April 27, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 13 - Matthias, Old 'What's-his-Name'

‘Part 13?’ you ask. ‘I thought there were only twelve apostles?’ Well, twelve at a time actually. For, after Judas betrayed the Lord and hanged himself, the remaining eleven determined that the right thing to do would be to replace him; to round the number of disciples back up to an even dozen; and to make sure that the ministry that Judas should have fulfilled actually went on. So Peter stood up in the midst of the group (Acts 1.15-22) and made a motion that a new apostle be selected. He had to be someone who, though not a part of the original twelve, had been (vv.21-22) following Jesus since the early days … and who, very importantly, had been an eye-witness of the resurrection.

So who would replace Judas? It is possible that there were numerous men to choose from. For Jesus’ following had always numbered more than simply the inner twelve. But the other disciples nominated a list of only two (Acts 1.23): “Joseph called Barsabbas … and Matthias.” And, after praying and casting lots, Matthias became the new twelfth apostle (Acts 1.23-26).

Pop quiz: Could you have named the 13th apostle if it weren’t written at the top of the page? Perhaps not. For Acts 1.26 is where Matthias’s story ends … after beginning just three verses prior! The Bible tells us absolutely nothing else. Not where he was from. Not his lineage. Not what he did next. Nothing except that his name began with an ‘m’ and ended with an ‘s’ … and that he had been following Jesus since almost the very beginning.

But maybe that is all we need to know. Maybe Matthias is the textbook example of an ordinary Joe. He wasn’t a leader among the earliest Christians. But he was there. He had not been selected to be among the inner twelve. But he was there. He didn’t get any fringe benefits for following Jesus. But he was there. He had no inkling that his name would ever be written in lights on somebody’s blog page! And yet he was always there, with Jesus, from the very beginning of His ministry!

Apparently Matthias followed Jesus, not because he thought he might be singled out for an important title or a memorable task, but simply because Jesus was worth it! And therefore, what an example he is to us modern Joe and Jane Schmoe’s who will never amount to anything in the world’s eyes! No one is going to remember us a hundred years from now. Maybe not even ten years from now. And that’s perfectly okay! Because we – if we are truly followers of Jesus – don’t want people to remember us, but Him! So what better disciple to learn from than the one that no one remembers!

And what about “Joseph called Barsabbas”? Remember him? He was the guy who didn’t get chosen. He was even less known than old what’s-his-name! Nobody’s writing articles about him! But do you think that he minded? Do you think he took his ball and went home because he didn’t get picked for the team? I doubt it. Because it wasn’t about Joseph ... or Matthias, or Peter, or James, or John. It was about Jesus … and it still is! “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3.30). That is the attitude required for the 21st century disciple. That is the look of the ordinary disciple of Jesus.

So, as we close this little series of articles, let me ask you: ‘How ordinary are you?’

April 21, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 12 - Judas, the Betrayer

What can we say about Judas, the most infamous (but short-lived) of Jesus’ original twelve disciples? A lot actually. The New Testament gives us more insight on the betrayer than on almost any of the other eleven. So there are many avenues we can take when thinking about the sad story of the ill-fated son of Simon Iscariot. We could think about the deceitfulness of riches (John 12.1-6 and Luke 22.3ff). We could talk about Judas’s own deceitfulness (pretending to be a disciple even while he was plotting betrayal). We could even consider (as we watch Judas come apart at the emotional seams and hang himself, Matthew 27.3ff) the deranging effects of unforgiven sin and piled up guilt.

But in this brief space, I’d like to consider perhaps the greatest lesson of all to be gleaned from the life of Judas Iscariot – namely, the frightening reality of how close one can be to Jesus without ever being saved. Isn’t Judas a perfect case-study for those of us who have grown up (or are growing up) religious? Judas, like us, was at all the services. He saw the healing of deaf and lame, the blind and leprous. He probably saw Lazarus raised from the tomb. He was present at the most intimate gathering of Jesus’ disciples, the last supper (John 13). He was even the treasurer for the Nazarene Mission Society! That is, every shekel that was donated to Jesus and the disciples’ cause, and every drachma that was spent by and for the cause, passed through his fingers. He was like a deacon among the disciples!

In fact, even in his betrayal, we see how close to Jesus Judas really was. John 18.2 tells us that Judas knew Jesus so well that he was able to take the priests and Roman soldiers to exactly the spot where Jesus would likely be spending such an evening. And He was comfortable enough with Jesus to be able to walk right up and kiss Him on the cheek (a sign of ancient companionship). Humanly speaking, then, Judas knew Jesus as well, and was as comfortable with Him as almost anyone. And yet he was also His betrayer!

And the lesson is plain isn’t it? Physical or religious nearness to Jesus doesn’t always equate with love for Jesus. Service in the name Jesus doesn’t always equate with faith in the name of Jesus. For Judas was always nearby, and always serving … but for his own selfish motives. He got to skim a little money off the top (John 12). And maybe, along the way, he thought he’d get to ride the coat-tails of Jesus into fame and political clout.

Now we could point to lots of people who are ‘following Jesus’ today because they think He will make them well-to-do, or healthy, or powerful, or a better athlete, or whatever. But that’s too easy, isn’t it? So let’s dig a little deeper … and closer to home. What about the folks who are ‘following Jesus’ because it is the acceptable thing to do in their family (strike a chord, young people?)? And what about the people who are ‘following Jesus’ simply because they don’t want to burn in hell? What about those people who are at all the services … even fulfilling some servant role in the church, and yet, in their heart of hearts, they know that none of it is real?

O, how easy it is to be so close to Jesus, and yet so far away! How easy it is to be as phony as Judas was! And yet, what an opportunity you have that he has lost. You haven’t yet finished your course. Your corpse hasn’t yet decayed as his did (Acts 1.18). And your soul hasn’t yet burned in everlasting destruction. So there is yet hope! The hope of repentance! The hope that your eyes would be opened to the beauty and mercy of Jesus; and that you would begin to follow Him simply because He is worthy … not just because you’re supposed to; and not just because you’re going to get something out of it! O, to be close to Jesus in heart and soul … not just in location! That is what an ordinary disciple looks like!

April 16, 2009

April 13, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 11 - Simon, the Right-Winger

The eleventh in our list of the apostles of Jesus is a man by the name of Simon, the zealot. He is only mentioned four times in the New Testament (Matthew 10, Mark 3, Luke 6, and Acts 1) … and each time it is with this not-so-flattering nickname attached. Why was he called “the zealot”? Probably not because he was the most evangelistically aggressive, or most holy among the apostles. Probably not, in other words, because of his zeal for Jesus … but because of his previous zeal for the nation of Israel.

Not long after the death and resurrection of Jesus, an official political party formed in Israel … known as the Zealots.*  Really it was part political party, part militia. For their platform was complete and entire independence from Roman rule, by means of force if necessary. They were the ultimate right-wingers. Not content to work for change by means of diplomacy, prayer, civil disobedience, or example … they took to the swords – not in self-defense, mind you – but in an attempted coup against Roman authority. In fact, they eventually became a little over-zealous in their revolutionary tactics: resorting, not just to military advance, but to murder and pillage.

In the days of Jesus’ ministry (and Simon’s early discipleship), the Zealots, as an official political party, had not yet come into being. But the seeds of revolution and violence were apparently already being sown; and the term “zealot” (small ‘z’) was apparently already in use to describe men of such convictions. So it was, in all probability, for this reason that Simon was known to his fellow apostles as “the zealot.” He was defined by his involvement in political unrest. This was his background, his passion, his life’s meaning. He probably went to the secret meetings. Perhaps he carried a dagger under his belt in case it all went down. He was what would be called today a ‘crazed right-winger.’

Now, understanding that we all have different political views; admitting that, in many areas, I lean toward the right-hand side of the political aisle; and allowing for the fact that we do not know what it is like to live under a truly oppressive governmental regime … we should still stand back from men like these, I think, and wonder if they might do more harm than good. Secret meetings? Daggers? Revolution? These certainly weren’t the means that Jesus used (or uses) to free men and women from oppression! And yet, out of the midst of the weapons stock-piles, and from those secret meetings, Jesus called a man named Simon to be a part of a different kind of kingdom, and a different kind of revolution. O yes, Simon was going to turn the world upside down … but with a different kind of sword, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6.17).

Tradition says that Simon took that sword all the way to the British Isles, where he was crucified for preaching Jesus.*  What a turnaround Jesus made in Simon’s life! The over-zealous Israeli nationalist dies on pagan, gentile, barbarian, foreign soil … for Jesus’ sake. So what is it that you are so zealous about? And will people, someday in the future, look back at those things and wonder if they didn’t do you more harm than good? Maybe it’s time to lay down whatever tools, or meetings, or plans, or ideals that have thus far defined you … and become zealous about Jesus, and about eternal souls.

*My information on the Zealots, and on Simon's ministry and death in Britain comes from John MacArthur's Twelve Ordinary Men, 174-178.

April 1, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 10 - Thaddeus, "Mamma's Boy"

Among the list of Jesus’ apostles, there were two men named James, two men named Simon, and two men named Judas – Judas Iscariot (of course), and “Judas, son of James” (Luke 6.16, Acts 1.13). Little wonder that some early Christians stopped calling the son of James “Judas” … and began referring to him, primarily, by his nickname, “Thaddeus” (Matthew 10.3, Mark 3.18). But the name “Thaddeus” was probably only slightly less embarrassing. It means, literally, “breast boy”. And John MacArthur is probably right when he suggests that, in modern parlance, Judas, the son of James’s nickname was something akin to “mamma’s boy.”

Was it his mother who called him that? Maybe his older siblings? Or was it a fairly new nickname, coined by his fellow disciples? We can’t be sure. But in any case, there had to have been a reason for it. Perhaps it was just that Thaddeus was the youngest of his sibling set (or maybe of the apostles) – the baby brother. But probably the nickname “mamma’s boy” had to do, not only with his age, but his demeanor. Maybe he had a soft manner about him. Maybe he had trouble with homesickness. Maybe the disciples had seen him doted on by a mushy and overbearing mother! Who knows? But one thing is almost certain – Thaddeus was no “son of thunder” like his friends James and John; he was no dynamic, boisterous character like Peter. He was just himself – Thaddeus, “mamma’s boy”.

And yet this “mamma’s boy” ended up as a missionary! Even in John 14.22 we see his growing interest in and desire for the salvation of “the world.” ‘Why just reveal Yourself to us, Jesus?’ he said. ‘Why not make Yourself known to the whole world?’ And that is just what Thaddeus would spend his life doing – making Jesus known to “the world.” Tradition says he took the good news as far as modern Turkey, and was eventually clubbed to death for his faith*! No small feat of bravery for a supposed softy!

Application? God uses all kinds. He can take a Peter, humble him, and smooth his forceful personality into something useful in the kingdom of God. And he can take a Thaddeus, embolden him, and send the homebody onto the mission field. And He can work with anyone in between!

So where are you on the spectrum? A little too outspoken, prideful, and self-assertive? God can humble and use you. Or are you like gentle Thaddeus – maybe afraid that you’ll never have the courage to speak to that person, or go on that trip, or make that stand? Remember Thaddeus. If Jesus can use the New Testament’s “mamma’s boy” … he can certainly use you, too!

*See John MacArthur's Twelve Ordinary Men, 180.