For Such a Time as This

For Such a Time as This

Esther 4

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: every believer has a unique and crucial ministry

Persuade: to stand for God when you are called to do so

Who are some of your favorite biblical characters? One of mine is Hathach. We’ll meet him in this study.

We meet with the most famous statement in Esther: “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (4.14). Your position is just as much the choice of God as hers, and just as crucial to the Kingdom.

What job does God have for you? There are three in this chapter—yours is one of them.

Mordecai’s role: some initiate (1-3)

“When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly” (v. 1). These were Jewish expressions of grief and mourning.

What were his other options? He could have asked forgiveness of Haman for himself and the nation. Or he could pretend not to be Jewish, or at least publicly so.

Now Mordecai “went only as far as the king’s gate” (2a). This was the last place a Jew would want to be in these days. Haman could have him killed instantly, ahead of the massacre. So why did he go there? He went so Esther could know. And God arranged things so that she did.

Someone must initiate ministry, especially in a crisis. God must give the vision, the direction to someone. Be willing to be that someone. You may think you are not qualified, or have too much in your past. Consider these men called by God to lead ministries: Moses the murderer, Joshua the old man, the disciples, Paul the persecutor. And there are others.

The church’s job is to help you find and fulfill your ministry. We exist not to initiate ministries for you to support, but to help you do yours. If you could do anything to serve Jesus, what would it be? “For such a time as this,” God calls some to lead in ministry. Are you one?

Hathach’s role: some serve (4-9)

Now, before we get to the main hero of the chapter and the story, let’s not overlook someone used by God in crucial ways: Hathach, “one of the king’s eunuchs” (v. 5). Here’s his story.

Mordecai “went only as far as the king’s gate, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it” (v. 2). He was not allowed near the palace itself. So Esther’s “maids and eunuchs” told her about him and his distress. But she had no idea why he was grieving so. She sent him clothes, but he would not wear them. This was obviously serious.

She “summoned Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs assigned to attend her, and ordered him to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why” (v. 5). There were probably hundreds of eunuchs guarding and serving the queen and the harem. Why him? His character, honesty, and trustworthiness must have somehow impressed her.

So Hathach goes out to Mordecai, receives the entire story, and hears his request that he “urge her to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people” (8).

Now, what are Hathach’s options? If Haman hears of this, what will he do to him? He’s not a Jew. He can clearly say, “This is not my battle.” Or he can serve faithfully. He “went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said.” If he had not, the story would have been very different.

Some lead, some serve. Service is just as crucial as leadership. Who has most impressed you with Christ? Someone who served you. In my case, it was a gentleman in Houston, TX, Julian Unger, who answered God’s call to a bus ministry.

When he followed the Holy Spirit’s leadership in establishing a bus ministry for College Park Baptist Church more than 30 years ago, he could not have known the Kingdom impact of his obedience. Every door in the community opened to bus ministry workers was opened to the word of God. Every child and teenager who heard the gospel through that ministry heard God’s love. And every person influenced for the Lord through that bus ministry has been a spiritual descendant of his faithfulness.

When I opened our apartment door in August of 1973, I had no understanding of God’s love. I assumed a “Christian” was a good person who believed in God. Our family had attended worship services very few times in my life, and I had no interest in “religion.” If Julian Unger and his fellow worker, Tom McGrady, had not come to me, I would never have gone to church. I would today be one of the millions of Americans who are spiritually lost, destined for an eternity separated from God. I will spend eternity in heaven because they were faithful to God. And so will hundreds and thousands of others.

Martin Luther King: “Anyone can be great, because anyone can serve.” Anyone can serve God and his people. In a crisis, God calls some to serve “for such a time as this.” Are you in their number?

Esther’s role: some obey sacrificially (10-17)

Now Esther knows the situation, and has a dire problem. No one can go to the king without his invitation. Law required death for the person doing so. And she has not been invited to the king for 30 days. With one exception: He could extend his gold scepter to spare the person’s life.

Mordecai’s reply is one of the most famous paragraphs in all the word of God: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (vv. 12-14).


Is There Any Hope?

Is There Any Hope?

Mark 16:1-8

Dr. Jim Denison

This is the 1,973rd Easter Sunday since the first one. Think how the world has changed.

A population of 25 million is today 6,215,090,567. Most of them drive on Central Expressway. The world would wait seventeen centuries to discover electricity; today’s news is all about cloning, G3 wireless technology, and video streaming for interactive television on our computers. Whatever that means.

Futurologist Ian Pearson recently predicted that within four years we’ll see emotionally interactive toys, and the first extinct organism brought back to life. University Park will become Jurassic Park. By 2025 there will be more robots than people. Then they can deal with all the dinosaurs.

More change has occurred in this century than all of human history combined.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same.

We are stealing television shows through digital technology, and music through online downloading. Recent news reports have documented the epidemic of online sermon theft by preachers. (Just so you know, you have no one to thank or blame for this message but me.)

But sin doesn’t stay secret. Microsoft just admitted that its Windows XP software monitors what movies people watch on their computers, and tells Bill Gates. Big Brother is watching.

And since September 11, we’ve been living in a different world, and we don’t like it.

If the Pentagon and World Trade Center were not safe, this building is not safe. If a suicide bomber would attack a Passover feast in Netanya, Israel this week, would someone attack an Easter service here?

If airplanes—the most closely monitored transportation in the world—are not safe, what is?

Years ago, a submarine was rammed and sank to the bottom of the ocean. Rescue divers, unable to open the hatch, heard the crew tapping on the metal hull in Morse Code, over and over, “Is there any hope?”

We’re all tapping that message. Does Easter offer any hope to our world? To your life? The answer is up to you. Let me explain.

Either Easter is a lie …

Mark 16:8 says, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

The New International Version contains this note next: “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.” The reason is that they were not part of the original Gospel of Mark. They were written by the presbyter Ariston in the second century, as he combined facts from the other gospels and some new information.

Nearly all scholars, including the very conservative, believe that Mark’s Gospel as we have it, ended with verse 8. Some think the rest has been lost, or he was prevented from writing it. Most believe that he meant the book to end here. That’s what I think. God would never let even one word of his inspired Scriptures be lost to us. We have exactly the ending God intended for us.

Why does it end as it does? So we can finish the story. Because Easter is not done until we are done with it. Because we must each determine how the story ends for us.

And we have only two choices. Either Easter is a lie, or Jesus Christ is Lord. Let’s examine the first choice, first.

The women left Easter “bewildered” by the message. So can we.

All they had was the angel’s testimony and the empty tomb. All you have is the same. We’re scientific, advanced, sophisticated people. We know that bodies don’t rise from the dead.

So you can leave today bewildered, skeptical, doubting that Easter is anything more than a nice religious story, a fable, a pleasant myth. You can leave Easter this morning with your heart as empty as this tomb. Why not believe Easter is a lie?

Consider the evidence. First, Jesus’ existence and death are facts of history.

Roman and Jewish historians such as Tacitus, Thallus the Samaritan, Pliny the Younger, Seutonius, Mara bar Serapion, and Josephus all record the fact of Jesus’ life.

The Roman soldiers knew that he died. Blood loss, exhaustion, exposure, shock, and suffocation combined to end his life.

Then Nicodemus embalmed his corpse with 100 pounds of ointment in an airtight burial shroud.

And he was left for three days without air, food, or water. Even if he survived all that, he could not possibly have moved aside the massive stone sealing his tomb. His life and death are facts.

Second, his empty tomb is a fact of history.

The women did not go to the wrong tomb, for they watched him being buried. And the owner and the soldiers knew the right location.

They did not rob his corpse to pretend a resurrection. Verse 1 is clear: they came to anoint a dead body, not steal it. Grave robbing was a capital offense, so that such a theft would cost their lives. And those who later proclaimed the resurrection died for their “lie.”

His tomb was empty that day. It still is.

Third, changed lives are a fact of history. A dozen followers have become two billion worshipping the risen Christ this Easter morning. All because of the first Easter morning.

On April 19, AD 29, an angel came to the grave of Jesus of Nazareth and flung its stone away. Not so Jesus could get out, for he was already gone. So we could get in. The massive stone was but a pebble compared to the Rock of Ages inside.

He is risen”—three words which changed their lives, and our world. If Easter were a lie, there would be no hope. But it’s not. So there is.

…or Jesus Christ is Lord

And if Easter is true, then Jesus Christ is Lord. He was and is the only person in human history to rise from the dead to eternal life. Even Lazarus died again. But not Jesus. His tomb is still empty. Because Jesus Christ is Lord. And so there’s hope for us.


Knowing Who Holds the Future

Knowing Who Holds the Future

Esther 1

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: God is right now orchestrating events to protect our future

Persuade: to trust him with your problems today

Perhaps the most perplexing theological issue Christians face today deals with sovereignty and free will. Put in short form, the question I am so often asked is: if God know the future, do we have freedom to choose? If we have such freedom, is God still in charge? The one option makes us robots, puppets on divine strings; the other makes God subject to our will. Neither feels right to us.

This question has become much more practical since September 11. Why did God permit such atrocities in our country? Did he cause the attacks? If not, did he allow them? Or is he subject to our choices and free will?

Is God in control in your life? Or are you? With the problems you face right now—health issues, financial questions, family concerns—is God sovereign? Or is he not?

There’s another way to face the issue, a third option. To explore it, I’d like us to walk together through a favorite OT book, the book of Esther. Let’s learn who holds the future, from a person who experienced God’s sovereignty in a way which will relate directly to every one of us.

Welcome to Esther

First, a few introductory facts. One: God is present, whether we see him or not. Esther is one of two OT books which never mention the name of God, the other being the Song of Solomon. Not a single time is his name cited in the book. This fact so perplexed Jewish readers that many did not feel the book should be included in their OT canon.

Two: God is sovereign, whether we understand him or not.. Esther is all about the providence of God. For reasons we’ll discover as we study the book together, God’s name is never mentioned but his power is made evident at every turn. When God seems silent, he is not. He is sovereign in ways we do not see or understand.

Three: God can use every one of us. The fact that the book was named for a woman, and features her as its primary hero, bothered many in the Jewish community as well. That fact should tell every one of us that God values us all, and has a plan for every life here tonight.

Four: God cares for his own. Esther describes the last great crisis facing the Jewish nation in the OT. After Assyria and Babylon came the genocide plotted by Haman. God’s answer to this crisis shows his answer to ours.

Consider these biblical promises we can claim right now: “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4.19); “But now, this is what the Lord says—he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze'” (Isaiah 43.1-3).

Historical data

The book deals with the Jewish community still living in Persia after the Babylonian Captivity was ended. In 586 BC Babylon enslaved Judah and transported most of the nation to their country. In 538 Cyrus, king of Persia, destroyed Babylon and freed the Jews. The first group of exiles returned to Israel under Zerubbabel at that time. In 458, a second group returned under Ezra; in 432 the last group returned under Nehemiah.

The events of Esther occurred between 538 and 458. In fact, the date of the first Purim is stated in Esther 8.12: “the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar.” This was March 7, 473 B.C.

So, before 458 B.C. the Jews remaining in Persia were threatened with genocidal extinction. God responded to this terrorist threat in exactly the way he responds to our problems today. Esther will show us how.

The first “coincidence”

Coincidence has been defined as those times when God prefers to remain anonymous. Here’s the first such “coincidence” in the book.

The king is introduced first (1.1). Xerxes was the son of Darius, who was himself the son of Cyrus, the liberator of the Jewish nation. Xerxes ruled Persia from 486 to 465 B.C. In the third year of his reign (483 B.C.), he gave a great party for the military leaders and political nobles of the entire nation. For 180 days he showed them his wealth; then he gave a great banquet.

This was a way of showing his leaders his own might and significance. Today, the Sultan of Brunei’s opens his palace and its grounds for his annual birthday celebration for the same reason.

All this occurred in Susa, the winter residence of the Persian kings. Banquets will become very important in the book. Ten are described. The king gave his own, allowing people to choose any wine they might drink, and even the goblet they might wish to use. Queen Vashti gave her own banquet as well (v. 9).

These banquets lead to the first crisis and coincidence in the book. The inebriated king commands his seven eunuchs to bring his queen before his guests, so that he might display her for them. Some think verse 11 indicates that Xerxes meant Queen Vashti to wear only her crown, to appear nude before them. For whatever reason, she refused (v. 12).

Xerxes consulted his legal counsel. They replied:

“Then Memucan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, ‘Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the kind but also against all the nobles and the peoples of the provinces of King Xerxes. For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of the disrespect and discord” (vv. 16-18).


Seeing God in Everything

Seeing God in Everything

Esther 2

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: God is in every detail of our lives

Problem: we don’t know how to find him when we need him

Answer: look for him in small, hard, physical, and coincidental places

Persuade: to see God in every event of your life today

A little girl went to church, leaving her invalid father at home. In his anger and frustration he wrote on a piece of paper the letters, GODISNOWHERE. She came home, saw the sign, smiled, and said out loud, “God is now here!” And he is.

As you hurt, God hurts with you. And he promises you his presence, help, and hope. Every day. This day.

Where do you go when you need to hear from God? When you’re facing a decision, or a problem, or a pain. When it seems that the heavens are silent and prayer is unanswered?

Listen to the perplexed poet:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

How can you find God every day, all day? Esther 2 tells us.

God turns small things into big things (2.1)

The first verse of our text is proof: “Later when the anger of King Xerxes had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what he had decreed about her.”

Here’s the chronology to chapter 2:

•Xerxes succeeded his father Darius in 486/5 B.C.

•Three years later he gave the banquet which led to Queen Vashti’s deposal as queen (483/2 B.C.).

•Now Persia enters into three years of disastrous war with Greece (482-479).

•At the war’s end the king “remembered Vashti and what she had done and what he had decreed about her” (2.1).

The nation has been at war for three years, but this war is not even mentioned in the book of Esther. Imagine a history book which left out WWI, II, Korean, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the Taliban. At the same time, the relatively trivial matter of palace politics and the next queen is the occupying issue of the book. In a day when kings had many wives and concubines (Solomon had 700 and 300, respectively).

Why is this so? The Bible tells us what we need to know about God, not about the world. Thus no dinosaurs in Scripture. God uses events we wouldn’t consider. A fugitive shepherd in time will defy the mighty Egyptian nation. A shepherd boy will become king. An enslaved prophet will find God in a lion’s den. A Galilean carpenter will die on a cross and save the world. God uses small things in big ways.

How can God use small things in big ways?

I became the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Midland, Texas at the age of 30. My previous pastorate, which I served while teaching at Southwestern Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, averaged less than 100 on Sunday morning; our new congregation had more than 8,000 members and more staff than our previous church had in Sunday night worship.

I had not been in Midland long when it became apparent that my previous experience and expertise was not sufficient to this new calling. I remember to this day those feelings of overwhelmed inadequacy. One evening I was sitting on our back porch, asking God to give me direction and strength for this ministry. My attention was drawn to a leaf which had fallen from the peach tree in our back yard and landed at my feet. I felt the Spirit’s leading to pick it up and examine it.

I had never paid much attention to a leaf, but I did that day. As I studied its intricate design, I was amazed by the minute detail it exhibited. I considered the chlorophyll and photosynthesis which it employed with ease. I reflected on the fact that modern scientists, with all our amazing tools, cannot produce from nothing a single leaf. As I focused on that leaf, I sensed God’s Spirit say to me, “If I can design a leaf, I can design your life.” With that thought came “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

God called our family from Midland to Atlanta, Georgia in 1994 and then to Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas only four years later. Not long after our move to Dallas, I returned to Atlanta to conduct the wedding of a dear friend’s daughter. I spent much of that weekend at Ignatius House, a Jesuit Catholic retreat center on the Chattahoochee River in northern Atlanta.

God has spoken to me often at this remarkable place, and that weekend was no exception. As I sat on a wooden deck overlooking the river in late August, I admitted to God my confusion. We were excited to be in Dallas, but didn’t understand why he had led us to make this move. I could discern no great narrative or strategy for our new ministry. I asked him for a sense of his plans and purpose for us.

As with the leaf in Midland years earlier, I sensed again the Spirit’s strange direction, this time to a caterpillar crawling along the wooden fencing of the deck. There I watched the hairy green insect make its way along the board, bunching and then stretching itself over and over again along the wood.

It was impervious to my presence, and had no idea that a Jesuit retreat center was responsible for its pathway. It seemed unaware of the river flowing beneath its porch or the swimmers inner tubing along that river. It didn’t know that I could squash it with my sandal if I wished. It simply did what it was made to do, and its Maker did the rest.

The Spirit spoke from that caterpillar directly to my spirit. If I would be as wise as that insect, crawling along the two-by-four which God had chosen as my pathway, he would take care of all that I could neither see nor understand. Once again the Creator used his creation to draw his child closer to himself.


The Price Of Personal Integrity

The price of personal integrity

Esther 3

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: we will pay a price for our Christian commitment, but God will redeem it

Persuade: to stand for God when you are tested

True character is what you do in private when no one is looking. But you will always pay a price for integrity. We’ll see that fact in Esther 3.

In many places in the world, enormous sacrifice is essential to Christian faith. There are half a million Christian martyrs every year.

There is such life and vitality in Cuban worship and faith, despite the difficulties and oppression many believers face. I spoke with a taxi driver who told me that he now believes in God, though he is not yet a Christian. He said that when he was growing up, anyone who went to church could not find a job or advancement in Cuban society. Atheism was taught in every school (as it still is in many places in Cuba). But the vitality and joy he sees in the Cuban churches intrigues and attracts him. As it does us.

Karl Heinz Walter is the Executive of the European Baptist Federation. At a recent meeting of the Baptist World Alliance he reported a growing form of persecution against Christians in Muslim countries. If these believers will not renounce their faith, the authorities cut off a finger. Then later, another and then another. They do this knowing that these men and women cannot work and may not survive with such disability. But the Christians are refusing to renounce their Lord, whatever the price they must pay.

When he gave this report, thousands of believers in the crowd raised their hands in worship. Fingerless hands.

Where does God call Christians in America today to pay a price for their obedience? Is there someplace he is calling you to such obedience?

It’s been said, “Character is fate.” We’ll see that statement proven by three facts in this study

.

God’s work is always done (1)

“After these events” (1a)—four years have passed since Esther’s choice as queen. God’s timing is so seldom ours. Note other examples from the Scriptures:

Moses and the Israelites were in the desert for 40 years,

Lazarus was raised from the dead on the fourth day (“he stinketh”).

Jesus was in the tomb for three days.

Now the enemy in the story is named: “King Xerxes honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles” (v. 1). No explanation for his honor is given in the story.

Mordecai deserved honor (chapter 2) but did not receive it; Haman has done nothing worthy of honor, but receives it. The world’s justice is so seldom fair. But know that God’s justice will be done, in this world or in the next, or both.

The Jewish audience understood immediately some fascinating history here:

Agagite refers to Agag, the ancient king of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). The Amalekites had attacked Israel after her exodus from Egypt; for this fact God told Israel to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Deuteronomy 25.17-19).

The first king to wage war against them was Saul (1 Samuel 15). Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin.

Now, 500 years later, Mordecai from the tribe of Benjamin (2.5) will continue the war with the Amalekites.

God’s will and word are always accomplished, even five centuries after they are revealed to us.

In Genesis 49, the dying Jacob says to his sons Simeon and Levi, “I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel” (v. 7). In Joshua 19 we read, five centuries later, that Simeon’s descendants were absorbed into the territory of Judah and Levi’s descendants were dispersed throughout the land, living in 48 towns.

Other biblical examples: Moses, Joshua and the promised land; God’s promise to Paul that he would testify to Caesar in Rome; Jesus’ promise that he would rise from the dead.

When God tells you to do something, do it. For his will is always done, finally. Is he calling you to something in his will today?

Faith requires courage (2)

Now the conflict is joined: “All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor” (v. 2).

This was Mordecai’s consistent commitment: “Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, ‘Why do you disobey the king’s command?’ Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply” (3-4a).

No Jew would worship another person or image, for this was idolatry, the violation of the first and second Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20.3-5).

Refusing to worship others was one of the cardinal principles of the Jewish faith. And it constantly got them into trouble.

Daniel 3.1: “King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.” With this threat: “Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace” (v. 6). Remember the results for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo.

We think of Martin Luther, before the emperor and his court, announcing his decision to continue his Reformation despite opposition and threats. Luther appeared before the Diet at Worms on April 17, 1521. According to a traditional but apocryphal account, he ended his statement before his accusers with the words, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

Although every effort was made to induce Luther to recant his theology, in the end the discussions failed over his refusal to repudiate a single sentence from the 41 cited in the papal bull.


When God Goes To Church

When God Goes to Church

John 12:2-8

Dr. Jim Denison

Pride and humility have been much in the news lately.

We’re all aware of Enron’s fall from 7th largest corporation in America to bankruptcy. You may remember Olga Korbut, the three-time gold medalist in the 1972 Olympics, recently arrested for shoplifting $19. Actress Winona Ryder’s arrest for shoplifting is still in legal process. And basketball giant Shaquille O’Neal has been sidelined for much of the NBA season by an arthritic toe.

But our hubris goes on. This week’s Fortune magazine tells us that for $200,000 you can buy your own biographical documentary. You’ll get two cameramen, three producers, and two-time Emmy winner Bill McGowan. He’ll write the script for your biography, conduct interviews over ten to 15 days, select sound bites, and edit the finished product.

But when you receive your documentary, don’t be too impressed. You’ll have spent one-fifth of what each cast member in the TV show Friends now makes. Per week.

Pride and humility have been issues long before Kenneth Lay took the fifth. On Tuesday of Holy Week, God went to church. On this day, in the Temple, Jesus confronted religious pride and commended spiritual humility. He taught us that God accepts and loves us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. You’re worthy to know God personally and intimately—unless you think you are. Let’s explore that fact and its relevance for your life.

Refuse religious pride

It’s now Tuesday morning of Holy Week, and Jesus and his disciples return to the Temple he cleansed the day before. This is politically and even physically unsafe. His enemies have had the night to get ready for him. They fear that the crowds will crown him their king, a rival to Caesar, and that Rome will have their heads. They must stop him. Jesus is walking into a trap, and he knows it.

His enemies confront our Lord in four orchestrated groups. Here are their attacks, as briefly as I can describe them.

First comes the legal challenge of the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of ancient Israel. They question Jesus’ legal authority to drive out the moneychangers and do his ministry. He asks them by what authority John the Baptist did his ministry. They’re afraid of John’s continuing popularity and won’t answer. So Jesus doesn’t have to answer, and they are defeated.

Next comes a political challenge: should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? If Jesus says yes, the crowds will desert him; if he says no, Rome will arrest him. He holds up a coin and makes the famous declaration, “Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s.” Luke 20:26 says, “Astonished by his answer, they became silent.”

The third attack is theological. It comes from the Sadducees, who deny the resurrection. They ask Jesus about a wife with seven husbands—whose wife will she be in the afterlife? Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6 to prove the reality of the resurrection, and they are defeated.

Last comes a scholar with a biblical challenge: “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” His fellow Pharisees recognized 613 such laws; any Jesus omits he can be accused of rejecting. Our Lord responds with the two great commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor. Even the scholar is impressed: “Well said, teacher” (Mark 12:32). With this result: “From then on no one dared ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34).

Here’s the point Tuesday morning proves: religious pride rejects Jesus, and is rejected by him. If we want to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we must refuse such spiritual, religious pride. We are worthy to give God our worship and lives, unless we think we are.

How do we refuse religious pride? We admit our need for God.

Religion tempts us to believe that we merit God’s love and help. After all, we believe in Jesus and go to church. We try to live good lives and obey the Bible. Of course God will hear our prayers and receive our worship.

But God’s word says that all of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and the just payment for our sin is death (Romans 6:23). Jesus promised us, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

We have no status before God except his Son’s death for our sins. The Bible is clear: “By grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). So we come to God in humility, in gratitude for his grace and love for us, loving him because he first loved us. And when we do that every day, we find his arms open to us all.

One of the most moving experiences of Holy Land travels for me is always visiting the Church of the Nativity. Built over the cave where Jesus was born, it is probably the oldest church building in Christendom. In the twelfth century, riders on horseback often broke into the church and pillaged its possessions. So the members made the door into the church so small that those who enter must do so on their knees. It is called the Door of Humiliation.

Anyone can come to the birthplace of Christ to worship him. Anyone. But only on our knees.

Give your best gifts

Now the scene shifts to two more dramatic events. One at the Temple, the other at a home in Bethany.

Our Lord, exhausted by his confrontation with the religious authorities, sits down in the Temple by the treasury where worshipers bring their offerings. Here he watches the rich giving their large gifts. What comes next is one of the most famous scenes in Scripture.

Mark 12:42 says, “a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.” These were the “lepta,” the smallest coins then in circulation. Two pennies to us. But not to our Lord.


When God Needs To Pray

When God Needs to Pray

Matthew 26:31-35

Dr. Jim Denison

Botox is all the rage these days. Botulinum toxin is an injection which removes lines and wrinkles from the face. At $300 to $1,000 a shot, it is the most popular cosmetic procedure in America. A “face-life in a bottle,” one doctor calls it. We will apparently do anything to look better than we really do.

Physically, and spiritually. I’m good at hiding the wrinkles on my soul, and so are you. What secret are you glad we don’t know? What secret shame or pain in your past still bothers you? What sin or failure do you constantly battle and wish you could defeat? What wrinkles on your soul are you trying to hide today?

This Easter season, we’re seeking ways to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. On Wednesday of Holy Week, Jesus showed us the key to victory over spiritual failure, frustration and defeat. On Thursday his disciples showed us that we each need that key today.

Let’s learn how to defeat temptation and failure before they come, and when they arrive.

Expect the crisis of faith

We’re now to Wednesday and Thursday of Holy Week.

On Wednesday Jesus did nothing which is recorded in the Scriptures. In a moment we’ll discover why that’s so, and why we each need Silent Wednesdays for our souls.

On Thursday Jesus gathered with his close friends for one last meal together, the Lord’s Supper as we know it. This night, Judas left the band to betray our Lord. Jesus and his disciples retreated to the Mount of Olives, and from there to the Garden of Gethsemane. Along the way the events of our text occurred.

“Then Jesus told them, ‘This very night you will all fall away on account of me'” (v. 31).

“You will all”—plural, every disciple. From Jesus’ best friend to his weakest disciple. We will all face crisis in life.

“Fall away” in the Greek means to be caught in a trap. The world is waiting to trap us. Satan is a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). And lions only roar when they’re attacking.

“This very night”—the trap is always closer than you think. The lion is in the bushes just behind you.

“Because of me”—the enemy hates Jesus, so he hates us. He will tempt us and trap us because we belong to Jesus. Don’t think that your Christian faith will keep you from temptation. It’s the reason you are tempted.

“But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” (v. 32).

“After I have risen”—Jesus is still in charge of life and death, of this world and the next.

“I will go ahead of you into Galilee”—even though you forsake me, I will not forsake you. My love for you is unconditional and absolute. No matter what failures you have committed or will commit, I will never fail you.

Now comes Peter’s proud reply: “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (v. 33).

“If all fall away” is a first class conditional in the Greek, expressing the reality of the situation. In other words, Peter is saying, “They will all fall away on account of you.” But “I never will.” “I” is emphatic in the Greek: “I myself, I especially will never fail you.”

So Jesus must warn him: “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times” (v. 34). Peter promised that he would die before doing so. All the other disciples said the same. All were wrong.

Expect the crisis of faith. If it came to Jesus’ followers then, it will come to us today. No one is immune. Not Jesus. Not us.

Seek God privately, before the crisis comes

But when the crisis came, Jesus did not fail. Even though it meant the horrors of crucifixion. And even worse: his first separation from his Father since eternity began and time was created. Yet he did not falter or fail.

Why not? What was his key to success over temptation, fear, and defeat?

The answer is Silent Wednesday, and all the Silent Wednesdays before it. On Wednesday of Holy Week, Jesus did nothing which is recorded in God’s word. So what occupied his day? From his known activities across the week, we can assume these facts.

Jesus was resting with friends in Bethany: Mary, Martha, Lazarus, his disciples. He needed friends to support him before the crisis came, as we do.

Before the crisis comes, get with those you trust. Pray for each other, support each other, hold each other accountable to God’s will and purpose for your lives. Redwood trees stand for centuries because their roots are intertwined. A coal left alone goes out. So does a soul.

Jesus was together with his friends, and he was alone with his Father. As he regularly was. Watch his pattern: Mark 1:35: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed;” Mark 6:46: “After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray;” Luke 5:16: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed;” Luke 6:12: “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God;” Luke 9:18: “Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him;” Luke 22:41: “He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed.”

Before the crisis of Thursday came the preparations of Wednesday. We must seek God before we think we need him. There will not be less wind in our sails, so we need more sails for the wind. If we wait until the temptation comes, the crisis hits, the world tumbles in, it may be too late.

So, how long since you’ve spent a Silent Wednesday? Are you ready for Temptation Thursday? Are you praying for your friends, and they for you? Is your soul right with your Father?


When God Rides A Donkey

When God Rides a Donkey

Matthew 21:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

In February of 1996 a limousine driving down the New Jersey expressway got a flat tire. The limo driver got out to change the tire, only to discover that the spare was also flat. Before he could call for roadside assistance, a man in a pickup truck and an air tank stopped to help.

When the man and the driver finished the repair, the car window slid down and the man was shocked to see Donald Trump sitting inside. “That was very nice of you to stop and help,” Trump said. “What can I do to thank you?” The man thought for a moment and said, “Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. My wife would really get a kick out of receiving a dozen roses from you.” Trump agreed and drove off.

The next day a messenger arrived with a box. Inside were two dozen roses and a note: “Happy Valentine’s Day from a friend of your husband. (signed) Donald Trump. P.S. Thanks for helping us out. By the way, I paid off your mortgage.”

While that’s a great story, I found out it’s not true. You never know where help is coming from. It may be driving a truck. It may be riding in a limousine. It may even be riding a donkey…and that’s a true story which withstands close examination..

Let’s see why God did, and why that fact is so important to our lives today.

Why did God ride a donkey?

On Sunday, April 12, in the year AD 29, Jesus of Nazareth entered Jerusalem for the last week of his earthly life and the most monumental week in all of human history. The next day he would drive the moneychangers from the Temple. On Tuesday he would confront the religious authorities, and be anointed by Mary. He spent Wednesday in solitude and in spiritual preparation for the cross. Thursday led to his Last Supper, his betrayal, and his arrest and night of trials. On Friday he was crucified at 9:00 a.m., and died at 3:00 p.m.. On Sunday he rose from the grave.

And he chose to begin all of that on a donkey. Why? He has just walked fifteen miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, up an elevation of some 3,000 feet, through some of the most barren and dangerous landscape to be found anywhere in the world. I’ve been over this road twice in an air-conditioned bus, and wouldn’t want to walk it even today. If Jesus could walk this distance, he could walk into the city itself. But he rode on a donkey instead. Why?

It was a most unusual choice.

Roman conquerors rode into their cities in a parade procession, riding in a chariot drawn by four horses, with a slave holding his crown above his head.

But when the King of Kings and Lord of Lords came into his Holy City, he chose to ride a donkey. In fact, he arranged the whole thing. He sent his disciples to a certain house in a certain village, to bring a particular donkey back to him. Either he had made these preparations earlier, or his divine omniscience knew that this donkey would be available to him. Either way, riding that donkey that day was his explicit and deliberate choice.

It was something like the American President riding to his inauguration in my 1974 Chevy Vega. An odd choice at best.

Why did he make it? Matthew gives us part of the answer: “This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet” (v. 4). And Matthew proceeds to quote from Zechariah 9:9-10. But why did God tell the prophet to make this prediction, 567 years before it was fulfilled?

Zechariah answers our question:

The donkey was a beast of suffering. He was used to carry burdens that no other animal would. And he would endure a great deal of suffering and pain. So would his rider: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey” (v. 9). “Gentle” means to be humbled before God. “Having salvation” means that he is our Savior. The One who would suffer for us to purchase our salvation. The donkey symbolized the suffering his rider would endure.

The donkey was a symbol of peace as well. Horses were ridden in Jesus’ day almost exclusively for war purposes, but a donkey was used during peacetime and for peaceful purposes. In the same way, his rider “will proclaim peace to the nations” (v. 10a). Peace between us and God, and between each other. The peace found only in Jesus.

And the donkey was paradoxically a promise of glory. Solomon rode to his coronation on David’s donkey; Mephibosheth, grandson of King Saul, rode a donkey as well. And so the prophet promised, “His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (v. 10b). One day every knee will bow before this rider. Pilate will bow before the Lord he condemned; the religious leaders before the Messiah they crucified; this crowd before the Savior they mocked; these soldiers before the Creator they beat and pierced. All will worship him. We can start now.

So God rode a donkey on Palm Sunday, to show us what his coming crucifixion and resurrection would mean: our salvation, our peace, his glory.

Why did he ride a donkey into Jerusalem?

A second question: why did he ride this donkey into Jerusalem, during Passover? He could not possibly have chosen a more dangerous time to enter a more dangerous city.

Nearly three million people were crowded into Jerusalem for the Passover week. Many of them thought he was the military Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and set their nation free. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” meant, “The Messiah has come to set us free!”

This was a powder keg, and he was the match. The religious authorities would do anything to put down revolt, and the Romans would punish rebellion instantly. An American entering Afghanistan just as our war against the Taliban began would fare no better than he would that week.


When God Stands Trial

When God Stands Trial

Luke 23:13-25

Dr. Jim Denison

A pastor tells how one ingenious mother handled her fidgety seven-year-old son in church: about halfway through the sermon, she leaned over and whispered, “If you don’t be quiet, the pastor is going to lose his place and he’ll have to start his sermon all over again!” It worked.

When we journey to the cross during the Easter season, we start the same sermon all over again. The same event you learned about as a small child, and remember every year during this season. We start the sermon over each year because we need to. Our souls need to remember what happened on the Friday we call Good. What happened to Jesus. What happened to us.

Today we’ll come to the cross through the eyes of Barabbas. Because we are all Barabbas. Let me explain.

Who is guilty?

“Barabbas” most likely means “Son of the Rabbi,” a famous religious leader and teacher in the land. In addition, Matthew’s account (26:16-17) includes in some of the oldest Greek versions the first name, “Jesus Barabbas.” The majority of scholars accept this addition today. So we have “Jesus Christ” and “Jesus Barabbas.” One the Son of God, the other the Son of the Rabbi. Which one deserved to die?

Consider Barabbas first.

This man was a robber and rebel who had committed murder during a political insurrection (Mark 15:7, Luke 23:19, John 18:40). He was a terrorist, joined to the bands then seeking the violent overthrow of Rome. He was willing to do anything to advance his political cause, and his personal fortunes as well.

For his crimes, Rome had convicted him and was holding him for crucifixion until that day when the crowd chose him over Jesus. Jesus Barabbas was a convicted political insurrectionist and terrorist.

Ironically, this was exactly the accusation the authorities leveled against Jesus Christ. Theirs was one of the most illegal trials in recorded history: no formal charge, no defense, bribed witnesses, self-incrimination, and a pre-dawn meeting which violated their statutes. Nonetheless, seven times Jesus was found innocent of all charges.

First comes the Jewish phase of Jesus’ trial.

After his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, our Lord is taken to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest (John 18:12-24). Here they wait for the Sanhedrin, their Supreme Court, to assemble. But Annas can find nothing with which to charge Jesus. Acquittal number one.

Next he is brought to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, to stand trial before the Sanhedrin. Matthew 26:59 says, “The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death.” But with this result: “But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward” (v. 60). They can find no guilt. Acquittal number two. Had Jesus remained silent, he would have been freed. So he admits that he is the Messiah, and they convict him of blasphemy (Matthew 26:66).

When Judas sees that Jesus has been condemned, he returns the silver coins of his bribery with the admission, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4). They don’t care, and he hangs himself. His words are the third proclamation of Jesus’ innocence.

Next comes the Roman phase, and four more such declarations of his innocence.

The Jews need Rome to inflict the death penalty. So they parade Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of their province. They know he won’t convict on their theological charge of blasphemy, any more than our civil courts would convict you or me of such a charge. So they change their accusation to political subversion, a charge for which they have absolutely no proof. Pilate sees Jesus’ innocence and says, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Luke 23:4). Acquittal number four.

But Pilate learns that Jesus is from Galilee, the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas. Seeking a way out of his dilemma, he sends our Lord to Herod. But Herod can find no charge to make against him, and sends him back to Pilate (Luke. 23:6-12). Acquittal number five.

Now Pilate utters the sixth acquittal: “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death” (Luke 23:13-15).

The religious authorities are desperate. Pilate offers the crowd Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Christ, and they incite the people to choose Barabbas and condemn Christ. Still Pilate wants to release Jesus, so the authorities play their trump card: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). In other words, if you don’t condemn Jesus, we’ll tell Rome, and they’ll condemn you.

Pilate calls for water. He washes his hands in front of the crowd. He shouts, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility” (Matthew 27:24). Acquittal number seven. But Pilate must choose between Jesus and himself. And you know his choice.

Who was guilty—Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Christ? Who is guilty—us or Jesus? Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” What was the first sin you remember committing? What was your most recent?

Who died?

Romans 6:23 adds, “The wages for sin is death.” The just punishment by a holy God for our sins is death. So who died for our sins?

Now Jesus is handed over to the governor’s soldiers in the Praetorium.

They strip him and flog him, using a whip of leather strips in which is embedded pieces of lead and sharp shells. The flogging splits his skin and lays his back open—many men died under it.

Now Jesus has been up all night, paraded around Jerusalem in chains. Flogged, suffering from exhaustion, shock, and blood loss, he is led down the “via dolorosa,” the way of suffering.