Monthly Archives: October 2014

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Friday, October 24, 2014 – The Promise of Courage and Comfort

“…It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you….When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” – John 16:7, 13-15

Just before Jesus was arrested, he told his disciples that he was about to die; however, his talk was not self-focused.  His concern was for his followers.  He wanted them to be empowered to live fully and faithfully without him.  In that context, Jesus made a shocking statement.  He said that it was actually in the best interests of the disciples for him to leave them.  ”It is to your advantage that I go away,” Jesus said, and then he told them that he would return to the Father and his spirit would be poured out on them.  He said he would send “The Comforter;” some translations say “The Counselor;” others say “the Advocate.”  He was referring to the Holy Spirit.

One of Jesus’ great promises to his followers was that the Holy Spirit would come to them to offer comfort.  But be sure to note that Jesus’ offer of comfort is not what we might think.  Most people seek comfort in faith.  In fact, one of the reasons people hold on to faith is to find comfort.  Jesus offered comfort, but  he did not promise his followers a comfortable faith or a comfortable life, in which everything would be easy and free from struggle.  We come to understand Jesus’ offer as we note that the word Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit is Paraclete. Paraclein is a Greek word meaning one who is called to encourage another, like a coach or a general, who exhorts people to aspire to noble deeds, to think high thoughts, and to achieve greatness.  The word is often used to refer to the encouragement given to soilders before battle.

Jesus’ promise, therefore, does not assure us that our lives will be easy, but rather that the Holy Spirit will give us courage to live in God’s presence and power – with acceptance and love and compassion and care – and to find God’s comfort when we encounter persecution and alienation.  Jesus calls us our of our comfortable, easy lives into struggles for justice and true righteousness, and he promises us the comfort that we are not alone, that God is with us, that the battle belongs to God, and that God will be victorious.  Jesus’ offer of the Holy Spirit is, above all, a comforting assurance that our lives are well lived to the greater glory of God.

Good Father, bid me cease from seeking the road most travelled, the path of least resistance, the broad way of ease and comfort.  Fill me instead with your passion for justice and righteousness, with your courage to stand strong, and with the comfort and assurance of your presence and power, that I may live a life of purpose and meaning to your glory.  Amen.

A Bible-study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Saturday, October 18, 2014 – “You Are my Friends…”

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. – John 15:12-15

In Jesus’ final words to his followers on the night before his arrest, he offered insight into the two basic relationships in life – the relationship with God and the relationship with others. Scripture often refers to these two relationships as righteousness and justice and lists them together to indicate their interdependence.

Righteousness, simply stated, is a right relationship with God.  Correspondingly, justice is a right relationship with others.  Scripture assures us that a sense of well-being emerges when both righteousness and justice prevail.  Accordingly, the prophets called for God’s people to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Not surprisingly, the prophets railed against God’s people when they neglected these relationships. “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice,” the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed (Jeremiah 22:13).

Of course, these are not only Old Testament concepts.  When Jesus was asked to give the most important commandment, he spoke of righteousness and justice by quoting from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus advances the prophetic understanding of righteousness and Justice as being interwoven into one fabric of faith.

In this fifteenth chapter of John, Jesus expresses the interrelatedness of righteousness and justice by using the imagery of a vine and branches, with its flow of life, its production of fruit, and the intertwined nature of its branches, revealing the interconnectedness of the disciples both to Jesus and to each other.  Then, Jesus clarifies these relationships, starting with justice. “This is my commandment, that you love one another,” Jesus tells them, “as I have loved you.”  Of course laws only govern behavior, not spiritual or emotional conditions. No one is arrested for hate, only for hate crimes. Jesus’ command is not legally binding, but rather a spiritual expectation, which makes adherence to all the behavioral commands both possible and joyous – a condition in which Jesus’ followers may indeed bear the sweet fruit of faith, hope, and love.

Then Jesus reveals the life-giving power of the vine, true righteousness, the type of love which flows from God to each follower. “You are my friends.”  Jesus declaires.  This is a radical statement.  No other world religion presents the relationship between God and humans to be that of friendship.  ”I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing,” Jesus elaborates. “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

In his last words, Jesus is radically reframing righteousness.  He is proclaiming that God has made himself known to his people not as a mighty conqueror who demands allegiance and requires submission. Instead, God has come to us as a friend – to love us into loving, to shower us with hospitality that we might be radical in our hospitality, to demonstrate loyalty that we might never forsake our God or our fellow, to be generous to us that abundant generosity might be stirred up within us, and to live in harmony with God’s desires that we might find fulness of joy and wholeness in life by living out God’s will.

In these last hours, when Jesus was giving his last words to his disciples, he spoke of the things which were of greatest importance.  He spoke of loving God and loving neighbor.  He spoke of righteousness and justice.  He spoke not of power relationships, or duty.  He spoke simply.  ”You are my friends.” These words not only transform our relationships, but also reveal the nature of Jesus work among us, both in life and in death.  ”No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

My Jesus, your friendship and love transform my understandings and relationships. May your love purify and reorder my loves, and your friendship inform and transform my life.  Amen.

A Bible-study devotional blog by Gorman Houston.

 

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014 – “I am the Vine…You Are the Branches”

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansedby the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”  - John 15:1-5

John records the seventh and final “I Am” saying as Jesus addresses his followers on their last evening together.  The hour is approaching for Jesus’ crucifixion.  Within 24 hours, he will be dead.  He speaks to his followers about life.  He is about to leave his disciples.  His words compel them to “abide in” him.  His arrest, trial, and death will show the barrenness of the religious leaders’ faith.  Jesus’ offer is abundant fruitfulness.

“I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “and my Father is the vinegrower.”  The imagery of the vine is rich both in the Jewish scriptures and in Jewish self-understanding.  Both Jeremiah and Isaiah speak of Israel as a “choice vine.”  Hosea calls the People of God a “luxuriant vine.”  All three use the image to speak of how the very people God planted have produced, not a fruitful harvest, but sour, even poisonous, grapes.

As Jesus prepares his disciples for his death, he expresses to them that he will be closer to them in death than he has been to them in life, that they will find life in him, and that as they abide in him – in his love and in his life-giving spirit – they will indeed bear good fruit.

In this extended metaphor John reveals that Jesus is the “true vine,” not replacing, but fulfilling Judiasm.  Jesus’ followers are grafted into the vine and receive abundant life from him.  Just as a branch bears fruit by drawing its nourishment from the life-giving vine, so too Jesus’ followers will bear the fruit of love and unity as they draw grace and truth from Christ Jesus.  Just as branches cannot live if severed from the vine, so too Jesus tells his followers, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

Jesus’ expression and final “I am” saying offer assurance that he is not merely ushering in a new philosphy or a new theology.  His offer is newness of life – full and abundant, transcending even death.

Lord Jesus, I draw my very sustenance from you.  May you be glorified, as my life blossoms in grace and truth and bears the good fruit of abiding love.  Amen

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Thursday, October 9, 2014 – Peace in the Battle…

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.  – John 14:27

These words of Jesus offer great comfort to us, as he offers his peace to his disciples.  If we read them by themselves we might imagine that Jesus spoke these words by the Sea of Galilee on a beautiful, calm day.  Perhaps we can hear these words and interpret them to mean, as you follow me you will have neither trials nor temptations, neither trauma nor tragedy.  It would not be hard in such a recast of this scripture to desire such a protected life of peace.

The problem is that these words were not uttered at a time of tranquility and beauty.  Jesus spoke these words just hours before his arrest, trial, suffering, and death.  Jesus was not offering eternal peace in a mellow moment.  He was promising peace even in the face of peril.  “Peace I leave with you,” he assured his disciples, perhaps reaching out to touch them with the same hands which would be pierced by nails the following day.   Jesus was offering something that transcended the circumstances these followers would face.  No wonder he said he gave it “not as the world gives.”  This peace in their lives would not come from a moment of ease and relaxation.  It would come from the source of all life, the assurance of all truth, and the victor of all battles.

We could perhaps better catch the urgency and meaning of Jesus words if we recast them to reflect the setting in which they were given.  “I want to give you my peace,” we might hear Jesus saying, “because the world will not give you peace.  You are about to experience incredible tragedy, and you will have every reason to feel sorrow, despair, fear, and horror, so I want you to have my peace to see you through this and every battle, this and every dark night, this and every disappointment, this and every time of doubt, this and every brush with death.  It is this peace which will keep your hearts from being troubled and rid your hearts of fear.”

Jesus did not protect his disciples from the battles of good and evil.  Neither does he protect us.  He did not shelter them from the storms of life.  Neither does he shelter us.  But Jesus did give his disciples something the world could not take away – his peace.  That is his offer to you as well.

Lord Jesus, keep me from simply settling for a life of ease.  Instead, fill me with your peace that I may not shy away from the challenges and struggles but face them  with faith and hope and love.   Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014 – “I Am the Way…”

“…you know the way where I am going.”  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, ”I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. - John 14:4-6

As Jesus talks to his disciples on the night before his suffering and death, he assures them that when he leaves them they will know the way into the kingdom of God.  Thomas replies to show the ignorance of the group.  Since they don’t even know where the kingdom of God is, how can they possibly know the way?  Jesus responds by offering the sixth of the seven “I am” sayings in John’s Gospel – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Jesus’ reply affirms convincingly that the key to the kingdom of God – the key to knowing God, the key to drawing close to God, the key to being in God’s presence – is simply being in relationship with Jesus Christ.  Jesus is telling the disciples that the path to God is not a matter of following rules or laws, not a matter of being a member of the correct church, not a matter of developing a detailed theological understanding, not a matter of following the correct ritual.  All of those things may be means of grace – helpful ways of coming to Christ and learning of Christ – but none of those can be substituted for a genuine, growing relationship with our Lord.

“I am the way,” Jesus says.  Following laws or rituals or morality codes can make us devout, can make us obedient, can even make us decent people, but none of that can make us righteous or godly or Christ-like.  Why?  These well-intentioned actions produce the dangerous side-effects of pride, arrogance, jealousy, envy, and self-righteousness.  That’s why Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father but by me.”   The only way to godliness, the only way to Christlikeness, is through the one who is the self-professed “Way.”

Lord Jesus, forgive my well-intentioned, self-righteous ways and help me commit myself fully to the only one who is “the way, the truth, and the life.”  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014 – I go and prepare…I come and take you…

“In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” - John 14:2-3

As Jesus prepared his disciples for his own death, he offered them eternal comfort.  Just as he used images from the 23rd psalm to talk of God’s shepherding love for his people earlier in John’s Gospel, so too he used images from the same psalm to give his followers an eternal perspective on his suffering and death.  We can almost hear the psalmist’s words, “Thou preparest a table before me,” as we read Jesus’ words, “I go to prepare a place for you.”  Jesus assurance was that his care for his people extends into eternity.

In all of this Jesus was telling the disciples two important things.  First, he was not abandoning them.  He was leaving them on purpose to complete in eternity the things he had begun on earth.  Second, his separation from his followers was not permanent, but only temporary.  “When I go and prepare a place for you,” he told them, “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

Note both that Jesus told his followers these things before his death and that he used imagery from the Shepherd Psalm to give them a way to interpret his suffering and death.  In all of this Jesus revealed that he was in complete control of his passion and death.  He chose the cross as the ultimate expression of grace and love.  His disciples found meaning then, and we still find comfort today, in knowing that Jesus’ death was not a senseless tragedy but a purposeful expression of love and grace.

Lord Jesus, even now we can hardly comprehend your love and sacrifice.  Continue to speak to our hearts and minds that we may claim your grace and know the place you prepare for us in your kingdom.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Friday, October 3, 2014 – Love and Faith… for Tough Times, all Times

“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.” - John 14:1

Jesus’ words of assurance in this familiar verse offer incredible comfort – so much comfort, in fact, that it’s easy for us to forget that Jesus said them just hours before he was crucified.  His concern at the end of his life was not for himself, but for those who would continue the work he had begun.

The first words Jesus gave his disciples on his final night with them centered on love – his love for them and his expectation of their love for each other.  In fact he gave his disciples “a new commandment” to love one another.  The next words to his disciples centered on faith – “Believe in God always; believe also in me,” he told them.

While his disciples could never have imagined what they were about to experience, Jesus was well aware that he would be dead and buried before sunset the following day.  The words he offered them this night were well planned with a certain calm urgency.  “Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus told them.  Surely Jesus knew that the only way his friends would be able to hold together, to continue the work of God without imploding due to competing self-interest and personal despair was by being guided by two essentials – love and faith.

Those are still the essentials for surviving tough times and for extending the kingdom of God at all times.  The foundation for building a Christ-honoring life is amazingly simple – faith and love.  We do well to trust God and trust Christ Jesus with every situation in absolute conviction that God is bigger than any problem we may face.  We also do well to allow our love for God and others to inform our actions and empower us to live as Christ lived.

Lord Jesus, I believe in God and in you… flood my heart with love and my mind with faith.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Thursday, October 2, 2014 – Fighting the Right Battle in the Right Way

36 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, ”Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” 37 Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38 Jesus answered, ”Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” – John 13:36-38

Jesus’ words were hard for the disciples to hear – maybe impossible, especially as his death neared.  These loyal followers knew that Jesus had the power to avoid being caught and to escape death.  What they couldn’t understand was why he was determined neither to flee nor to fight.  Jesus was telling them what they could not understand – that he was going to lay down his life like a good shepherd for his sheep.  Such an idea was repugnant to the disciples.  They were determined to fight for Jesus’ life.  “I will lay down my life for you,” Peter proclaimed, in an attempt to turn the tables and in an expression of his readiness to fight to the finish.

Jesus’ reply once again shocked his followers, as he told them that there would be no fight to the finish for his life, that he would freely give himself over to the authorities; and that they would all abandon him before the night was over.  “Before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times,” Jesus told Peter.

Surely we can all understand the disciples’ stuggles.  We are hard-wired to resist death, to fight for life.  The confusion for Peter and the rest centered on their attempt to fit Jesus’ life and teachings into their sensibilities.  More often than not, Jesus’ words and actions stretched their understandings and challenged their thought patterns.  Nothing did so more than the idea that Jesus was not going to fight for his life.

Of course, what the disciples did not know and would not understand until everything was accomplished was that Jesus was indeed fighting.  He was at war in the battle between good and evil, and his action on the cross of Calvary would be the final triumphant blow.  This was not a battle “against flesh and blood,” as Paul wrote years later, “But against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  The disciples were fighting the wrong battle in the wrong way with the wrong weapons.  Jesus’ battle was against sin and death, and he was well armed with truth and grace.

Lord Jesus, I thank you for fighting my battle with your life and love.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 – “The Single Mark of Discipleship…”

Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”– John 13:33-35

Here in the mid-point of the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus begins an extended series of teachings to his disciples, mingled with assurances and intense prayers, as he prepares for his death.  We can only imagine that these last words would be of extreme importance – a summary of Jesus’ teachings.  First on the list is the new commandment to love one another.  This teaching connects with Jesus’ words in the other gospels, in which he said that the first and great commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 22:37-39).  This teaching was not original with Jesus.  Both commandments are found in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5, and Leviticus 19:18), but by the time of Jesus they had been buried by hundreds of lesser laws.

Jesus’ life and teachings rubbed against the legalism of institutional Judaism.  His life focused on a changed life, not merely a conformed life.  His intent was for a change of heart, not simply a change of behavior.  And such a change of heart necessitates nothing less than a change of human nature.  Of course, no law is powerful enough to change human nature.  The truth is, Jesus’ law is impossible for us to follow… apart from an indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  It is impossible for us to accomplish this law’s demands on our own.  Do you see what that means?  It means that none of us is righteous, none of us is able to boast, and none of us is in a position to judge.  None of us can live out this law apart from the grace and power of God.

Jesus’ command is not a call for a simple emotion we call love.  Jesus’ command is that his followers be known as new creations, who have turned away from the natural self-serving instincts of human nature and turned toward the supernatural, life-giving divine nature.  Jesus’ desire is that his followers be famous – not for their piety or dogma or ritual or strict rules, but simply for their love for God and their love for others.

It was Jesus’ greatest command, and he made it just hours before he stretched out his hands upon the cross of Calvary just because of his love for you and me.

Eternal God, write your law upon my heart that I may love you fully and follow Christ Jesus’ in pouring out my love for others.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston