Monthly Archives: October 2016

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Monday, October 31, 2016 – The Seen and the Unseen

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” – John 3:5-8

When Nicodemus questioned Jesus about being born anew, Jesus responded with a simple truth – “that which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.”  What Jesus was saying is, the insights you have about earthly things grant you insight into heavenly things.  That’s a great concept for us to master, and it’s one that Jesus offers over and again.  “The wind blows where it wills,” Jesus told the religious leader, “And you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” We see here and throughout the gospels that the world serves as Jesus’ classroom, for the natural bears witness to the supernatural, the seen to the unseen, the physical to the spiritual, the practical to the unimaginable.

Don’t we see this same pedagogy in the parables which Jesus uses as teaching tools in the other gospels?  “The kingdom of God is like…,” Jesus begins, and then he talks of farming and fishing, of birds and lilies, of strangers and neighbors, of sheep and goats, of family relationships and friends at the midnight hour.  The natural bears witness to the supernatural, the seen to the unseen, the physical to the spiritual, the practical to the unimaginable.

Jesus’ offer is for Nicodemus to move beyond the prevailing understanding of religion as rules and to find faith as fullness of life.  There’s a supernatural, spiritual awakening just waiting to unfold, Jesus teaches.  It’s like the wind, powerful and life-giving.  You cannot control the spirit with rules, nor can you see it, but it’s as real as the wind blowing through the trees.  How do you know?  Behold the witnesses – the natural bears witness to the supernatural, the seen to the unseen, the physical to the spiritual, the practical to the unimaginable.  “…So it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”

Good Father, open my eyes to behold the world about me with all its wonders, and use what is seen to teach me about your kingdom which is unseen.  Amen

We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:18

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Friday, October 28, 2016 – Vertical and Horizontal Living

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Some translations record Jesus’ words to Nicodemus as “born from above” instead of “born again.”  There is much to be gained from looking at this reading of Jesus’ instruction.

We tend to think of life in a linear, horizontal, one-dimensional fashion.  We may use a horizontal timeline to show the passage of history, the chronology of events.   When Jesus says that in order to see the kingdom of God we have to be “born from above,” he is talking about a different kind of time, not chronos (the passage of time) but kairos (the fullness of time).  Chronos is horizontal time.  Kairos is vertical time.  The birth Jesus is talking about opens us to vertical living, while the emergence from the womb on our birth day is horizontal living.  Consider these contrasts:

Horizontal                                 Vertical

Chronos                                   Kairos

Earthly                                      Heavenly

Limited                                     Abundant

Sinful                                         Holy

Temporal                                  Eternal

Incomplete                               Perfect

Physical                                    Spiritual

The incarnation of Christ may be understood as the meeting of the horizontal and the vertical, the intersection of earth and heaven.  That is why throughout the gospels we are able to see glimpses of the kingdom of heaven wherever Jesus is.  His teachings are eternal truths, his miracles are signs of God’s kingdom, his life is eternal, his timing is perfect. That is vertical living in a horizontal world.

Of course, when a vertical line intersects a horizontal line, a cross is formed.  Perhaps what John is expressing in Jesus’ words is that we find salvation through the cross of Christ, not just because it is the implement on which Jesus died, but also because it is an expression of the on-going work of Christ to bring earth and heaven together.  No wonder Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Christ is the fulcrum, the hinge, the pivot point, the center of the cross.  It is through Christ, therefore, that we are able to see, enter, and experience the fullness of the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ invitation to Nicodemus and to you and me is to live above the plain, to live above this limited, sinful, temporal, incomplete, physical, earthly existence.  His invitation is to live fully by entering into the abundant, holy, eternal, perfect, spiritual, heavenly life through him.  That’s vertical living, and the way we claim that kind of life is by being “born from above.”

Good Father, invade my limited, earth-bound life with your spirit that I may enter into the fullness of life.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Thursday, October 27, 2016 – Alive in Christ

This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

John places this teaching about rebirth first among the various teachings he includes from Jesus in his Gospel.  There are several aspects of this placement worth our time and meditation.  First, the teaching is to Nicodemus, a Jewish leader.  This placement is consistent with the concept that Jesus came to the Jew first and then to the Gentile.  Furthermore, by offering this insight to a Jewish leader, Jesus is not rejecting Judaism.  His complaint is with the way Judaism had been institutionalized.  As the Gospel unfolds it is clear that the Jewish leaders reject Jesus, not that Jesus rejects the Jewish leaders.

Second, this teaching is placed immediately after Jesus’ first “sign” of turning water into wine.  Perhaps John wants us to see the correlation between the sign and the teaching.  Both are about an inner transformation.  The good news Jesus offers is not about following laws with outward compliance.  Rather it centers on following the heart and inward transformation.  Jesus is offering a new heart, a new love, a new nature – as different from the sinful nature as wine is from water.

Finally, this teaching may come first because it is primary.  That is, it may not be chronologically first, but it is of first importance if we are to grasp Jesus’ offer of life in all its abundance.  Jesus’ words to Nicodemus remind us that if we are not open to a new heart, a new nature, a new life then we will be unable to see the kingdom of God as it unfolds about us and opens before us.  The offer of new life begins with new birth.

Lord Jesus, cast out all that hinders me and birth me into new life in your name.  Amen.

“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  - Romans 6:11

 

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016 – Coming to Christ by Night…

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”   - John 3:1-2

John records that Jesus’ first teaching was in the context of an encounter between our Lord and a religious ruler named Nicodemus.  The encounter begins as Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night.”  This detail seems to tell us more about Nicodemus than it does about the setting of the event.  John says he came “by night” rather than “at night.”  What can we glean from this detail?

It could be that Nicodemus is hiding his interest in Jesus, seeking to use the darkness as his cover.  He could be a secret admirer of Jesus, a secret inquirer of faith, a secret seeker of truth.  As the Gospel unfolds we see Nicodemus move from the shadows and periphery toward the center in his devotion to Jesus, until finally in the nineteenth chapter, John tells us that Nicodemus assists in the burial of Christ Jesus.  Such an act would have violated Jewish law and would have rendered Nicodemus defiled (touching a corpse) before the high, holy day – a strong expression of devotion.

Perhaps John is saying that Nicodemus (and by extension the religious institution) is in the dark, ignorant of the path to a transformed, God-empowered life.  Hence, Jesus asks in verse 10, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?”  John seems to be affirming that Jesus came first to his own people, to a leader of institutional Judaism, to offer his teaching of light and life.  Jesus did not reject or denounce Nicodemus for being in the dark; instead he offered him correction and truth, the light of knowledge.  And to his credit, Nicodemus had an open and teachable spirit, a desire not merely to defend his religious views but to know God more fully.

Good Father, I am often in the dark.  Help me seek your light of life and truth as my guide.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Friday, October 21, 2016 – The First Sign

This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.            – John 2:3-5

John ends his account of the water-to-wine miracle by reporting that this was the first of Jesus’ signs.  Several things interest me about this statement.  First, John consistently refuses to use the term miracle in referring to this event and others like it in his gospel.  Instead, he calls them signs.  It seems that what John is getting at is that these events are to be understood primarily in the way that they point beyond themselves to the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, to what life is like when it is lived abundantly in God’s realm.  As we work our way through John’s Gospel, note the various signs – the multiplication of bread, the healing of the chronically ill man, the raising of Lazarus, the granting of sight to the man born blind, and even the changing of water into wine – and think what these events show us about God’s offer of life through Christ.

Secondly, it fascinates me that Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine.  It seems like such an insignificant miracle compared to raising the dead or restoring the sick.  I know Jesus said that this miracle was taking place out of turn, that his time had “not yet come,” but is there some divine purpose in having this miracle lead the way?  Perhaps we recognize that this event is about an inner transformation, a changing of the essential nature of something – water became wine.  Perhaps this sign assures us that the primary miracle Jesus performs in our lives, as we come under his authority, is an inner transformation – that we “grow into his likeness,” that our sinful human nature is changed into the divine nature.  Maybe this is the first sign because it points to the primary work of Jesus.

I also can’t help thinking that changing water into wine is the first sign because it brought joy; it celebrated life.  Perhaps this sign points to the miracle Jesus works in our life to open to us the abundance of life and the joy of living.  After all, Jesus tells us that he has come that we might “have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  Countering the scarcity and hard times of this world, Jesus offers abundance and joy.

Lord Jesus, work your mighty miracles in my life that I may experience the fullness of life and be transformed into your likeness.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Thursday, October 20, 2016 – Drink Deep…

When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom  10 and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.”  – John 2:3-5

It is difficult to read the account of Jesus turning water into wine in Cana of Galilee without noticing the sheer enormity of the miracle.  John reports that the attendants filled six stone jars with water.  Each of those jars held twenty to thirty gallons, John reports.  That’s no small amount of wine for the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee.  My calculations put it at between 120 and 180 gallons of wine.

We learn something of the abundance of God in this miracle story.  God is not limited.  He lavishes us with an abundance of all things – wine, food, healing…grace, love, forgiveness…compassion, care, goodness.   Our God is an abundant God.

What’s more, in this miracle, he seems to be inviting us to drink deep the good stuff – the good wine, the good portion.  This is no measured amount; this is an extravagant offering for everyone.   God wants us to live in the midst of his abundance and to reflect his generosity with all of creation.  As we freely receive his gifts and freely offer our own, we join our Lord in the celebration of life.

Good Father, thank you for your good gifts.  Help me accept them, celebrate them, share them, and allow you to be glorified through them.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016 – The Wine-Maker and the Parabler

He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom.        – John 2:8-9

John’s Gospel is filled with encounters in which people are confused.  They see something that challenges their sensibility.  They hear something that challenges their understandings.  It’s confusing, mystifying.

In Jesus’ first miracle, the attendants followed Jesus’ command and filled stone jars with water, then they dipped some out and took it to the steward of the feast.  The steward was confused.  The wine he tasted was clearly superior to the wine he had been serving at the wedding feast.  He assumed that there had been a mistake, that the good wine had been inadvertently served after the inferior wine.  How else could this confusion be unraveled?  John includes in his account of the confusion over the wine that the steward “did not know where (the wine) came from.”  Then John adds, parenthetically, “Though the servants who had drawn the water knew.”

We find this same type of ignorance and confusion throughout John’s Gospel.  In account after account some people get it, and some people do not.  As we read through the Gospel, we find that in every situation the key is not so much knowing what had been done, but rather knowing the one who had done it – not so much grasping what had been said, but rather knowing the one who had said it.

The same is true of the parables Jesus tells in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  The stories of our Lord have the power to reveal great truths about the kingdom of God, but over and again it seems that some folks find meaning and some folks don’t.  How do we make sense of the confusion in all of this?  Well Jesus said it best in Mark’s Gospel, as he instructed his disciples, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables…” (Mark 4:11).

The lesson is that for the Steward of the feast to know where the wine came from, he just needed to come to know the wine-maker, and for hearers to understand the parables, they just need to come to know the Parabler.

Good Father, help me find meaning in life, as I come to know the Giver of Life.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016 – “Stone Jars and Earthen Vessels…”

Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. – John 2:3-5

John tells us that Jesus’ first miracle was the changing of water into wine.  What interests me is that there was nothing special about the elements Jesus used to perform the miracle – just stone jars and water.  Likewise, John tells of no special words or gestures.  In fact, we are not told that Jesus ever even touched the jars or the water.  Those about him did it all.  He just used their effort to perform a mighty work.

That is still the way Jesus performs miracles today.  He doesn’t need anything special – no “eye of newt” or “toe of frog” like in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”  Jesus just needs what he’s always needed – simple elements and profound obedience.  John assures us that as the attendants followed Jesus’ commands, a transformation took place, God’s glory was made manifest, and people came to faith.

Today, as you offer a prayer for someone, remember that Jesus performs his miracles through the obedience of those about him.  So, wait upon the Lord and seek out what our Lord would have you do to bless the person for whom you are praying.  It need not be anything complicated or extravagant.  In fact, it’s better if it is not – just a simple call, a simple card, a simple gesture of concern.  Perform this simple act as an expression of obedience and an offering to accompany your prayer.  Then, behold the way in which Jesus will bless it and use it for his purpose and to his glory.

“We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” – 2 Corinthians 4:7

Good Father, use my simple expressions of love and concern today to do your mighty work.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Monday, October 17, 2016 – “Do Whatever He Tells You…”

When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”    – John 2:3-5

In John’s Gospel we first meet Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the midst of a crisis at a wedding feast in Cana.  They had run out of wine long before they had run out of guests.  Mary came to Jesus and told the attendants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  The attendants obeyed, and as they did, miraculous things transpired.  Jesus’ glory was made manifest.

Mary’s word to those at the wedding in Cana 2,000 years ago continues to challenge and guide followers of Christ Jesus today.  We do well when we “do whatever he tells” us.  In fact, such obedience is the essence of salvation, of allowing Jesus to be our Lord.

Sometimes Jesus’ word is easy to obey, but more often than not we have to give up our own will to follow his word, and that is not easy – especially when it offends our sensibility, confronts our prejudice, exposes our hypocrisy, or undermines our comfortable theology.

There is nothing complicated about obedience, but that doesn’t make it easy.   It seems we are only willing to obey someone whom we respect, someone whom we love, someone who is worthy of our allegiance.  In other words, the closer we move to Jesus, the more open we are to live out Mary’s good word, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Lord Jesus, help me love you, honor you, hear you, and obey you in all things.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Friday, October 14, 2016 – The Two Become One…

On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; 2 Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples.         - John 2:1-2

A three-day time period in the Bible often means simply a short time, as opposed to a period of forty days, which usually refers to a long time.  However, when John reports that “on the third day there was a marriage,” he appears to be using deliberate precision in his expression of time.  Throughout the second half of chapter 1, John numbers the days from the time John the Baptist first emerged.  If we follow John’s timeline, we find that the wedding in Cana of Galilee occurs on the seventh day – the Sabbath Day.

John uses images of creation, such as the Sabbath day, as he begins unfolding God’s work of redemption, the restoration of all which was lost.  On the seventh day, John tells us, there was a marriage, a binding together of that which had been separate, a meshing of two into one.  It seems odd that John’s account of this wedding tells us nothing about the couple getting married, unless we realize that the wedding feast John celebrates in his Gospel is the binding together of God and humanity, the creator and the creation, the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of our God.

John makes it clear that it is God’s desire to bind himself to us.  In fact, John wants us to know that this was God’s design at creation – on the seventh day God did not just rest from his labor, God bound himself in covenant love to his creation.  God committed himself to us just the way a bride and groom do at a wedding.

Because of God’s action through Jesus Christ, when we gather to worship on the Sabbath Day, we celebrate not just God’s creative genius, but also God’s overwhelming love for us.  And, when we bind ourselves to God through Jesus Christ, the greatest mystery of all begins to take place – the two become one.  Let’s celebrate!

Good Father, I thank you for the wonder of your creation and for your unimaginable love.  I freely bind myself to the one who binds himself to me.  Amen

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston