Monthly Archives: May 2014

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Friday, May 30, 2014 – Rivers of Life

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”– John 7:37-38

The seventh chapter of John’s gospel is set during the Feast of Tabernacles, which is sometimes called the Feast of Booths or Sukkot.  This week-long festival serves as a reminder of the journey of the Israelites from captivity to freedom through the wilderness.  John tells of the events that surrounded Jesus in Jerusalem at the feast in ways that are reminiscent of the account of the actual account of the Israelites from the book of Exodus.  In particular, John mentions twice in the account that the people were “muttering” about Jesus.  In the account of the wanderings of the Israelites in Exodus, we read nine times that the people were “murmuring” against Moses.

The people murmured against Moses because they did not have enough food.  In response to the murmurings, Moses intervened and God provided manna and quail for them to eat.  When they murmured again it was because there was not enough fresh water.  In response to the murmurings, Moses followed God’s instructions to strike a rock with his staff.  When Moses obeyed God, fresh water burst forth from the rock to form a river, which is called Ain Musa, Stream of Moses.

In like manner, John writes that at the Feast of Tabernacles the people’s muttering culminated in Jesus’ teaching, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink…out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.”  Life is often dry and difficult along this pilgrim way, and the temptation is to join multitudes in murmuring or muttering complaints.  Jesus offers assurance in that even before we ask, God offers his people his own life-giving spirit.

Lord Jesus, forgive my fickle faith and grant me an absolute assurance of God’s goodness and love.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Thursday, May 29, 2014 – Truth, Authority, and Glory

About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and taught. The Jews marveled at it, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me; if any man’s will is to do his will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. He who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but he who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood. – John 7:14-18

John tells us that the crowds were amazed by Jesus’ teachings, especially since he had no academic credentials.   “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” they asked.  The temptation would have been to dismiss Jesus because he was not taught by an accredited (or at least highly regarded) teacher.  Such an idea, however, reveals a misunderstanding of truth.

Truth is not derived from an accumulation of facts.  It is not the conclusion of a logical argument.  Facts may reveal truth, but they do not establish it.  The gravitational pull of the earth is not true because apples fall from a tree.  Apples fall from a tree because the gravitational pull is true.  Jesus’ teachings and life reveal a transcendent truth, an ultimate truth, a truth by which all other true things are aligned.

Jesus’ teachings spoke to the heart, mind, and soul of those who “had ears to hear.”  Those who were open to hear him were empowered to distinguish truth from error and to align their lives with God’s will. The only persons who did not recognize the truth of Jesus’ teachings were those who refused to hear, who were not open to transcendent truth, and who chose to live in error.

One of the great truths Jesus revealed was that when we seek to glorify God, not ourselves, we are most open to God’s truth.  However, when we are focused on our own glory, we are more like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, as we close ourselves from the truth which has the power to set us free.  Why is that?  Where God’s truth is established, no falsehood, error, or lie can stand.  “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Lord Jesus, dwell in my heart that I may be open to hear, recognize, and live the truth of God.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014 – Jesus Christ is Lord

After this Jesus went about in Galilee; he would not go about in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill him.  Now the Jews’ feast of Tabernacles was at hand.  So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples may see the works you are doing.  For no man works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.”  For even his brothers did not believe in him. Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here.  The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify of it that its works are evil.  Go to the feast yourselves; I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.”  So saying, he remained in Galilee.  But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private.  The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, “Where is he?”  And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.”  Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him. – John 7:1-13

John’s Gospel reports in several places that Jesus avoided areas because of the misguided crowds.  Sometimes they wanted to make him king; sometimes they wanted to kill him.  It can sound like Jesus is afraid and is working hard to hide.  Actually, John gives us these details not to show us that Jesus is afraid, but to show us that Jesus is in control.  He is the one who controls the time.  He is the one who determines where he will be.

Do you grasp the importance of this lesson?  The essence of faith is letting Jesus Christ be Lord – that is, to let Jesus be in charge, to yield to his timing, to agree with his purposes.  While letting Jesus have his way may sound like nothing but sacrifice on our part, there are actually many blessings associated with such faith.  Those who surrender to Jesus’ authority find meaning in life, hope in the midst of disappointment, and both assurance and peace in times of confusion.

When John tells us that Jesus is avoiding crowds, it is not so that Jesus may save his own life.  John makes it clear that Jesus avoids misguided crowds in order to remain in control so God’s purposes may be advanced and God’s glory may be revealed.

Good Father, even when I do not understand your was fully, help me be obedient and follow Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Thursday, May 22, 2014 – To Whom Shall We Go?

After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.  Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” - John 6:66-69

If you spend much time with the gospels, the odds are you will be deeply challenged.  In fact, if you are not offended by its hard demands and difficult teachings then you probably do not understand the impact of Jesus’ teachings on your life.  Great was the offense to the devout in our text today, as Jesus taught that his life was the new manna in the wilderness, and followers were to feast upon his body.

This text is blunt, but we may find other teachings more offensive to our lifestyles and world-views.  Often it is Jesus’ teaching about riches and the poor that are off-putting.  At other times, we simply cannot accept Jesus’ offer of grace, forgiveness, and acceptance to persons who are undeserving.   Over and again in the gospels we find our response to Jesus is more one of offense than acceptance.  The temptation is to walk away or, more likely, to interpret the text in a way that strips it of power and impact.  In either case, we are declaring that Jesus’ words or actions do not fit in our lives.

John reports that many of those who had been following Jesus “drew back and no longer went about with him.”  It seems that to these followers’ sensibilities, Jesus simply went too far.  As the crowds thinned, Jesus asked the twelve men who were closest to him, “Do you also wish to go away?”  Peter verbalized the essence of faith in Christ, as he spoke – not out of understanding but out of trust – “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

A teaching point for us is recognizing that the Gospel is designed to offend and to challenge. Both truth and grace are often troubling.  When the Gospel offends us, we may follow Peter’s lead by trusting our Lord even when we are put off by his hard demands and his confusing actions.  Instead of rejecting him or trying to tame the gospel to fit our sensibilities, we do best simply to draw close to Jesus, to allow his truth to invade our mind, to let his grace seep into our hearts, and to confess to our Lord, “You have the words of eternal life.”

Lord Jesus, with your shocking grace and eternal truth, offend my prejudice and limited worldview, reveal my sin, challenge my faithlessness, and transform me into your true disciple.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014 – That’s not all…

Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”  Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.”  They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.”  Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” – John 6:31-35

John’s portrayal of the multiplication miracle seems designed to draw a parallel between Jesus and Moses.  In the most general sense it seems that John understands Jesus to be not only the new law-giver but also the new liberator and the new shepherd.  But that’s not all.

John reports that not unlike Moses, Jesus fed multitudes in the wilderness.  In the teaching which follows the miraculous “sign,” Jesus explains that Moses was the medium through which God provided “the true bread from heaven,” which “gives life to the world.”  John wants us to know that Jesus is not merely a medium through which we find God’s blessings, Jesus is the blessing, “I am the bread of life,” Jesus declares, “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”  But that’s not all.

John wants us to know that Jesus is not merely the blessing.  Jesus is the blesser.  In this passage we find the first of Jesus’ “I am” sayings, “I am the bread of life.”   On seven different occasions in John’s Gospel Jesus uses the Greek ego ami, “I am” to offer a powerful teaching about his identity. Remember, in Exodus 3:14, when Moses asked God to tell him God’s name, the divine response was, “I Am.”  This expression gave rise to the name Jehovah and its variant, Yahweh.  It is translated in English most often as LORD.  

When Jesus says on seven separate occasions in John’s Gospel, “I am…”, he is closely connecting himself not merely with God’s prophets and leaders, and not merely with God’s works and blessings, but finally and fully with God himself.  He is making a claim to be “I Am,” to be Jehovah, to be LORD.  Now… that is all. Wow!

Bread of Heaven, feed me ‘til I want no more.  Here’s my cup, fill it up and make me whole.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014 – Voting with our Stomachs… and Pocketbook

When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!”  Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.– John 6:14-15

John does not tell us of the temptations that Jesus faced alone in the wilderness the way the other three Gospels do; however, we read of events in John’s gospel which clearly served to tempt Jesus.  In the passage today, we read of the crowd’s ecstatic reply to Jesus’ multiplication miracle.  It was, no doubt, impressive to see the huge crowd fed to satisfaction from a ridiculously small quantity of food with baskets-full left over.

John reports that the crowds were ready to give Jesus power over them.  In fact, John says that Jesus perceived that the multitude was “about to come and take him by force to make him king.”  We might be delighted at first to learn of the positive response of the crowd to Jesus’ work, but our further reading reveals that Jesus did not see this as an advancement of his work but rather a distraction, a distortion, a temptation.

The problem is not so much the adoration of Jesus by the crowd, not even the desire for Jesus to be their leader.  We remember in chapter 1 that Jesus affirmed Nathanael’s faith as he declared Jesus to be King of Israel.  The issue seems to be that the crowd was voting not with their hearts but with their stomachs, with their pocketbooks.  Their interest in Jesus had little to do with his hard teachings of right living in the Kingdom of God and more with a desire for easy living, for self-advancement, for the advancement of their desires.

John reminds us that Jesus could have been king.  He could have taken political power, pleased the people, kept them fed and happy; but he could not have done all of that and advanced the kingdom of God with its difficult demands.  Jesus chose to walk away from political power, and John records the impact of that decision almost immediately.  By the end of this chapter, we read that “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (v. 66).

The temptation is strong – not just for Jesus to be a popular hero, but also for us to adore him only when he meets our needs.    It is tempting for us to follow Jesus only based on what’s in it for us, (including “going to heaven”) not based on a deep allegiance to grace and truth.  In fact, that temptation is difficult to resist.

Lord Jesus, make my love pure and my loyalties true.  Give me strength to resist all temptation to distort the faith simply to achieve my own narrow self-interests.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Monday, May 19, 2014 – Feasting on Leftovers…

And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost.”  So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten.– John 6:12-13

No meal is truly complete until the mess is cleaned up, and such is the case even when five thousand people have just been miraculously fed   The story of the multiplication miracle ends with Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to “gather up the fragments left over.”  Who would have thought about left-overs?  Remember, the entire meal began with five small loaves and two fish.  How many left-overs could there be?  Well, according to the scriptures, twelve baskets full. 

So why was this detail included in the story?  Perhaps John includes this information to authenticate the miracle, to make it clear that it was not simply a matter of people holding back, refraining from partaking of the slim provisions.  That more food was left over after everyone had eaten than there was to begin with offers compelling evidence that something miraculous had transpired.

Perhaps the twelve baskets full of leftovers speak of the provision of God for the twelve tribes of Israel, that there was more than enough for the crowd who gathered – more than enough for all of Israel.

Or perhaps Jesus’ interest in those twelve baskets of leftovers is best understood in his explanation, “that nothing may be lost.”  It seems that Jesus here is asserting that in the kingdom of God nothing of value is ever lost.  What a powerful message that is!  Among other things this sign tells us that we need not worry that our best efforts, our bold sacrifices, and our great risks which serve to advance the kingdom of God will ever be in vain.  Instead Jesus offers assurance that in God’s kingdom our pure intentions and bold actions are their own end – not means to some other end – and their goodness is neither lost nor overlooked.  That’s an encouraging word to us as we offer our very best to  help others who seem unappreciative, when we seek to advance faith among those who seem unresponsive, when we work to oppose injustice in an often-cruel world, when we reach out to comfort the oppressed who seem inconsolable, or when we simply try to do the right thing amidst the temptation to do something altogether different.   Even if these efforts are unappreciated or overlooked, they are of eternal value – they are an end in themselves – and they will never be lost or forgotten in God’s kingdom.

Isn’t that what we see in the story of a little boy who decided to share his lunch?  Why, we are still talking about it and finding inspiration from his action 2,000 years later.  In that regard, nothing was lost, and we are still feasting on the leftovers.

Lord Jesus, set my sights on doing the right thing with the absolute confidence that no act of faith, hope, or love is ever wasted.  Amen.

A Bible Study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Friday, May 16, 2014 – No Small Thing

“There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?” – John 6:9

It is not surprising that Jesus was able to take a small offering and turn it into a mighty work.  Jesus does that kind of thing throughout the gospels.  In this chapter it is a boy’s lunch which feeds 5,000 and brings glory to God.  It’s a just a small gift, insignificant really, but Jesus does great things with it.

Maybe you remember the widow’s mite from Mark, chapter 12.  As wealthy persons were making large contributions to the Temple treasury, Jesus’ eye focused on an unnamed widow who untied her shawl, took out two copper coins, and made her offering.  It was a truly a small gift, insignificant really, but Jesus noticed it and lauded it.

It’s easy for us to recognize that these gifts are small and insignificant.  But, not so fast!  Let’s look at these gifts from a different perspective.  To the young boy, the bread and fish must not have seemed to be a small thing at all.  It was all that he had to eat, and in giving it to Jesus, he must have surely believed that he would go without.  We are led to believe that the child gave it freely.  The gift seems small only when it is compared with the need, but don’t think that it was small in comparison to what the boy had to give.  His meal was a true sacrifice.

Likewise, to the widow the two copper coins must not have been a small thing.  Jesus even reports that it was “all she had.”  She must have known that life would be tougher for her because of that gift, but she gave it anyway.  The gift was small only in comparison to the gifts of others and the financial need of the Temple, but not to the woman.  Her gift was a true sacrifice.

The lesson here is not that Jesus can use our small, insignificant gifts – not at all.  The lesson is that true sacrifice is not about making burnt offerings in the Temple but rather about placing all that we have in God’s care and keeping.  When we do that, no matter how small it may seem compared to the need or to the gifts of others, we can expect Jesus to do mighty things through it and through us… all to the glory of God.  That is no small thing.

Good Father, keep us from the temptation to attempt to worship you without sacrifice.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Thursday, May 15, 2014 – The Miracle of a Pure Offering

Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ”There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?”  Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. - John 6:7-10

If we know anything about the miracles of Jesus, we probably know the great multiplication miracle in which 5,000 people were fed from rather paltry rations.  In addition, if we know anything about the feeding of the five-thousand, we probably know about the boy who shared his lunch.  What we may not realize is that while this miracle is included in all four gospels, only John mentions the boy.  It is a small detail, but like other details in John’s Gospel, it is not one to be overlooked, for the child is the star.

Picture the scene as thousands of people gather.  Jesus asks the men who have been travelling with him – who have heard his teachings and witnessed his other miracles – how they can feed such a crowd.  Philip chimes in with despair, “Even if we had saved up our money for an entire year we would not have enough money to provide even a small snack for this crowd.”  Andrew reports that a young boy brought a little food – five pieces of bread and two fish.

John does not record Andrew’s conversation with the boy.  In my imagination, I can hear the child say, “I brought a lunch.  You can use it to feed everyone.”  I don’t know if it is the child’s willingness to share or his child-like imagination that dares to believe that his offering could make a difference, but in sharing his food, he embodies the miracle.  In the midst of great need, this child chooses not to hoard.  In the face of overwhelming odds, he dares to believe that he could make a difference.  Against the temptation to use his gift to receive recognition, fame, or power, he simply makes a pure offering.  And it is miraculous – Jesus takes the pure offering, gives it his blessing, and shares it in the presence and power of God.  The crowds are filled… God is glorified.

Oh, we don’t know the name of the child.  He is never mentioned again in the scriptures.  His identity is forever lost…except in the Kingdom of God.  Such it is with a pure offering.  Yes, the child is the star.

Good Father, help me shed the tethers of despair and doubt in the face of difficult situations, and rid me of making offerings that are tainted by self-serving motives that you may be glorified in my life.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014 – Lord of this Situation

Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”  This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.  Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ”There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?” – John 6:5-9

The account of the multiplication miracle is told in all four gospels, but no other gospel includes the details or interpretation John offers.  To begin with, John sets the miracle during the Passover feast.  In addition, John’s account records several conversations before and after the miracle.

The account begins as Jesus sees a crowd of people coming to him and asks Philip how they could possibly feed such a crowd.  Philip sees the magnitude of the problem and expresses the hopelessness of the situation.  Andrew chimes in with just a sliver of hope to counter Philip’s dire assessment.   “There is a lad here,” Andrew offers, “Who has five barley loaves and two fish.”  But as soon as he inventories the rations, Andrew realizes the absurdity of his hope, and he adds, “But what are they among so many.”

John tells us that all of this conversation was a ploy by Jesus to see if the disciples had yet grasped the nature of the kingdom of God, the possibilities of life in God’s economy, the abundance of life in the spirit.  Andrew seems headed in that direction, but his confidence evaporates in the face of the scarcity of the food and the enormity of the crowd.

What do you think Jesus would have wanted Philip or Andrew to say?  What words would have been a faithful response to Jesus’ inquiry?  We don’t really know, but perhaps it would have been something along the lines of, “You are Lord even of this situation, just tell me what to do.”

It is often easier for us all to be overwhelmed by the hopelessness of our situation than to be buoyed by the presence and power of God.  Whether it is a global concern like injustice or famine or a personal issue like addiction or guilt or fear, we do well to engage Jesus in a conversation, to hear him ask us, “How can we respond to this situation?”  Perhaps in those circumstances which test our faith, we do well to respond, “You are Lord even of this situation, just tell me what to do.”

Christ Jesus, you are Lord of my life and of this situation, what would you have me do?  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston