Joy & Mourning

Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief. Proverbs 14:13

In hindsight we can often see God transforming evil into good. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China were horrendous, but planted the seeds for tens of millions to come to Christ. A devastating earthquake in Guatemala in the 70’s birthed a huge revival to where over a third of the country was saved. The tsunami in the Indian Ocean brought the gospel where it had not been able to penetrate. The Sichuan earthquake brought tens of thousands to eternal life. We can hope the same for the awful suffering in Haiti even while sending relief. But how about the other way around, having the foresight to anticipate the evil seeds inherent in things that are so very good? When wonderful things come to pass and dreams are joyously fulfilled, our celebrations hardly allow for consideration of dangers that may be lurking around the corner. Autumn, 1950: Imagine the joy of North Korean Christians when the Allies counter-attacked in the Korean War and drove the North Korean army not only out of South Korea which it had just overrun but even North Korea itself, right up to the Chinese border. NK pastors could suddenly preach enthusiastically without fear of being tortured and executed! Freedom had come! The kingdom of God was at hand! Seoul and Pyongyang churches re-opened and held special days of celebration welcoming the UN and South Korean forces. South Korean Christians joined the chorus. Who wouldn’t do the same when persecution had lifted and the gospel could be proclaimed openly? Just weeks later China joined North Korea and suddenly launches a counter-attack, pushing the Allies back out of North Korea and then across South Korea back into a small corner of the country at Pusan. Those who had celebrated mere weeks before, thereby identifying themselves as anti-Kim Il Sung, were slaughtered. Furthermore, because Christians had now clearly been marked as enemies of the North Korean Communist revolution, the fires of persecution in North Korea have intensified ever since. Indeed, how quickly joy may end in grief. Other times the destruction is more subtle and gradual, though just as deadly. The Roman Empire, as you probably know, also intermittently persecuted the church for over 200 years. It reached its terrifying peak around 300 A.D. under Emperor Diocletian, who martyred literally hundreds of thousands of Christians. After over two whole centuries just think how discouraging that must have been: from bad to worse, then from worse to worst. Where was God?? Finally Diocletian’s reign ended in 305. Civil war broke out with the two main players being generals named Maxentius and Constantine. Maxentius had by far the larger army, plus he controlled Rome itself, while Constantine’s smaller army was marching there for the decisive battle. It came in 311. Maxentius consulted a pagan oracle, which assured him of victory, so he confidently took his army outside Rome to go confront Constantine’s. Constantine, on the other hand, saw a vision of the cross with the Latin words “By this you conquer.” Ordering his men to paint the cross on their shields, he went to battle. Well . . . Constantine did win that day and became Emperor! He openly declared himself a Christian, so obviously persecution abruptly ceased. He died in 337 but freedom lived on—in fact in 381 Christianity was named the official state religion. What a turnaround! Who’d’ve figured? Imagine that celebration! Twelve years after Constantine ascended the throne, Christian leaders from across the Empire took advantage of their newfound freedom to gather for a great conference in a city called Nicaea. The main topic? Formulating a doctrinal statement of faith, the Nicene Creed. And a very good and important thing it was! But it’s also worth noting what was NOT a main topic: reaching the lost outside the empire or even inside the empire, for example. No, the main issue became the difference between “homo-ousias” vs. “homeoi-ousias” (same essence vs. similar essence). Actually an important distinction, but perhaps millions of lost souls could also have merited a place somewhere on the agenda? The pattern of priorities was set. Another council came at Chalcedon in 451, when the western empire was in crisis and about to be overrun by “barbarians.” It was here that Mary and the Bishop of Rome (pope) were exalted to their lofty positions. The doctrinal issue dropped from the essence of Christ at Nicaea to whether Mary was “theotdokos” or “Christokos” (God-bearer or Christ-bearer). Probably not a hot topic among Christians hiding in the catacombs from the persecution of Emperor Diocletian. Later major councils took on the earth-shaking questions of literally how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, and the color of Mary’s eyes. It all started with religious freedom, followed by a subtle shift in priorities. How gradually joy may end in grief. This winter Christians are rejoicing that Shouwang Church in Beijing, an unregistered (illegal) but wide-open church with up to 1000 in attendance, is actually being allowed to publicly purchase a building for its meetings. An historic breakthrough! Great . . . maybe. Note Matthew 24:1,2:

“Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’”

We may conclude Jesus was not too impressed with the building, the very temple itself. China after Mao has been experiencing the greatest revival in history. What characterized it? People not buildings, “lay people” not clergy, evangelism not systematic theology, relationships not institutions, sacrifice not status, realities not formalities, native not foreign leadership, and outward focus balancing inward focus. Could it be all these things are related? How will greater religious freedom affect them? Jesus sternly attacked dead formalities that stifle true spiritual life: Matt 21:23 Insincere leaders attacking truth when unauthorized by themselves :28ff Talk vs. obedient action :32 Status vs. real repentance :33ff Hirelings persecuting true sons :43 Status revoked in favor of the fruitful 22:1-14 Status reversed in favor of responsiveness :29 Teachers ignorant of the Bible and without spiritual power :37ff Law vs. Love 23:1-4 Words vs. actions :5ff Pretentious honor vs. servanthood :13ff Leaders actually obstructing God’s work :16ff Traditional human interpretations contradicting God’s ways :23ff Reversed priorities: observing the petty while missing the point :25ff Outward appearance vs. inner reality :29ff Pretense of honoring God’s messengers while actually fighting them Which side grows best when buried under the soil of persecution? Which characterizes the Christian life I am experiencing, both around me and within me? How might persecution impact that experience? Who would seek leadership roles when it means becoming a target? How would we function without any buildings? Would differences between the redeemed and the lost become more distinct or more blurred? What would happen to luke-warmness? What would I value the most? The least? Would my love for Christ grow or diminish? What aspects of church life would disappear? Which would survive—or even increase? Why? How would I handle the prospect of prison? Paul indicated there is a secret to godliness in easy times and a secret in tough times; neither is automatic. Each presents its own set of challenges and temptations from the world, the flesh and the devil. China’s Christians need to be alerted to the nasty seeds of formal religion, materialism, pride, pettiness and self-centeredness which we have seen bloom brightly in the sunlight of freedom. At the same time, we might consider our own need to learn the other side from them. by Gary A Russell, International Director for China Harvest


Great confusion surrounds the question of the role of Christians in meeting the enormous physical needs in this world. Should we try to fill every hungry mouth and cure every painful disease? Jesus’ example and teaching provide clear guidelines.

For one thing, He did not heal all those in Palestine who were afflicted with illness. Nor did He invite everyone in Galilee to dinner, or open a soup kitchen for the poor and hungry.

He healed those who came – or were brought – to Him in faith. He fed those who had left home to pursue Him into the wilderness to receive blessings and teaching from the Master.

In other words, He concentrated upon those who believed in Him and followed Him.

Likewise, in the parable of the sheep and the goats at the end of His ministry (Matthew 25:31-46), He did not say that our final destiny would hang upon whether we fed all the hungry in this world, or gave drink to all who thirst, or took in all strangers, clothed all the naked, or visited all the prisoners.

No. He said very clearly – twice – that “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”

In other words, we shall be judged on the basis of our faith in Christ, demonstrated by our love for other believers. “For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50).

And what is His will? “This is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment” (1 John 3:23).

Paul put it this way: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). We start with family, and then reach out.

Helping Others

God uses people to help other people. In the first case, we have friends and relatives bringing their loved ones to Jesus for healing. In the second, the disciples distribute food directly to the seated crowd.

Of course, Jesus could have healed people without having them brought to Him, and He could have fed the multitude without the disciples’ participation.

But God’s ordinary way of blessing His people involves bringing others into the process. In this way, He accomplishes many purposes. He allows us to work with Him – a great privilege. As we learn to discern the needs of those around us, we develop compassion and unselfishness, which reflect the character of God. We were made to love, for we were created in the image of God, who is love (1 John 4:7). As we fulfill our destiny by serving our neighbors, we grow into that likeness to Himself which our God intends us to enjoy (Romans 8:29; Ephesians 4:13, 24; 1 John 3:2).

Why use the word “enjoy”? Because “it is more blessed to give than to receive”(Acts 20:35). To live only for ourselves is to consign ourselves to a walking death. True joy flows only from love, as Jesus pointed out long ago (John 15:10-12; see also Galatians 5:22).

What a privilege – to be fellow workers with God! (1 Corinthians 3:9).

Don’t Worry!

Those who were brought to Jesus with incurable illness received healing. The crowd that followed Him into the wilderness was fed by the Lord.Jesus had told His disciples “Do not worry about your life…” (Matthew 6:25). Now He shows them – once again – why they need not fret about material things. God will take care of His people! All they have to do is “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” by following Jesus, and they will have all they really need. In other words, the Father will not let those who seek Him lack any good thing (Psalm 34:10). If we faithfully put Him first and remember to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), “all these things” – food, clothing, shelter – “will be added to” us (6:33). That is why Paul could write, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). And that is why he could add this unconditional promise, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

A Table in the Wilderness

The Lord had instructed His followers not to “worry about your life, what you will eat…” (6:25). Instead, they are to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,” knowing that “all these things shall be added to you” (6:33).But notice the condition: We are to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” In other words, to be fed by the Father through Jesus, we must, like this multitude, follow Him into the wilderness and continue there with Him. - We must follow Him into the wilderness of self-denial: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (16:24). The Lord will not long feed the habits of self-indulgence. Let the crowd pursue pleasure; we are to seek to die to self. - Nor will our holy Father support a life of sin. We must trace His footsteps into the wilderness of righteousness: “But seek first …His righteousness” (6:33). - We must continue with Him in the wilderness of solitary prayer: “What? Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (26:40-41). _ Shall we not also go with Him into the wilderness of fasting? “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness… and when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry” (4:1,2). - In a word, the promise of provision applies to those who are willing to “follow in His steps” by offering their lives as a “living sacrifice,” even unto death (1 Peter 1:21; Romans 12:1; Revelation 12:11).

Grumbling, Or Gratitude?

Faced with a crowd of four thousand men, plus their families, and having only a few fish and loaves of bread with which to feed them, Jesus did the unexpected.He gave thanks. He could have complained about several things – the lack of peace and quite; the constant demands on His time and energy; the obvious unbelief of His disciples, though they had seen Him feed an even larger crowd; not to mention the paucity of His resources. Indeed, His ancestors had consistently complained, even after God had marvelously delivered them from slavery in Egypt. “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” they shouted at Moses (Exodus 16:3). Given daily manna from heaven, they next grumbled about the lack of water, then about the absence of meat in their diet, then about the sameness of each day’s food, with no spices and vegetables to add interest. Nothing could satisfy them. They are not the only grumblers, however. Paul describes all of us when he writes, “Although they knew God [from the created order], they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful…” (Romans 1:21). Ingratitude invites – even demands – the wrath of God, for it denies Him the glory, honor, trust, praise, and thanks which rightly belong to Him (Romans 1:18, 32). Furthermore, it eats like a cancer in our souls, giving birth to all sorts of wickedness and vice 1:21-31). But Jesus, the embodiment of true Israel, set a contrary example: Surrounded by a hungry multitude in the wilderness and holding a paltry meal in His hands, He gave thanks. As we follow in His steps, let us remember to be “Giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).

Christ the Compassionate

Notice the compassion of Christ. He cares. He knows their condition, that they have run out of food because they have sought His presence and His power. See the kindness which makes Him unwilling to dismiss the crowd, because He knows they will collapse from hunger before they can find any food to replenish their strength. He knows their limits. Since Jesus is “the express image of [the Father’s] person (Hebrews 1:3), to see Him is to see the Father (John 14:9). In the compassion of Jesus, therefore, we discern the heart of the God who sent Him. The God who made us with bodies “knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust,” and He “Pities those who fear Him” “as a father pities his children” (Psalm 103:13-14). He knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:8), and He cares. Thus, we are not to imagine that He has no regard for our material needs. Though He may lead us into a wilderness to test us, as He did the ancient Israelites, that does not mean that His heart is hard towards our physical limits. When Yahweh spoke to Moses from the burning bush, He revealed both His full awareness of the misery of His people’s bondage in Egypt, but His determine to deliver them (Exodus 3:7-8). He had “seen their oppression… and heard their cry,” and was going to rescue them. Why? Because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And that love was demonstrated most vividly in the life, and especially the death, of His Son, the compassionate Christ.

The Great Physician

For the fourth time in his Gospel, Matthew gives a summary statement of Jesus’ healing ministry. But this one is different, for Jesus has entered into Gentile territory.Having left the area of near the seacoast, he heads inland and goes up onto a mountain, perhaps to have some time alone with His disciples. Once again, however, He cannot remain hidden, and crowds come, bearing their sick for Him to heal. We see His greatness first, in that He did not refuse them, though it seems that He wanted solitude, and had perhaps gone away from Jewish regions in order to escape the crowds. Then we notice that He is meeting the needs of Gentiles, which no Rabbi would do. Though He was sent primarily to Jews, His love and compassion reached far beyond the borders of Israel to the entire world (Matthew 28:19-20). He healed multitudes, not just a few isolated sick people. Furthermore, the list of maladies indicates that His power extended to every sort of illness. Nothing could resist the life-giving energy of His touch or His word. In each case, He restored people to total health, so that they could function normally. These poor Gentiles, who had exercised such faith in Him, were not disappointed. Nor were they dense – they knew that Jesus was a Jew and that He derived His creative ability from God Himself. Perhaps He had also given them some instruction, for they rendered glory, not to their own “gods,” but to the God of Israel. For a variety of reasons, Jesus does not always answer prayers for total and immediate healing today, though miracles do sometimes still take place. That should not cause us to doubt either His pity or His power, however. In whatever way He thinks best, He will demonstrate His deity in our bodies, if only we come to Him in faith (see 2 Corinthians 12:9;Philippians 1:20).

Man with a Mission

Though He meant mostly to test the faith of the woman from Canaan, Jesus’ statement highlights His sense of mission. - He was sent by God. Knowing that He came from God to do the Father’s will, Jesus sought always to obey. Though fully equal with God, He did nothing on His own initiative, but always at His Father’s command. (John 5:19-20, 23, 30; Philippians 2:6-8) - He came to save “sheep.” As the Good Shepherd, Jesus would lay down His life for the sheep whom God had given Him (John 10:11). The Son of David would, like that great shepherd-king, do all He could to protect and provide for His flock. - He came to save lost sheep. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). He came to “save that which was lost” (Matthew 18:11). Lost, because they had gone astray and had no one to gather them back into the fold (Matthew 9:36). Lost, because they had wandered off the path and would perish unless someone came to help (Matthew 18:12-14). - He came to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. During His earthly ministry, Jesus focused on the Jews, the chosen people of God. That is why he instructed His disciples to go only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6). He could not do everything all at once, so He observed the priorities of God: First Israel, then the Gentiles (Matthew 28:19). His eventual healing of this woman’s daughter, like the earlier healing of a centurion, showed that He intended to save all “His people” – including Gentiles – “from their sins” (1:21). From this rich sentence we could harvest many sorts of fruit, but let us note, at least, that (1) Jesus cares for the weak, the wandering, the wounded, the lost. (2) He was a man with a clear sense of mission, a mission which He accomplished (John 17:4, 12). (3) He intends for us to follow in His steps (Matthew 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 16:24)

Tests of Faith

Three times Jesus either ignored or deflected this desperate woman’s cry for help. Why? Did He not care for her poor daughter, who was afflicted by a demon? Of course not! We have seen His compassion at work all throughout the Gospel story up to this point (8:16-17; 9:36). Perhaps, then, He refused to help a non-Jew? But a Roman centurion had gained his request of Jesus (8:5-13). From His final commendation of her faith we know His purpose in putting her off. Clearly, He intended to test her and to allow her trust in Him to shine all the more brightly. So it is with us. God allows us to endure various trials in order to test and to prove the true value of our faith in Him (1 Peter 1:7). He sends us through the fire and the water in order to produce patience, which leads to a more rounded and complete trust (James 1:3-4). So then, we can rejoice even amidst trouble, “Knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, [proven] character; and [proven] character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). And this hope will not be disappointed, for “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5).

Faith that Conquers

What did this Gentile woman do to elicit Jesus’ praise? First of all, despite His attempts to remain hidden in her village, she found Him out (Mark 7:24). Then, she came to Him, crying out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” Notice how she views Jesus: He is Lord, and rightful Son of David. What a contrast to the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders! She trusted in His goodness, that He would be willing to liberate her daughter, and in His greatness, that He would be able. When Jesus replied that He was sent primarily to serve God’s people, the Jews, she approached even more closely “and worshiped Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me!’” She refused to believe that He would not hear grant her request. Indeed, rather than being put off by His apparent indifference towards her, she worshiped Him. But Jesus tested her one more time by reminding her that she was a Gentile, and thus not entitled to the same treatment God had promised the people of Israel. She admitted that point, and did not try to dispute with Him, but held on to her trust in His inherent generosity towards all who came to Him for help: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” This combination of humility and desperate boldness demonstrated that she possessed true faith in Christ, and gained her daughter’s deliverance and healing. Oh, to be like this unnamed woman!

Deep Dirt

Contrary to the Pharisees, who worried about ritual defilement resulting from contaminated food entering the mouth, Jesus cared more about real damage caused by uttering foul words.Even more, He located the source of our moral uncleanness deep within us, in the heart -our motives, desires, thoughts, intentions, and emotions. From the depths of our personality proceed an unruly throng of wicked attitudes and actions. “Evil thoughts” lead to evil works and words, so He mentions them first. Then Jesus refers to four of the Ten Commandments, mentioning sexual sins twice. “Blasphemies” could include malicious or defaming words against either God or other men, and bring us back to the defilement caused by comes out of our mouth. Who can even glance at this list without shame? “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9). Indeed, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our only recourse is to cry out with David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Psalm 51:10).

“Honor Your Father and Mother”

The Pharisees and scribes had criticized Jesus’ disciples for violating tradition by not washing their hands before eating. Jesus’ reply constitutes a counter-charge: They were breaking the law of God in their zeal to honor the tradition of their elders. What law did they transgress? “Honor your father and mother”! In other words, they honored the customs of their ancestors, but dishonored their own parents, and taught others to do so also, thus violating a clear command of God. In particular, Jesus shows how these lovers of ancient tradition deprived parents of their children’s financial help. By allowing their disciples to claim that what they owed their parents was dedicated to religious purposes, they diverted funds from the needy to the greedy. How about us? The command to honor our father and mother still stands. What excuses do we find to disobey God’s will? Perhaps we think they are foolish, so we look down on them. Maybe we remember their offenses towards us, and withhold forgiveness from them. Sometimes children even fail to give elderly parents necessary help and support. More often, we are too busy to spend quality time with them. One very common “tradition” in America enables even Christians to dishonor their parents: Since the time of Freud, counselors have encouraged people to blame their father and mother for their emotional troubles. Under the guise of understanding ourselves and seeking inner healing, we all too easily criticize our parents before others. How much better it would be to “confess” the sins of our parents to God alone, asking Him to forgive them for the ways they have hurt us, and seeking His comfort and consolation. In other words, how much better it is to honor the clear commandment of God, even if it runs counter to what everyone else is doing, and transgresses the current “tradition.”

Faith and Doubt

At first, Peter’s faith was strong enough to send him out of the boat and into the roaring sea, walking on the rowdy waves towards Jesus. Imagine the exhilaration he must have felt! But then he shifted his attention away from Christ to the raging wind. Immediately, fear gripped him and he desperately called out for help. Notice that he still had faith in Jesus’ power to save him from drowning. But he had lost faith in the Lord’s ability to empower him to continue treading upon the water. So much is he like us! Though we believe that Jesus can do wonders for us, we do not fully trust Him to work in and through us. We fix our gaze upon our weakness and upon our surroundings rather than upon the one who commands the wind and the waves. We look at the creation rather than the Creator, and what we can do rather than what He has done. How much better for us to keep our eyes on Jesus! Daily looking into His Word, the Bible; trusting in Him to fulfill His promises; relying on Him for strength to do His will in our lives. He will probably not order us to walk on water. But He has told us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; to love our neighbor – even our hateful enemy – as ourselves; to seek first God’s kingdom and not to worry about material things; to rejoice even in persecutions for His sake. Shall we trust Him to give what He commands?

Who Is Jesus?

His disciples had just seen Jesus feed 5,000 men and their families with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Before that, He had healed countless incurable people with a word or a touch, and had cast out demons, demonstrating his power over illness and evil spirits. But they were still not prepared for what they saw – a man walking on water! Great prophets in ancient days had performed wonders, but even Moses had had to part the Red Sea to pass to the other side on dry land. Limited by their inexperience and only a dim understanding of their Master, they could only assume that a ghost was approaching them, so they responded with a cry of terror. Jesus calmed their hearts with two commands surrounding a momentous truth. “Cheer up! Don’t be afraid!” Why? “It is I!” In the Greek, “It is I” is literally, “I am,” the two-word phrase which God had used to name Himself to Moses at the burning bush. Thus, when the water-walking Man identified Himself as “I am,” He revealed His full divinity. Jesus was – and is – none other than God, Yahweh, come in the flesh. No wonder He could heal the sick and deliver the demonized! For Him, multiplying loaves and fish presented no difficulty, for the entire universe had been created through Him (John 1:3) and owes its continued existence and order to His powerful word (Colossians 1:17: Hebrews 1:3). Is there anything He cannot do for us now? With Him at our side – indeed, dwelling within us – why should any true believers be afraid?

God Provides

Through faith in God, and by His own divine power, Jesus fed a huge crowd by multiplying a few loaves and fishes. This miracle stunned His disciples so much that all four Gospels record it. John tells us that the crowd immediately moved to make Jesus their king. Jesus had told His followers not to worry about food and drink, but to trust their Father to provide (6:25-34). We are to pray for our daily bread (6:11). We must also work with our hands, as a number of His parables indirectly teach (13:1-9, 24-30, 31-32, 33, 47-48; 20:1-14; 21:33-34). Indeed, severe punishments await those who refuse to work (25:14-30; see also 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12). Nevertheless, when all is said and done, we need not worry, for God will provide for His people. Unless, for some extraordinary purposes, He wills that we suffer hardship and hunger (2 Corinthians 11:27; Hebrews 11:37-38), we can count on Him to give us what we need each day. Even when the situation seems impossible, we may be confident of His power to supply our needs. This crowd in the desert had no way of getting enough to eat, but Jesus served enough food to satisfy them all. Thus, under all circumstances, we can say with David, “The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1).

Looking Upward

The disciples looked down – at the crowd, and at the paltry amount of food in their hands. Jesus looked up to God. Later that evening, when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water, Peter believed Jesus enough to obey His command to join Him on the waves. But then Peter looked at the wind and the waves, and began to sink (14:29-30). Confronted with a man unable to hear or to speak, Jesus looked up to God in heaven and healed him (Mark 7:34). It all depends on where we look. If we focus on our material needs, we shall be consumed with worry. If we look at the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, and remember how God cares for them, we shall be filled with faith and peace. If we fix our eyes on what can be seen, we shall lose heart, for our “outward man is perishing,” but if we look to what is unseen, we shall be encouraged, for “the inward man is being renewed day by day,” because this “light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17). Jesus refused to be confined to what He could see with His eyes. Instead, He directed His attention to His invisible heavenly Father. Trusting in God, He worked mighty miracles. As we run the race that is set before us, let us, likewise, be constantly “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews12:2).

Who Comes First?

As soon as He heard that His cousin and forerunner had been beheaded by Herod, Jesus sought refuge in the wilderness. He wanted to be alone for a while.Perhaps He sought time to ponder the career of the brave prophet. The execution of John would also remind Jesus of the inevitable fate of all faithful spokesmen of God. With opposition from the Pharisees growing, He could foresee that His own early death was certain. His plan for a personal retreat with His disciples was frustrated, however, by the eagerness of the crowds. They chased him on foot to the other side of the lake and sought His healing touch. We know from other sources that they also desired to hear His heavenly teaching. Jesus faced a choice: Would He disperse the crowd, insisting on His own longing for rest and His right to a bit of privacy? After all, He had worked tirelessly on their behalf for quite a while already. Did He not deserve some respite, a little vacation, especially while He grieved the loss of John? Or would He put aside His own desires, abandon His own agenda, forget His own needs, and answer the call of the crowds? For most of us, the dilemma would have been acute. But for the one who came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many,” the outcome was certain: “He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick.” Not only so, but at the end of a long and tiring day, He insisted that this demanding assembly of needy people be invited to dinner, despite the lack of food! No wonder we adore Him!

Impossible Task?

Crowds had followed Jesus into the wilderness to hear His teaching and receive His healing touch. As the day waned, His disciples urged the Lord to disperse the multitude so that they could go to nearby towns and buy food. But Jesus would have none of that. “You give them something to eat!” He commanded. But they protested, “We have here only five loves and two fish.” Jesus had given them an impossible task! Surely, He must know how little food they had on hand. How could He expect them feed such a large number of people? Of course He knew! And of course He did not think they could complete this assignment – apart from Him! “Bring them [the loaves and fish] to Me,” He instructed. Then He worked a miracle so stunning that all four Gospel accounts record it in detail. Drawing upon His divine power, Jesus multiplied this meager meal so that five thousand men, plus their families, ate to satisfaction. Likewise with us. Our Lord often imposes “impossible” tasks upon us. He assigns jobs which we cannot do. He issues commands which we cannot obey. He lays burdens upon us which we cannot carry – apart from Him! Why? Not because He is cruel, but because He is kind. He intends to demonstrate His mighty power and His immense pity upon us and those around us. When we offer to Him our tiny strength and paltry resources, He magnifies and multiplies what we have, enabling us to “feed” multitudes of “hungry” people. All we have to do is trust Him.

Multiple Mistakes

Just as one lie leads to another, so one sin begets others. Herod had taken his brother Philip’s wife Herodias from him. When John the Baptist rebuked Herod for that wicked deed, the angry king threw the brave prophet into a dungeon. But the king was not the only person in the palace seething with resentment against John. Herodias, who had cooperated with Herod’s adultery, hated John for his prophetic rebuke. She sought a way to destroy this man whom both the people and the king admired so much. On Herod’s birthday, his step-daughter Salome danced before the assembled guests. We must assume that her dancing was lewd and lust-inciting, for the evil king responded with a promise to give her anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. He quickly regretted this foolish oath, for his wife prompted Salome to demand the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod could have renounced his rash promise, but did not possess the courage to do so in front of all his friends. Thus, the greatest prophet in the history of Israel was sacrificed on the altar of lust, adultery, hatred, and pride. Perhaps if Herod had not cast longing eyes on his brother’s wife, none of this would have happened. “When desire [lust] has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:15).