John the Baptist begins his ministry preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:1-2)
Jesus begins His ministry proclaiming, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
In fact, Jesus talked A LOT about the Kingdom of Heaven. It is in the Gospels more than 80 times; a main theme of Jesus’ teaching.
Have you ever stopped to think about it? What is the Kingdom of Heaven? Where is the Kingdom of Heaven?
In this chapter alone, Jesus tells seven parables about the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a seed that was sown. And though the sower and the seed are the same, the soil it falls on is different, producing different results. Jesus, the Word, came in the flesh to sow the seed (Himself) here on earth. The soil preparation and garden tending are in our domain.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a great treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of incredible value. Whether stumbled upon or searched for makes no difference. The difference is in the value placed on it once found; recognizing it is a treasure worth giving up everything to keep.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who sowed good seeds, but weeds infiltrated the field by the enemy; like a net thrown into the sea to catch fish of all kinds. The evil and the righteous exist side by side in the present. The devil and sin still have a place in this kingdom era we are living in, but it won’t last forever. A separation will take place; a time will come when our decisions here will determine our forever future.
And my favorite…the Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of a mustard seed; like leaven. The tiniest, least significant seed that slowly grows into the largest of garden plants. A minuscule ingredient placed in a large amount of flour that changes the entire composition of the bread.
Our kingdom growth isn’t instantaneous. It takes time. It takes abiding. It takes faithful obedience. It takes a humble and open heart. It takes valuing it over all earthly things
As kingdom people, we may seem small and insignificant according to the world’s standards, but we have great power and potential. We diligently do our thing, then before we know it, we are changed; people around us are changed. That tiny mustard seed is a towering tree, providing resting places and shade. That leaven has altered the bread. Those steps in faith and obedience have transformed us; saved us; inspired us to invite others to join us.
Small but mighty; full of potential and power…a tiny seed, a simple ingredient, a baby in Bethlehem, uneducated disciples, you and me. Waiting to bust out of that small, simple beginning is something incredibly significant. Will we be a part if it or will we let it pass us by?
Jesus tells a story about an unclean spirit that leaves a person. Good news, right?
Unable to find rest, the spirit returns to find it empty, swept, and put in order. Still good, right?
It brings with it seven other spirits even more evil than itself to dwell there, leaving the state of the person even worse than the first. Wait, what?
And Jesus goes on to say so also it will be with this evil generation.
Isn’t it a good thing to get rid of evil? Isn’t it good to have a clean “house”…empty, swept, and put in order? We spent a lot of time breaking these habits and cleaning up our mistakes, after all. Shouldn’t that count for something? Or at least not be an invitation for more evil?
The truth is, when we leave something empty it becomes ripe territory to be filled. And if we don’t fill it with Jesus, the devil is happily waiting to find some temporary things to take His place.
Earlier in the chapter, the Pharisees exert an awful lot of effort to catch Jesus doing something unlawful on the Sabbath. They can’t wait to find fault in anything He might be doing. “He is a threat, and He must be put in His place,” they think.
Here the religious leaders are on the Sabbath – a day meant for rest and time with God – waiting to catch Jesus breaking one of the man-made laws they established to make sure their fellow Jews did Sabbath right in their eyes. They have spent generations emptying themselves, but instead of filling the emptying with God and His truths, they become filled with judgment, self-righteousness, and a slew of man-made rules impossible for anyone to follow.
Without Jesus, emptying is futile. We try to do better and be better and love better, but we fall short. Anything we empty out gets quickly filled with something else if we don’t consciously fill it with Jesus. We break one bad habit, only to pick up an even worse one. We exhaust ourselves in service and religious activity. The emptying is good and important, but the filling is where it's at.
Do we do as much filling? Deep abiding in God. Prayer. Meditation on His Word.
Jesus spent His days emptying Himself, always teaching, healing, mentoring. But He also constantly fills Himself. Jesus -- God in the flesh -- regularly gets quiet time alone to pray and talk to His Father. No mission could be more important than His, and He always found time to get filled.
We were created by God, in His image and likeness. Only He can fill that space created specifically for Him. And as we are filled with Him, the filling takes care of the emptying. Our fullness in Jesus makes us able to do things we weren’t able to do on our own, to resist temptations, and to serve without exhaustion that comes from doing it all on our own.
Lord, empty me of me…but don’t leave me empty. Fill me with Your power, Your peace, Your wisdom, Your discernment, Your love, Your will.
Do you ever have doubts about God? Do you ever feel like He isn’t meeting your expectations? Do you ever feel a bit disappointed in how He is working?
If so, you are not alone. God is so good to preserve stories like this in His Word to give us an example of someone else who doubted. To show us that even the most spirit-filled and deeply devoted followers can have moments of doubt. And in this story, we also learn how to handle our doubts.
The doubter in this story: John the Baptist. John, the one who leaped in the womb in the presence of Jesus in the womb (Luke 1:41). John, the one who recognized Jesus as Messiah, saw the Holy Spirit descend on Him, and heard God speak over Him (John 1:29-36). John, the prophesied about messenger who would pave the way for the Messiah.
John is in prison, not for any wrongdoing on his part, but for proclaiming the truth and the need for repentance; for living out his calling. Commentators say he has likely been in prison for over a year.
I can imagine John thinking, “This isn’t how it is supposed to go down. I thought the kingdom of Heaven was at hand. Jesus, you’re being persecuted, I’m in prison, and Rome is still oppressing us. WHY AREN’T YOU FIXING THIS?”
Many things can cause us to doubt.
Going through difficult trials with no end in sight leave us vulnerable to doubting God’s goodness and provisions. Our limited view of God’s hand at work leaves us questioning and filling in blanks with incomplete information. Outside influences creep in, altering our perception of God and what he should look and act like. Unmet expectations can rock our faith. Like John, we may feel like things are not turning out the way we were sure they would.
Faith is hard in these circumstances. These things can drive us away from God. Most of us probably know someone who is far from God because they couldn’t reconcile their trials, expectations, and other opinions with God’s truth. But these circumstances can also draw us closer to God.
John gives us a great example of what to do when we are in this position of doubt. He doesn’t seek understanding from within or wisdom from others. He goes straight to the source, Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t rebuke John in his doubts. He also doesn’t respond with a simple, “yes, I am the One.” Instead, He responds with scripture and the prophecies about Himself (Isaiah 35:5-6; 61:1). Jesus knows John will recognize Him in the scriptures. It is a reset of his expectations. A recalibration of his faith.
Sometimes we need a recalibration of our faith too. When we have doubts, we should admit it, and then take it straight to God. We should examine the scriptures about who God is. We should pray for God to reveal Himself to us in our doubts. And like John, this is where our faith will be strengthened. With confidence, we will be able to say, “You ARE the One. There is no other.”
Jesus goes on to say, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” (Matthew 11:6). In our perseverance through trials and temporary doubts; in reclaiming our faith, we will be blessed.
The button below takes you to a printable document with some of the Characteristics of God. It is formatted to print landscape and folded in half to keep in your bag, your Bible, your journal...wherever you need it.
At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples have been students and witnesses to the work of Jesus. They have listened to Him teach and seen firsthand and up close some incredible miracles performed by Him.
Now it’s their turn. It’s go time, boys.
Jesus instructs them to proclaim, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. Quite a job description…raise the dead! I wonder if they were excited? Nervous? Unsure of themselves? Fired up to go?
But unlike other commissions, on this first journey, Jesus commands them to go with basically nothing. No money. No bag. No extra clothes or shoes.
It is imperative that on this inaugural mission they learn to rely on God’s provision alone. Nothing in this journey will be about them, their power, or their possessions. God alone.
Jesus experienced countless perceived failures and rejection. He knows His followers will as well. Not only does Jesus prepare them for this, but He also instructs them how to handle it: ”And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.”
I believe fear of failure and rejection are the greatest hindrances to us stepping into our calling. I can hear Jesus saying, “You’re afraid you might fail? I failed too. I can tell you that you WILL fail sometimes. Go even still. You think you might be rejected? I was rejected. You will be too sometimes. Go even still.”
So, what do we do when we muster up the courage and faith to go, and our words and deeds are not received?
We are obedient. We do what we know God has called us to do; everything we know to do to reach those we are called to reach. But if it is not received, with mourning and prayer, we must allow ourselves to shake the dust off our feet and step away, even if only for a season.
Mother Teresa said, “God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.”
The problem with failure is that it spills over into pride. We internalize it and think if we were only more educated, more charismatic, more eloquent, more resourced, more determined, a harder worker…then we would have succeeded. We lay the success or failure on us.
But success is not our charge or domain. We obey. God works. The Holy Spirit convicts.
Against earthy standards, when we step out in faith, we will sometimes fail and be rejected. Sometimes we are called to be seed planters, sometimes waterers, sometimes bloom watchers. There may be times when we drop the seed into the soil and then shake the dust off and walk away.
Here’s what we DON’T do: walk away angry, walk away judgmental, walk away taking it personally, walk away self-righteous.
Instead, we walk away in sorrow and with prayer and … ”being confident in this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
God can still make something beautiful from the dust. He has done it from the beginning, and He isn’t finished yet… ”then Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (Genesis 2:7)
Allow yourself to shake the dust off your feet and move on when God tells you it is time. You aren’t defeated. You aren’t giving up. You may just be called to move on to new soil.
Well off, but despised, sitting at his booth. A traitor. A sinner. An extortioner. Passersby glance the other way, hoping not to get harassed. Whispers of judgment hardly quiet from the Pharisees in their elaborate religious get up. One man doesn’t look away or condemn. He sees potential. Jesus says simply, “Follow me.”
Not likely, one would think. Why would a businessman not concerned with religious ritual follow a simple traveling teacher? But not so of this businessman. Matthew rises and follows.
Not only does Matthew rise and follow, but he also invites his friends and associates – fellow sinners – to come and recline; come and eat with this teacher who saw something in him no one else did. Something the Pharisees would never do or condone.
This brings about the questions Jesus already knows is in the heart of the Pharisees, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11) Why would this supposed teacher associate with “those” unclean people? Though not directed at Jesus, Jesus responds. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
Jesus knows full well that all of us are sick apart from Him. The difference is the Pharisees didn’t know it. Jesus continues telling them to go and hear the meaning of these Scriptures they love and know so well, specifically pointing them to Hosea 6:6, ”I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”
In Hosea’s time, the Jewish people were going through the motions. They were offering sacrifices religiously. But they were far from God. They had no love; no mercy. These Pharisees would practically know it by heart.
Bound up in their religious ritual and favored social status, the Pharisees had no love; no mercy.
On the outside, the Pharisees looked perfect. Inside their heart was hard.
One the outside, Matthew, the sinner, looked hopeless. Inside his heart was open. He immediately follows Jesus and wants his friends to do the same.
Substance vs. show
Mercy vs. more religion
Grace vs. guilt
Love vs. lists
Jesus invites sinners to His table. Not to judge or condemn or lecture or have their bad behavior rub off on Him, but to love in order to save. And at this table, they find healing, life, hope. As they get up from this table, they desire nearness to God, obedience, bearing good fruit.
Chapter 9 ends with Jesus, full of compassion, saying to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37)
That is us. We are the laborers. We are not to just be hearers of the word, but laborers. Doers. Workers. We are called to recline and eat and share the Gospel with all people. The harvest is plentiful, fellow laborers. Let’s do this!
(P.S. the story of Jesus healing Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman is one of my favorites. I love how it is presented in Mark, so I plan to write more on that when we get there.)
A leper approaches Jesus amidst great crowds. An outcast. Banished from society. Unable to have anyone near him, much less touch him. It is humiliating, but he is desperate. Full of sores, weary from living this hard and lonely life, he kneels before Jesus.
“Lord, if you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he says. (Matthew 8:2)
Lord, if you are willing.
This man has no doubt Jesus is worthy of worship; no doubt Jesus CAN heal him. He just isn’t sure if Jesus is willing for reasons beyond his understanding.
Jesus replies, “I will; be clean.” With those words the man could be healed and cleansed, but Jesus shows even greater compassion. Jesus stretches out His holy hand and touches him. Likely the first touch this man has felt in a very long time. Immediately, the man is cured and cleansed.
Lord, if you are willing.
In this story, Jesus was willing and able. The healing came.
Fast forward to Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion. In agony, He prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)
We all know how this story ends. Jesus dies. God could have removed the cup. Jesus could have saved Himself. But Jesus was the one willing…willing to die for us on his own accord (John 10:11-18). It was plan A and the only way to save us.
Lord, if you are willing.
In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 Paul recalls… “ So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.;”
Three times Paul pleads for healing. But the suffering continues.
It is tempting to look at the leper’s story in Matthew and declare, “Yes! The Lord is willing. We will ALWAYS be healed if we sincerely come to Him and ask.”
The truth is, in this human, temporary realm on earth, we may not be. The Lord is able, but due to surpassing knowledge we don’t have, He is not always willing. Not because He doesn’t love us, but because He sees a bigger plan.
That is a hard truth to type because we want to pretend everything is rosy when we follow Jesus. But even in this chapter of Matthew Jesus is wanting us to be sure we understand the cost of following Him.
After the leper is healed Jesus tells him to say nothing to anyone about it; to keep quiet. (Matthew 8:4) Jesus knows followers will come for the healing. And the healing is an incredible thing…but it isn’t THE THING.
Jesus is the thing.
If we sign up to be a follower, we are following Jesus, not miracles. Yes, miracles will and do come. And after this time on earth in our human bodies, we will be living in an eternal miracle fully healed, cleansed and free. But not always now.
Here is the important thing to know: God IS in the healing business. If it is what is best for us and God’s kingdom, He will heal immediately with joy. But His plans are bigger than our plans. He knows and sees more than we do. He knows what is best, even if it is painful in the moment. He is after our healing in more ways that we know…it just might look different than we imagine
God isn’t seeking popularity, celebrity status, or a following of miracle-only seekers. He is looking for followers, disciples, fellow warriors. Who do you choose to follow? Count the cost.
In the Old Testament, Daniel and his friends counted the cost and declared it worth it… “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.’” (Daniel 3:16-18)
But if not…If the outcome doesn’t look like we hope or think it should, we are still all in. We won’t deny our God.
Salvation is worth it. Eternity is worth it. Living with the Holy Spirit in us is worth it. But it isn’t glitz, glam and ease. It is reliance on Jesus as Savior and Lord. Confident He is all powerful and all knowing. Trusting He is full of love and goodness. God’s will is worth seeking even if it goes against everything our will is crying out for.
As Paul says regarding his thorn not being removed, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)
If you are in a deep healing seeking place, I pray that God will fully heal you. But if He doesn’t, I pray that you draw nearer to Him that ever before, and like Paul and Jesus, I pray you know without a doubt that His plans are good and He loves you so very much. He looks forward with anticipation to your forever healing and life with Him.
Two houses in the same neighborhood. One a stunning home on a hill with a gorgeous view. Stately, spacious, meticulously landscaped, around the clock attention, no expense spared on the interior finishes and furnishings; a showhouse for sure.
Down the street a pretty house. Nothing fancy, but functional. Built with love. A little messy here and there. Fingerprints of life visible on the walls; subtle scuffs on the study floors. A good home. A solid home.
One warm summer day an unexpected storm blows through. The neighborhood braces for hours of rain, flooding, and heavy winds. But the quaint neighborhood is no match for the storm. All but a few homes demolished. No one saw this one coming and the houses everyone expected to survive are in shambles, while some of the often overlooked homes are intact. The stately house on the hill: only scraps remaining. The simple, sturdy home: standing tall among the rubble.
The difference? A strong foundation; a more attention given to its structure than to the shiny showcase features.
Time and again, Jesus teaches that the inside – the heart – is what matters. The outside can be deceiving. The things unseen by man, but seen by God, are what is truly valued.
A slick image and clean looking façade can take a hit or two, but won’t survive the big storms. And one thing we can count on is storms and trials. Only deep roots sown by abiding in Jesus, and a solid foundation built on His truth can help us weather the storms that will inevitably come.
Working on the foundation isn’t always fun. It is hard work; unseen and unadmired by others. The world tells us to spend our time making the outside look impressive, but this does nothing to shore up the foundation to withstand the trials.
The previous portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount focused on some internal foundation building – prayer, giving, anxiety, fasting. In these closing statements of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He turns to some external components. Foundation building of doing to others as we would have them do to us…even when it comes to judging sin and behavior. If we see something in someone else, it is an opportunity for self-evaluation, not snap judgment. Foundation building of practicing discernment when it comes to who we follow. Many false teachers look good on the outside but are only leading us down the attractive, easy-to-travel, wide road that leads to destruction.
The reminder to pray can’t be stated enough as Jesus circles back to it. We need to be persistent and progressive in prayer. Asking. Seeking. Knocking. Foundation building with rewards God is eagerly waiting to give us. Good fruit He can’t wait to join us in producing.
While the wide gate the culture preaches of live and let live, make your own rules, believe your own truth is tempting at times, it will never prepare us for storms.
Press on, friends, through the narrow gate of abiding and tending to the foundation in Jesus…the only way to confidently make it through the storms of life.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:33
I don’t think two words came to my mind more in 2017 than “seek first.” I feel like it was something the Spirit was working overtime to instill in my soul. Sometimes whispering and sometimes shouting…
You are feeling overwhelmed…but seek first my kingdom.
You have all these ideas of things you want to run and do…but seek first my truth.
You are feeling tired…but seek first my righteousness.
You are in need…but seek first a supply of my word.
You are heartbroken…but seek first my comfort.
You have an important decision to make…but seek first my wisdom.
You don’t feel like you are enough or have enough time, energy, resources…but seek first my power.
…and ALL these things will be added to you.
One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis is, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both first and second things.”
To me, it is a restatement of Matthew 6:33. Put God first and all these things will be added to you. Seek all these other things first and you will have no time for God…and on top of that, you won’t achieve those things…they will still be there. You lose both.
How often does God take second place to things we think we just HAVE to do first, and then we are left feeling like we have failed at everything. For me, quite often.
I have strongly felt the Spirit saying over and over…”but seek first…”. I haven’t been terribly successful at it, but this life is about progress, not perfection. My goal is to keep pressing on to put first things first; to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness.
Matthew 6 (cont.)
I’m a morning person. I’m pretty good at getting up and I’ve come to love my early quite time before the crazy of the day begins.
Here’s what I’m NOT good at: FOCUS. My mind wanders, I think of my to-do list, I scroll social media, I check email, I get distracted when I initially start my devotionals.
Several years ago, I made a decision that I really wanted to give God the first minutes of my day. I wanted to start in prayer.
I decided I would begin with the Lord’s prayer. I figured what better way to pray, and what better things to pray for, than what Jesus taught us to pray.
Knowing how distracted I get, I committed to say the Lord’s prayer until I completely focused on each and every word. It might sound a little crazy, but sometimes I would have to say it over and over again until I was focused. It was a way for me to clear my head of the thousands of things running through my early morning mind and get in the mindset to talk to God. Then I would proceed with my prayer requests, gratitude, and devotionals.
I love this prayer now. I love how it covers all we need to step into the big, bad, world. Here’s how I generally process it…
Our Father who art in Heaven – God, I acknowledging you as Father…as OUR Father….who is in Heaven, above all; who sees all and controls all.
Hallowed be thy name – holy is Your NAME. It has power. It is worthy of awe and my deepest respect.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done – not my will, but YOURS, God, be done. Let my will be in sync with Yours.
On earth as it is in heaven – and not just your will for us to be with You in eternity, but Your will to be done here and now. On earth. Using us as Your hands and feet.
Give us this day our daily bread – give me what I need today...this day. Let me not worry about more than I need to today. Be my provision in all things today.
And forgive us our trespasses – forgive me, God for [confession time]. Thank you that You forgive time and time again, even when I repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Thank you that you don’t give up on me.
As we forgive those who trespass against us – God, help me to forgive like You forgive. Help my gratitude for Your forgiveness of me spill over into lavish forgiveness of others.
Lead us not into temptation – God, please help me avoid temptation. James says that temptation comes from our selfish desires and motives (James 1:13-15). Help me to keep my focus on You and not the places where I fall into temptation.
But deliver us from evil – God, deliver me from all evil. Help me to walk in the light. Help me love the things You love and hate the things You hate.
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever. Amen. – Yes, Lord. Yours is the Kingdom I want to be in. You are the power I need. Your glory is unmatched. Now and forever.
Matthew 5 (cont.)
For thousands of years the Jewish people have been chasing after laws for righteous living and salvation. There were laws given to Moses from God, and the hundreds more the Jewish leaders created themselves over the years.
Jesus is about to teach the true heart of the problem.
Chapter 5 is the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It starts with the Beatitudes…a series of “blessings” for right living. These things confuse the religious leaders. It isn’t what they expect from the Messiah. They have built their empires on being strong, admired, adored, sought after, and here Jesus comes and says to be poor in spirit, mourning, meek, thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted is to be blessed and rewarded.
Jesus is trying to tell them it isn’t about the laws and power and admiration, it is about the condition of your heart. Before going further, He tells them that in His coming and teaching He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The law isn’t obsolete. He is teaching a different way to follow it. Where we could never keep the law, Jesus came to do that for us. He came to fulfill what we never could.
He goes on…
You say you haven’t murdered anyone? Jesus says, have you ever been angry with your brother? Same thing.
You say you haven’t committed adultery? Jesus says, have you ever looked at anyone with lush? Guilty.
He tells them to scrap the old ideas of retaliation and instead turn the other cheek. Give generously. Go the extra mile.
He tells them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them.
Jesus is teaching that we need to work on our heart, not the law. It isn’t about trying harder; it is about loving more. Out of this heart transformation obedience flows.
Sin and lack of obedience is a heart issue, not a try-harder issue. THIS is what we need to examine and get right.
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