"We ask you not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled..." ~ II Thes. 2:2 *** "But stir up the gift of God that is within you by the laying on of hands..." ~ II Tim. 1:6

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What Did Jesus Mean By “My Yoke Is Easy to Bear”? Going Beyond the Surface Meaning of This Verse

Have you ever found, at points throughout your life, all roads kind of leading or pointing to a particular topic, or even a certain bible verse?  It just keeps popping up and you eventually can’t ignore it any longer?  That’s what’s happened subtly over the past year or so with this verse.

Jesus issued an invitation to the people following Him:

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy [NLT: easy to bear], and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30)

This verse has been one that I’ve mentally skimmed most of my life, picking up the gist but not really internalizing.  And that’s because I’ve never really been completely sure I knew what to make of the last part.

The part about rest, gentle, etc., I was following.  But then I questioned whether the last part contradicted other things Jesus said about following Him being hard…about having trials in this world, counting the cost, and the narrow, difficult way (e.g. John 16:33; Matt. 7:14; John 12:25).

But after having this verse shoved in my face enough times recently, I’ve spent more time meditating on it, and wanted to share some thoughts that may help modern readers apply it in their lives.

What should we understand about yokes in the bible?

In the largely-agricultural society of Jesus’s time, this statement would have been much better understood.  I grew up on a farm, but it’s not like we were yoking oxen together to get work done.  And in today’s world, I think we may even have an instinctive negative reaction to the idea of a yoke…as though we’re coming into bondage somehow, driven and overworked, with no personal agency.

So what should we know about yokes?  A yoke was used to bind two animals together and spread out the weight and effort of a hard task.  By evenly distributing the weight and helping them pull together, it ultimately made the job easier on both.

The animals yoked together need to be well-matched, of equal strength, size, temperaments…getting along and pulling together.  Other places say you’d put an older experienced ox and a younger, untrained one, to teach it.  Both are likely true, depending on the farmer’s need.  And you can easily see spiritual parallels in either scenario.

Yokes actually come up a lot in the bible.  They’re mentioned over 50 times, and most of the uses are figurative…denoting slavery, servitude, or the general influence of (or submission to) an authority—for instance, there’s a lot about breaking “yokes of bondage”, particularly in the Prophets.  The bible also sometimes metaphorically uses a yoke to describe the weight of a task or obligation.

What did Jesus mean about His yoke being easy to bear?

At face value His statement makes sense, particularly when contrasting His teachings with the centuries of exile and oppression that the Israelites had faced, as well as the hundreds of exacting physical rules and rituals the Jews had created for themselves out of fear of inadvertently breaking God’s commands and incurring His wrath.

Beyond that, though, there are some interesting angles concerning yokes that can deepen our understanding of this verse and how we can submit to Jesus’s “yoke” in our lives…let’s briefly explore these.

A yoke is created for work, not rest

I think that sometimes Christians key into Jesus’s focus on freeing us from the bondage of slavery, the truth making us free, and similar verses, and assume that we’re “in the clear”…that Jesus took care of everything and we can just coast through life.

But make no mistake—we are called to do God’s work.  Jesus spoke frequently of doing His Father’s work while on the earth, and that didn’t end with His resurrection.

He said, “My food [what sustains and keeps Him alive] is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work…Lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!  And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together” (John 4:34-28).

This was a common theme He spoke about.  Right before giving His disciples power and sending them out to preach, heal, cast out demons, and proclaim the gospel, Jesus saw how much need there was and exclaimed:  “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Matt. 9:37-28).

Who are those laborers?  Matthew 20 directly connects this to God’s people who are called throughout the millennia, right up until His second coming.  Then in Mark 13, Jesus brings this home with the parable of a man going to a far country, who gave authority to his servants “and to each his work”, which the man expected to see diligently completed when he returned.

Burnt Offerings to Living Sacrifices:  What Worshipping a Holy God Requires of Us

Leviticus can be a tougher read, even for those who spend a lot of time in the bible.  Filled with exacting tabernacle building blueprints, pages of bloody sacrifice instructions, and a litany of purification rituals, it’s sometimes difficult for God’s people today to truly connect to this book.

The temple sacrificial system and Levitical priesthood were phased out when Jesus Christ gave His life for us as the eternal Passover Lamb and was resurrected to sit down at God’s right hand as our High Priest (Heb. 8-10).

So it can be tempting to ask why we should care about Leviticus today, except as a historical record.

It’s an understandable question, and there are LOTS of good answers.  The most obvious answer is that God had it included in the bible for a reason, and we know that all scripture is God-breathed and given to us for instruction (II Tim. 3:16).  But let’s go even further than that.

The book of Leviticus tells us about the creation of the Levitical priesthood in the tabernacle (and later temple), under a high priest.  This was a precursor and prophetic “shadow” of when God’s firstfruits become eternal kingly priests in His kingdom, with Jesus Christ as our High Priest (Rev. 20; Heb. 4:15).

However, if we pull back even further and look at it in totality, Leviticus is ultimately a book about holiness, sanctification, and sacrifice—being set apart for God’s use.  God was showing His newly-established nation how to worship, serve, and obey a holy God.  He tells them, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2).

This study is focused on bringing one aspect of Leviticus to life—the burnt offerings—and putting it into a context that God’s ekklesia today can meditate on and use in our lives.  The burnt offering ritual (along with the other offerings listed in Leviticus) helps us understand God’s perspective on proper worship, showing us how God wants us to view and worship Him.

What was the burnt offering?

There are a total of five types of sacrifices outlined in Leviticus.  We might assume that they’re all dealing with sin, but in fact only two of the five were specifically for that purpose.

The other three were all “sweet savor” (or “sweet smelling aroma”) sacrifices that were completely voluntary.  They include the burnt offering, the grain or meal offering, and the peace offering (or fellowship offering).

Let’s start with the initial command for the burnt offering:

“Let [the person bringing the offering] offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it of his own free will…then he shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.

He shall kill the bull before the Lord; and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood and sprinkle the blood all around on the altar…And the priest shall burn all [parts of the animal] on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord” (Lev 1:3-9)

So we see that this sacrifice was offered freely, was completely burned up, was intended to be accepted by God on the person’s behalf, and that God viewed it as a sweet fragrance.  These elements are consistently called out when the burnt offering is mentioned throughout Leviticus and beyond.

So how does this connect to our lives today?

100% commitment:  wholly dedicated to God

Paul gives us one of the keys:

“I beseech you therefore, brethren…that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable [rational] service” (Rom. 12:1).

What does Paul mean by a “living sacrifice”?  It feels almost like an oxymoron, since the animal being sacrificed was killed.

But (figuratively) so are we.

When we answered God’s calling, committed ourselves to God, repented, and came out of the watery grave of baptism, we were “crucified with Christ”.  Paul tells us that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  Our sins, our past life, and our carnal nature were put to death (Rom. 6).

“Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin…do not let sin reign in your mortal body…and do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present [offer, submit] yourselves to God as being alive from the dead” (Rom. 6:6-13)

The burnt offering was completely consumed by the fire.  This is one of the few offerings where the priests didn’t get to eat some of it.  It was TOTALLY burned up, entirely dedicated to God.  Nothing was held back or kept in reserve.

It’s worth asking:  am I offering 100% of myself in complete surrender to my Creator?  What am I holding back?  Are there areas of my life where I don’t want to let God in?  Do I give God just enough of my time to “tick the boxes” on prayer and bible study, then go on with the rest of my life?

Maintaining a “Sober” Mind In A Spiritually Intoxicated World

“But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and the cares of this life…” (Luke 21:34)

“Go home, world, you’re drunk…”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to say that (or at least have thought it) in the past few years.  Maybe you have too, but yours had less snark:  “The world has gone crazy”…“It seems like everyone has lost their damn minds.”

Now let’s be real—this world has always been crazy, and God’s people through every generation and permutation of society have thought that things can’t get crazier.

But in looking at how both individual people and society-at-large have responded to things over the past three to four years, it does feel like there is an elevated level of frenzied, “drunken” reactiveness within humanity…to what they read in the media or online, to “social justice” cries, to everything around COVID, politics, and even recently to the news from the Middle East.

I’m not talking about physical alcoholic drunkenness, but rather an emotional, mental, and spiritual intoxication spoken of throughout the bible, particularly in the New Testament.

What does the bible say about spiritual drunkenness or intoxication?

We’ll start with the study’s anchor verse from Luke 21, including a different translation that helps deepen our understanding.  Jesus tells His disciples:

“But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all the earth” (Luke 21:34, NKJV)

“But keep watch on yourselves, or your hearts will become dulled by carousing, drunkenness and the worries of everyday living, and that Day will be sprung upon you suddenly like a trap!” (Luke 21:34, CJB)

Most of the other translations I often look at (NLT, ESV, NIV, etc.) are pretty similar to the CJB.  There’s the “watch yourself!” component and then an admonition about the impact of carousing, drunkenness, and everyday worries on our vulnerable hearts.

The “cares of this life” seem pretty straightforward, but it’s helpful to take a closer look at a few of the other words in this verse since they’re important components of teasing out aspects of mental and spiritual intoxication.  (Interestingly, this verse is the only time many of these Greek words are used in the New Testament.)

This word translated “weighed down” or “dulled” is baruno (G925), which means to be burdened or overloaded.  An almost literal translation is “to be made heavy”, which makes sense when you think about how you feel when you’ve eaten or drank too much.  When we’re in this condition we’re in a stupor of sorts, sluggish, slow to respond.

Next we’ll take “carousing”.  When I hear that word it’s easy for me to think, “Nope, I’m old and boring, no carousing here!” and move on.  The word (kraipale, G2897) implies the results from indulging your appetites excessively, leading to ruin or straying.  I thought this explanation from The Berean newsletter explained it nicely:

“It could be food or drink or many other things. This world, especially in its advertising, is pushing the overuse [and indulgence] of our appetites all the time. We cannot turn on the television without them pushing automobiles, foods, toys, jewelry, drugs, insurance, appliances, travel, housewares, clothing, tools, movies, and other television programs. Advertisers are constantly and repetitiously urging us, “Do this.” “Try this.” “Use your time this way.” We can feel pressured, “under the gun”, stressed from resisting their products, their way of life, and their attitudes.”

Well…if that’s “carousing”, that sure sounds a bit more familiar and relevant to me in our consumption-mindset world.

And now we look at “drunkenness”, where I want to spend some extra time.  The word used is methe (G3178; also used in Rom. 13:13 and Gal. 5:21), and a related version is methuo (G3184).  It means an intoxicant, to drink to intoxication or get drunk.

But it has a broader meaning than just actual alcohol drunkenness.  It means to be filled or saturated with an intoxicant—literally or figuratively.

Read next:  FOMO:  How to Derail Your Relationship With God

What does mental & spiritual intoxication look like in God’s people?

First, it’s probably helpful to define intoxication.  According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “the condition of having physical or mental control markedly diminished by the effects of alcohol or drugs”, as well “a high excitement of mind; an elation which rises to enthusiasm, frenzy, or madness”.

What does alcohol do to us if not carefully moderated?  (And this is not a knock on alcohol, which I quite enjoy.)

  • It heightens our emotions, lowers our inhibitions. We’re easier to manipulate, lacking control and prone to out-of-proportion emotional reactions.
  • It removes our presence of mind and skews our judgment, distorting our perception of reality (think about how it feels wearing beer goggles).
  • It gives us a false sense of security and confidence. People do silly and senseless things or make dumb decisions, then regret them, along with the hangover.
  • It slows our reactions. It makes us sleepy, fuzzy, off-balance, and unfocused.  We’re not alert and are unprepared to respond.

It’s very easy to see the spiritual parallels here.  When we allow ourselves to be weighed down and our senses dulled by intoxicants, worries, and overindulging our physical cravings, it has a MASSIVE impact on our ability to maintain a Godly perspective and see ourselves clearly.

Finding Balance & Boldness in Our Walk of Faith (Part 4 in Surveying the Gospels: The “Big Picture” Themes of Jesus’ Words & Actions)

This is the fourth and final post in an in-depth study of overarching themes and lessons in the gospel accounts.  For ease of reading, we’ve split this long study into several shorter individual posts, so I recommend starting with the intro/first post, then reading this and the other posts (linked at the end).

If you’re anything like me, you may have sometimes struggled to emotionally connect with the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), or found some of the teachings to be contradictory.  There are many reasons for this (cultural context, writing style, etc.), and I talk about this more in the first post in the series…I won’t belabor the point here.

So this series is focused on how we can “see the forest for the trees” and survey the gospel accounts together in order to find the bigger ideas and consistent themes in Jesus’s direct words and actions.

As a reminder, I’m giving some of the scripture references within each point, though in many cases there were so many that I couldn’t capture them all (it got too repetitive). I encourage you to look up and read each passage referenced as well, and to have these topics in mind to recognize the patterns when they emerge.

So far we’ve examined Jesus’s life and teachings on a few major themes (each with several related sub-topics):

  • That God’s calling in this life isn’t easy—and isn’t for everyone—but if we answer His call it DOES come with expectations
  • That God is concerned with the state of our “heart” (mind, emotions, motivations)
  • That the way we treat and engage with our brethren (and other people) matters
  • That we must have our priorities right—we can’t allow our relationship with worldly things to take precedence over our relationship with God
  • And that God expects both faith AND action—“you will know them by their fruits”

So now let’s move on to our final few themes…

Theme #6:  It’s important to take care of ourselves as well as looking out for others

In today’s world we have this idea of “self-care”, which has gotten a bit out of hand and is often used as a justification for selfishness and indulgence.

But the underlying principle is sound—namely that it is easier to have your spiritual “house” in order when you are properly caring for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Figuratively it’s like the airplane rule of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else get theirs on—the point being, you’re of no help to others if you become incapacitated.

Let’s look at a couple areas where Jesus showcased this in His own life.

It is critical to regularly get rest, solitude (for meditation), and one-on-one time with God.

Jesus shows us that we need to take care of ourselves, stay close to God, and not get too worn out while ministering to others.  He fed the crowds when they were hungry and tired.  He knew when the disciples were too amped up and needed to chill out.  One of the biggest ways that He modeled this was to frequently set aside time to get away from the crowds and noise, and to be alone with God.

  • After a full day of healing the sick and casting out demons, He went the next morning to a “solitary place” and prayed (Mark 1:32-35)
  • Similarly, when the disciples came back from their journeys and were telling Jesus all that they did, He took them to an isolated spot where they could eat and rest (Mark 6:31)
  • We’re told the He “often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed” (Luke 5:16)
  • After a crazy day feeding the 5,000, He sent the disciples on ahead and went up on a mountain to pray (Mark. 6:46)

These are just a few examples of many.  Jesus knew that we must learn to turn down and tune out the noise of the world—the distractions and busyness that our daily lives provide.  We have to purposefully set aside time to spend in prayer, study, and meditation with our Father.

You might also like:  A Guide to Biblical Meditation

We must make time to nurture close friendships with our brethren.

Jesus also knew that He needed His friends.  He didn’t hold people at arm’s length or try to bear everything on His own.

Instead, He loved and mourned His friends (John 11).  He asked His closest friends to be with Him, pray for Him, and help comfort Him when He was struggling (Matt. 26:36-41).

He shared more teachings and open conversations privately with His disciples than He did with the crowds (Luke 10:23).  He was vulnerable and relational, telling the disciples that he was “exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:32-35).

God and Jesus Christ want their brethren to build strong and lasting friendships.  These are important for mental and emotional health, certainly (as well as physical, Eccl. 4:9-10), but also important for spiritual well-being.

When we develop these intimate relationships, we can have that “iron sharpening iron” effect (Prov. 27:17), where we encourage and exhort each other, and when needed we tell the hard truths.  There has to be a level of love and trust established for any of those things to be effective.

Perspective and balance are important in maintaining our well-being.

We all lose perspective sometimes, or find ourselves off-balance.  Spiritually, this can lead us to ending up in a “ditch” (such as self-righteousness or going off on a doctrinal tangent), or to drifting away from God as we’re pulled in by the cares of this world.

These additional quick points help round out this larger theme of the need to take good care of ourselves:

  • The story of Martha and Mary shows how we can become so focused on physically serving others that we neglect pursuing our spiritual growth (Luke 10:38-42)
  • When it comes to our spiritual development and continued conversion, we shouldn’t be *only* focused on getting the “bad” OUT, but also with putting the good IN (Luke 11:24-26)
  • Having an attitude of thankfulness toward God for His many blessings can help us maintain an appropriate perspective (Matt. 11:25, John 6:11, John 11:41 & more)

You might also like:  Is Unthankfulness the Root of Most Sins?

Theme #7:  God does not intend for us to be shrinking violets or passive doormats

This theme may be a bit unexpected.  I certainly was a bit surprised as the threads emerged while reading through the gospel accounts.  But there’s no question that it’s there, and is one of those seeming-contradictions that we talked about at the outset of this study.

People tend to focus on Jesus’s teachings to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile when compelled, and forgive your brother as many times as is needed.  And those are absolutely commands from our Savior.  But they also depend on the situation and context.

Jesus also taught and modeled that His followers should be zealous for His way, should not compromise with the truth, and should speak out when we see something that is wrong.  He did not intend for us to allow others to walk all over us, or be taken advantage of as “easy marks”.

And He expects us to study His word and use His holy spirit to develop discernment and character.  Both are required to determine in any given situation what is most loving and appropriate towards the people involved—whether it’s a “telling hard truths in love” sort of moment or a “turn the other cheek”.

So let’s look at some places where we’re showing the bolder side of following Christ.

“There Your Heart Shall Be” (Part 3 in Surveying the Gospels: The “Big Picture” Themes of Jesus’ Words & Actions)

This is the third part in an in-depth study of key themes in the gospel accounts.  For ease of reading, we’ve split this long study into several shorter individual posts, so I recommend starting with the intro and theme #1, then reading this and the other posts (linked at the end).

I’ll dive right in this time, since the introduction (linked above) gives context on what led me to write this series on how to understand the gospels.  We’re really focusing on the bigger ideas and consistent themes in Jesus’s words and actions, more of a “30,000-foot view”.

As a reminder, I’m giving some of the scripture references within each point, though in many cases there were so many that I couldn’t capture them all (it got too repetitive). I encourage you to look up and read each passage referenced as well, and to have these topics in mind to recognize the patterns when they emerge.

So far we’ve examined Jesus’s life and teachings on a few major themes (each with several related sub-topics):

  • That God’s calling in this life isn’t easy—and isn’t for everyone—but if we answer His call it DOES come with expectations.
  • That God is concerned with the state of our “heart” (mind, emotions, motivations—our inner being)
  • That the way we treat and engage with our brethren (and with other people) matters

So now let’s move on to themes #4 and 5…

Theme #4:  Priorities!  We can’t allow our relationship with worldly things to take precedence over our relationship with God

A huge focus of Jesus’s teachings was on how we use our resources—time, thoughts, energy, money, and more—during our physical lives.  He frequently cautioned His followers to adopt a healthy attitude toward material possessions and worldly relationships, and wasn’t shy about calling out when someone’s priorities were in the wrong place.

So let’s examine some of the topics He spoke on.  Get ready, this one is a doozy!

Money isn’t *inherently* evil, but the LOVE of it is…we need to develop a healthy relationship with (the pursuit of) wealth.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus had quite a lot to say about what our relationship should be with money, the pursuit of wealth or influence, and other material possessions.

In one of the more well-known passages of the gospels, Jesus says:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

Jesus goes on to explain that you can’t have two masters—in other words, it is not possible to wholeheartedly serve God, and yet allow money (or the pursuit of it, career ambition, a desire for security, etc.) to control you (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13).

We see this illustrated in the “rich young ruler”, where the man asked Jesus what he needed to do to for eternal life.  Jesus could see inside his heart and told him to sell all he had and give the money to the poor.

The man went away sorrowful because he was very rich, and Jesus remarked, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:18-27, Matt. 19:16-26, Mark 10:17-27).

Again, this is not because wealth is inherently bad, but rather because it tends to warp our perspectives and priorities, and tether us to this world.  In the parable of the sower, Jesus calls this “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches”, which choke out the faith that was trying to take root, just like weeds choke out good produce (Matt. 13:22).

Do You Offer Your Firstfruits to God? (And No, I’m Not Talking About Money)

Something struck me the other day about the story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4).  While we can’t know for certain why God honored Abel’s sacrifice and rejected Cain’s, it’s commonly believed that it was because Abel brought an animal, providing the required shedding of blood.  And that makes sense, given what we know.

But there’s an additional detail provided that I’d never noticed before.  The verse specifically states that Abel brought the firstborn of his flock, while it just says Cain brought something he grew.

So we know that Abel brought God the firstfruits of his labor, and it doesn’t mention the same of Cain.  That could just be an omission in the text, but I find that unlikely.

Throughout the bible, God makes it clear that the firstborn (of man and beast) and the firstfruits (of crops or produce) are set apart and belong to Him (Ex. 13:12, 22:29-30, Num. 18, Neh. 10:35-37, etc).

Because God is the sovereign Creator, technically everything belongs to God.  He owns it all.  When we bring the first yield of our labors and our lives to the (literal or figurative) altar, we are acknowledging that fact and asking for His continued blessings.

And God was very clear that His people should not be bringing merely what remains after meeting their own needs (leftovers), or bringing stuff that’s not quite “up to snuff” (flawed).

The true firstfruits in our lives

Today, WE are God’s firstfruits, spiritual Israel…those who have answered His calling, are keeping His commands, observing the sabbath and holy days, and striving to live a godly life (James 1:18, Rev. 14:4).

As we near the end of the firstfruits season this year, with Pentecost upon us, the Cain and Abel offering discrepancy got me thinking about the application in my own day-to-day life.

Our offerings today are different from those in ancient Israel’s sacrificial system, but the concept of setting apart the firstfruits of our labor to God is still applicable.

And perhaps even more importantly than material possessions or money, this should apply to our real resources—our time, our thoughts, and our energy. 

We acknowledge God to be the owner of everything that we are, and the giver of everything that we have.  Therefore, we should give Him our first and best.

So it’s worth each of us asking, is God getting my firstfruits?  Or does He get the dregs, what’s left over at the end of the day or week?

The State of Our Hearts (Part 2 in Surveying the Gospels: The “Big Picture” Themes of Jesus’ Words & Actions)

This is the second part in an in-depth study of key themes in the gospel accounts.  For ease of reading, we’ve split this long study into several shorter individual posts, so I recommend starting with the intro and theme #1, then reading this and the other posts (linked at the end).

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series on how to understand the gospels, I’ve always struggled to emotionally connect with the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in their entirety.  I get lost sometimes in the cultural context, the somewhat sterile ancient writing style, and can overly focus on seeming-contradictions.

So this series is focused on how we can “see the forest for the trees” and survey the gospel accounts together to find the bigger ideas and consistent themes in Jesus’s direct words and actions. 

As a reminder, I’m giving some of the scripture references within each point, though in many cases there were so many that I couldn’t capture them all (it got too repetitive). I encourage you to look up and read each passage in the bible yourself as well and have these topics in mind to recognize the patterns when they emerge.

The first theme we looked at (in the previous post), was that God’s calling in this life isn’t easy—and isn’t for everyone—but if we answer His call it DOES come with expectations.  And now we’ll dive right into the second theme…

Theme #2:  God is concerned with the state of our “heart” (mind, emotions, motivations)

Jesus was constantly probing the underlying thoughts, motivations, and intentions of the people He encountered, and always called out hypocrisy, legalism, and self-righteousness—especially when it came at the expense of showing love and honor to God or other people.

Here are some of the principles He taught and modeled along those lines.

We can think we are doing all the right things and that we’re “right with God”, but be completely off-base.  

MANY of Jesus’s teachings expanded on this theme with slight variations.  And while His words clearly had implications for the Jews of that day—they saw themselves as God’s only chosen people and their rules for HOW to follow Him as elevated above God’s own instructions—Jesus’s warning should ring just as clearly for God’s elect today.

Jesus cautions that just calling upon His name (“I’m a Christian!”) or doing lots of works (“I tithe, I volunteer, I go to church every sabbath!”) does not “qualify” us for eternal life (Matt. 7:21-23).  The meaning of Matthew 7:21 is that we can’t EARN it.

Here are some other aspects of this topic we should take away from His teaching:

  • We should not be comparing ourselves to other people, but rather to God’s standards. God despises self-righteousness and loves a humble heart (the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, Luke 18:9-14).
  • “Unless your righteousness [justification] exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). His audience would have understood this as a way of saying that it was impossible to “out-righteous” the Pharisees at their own game of legalistic rule adherence (which went far beyond God’s actual commands).  Perfect law-following alone cannot gain us access to the kingdom.
  • We don’t get credit for just showing up unprepared (the guest without a wedding garment, Matt 22). The “garment” God expects His people to be clothed with is made of righteous character and actions resulting from following His way (Rev. 19:8).
  • In a similar vein, “checking the box” (a.k.a. doing only the bare minimum or “what was our duty to do”) makes us an unprofitable servant (Luke 17:10).
  • We cannot be complacent—we must be vigilant. Multiple times Jesus spoke of seeing the signs that the time is near (Matt 24).  These are spoken to God’s chosen people, and the implication is clearly that if we are not prepared and watching, we can miss out—our victory is not assured.
  • The parable of the ten virgins (picturing God’s people) gets quite specific here. We’re told that ALL fell asleep, but only half of them had enough oil (God’s spirit) left when Christ returned…and the others didn’t get another chance to rectify their lack of vigilance (Matt. 25:1-13).
  • The parable of the tares makes it clear that God allows the good and the bad to hang out together within the body of Christ for a while, until it’s time for the harvest (Matt. 13:24-30). So we can’t assume that just because we’re showing up, going to church, and doing all the things that outwardly look right, that we’re “good” with God.

Our actions definitely matter, but not if they’re coming from the wrong motivations or thoughts.  

Building on the previous point, let’s go back to that part in Matthew where Jesus had just told them that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” or does great works will enter the kingdom.

He sums up that teaching by saying, “Then I will declare to them, ‘Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness [workers of iniquity]’” (Matt. 7:23).

What’s interesting is that He doesn’t deny that they had been obeying God’s commands or doing great works.  This indicates that something else was going on here.  We don’t know exactly what it was, but I submit that the root cause was that their hearts were not right with God.  That they were not in a state of repentance…thus their sins separated them from God despite carrying out the correct actions.

And how often do we fall into the same trap??

Surveying the Gospels: Looking at the “Big Picture” Themes of Jesus’ Words & Actions (Part 1)

It’s often been said that even if we only focused on reading and doing the “red letter” parts of the bible (Jesus’s words), we’d all be much better people…and certainly better Christians.

But I have a confession:  I’ve always struggled to emotionally connect with the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  Of course I read them, I think about them, I hone in on specific verses that feel really meaningful.  But even though it’s full of direct words from my Savior, I haven’t always gravitated toward them holistically.

And I could be wrong, but I suspect I may not be alone in that…

For some people, the seeming-inconsistencies across the three narratives are frustrating.  For others (myself included), the sparse writing style feels a bit clinical and I know that I’m missing cultural nuances that would make the words come to life better.  It kind of makes me feel like a failure at times.

While the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life are not quite as convoluted as some of Paul’s writings (which even Peter called hard to understand, II Pet. 3:16), they still can be somewhat challenging to really grasp onto and internalize.  And there are a number of reasons for that.

Why are the gospels confusing at times?

Some of the difficulty in reading the gospels is unavoidable, and common to any historical text.  The actual way it was written down—from the words used, to the dialogue style—feels stilted and foreign to a modern reader’s brain.

The things Jesus (and other biblical writers) said often included a massive amount of cultural context, using phrases and examples that contemporary listeners would have immediately connected the dots on, but seem super random to us today.

Then some of the confusion was, I believe, purposeful on Jesus’s part.  His words can be interpreted in different ways because He wasn’t always crystal-clear, and His sayings often had double meanings.  He even stated outright that He was intentionally making the parables hard to understand because those people weren’t being called at that time (Matt. 13:11-17).

Another reason is that many of His teachings showcased how we follow God in a situational context rather than black-and-white “rules”, so we run into paradoxes with how the same principle was applied differently at different times—creating what feels like contradictions.

And honestly, some of it is SO specific, that to our modern ears we hear something like “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” and we’re like, ”Neat…sooo what do we do with this??”  As a result, we tend to cherry-pick very specific verses, often pulled out of context, and ignore other ones that might contradict.

A different approach for how to read the gospels

After years of reading through the gospels but struggling to truly feel connected to and inspired by the entirety of the writings, I recently decided to try a different approach.  Rather than getting bogged down in the verse-by-verse details, my goal was to pull back to more of a 30,000-foot view to see what we can and should glean in broader strokes.

This way of reading the gospels still is focusing on specific and actionable takeaways for my life, but it helped me be able to filter through some of the super granular and seemingly-contradictory statements to find the bigger ideas and consistent themes in Jesus’s direct words or His actions.

Rather than parsing every word (including things that feel contradictory), my goal is to glean some of the key things we should take away as Jesus’s focus, His actions, His commands—and thereby what things we need to be concentrating on in our own lives.

A few notes to orient you before we dive in:

  • The topics below are focused more on the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), solely because Jesus’s teachings in John’s gospel are more directed toward Himself and His relationship with the Father. I’ve also included a couple references to the red-letter parts of Revelation where relevant.
  • As I studied through the books, I found that the various topics grouped themselves into a handful of very broad buckets, but acknowledge that there’s definitely some overlap between them.
  • I’ll give some of the scripture references within each point, though in many cases there were so many that I couldn’t capture them all (it got repetitive, especially across the three books). I encourage you to look up and read each passage in the bible yourself as well and have these topics in mind to recognize the patterns when they emerge.

And lastly, this study is a LOT.  There is so much content here, that I’ve split it into multiple posts.  This is part one of what will likely be between three and five posts.

While you *could* read through it all in one sitting, you could also take a topic or two each day as your daily bible study and spend time meditating and studying, to really get the most out of it.  Think of this as more of a reference book or study companion.

Principles, truths, and key commands in the Gospels

Theme #1:  God’s calling in this life isn’t easy, and isn’t for everyone.  But if we answer the call, it DOES come with expectations.

Anyone who subscribes to the “just as I am” belief, thinking that God doesn’t set standards by which we must live, should go back and read Jesus’s words throughout the gospels.

One of the biggest themes that Jesus emphasizes is what it looks like to follow Him.  He focuses on action, not simply “believing” as an abstract emotional idea…and He’s also clear that following God’s way is not the easy path.

Now don’t get me wrong…God calls us just as we are.  He just expects that we won’t stay that way.  Let’s look at some examples.

Deep Roots in Times of Trouble:  Lessons from the Acacia Tree (Jeremiah 17:7 & Psalm 1:3)

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope [confidence, security] is in the Lord. 

For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its roots by the river, and will not fear when heat comes; but its leaf will be green, and will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will cease from yielding fruit” (Jer. 17:7-8)

Many believe that the tree Jeremiah had in mind when he wrote those words was the acacia tree, which was common in the deserts of ancient Israel.

The bible is filled from cover to cover with tree-focused imagery and analogies, and they featured heavily in the teachings of Jesus.  To the agrarian-based ancient biblical-era societies—particularly those living in a desert climate—the deeper meanings and takeaways from tree-based language would have been very clear.  But to us today it’s easy to gloss over these verses with only a surface understanding.

Recently I was reading a daily bible devotion that expounded on the acacia and its relation to this verse in Jeremiah:

“This tree has been designed by God to survive decades of intense heat and drought. It can survive tough circumstances because it has a deep root system to sustain it during the hardest of times. Even during a time of drought, this tree is still able to bless local residents by providing shade during the day and wood for fire at night” (from Bible.com).

Psalm 1:3 mirrors our Jeremiah foundation passage, with a few nuances.  It tells us that the one who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on His law is like a tree planted by the rivers, which yields fruit in due season, whose leaf does not wither, and who prospers in all he does.

These passages give us some important insights into qualities that God wants from His people.

  • Planted by a good source of water (intentionally placed, proximity, set up for success)
  • Deep and wide root structure (stability, connection to sustenance)
  • Green leaves, no withering (healthy, growing, provides shade)
  • Not anxious in a time of drought or heat (knows that God will provide)
  • Does not cease yielding fruit in season (productive even in harsh conditions)

We’ll dig (ha, plant pun!) into these characteristics more in the rest of this study in order better appreciate what God is telling us.

You might also like: Book Reco: “You’ll Get Through This” by Max Lucado

But first, what’s the purpose of a plant’s roots?

That sounds like a “duh” question, but stick with me here.  Despite growing up on a farm, I had to do a little research because I am admittedly NOT a plant person…I don’t really garden, and can’t keep plants alive, no matter what I try.

Roots play such a key role in the survival and health of a plant.  They anchor it, keeping it from being blown or washed away.  They tap into the water needed for sustenance, and find the nutrients a plant needs to stay alive and produce fruit.

I’m not going to go way down a rabbit hole on the spiritual analogy, because any analogy breaks down eventually, but basically envision roots as your means of connecting to God, utilizing His holy spirit, and being nourished by His words and your relationship with Him.

Let’s briefly explore a few facets that may bring some additional insights into how we view the analogy of spiritual roots.

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Roots provide life-sustaining water and food

Perhaps the most obvious thing about roots is that they are the tree’s means of getting water and nutrients, which they use along with sunlight to grow.  Our spiritual roots are much the same.

God’s holy spirit is often symbolized as “living water”, and each of us must be spiritually tapped into this source on a daily basis (John 7:38-39).  We should be partaking of “our daily bread” (Christ and His words) and seeking out nourishing spiritual food (John 6:35, Heb. 5:12-14).

What I didn’t realize, though, was that roots really have to work for it:

“Plants are not passive actors in the soil environment, humming along to themselves idle while nutrients and water jump into their roots. Rather, it takes a substantial amount of effort by the plants to wrest and wrangle away the basics needed to eke out a living from the soil. As a matter of survival, then, they must invest some of the energy gained from sunlight in this process. (see article)

The spiritual analogy mirrors this.  God provides the water (His spirit), food (Is. 55:2, John 8:51), and the (sun)light (John 8:12, Ps. 18:38) that we need—not only to survive, but to grow, thrive, and bear fruit.

They are there for the taking, but they don’t just *jump* into us.  It requires diligence, consistency, and effort on our part.  Peter blasts a hole in the “once saved, always saved” myth and makes very clear that God expects His people to actively work toward growth.

What Does “Casting Down Arguments & Pretensions” Mean in II Cor. 10:5? (Part 3 of II Cor. 10 Series)

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor. 10:3-6)

We’ve been sharing a series of studies taking a deeper look at these verses in II Corinthians (you can read Part 1 & Part 2 here).  They provide important insight into how we should view our inner selves, and our responsibilities in actively guarding, defending, and tending to our hearts and minds.

In particular, these studies focus on interpreting Paul’s somewhat literary or metaphorical language into something that feels tangible and actionable to us today.

One of the ideas that was brought out in the earlier studies on pulling down strongholds was this:

“When we allow our beliefs and our expectations of God to become bigger than God Himself, we limit God.  We have made our God smaller.  And we create an idol out of our own beliefs or ways of thinking.”

That idea segues us nicely into this study, where we’ll dig into the second big element of that keystone verse—casting down arguments, and every “high thing” that exalts itself against the knowledge of God.

What does II Cor. 10:5 mean?

It’s kind of a weird phrase in our modern vernacular, so first let’s define more clearly what it really means.  The translation of “casting down” in the NKJV might come across to us in a softer way than its true meaning—which is to demolish, destroy, or utterly obliterate (most other translations beyond the KJV and NKJV use these words instead).

What exactly are we supposed to be demolishing??  Those “arguments” (G3053, logismos…where we get the word ”logic”) encompass our self-directed human reasoning, opinions, convictions, conceit, philosophy, imagination, and thought.

Some translations of the verse also include “high” or “lofty” things (also translated “pretensions” or “opinions”), which indicate something proud, arrogant, human-centered, and self-confident or self-sufficient.

Basically, this verse tells us that (sometimes unintentionally) we elevate our own thoughts or convictions above what God says—which creates a competing and adversarial relationship that can destroy us if we don’t recognize it and work to defeat it instead.

We are in a war for our minds

Those different translations really give us a much better idea of what we’re dealing with here.  We are commanded to be using the spiritual weapons and protection at our disposal (Eph. 6:10-18, armor of God) to recognize and root out human thinking that sets itself up contrary to God’s word.

Sound familiar in today’s world?  I loved this quote so much I had to include it verbatim, as a jumping-off point:

“There is the fortress of human reasoning, reinforced with many subtle arguments and the pretense of logic. There is the castle of passion, with flaming battlements defended by lust, pleasure, and greed. And there is the pinnacle of pride, in which the human heart sits enthroned and revels in thoughts of its own excellence and sufficiency” (from this article).

Human reasoning is a mighty fortress (one of those strongholds we talked about).  But the thing is, God CREATED US with the capacity for human reasoning, and He did that with a purpose.  He wants us to have free will, to use our brains.

The key phrase in unlocking our hero passage is “raises itself up against the knowledge of God” (CJB).  When our (or someone else’s) opinions, logic, convictions, beliefs, or political correctness sit in opposition to what God tells us, we are in deep trouble.

One of the subtleties with human reasoning that contradicts the bible is that it’s not always coming from a place of outright malice and rebellion—just as often, it’s fueled by theoretically good intentions, the appearance of logic, or our emotional reactions on a topic (we see an example of this in the conversation of Jesus and Peter in Matt. 16:23).

In the rest of this study we’ll break down and examine—through a few different angles or lenses—these “arguments” and “lofty things” that we are to demolish, and how they can manifest in our lives:

  1. In our hearts and minds…reasoning with ourselves (justification, self-righteousness, putting our logic onto God, etc.)
  2. In our dealings with our brethren…how we treat our brethren, biblical disputes and pet doctrines that divide and distract, etc.
  3. In our interaction with society around us…being swayed by or caught up in worldly human reason at the cost of the spiritual truths (news, social media, politics, etc.); letting the social and cultural thinking of our time shape our own views and how we interpret the bible

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