come late to the Kingdom and are reading God’s word for the first time.  They are enchanted by its stories, excited by its champions, enthralled by its riches, thrilled by its insights, and elated by its promises.

No doubt you have noticed that when Jesus taught, people were amazed and astonished.  Scripture tells us that in so many places.  Check out Matthew 7:29; 9:33; 12:23; 13:54; Mark 1:22,27; 2:12; 5:20,42; 6:2,51; 7:37; 10:26; 11:18; and Luke 4:32,36; 5:9,26; 8:25; 9:43; 11:14; 13:17; 20:26. In John, the wonderful statement of 7:46 (“Never man spake like this man!”) seems to be the closest thing to this.

I have two questions concerning this:

(1) Why were the people amazed at Jesus’ teaching?

(2) And, why aren’t we?

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The best kind of learning is do-it-yourself

From time to time, as I’m sketching at a church or school, the question arises: “So, have you had training for this?” Or, maybe, “Are you self-taught?”

I don’t answer what I’m thinking.

What I say is usually a variation of, “I’ve had some formal training. But mostly, I’ve just worked at it. And I’m still trying to figure out how to draw better.”

But what I think is, “So, you think my stuff looks so amateurish I could not possibly have learned this from anyone?”

Can you imagine someone saying to Picasso, another artist of some renown (!), “Did you take training for this?” Or to Pavarotti or to Frank Lloyd Wright?

When my friend Mary Baronowski Smith was young, she made herself learn to sight-read a hymnal so she could play anything she wished on the piano. Even though she was taking lessons, this skill was self-taught.

She says, “My brother Lenny grew tired of my playing the same tunes over and over. To this day, he does not like the piano because he had to endure all those lessons my sister Myra and I were learning by playing them endlessly.”

“Anyway, one day Lenny came in and handed me a piece of sheet music. ‘Play this for me.’ I said, ‘How does it go? Hum it for me.’”

“He said this would never do, that I needed to learn how to sight read. So I got the Baptist hymnal down and decided I would teach myself.”

“I turned to page one–‘Holy, Holy, Holy’–and started in learning how to play it. It was hard. But gradually I got the hang of it. Then I went to the second one, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” Eventually, I was able to play everything in the hymnal.”

She was 9 or 10 years old.

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The Bible: in a class by itself

“For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses….”  “For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16,21).

I’ve been reading books again.

That explains a lot of things.  It explains where my mind is these days, what’s been bugging me, and where I’ve been searching the Word.

I’ve been reading “The Story of Ain’t.”  This is mostly about what goes into dictionaries, particularly Webster’s Third Edition.  Author David Skinner brings us into the inner offices of G. and C. Merriam Company to show how decisions are made concerning the English language.  If you like that, you’d love watching sausage being made.  (It’s a difficult book to read and only the wordsmiths among us should “rush out and buy this book.”)

I’ve been reading “The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844.”  Author John L. Brooke takes us back into the context of the birth of this American-made religion to show that almost all its doctrines and revelations were the product, not from Heaven, but of ideas floating around when Joseph Smith was a young man.

I’ve been reading the Bible.

The contrast in these three is enlightening.  Reflecting on them resulted in the following observations….

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This fellow found a contradiction in Scripture and thinks he can now disprove God

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I was reading comments on a friend’s Facebook page below something she had written about the Bible’s authenticity.

I suppose her critic was a friend, because after each of his statements, each one shallow and several insulting, she patiently responded with kindness and reason.

But nothing worked.

When one is determined not to believe, no amount of truth or reason or logic can penetrate the protective armor of alibis, arguments, excuses, and slander in which he clothes himself.

What was his “contradiction”?

He said, “In one place the Bible says an eye for an eye and another place it says turn the other cheek.  What do you say about such a contradiction?”

I found myself wondering if this guy was serious.  Any 10-year-old could answer that.

Just so easily does this guy dismiss the living God, the Creator of the Universe.

Even if the Lord had such a fellow on His team, He wouldn’t have much.  HIs ignorance is shallow and whatever faith he could muster would be as worthless.

Before commenting on the subject of contradictions in the Word, let me respond to that guy, just in case any reader needs to know how those two scriptures line up.

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was given to Israel as a principle for assessing punishment for crimes (Leviticus 24:20). This formula was a hundred times more compassionate than the standard used in pagan countries–and to this day, in some backward nations–that went like this: a life for an eye; a limb for a tooth.

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When God’s people do not live in the Word, bad things happen

“But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in that law doth he meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2).

The Lord never intended for His Word to collect dust on a table in your back bedroom.

Courageous people paid for your right to own a Bible in your own language with their very lives.

What are you doing about that?

Christians who own numerous Bibles which they rarely open are thumbing their noses at the saints of old who paid the ultimate price.

This hard-won treasure lies buried under the dust and detritus of your life.

The Lord’s plan calls for His people to live and breathe His word, to read it and receive it inwardly and to think about it regularly and practice it. He intended it to become part of the very marrow of their bones.

Digest it. Assimilate it. Live it. And meditate upon it continually.

He even told people to “Eat this book.”

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Please write in your Bible

“This shall be written for the generation to come; and the people who shall be created shall praise the Lord” (Psalm 102:18).

Please go to the front of your Bible and write in it.

Start by putting your own name.

Often, when I pick up the Bibles of friends to see what they have written in them, I’m chagrined to see they don’t even have their names.

Write in your Bible, friend. Please.

At Christmas 1973, my aunt Eren gave a new Bible to her mother, my wonderful grandmother Bessie Lowery McKeever.  Grandma died in 1982, but not before marking up that Bible.

I now own it.  It is a treasure beyond price.

One morning, I read something I had never seen before, that made the tears flow.  (I was looking up the text above, and Grandma’s Bible was handy.)

In the margin beside Psalm 103:17, Grandma had written “One of Papa’s favorite verses.”

But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children.

I never knew Grandpa Lowery, her father.  Many years ago, she told me he was a preacher of the Word, and a Baptist at that. As a little girl, Grandma would accompany him as he went out to preach. Other than that, I know nothing of him.  Thanks to Grandma’s notes in the front of this Bible, I have his name:  George Marion Lowery. And his wife, my great-grandmother, was Sarah Jane Blocker, whose birthdate is listed as January 1, 1852.  (Grandma Bessie was born in 1895, was married in 1910, and became a mother the first time in 1912 when my dad Carl arrived, and for the twelfth time with the birth of Georgelle in 1936, six months after being widowed.)

In his lifetime, my dad presented me with two Bibles. The first came in 1948 when he asked me to “come go with me,” and we walked off the West Virginia mountain, and up  the railroad tracks to the town of Sophia. Inside a variety store he asked the clerk to “Show us your Bibles.” He told me, “Pick you out a Bible.”  I was stunned.  This was the last thing I expected.  I chose a black zippered beauty which I read every night for years.  Then, many years later Dad gave me Grandma’s Bible. I’m still finding notes she left in the margins.

This is about people writing in their Bibles.

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The games some preachers play with God’s Word

“I did not send these prophets, yet they ran with a message; I did not speak to them, but they prophesied” (Jeremiah 23:21).

What if we sliced off a bit of scripture here, pasted it in there, omitted a reference over yonder, and pretended the result is what Jesus actually said?

That happens.  (Fortunately, it happens rarely.  But it is done often enough to make it a concern to those who value God’s word and our integrity.)

Here’s my story from a few years back, one that still smarts….

At a preachers conference, we heard a stem-winding brother drive the several hundred of us to our feet in a shouting, hand-clapping final eruption of praise and joy.  He was good, I’ll give him that.

His text was Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.”  His theme was that God’s people today have no trouble with Jesus Christ being “the same yesterday”–His birth in Bethlehem, His miracle-working ministry across Galilee and Judea, followed by His sacrificial death and His divine resurrection–and no trouble with Jesus Christ being “the same forever”–as we proclaim His return to earth, the judgment, and His forever reign.

The problem present-day Christians have, said the preacher, is with “Jesus Christ today.”

We have no difficulty believing He did all those great things in the past and that He will do all He has promised for the future.  We just refuse to believe He can help us at this moment, said the speaker.

In order to illustrate this scripturally, he directed us to Bethany where Lazarus lay dead four days while everyone waited for the Lord to come.  (That’s John 11.)  When our Lord arrived, Lazarus’ sister Martha rushed to meet Him.

“Lord, if you had only been here!” she exclaimed.  “He would not have died.  You could have done something.”  She believed in Jesus Christ yesterday.

A moment later, she said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”  She believed in Jesus Christ forever.

The problem she had was Jesus Christ today, said the minister. Just like many of us.

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Stop reading Scripture so fast. Slow down. Savor it.

So, you’re reading the Bible through in a year?  Or, like a few people I’ve known, you read it through every year for the umpteenth time.

Fine. But–in my humble opinion–after you have done it two or three times, that’s enough. Don’t ever do it again.

Just my suggestion.

Reading the entire Bible in a year is like seeing Europe in a week: You will notice a lot of things you don’t see from ground level, but it’s no way to get to know a country.

After a few flyovers–two days in Genesis and one day in Romans, for instance–land the plane and get out and make yourself at home in Ephesians or Second Timothy.  Move in with the locals and live with them a few weeks.

That’s the only way to learn a country. It’s the only way to really learn a book of the Bible.

Acts 16 will help us make the point.

Now, I imagine you know Acts 16 as part of Paul’s second missionary journey (which encompasses Acts 16-18).  He and Silas had trouble bringing the gospel into Asia and were given the vision of a Macedonian man calling for help (16:9).  They met Lydia on the riverbank in Philippi and started a church in her house. Then, Paul and Silas were thrown in prison for preaching.  And you probably recall that, after an earthquake that busted the cell doors off their hinges, the jailer came in asking the apostles, “What must I do to be saved?”  The answer is one of the most best-known lines for witnessing to the unsaved: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (16:31).

We know these things because they stand out in the chapter.  Pastors have preached these points repeatedly over the years.

It’s a great chapter, to be sure, but it deserves closer inspection and much more attention than we have given it.

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Suffering: Christianity’s Achilles’ heel?

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps….  (I Peter 2:21)

If you like your religious faith shallow and thoroughly thought-out for you without you being required to use your brain for any aspect–that is, if you prefer a manmade and easy-to-digest religion–you’re not going to hang around in a real Christian church long.

The Christian faith is a lot of things, but shallow and neatly systematic it is not. Rather, it’s historical and complex and true. It is true-to-life. And it has been revealed to us in such a way that we are required to put our thinking caps on and engage the brain in order to appreciate what we have been given and how it all fits together.

If you say “Well, the Bible says what it means and means what it says” to explain difficulties, you and I have nothing to talk about, for you have chosen not to deal with the hard parts.

Take suffering, for example.

Adversaries and critics of the Christian faith–these Christopher Hitchens and Bishop James Pikes (google these if they are unfamiliar) have always been with us, so don’t let the latest “smarter than God” genius upset you–say the fatal flaw to our theology is suffering. We’re repeatedly told that the Bible does not adequately answer the question of suffering and pain in the world.

You read that and shake your head. Scores of books from Christian writers pour off the press every year dealing with just that subject, particularly after disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis.

What the critics actually mean, but would not admit in a hundred years, is that Scripture has no easy explanation of suffering.  And they do want their religion to be easy to digest.

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