The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427–c. 348
In John’s gospel we find Jesus taking this idea in a different direction. There, Jesus, known as the Good Shepherd, speaks of hearts that stay in the cover of darkness to hide what they are doing (John 3:19-20). He isn’t calling attention to our desire for cover-up to condemn us, but to offer us salvation through Him (v. 17). As the Shepherd of our hearts, He brings the worst of our human nature to light to show us how much God loves us (v. 16).
God in His mercy calls us out of our darkness and invites us to follow Him in the light.
This was a tree to be envied. Growing on riverfront property, it didn’t have to worry about weather reports, withering temperatures, or an uncertain future. Nourished and cooled by the river, it spent its days lifting its branches to the sun, holding the earth with its roots, cleaning the air with its leaves, and offering shade to all who needed refuge from the sun.
By contrast, the prophet Jeremiah pointed to a shrub (Jer. 17:6). When the rains stopped and the summer sun turned the ground to dust, the bush shriveled into itself, offering no shade or fruit to anyone.
Why would the prophet compare a flourishing tree to a withering bush? He wanted his people to recall what had happened since their miraculous rescue from the slave yards of Egypt. For forty years in a wilderness, they lived like a tree planted by a river (Jer. 2:4–6). Yet in the prosperity of their promised land they had forgotten their own story; they were relying on themselves and on gods of their own making (vv. 7–8), even to the point of going back to Egypt looking for help (42:14).
So God, through Jeremiah, lovingly urged the forgetful children of Israel, and us, to be like the tree—not the bush.
From a Florida prison cell in June 1962, Clarence Earl Gideon wrote a note asking the United States Supreme Court to review his conviction for a crime he said he didn’t commit. He added that he didn’t have the means to hire a lawyer.
One year later, in the historic case of Gideon v. Wainright, the Supreme Court ruled that people who cannot afford the cost of their own defense must be given a public defender—an advocate—provided by the state. With this decision, and with the help of a court-appointed lawyer, Clarence Gideon was retried and acquitted.
But what if we are not innocent? According to the apostle Paul, we are all guilty. But the court of heaven provides an Advocate who, at God’s expense, offers to defend and care for our soul (1 John 2:2). On behalf of his Father, Jesus comes to us offering a freedom that even prison inmates have described as better than anything they’ve experienced on the outside. It is a freedom of heart and mind.
Whether suffering for wrongs done by us or to us, we all can be represented by Jesus. By the highest of authority He responds to every request for mercy, forgiveness, and comfort.
Jesus, our Advocate, can turn a prison of lost hope, fear, or regret into the place of his presence.
Imagine a world without wind. Lakes would be calm. Falling leaves wouldn’t blow in the streets. But in still air, who would expect trees to suddenly fall over? That’s what happened in a three-acre glass dome built in the Arizona desert. Trees growing inside a huge windless bubble called Biosphere 2 grew faster than normal until suddenly collapsing under their own weight. Project researchers eventually came up with an explanation. These trees needed wind stress to grow strong.
Jesus let His disciples experience gale-force winds to strengthen their faith (Mark 4:36–41). During a night crossing of familiar waters, a sudden storm proved too much even for these seasoned fishermen. Wind and waves were swamping their boat while an exhausted Jesus slept in the stern. In a panic they woke Him. Didn’t it bother their Teacher that they were about to die? What was He thinking? Then they began to find out. Jesus told the wind and waves to be quiet—and asked His friends why they still had no faith in Him.
If the wind had not blown, these disciples would never have asked, “Who is this? Even the winds and waves obey him” (Mark 4:41).
Today, life in a protective bubble might sound good. But how strong would our faith be if we couldn’t discover for ourselves His reassuring “be still” when the winds of circumstance howl?
When war broke out in 1950, fifteen-year-old Kim Chin-Kyung joined the South Korean army to defend his homeland. He soon found, however, that he wasn’t ready for the horrors of combat. As young friends died around him, he begged God for his life and promised that, if allowed to live, he would learn to love his enemies.
Sixty-five years later, Dr. Kim reflected on that answered prayer. Through decades of caring for orphans and assisting in the education of North Korean and Chinese young people, he has won many friends among those he once regarded as enemies. Today he shuns political labels. Instead he calls himself a loveist as an expression of his faith in Jesus.
The prophet Jonah left a different kind of legacy. Even a dramatic rescue from the belly of a big fish didn’t transform his heart. Although he eventually obeyed God, Jonah said he’d rather die than watch the Lord show mercy to his enemies (Jonah 4:1-2,8).
We can only guess as to whether Jonah ever learned to care for the people of Nineveh. Instead we are left to wonder about ourselves. Will we settle for his attitude toward those we fear and hate? Or will we ask God for the ability to love our enemies as He has shown mercy to us?
In the 1880s French artist Georges Seurat introduced an art form known as pointillism. As the name suggests, Seurat used small dots of color, rather than brush strokes of blended pigments, to create an artistic image. Up close, his work looks like groupings of individual dots. Yet as the observer steps back, the human eye blends the dots into brightly colored portraits or landscapes.
The big picture of the Bible is similar. Up close, its complexity can leave us with the impression of dots on a canvas. As we read it, we might feel like Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. They couldn’t understand the tragic “dotlike” events of the Passover weekend. They had hoped that Jesus “was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21), but they had just witnessed His death.
Suddenly a man they did not recognize was walking alongside them. After showing an interest in their conversation, He helped them connect the dots of the suffering and death of their long-awaited Messiah. Later, while eating a meal with them, Jesus let them recognize Him—and then He left as mysteriously as He came.
Was it the scarred dots of the nail wounds in His hands that caught their attention? We don’t know. What we do know is that when we connect the dots of Scripture and Jesus’s suffering (vv. 27, 44), we see a God who loves us more than we can imagine.
Madagascar’s National Road 5 offers the beauty of a white sand coastline, palm forests, and the Indian Ocean. Its 125 miles of two-track road, bare rock, sand, and mud, however, have given it a reputation for being one of the worst roads in the world. Tourists looking for breathtaking views are advised to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, an experienced driver, and an onboard mechanic.
John the Baptist came to announce the good news of the coming Messiah to those traveling on rough roads and through barren landscape. Repeating the words of the prophet Isaiah written centuries earlier, he urged curious crowds to “prepare the way for the Lord” and to “make straight paths for him” (Luke 3:4–5; Isa. 40:3)
John knew that if the people of Jerusalem were going to be ready to welcome their long-awaited Messiah their hearts needed to change. Mountains of religious pride would need to come down. Those in the valley of despair because of their broken lives would need to be lifted up.
Neither could be done by human effort alone. Those who refused to respond to the Spirit of God by accepting John’s baptism of repentance failed to recognize their Messiah when He came (Luke 7:29–30). Yet those who saw their need for change discovered in Jesus the goodness and wonder of God.
An anthropologist was winding up several months of research in an African village, the story is told. While waiting for a ride to the airport for his return flight home, he decided to pass the time by making up a game for some village children. His idea was to create a race for a basket of fruit and candy that he placed near a tree. But when he gave the signal to run, no one made a dash for the finish line. Instead the children joined hands and ran together to the tree.
When asked why they chose to run as a group rather than each racing for the prize, a little girl spoke up and said: “How could one of us be happy when all of the others are sad?” Because these children cared about each other, they wanted all to share the basket of fruit and candy.
After years of studying the law of Moses, the apostle Paul found that all of God’s laws could be summed up in one: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14; see also Rom. 13:9). In Christ, Paul saw not only the reason to encourage, comfort, and care for one another but also the spiritual enablement to do it.
Because He cares for us, we care for each other.
The glory of the Roman Empire offered an expansive backdrop for the birth of Jesus. In 27 bc Rome’s first emperor, Caesar Augustus, ended 200 years of civil war and began to replace rundown neighborhoods with monuments, temples, arenas, and government complexes. According to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, they were “the most beautiful buildings the world has ever seen.”…