From Jericho to Jerusalem

 by Tom Wacaster

Take a minute to read the story of the two blind men whom Jesus healed on His final trip to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:29-34). There is a remarkable beauty in this story, and if we are not careful we will miss it. Was it Matthew’s intention to record just one more miracle among so many others? Why this one? Why here in a passage that has just focused our attention on the pending “cup” that Jesus must drink? Let me take a minute and set the stage for this miracle. Before we look at the men, let’s take a look at our King. Keep in mind that He was headed to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Around Him were the disciples, faithful yet lacking in understanding of all that was occurring, but still loyal. We see the “great multitude” that followed Him; all making their way toward the Holy City for the triumphant entry in a few short weeks. Along the way they encounter these two blind men. These men are sitting by the way! Sitting, begging, listening, hoping. How long had they been blind? How long had they been dependent upon others for the crumbs that might be thrown their way? Matthew does not tell us; he only tells us that when they were aware that Jesus was drawing nigh, they cried out. Yet in their desperation, the multitude rebuked them. The more these two men cried, the more the crowd rebuked them; and the blind men cried all the more: “Lord, have mercy on us, thou son of David” (vs. 30-31). How easy it would have been for Jesus to pass by these two men, consumed in His own thoughts, with His face toward Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus stops, “and stood still, and called them” (vs. 32). I do not think this miracle was placed here arbitrarily. In this moment of compassion our Lord, our King if you will, corrected the false notion that the disciples had of the Kingdom, as well as their mistaken idea of what true greatness in that Kingdom consists. True greatness is not found in some administrative position in some great corporation. It is not honor bestowed because of some special ability or achievement for which you are recognized. Dear reader, if you want to see what true greatness is, spend some time on this little road outside of Jericho, and watch a King stop in the midst of His busy schedule, and demonstrate true compassion to two men who were in great need.

What about us? In our busy schedule, with errands to run, schedules to keep, and meetings to attend, how do we compare to our King; a King Who never forgot the importance of caring for others. The late Roy Orbison produced a holiday melody many years ago that touched the hearts of so many. I want to lift one stanza out of that song for your consideration. Imagine now yourself on that Jericho Road, with a busy day, and an even more busy week before you. And now you come across two beggars; not indigents, not lazy bums, but two men in genuine need. What do you do?

Should you stop? Better not, much too busy!

You’re in a hurry, my how time does fly.

In the distance the ringing of laughter,

And in the midst of the laughter he cries!

If we are not careful we will read the story of these two blind men and view it as just one more miracle. But when we take the story in its context, what an amazing portrait of our Lord emerges on the canvas of life for our serious and sobering consideration.

The Beauty of Forgiveness

by Tom Wacaster

Leonardo da Vinci painted "The Last Supper" in a church in Milan. Two very interesting stories are associated with this painting. At the time that Leonardo da Vinci painted "The Last Supper," he had an enemy who was a fellow painter. It is reported that da Vinci had had a bitter argument with this man and despised him. When da Vinci painted the face of Judas Iscariot at the table with Jesus, he used the face of his enemy so that it would be present for ages as the man who betrayed Jesus. He took delight while painting this picture in knowing that others would actually notice the face of his enemy on Judas. As he worked on the faces of the other disciples, he often tried to paint the face of Jesus, but couldn't make any progress. Consequently, da Vinci felt frustrated and confused. In time he realized what was wrong. His hatred for the other painter was holding him back from finishing the face of Jesus. Only after making peace with his fellow painter and repainting the face of Judas was he able to paint the face of Jesus and complete his masterpiece.

The beauty of forgiveness cannot be captured a painting. Nor can it be fully appreciated separate and apart from God's redeeming grace for mankind. Here are some things we know about God's wonderful forgiveness.

First, we marvel at the very prospect of forgiveness. Nature demonstrates no such quality. If a man falls over a rocky precipice, nature does not forgive the man of his clumsiness. The animal kingdom is no different. Wild animals thrive on instinct. Some years ago, while doing work in South Africa, we read a story in the newspaper of a man who, along with his family, was touring an animal park. Warned to stay in the car when driving through the lions' den, the man ventured from his automobile to get a better picture, and within a matter of seconds, he was attacked and mauled by one of the lions. The lion did not forgive the man for his foolishness. Yet in all of God's creation, it with regard to man that He demonstrates perhaps His greatest attribute, namely His willingness to forgive.

Second, we marvel at the extent to which God will forgive. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (emphasis mine, TW). God is not stingy when it comes to forgiveness. He actually "delighteth in mercy" (Micah 7:18).He does not upbraid us, nor does He in anyway limit His forgiveness toward us. If the "man-king" in the parable of the unforgiving steward was willing to forgive that man of his debt, how much more will our Father in heaven forgive us of our sins, regardless of the number or the magnitude of our iniquities?

Third, God's forgiveness demonstrates His marvelous grace. I was particularly struck with Sellers Crain's comments on this very point:

Forgiveness is the most powerful witness to the grace of God. When we forgive others, it tells the world that God is still alive and active. It is a powerful antidote for our feelings or resentment over wrongs done to us by others. Forgiveness is a creative force that brightens an otherwise darkened world (Crain, 149).

That wonderful grace of God has "appeared unto all men" (Titus 2:11). By the cross of Christ, men can be recipients of that wonderful grace. Therein is the ultimate demonstration of our Father's benevolent mercy. He knew what we needed, and in His great compassion He provided that need. I like the way an unknown poet put it:

If our greatest need had been information,
God would have sent us an educator.
If our greatest need had been technology,
God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been money,
God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been pleasure,
God would have sent us an entertainer.
But our greatest need was forgiveness,
So God sent us a Savior!

Finally, if we would be forgiven we must seek to emulate the same compassion and willingness to forgive those who sin against us. Failure to do so will bring the wrath of God upon us. "So shall also my heavenly Father do unto you, if ye forgive not every one his brother from your hearts" (Matt. 18:35).

Someone once said, "When you forgive, you in no way change the past - but you sure do change the future" (Bernard Meltzer).

Dogs, Blessings and Burdens

by Tom Wacaster

While perusing the internet I came across the following observation about dogs: “Dogs take each moment at a time and enjoy it; they don’t hold grudges; they are everyone’s best friend. Dogs savor the simple things in life--a walk in the neighborhood, a pat on the head, a quiet moment in nature.”

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and many observations come as a result of an individual’s own limited personal experience. Our next door neighbor just recently acquired two new dogs. One is what I call a ‘yapper,’ the other a ‘snarler.” While they both bark at me when I am in my back yard, the ‘yapper’ appears to have a bark worse than his bite, wagging his tail all the time he is barking. The ‘snarler’ on the other hand, not only barks - he shows his teeth and his hair stands up on the back of his neck. Both are pretty good indications that I best not reach my hand over the fence to pet him. Be that as it may, most domesticated dogs fit into the mold described at the beginning of this article .  That’s why they are called “domesticated”!

It is not my aim in this week’s column to write about dogs, though I think I could come up with some heart-warming stories about dogs in general, and specific dogs I have owned over the years. Referring back to the quote provided, why is it that a “dog’s life” conjures up a mental picture of peace and serenity?  Do you remember that old Television series, “The Life of Riley”? He was fond of talking about living a dog’s life; though the situations he often found himself in were anything but the life of ease that Mr. Riley sought.

One of the most popular songs in our hymnal was written by Johnson Oatman, Jr.  Mr. Oatman was one of the most prolific gospel song writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was born near Medford, New Jersey, on April 21, 1856. As a child he became acquainted with spiritual hymns through the singing talents of his father. At the age of nineteen Oatman joined the Methodist Church and several years later was granted a license to preach in local Methodist congregations. Though he wrote over 5,000 hymn texts, Oatman was busily engaged throughout his life in a mercantile business and later as an administrator for a large insurance company in New Jersey. He wrote several songs that have appeared in almost every hymnal our brethren have produced, including “Higher Ground” and “No Not One.” His most popular song, “Count Your Blessings” is the focus of this article.  The song has been translated into various languages, and is among the most favorite of spiritual songs ever published. The brethren in Syktyvkar, Russia love to sing the song, and though I cannot understand the words in Russian, the tune is easily recognizable.  The tune has a joyful upbeat, and the words convey a message about God’s care for His children:

When upon life’s billows You are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged Thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings Name them one by one,
And it will surprise you What the Lord hath done.

Are you ever burdened with a load of care,
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear.
Count your many blessings every doubt will fly,
And you will be singing As the days go by.

When you look at others with their lands and gold,
Think that Christ has promised You His wealth untold.
Count your many blessings Money cannot buy,
Your reward in heaven Nor your home on high.

So amid the conflict whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged God is over all.
Count your many blessings Angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.

Count your blessings Name them one by one.
Count your blessings See what God hath done.
Count your blessings Name them one by one.
Count your many blessings See what God hath done.

The second stanza is of particular interest. Counting one’s blessings helps bear the burdens we face from time to time. It is unfortunate that so many in our world are of such a sour disposition that they allow the burdens in life to blind them to the very blessings they have at their fingertips. Rather than view their burdens as blessings in disguise, their myopic vision can see only the burden they might face at any given moment. The one talent man in Matthew 25 was of just such a disposition. He viewed the blessing (the one talent) as a burden, failed to use it, and ended up being lost because of it.  Parents who have the ability to bear children should consider that a great and wonderful blessing. But too often the very children they are blessed to bring into this world are looked upon as a burden; something they must now tolerate and raise.

When it comes to opportunities to gather together for Bible Study and worship, some immature members of the Lord’s body have allowed two wonderful opportunities to be turned into burdens. They struggle to make it to Bible class and worship services. Getting up, getting the family ready, and getting to class on time is a frantic rush and an inconvenience on their schedule. In this land of unparalleled freedoms, we should consider it a great blessing to be able to assemble without fear of reprisal from governmental authorities. Sadly, some view such as nothing more than a burden that interrupts their own personal life style. They have turned a blessing into a burden.

As I close this article let me assure you that I am not suggesting that the church has gone to the dogs. But it seems to me if we follow the advice in that wonderful hymn by Johnson Oatman, those things said about dogs might find some application in the life of every child of God. With a little editing the message conveyed is quite sobering, and certainly truthful:

“The child of God takes each moment at a time and enjoys it; they don’t hold grudges; they are everyone’s best friend. Christians savor the simple things in life--a walk in the neighborhood, a pat on the head, a quiet moment in nature.”

So you see, there are some things to be learned from dogs, burdens and blessings!

A Powerful Promise

by Tom Wacaster

In Matthew 16:16-18 our Lord makes an astonishing promise. This is especially true when we consider the historical and political setting. The tide was beginning to turn on our Lord. The leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees was beginning to have its effect on the masses, and the popularity of Jesus was waning. Keep in mind that after the feeding of the 5,000 and our Lord’s lesson on the Bread of Life, that “many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:65). Rome was at the peak of its power, and the religious elite in Israel had threatened to put all those who confessed the name of Jesus out of the synagogue (John 12:42). The cross was drawing near and the time for the Son of man to “go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Matt. 16:21) was close at hand. Out of that background, and standing in the very shadow of the cross, our Lord made this most incredible promise to His disciples: “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it!” (Matt. 16:18). Then He promises Peter (as well as the other apostles) that He would give them the “keys to the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19). A K-I-N-G-D-O-M? Yes, a kingdom. Now, keep this promise of our Lord in mind as you consider the following

The establishment and growth of the church in the first three centuries is nothing short of amazing. No movement in the history of the world has been as rapid or made as significant an impact as has the growth of the church in the first centuries of her existence. The exact count of the number of Christians by the end of that first century is not available, but some have estimated that the Lord’s church may very well have reached a half a million or more.  Evidence suggests that the churches in Antioch, Ephesus, and Corinth were strong enough to bear the strain of controversy and division into parties. With the exception of these few larger congregations, most of the local churches were small, consisting perhaps of only a small handful of poor people. Christian converts came mostly from the middle and lower classes of society, such as fishermen, peasants and slaves.  This is why Paul wrote: “Not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble were called, but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise; and God chose the weak things of the world that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, did God choose, yea, and the things that are not, that he might bring to naught the things that are: that no flesh should glory before God” (1 Cor. 1:26-29). Yet who would deny that these poor and illiterate churches had received the greatest blessings imaginable and thus attain to the highest thoughts which could possibly challenge the attention of mortal mind?

By the time of Constantine in the beginning of the fourth century the number of Christians has been estimated to have reached between ten and twelve million, or about one tenth of the total population of the Roman Empire. Some have even estimated it higher. This rapid growth of Christianity in the face of overwhelming opposition is not only surprising, but is its own best evidence of the Supernatural power that lay behind this movement. It was accomplished in the face of an indifferent and hostile world, and by purely spiritual and moral means, without shedding a drop of blood except that of its own innocent martyrs. 

When Jesus made that powerful promise almost two-thousand years ago He unleased the forces of heaven in order to achieve what skeptics may have declared as impossible. All the enemies of Jesus, from the unbelieving Jewish elite to Pontus Pilate, combined could not prevail against that ‘powerful promise’ that flowed from the precious lips of our Savior on that momentous occasion.