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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Jesus turns problems into OPPORTUNITIES

Matthew 14:12-33 covers a few action-packed days in the life of Jesus (paralleled by John 6), and it contains a series of stories where physical problems become spiritual opportunities for the Lord. Jesus was the Master of "making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil," as it says in Ephesians 5:16. And we can too, if we follow his example by the power of the Holy Spirit...

The death of a loved one is an opportunity for reflection and renewal (vv. 12-13)

When Jesus heard about the death of his dear cousin John, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.” He took time to be alone with his father. This reminds me of Ecclesiastes 7:1-5…

"A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools."

Death makes us think about what life is all about, or should be all about. It's an opportunity for God to put things in perspective in our minds. Also, speaking of opportunities, I can't pass up this opportunity to mention the most famous death of a loved one that was used for good by God...the Cross itself, which is the most profound illustration ever of this principle. It was the worst thing ever--the unjust torture and murder of a perfect man, and even worse, the separation of the Father and Son as the latter bore the former's wrath for all our sins. But the best thing ever came from it--the salvation of an innumerable multitude who will worship and reign with our Savior forever!

But back to Matthew 14. What did Jesus do in his time alone with God? We know from other passages that he prayed and meditated on the Word of God, which is essentially what a relationship with God is--talking to him in prayer and listening to him in his Word. No doubt Jesus was empowered by his time with God to do what he did next…

Physical sickness is an opportunity for healing and growth (vv. 14)

“He had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Jesus had the heart of God toward needy people because he was God, but also because he spent time with God…and the latter is something we can reduplicate. And though we might not be able to heal with a word like Jesus did, we can point them toward the physical and spiritual healing described in James 5:14-16: "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. [This can mean to apply oil, as the Good Samaritan did to the wounded man, so I believe it's referring to medical treatment.] 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. 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."

So when we are sick, we can experience the love of Christ by asking for healing, trusting in him for whatever his answer is, and learning whatever we can through the illness. And we can compassionately serve others by praying for them and encouraging them to trust in Him, as well as helping them in whatever way we can with their physical and spiritual needs. And that leads us to the next opportunity…

Physical needs are an opportunity for service and evangelism (vv. 15-21)

The crowd needed to eat, and there wasn’t any food they could get for themselves. So Jesus fed them, more than 15,000 people, from just five loaves and two fishes! My wife and her friends Traci and Lisa have proven that it is possible to emulate the spirit of Christ's miracle, if not the specifics--they have a non-profit ministry (aptly named "Five Loaves and Two Fishes"!) that not only feeds people in the name of the Lord, but also teaches underprivileged youth how to cook so they can have a job skill for their future. (The name of that particular part of the ministry is "Filet of Soul Culinary Institute"--not as directly biblical, but just as cool.)

But back to the gospel text again. Notice that this, one of Jesus’ greatest miracles, flowed from his time with the Lord and was followed (according to John 6) by his teaching about being “the bread of life” and saying that the spiritual was more important than the physical, like in my "life verse," John 6:27: “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for that food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, because on him God has placed his seal of approval.” So Jesus met their physical needs, but that was not his primary concern. This really becomes obvious in the next part of the passage…

Success is an opportunity for thanksgiving and faith (vv. 22-23)

As we would expect, Jesus gave thanks when he broke the loaves and feed the 15,000. But what comes after is much more of a surprise. You might remember that earlier I said this passage contains a series of problems, and you may wonder how a great success like feeding the crowd could be a problem. Well, success can be a problem when it turns the hearts of people from what really matters. And this is really shocking, what Jesus does after this great miracle, when he has the crowds eating out of his hand both literally and figuratively: He sends them away! Verse 22 says, "Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds."

What’s going on here? Why does he do that? Well, first it’s because of what I just said…he was more concerned for their spiritual well-being than for the physical, and they should have been too. In John 6:15 it says, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Their response to the miracle was they thought, “Man, we should make this guy the king so we can eat like this all the time!” (They were an ancient example of “voting your pocketbook.”)

John 6:25-29 says, "When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, 'Rabbi, when did you come here?' Jesus answered them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life'....Then they said to him, 'What must we do, to be doing the works of God?' Jesus answered them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.'

Storms are an opportunity to walk on the water (vv. 24-30)

Jesus went away again to be alone with the Father, and the disciples were caught in a storm when they followed him across the Sea of Galilee. It was a bad enough storm that even these experienced fishermen were stuck in it, and fearful for their lives. But the storm was another opportunity for Christ, and he came to them in the middle of it, revealing his divine power by walking on the water. Then he shared some of that divine power with Peter, who took the opportunity to ask Jesus if he could join him on the water.

Most of us probably know what happened then...Peter was doing really well until he took his eyes off of Christ and looked at the waves. He started focusing on the obstacles more than the opportunity, the challenges more than the Champion, the dangers more than the divine enablement and protection he had been promised. And that leads us to our final lesson from the passage...

Failures are an opportunity for restoration and repentance (vv. 31-33)

"But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, 'Lord, save me.' Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, 'O you of little faith, why did you doubt?'  And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God.'"

Without his failure Peter would have never cried out, "Lord, save me." And if he hadn't sank so low, he wouldn't have seen the immediate love and compassion of Christ shown to a repentant sinner. The worship he gave to Jesus along with the rest of the disciples was no doubt enhanced by the fact that he had just been rescued from the waves, when he had deserved to die in them because of his unbelief. What an illustration of the saving faith that God grants to his chosen people (Eph. 2:8-9), which is a heart cry of desperation when we realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. That faith may be far smaller than a mustard seed at first, but by the Spirit's work it grows as we pray along with another man who met Christ, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24).

Another fruit of saving faith and the Spirit's work in the hearts of his people, besides thankful worship to the One who saves us, is regret and repentance for our failures to believe and obey. Following another "boat" miracle of Christ--the filling of the nets with fish--Peter "fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord'....And Jesus said to Simon, 'Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.' And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him." (Luke 5:8-11). Notice in that case, repentance was again immediately followed by restoration and a promise of future ministry, and that message of forgiveness and hope led to a total life commitment of service on the part of the ones being loved by the Savior.

May God turn all of your difficulties into opportunities for spiritual growth and ministry, and may we make the most of every opportunity in these evil days.

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