The Faithful Thief

We often study Christ’s crucifixion, its import, its cruelty, its significance. It is seldom, however, that we take the time to consider those two others crucified with Him. Matthew 27:38 tells us these were thieves and political criminals, and Luke, in chapter 32:33 records them being put to death with Christ. We only have one recorded conversation between Jesus and these two, but there is much we can learn from the exchange between Jesus and those put to death with Him.

One of these, in Luke 23:39, turns to Jesus, ordering Him to save Himself and them from their fate (Remember the amount of effort it would take to talk while hanging from a cross). The other rebukes the first speaker, though. The second reminds the first that Jesus is innocent while they are guilty. Then He asks Jesus to remember him before the Father. Matthew tells us that both of these criminals are initially involved in mocking Christ, but we see one of them turn his heart.

Lessons from the Faithful Criminal

In these last moments of Luke 23, one thief exemplifies a few characteristics we should also have if we desire Jesus to say to us, “I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

  • Penitence. In Matthew 27:44 records both criminals mocking Christ, but, in Luke 23:40, he demonstrates a change of heart when he asks his counterpart, “Do you not fear God?” He goes from arrogant mocking to humbly asking for intercession.
  • Standing Up for Jesus. In this environment of mocking and cruelty, this criminal is one voice of compassion for Jesus. Had the two witnessed any of Jesus’ trial? Had they seen the crowds turn on Him? He speaks up on Jesus behalf, even in dire circumstances.
  • Understanding Justice. That humble criminal recognizes that he deserves his fate. He understands that justice cannot save him. He needs mercy.
  • Turning to Jesus. Finally, instead of demanding salvation from Christ, he simply asks for Jesus to remember His soul.

Having the Faith of the Thief

This nameless criminal is an example of faith – the faith we should have in our own service of Christ. He comes to believe in Jesus in a few short hours, and he has faith in Jesus’ power to forgive and deliver Him. He recognizes Jesus’ sovereignty, and he expresses faith in something beyond this life. There is much in that statement: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Because he had a faith the other prisoner did not have, he gains one more thing his counterpart would not have: hope for salvation. In Matthew 27:50-54, we see individuals who realize Christ’s divinity after the cross, but this lone thief becomes faithful before those great events. He stands in contrast to the other criminal and to those surrounding the cross.

At points in our lives, we become like one of these two thieves. We will either go with the crowd, refuse to humble ourselves, be defiant in self-confidence or arrogance, and refuse to turn to Jesus for help. In contrast, we may see our Savior, grow humble, recognize our guilt, stand up for our Lord, and ultimately turn to Him for salvation. Like these thieves, we have a death sentence upon us. Unlike them, we may not know the timeframe of our own lives, but we face the same choice. Which one will you be more like?

lesson by Tim Smelser

All About Jezebel

Jezebel – it’s a name laced with dark and heavy undertones. We don’t name our daughters Jezebel, and, if we do use the name in a sentence, it’s usually used as a derogatory term. I have to admit, though, Jezebel is one of those Bible characters who has always confused me. First of all, she seems disproportionately well-known for the amount of screen time she gets in the Bible. She gets about twenty verses in the entire Bible, not all together, and roughly half of those twenty (ish) verses cover her death. She’s a bit part, yet I bet you could tell me more about Jezebel than, say, King Asa, who gets a few chapters to himself. The other thing is this: her behavior just doesn’t seem to make sense.

A Quick Overview of Jezebel

Let’s take a look at the events of her life (not including her death).

  • I Kings 16:31 – King Ahab of Israel finds a nice girl named Jezebel and marries her. She influences his idolatry. So far so good.
  • I Kings 18:4 – Jezebel is slaughtering prophets. Okay, lady, I get that you like Baal, but why the murder of God’s prophets? Seems a tad extreme.
  • I Kings 19:1-2 – Jezebel learns that Elijah called fire from heaven, defeated the prophets of Baal, had all of the false prophets killed, and restored rain to the kingdom. The logical response? Decree Elijah’s death. I’d think most would back down at this point, but okay.
  • I King’s 21:5-16 – Jezebel learns a guy named Naboth refused to sell his vineyard to Ahab. She launches an overly convoluted plot (the likes of which would make Yzma proud) to ensure Naboth’s death, and she delivers the vineyard to Ahab. Really, read those verses; this plot is complicated.

The more we see of her, the stranger Jezebel seems. Take the final story as an example. She learns of Ahab’s disappointment, and it makes sense that she’d want to get rid of Naboth to get the vineyard. She’s queen, though. She could have sent mercenaries to take care of him. She could have found an excuse to force him from the land. Instead, she writes letters using Ahab’s seal and invites some elders and nobles to honor Naboth at a ceremonial fast. Then, they are to seat some false witnesses by Naboth who will claim the man somehow blasphemed God and the king. (Think about the irony of that for a moment.) The result: Naboth is stoned, and Ahab gets the vineyard.

Jezebel’s Primary Motivator

I stated earlier I have a hard time understanding Jezebel, but her motivations are actually pretty clear in light of the events surrounding Naboth’s vineyard. Jezebel, like so many of us, is solely concerned with what’s best for herself and only herself. Think about it. Of course she wants God’s prophets eliminated; they make her look bad. Of course she wants Elijah murdered after the events of Mount Carmel; his success was a personal affront to her. And Naboth? Jezebel doesn’t want her husband to look weak, for that reflects poorly on her. On the other hand, she doesn’t want to get her own hands dirty, so she launches a complicated plot where, should anything go wrong, any and all blame would fall on Ahab, allowing her to escape consequences unscathed.

She doesn’t do what she does out of love for Ahab, for her country (another motivator often leading to sinful attitudes and activities), or for her gods. Her actions are governed entirely by a love of self and a desire to put self before anything else. Seen in that light, Jezebel’s actions click into a logical pattern.

Sacrificing Self for Christ

We’re most likely familiar with Matthew 16:24-27:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”

During the time of Christ, this image of bearing one’s cross would not have elicited thoughts of illness or frustrations. No one would have equated a cross with a difficult child, parent, boss, or teacher. They would not have even seen the cross as a lifetime ailment or disability. To bear a cross was to be walking toward one’s own death. This is not a passage about enduring hardships. It is about self-sacrifice. It is about crucifying self to put God first in our lives.

We live in a world of personal cars, home theater systems, self-serve gas stations, personal shoppers, personal assistants, individual rights, and personal freedoms. We grow offended when we are asked to sacrifice anything, whether that sacrifice be sharing food, helping pay for someone else’s needs, or simply being told we can’t have our way. At times, we are as self-centered as Jezebel, but a Christian should never behave so.

If we are walking in a Christ-like attitude, we put self last. We put others’ needs and interests before our own. We look after their physical needs as well as their spiritual needs. We put our self-defined rights in the background and prefer others. We submit our will to God’s, and we humble ourselves in His presence. Think on Christ, on Paul, on Peter, on Stephen – to what extent did these heroes of faith devalue self to glorify God? In God’s eyes who would you rather be, a Stephen or a Jezebel? It all depends on where you place self.

Elijah and Discouragement

Through I Kings 18-19, Elijah experiences an emotional roller coaster. Elijah brings a drought to the land through God’s power, and, when he comes to see Ahab again, the king is very hostile toward Elijah. In turn, Elijah proposes a challenge: set up two alters, one to Baal and one to Jehovah, and Baal’s priests would pray for their God to consume their sacrifice in fire. Elijah would do the same. Baal’s priests cry out, dance, and cut themselves to no avail. Elijah then evokes God with a small, quiet prayer after having his alter deluged with water, and fire from God incinerates the sacrifice and alter.

The people enthusiastically turn to God, praising Him and killing the prophets of Baal. The drought ends. It is a monumental victory, but it is very short-lived. By chapter 19, Jezebel proclaims death on Elijah and promises his end within a day. Elijah flees beyond the political influence of Ahab and Jezebel, collapses by a juniper tree, and asks God to take his life.

Causes of Spiritual Discouragement

James 5 reminds us that Elijah is simply a man like you or me – subject to times of triumph and times of despair. He is no more a stranger to discouragement than any of us. We see him despairing his life, but God is there to provide the cure to Elijah’s discouragement, but how does a prophet as successful as Elijah go from such success into the depths of discouragement?

  • Emotional Stress. Elijah feels the stress and strain of trying to convert a godless nation. The king and queen are set against him. He feels alone as we might when we see those we know and love rejecting God, when we feel that our faith is rejected at every turn.
  • Exhaustion. Elijah does a great deal of traveling in I Kings 18 alone, before and after the strenuous events on Mount Carmel. He is also worn out from the constant pressure of resisting the pressures around him. Likewise, we are always over-booked and overextended. We don’t take time to be still, to pray, to feed on God’s word, and to meditate. Like Elijah, we just wear ourselves out.
  • Great Accomplishments. Think about what Elijah accomplishes by the end of I Kings 18. How does he maintain that momentum? How can he top that? Elijah feels personally responsible for keeping the tide turned, and, when he cannot maintain that success, he feels a failure. The highs in our lives can lead directly into lows when we realize the difficulty in maintaining that momentum.

How then does this discouragement manifest itself in Elijah? First, he isolates himself in I Kings 19:3-4. “I just want to be alone.” However, it is not good for us to be alone in our discouragement. Then, Elijah loses perspective in I Kings 19:10 when he expresses he is the only one seeking God in Israel. He knows otherwise, but he pushes that knowledge out of his own mind in despair. Finally, Elijah descends into self-pity, and, when we pity ourselves, we become self-centered and selfish.

Curing Discouragement

We can relate to the causes and effects of discouragement we see in Elijah’s lives. How do we move on, though? We can begin by looking at the way God brings Elijah out of his despair.

  • Get Up. In I Kings 19:5-8, the angel twice instructs Elijah to rise. Verses 11-15 record God twice giving Elijah direction to “go.” God tells the prophet to get up and take positive action. Sometimes a small shift in the right direction makes all the difference. When we are down in the depths of discouragement, the first thing we should do is get involved in positive service.
  • Grow Up. I Kings 19:11-13 records God drawing Elijah’s attention to His presence in the quiet things. He reminds Elijah to spiritually grow up and stop looking for God in his own way. Paul makes the same admonition in I Corinthians 3:1-3 when he calls for Christians to grow out of physical jealousies. Sometimes, we simply need to work to maturation.
  • Gird Up. Toward the end of I Kings 19, God reminds Elijah there is still work to be done, and he will need help to do it. We need to be able to accept help. We need our own Elisha to help us change our outlook at times. I Peter 1:13 calls on us to gird our minds for action in God’s service.

God has given us reason to trust and hope in Him. We are no strangers to discouragement and struggles, but we can always look up to Him who loves us and created us. As Romans 8:31-39 reminds us, nothing can separate us from God’s love. None can oppose us when God is with us. We can take confidence in our God and face our discouragements with the knowledge that He is with us.

lesson by Tim Smelser

A Knowing Savior

In each of the seven letters to the congregations in the opening chapters of Revelation, Jesus assures those congregations that He knows them, that He knows their problems, their troubles, and their successes. As we study the life of our Savior, we should be with impressed with the level of knowledge He has about those who come after Him. He wants to be close to us and know us like no other can.

Mark 10:17-22 records a young man of great wealth coming to Jesus, and we see that Jesus has compassion for the man, knowing exactly what the man lacks in his life. Luke 19:1-10 records Jesus calling on Zacchaeus, telling him He is going to Zacchaeus’ own house. Jesus knows the man and knows where he lives. Also, John 4 shows Jesus interacting with a Samaritan woman. Again, He demonstrates deep knowledge of her life and shows great care for her. Then, in John 8:1-11, when people bring an adulteress to Him, Jesus knows her guilt and demonstrates the compassion she needs. In John 9:35, Jesus knows a blind man He had healed had been exiled from his people and seeks him out. Finally, in John 11:35, we see Jesus weeping over the death of a loved one.

Time and again, we see Jesus knowing of history, of loss, of guilt. He knows people by name. He knows their homes, their needs, and their hearts. Whenever we see the Lord interacting with people in the Bible, we should see ourselves in those interactions. He knows us the way He knows these varied individuals, and, like these, Jesus knows our greatest needs.

He calls the rich young man to forsake his possessions to follow Him. In Zacchaeus’s house, Jesus says He came to seek and to save. Jesus tells the woman by the well that He is Messiah. He tells the adulteress to repent of her sins, asks the blind man for faith, and He reveals Himself as the source of eternal life to Mary and Martha when raising Lazarus from death. In each case, He knows their greatest need and reveals that He can fulfill those needs.

Jesus knows us, and He knows we need Him in our lives. He loves us, and He died for us. We can know Him the way He knows of if we only humble ourselves, allow Him to fill our lives, and come to Him in faith.

lesson by Tim Smelser

The Reforms of Asa

In I Kings 15 and II Chronicles 15-16, we learn of a king of Judah named Asa. You might remember that the kingdom of Israel split after Solomon because of his idolatry – ten tribes are given to the servant Jeroboam and two tribes to Solomon’s son Rehoboam. Neither Jeroboam or his son Abijah are considered good rulers in God’s eyes, but Asa stands in contrast to his predecessors. He begins a spiritual revolution among his people – one that even draws some from the northern kingdom to worship Jehovah with him.

In I Kings 15:9 and II Chronicles 15:8, Asa begins to reform Jehovah worship in Judah. He repairs the altar and the temple of Solomon. He tears down many of the idols in and around Jerusalem. He banishes the fertility worship of the pagan religions. He even removes his grandmother from public service due to her sinful influence over the people. These are wicked times, but Asa serves as a point of light despite the environment in which he is raised.

Positive Lessons from Asa’s Reform

Asa stands as testament to the difference one person can make. He enters service to a faithless nation where idolatry and immorality had been propagated by his own family. He sets himself to the task, and sets an example to us. His spiritual revolution

  • Reform starts at home. Asa begins by removing the idolatrous influences of his own grandmother. Much like Gideon, his reforms begin at home. He sends a message that he holds himself and his loved ones to the same expectations he would hold the people. In our lives, Jesus has to come first as in Matthew 10:37-39, even if that means correcting our homes first.
  • Reform necessitates morality. I cannot give lip-service to holiness. We have to reform our moral influences to truly reform our spiritual lives. In Matthew 12:43, Jesus uses an example of an evil spirit to encourage us to fill ourselves with good influences after the sinful influences have been purged.
  • Reform necessitates change and repair. Just as Asa repairs the altar and temple, there are some things in our own lives – attitudes, priorities, commitment – that we will have to restore. Luke 13:3-5 emphasizes the need for repentance in reforming ourselves, and Peter reinforces this need in Acts 2:38. We repair our souls through the change of repentance.

Learning from Asa’s Errors

Asa is one of only eight kings described as doing right in Jehovah’s eyes. Unfortunately, we must also learn from the shortcomings of his efforts, so we do not make the same mistakes.

  • What is God’s cannot be used for selfish purposes. I Kings 15:16 begins recording Asa stripping silver and gold from the treasures of God’s house to but off a king allied against him. He takes things devoted to God and gives them over to man. I Corinthians 6:19-20 reminds us that we have been purchased, that we now belong to God.
  • We should trust in God more than self. II Chronicles 16:7-10 records a prophet warning that Asa’s faithlessness will lead to more wars in his time. He reminds Asa of other times God has helped him, but his actions with Ben-hadad lead to an end of peace during his reign. Our plans cannot supersede God’s plans.
  • We need to be able to ask for God’s help. II Chronicles 16:11-12 records Asa being diseased, but he does not call on God for help. He instead relies on the wisdom of man. Peter tells us we can cast all of our care and anxiety on Him in I Peter 5:7, for our God cares about us.

Conclusion

We see the type of effort true spiritual reform takes in the life of Asa – a willingness to start at home, to restore our sense of morality, and to repair the sin in our lives. Reform takes time and effort. Once we reform ourselves, we should be careful to remember that we can always ask for God’s help, trust in Him more than ourselves, and keep ourselves dedicated to His service. Doing this, we can ignite a spiritual revolution in our own lives.

lesson by Tim Smelser

A Mother Named Mary

One mother has become very important in modern religion – Mary, the mother of Christ. She was declared sinless by the papacy in 1537. Following that comes the doctrine of her immaculate conception and her perpetual virginity. Then comes the doctrine of her bodily ascension into heaven. She is called Queen of Heaven, Co-Mediatrix, and Co-Redemptrix. Many conservative Christians go to the opposite extreme with Mary. In response her deification in some religious circles, we tend to relegate her to a minor role and fail to give her the honor she is due.

A Woman Named Mary

We meet her in Luke 1 as a chaste maiden, pure in the sight of God. Verses 28 and 30 calls her one finding favor in God’s eyes. Noah in Genesis 6:8, Moses in Exodus 33:12, Hannah in I Samuel 1:18 – these are a few of the individuals who have found favor in God’s eyes. This is a term also used in Isaiah 61, signifying the coming of the Messiah. At first, she is troubled by the angel’s appearance, but her response is one of submission and humility in verse 38.

As we continue in Luke 1, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and we see her song of praise that begins in verse 46, magnifying God for His role in her life. (Remember also that this role would create a small scandal around Jesus’ birth, bringing question to her honor and to her Son’s.) She speaks of God’s mercy and generosity, His strength and His power, and she remembers His promises to His people in verses 54-55. Contrast this response to Moses’ when he is tasked with fulfilling God’s work in Exodus. Who would we resemble under similar circumstances?

A Devoted Mother and Servant

In Luke 2, we see Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem where she gives birth to Jesus in a humble manger, for all inns are full. We know the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, and verse 19 tells us Mary pondered all these signs and events in her heart. Again, we see no record of complaining or sorrow over her fate. She is quiet and devout. In verses 21 and after, they follow the word of the law surrounding the birth of a child.

Beginning in Luke 2:41, we see they regularly go to Jerusalem for Passover, and, when Jesus is twelve years old, we see Mary and Joseph lose track of Jesus this year, finding Him debating the priests in the temple. Again, verse 51, Mary keeps these events in her heart. That verse also gives us the only brief look we have at Jesus’ home life, living in submission to His earthly parents.

John 2 sees Mary invited to a wedding feast at which Jesus is present. She comes to Him when the wine runs out, a symbol of God’s blessings in this setting, and she turns to the servants, instructing them to do anything her Son says. She grows to have faith in Jesus.

Then, we see Mary standing before the cross. When so many have fled Jesus, have denied Jesus, have hidden in fear, Mary is there for her Son and her Savior. She sees the child she raised die, seeing the Redeemer of Israel give Himself up to the cross. In this same setting, in John 19, we see Jesus’ own devotion to His mother. He makes sure she will be cared for after He is gone and trusts her care to one of His closest friends.

An Inspiration for Us

We know little of Mary, but we see Mary accepts her place in God’s plan. She rejoices in a time that would bring her shame and ridicule from the world. She illustrates her faith in the few glimpses we have, and we see the devotion in her relationship with Jesus at the cross. The last we see of Mary is in Acts 1:12-14, where she is in Jerusalem with her other children and the apostles, preparing for the events at Pentecost.

She is an astounding woman, wife, mother, and servant of the Lord. We sometimes fail to be the examples we should be, but we can read of Mary’s life, see the souls entrusted to her by God, and see an example of the devotion we should have to God and our own families. Those qualities we see in Mary is what God and others should see when they look at us.

lesson by Tim Smelser