Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Extravagant Love

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Matthew 26:6-13

No one writes romance novels about doing the laundry or washing the dishes for your spouse. Not only are these small acts of love not very interesting but they also don't appeal to our emotions as strongly as grand acts of love do. There is little doubt that without these daily acts of love the grand displays of affection would be empty, but it's also true that any truly great love story needs at least one extravagant gesture of love. 

This may give us something to think about in our relationship with our spouse, but today's passage pulls our gaze towards our relationship with Jesus. When was the last time you got carried away in your love for Christ? Have you ever gone beyond merely doing what you should do for Him and did something extravagant for Him because you wanted to? How sad it will be for those Christians who, when they are called home, realize that their love for Jesus was never strong enough to cause them to do anything risky, costly, or extravagant.

The woman in today's passage may have heard Jesus teaching the disciples that He would soon be killed and was moved by a sense of urgency to show an incredible display of love. She took what was almost certainly one of her most valuable possessions and sacrificed it to bless Him. Jesus was so moved by her beautiful act that He said it would be remembered and preached throughout the world. If you feel the tug to love Jesus extravagantly today then there are three things you'll need to consider from her story.

  1. There will always be people ready to criticize you for giving sacrificially to Jesus. Sadly these critical people will often come from within the church. In the story it was the disciples who immediately question the woman's decision. Some may criticize you by suggesting a more effective charitable outlet for your funds or they argue that some financial need within your family should have taken priority. Others may suggest that you are being emotional or seeking attention. But like the woman in the story, don't respond to them. You weren't trying to please them anyway. Your focus should stay on the object of your love. He will answer them in due time.
  2. We have limited time to show our love to Jesus. Jesus was only a matter of days away from His crucifixion when this happened. Had she waited too long, she would have lost her opportunity. Her time was limited by Jesus' impending departure; ours is limited by His impending return. We don't know how long we have to use our time, talents and money in this world to display our love for Jesus. But once He returns, that opportunity will have been lost.
  3. We can't pour out our love on Jesus the same way she did, but we can still give to Jesus. In the previous chapter, He tells us how. In Matthew 25:40 Jesus says, "Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me." We show Jesus our love by loving other believers extravagantly.
What was the last risky, costly, or extravagant thing your love for Jesus led you to do? What do you sense His Spirit and His Word leading you to do for Him now? Now, be bold and extravagant!

For further reading...

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Bite the Wax Tadpole (W.o.W. Rewind)

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Matthew 13:31-33 

We live in a global age. Nowadays most large companies have adjusted to this fact and are sensitive to cultural and linguistic differences that may arise in their global marketing campaigns. This wasn't always the case though. Many companies made big mistakes when they first went abroad because they didn't pay attention to the little things. As the old adage goes, "The little things can make a big difference." Here's one example. When Coca-Cola first entered the Chinese market it chose a series of characters which rendered a sound similar to Coca-Cola. Literally it sounded like Ke-ke-ken-la. It wasn't until after they had already printed thousands of signs that the executives at Coke discovered that the literal rendering of the characters meant "bite the wax tadpole" in one Chinese dialect. Needless to say this probably didn't help sales. Coke later changed it's Chinese brand name to Ko-kou-ko-le which means "happiness in the mouth."

Little things really do make a big difference! This pretty well sums up what Jesus meant by his parable of the mustard seed. It's easy for us to think about Christianity (or as Jesus liked to call it "the kingdom of God") from a 21st century perspective and forget that it was ever small. It's easy for us to forget that the kingdom must have seemed insignificant back then. It consisted of mainly a carpenter turned preacher and his ragtag group of uneducated disciples. We look back over the centuries and see the millions of believers, all the great thinkers and theologians, the famous sermons, and the great revivals. But Jesus spoke these words sometime around 30AD. Christ is going around and teaching people that the kingdom of God is at hand. It could arrive anytime now. Be ready! Watch! But people expected a glorious king to arrive in pomp and splendor and by comparison Jesus may have seemed a little disappointing. He couldn't even keep all of His followers (John 6:60-71).

Christ reminds his contemporaries about the properties of the mustard seed. Though it was the smallest of their seeds, when planted and given time it grew into a tree which was large enough for birds to nest in its branches. So too is the kingdom. God chose to start small but over time it has gown larger than anyone could have imagined. This is a helpful reminder for me because there are days when what I have to offer God doesn't seem much bigger than a mustard seed. There are days when the work I am doing for the kingdom seems insignificant. On those days, it is helpful to be reminded that we serve a God who uses the small things.  A God who oftentimes starts with what little we have to offer and then multiplies it by the power of His Spirit to do great things. (John 6:1-15).

So if you are feeling like what you have to offer God is a little insignificant today, remember that we serve the guy who bragged on a widow for offering a mite! (Mark 12:41-44) So stop worrying about the fact that you aren't the next Billy Graham. Simply do what God has called and gifted you to do and trust Him to use it for His glory. If you work the security team at your church do it to His glory. If you keep babies in the nursery, do it for His glory. If you serve on the Finance Committee do it for His glory and trust Him to take your small offering and make a big impact. But don't use this as an excuse. You may feel like you are insignificant in the kingdom because you legitimately aren't doing anything. You aren't serving the Lord in any way. You aren't speaking to your neighbors or your friends about salvation. You aren't serving your church or even going to church at all. If so, then remember that the small things make a big difference in your life too. Start doing the little things you know should. Go to church. Pray. Read your Bible. Tell someone else about Jesus; plant a seed in their life. Start small and surrender yourself to God to do the rest over time. Remember the kingdom starts small and small things can make a big difference. 

For further reading...
John 6 (especially 6:1-15 & 6:60-71) - Can you see the kingdom?
Mark 12:41-44 - The widow's mite.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Bringing Increase by Decreasing (W.o.W. Rewind)

An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” 

To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
John 3:25-30

You can almost hear the panic in the voices of John's disciples. They're concerned that John (the prophet and teacher to whom they have dedicated their lives) is losing his influence. By reading between the lines a little, you even sense a small amount of disdain toward Jesus and His ministry. "The one you testified about," they say. You were so gracious to Him. You honored and exalted Him and now He is encroaching on your turf! He is baptizing and people are going to Him instead of you. This, of course, presents a real problem for John the Baptist. He is kind of pigeon-holed into a certain type of ministry now. He is called John the Baptist after all.

John's response to his disciple's is truly remarkable. Like Job he acknowledges that all he has in life comes from God and ultimately will return to God. John points out that the same is true for Jesus. "If Jesus is receiving influence as mine is waning, then it is because God has chosen to take it away from me and give it to Him," John says. He continues with a wedding metaphor. "Jesus is the groom," he says. "I'm the best man." Does it make sense for the best man to be angry and jealous that the groom is getting married? No! The best man should rejoice and be happy for his friend. So too, John says, "That joy is mine, and it is now complete."

John knows that this isn't his story. He isn't the main character, but he can find joy in playing his part well. He dares not try to steal the lead role from Jesus. "He must become greater; I must become less," John says. In other words, "It's not about me!" What John wanted more than anything was for God's kingdom to advance in this world. Everything else in life was secondary to that goal, even his own personal fulfillment and social standing. His disciples had momentarily lost sight of that.

We sometimes do as well. We work so hard to get ahead at work, to build a life for our family, to build a program or Bible study at church that before we know it we get caught in the trap of thinking that life is about us or our ministries. We make the mistake of thinking that these things are the end goal themselves. They are not. They are merely a means to the end of bringing glory to God and advancing the gospel. Sometimes the gospel advances when you are transferred to a lower paying position or when your hopes for your family are thwarted or even when your church doesn't keep pace with the growth of the church down the street. In those moments how will you respond? Are you willing to decrease so that Jesus might increase? Will you continue to serve Him faithfully even when things aren't going your way? Do you serve God to advance the cause of Christ simply because God deserves your faithful service or are you just trying to make a name for yourself?

Drawing nearer to God almost always requires some form of self-denial. It requires taking up our cross and dying to our selfish desires so that He might use us more effectively for His glory. Are you willing to decrease so that Jesus might increase in your family, office, or church?

For further reading...
  • Job 1:1-2:10- Job understood his place in relation to God.
  • Mark 12:28-30- The greatest commandment requires that God hold first importance in our lives.
*A version of this post was originally published on this blog under the title "What is Your Life About?" on 12/14/11.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Cares of this World

Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.
Luke 21:34

My grandfather had a great rule of thumb. He always said that if something wasn't going to make a difference in his life one, five or ten years from now; then it wasn't worth worrying about. The truth is that we spend an exorbitant amount of time worrying about things that we won't even remember five years from now. Jesus reminds us that worry can cost us much more than wasted time, though. If we aren't careful the cares of this life can distract us from the ultimate importance of eternal matters. 

In today's passage Jesus warns us about three things that can weigh our hearts down and cause us to be caught off guard on the day of His return: drunkenness, carousing, and the anxieties of life.* It is easy to see how drunkenness could distract us as well as carousing. (According to Blue Letter Bible in the original language carousing meant "the giddiness and headache caused by drinking wine to excess.") What comes as a surprise to me is the addition of the cares or anxieties of this life. We don't tend to consider worry to be nearly as dangerous as a drinking problem. I can imagine all manner of Christian friends rushing in to confront a fellow believer over drunkenness, but it's hard to imagine them rushing in to confront a brother over being weighed down by the cares of this world.

But the truth is that all three of these things come from the same root. They all stem from a believer being too focused on this world and not nearly focused enough on the next. When a believer gives in to his desires and lust for things in this world it can cause him to run headstrong after these things (like in drunkenness) or it can cause him to be worry over these things. Either way the believer's problem is that his focus has been moved off of eternity and onto the things of this world. He is giving this world more weight than it deserves. The weightier this world seems to us, the more ethereal and abstract heaven is. Conversely, the more heavily heaven weighs in our thoughts the more the things of this world are exposed for the hollow shell that they are.    

Jesus shows that my grandfather's rule doesn't go quite far enough. We must be careful not to be weighed down by the worries of this life at all. In essence Jesus asks, "Will it matter in eternity?" If not, then don't spend time worrying about it. Sure all of us have to live in the reality of this world and sometimes that means dealing with things like paying the bills and washing the car. But we must keep these things in their proper place. We cannot let them begin to push eternity out of our hearts and minds. We must not let the mundane and the meaningless so overwhelm us that we lose sight of our great hope in Christ's return. We dare not become experts in managing the temporary and forget to prepare for the eternal.

For further reading...
  • Luke 8:1-15 (esp. vs 14)- The cares of this world can choke your growth in Christ.
  • 1 Peter 5:7- Interestingly, this verses uses the same word for anxiety and tells the believer what she should do with her anxiety: cast it on the Lord. 

*Luke 21:5-36, Matthew  24:1-51, & Mark 13:1-37 in varying degree report Jesus' words in what is commonly called the Olivet Discourse. This passage is rather difficult to interpret. Some think that Jesus is speaking only about the destruction of the Temple which would take place in A.D. 70. Of course the context makes very clear that He is. However, others point out that portions of these passages seem to go beyond the destruction of the temple and seem to fit better with the future return of Christ. These people (of which I am one) argue that Jesus' shifts His teaching at points in these passages to what would signal the day of His return.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It's Not My Problem. The Problem is with Everybody Else.

Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
James 1:21-25

There is something inherently Christian about having your eyes opened to your own sin. The Bible tells us that sin is deceptive and blinding (I John 2:11 & Matt 15:14). It also says that the great deceiver, Satan, has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they will not see the truth of the gospel of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:4). So no man comes to God in faith seeking salvation unless God's Spirit first opens his eyes and reveals to him his need for salvation (John 6:44John 3:7-8). A good example here is the Pharisee Saul. He believed he was serving God faithfully. He was meticulous in preserving his righteousness and zealous about protecting his religious traditions from the new sect that was infiltrating it. Imagine his surprise when the resurrected Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and said to him "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4). Even as his physical eyes were temporarily blinded by the light, the eyes of his heart were opened to see his own sin. All of us who have repented of our sin have experienced a similar (if less dramatic) moment in which our eyes were opened to our sin by the Spirit of God.

This makes it all the more sad to consider how many Christians walk through their daily lives completely blind to their ongoing sin. Too many of us are arrogant. Too many are hypocritical. Too many are easily angered. And far too many of us seem to think that the problem is with everyone else but ourselves. How can we combat this? How can we guard against it?

2 Tim 3:16 says, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." The Bible is useful for correcting not only others but also ourselves. James puts it this way: when we read Scripture it is like looking at ourselves in a mirror. Scripture is sharper than any double-edged sword and it judges the attitudes of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12). The Spirit of God dwelling in us uses Scripture to reveal sin that is still present in our lives. In these moments when the Word casts light on our sin we have a choice to make. We can find any reason to excuse ourselves for our failure; we can find any distraction at hand to take our minds off of it and cause us to forget what we have seen; or we can "humbly accept the word planted in us" and act on it. We can repent of the revealed sin and put into practice whatever God prescribes. 

So, what if we committed to run towards obedience in these moments? What if the next time Scripture reveals our sin we try hard not to make excuses, not to over think, but simply to look for what God would have us do, and then do it as quickly as possible. Don't be merely a hearer of the Word, put it into practice in your life. Don't work against the Spirit, work alongside Him as He strives to reveal and remove the sin that still entangles you.

For further reading...
  • Check out the linked verse above.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ask God for His Spirit

Time to be honest. I've been struggling against pretty substantial discouragement off and on for the past year or so. Even those who know me well may not have noticed because it never washed over me in one big wave. It has been more gradual, like the tide coming in a little more each day. My family, my job, my life are all wonderful. I am very blessed. I really can't complain and I am not. Yet as I look around at my I look back over the years of ministry that have led me to this point, I can't help but feel that something is missing. Where's the fruit? Where are the souls saved? Where are the lives changed?

Now don't get me wrong. There has been some fruit and for that I am grateful. I just can't help but feel like a farmer who comes up with a small harvest year after year. At some point any self-respecting man would have to stop and ask himself, "Am I doing something wrong? Is there a better way?"

Recently I turned to an old book hoping it might help: D.L Moody's Secret Power. It has been a blessing to me. And in the second chapter I believe God revealed to me a significant portion of my problem. Moody is discussing an old minister who has lost his power in the ministry. His health is failing and he isn't able to do much anymore. He says this:
I don't believe that man broke down at first with hard work, so much as with using the machinery without oil. It is not the hard work that breaks down ministers, but it is the toil of working without power.* (Moody, p.66)

When I read this I thought to myself, "That's me!" I have been working in my own power for too long. Returning to my farming metaphor, a farmer can fertilize, spray, hoe, irrigate and do many other things to help improve his harvest; but at the end of the day he can't make the harvest come any sooner. He can't even make the harvest come. That is dependent on things only God can control like the weather. It is the same in ministry and in our lives. There is much that we can do to prepare ourselves, our families, and our ministries for a good harvest; but at the end of the day we can't make it come. We can't draw people to salvation apart from the Spirit. We can't raise our children up to love the Lord apart from the Spirit illuminating the truth of the Bible to their minds. And we can't change the evil in our own hearts apart from the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

Since God revealed this to me I have taken comfort in Luke 11:9-13.
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Pray for God to pour out His Spirit on us. Certainly every believer is already indwelt with the Spirit. Scripture makes that clear, but Moody isn't talking about the Spirit being in us. Rather he is talking about the Spirit being upon us. He is talking about an anointing of the Spirit to bless God's work in our lives. I know God's Spirit is in me, but I am not ministering in the power of that Spirit and I am not daily walking in the Spirit as I should. So join me in praying for God to pour out an anointing of His Spirit for the work of the ministry. Pray for your ministers. Pray for yourselves. Pray for me.

For further reading...
Luke 10:38-42- I've been too much like Martha in my ministry life. Join me in choosing Mary's way.

*Secret Power. Moody, D.L; Regal Books, Ventura, CA:1987.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

When Love is Bad

Quick! Stop and make a list of ten things you love. What's on your list?

Now read today's passage.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world- the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life- comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
I John 2:15-17

Now evaluate your list of loves in light of this challenging command from God. Where is your heart focused? Do you love this world and the things of the world or do you love the things that come from the Father? Well, to answer that question you first need to understand that Scripture often uses the term "world" as a metaphor for all the things, people, actions and attitudes in this life that are set against God in rebellion. The term is sometimes applied in such a way as to include all that finds its origin in this posture of rejection of God and all that is tainted by it. Thus, when the Apostle John says "do not love the world or anything in the world," he is not speaking of the planet Earth, as though we would be safe from this sin if we lived on Mars. Nor is he saying that it is wrong to love physical things in this world like dogs or Dr. Pepper (my current indulgence of choice). Rather, he is telling Christians that we must not love this attitude of opposition to God or the many sinful things that often accompany or spring from it.

The Apostle John taught a lot about the love a Christian should have. And rightly so! The Bible says a lot about it. In a sense John is urging believers to do nothing other than what the book of Proverbs said so long before: "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it" (Prov. 4:23). Jesus also spoke of the importance of loving the right things.  He said that the greatest commandment is for us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30). It makes perfect sense, then, that loving rebellion against God and those things which find their source in this rebellion is wholly contemptible to God. Christians must be wary of the seduction of this world. If we are not careful, then little by little, our enemy draws us in with promises of entertainment, threats of missing out on something good, hints of endless pleasure, and hopes of a relaxing escape from the daily grind of life. Before we know it our hearts are captive to sin.

It is a terrible thing when something so noble as love is degraded by having lit upon something so debase as sin. Love is the noblest of all emotions. The Apostle John himself says that God is love and that we know true Christian love only because we have seen it personified in Christ's death for us. This helps explain why loving the right things is the greatest command. We love God first and our neighbors (especially our brothers in Christ) next. Having a heart that is bent towards these things in love not only makes obedience easy but is admirable. In the same way it is bad enough to participate in sin, to willingly reject and mock God, but to actually love these things, to have a heart that longs for them- what could be worse? Nothing.

This brings us back to what challenges me most about this passage, the second half of verse fifteen. "Do not love the world or anything in the world." Can I really say that I do not love anything in the world? Is my heart completely free of love for sinful entertainment, sinful behavior, jokes that make light of sin, sexual misconduct, the glorification of violence and killing. It saddens me to admit that there are still parts of my heart in love with sin. Thankfully there is hope in this passage as well. The command to love rightly presupposes that Christians have the ability to exercise control over what we love (presumably through the Spirit's help within us). So I lift my diseased heart up to the Lord in prayer and pray with King David,
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
Psalm 51:10, 1-2

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How to Spot a False Prophet

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
I John 4:1-3

There seems to be a never-ending stream of talking heads these days. Everyone - from pastors to political analysts, parents to pop stars, and professors to peers - wants to tell us what to believe about God and to what extent that should impact our lives. But how do we know who to trust? How can we tell the ones who are just spinning propaganda apart from the ones who are teaching us the truth about God? I John has some help for us.

A major issue facing the church(es) this letter was written to was a group of false teachers who were opposing the truth about Jesus and trying to lead the church astray. So the Apostle John provides his readers with a number of litmus tests to help us accurately evaluate the trustworthiness of those desiring influence over us. Here is a brief list of questions to ask ourselves about these leaders.
  1. Do they walk in the light as God is in the light (i.e. practice righteousness) or do they walk in the darkness (i.e. continue in sin)? (I John 1:5-7, 2:29, 3:3-10, 5:18)
  2. Do they honestly and humbly acknowledge their sinfulness? (I John 1:8, 10)
  3. Do they keep God's commandments? (I John 2:3-6, 3:24, 5:2-3)
  4. Do they love other believers? (I John 2:9-11; 3:10, 13-15; 4:7-8, 11-12, 16, 20-21; 5:1)
  5. Do they avoid the love of the world or the things of the world, i.e. the desires of the flesh, desires of the eyes, and pride in material possessions? (I John 2:15-16)
  6. Do they have continued fellowship with the church? (I John 2:19)
  7. Do they acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah? (I John 2:22-23, 5:1)
  8. Do they give of their resources to meet the needs of other believers? (I John 3:17-18)
  9. Do they confess Jesus as the Son of God who came to earth as a real man? (I John 4:2-3, 15; 5:5)
  10. Do they speak from God or from the world? Do those who know God listen to them or does the world listen to them? (I John 4:5-6)
  11. Do they believe that we receive eternal life through Jesus? (I John 5:10-12)

Be careful who you listen to and who you allow to speak into your life. As the Apostle John reminds us, there are many false prophets out there in the world.

For further reading... check out the links above.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Penny Swallowed is a Penny Earned

Here is an x-ray of my daughter's torso. You may notice a brightly shining orb in the middle. That is a my daughter's stomach. Yep. A few weeks back my daughter swallowed a penny. It was one of those things that happened so fast it couldn't be stopped. Even she was surprised. My daughter had this shocked look on her face as she pulled her hands away from her mouth. Of course my wife and I were concerned. We called the doctor and got x-rays and the whole nine yards, but thankfully our daughter was none the worse for the wear. And her body did its job. Less than a day (and roughly 14 prunes) later, the penny reappeared. 

It reminds me of Jesus' words in Matthew 15:17-20.
Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
Whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body, but the things that come out of the mouth are what you really have to worry about because they reveal the nature of your heart. Consider Matthew 12:34-37.
You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.
Since our speech reveals the condition of our hearts it will be used to judge us one day. We will have to give account for every empty (lazy) word we have spoken. This is a sobering reminder to guard our lips. I admit I don't pay as much attention as I should to the words I say. It's a scary thought having to answer for every word. Commit with me to pray Psalm 141:3 over ourselves this week. "Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips." But even more than this let us pray Psalm 51:10. "Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me." Only as this prayer is answered will our hearts naturally send forth good things again.

For further reading...
  • Proverbs 4:23 & 27:19- Not only our words but our actions also reveal the condition of our hearts. Unsurprisingly then our actions will also be called into judgment on that final day.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cling Closely and Bring Glory

Do you have any clothes that are an expensive brand name or just something you save for special occasions? Chances are that when you wear them out you feel better about yourself. You have a little added pep in your step. You think you look your best. But have you ever ruined any clothes like that before? Maybe you got a huge stain on them. When something that fine gets ruined, it looks so much worse than when you get a stain on regular old pair of jeans or a t-shirt. It's like the stain stands out and screams for attention even louder against the backdrop of such fine clothing.

God commands the prophet Jeremiah to act out a metaphor very much like this for His people in Jeremiah chapter thirteen. God has Jeremiah buy a fine linen undergarment to wear. Then He told him to go to a certain river and to hide it in a cleft of a rock. Only many days later did the Lord tell Jeremiah to go and retrieve it. Of course it was ruined, wet and muddy. It was useless. In verses nine and ten God reveals the significance of this acted out metaphor.
This is what the Lord says: ‘In the same way I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. These wicked people, who refuse to listen to my words, who follow the stubbornness of their hearts and go after other gods to serve and worship them, will be like this belt—completely useless!
Jeremiah's ruined belt or undergarment represents the pride of Judah which God promises to ruin. God is bringing judgment on His people because of their idolatry and stubborn refusal to repent. Then, in verse eleven, God pushes the symbolism a step further saying,
'For as a belt is bound around the waist, so I bound all the people of Israel and all the people of Judah to me,’ declares the Lord, ‘to be my people for my renown and praise and honor. But they have not listened.’
God reveals that the ruined belt also symbolizes how His people have ruined His glory. God's people were supposed to cling to Him like a fine belt that always stayed close and brought added glory by virtue of their fine quality. Instead, because of their sin and unfaithfulness to God, Israel and Judah have become defiled and have failed to glorify God. Now they are like a soiled belt wrapped around His waist. As God's people they bear His name and they drag it along with them into their sin.

It is heartbreaking to think that God's people would so callously besmirch God's name. Yet, how often do we do the same? We call ourselves Christians, then we unabashedly go to the theaters and publicly watch movies we know Christ never would. We go to church and we attack and viciously tear down our leaders and other believers in ways that are out of step with Christ's love for His church. We engage in our secret sins, thinking that no one sees, but God does.

Father, help us to live as your people in this world. Help us to cling tightly to you, to always stay close to you and to live in a way that increases your fame, your glory, and your praise. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jesus- A Stairway to Heaven

[Jesus] then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”
John 1:51

Jesus was a master of saying the maximum amount possible in the fewest words. Here is a classic example. He is responding to his newest disciple's declaration of faith that Jesus was God's promised Messiah. In response, Jesus evokes one of the most memorable images in the Old Testament, Jacob's ladder or stairway to heaven. By doing so Jesus offers up a piercing insight into His Messianic role and identity.

In Genesis 28, Jacob was travelling to Harran to find a wife. When he stopped for the night, Jacob "had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it" (Genesis 28:12). For the purpose of understanding Jesus' statement, Jacob's interpretation of this ladder is key. When Jacob woke up "he was afraid and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven'" (Genesis 28:17). Having seen the ladder connecting heaven and earth in that place Jacob concludes two things: One, he has stumbled upon the entry point or gate of heaven; two, this place must be the house or temple of God on earth. To be in this place is to enter into the very presence of God.

I believe that Jesus is applying both of these conclusions to Himself and is revealing in stunning brevity what He will only later more fully explain. First, Jesus is claiming to be the gate or entry point to heaven. Consider these verses later in John's gospel in which Jesus builds on this point.
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
John 14:6
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. (Said in the context of Jesus' famous sheep, shepherd, thief, gate analogy.)
John 10:9

Second, Jesus is saying that He is the true house of God, that from the moment of His arrival on earth He became the point at which heaven and earth meet.* To be in His presence is to enter into the very presence of God. Consider these verses later in John's gospel in which Jesus builds on this point.
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
John 2:19-21
I and the Father are one.
John 10:30

So then, above all things, seek to know Jesus! He is God's clearest self-revelation. He is the only way to heaven. He is the true temple of God. It is only in Him and through Him that we enter into God's presence. "There is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). So approach God today in the name of Jesus!

For further reading...
  • Read the fuller context of any or all of the Scripture quotes above.
  • Pick one or more of these powerful verses and memorize them.

* I believe the first time I was exposed to the idea of and the turn of phrase "the place where heaven and earth meet" was in a book written by N.T. Wright.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

It's Time to Dust Off an Old Spiritual Discipline

With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes!
Psalm 119:10-12 (ESV)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Colossians 3:16 (ESV)

Today I want to challenge you (and myself) to practice a long lost form of spiritual discipline that Christians rarely do anymore. (I am ashamed to say it has been a while since I have done it.) Let's memorize some Scripture! Before we start though, allow me just a few words in the two beautiful passages above.

There are many benefits to Scripture memorization. The psalmist highlights it as a means of avoiding sin. If we memorize God's commands, then we can avoid unknowingly transgressing against them. Storing up Scripture in his heart is a way for the psalmist to show his whole-hearted devotion to seeking the Lord. It's fitting that Psalm 119:11 should be considered the well spring of the spiritual discipline of Scripture memory because this chapter is not only the Bible's longest at 176 verses but is also one long acrostic poem dedicated to the goodness of God's Word. Colossians draws out a different benefit of committing the Word to memory. The believer should let the word or message of Christ dwell in her richly so that she can teach and admonish other believers, even by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs containing the same truths. I contend that there's no better way of letting Jesus' message dwell in us richly than for us to roll it around in our minds day after day until it is committed to memory. So what are we waiting for!

I suggest that you memorize any or all of following passages of Scripture:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment."
Matthew 22:37 (NIV)
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it."
Luke 9:23-24 (NIV)
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”
Lamentations 3:21-24 (NIV)
Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves.
Psalm 127:1-2 (NIV)
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.
Psalm 145:8-9 (NIV)

For further help consider the following:

  • Write a verse that is meaningful to you on your mirror so you'll see it automatically every day.
  • Write the passage out on a note card and carry it with you. Then you can work on memorization wherever you may be. Waiting in line at the store or waiting for a meeting to start at work.
  •  Say the verse out loud repeatedly. Hearing it will help you memorize it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Crouching Tiger, Devouring Sin

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Genesis 4:6-7

One only needs to read the first four chapters of the Bible to get a clear picture of how dangerous sin is. Already in Genesis 3 we have been told that sin entered the Garden of Eden in the form of a cunning snake we know to have been the Devil. Now just one chapter later, sin is described as a ferocious animal lying in wait outside a door waiting to pounce upon and devour its! No more fitting a simile for sin than this can be found. Although the Lord speaks to Cain in this passage, His message is just as true for you and me. We must never forget what sin's design is for our lives. In the original language "it desires to have you" is closer to "it craves or desires to devour you." Sin feeds on our destruction. We would do ourselves much good by simply remembering this. So often sin is peddled as fun, as stress relief, as really living it up. So remember this saying out of the mouth of God Himself. In reality sin is a ferocious animal lying in wait to devour you at its first opportunity. Don't believe Satan's cheap sales tactics. For your own good, avoid sin!

The Almighty continues to give Cain a suggested course of action. Literally God tells Cain that he must rule, or exercise dominion over, sin. He cannot allow sin to master him; he must rather master it. This is an interesting phrase given that God gave man dominion over animals at creation. Now after the Fall, increasingly men will have to exercise that dominion with great effort to tame and control animals from harming people. When you stop to consider how much intentional effort and planning goes into exercising dominion over a dog, a horse or even something as grand as a tiger, you get some sense of how difficult it must be to master sin.

We can all think of prominent news stories in which a supposedly tame (mastered) wild animal broke out and killed or maimed its owner, trainer, or some innocent bystander. Whether it's chimpanzees, lions, or horses over and over again we have been reminded not to get too confident in the idea that we have fully mastered any animal. If it is this difficult to master an animal, how much more so with sin.

It isn't until many years later in the New Testament that man would learn that only Jesus can ever truly exercise dominion over sin. For the rest of us, try as we might, we can never fully master it in our own power. Yet those who are in Christ, who have been filled with the Holy Spirit, have been set free from the bondage of sin (Acts 13:38-39Romans 6, & Romans 8:1-4). Sin no longer has mastery over the Christian. Yet, we too must heed God's words to Cain so we do not give in to sin again. We must continually remind ourselves of the dangers of sin, and we must plan and put forth an intentional effort to master this enemy in our lives.

Imagine what steps a man would take if he knew a wild animal were crouching at his door ready to devour him. He cannot stay in his house forever (Proverbs 26:13-14). He must eventually slay the beast. But he will not walk outside with a spatula or a rolled up newspaper. He'll plan carefully and give his best effort to master the enemy or he may die. Dear Christian, even though your soul is secure with the Lord, your life and all that God has planned for you hangs in the balance when you engage in sin. You must seek to master it by learning to walk in the freedom and power that Christ has given you. Do not think that you can embrace sin and somehow avoid its bite. So let me ask you... what ferocious animal, what sin are you inviting into your home, into your life? What sin do you find lying at your door each morning waiting to tempt you when you awake? And what is your plan to avoid it, to master it?  

For further reading...

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Lessons in Philemon: The Gospel Changes How We Live

I am sending [Onesimus]—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
Philemon 12-17

It's clear that Onesimus had taken great pains with considerable effort to escape slavery in the house of Philemon and head to Rome. So why in the world would he now willingly march right back to his old master? This is a puzzling thing to do! The only thing that has changed since Onesimus has been gone is that he has been saved. I think it's safe to say that Onesimus still shuddered at the thought of being re-enslaved, so how can we make sense of him returning to his old master?

In Paul's letter to Philemon, we have been learning that the gospel changes everything. It changes who we are, how we relate to other people and it also must change how we live. Philemon had an economic claim on Onesimus. An unjust claim to be sure, but a legal claim by the laws of the time. He owned him. Thus, when Onesimus ran away he had, at least in some sense, robbed Philemon. Now that he has become a Christian I believe Onesimus realized that he has wronged a brother in Christ and therefore sinned against God. I know it is hard for us to think this way because Philemon has wronged Onesimus in a far greater way by enslaving him. Yet, the Bible teaches clearly that Christians are not to return evil for evil. We are to turn the other cheek and if someone wrongs us by taking our shirt then we should willingly offer to give them our tunic as well. (Matt. 5:39-40) Having been forgive by God of his sin then, Onesimus cannot fathom willingly sinning against Him in any way. So in one of the most awe inspiring examples in all of Scripture, Onesimus chooses to do the right thing even when it is incredibly difficult.

This is admirable. Clearly the early church thought so as well since church history tells us that Onesimus later became the bishop of Ephesus. A willingness to do the right thing at all costs is part of the change that must accompany the life of any believer. It is all too easy to make excuses for our sins. It is all too easy to use God's grace as a license to sin. Onesimus sets an example for us. The Christian ought to be so dumbfounded by God's forgiveness, that he would go to any length to obey His new Master. We must obey God even when it is incredibly difficult. The gospel must change how we live. What right things have you neglected to do because they just seemed too difficult to you? 

Let me tell you the story of one of my own grandmothers. I was mostly unaware of her life story as I grew up, but one night, near the end of her lucid days just before the Alzheimer's kicked in, my sweet grandmother shared with me the story of her marriage. She met the love of her life when she was only a teenager. He was a bit older, and they secretly got married one night without their parents' knowledge. Some time later they revealed their marriage, moved in together and started a life. Unfortunately, my grandfather became an alcoholic and worse still an abusive one. They raised four children and lived a hard life on the farm. But God always provided and they counted their blessings. After some time, my grandmother could no longer allow herself or her now adult special needs son who was living at home to be hurt physically, verbally, and emotionally. So she took her son and left. On the night my grandmother relayed this story to me, late in her seventies, she looked me square in the eye and told me she always loved my grandfather, she just couldn't live with him anymore. But she knew that marriage was sacred. So my grandmother decided to do the right thing even though it was incredibly difficult. "I never looked at another man," she told me. "He was my husband." 

Many in the Christian community would argue that abuse is grounds for divorce, even if there isn't a specific provision for it in Scripture. I am not sure that I am fully qualified to answer that question, but I am certainly not sitting in judgment of anyone who did turn to divorce to escape an abusive marriage. But what I do know is that my grandmother believed staying true to my grandfather was the right thing for her to do. And she did what she believed was right even though it was incredibly difficult. She is just one of many Christians who have lived out this principle for those around them. They loved God enough to do the right thing even when it was incredibly difficult. And even though their names won't be written down in any history books, the impact of their lives is plain to see on those they have inspired. 

For further reading...

  • If you haven't kept up with the devotionals through Philemon you can read the first one here and the second one here.
  • It should be noted that the Bible does not condone slavery in this letter. It is true that Paul stops short of commanding Philemon to free Onesimus, but he does this because he wants Philemon to act from a heart changed by the gospel. His hope is that Philemon would free Onesimus of his own accord. In fact, this is exactly what we believe happened. Otherwise why would Philemon hold on to this letter and later provide it to be included in the Bible? Paul's tact in this letter is in line with the stance the New Testament church as a whole took on slavery. They sought to indirectly undermine it by commanding believing slave masters and slaves to love one another as brothers in Christ. In time this love created a climate in which slavery could not continue to thrive. Slavery in the ancient world was mostly eradicated as Christianity's influence increased.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lessons from Philemon: The Gospel Changes How We Relate to People

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
Philemon 12-17

Last week we learned about Onesimus, Philemon's runaway slave. Though his name meant useful, he was anything but useful as a slave. In fact, after some time he ran away, potentially stealing from his master to fund the journey. Onesimus fled to Rome to disappear into the crowds. There he met the Apostle Paul who shared the gospel with him. Onesimus was saved and was forever changed by the gospel. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he began serving others of his own free will. Through Onesimus' conversion story we learn that the gospel changes everything. In fact the entire Christian life can be summed up as the ongoing process of allowing the gospel to change us. This week we see that the gospel must change how we relate to other people.

In the passage above Paul asks Philemon to do a remarkable thing. Paul sends Philemon's runaway slave back to him and he asks him to receive Onesimus no longer as a slave but as a brother in Christ. Moreover, Paul requests that Philemon receive Onesimus as if he were the Apostle Paul himself. Now by the common perspective of the day Onesimus, being a runaway slave, was a criminal. Philemon could have him whipped or worse. Yet, Paul expects better of Philemon based on the gospel. He tells Philemon that his relationship with Onesimus has been changed by the power of the gospel. No longer are they merely master and slave. From this point on, throughout eternity, they are first and foremost brothers in Christ. Whatever else factors into their relationship, this must be considered first.

Has the gospel changed the way you relate to people? Do you continue to manipulate and use people to get your way? Are you stuck in your old racist habits? Or has the gospel thoroughly changed your relationships? Simply put the gospel should be the primary determining factor in how we relate to other people. If a person has accepted the gospel then, no matter what else they are to us, we must relate to them first and foremost as a brother or a sister in Christ. Now this has a whole host of implications for the lives of believers, but here are two. First, it means we must forgive other believers. If God has seen fit to forgive them, how can we refuse?! Second, it also means that we must treat those we date with respect. Hopefully you know the Bible commands us to date only believers (2 Cor. 6:14-15). If the person we are dating is first our brother or sister in Christ then you can't use that person for personal gratification. You must respect them and honor them as a child of God. 

What about those who aren't believers? The same principle holds. The gospel should be the primary determining factor in how we relate to other people. If a person has not yet accepted the gospel then, no matter what else they are to us, we must relate to them first and foremost as a lost person in need of the gospel. Even if they are cruel or mean to us, we must remember that they desperately need someone to show them the grace and love of God. Our every interaction with them ought to be colored by this need. One implication of this truth for today is that even as many Christians experience fear that sharing Jesus with Muslims might put them in danger, we must remember that first and foremost they are people in need of the gospel. Regardless of what happens we must share God's love and grace with them. We dare not return evil for evil. We must overcome evil with love. 

Which of your relationships needs to be changed by the gospel? 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Lessons from Philemon: The Gospel Changes Everything

I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. 
Philemon 10-16a

There are certain moments in life that simply change everything... moments that are so significant that after they occur nothing is ever the same again. Like the moment you hear the preacher say, "I now pronounce you man and wife." Or that first moment you lay eyes on your child. These moments change us. They affects us deeply both because of their innate power and because they are a forerunner of a host of other changes bursting into our lives. In Paul's little letter to Philemon we learn that the most significant of these life changing moments is the moment of salvation.

Onesimus had been a slave in Philemon's household until, severely unhappy in his bonds, Onesimus seized an opportunity to escape. It was dangerous to be a runaway slave in first century Roman society, if caught one could be killed. So Onesimus did what many other runaway slaves did. He did his best to disappear into the crowds of Rome, the largest city in the empire. As providence would have it, Onesimus found himself in the company of the Apostle Paul imprisoned in Rome for the sake of the gospel. Perhaps it was seeing a man so willingly submit to chains for the gospel that caught Onesimus' attention. Either way, Onesimus heard the truth about Jesus from Paul. He was moved by the Spirit, and responded in faith. Onesimus was never the same again.

In verse eleven Paul uses a play on words to describe the significant change that took place in this fugitive's life. The name Onesimus was commonly given to slaves in the first century because it meant "useful." Yet, Paul says that our Onesimus was decidedly useless as a slave. Yet, once he had received the gospel, he was changed. Perhaps for the first time in his life Onesimus found himself wanting to serve others. He began selflessly ministering to Paul's needs and helping in the advance of the gospel. Onesimus was a changed man. Though these details are not recorded in Scripture and therefore are not beyond scrutiny, church tradition tells us that this very same Onesimus later became the bishop of Ephesus and was eventually martyred for his faith in Rome.

What we learn from Onesimus' life is that the gospel changes everything. It changes who we are. It changes our character. The Apostle Paul certainly knew this. The gospel changed him from a murdering enemy of Jesus to an apostle and great missionary of the faith. He wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: The old has gone, the new is here!" Simply put, if the gospel hasn't changed you, you aren't a Christian. So I must ask. Has the gospel changed you? 
Jesus Himself said, "Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" (Matthew 7:22-23) So don't consider what you have accomplished, but what the gospel has accomplished in you. Has the gospel changed you? If not, then allow me to share with you the same powerful truth that the Apostle Paul shared with Onesimus in hopes that the Spirit will use this opportunity to reach down and change your heart today. 

All of us have sinned against God, rejected His authority, and gone about living lives our own way. In this way we have made ourselves enemies of God, rightly deserving His wrath and punishment. But God is loving and gracious. So in Jesus He took on the nature of humanity and paid the penalty for our sin. He took our punishment on the cross. He died in our place and then he beat the power of sin and death by his resurrection on the third day. So that "if you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9)

For further reading...
  • Philemon- Check out the full letter to Philemon. It's only 25 verses.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Before You Begin...

Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
John 1:32-34

Certain things in life are prerequisite to the journey ahead. You don't begin a road trip without first checking to make sure you have enough gas in the tank, air in the tires, and oil in the engine. Neither do you start a hiking trip wearing only your PJs and house shoes. It's the same with our Christian walk. Before you begin any undertaking for the Lord you should make sure you have what is necessary.

In today's passage we find Jesus about to embark on His public ministry, but before He begins, one thing is necessary. Jesus gets baptized and at His baptism the Spirit descends on Him like a dove and remains on Him. That last point always escaped my notice, but it is important. You see the Spirit's lighting on Jesus is not merely a sign to identify Him as the Messiah. It is much more than that. The Spirit resting on Him is both a symbol of His kingship (kings in the O.T. were often anointed with oil as a symbol of God's Spirit) and an important empowering preparation for His ministry. This is Jesus' Day of Pentecost. He is being filled with the Spirit and empowered to go out and perform His ministry.

If it was necessary and fitting for Jesus' ministry to begin with a Holy Spirit anointing, then how much more is it necessary for us? Notice that none of the gospels record Jesus having a single convert or performing a single miracle before His anointing with the Spirit. Therefore, we must be careful to remember that we are not called to do anything for God, as though we were capable of accomplishing anything of substance without Him. Rather we are called to do great things with God...good works He has prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10). How does one get the Spirit? The passage says that it is Jesus who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit. Every Christian at their salvation is filled with the Spirit. It is given to all believers to empower and guide them along their journey, but we must learn to walk and minister in it. So before you begin making your own plans today, be sure to ask for God's guidance and blessing through His powerful Spirit.

For further reading...

  • Matthew 4:1-11- Several of the gospels follow Jesus' baptism with the Spirit immediately leading him into the desert to face temptation. 
  • Romans 8- Life through the Spirit.
  • I John 4- How to recognize the Spirit of God.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Better than Ezra?

While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly. Then Shekaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”
Ezra 10:1-4

It's hard for me to read about Ezra in the Bible without thinking of the band Better than Ezra. I am fairly certain that their name has nothing to do with the Ezra of the Bible but if it does that would be a real challenge. Ezra provides such a strong example for believers to live up to that it would be hard to do much better than he did. Ezra was a man who held God's Word in high regard and dedicated himself to it. Could that be said of you? Ezra 7:10 says, "For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel." He was passionate about keeping God's commands and teaching Israel to do the same. He was sent by the Persian King Artaxerxes to help rebuild the temple and ensure that God's laws and the king's laws were being kept. As soon as Ezra arrives back in Judah some of the leaders come to him to confess that the people have fallen into sin (9:1-4). They have started marrying foreign women from the surrounding nations. Ezra's response to their sin changed everything.

But before we turn to look at Ezra's response we must pause to consider the people's sin. It can be hard to understand from a New Testament perspective and it sounds offensive to post-modern ears to say that marrying foreign women is a sin. It's very important that we read Scripture carefully. The problem wasn't really that these Jewish men were marrying women with a different skin color or language. The Bible isn't against interracial marriage. The problem is that these women didn't worship God. At this time in history only Jews worshiped God. Thus, the Old Testament often uses the term "foreign" in way that is synonymous with idol-worshiper. Still not convinced? It is clear from Scripture that God has no qualm with marrying a foreigner who converts to Judaism. Ruth was a foreign woman as was Rahab. Yet both of them received the Jewish God as their God, both married Jewish men, and both are in the family line of Christ Jesus Himself. The problem wasn't that Jews were marrying Gentiles but that they were marrying idol worshipers. People who worshiped other gods were being brought into the people of Israel. This brought the whole company under the threat of God's judgment. It also brought significant risk that these women would entice their husbands away from worshiping the one true God to worshiping idols. (Even the wise King Solomon fell into this trap.) So then the issue at hand is not interracial marriage but being unequally yoked in marriage with an unbeliever, which the New Testament itself also speaks out against. (2 Cor. 6:14-18)

Ezra's response to their sin is truly instructive. He does not yell in anger. Nor does he call an assembly to quote the Bible to them. Ezra simply mourned over the sin of the people and went before God on their behalf. He mourned because he knew God's judgment could break out against all of Judah. But I believe he also mourned for God because his people were throwing His offer of forgiveness and grace back in His face. Ezra's righteous mourning opened their eyes to the seriousness of their sin. It had such an effect on his people that they not only freely confessed their sin and joined him in mourning over it but they also became willing to put their sin away. Do you mourn over the sin of those around you? Have you ever considered how much of an impact your response to sin can have on those around you? What if your lost friend at work based his opinion of Christianity on your response to sin in the office, would he become a Christian? If your child's future walk with the Lord depended on your response to the sin in music, TV, and the movies that you watch, would you expect her to be a strong believer twenty years from now? The righteous life and righteous response of a few can have a big impact on our society. Even when our world disagrees with us over sin, a righteous response to sin can give them reason to think, to reconsider their beliefs. So today I encourage you to mourn over sin. Mourn over your own sin and the sin of others. Mourn over how our culture celebrates it. Mourn for those who will face judgment apart from the grace available in Jesus. Mourn for our God who deserves all glory yet is all too often met with disrespect and contempt.

For further reading...
  • 1 Cor. 7:12-16- It should be noted that the New Testament doesn't advocate divorcing our unbelieving spouses. This is in part due to the possibility that some of us may have married prior to coming to Christ, but it is also because your marriage to a non-believer doesn't endanger the entire nation like it did for the Old Testament people of God. 
  • 2 Cor. 6:14-18- Christians are specifically instructed, however, not to marry non-believers.
  • Exodus 12:43-49- Part of the Old Testament law that makes provision for foreigners to become a part of the people of God. Circumcision was the sign of God's covenant with His people, so prior to Christ being circumcised was how one entered into that covenant with God and joined His people.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace."
Acts 20:22-24

What is your life ultimately about? Is your life's purpose to provide for you family, or to find happiness, or to live life to fullest, or to help out the less fortunate? Most of us spend 40 hours a week or better working our fingers to the bone. Then on our nights and weekends we spend more time pouring into our families, our homes, and our communities. Why? What is all this ultimately about?

The Apostle Paul clarifies that our lives are ultimately about only one thing: testifying to the good news of God's grace. The above passage is an excerpt from Paul's speech to the Ephesian elders. He is saying goodbye to his friends as he journeys to Jerusalem. Even as the Spirit leads Paul to go to Jerusalem, He is continually warning him that he will be arrested and face persecution once he arrives. Paul continues on to Jerusalem anyway. Why? Because Paul considered his life worth nothing when compared to his mission of testifying to the gospel. He was prepared to lose his life if it meant that he could complete this mission. In fact, once Paul arrived in Jerusalem and was arrested we believe he spent approximately the next five years in various forms of imprisonment before being released. Church tradition tells us that later he was rearrested and martyred for his faith in Jesus. 

Where does testifying to the good news of the gospel fall on your priority list? When was the last time you told anyone about the gospel or publicly associated with Jesus? Now some clever Christian might to try to weasel out of his conviction at this moment by reasoning that Paul was called to a higher level of commitment as a an apostle/pastor/missionary. But I think this is wrong. While it is true that God has placed a special call on the lives of apostles, missionaries and pastors, all Christians are responsible for being a witness to the good news of grace in Christ Jesus. In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul says this: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). This isn't true only of apostles but of all Christians. So then, if we no longer live, but Christ lives in us, then shouldn't our priorities match Christ's? Yes! All of us are called to testify to the goodness of the gospel. In fact, that is our most important job this side of heaven.

So I ask you again, are you telling others about Jesus? I pray that God brings to your mind at least one person right now that you can talk to about Jesus, and I pray that you will do it.

For further reading...   

  • Phil 1:12-18- Note that the Gospel increased because of Paul's imprisonment.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Never Stop Praying for the Lost

Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.
Acts 8:1-3

If anyone has ever qualified to be beyond the reach of God's grace, it was Saul. But of course we know the story of Saul. He was so changed by a post-resurrection visit from Jesus that he became the Apostle Paul. He wrote much of the New Testament and was the leading missionary of the early church. We know this story so well that we can tend to gloss over it. We fail to see the hope that it gives us. Saul went from being a man who imprisoned and enjoyed the martyrdom of Christians to a man who was so in love with Jesus that he himself suffered for his refusal to deny Christ, and was eventually martyred himself.

But imagine meeting a first century believer who might have known Saul before his conversion, when he still hated Jesus. This friend would tell us that he wants Saul to believe, but what can he do? "Maybe you can show him from the Scriptures that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah," we say. But he points out that Saul is a gifted student of the Bible. Saul knows the Bible better than our friend does and he is a far superior debater. "Perhaps you can impress on Saul his need for forgiveness," we suggest. But our friend would point out that Saul is nearly flawless in keeping the law. Saul is as righteous as any man he has ever known. Saul is also keenly aware of his own righteousness and will vehemently defend it if need be. So that won't work. What can our friend do? He desperately wants Saul to come to know the joy he has found in Jesus but he is tempted to give up.

It is easy to imagine how a believer in this situation might feel. "There is no hope left for my old friend now," he might think. "There is simply no way that a man like Saul will ever surrender his will to Jesus." Perhaps you have a friend or a family member that you feel this way about. "There is simply no way that he or she will ever accept Jesus," you think. But you would be wrong to give up hope on them just like our imaginary first century friend would have been wrong to give up hope on Saul. Jesus Himself said "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26).

Perhaps you have a friend or a family member who has resisted all of your attempts to tell them about Jesus. Perhaps they have even refused Christ for many years. Are you going to give up on them? Are they simply beyond God's reach? NO! Never stop praying for someone's salvation simply because it seems impossible that they will accept Christ. God is a god of the impossible, and He is still in the business of saving souls. Trust Him and pray like their souls depend on it. 

For further reading...
  • Matthew 19:16-26- The rich man rejects Jesus.
  • Luke 18:1-8- The Parable of the Persistent Widow
  • Luke 11:1-13 (especially v. 5-13)- This is how you ought to pray.
  • Spend some time in prayer for one or more people you know who need Christ.