Day 332: Tentmakers and Tailgaters (Acts 18:1-3)

“After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade.” Acts‬ ‭18‬:‭1‬-‭3‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Through the Bible, Acts 18-19

This morning I came across a fascinating article called “Going for the Gold: The Apostle Paul and the Isthmian Games” on the website biblearchaeology.org. The Isthmian Games, were a big deal, second only in prestige to the Olympics in Athens, and they were held every two years. Corinth was a sports crazy town all the time (think Boston), but during the Isthmian Games, the frenzy hit the next level. People came from all over the world to watch the Games, which consisted of boxing, wrestling, running, the discus and javelin throw, and even singing. In AD 66, Emperor Nero himself competed in the singing competition. His concert lasted several hours, and he had his soldiers block the exits from the theatre so no one could leave. He won (shocker)!

This paragraph in particular caught my attention:

Since there were no permanent accommodations at the site, the people stayed in tents in the surrounding fields. Fixing or selling tents would have given Paul and his new found colleagues, Aquila and Priscilla, ample employment as well as opportunities to share the gospel with those attending the Games.

This is where we see the genius and the practical strategy of Paul. Paul looked for three things when he sought to establish a new church. First, he tended to begin new work along important trade routes so the gospel could spread in every direction from that strategic point. There was no more strategic city than Corinth, which was situated on a narrow isthmus (hence, the Isthmian Games) between the Mediterranean and the Aegean Seas. Today, a canal connects the two bodies of water, but in Paul’s day the streets were lined with shops, taverns, and brothels catering to the sailors taking good overland from one port to the other.

Second, Paul always looked for a synagogue and a strong community of Jews. Corinth had this (see Acts 18:4-5). He consistently sought to present the gospel to Jews first, and then would turn to the Gentiles when the Jews rejected it (Acts 18:5-7).

Third, Paul always looked for a way he could support himself. Yesterday, when we read 1 and 2 Thessalonians, you might have noticed how Paul emphasized not wanting to be a burden to the people he was preaching to (1 Thessalonians 2:9-10; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9), working with his hands (1 Thess. 4:10-12); and that if someone wasn’t willing to work, they shouldn’t be allowed to eat. For Paul, this was central to his ministry.

So the Isthmian games gave Paul a perfect opportunity to advance the gospel according to his standards of ministerial ethics. These first century tailgaters needed tents, and Paul and Aquila and Priscilla were happy to provide them. They heard the gospel. And when the Games were over, they took the gospel back home with them. No wonder Paul stayed there a year and a half (Acts 18:11)!

There are so many lessons for us today. As we think about beginning new work, we don’t just throw a dart at a map and pray that God will bless wherever it lands. We can be strategic. We can go where the people are. We can use the gifts we’ve been given, even the ones that aren’t obviously related to ministry. We can develop a reputation for hard, honest work in the community. And we can call other believers alongside us to both encourage us and partner with us. I am thankful for these models of bivocational ministry.

Day 330 (Again): Did Paul “Fail” at Mars Hill? (Acts 17:18-34)

Mars Hill, Athens, Greece

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
‭‭Acts‬ ‭17‬:‭32‬-‭34‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Through the Bible: Acts 17

I don’t know what to make of Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill. On one hand, it is held up as a model for presenting the gospel in a culturally relevant way to skeptics and unchurched people. On the other hand, the description of the results in verses 32-34–“some men joined him and believed”—seem pretty tepid compared to those in Thessalonica (v. 4) and Berea (v. 14).

Notably, Paul didn’t plant a church in Athens. There’s not an epistle to the Athenians. And apparently, Paul didn’t stay long. The very next verse (18:1) just says “after this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.” And at that point, the most prominent city in the Greek world drops out of the history of the New Testament.

Understandably, some will look at the title of this blog post and have a strong negative reaction: “How can you suggest it was a failure? God’s word went forth, and it never returns void—it always accomplishes its purposes!” (see Isaiah 55:11). That is true. Others will say, “Some people believed. And if even one person responds to the gospel, you can’t call it a failure.” That is also true.

Paul does indeed model some great practices for speaking to unchurched people. He gives a shout out to the local culture in verse 23, when he comments on the Athenians’ altar to an unknown God. He skillfully pivots to a gospel proclamation: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” He even drops a couple of pop culture references by quoting some Greek poets (v. 28).

But notice what’s missing. There’s no cross in the sermon. There’s no Jesus in the sermon. Now, you can give Paul the benefit of the doubt and say that he had been preaching Jesus and the resurrection earlier in the marketplace (see verse 17-18). But it almost seems like, when he got to the big stage of the Areopagus, he lost his nerve. He forgot the message that got him there in the first place.

Remember that Paul went to Corinth from Athens. Notice, then, what Paul says to the Corinthians years later, as he reflected on the experience: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimonyof God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of menbut in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-4).

Beloved, we can learn a lot from Paul’s approach as we are interacting with unbelievers. But take a moment to consider that God’s Word may be teaching us as much about what not to do as it is what to do. Effectiveness is never about our cleverness or relevance. It’s about the spirit’s power. A sermon without Christ and Him crucified is no sermon at all. And no matter how much we seek to be culturally relevant, we are not likely to see a demonstration of the Spirit’s power just because we quote the lyrics from a Taylor Swift song. 

Day 326: The Prayer Offered in Faith (James 5:13)

13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Through the Bible: James 1-5

In February of 2020, just before the pandemic shut the world down,  I went on a mission trip to South Asia. Now, as my wife would quickly tell you, I tend to be a bit of a last minute planner. But with this trip, I actually thought I was ahead of the game when, three weeks before, I went to where I thought my passport was…

…And I couldn’t find it.  My wife and I had searched the house top to bottom and we still couldn’t find it.

So with two two weeks to go, I called Passport Control to schedule an appointment to get a rush passport. I was already within the timeframe where even an expedited passport would be impossible without going to the office in person. The first available appointment would be January 30. Two business days before departure.

Then came the matter of trying to rush a visa. It is possible to get a visa within three days of travel, but not two. Which means the only way to get the visa would be to show up at a passport office before my scheduled appointment and hope they would take me as a walk in.

Up until the week before I was to leave, I had told just a few people about my predicament. I was embarrassed and ashamed to admit that I had been so irresponsible. But at our church’s Wednesday night prayer meeting, I stood in front of my church and admitted my foolishness. Embarrassed that a member of my search committee, the chair of the deacons when I was called, and at least two people who had provided financially for the trip were going to hear their lead pastor admit to such boneheaded procrastination. But I asked them to pray for me.

The next day, I went home for lunch and realized there was one closet upstairs I had not looked through.

And there it was. Sitting on top of a box. Right in front of the door. It might has well have been propped up on an easel with a spotlight shining on it.

So two things I learned from this. First, prayer works. Duh. I was teaching  a series on prayer during this whole episode, but it took this debacle to teach me this.

But second, prayer works when we humble ourselves enough to admit we need it. Too often, our prayer meetings are filled with requests for other people, and occasionally the tentative hand raised for “an unspoken request” (which is often code for something we are embarrassed to mention). Is it possible that God waited until I admitted my need to my faith family before graciously answering it?

If there is something you are in need of, even if it is embarrassing to admit it, admit it anyway. Maybe there are some prayers that don’t get answered until our need for help outweighs our need to save face.

Day 320 (again): Pentecost: A Poem

Pentecost, by Jen Norton. Available on her website at https://jen-norton.pixels.com/

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested[a] on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

It came like a rushing wind; like a fire-tipped mountain;
From above, like what tore the temple veil in two
We all felt it—knock-kneed, slack-jawed, and speechless
Speechless, that is, till we weren’t.

Then suddenly new words filled our mouths 
like the bread of angels
It was Babel gone backwards, the curse in reverse.

Israel scattered was Israel gathered once more.
In one voice, in many tongues, we proclaimed one message.

The fire fell, and tears and words and joy and fear and awe commingled,
The prophets looked on from their side of the veil and said, 
“This is what we saw. This is what we meant.”

When Icarus drew near the sun, 
He fell with melted, fatal wings.
The day the fire fell, the Son drew near to us—
And we all rose on wings like eagles,
To fly, unbounded, to the ends of the earth.

Day 314: Sift Y’all Like Wheat (Luke 22:31-32)

31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you,[d] that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)

Through the Bible: Luke 22, John 13

Footnotes matter. In the ESV, there is a tiny little letter “d” right after the first “you” in verse 31. And that tiny little “d” changed the way I saw this verse today.

The footnote says, “The Greek word for you (twice in this verse) is plural; in verse 32, all four instances are singular.” So, if Jesus spoke Southern, verse 31 would read, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have y’all, that he might sift y’all like wheat.”

See, it wasn’t just Peter that Satan wanted to sift. He wanted all the disciples. In Jesus’ day, wheat was sifted through a sieve or strainer. It was shaken violently, and in the process all the dirt and impurities that clung to the wheat even through the threshing process would be separated, and what would be left was the good, usable grain.

I can imagine Jesus pulling aside Peter, the leader of the disciples, saying, “Listen, Simon. Things are about to get crazy for you guys. You don’t know this, but Satan is demanding permission to sift all of you like wheat. He wants to mess with the disciples the way he messed with Job in the Old Testament. And just like Job, Satan can’t mess with you beyond what the Father allows (see Job 1-2).

“But Simon, my Father is going to allow it. Those impurities and fears and anxieties—those things that have been holding all of you back and keeping you from being really useful to Me—all that has to be shaken off. And sometimes, the only way for it to be shaken off is for you to be shaken up. And that starts tonight. All of you are going to be sifted. And Simon, you’re not exempt. You are part of ‘y’all.’”

Now go back to the footnote. Jesus starts with the plural in verse 31, but He narrows it to the singular in verse 32. Again, imagine the conversation:

“Simon, all you guys are going to be sifted. You will all fall away tonight. And that includes you. You, Simon, are going to face your biggest faith crisis of your young life. And in the short term, you’re going to fail the test.

“But Simon, I have prayed for you, that your faith will not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” 

But wait. His faith did fail, right? Even after Jesus prayed for him. And Jesus knew it would, because in verse 34 He tells Peter that before the night is over, Peter will deny Him three times.

So when Jesus says, “ I have prayed for you, that your faith will not fail,” He is playing the long game. Jesus is looking ahead, not just at the next twenty-four hours, but to the rest of Peter’s life. He says to Peter, “when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Here’s what the Lord is showing me today: As a pastor, I am never more effective than when I am most vulnerable. I am able to strengthen others not in spite of my weaknesses, but because of them.

And beloved, you are part of the y’all. Jesus sees past the sifting that you are going through. You might think that you’ve failed. And you might be right. But Jesus sees past the sifting to the saint on the other side. And He sees the day you will strengthen your brothers and sisters. Your test will be a testimony. Your story will be redeemed for His glory.

Dear God, how I have fallen. Only you know how many times I have fallen back into sinful habits. Only you know how many mornings I have said “never again,” only to repeat the same sin. I am very much a part of the “y’all” the devil has asked to sift like wheat. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been shaken so hard that the good grain was shaken right out of the sieve, and all that was left was the dirt and the ugliness.

But, Oh Lord Jesus, you have prayed for me through those times. You saw the betrayals and denials coming, but you saw me on the other side. You saw that I would turn. And you saw that I could use my failures and inadequacies, my sins and my shortcomings, to strengthen my brothers and sisters.

Blessed Savior, you saw through the sifting to what I would be on the other side, and You never stopped loving me.

Day 311: The Faithful and Wise Steward (Matthew 24:45-46)

Prattville, Alabama, 6am, November 7
““Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Matthew‬ ‭24‬:‭45‬-‭46‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Tomorrow is a lunar eclipse. On a blood moon. On Election Day.

This is the kind of confluence of events that can get end-times prophets and chart makers and rapture practicers very excited. Those who spend their quiet time with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other and a packet of highlighters in front of them circle days like this with a red pen, listening for the sound of the approaching hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen.

It’s even more acute when we are constantly told by voices on the right and the left that this is THE MOST CONSEQUENTIAL ELECTION OF OUR LIFETIME. And it may be so. But so was the last one. And the one before that. And the next one will be also.

I don’t mean to make light of it. I know Christ will return some day, and I believe it will be soon. I believe the conditions are right and that all the boxes have been checked for what God’s Word says to be watching for. But I also take Jesus seriously when He says, in verse 36, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”

So I’m not going to pretend that the Father has revealed information to me that He hasn’t even revealed to His Son. Instead, I’m going to keep doing what the Lord has told me to do. I’m going to live a life of consistent integrity. I’m going to tell people about Jesus. I’m going to follow Paul’s advice to “make it my ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12),

Because here is the truth: for the faithful and wise steward, the day Jesus returns will be just like every other day. He will spend time in the Word. He will pray with and for His family. He will walk his dog and watch the sunrise and take joy in his dog’s excitement when she comes upon a family of deer in the cornfield. He will praise God for every good and perfect gift, and remember that God has made him a steward of God’s good creation.

Those are all things I did this morning before breakfast. And Lord willing, I will do all those things again tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that, blood moon and eclipse and the election of our lifetime notwithstanding.

And when Jesus comes back, I will rejoice that He has found me faithful.

Day 308: Feast (A Poem Based on Matthew 22:1-14)

The Wedding Garment: Artist Unknown

11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:11)

I’ve always been a little rattled by the idea that someone could get thrown out if they didn’t have the right clothes on. But then I thought about the free gift of grace we are offered. If we don’t put on grace, but instead insist on self-righteousness, or self-justification, or legalistic religion, or anything else that we think would be a better fit, then we aren’t really part of the wedding party.

I wrote this poem in 2021, during a time when I was obsessed with the musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’m absolutely not Lin-Manuel Miranda; and a white, middle-aged Baptist pastor has no business trying to write hip hop, but if you know the show, you might hear some of the rhyme scheme. Here goes:

FEAST

The Ruler of the kingdom sent word to the nations: 
“My son’s getting married, come join the celebration!”
But some who were invited blew off the invitation
Inciting the Inviter to heights of aggravation

So he said to his servants, "There’s still room at the table. 
Let the deaf and dumb come, the stable and unstable." 
Then he sent them all out to the highways and the hedges
To talk the hopeless off ledges, and to bring back the dredges. 

Beleaguered they came, eager beggars at the feast
Filled the hall wall to wall with the last and the least

All the guests dressed their best in the clothes they'd been given 
But for one, tie undone, in the dark staying hidden
Wore his suit off the rack, turned his back on the Father
Thought his old threads were fine, so he couldn’t be bothered.

His mistaken miscalculation placed him back on the street
Clothes tattered and teeth chattering, missing the feast
Lesson learned, but what a turn this story has taken
Where’s the blessing? What’s the point that the message is making?  

It’s that you can’t crash a wedding if they’ve already invited you
But you can thumb your nose at the clothes that are provided you
An invitation to the nations-- all may come in
But if the best are self dressed, then they're thrown out again

So cast off your street clothes of pride and defiance
Your robe of self-righteousness, your rags of self-reliance
You’ll never do better than the threads you are getting
Just let the Groom dress you—relax.
Enjoy the wedding. 

Day 307: Sir, We Would See Jesus (John 12:20-21)

Through the Bible: Mark 11, John 12

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. John 12:20-21

When I was sixteen, I preached my first sermon, at First Baptist Church in Avondale Estates, Georgia.  When I stepped behind the pulpit for the first time, I saw, printed on the back of the pulpit “SIR, WE WOULD SEE JESUS.” It wasn’t until later in life that I discovered where that phrase came from, but it has been a reminder to me every time I step up to preach that there are people wishing to see Jesus in the crowd, and as best as I can, it is my job to reveal Him to them. 

There are some unanswered questions in this passage. Were these Hellenistic (Greek speaking) Jews? Were they Greek proselytes to Judaism? That seems to be the case, since they had come to Jerusalem to worship at the feast. But we don’t know for sure.

Why did they go to Philip? It may have something to do with his name. Even though we know the disciples by their Hellenized or European sounding names (Simon for Shimon, James for Jacob, John for Jochanan, etc.), there were two of the twelve whose names were distinctively Greek, without a Hebrew equivalent. Philip was one of them. Ironically (or maybe not), the other one was Andrew.

This doesn’t mean they were Gentiles. As the Twelve Apostles are theologically representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel, they were certainly Israelites. But perhaps his Greek name made him more approachable to these Greeks who wished to see Jesus.

But why did Philip go to Andrew? Andrew wasn’t part of the inner circle of disciples. That would be Andrew’s brother, along with James and John. But notice that EVERY time we see Andrew or Philip singled out in the gospels, they are bringing someone to Jesus. In John 1:40-42, it’s Andrew who first meets Jesus, but immediately he finds his brother Peter and brings him to Jesus.

In John 1:45, Philip finds Nathanael and tells him that he’s found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael says, “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip says, “Come and see.”

In John 6, Jesus feeds five thousand people with the bread and fish from one boy’s lunch. Guess who brought the boy to Jesus. Right again. Andrew (see John 6:8-9).

So these two apparently had a reputation as matchmakers. They connected Jesus with people who wanted to see Jesus. So of course they are the ones the Greeks came to when they wanted to see Jesus. They were approachable and accessible because they had a shared culture with the Greeks. And they had the temperament of hosts. Waymakers. Introducers.

Wouldn’t you love to have that kind of reputation? Can you imagine someone saying to someone else, “Hey, if you want to meet Jesus, I know a guy who can introduce you.” I want to be Andrew and Philip for a culture that is longing to see Jesus.

Jesus, You made a way for me. Help me make a way for others.

Day 306: Did Zacchaeus Earn Salvation? (Luke 19:1-10)

“And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.””
‭‭Luke‬ ‭19‬:‭9‬-‭10‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Through the Bible: Luke 19

Luke 19:9 can be challenging for anyone who holds that salvation is by grace alone through faith, and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). It sure looks like Jesus made this statement about salvation coming to Zacchaeus’s house because Zacchaeus vowed to give half his goods to the poor and to pay back anyone he had cheated (v 8). What’s up with this?

You’ve probably been singing about Zacchaeus, the “wee little man“ ever since VBS (although today, “wee little man” would not be politically correct. We would say “vertically challenged”). We know that he would have been hated by his neighbors for being a tax collector. His statement about “if I have cheated anybody I will pay them back four times the amount” probably had the whole town lined up at his door the next morning.

The name Zacchaeus means “pure one.” I would imagine he got picked on for this when he was a kid. It didn’t help that he was short. Can you imagine the kids at Jericho Junior High? “Oh, here comes Little Pure One!”

We can assume that his short stature wasn’t the only thing that had him climbing up in a tree to see Jesus instead of being part of the crowd. Zacchaeus wasn’t welcome in crowds.

Jesus stopped at the foot of Zacchaeus’s sycamore and called him by name. “Pure one, come down. I must stay at your house today.” In Jesus’ mouth, Zacchaeus’s name didn’t sound like an insult. It sounded like a declaration.

Zacchaeus comes down and receives Jesus joyfully. And this, this is the moment in which salvation comes to his house. Salvation is a person, and His name is Jesus. Salvation wasn’t the result of Zacchaeus promising to give half his money to the poor. Salvation came to his house because Jesus came to his house. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and Jesus sought out this lost man hiding in the branches of a sycamore tree.

Salvation came to Zacchaeus because Jesus looked past the crowd and called him by name. Zacchaeus received him joyfully, and the Little Pure One became truly pure. Salvation is a person, and He must come to your house today, as well. Receive Him.

Day 305: You Will Drink From My Cup (Matthew 20:20-24)

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. (Matthew 20:20-24)

Through the Bible: Matthew 20-21

Today, we read about the mother of James and John coming to Jesus and asking that her boys be given the seats to the right and left of Jesus when He came into His kingdom. Jesus’ response was “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” And their answer, according to verse 22, is “We are able.”

Two things occurred to me today as I read this account. First, it is not clear whether Jesus addresses His remarks only to James and John, or if their mother is part of the rebuke as well. Did Jesus say, “You don’t know what you are asking” only to Mrs. Zebedee? And then, was the second part of the question (“Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink”) only directed to James and John?

What if Jesus was asking the mother of James and John if she was prepared for the suffering that she would have to endure at the reality that her sons were likely to be killed for their witness? This certainly happened to James. Acts 12:1-2 tells us that he was the first of the twelve apostles to die as a martyr. Indeed, his is the only one of the apostles’ deaths (other than Judas) that is recorded in Scripture.

12 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread.  (Acts 12:1-3)

So what if Jesus was asking the woman if she was prepared to let her children go to that level? If you are a parent, what would you do if Jesus asked you that question? Dad, are you willing to watch your sons die for my sake? I am convinced that the mother of James and John had no more clue what the future held for those who claimed the name of Jesus than her boys did.

Here is the second thing that occurred to me: Surely John must have reflected back on this scene when his brother was run through with the sword. As he wept for his brother and prayed for his friend Peter, I wonder if he thought to himself, So this is what Jesus meant when he said that we would indeed drink from His cup. Then, I imagine John thought to himself, Ok. It’s just a matter of time before I will be killed for my faith also. I am ready for it. Jesus, I told you that I would be able to drink from your cup. So when the time comes, I am ready, Lord.

I wonder, then, if John was surprised that his time never came to be martyred. Tradition tells us that of the eleven disciples who were left other than Judas, all of them died by execution. Only John died of old age.

So what was John to make of this? Jesus told both brothers (and possibly their mother too) that they would drink His cup. Did John ever wonder whether he was somehow unworthy of dying for Jesus?

Maybe, but I don’t think so. After all, John would write the final gospel long after many of the disciples met their end. Throughout it, he would call himself “the disciple Jesus loved.” And there is a scene at the end of John’s gospel, not found in any of the other gospels, by the way, in which he seems to address the question of why he is still alive:

20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers[b] that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? (John 21:20-23)

John would then go on to write the letters of 1, 2, and 3 John, and ultimately the Book of Revelation. I believe he came to terms with the fact that “drinking the cup Jesus drinks” does not automatically mean dying a martyr’s death. It could mean living a martyr’s life. We think that a martyr is someone who dies for his faith. But that isn’t true. The word martyr simply means witness.

You may indeed be asked to die for your faith one day. Or, if not you, your children. And if and when that time comes, I pray that I would accept that fate with joy. But the bigger question today is, “If God calls you to live the rest of your life in faithful service for him, never losing your hope, never lagging in your zeal, being faithful to the end,” would you drink from that cup?

Lord, whether by life or by death, let me be a martyr for you.

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