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.