Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Month: April 2022

The Bright & Morning Star

Early this morning, as my wife and I were walking, we saw the moon and the morning star. The temperature was in the forties, and the sky was clear. The moon was in its waning crescent, so we saw just a sliver of it. But above it were two stars (planets, actually): above it and to the left was the planet Jupiter, and just above it and to the right was the planet Venus. 

The planet Venus was named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. It’s called both the “morning star” and “evening star” because it can appear in the early morning and early evening hours. It’s the second brightest object in the nighttime sky besides the moon. About once a month, it appears in the nighttime sky in close proximity to the moon. On a clear morning, they’re a beautiful sight when seen together. 

In Revelation 22.6, Jesus said, “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” What did he mean, and how does that affect us?

First, I think Jesus was alluding to an ancient prophecy from the Old Testament Book of Numbers. The prophet Balaam saw a star coming forth from Jacob and a scepter arising in Israel (Numbers 24.17). He was talking about the Messiah’s future dominion over all of Israel’s enemies. Readers of the Book of Revelation were suffering intense persecution, and John’s allusion to Balaam’s prophecy would assure them that Christ was, even then, in the process of fulfilling his role. He would be victorious over the enemies of God’s people.

Second, Jesus was reminding us that he’s King of Kings and Lord of Lords. From the earliest times, the Roman emperors believed they were descended from the gods. Julius Caesar believed he was descended from the goddess Venus. The emperor Domitian (who may have been emperor when Revelation was written) believed he was descended from the god Jupiter. Around the time that John wrote the Book of Revelation, the Roman poet Martial honored the emperor Domitian, saying, “Thou morning star, Bring on the Day! Come and expel our fears, Rome begs that Caesar may soon appear.” So, when Jesus called himself the “bright morning star,” he was countering the notion that any human leader could be his equal.

Third, Jesus was reminding us that he’s our ultimate reference point. When we see the morning star rising above the horizon, we know that daylight is near. Jesus was assuring his disciples that despite their suffering and persecution, they could look to him as the dawning of a new day, the arrival of a new era. That promise holds true for us as well.

So, the next time you’re awake before dawn, take a moment to look at the eastern horizon, and look for Venus, the morning star. Then take a moment to remember that Jesus is the ultimate bright morning star. He’s our king and our hope. Because of that we can rejoice at the dawning of each day. 

Whose Feet Do You Wash?

On the night of his betrayal as he celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples Jesus washed their feet (John 13.1-20). He washed the feet of men who were not worthy of him. He washed the feet of men who were clueless. He washed the feet of Peter who was full of himself. He washed the feet of Judas who was evil personified. 

Afterward (v. 14-15) he said, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” 

Will you wash feet as Jesus did? Will you wash the feet of the unworthy, the unloving, and the unwitting? Will you wash the feet of…

  • Your good neighbor?
  • Your bad neighbor?
  • Your white neighbor?
  • Your black neighbor?
  • Your American neighbor? 
  • Your foreign neighbor?
  • Your kind neighbor?
  • Your unkind neighbor? 
  • Your married neighbor? 
  • Your divorced neighbor? 
  • Your gay neighbor?
  • Your cohabiting neighbor?
  • Your richer-than-you neighbor?
  • Your poorer-than-you neighbor?
  • Your conservative neighbor?
  • Your liberal neighbor?
  • Your Democrat neighbor?
  • Your Republican neighbor?
  • Your Libertarian neighbor?
  • Your tree-hugging, ozone-watching neighbor? 
  • Your gun-loving, camo-wearing neighbor?
  • Your Christian neighbor?
  • Your atheist neighbor?
  • Your Muslim neighbor?
  • Your homeless neighbor?
  • Your jobless neighbor?
  • Your educated neighbor?
  • Your addicted neighbor?
  • Your neighbor with the nice yard?
  • Your neighbor with dandelions and junk?

Do you wash feet like Jesus washed feet?

The Old Rugged Cross

In 1968 archaeologists in Jerusalem unearthed the skeletal remains of a Jewish man who died in his twenties in the middle of the first century. His remains were inside an ossuary (bone box) within a family tomb. His name was Yehohanan and he was executed for political crimes. We know this because of a single artifact found with his bones: a seven-inch nail driven through his heels. Yehohanan was crucified.[i]

The Jewish nation understood crucifixion. In Jerusalem and Judea, thousands of Jews were executed in this way during the Roman era. In 88 BC the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Jews in Jerusalem in a single day.[ii] When Herod the Great died in 4 BC Quinctilius Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, crucified 2,000 Jewish rebels in and around Jerusalem.[iii] During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Roman general Titus executed as many as 500 Jews per day before the wall of the city.[iv]

Because of its extreme nature, crucifixion in the New Testament era was applied only to certain crimes: treason, desertion, robbery, piracy, sedition, and assassination. It was originally for slaves, fugitives, and prisoners of war. It was deemed so horrible a death that Roman citizens were spared this means of execution. Nonetheless, God chose this as the means of death for his Son (Acts 2.23; Philippians 2.8).

The four gospels altogether provide only about three pages of information on the actual crucifixion. Yet they furnish enough details to give us a sense of what Jesus endured for us. 

Fatigue. It’s easy to forget what preceded Jesus’ crucifixion. He had spent the previous week in Jerusalem, often in confrontation with Jewish officials (Luke 19.47-48; 21.37-38). He spent an intense period of prayer just prior to his arrest (22.39-46). His captors tormented and beat him in the night (22.63-65). By morning, he would have been nearly exhausted.

Trials. After his arrest, Jesus was interrogated six times before being formally condemned. He was first brought to Annas the former high priest who briefly questioned him (John 18.12-14, 19-23). This was done out of deference to him although he acted without authority.

Jesus then appeared before the sitting high priest Caiaphas. This hearing was at night, which was illegal, and was a pretext for finding suitable charges. False witnesses were produced, false charges were made, and Jesus was charged with blasphemy for affirming that he was the Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 26.57-68; cf. 16.13-20).

The Jewish council formally charged Jesus at morning by simply rubber stamping the previous two interrogations. They sent him to Pilate the governor of Judea, who had the authority to execute Jesus (Luke 23.66-23.1). He saw through their pretext and pronounced Jesus “not guilty” (23.2-5). They persisted, however, so he sent Jesus to Herod, effectively sending the case to a lower court (23.6-7). Herod continued the mockery and abuse but could find no reason to charge Jesus (23.8-12, 15). 

Pilate again affirmed Jesus’ innocence and tried three times to release Jesus, but to no avail (Luke 23.13-25). The Jews threatened Pilate (John 19.12-16), and when a riot nearly erupted, he gave Jesus into their hands (Matthew 27.24-26).

Scourging. Before being crucified, Jesus was flogged with the Roman flagrum or flagellum, a whip with three to twelve leather straps, each with a lead ball or piece of bone attached to the end. It lacerated the skin and left muscles, bones, and organs exposed.[v] Many prisoners died from this. It caused massive blood loss, excruciating pain, dehydration, and shock. Jesus knew this beforehand (Mark 10.32-34).

Crucifixion. As many as 600 Roman soldiers gathered to mock Jesus just before he was led away from the Praetorium to Golgotha (Matthew 27.27-31). Along the way, Jesus was too weak to carry the patibulum (the 30 to 40-pound horizontal beam of the cross), so the Romans forced a visitor from North Africa, Simon of Cyrene, to help (Mark 15.21). 

At the crucifixion site, they nailed Jesus’ hands (or wrists) and feet to the cross, which was dropped into a hole with Jesus’ feet only a few inches above ground. Victims were close enough to the ground that spectators could spit upon them and strike them. They were usually naked, adding humiliation to pain. While on the cross Jesus’ enemies continued their mocking and derision (Matthew 27.39-44). Often victims would scream and curse at the crowds, but Jesus is seen praying for them (Luke 23.34). 

The Romans supported the victim’s body by a small, pointed seat (sedile) and a footrest (suppedaneum) to prolong the agony and prevent a rapid death. The awkward body position made breathing difficult, and the lacerations on his back would dry and stick to the rough wood of the cross, adding to the pain. The heat and blood loss caused dehydration and produced an intense thirst (John 19.28-29). 

Death. After six agonizing hours, Jesus succumbed to death (Mark 15.25; Matthew 27.45-50). Many victims lasted for days. The mechanism of his death isn’t revealed. It may have been asphyxiation. It may have been shock. It may have been a heart attack. The cause of his death is beyond dispute: he died because of our sins (1 Peter 2.24).

Not surprisingly, the Roman statesman Cicero said, “Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even his thoughts his eyes, his ears.” For Christians, however, the cross is our only hope. “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6.14). 

The Romans thought that a crucified savior was nonsense. The Jews thought it was blasphemous. Even today atheist Richard Dawkins describes atonement as “barking mad.”[vi] But God used this to save us eternally: “…we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1.23-24). In the cross we see the love, glory, power, and wisdom of God.

“To that old, rugged cross I will ever be true, its shame and reproach gladly bear; then he’ll call me some day to my home far away, where his glory forever I’ll share.

“So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.”


[ii] Josephus, Antiquities 13.14.2

[iii] Ibid., 17.10

[iv] Josephus, Wars 11.1

[v] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.15

[vi] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion 253

The Asymptote of Perfection

In geometry, “asymptote” refers to a line and a curve that get closer and closer together but never actually touch. If you really want to impress your friends and family, graph the equation y=2x. The asymptote is x=0. When you crunch the numbers, when x is negative and gets bigger and bigger (x=-1, -2, -3, -4, etc.), y gets smaller and smaller, but never reaches 0. But enough of the geekiness!

I want you to think about a Christian’s character in relationship to God. I would suggest that it resembles an asymptote. God is the absolute standard of everything we should be. God is love. God is holy. God is righteous. God is patient. God is merciful. As God is, we should strive to be. “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5.48). Thus…

  • God is love, and I must become more and more like God in my love.
  • God is holy, and I must become more and more like God in my holiness.
  • God is righteous, and I must become more and more like God in my righteousness.
  • God is patient, and I must become more and more like God in my patience.
  • God is merciful, and I must become more and more like God in my mercy.

We are to grow more and more Godlike in our character, but in this life, we’ll never fully reach his perfection. We’ll grow and grow, but never completely reach our full potential. In other words, God’s perfection and our growth form a moral and spiritual asymptote. 

Obviously, that’s easier said than done!

However, we should be encouraged by the fact that Jesus still expected it of his followers. I don’t think Jesus’ point in Matthew 5.48 is that we will, or even can, become morally flawless people. I think he was stating it to put before us an ideal that keeps us perpetually moving in a godward direction. 

I think the apostle Paul understood this concept when he said, “Not that I have already obtained it [the resurrection from the dead] or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained” (Philippians 3.12-16).

Paul said to press on. To keep getting closer and closer to the prize. To get closer and closer to the reality of heaven. Paul was saying to keep our eyes on the goal, keep our eyes on the standard, but at the same time worry less about the arrival, and more about getting there.

Humiliation or Humility?

I knew that some day it would come. I just wasn’t ready for it when it happened. But there it was, in the mail. In the upper left corner of the plain white envelope were four letters: AARP. I was being scouted by the geezers.

Its optimistic tone couldn’t mask the baleful implications of its message: “Our records indicate that you are already missing out on great benefits, yada, yada, yada.” Well, their records were wrong! At the time, I wasn’t even fifty years old – at least in that regard I was like Jesus (John 8.57).  

Regardless, the signs were already there. My youngest child is the only one to not remember me having hair. When I played football or basketball with my son, I was in pain for days. My oldest daughter could outrun me. My clothing began shrinking at an alarming rate. My forehead got taller and taller. My cholesterol had far outstripped my IQ.

Could geezerdom be far behind?

As I pondered the letter, and my reaction to it, I first thought to myself that it was a humbling experience. That wasn’t quite true. It would be more accurate to say that it was a humiliating experience. To humiliate is to “make (someone) feel ashamed and foolish by injuring their dignity and self-respect” (Oxford American Dictionary). To humble someone can have the same meaning (at least in English), although it primarily means to “lower (someone) in dignity or importance” (Oxford). 

In Biblical thought, to be humbled is to be brought low. Humility is lowliness of spirit. It’s not so much having a poor opinion of yourself, your accomplishments, or your abilities; rather it’s simply not allowing self to enter the picture. Paul said that humility involved regarding others as more important than you and considering what’s in the best interest of others before considering your own interests (Philippians 2.3-4).

Where humiliation and humility differ is in their origin. Humiliation originates with our egos. When we’re humiliated, it’s because our egos have been bruised. We think, “How dare they do that to me!” Humility originates with a conscious decision to quit thinking of self. Self isn’t allowed an opinion about how others treat us. So then, if we’re injured or ridiculed, there’s no need to react with shame or embarrassment because we realize our self-worth is unchanged. We think, “The Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?” (Hebrews 13.6)

Too often we react from an inflated ego rather than a humble spirit. Insults and injuries (real or imagined) ignite us in a moment. In our minds we have something at stake, something to defend, and we react accordingly. 

Jesus expects more from his followers. It’s no wonder Jesus said that to be a disciple, a man “must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Luke 9.23). Step one is self-denial. In this we’re only following Jesus’ own example: “And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2.23). Perhaps the reason we do so poorly in applying this is because we’ve never mastered step one.

Humility is liberating because it allows us to function in a variety of circumstances, good or bad. When self is no longer the reference point of our existence, we’re free to pursue other, more worthwhile things. Such humility enabled Paul to say, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12.10).

For most of us, the biggest source of misery is not age, illness, money or persecution. Our greatest source of misery is self. So long as self holds first place in our lives, we may expect regularly to be humiliated. 

And as for me and my mail: “The Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid. What will AARP do to me?”


Do you remember in science class a thing called “inertia”? The popular definition is that “bodies at rest stay at rest, bodies in motion stay in motion.” It’s why a car traveling 60 mph don’t easily stop. It’s also why a car sitting at a stoplight takes a few moments to get back up to speed. 

Inertia may also explain Mondays and Fridays. When we’re at rest, we tend to stay at rest. Mondays come and we’ve been relaxing for a few days, and inertia makes it difficult to start. Likewise on Fridays we’ve been hard at work for several days, and inertia makes it difficult to slow down.

How do you prevent inertia from taking control of your life? How do you overcome it when you’re sluggish and don’t want to start? How do you slow it down when you need to relax? 

One verse that has always been helpful to me is Psalm 118.24: “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” If I knew nothing at all about this verse, it would still be a boost for me when I’m struggling.

However, if we dig deeper, it has even more significance. Psalm 118 is a thanksgiving psalm that begins with a familiar formula: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his lovingkindness is everlasting” (v 1). Psalms 113-118 are called “Hallel”, which is the Hebrew verb meaning “to praise.” These six psalms were recited during various festivals, but especially at Passover.

Matthew 26.30 says, “After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” Here, Jesus had just celebrated his last Passover with the apostles, and then inaugurated the Lord’s Supper. The “hymn” they sang was the Hallel, including Psalm 118. Think about Jesus’ situation. He’s about to be betrayed by one of his own apostles; it’s the eve of his death; it’s the moment for which he came to earth. He’ll soon ask his Father to remove this cup of “nameless dread”. And on the next day, he’ll die for the sins of the world. 

Yet he could still say, “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Friends, if Jesus could find joy as he faced the cross, surely, we can find a bit of joy in whatever circumstances we face. Maybe we’re feeling sluggish at work, or burdened with care, or hurting, or sad, or tired or just plain grumpy. Nonetheless, we have reason for joy.

“This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Drifting Into Goodness

In 1982, author Anne Herbert wrote a book titled, Random Acts of Kindness. The title was a phrase coined by her to counteract a then-popular phrase, “random acts of violence.” Ever since then, we are often encouraged practice these “random acts of kindness.”

I certainly agree that we should practice kindness in our everyday lives. However, to say that kindness is something done randomly misses the mark. Kindness isn’t random, any more than evil is random. Kindness and evil are both character traits we consciously pursue. 

William George Jordan said, “Man does not drift into goodness… the chance port of an aimless voyage. He must fight ever for his destination.” 

He reminds us that character never happens by chance, only by choice. At some point, we decide to do the right thing, we decide to become a certain kind of person. And every component of our character – goodness, faithfulness, compassion, nobility, love, integrity – results from choices we make and actions we take.

In other words, decide if you want to be good, or decide if you want to be bad. But don’t blame your circumstances or your peers or your parents or your teachers or your church or your stars. And don’t say that you just randomly did something. The choice was yours all along.

There’s a certain irony to all of this. What if you choose not to choose? What if you just don’t want to decide? The irony is that by not choosing, you’ve already chosen. If you don’t want to be good, in essence, you’ve chosen to be bad. Or at least you’ve chosen to be indifferent toward the good. Maybe not as bad as you could be. Maybe not pure evil, like Hitler. But by not choosing the good, you’ve settled for something less than good.

All of this has a biblical basis. The writer of the book of Hebrews, uses the same metaphor of drifting” when he says, “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it” (Hebrews 2.1). 

Aimless drifting isn’t idyllic, it’s dangerous. It’s the shortest route to moral shipwreck.