Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Time for Everything

“But after Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, they arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning this controversy.” (Acts 15:2 CSB)

Solomon tells us in the Book of Ecclesiastes that “there is a time for everything under the sun.” While few people enjoy fighting, there is a time when it is important if not critical to take a stand. Paul and Barnabas found themselves at that point following the completion of their first missionary journey. Some men from Judea went down to Antioch and began teaching that any Gentile believers had to first be circumcised before they could become Christians, that circumcision and the keeping of the law were an essential part of the salvation process, in other words. Paul and Barnabas wasted no time in engaging these men in vigorous debate, and the controversy spilled over so that the matter was taken to Jerusalem for review by the apostles and elders in the church there.

In Jerusalem, folks got together and began to debate this issue back and forth. Peter, uncharacteristically quiet during most of the debate, finally stood up and reminded them of how God had used him to introduce the Christian faith to the Gentiles, and God poured out His Spirit on the Gentiles just as He had on the Jews who believed on the Day of Pentecost. Peter challenged those of the circumcision party that it made no sense to put restrictions on Gentiles that not even the Jews had been able to follow.

Barnabas and Paul began then to share from their hearts how God had used them in outreach to the Gentiles. When they stopped speaking, James, the half-brother of Jesus, who by then was the main leader of the Jerusalem church, gave affirmation to the viewpoints Peter, Barnabas, and Paul espoused, and added that the Gentiles should still be asked to abstain from “things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from blood.” (verse 20) This was written up, and Judas and Silas were dispatched from Jerusalem to the church in Antioch along with Paul and Barnabas to communicate this affirmation.

To us today, this all does not seem to have very much impact, but it was likely one of the most critical issues the church has ever faced. The question was: What does it take for someone to be saved, to be a Christian? The point Paul and Barnabas was making is that we are saved by God’s grace through faith – plus nothing else, minus nothing else. The circumcision party was saying that we are saved by God’s grace through faith – plus circumcision, plus following the law, and that these have to come BEFORE someone can become a Christian.

No one enjoys fights like this, but there are times when Christians of conscience must take a stand about what they believe about what is right and what is wrong. An entire direction could depend on it.

Lord, Help us to be certain when there is a time to take a stand, and when it is not time for that. Help us to know which battles are to be fought, and which are not. Amen.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Call to Fulfill

“At that, Jesus said to Peter, “Sheathe your sword! Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given Me?”

One of the most remarkable aspects of the cross event is that it actually did not have to happen. God did not have to send His Son. No one had the capability of twisting God’s arm, so to speak. Jesus did not have to go to the cross. He did not have to suffer. He was not forced. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said, “Or do you think that I cannot call on My Father, and he will provide Me at once with more than 12 legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53 CSB)

While the crucifixion did not have to happen in that sense, in other perspectives it did have to happen.

The cross had to happen because death was God’s judgment on sin. That judgment had already been passed on you and me and all other human beings because, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Death and hell awaited us in our future, but God decided to provide us with a means of receiving eternal life. He sent His Son to die in our place and take on Himself the judgment that was due us. People sometimes try to explain sin away or dress it up in finery, but the reality is that sin – all sin – is unholy and horrible in God’s eyes, and it is because of sin that Jesus died.

The cross had to happen also because of God’s grace. While God is holy in the absolute, He is also a compassionate and loving God, slow to anger and full of patience. The cross had to happen because of God’s very nature. Whereas sin demands a verdict of guilty, grace leads the way to guiltless. The God who is love provided an open door that we did not deserve, and He did so because of who He is.

The cross had to happen because of Scripture. God spoke through prophet after prophet about the Messiah, who He was to be, what He would be like, and what would happen to Him. The Scripture had to be fulfilled that the Christ would suffer, die, and be raised from the dead.

And then, the cross had to happen because of the call of God on the life of Jesus, His Son. God sent Him and “called” Him to fulfill this purpose. Someone who is called to a purpose has within himself or herself an overwhelming drive to carry out that for which he or she was called.

Father, We recognize that the cross did not have to happen, but that it also did have to happen for our sake. We thank You for Your grace and love, and we thank You for the forgiveness that has led to eternal life for us who believe in You. Amen.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Life Lament

“I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins.” (Psalm 102:6 CSB)

In your mind, picture a heap of rubble. This rubble is from the stones of a building, torn down and strewn all around. On top of the rubble, see an owl perched, sitting alone, with feathers ruffled by the wind. The owl is light brown in color, almost the color of the stones, making it nearly invisible. Only the occasional blinking of an eye tells you it is not a stone you are seeing. The only sounds are the wind and the owl’s occasional mournful hooting, for he is completely alone among the ruins.

That is what this psalmist felt like. The psalmist spoke of his affliction, and how it appeared to him that his life was being cut short in “midcourse.” He felt as though his days were like vanishing smoke, or withering grass. His food was ashes, and his drink was tears. He felt that God’s indignation and wrath were the source of his affliction. He lamented the brevity of this life. At the same time, though, he celebrated the eternity of God and the fact that God would raise up one generation after another to continue the work of His kingdom. He expressed his belief that God would have compassion on Zion.

This is pretty much all we know about this psalm and the writer. We do not know what happened to him beyond this. But he helps us to learn something.

We may sometimes feel that the Lord has brought some kind of affliction our way. Based on the teaching of Scripture, we would have to say that this is at least a possibility. Another psalm writer said, “In righteousness You have afflicted me.” He believed it was right of God to do so, because God always does what is right, whether or not we understand it. Our measure of what is right and what is not is not the one that counts, because “My ways are not your ways,” said the Lord. We cannot comprehend all the ways and works of God.

It is also true, however, that God may not necessarily always be the source of some affliction we suffer. It may be that God allows it to come into our lives. It may also be that an affliction comes as the result of some action we have taken or not taken. If someone runs a red light and in an accident kills someone you love, that does not mean that God is the author of that affliction. The driver of the other car is the one responsible. And if a doctor tells you to take a medication that can save your life and you do not, the doctor is not the one responsible for the affliction that ensues.

Sometimes it is clear that the source of an affliction is the Lord himself, but there are also times when this is not clear at all. So, what do we do? We do the same thing this psalmist did: we go to God, we express our fears, our hurts, our concerns, and our laments, but we also end up in the place of faith, and hope, and love. We end up there because we come to the full realization that our God is a loving God, an awesome God, and that His eternal purposes are going to prevail. And we have been privileged to be part of His purposes, whether this life continues or not. And we will reign with Him forever and ever.

Lord, Put life and death in the right perspective for us, and help us today to live life fully, trusting all of it to Your purposes. Amen.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Pray with Expectation

“So Peter was kept in prison, but prayer was being made earnestly to God for him by the church.” (Acts 12:5 CSB)

Let’s quickly review the rest of that story. King Herod brutally attacked some who belonged to the church in Jerusalem. He beheaded James the brother of John and proceeded to arrest Peter. He intended to execute Peter the next day, but the church earnestly prayed to God for Peter. God sent an angel during the night who opened doors and led Peter unseen past the guards through doors and into the city before disappearing. Peter went to the home of Mary the mother of John Mark where he knew some believers would be. Initially, the church thought that Rhoda, the servant girl, was crazy for thinking that Peter was at the gate, but they shortly learned that it really was him. Peter told them to report everything to James. This was James the half-brother of Jesus. Then, Peter departed to another place.

From this story we learn some important lessons about prayer.

First, we learn that prayer is a powerful event and probably one that is more powerful than we realize. The reason it is more powerful than we realize is because God is more powerful than we sometimes think He is. This has more to do with our human limitations. The church prayed earnestly for Peter, but when he was released and at the door, the church did not believe it. They prayed earnestly, but probably with not a lot of expectation.

Second, we learn that when we as a church pray together and pray with unity in seeking God and asking Him to do something we need, we can expect a clear answer or direction from God. Jesus said that whatever we ask in His name, He will do. God will respond according to His will, but we also need to understand that God is capable of changing His mind. God knows the future, and we trust it all to Him. But when something weighs heavily on our minds and hearts, we need then to come together as one in earnest, concerted, on-going, and believing prayer to God.

And when God answers, let’s not be quite so surprised!

Lord, We thank You that You are the power of prayer. It isn’t prayer, but it’s You. And You respond when Your people come before You in earnest prayer. Help us to turn to You in prayer expectantly. Amen.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Determined to Help

“So each of the disciples, according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brothers who lived in Judea. This they did, sending it to the elders by means of Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 11:29-30 CSB)

A group of prophets from the church in Jerusalem went to Antioch to visit with the church there. One of them was named Agabus. Agabus prophesied that a famine was coming soon to the Roman Empire, and it happened during the reign of Claudius.

The result of the famine was devastating to the church in Jerusalem. First, food was in short supply. Second, the Jerusalem church was no longer as popular as it had been. Third, the Jerusalem church was especially unpopular among the Jewish leadership because its growth threatened the foundations of Judaism. So, with regard to food distributions, which the temple leaders could influence, people related to the Jerusalem church would have been “lowest on the totem pole,” so to speak.

When Agabus made his prediction, well before the event, Christians in the church at Antioch took it seriously. Little by little, the disciples in Antioch set aside money that could be sent to Jerusalem to provide some relief to the brothers there. At a point when someone judged the need to be acute, the money was sent to Jerusalem via Barnabas and Saul.

This expression of “agape” love came about because the believers in Antioch were determined to help. They heard the message, and they made a determination that they would be ready to help when the time came. It all began with a decision.

In the modern western world of Christianity, churches sometimes seem to be in competition with one another. Obviously, that is not always true, and many pastors and church members alike would deny it. But actions, and lack of actions, suggest that there are at least some who act as if they are.

Perhaps we need to be reminded of some realities. In Christ, all of us – church or individual – are on level ground. If a church is genuinely “christian,” it is preaching Christ. If the church’s theology is Bible-based rather than oriented to the ebb and flow of political correctness or other social pressures, then it is a true sister church. And if churches like this are hurting for some reason, and another church has a resource that can help, then that church needs to determine that it is going to offer its help. Any sense of competition needs to be thrown out the window. There is far too much at stake to allow pettiness or some level of competition to keep us from helping a genuinely sister church. As we have the ability to do so, churches need to determine that they will help anytime it is needed.

Lord, Remind us that as true fellow believers we are all on the same page, serving the same Lord, for the same purposes. Show us ways to support and help one another. Amen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Explain, Please

“When Peter went up to Jerusalem, those who stressed circumcision argued with him, saying, ‘You visited uncircumcised men and ate with them!’ Peter began to explain to them in an orderly sequence.” (Acts 11:2-4 CSB)

Our 21st century mind-set is clueless to understand the importance of circumcision to 1st century Jews and Jewish Christians. From their viewpoint, a man who was uncircumcised could not get into heaven. It was a requirement for salvation, a man’s “ticket to heaven” so to speak. Association with men who were uncircumcised was, in their view, something akin to a committed believer hanging out in a honky-tonk. Only much worse. So, when these guys got word that Peter preached the gospel to uncircumcised men, went into their homes, and actually ate with them, they were offended to the core. So when Peter made it up to Jerusalem, they challenged him publicly.

Peter had the good sense to take six other Jewish Christians with him, to attest to everything that happened. There could be no arguing with the facts of what happened, which is exactly the way Peter explained it. The outcome is that, for the time being at least, these of the circumcision party, as it came to be known, were silenced and then glorified God that the Gentiles had received repentance resulting in life. The issue was far from over, but for the time being they were silent.

Think about this for a moment. Who was Peter? Well, he was only the head honcho. He was THE leader of the Jerusalem church, the primary spokesman on the Day of Pentecost, the one who healed a man who was crippled, the man who raised Dorcas from the dead. His resume was not too shabby. And yet, here we see this Spirit-filled, powerful leader being called on the carpet by some men who did not get it yet. And even more surprising, we see Peter giving a sequenced, full, detailed explanation of exactly what happened.

It if is not apparent yet, what this suggests to us is that all of us are accountable, even those who have impeccable records in leadership. Some church leaders and pastors can, at times, behave as if they have no accountability, but the reality is that all of us have an accountability to the church and to individuals in the church, regardless of where they may or may not be in their spiritual development. Servant leadership demands such of all us. Pride tells us we do not have to explain anything, but pride needs to be displaced by humility which tells us that everyone matters.

Father, Help us to neither fear nor avoid accountability, but to use even that as an opportunity to glorify You. Amen.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Opportunity Dilemma

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will these people despise Me? How long will they not trust in Me despite all the signs I have performed among them?” (Numbers 14:11 CSB) “When I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ, a door was opened to me by the Lord. I had no rest in my spirit because I did not find my brother Titus, but I said good-bye to them and left for Macedonia.” (2 Corinthians 2:12-13 CSB)

Opportunities abound for the people of God, but sometimes an opportunity may also present a dilemma. Shall we take advantage of the opportunity, or should we not?

Moses led Israel to the brink of the promised land, and at the Lord’s direction sent spies to check out the land. They all brought back a glowing report about the land, but they brought a negative report about the people. They saw some very large people in the land, and that caused them to see themselves as “grasshoppers” by comparison. Caleb and Joshua urged that they move ahead and trust the Lord to give them the land, but on that day fear won out. The people talked about stoning Moses and Aaron and choosing a new leader who would take them back to Egypt. Faith lost out to fear that time. The people paid a huge price for their lack of faith and vision. They wandered in the desert 40 years, until all of that generation age 20 and up died in the wilderness.

Paul the apostle once went to the city of Troas, looking for Titus his co-worker and brother in the Lord. The Lord opened a great door of opportunity for an effective ministry in Troas, but Paul was so uneasy in his spirit because of not finding Titus that he had to decline the opportunity until he could find his brother. In this instance, his relationship with his brother in Christ took precedence, so he departed Troas to go on to Macedonia to find Titus. Sometimes God gives an opportunity, but it is not always His will that we take advantage of the opportunity.

What we have here are two equally valid biblical stories about opportunities. Neither were taken, but for different reasons. One was declined because people allowed their fears to overcome their faith in God. One was declined because a spiritual relationship had a greater priority than the opportunity. One decision was sinful, and the other was not. Interestingly, in that same city of Troas years earlier, Paul saw a vision from the Lord that led him to take the opportunity to introduce the gospel into Europe for the first time.

When opportunity comes, how can we discern if it is from the Lord, and be certain that we should proceed?

First, we need an awareness that the Lord is leading us toward the opportunity. This awareness is not whimsy. It is not the product of imagination, but it is a genuine opportunity that comes about in ways that tell us it is not of our own doing. Leaders see this, and they “hear” the Lord speaking about it and urging them forward.

Second, the opportunity needs to be one that challenges and calls us to a deeper faith. It enables us to develop our walk with God and with one another. The opportunity makes it obvious that only by proceeding in faith can it be achieved, and we know already that God wants our faith and trust in Him to deepen.

Third, the opportunity should bear the marks of relationality, in that it offers us the chance to deepen our relationships with one another. Relationships have to take priority. Of course, the relationship we each have with the Lord takes the highest priority, but the fellowship and relationships among God’s people is also a high priority. God wants those relationships to be strengthened.

Fourth, the opportunity should represent great forward progress in the work of God’s kingdom. God’s priority is the growth of His kingdom. That was foremost in the thinking of Jesus, and it should be the same for us.

Fifth, after reviewing all the pros and cons of an opportunity, we can be sure it is genuinely from the Lord when we are convinced in our hearts and minds that this is the leading of the Holy Spirit, that it is the will of God, that it is the right thing to do.

In the long run, if God wants us to follow Him into an opportunity, we dare not shrink back in fear, and if He does not want us to take an opportunity, we dare not presume to take it. The bottom line is that we must seek Him, His will, and to the best of our understanding follow Him in faith. “Now faith is the reality [certainty] of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 CSB)

Lord, In each opportunity that comes our way, help us to understand and discern Your will and make decisions that will glorify You. Amen.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Fruit Production

“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me.” (John 15:5 CSB)

Jesus used a grape vine to illustrate what He wants to happen and what should happen in the lives of His disciples. The outcome of what He wants to happen is for our lives to produce much fruit, which will prove that we are His disciples. He does not specify exactly what that fruit is. Some who mean well take the metaphor to what they feel are logical extremes and say that the “fruit” is other believers, the idea being that what we are expected to produce is new Christians. Hopefully, we all engage in personal witnessing, but that specific fruit is not indicted in the text or in the larger context of this passage. In the surrounding texts, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit, about the gift of peace, about Christ-like love, and about persecutions. Very likely, Jesus did not specify fruit here because He had a broad meaning in mind.

The nature of the fruit is not the point, and while fruit production is the intended outcome of what the Lord wants, that is not the point either. The point Jesus is making to us is that He wants us to “remain” or “abide” in Him. The reason for that is because without Him, without remaining in Him, there can be no fruit production. Without Him, there is nothing. Only as we abide in the Lord will there be the production of the fruit He desires. The point Jesus makes is that He will Himself produce the fruit so long as we abide in Him. So, the whole idea here is for us to remain totally true and faithful in our personal relationship of faith in Jesus, and to the degree that we do so, He will produce fruit in and through us.

Lord, Today may each of us “abide” in You, so that Your Spirit in us may produce much fruit that brings You honor and glory. Amen.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Reliable Testimony

“Lord, Your testimonies are completely reliable.” (Psalm 93:5a CSB)

A testimony is the verbal expression of events, actions, and truth which a person has seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. Someone who sees, hears, or experiences an event, action or truth and who tells it to someone is called a “witness.” Witnesses give testimony.

What constitutes a “reliable” testimony? In western courts, a witness must be someone who saw, heard, or experienced the event, can recall it accurately, and must swear under penalty of perjury that what they speak is the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” So, what keeps that witness from lying, from giving false testimony? The only deterrent to lying is the possibility of jail, but other than that, there is nothing that can keep them from lying if they chose to do so. The only thing you can then do is rely on the character of the witness giving the testimony.

So, what does the psalmist mean when he says that God’s “testimonies are completely reliable?” He is saying that God’s testimonies are absolute, are the truth, are 100% trustworthy. What makes it that way?

The character of God is what makes His testimonies, His word, totally reliable. There is no one greater to swear by. God is good and righteous and holy. In the second half of the verse above we read, “Holiness is the beauty of Your house for all the days to come.” The holiness of God precludes any possibility that God’s word is somehow tainted. When God says something, it is the truth. When He promises, He keeps His word. When He warns, He means it. When He calls, He is sincere. And He is 100% all of those descriptions, because that is His character. His character is what makes His testimony reliable.

Lord, We trust You and Your testimonies completely. Amen.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Made to Rejoice

“For You have made me rejoice, Lord, by what You have done; I will shout for joy because of the works of Your hands.” (Psalm 92:4 CSB)

In this life we live, sometimes it feels like “struggle” lives next door, “calamity” across the street, and “difficulty” a little further down the street. The ebb and flow of life experiences can bring positive change and, at times, can bring unwanted and unexpected change. The difference may be in the perception, and perception is dependent on personal impact.

The reality of the works of God’s hands, however, ministers to us like nothing else can. Knowing that a sovereign God is in control, that He is working in our lives, and that He brings good to us can serve to cause us to rejoice, even in the midst of the most difficult trials of life. Some of them cause us to question God’s purposes. But when we look beyond that question, we come to a point of confidence in the truth that, in spite of what we may see, God is at work for purposes beyond our comprehension. When we come to this point of realization, the effect is nearly explosive. It causes us to want to shout for joy. We know God is at work. And He is at work for good.

We do not arrive at this awareness automatically, and certainly not easily. Faith in God, His truth, and His purposes takes us to that place. Faith is the only vehicle that can possibly get us to that place, and faith is an absolute, child-like trust that God loves us beyond measure. That is why we pray, “Thy will be done.”

Lord, You have indeed caused us to rejoice because of Your works in our lives. Though we may not always understand them, we trust You absolutely. Amen.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Snakes Alive!

“So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered.” (Numbers 21:9 CSB)

The people of Israel continually did not get it, amazingly. In spite of all the miracles, all the signs from God, they continued in their rebellious ways. Here is what is recorded: “They spoke against God and Moses: ‘Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food! (manna)’ Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died.”

Once again the people went to Moses and admitted their sin and asked Moses to intercede for them. Moses did, and God told him to fashion a bronze snake, mount it on a pole, and tell the Israelites that if they were bitten by a snake to look at the pole, and they would then be healed. Those who obeyed the instruction recovered. The medical symbol we are so familiar with today – a cross with snakes wrapped around it – comes from this story. It has become a symbol of healing.

The bronze serpent on a pole is also the symbol of something much more important. It was a metaphor of what was coming. Jesus referred to it in this way, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.” (John 3:14 CSB) Thus, this story from Moses and the Israelites was something of a “shadow” of the crucifixion event that was to happen some 1400 years later.

As interesting as this wilderness story is, its importance is overshadowed by the cross of Jesus, and it serves as a reminder that God keeps His word to carry out His promises. He is trustworthy. His invitation is to all of us to receive His grace, to receive by faith the salvation He promises, and to live a life of spiritual wellness and wholeness.

Lord, May we indeed live today this life You have called us to and have given to us. Amen.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Known Cost

“’Go and stand in the temple complex, and tell the people all about this life.’ In obedience to this, they entered the temple complex at daybreak and began to teach… Every day in the temple complex, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that the Messiah is Jesus.” (Acts 5:20-21, 42 CSB)

So here’s what happened. Word got out that the disciples of Jesus were healing people, so crowds began to come to Jerusalem. Miracles and signs were taking place. The religious leadership couldn’t have that, so the high priest took action and had the apostles arrested. During the night, an angel opened the doors of the jail and told them to go tell the people all about this Christian life. The apostles did. Then they were re-arrested and hauled in before an angry Sanhedrin, upset that these men were determined to bring Jesus’ blood on them (as if it were not already a fact!). Gamaliel offered some sage advice which was accepted. He told them to leave these guys alone, because if none of this was of God it would fail, and if it was they wouldn’t be able to stop it anyway. So, the leaders had the apostles flogged and then showed them the door. The apostles went away rejoicing they were counted worthy of suffering for the name of Jesus. From then on, the apostles continued teaching about Jesus every day in the temple and in homes.

Here were the options the apostles had. First, they could just stop preaching and teaching about Jesus. Second, they could try to establish a dialogue with the religious leaders, seek some common ground, and develop a white papyrus stating their points of agreement and defining everyone’s parameters. Third, they could look for a politically correct solution that would include everyone, seek a sweet sensitivity to the feelings of all others, and scrupulously attack anything and anyone who might say or do something offensive. Fourth, they could just continue preaching and teaching Jesus and take their lumps, because they knew there would be more.

The first three options would have been a total denial of everything the apostles had seen, heard, and experienced over the past three years. They would have been a denial of the truth. Worse, they would represent a direct disobedience to the very commands of Jesus and the expectations of the Father. There really were no options. The fourth one was the only direction possible. And they took it. They took it knowing what the cost would be. But the cost of not going that direction would have been infinitely greater.

Does the church in America understand the cost of discipleship, and are we willing to pay it for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Lord, You paid the full price for our sins. You freed us from the tyranny of sin. You filled us with Your Spirit. You call us to walk faithfully with You and share You with a lost world. Help us to understand the cost, and help us to be faithful in preaching and teaching about You. Amen.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Life Cycle

“I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop. The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24-25 CSB)

Jesus lived His life by the principle stated in the verses above. For Him, life was all about giving it away and, thereby, keeping it. Only life given produces fruit. Life hoarded brings stagnancy, decline, and fruitlessness.

In more general terms, people tend to do the opposite of what Jesus taught. People tend to try to build up their own lives and seek qualities of life and possessions that focus on their status. They seek rather than give. Put another way, the tendency is to seek to the exclusion of giving away life. Attempting to “hoard” life has the opposite effect, however. The result is actually loss rather than gain.

Jesus used the metaphor of a seed to illustrate His meaning. A wheat seed that remains in the sack remains that and nothing more. It’s just a seed. But if the seed is planted in the ground, the seed essentially dies. In dying, it puts down roots and sends a shoot upward toward the sun. A stalk is produced and eventually a head of grain that ripens to produce more wheat many times over.

There is nothing wrong at all with wanting to live a good life and wanting to enjoy life. God created us with this capacity and desire. But if that becomes the focus of our lives to the exclusion of the fulfillment of the purposes God has for us, we will end up with only a life of emptiness and insignificance.

Paradoxically, only in the giving of life do we get to keep it.

Lord, May we this day give our lives away, so that our lives may have that enduring, eternal quality that brings honor to You. Amen.

Friday, January 11, 2008

An Undivided Mind

“Teach me Your way, Lord, and I will live by Your truth. Give me and undivided mind to fear Your name.” (Psalm 86:11 CSB)

Through the centuries life has gotten more and more complex. Up until two or three centuries ago the development was fairly slow and consistent, but with the discovery and application of electricity, with the industrial revolution, and with the development of sophisticated communications in telephone, radio and television, along with the computer last century, the complexity of life has increased exponentially. As technology continues to develop today, it offers improvements in lifestyle but shows no let up in the concurrent development of life’s complexities. This makes it all the more difficult for people to stay focused on one thing for an extensive period of time. And at least part of the impact is to multiply the priorities that people have.

The prayer that David expressed above has great merit and blessing. Sometimes we just need to “turn down the volume” and ask God to teach us His way and His truth, so that we can have an undivided mind, one that stays focused on Him regardless of the complexities we face in life.

Father, Today help us to stay focused on You, Your way, Your teaching, Your truth, and help us to live with an undivided mind, one that hears Your voice and sees Your way in spite of the multitude of distractions we face. Amen.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Passing through Home

“So He departed again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and He remained there. Many came to Him and said, ‘John never did a sign, but everything John said about this man was true.’ And many believed in Him there.” (John 10:40-42 CSB)

Who doesn’t remember going to a family reunion? Probably the vast majority of us have attended such events. The adults loved it. Kids… well, that’s another story. The kid reunion experience involves folks like Aunt Ada who pinches all the kids’ cheeks and says, “My, how you’ve grown!” The kids see her and the others who do this sort of thing coming and look for places to hide, but there is no hiding. They always get to you sooner or later with “My, how you’ve grown!” And the pinch.

Then the kids grow up. Somewhere between ages 35 and 45, the kids find themselves saying to their brothers and sisters, “Hey, you know, we ought to get the family together for a reunion.” Images of Aunt Ada come into mind, but they persist anyway. Before you know it, the reunion is a reality.

That’s when they discover a truth they have known all along. You can never go home. You can never return to what was. But another truth also emerges: Everybody needs to pass through home every once in a while. The affirmation of the past has a way of affirming the future.

Jesus spent days in Jerusalem dealing with the Jews. He made it very clear along the way that He was the Son of God and the Messiah. They started looking for stones. But Jesus eluded their grasp.

Jesus departed Jerusalem and went back to the place where John had been baptizing earlier and stayed there. Why might He have gone there? That was the place where He was Himself baptized by John, to fulfill all righteousness. It was the place where the Holy Spirit descended visibly upon Him in the sight of all. It was the place where the Father spoke and said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The place Jesus went had a very special significance to Him. The sorrow of the rejection He experienced from those who should have been the first to welcome Him was undoubtedly part of His motivation for going to this place, but at least another part of it had to do with that basic need to re-visit one’s roots, to “pass through home,” so to speak. Maybe there was a need for a “reunion” of sorts. What better place on earth for that? How affirming!

Everyone needs to pass through home once in a while.

Father, You have created us with this need for roots, and we thank You for opportunities we have to pass through home when we need to, even if just in our own minds. Amen.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Door

“I assure you: I am the door of the sheep.” (John 10:7 CSB)

Shepherds in the days of Jesus had some interesting practices. For safety reasons several shepherds would bring their flocks to join the other flocks. This made it easier for the shepherds to take turns watching the sheep, to ward of wolves. That would seem to get confusing for the sheep, but not really. Each shepherd had his own song. Each morning the shepherds would arrive at the sheep pen, and each in turn would sing his song before the sheep and start walking. The sheep who belonged to that shepherd recognized his voice and his song, and they all would follow him to the pasture. The sheep who did not recognize his song would not follow but would stay put until they heard their shepherd’s song.

In many instances a sheep pen was a cave the sheep were herded into. Very often, a shepherd would literally sleep in the doorway of the pen to keep the sheep in so they would not wander off and be killed and also to ward off the wolves if they came. The shepherd actually became the door to the sheep pen.

This is what Jesus is alluding to when He says that He is the door of the sheep. He is the only way into the sheepfold. He later said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” The meaning is the same.

Jesus and only Jesus is the way to the kingdom of God. There is no other way, no other means. We live in a world that likes what is called “pluralism,” which says there are many ways that all lead to the same place. The teaching of the Bible is not that at all. The Bible teaches us that there is only one Way, and Jesus is that way. Peter, preaching on the Day of Pentecost, said, “There is no other name given among men by which we may be saved.” He was speaking of Jesus.

Jesus is the Door.

Lord, We recognize the truth that is expressed in Your word. We ask You to use this reminder to help us to remember to be faithful in our witness to this world. Amen.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Consequences of Rebellion

“The Amalekites and Canaanites are right in front of you, and you will fall by the sword. The Lord won’t be with you, since you have turned from following Him.” (Numbers 14:43 CSB)

The negative, fear-ridden report of the 10 spies who went into Canaan sent shivers through the entire Israelite community. The people complained against Moses and Aaron and came very close to stoning them. They refused to go a step farther toward Canaan, though Caleb and Joshua both tried to persuade them that God would deliver the land into their hands. Their rebellion persisted, but as they were looking for stones the glory of God appeared before the Tent of Meeting. God spoke to Moses and nearly wiped out every last Israelite until Moses intervened on their behalf. So God passed judgment that of all the Israelites over age 20, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, would die in the wilderness over the next 40 years. When Moses communicated this word to the Israelites, some of them were overcome with grief because of their rebellion and unbelief and decided to go on up to Canaan and attack. Moses warned them to not do this because God was not going to go there with them. He warned them that they would be utterly defeated. Once again, they would not listen, and as Moses indicated, most of them died by the sword.

A very interesting point in this whole story is that these Israelites had seen the 10 plagues God performed against Egypt, had seen the shekinah glory cloud, had crossed the Red Sea on dry land, had been given water in the desert, and meat in abundance, and had been given daily food in the form of manna. In spite of everything they had seen, they still rebelled against God, Moses, and Aaron. They went the way of fear rather than faith.

If the people of God go the way of rebellion and fear rather than faith when God has challenged them to follow in faith, they will experience some consequences of their rebellion and fear. God’s timing is important, and it is important to follow Him in a timely way. When God says it is time for something to happen, the people of God need to follow in faith, trusting the power of God to achieve what God wants to happen.

The reality is this: God’s power and strength are able to help us achieve everything God asks of us. Fear and rebellion rise up only when we are dependent on our own strength. As Paul said, “When I am weak, that is when I am strong.” That strength comes from the Almighty.

Lord, Help us today to rely on Your strength to achieve Your purposes in and through our lives. Help us to follow You fully in faith. Amen.

Monday, January 7, 2008

To Faith, or Not to Faith

“Then Caleb quieted the people in the presence of Moses and said, ‘We must go up and take possession of the land because we can certainly conquer it!’ But the men who had gone up with him responded, ‘We can’t go up against the people because they are stronger than we are. … To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and we must have seemed the same to them.’” (Numbers 13:30-33 CSB)

How the people of God respond to an opportunity at a pivotal time in their history eventually becomes their legacy. If God provides an opportunity that requires faith, and the people of God accept the opportunity and move toward it in faith, their legacy is one of greatness. If, however, they turn their backs on the opportunity because of fear or some other feeling and choose the way of un-faith, their legacy will be like the Israelites who spent the next 40 years dying in the wilderness, or like the steward who buried what was entrusted to him.

One of the supreme questions for any believer or any church is: Will I or we move forward in faith, or will we shrink back when God opens a door of opportunity He wants us to go through?

What we need to understand is that if God provides an opportunity He wants us to take, He will provide whatever is needed in order to fulfill that opportunity. That is what faith tells us. Fear tells us that it is all dependent on us and our resources and what we are able to do on our own. If fear wins out over faith, then we get to live by fear. But we are a people called to faith, and faith is what honors God.

Today, we each have the choice of living in fear or in faith. Fear will bring more fear, but faith will bring the power and blessing of God.

Lord, Help us today to move forward in our lives in faith, acknowledging the fears, but trusting You to accomplish what You want through us. Amen.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Enabling Leadership

“But Moses asked him [Joshua], ‘Are you jealous on my account? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, and the Lord would place His Spirit on them.’” (Numbers 11:29 CSB)

Family after family went to Moses in a constant stream of complaint that there was no meat. Moses complained to the Lord that the burden of carrying these people with their constant complaining was more misery than he could bear, so God told him to bring 70 elders to the Tent of Meeting where He would put a portion of His Spirit that was on Moses on them, so they could assist. When they gathered and received a measure of God’s Spirit, they all began to prophesy. Two of the 70, however, stayed in the camp, but even so they also prophesied.

Joshua, Moses’ assistant and staunch supporter, saw this as a threat to Moses’ leadership. He did not apparently think it right that someone besides Moses should be able to prophesy. But Moses had a different perspective. He would just as soon have every one of the Israelites prophesy the word of the Lord, since that would then mean that all of their hearts would be in tune with God’s heart.

Moses was a servant leader, and as such he realized that true leadership is not about getting and holding on to power, but about serving God in such a way as to develop others in their serving of the Lord. Moses did not see it at that point, but the day would come centuries later when God would, in fact, fill all believers with His Spirit. That event came on the Day of Pentecost.

The call to faith in Jesus is the call to a Spirit-filled life.

Lord, May we not only be filled with Your Spirit, but may we also fully live the life. Amen.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A New Kind of Cloud

“Whether it was two days, a month, or longer, the Israelites camped and did not set out as long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle. But when it was lifted, they set out. They camped at the Lord’s command, and they set out at the Lord’s command. They carried out the Lord’s requirement according to His command through Moses.” (Numbers 9:22-23 CSB)

The cloud must have been a spectacular sight. It glowed brightly during the day and fiery red at night. What great assurance it must have given! It represented the very presence of the Almighty. What great terror it also must have inspired! People were afraid to go near it. Moses was the only personal allowed to be near it. He came away from his times with the Lord with his face glowing like the cloud, and that was terrifying enough in itself to the people.

The “shekinah” glory cloud represented God’s presence and guidance, and one thing for sure was that there was never a question about God’s guidance. When the cloud lifted, the people followed it. When it settled, there they camped. There was no ambiguity. Everything was crystal clear.

While the cloud was beautiful, it was not personal. While it showed God’s presence, it also defined a physical limitation to that place. As much as we might prefer such clarity, it would be less effective in terms of the work of God’s kingdom than what we have now.

In similar fashion, Jesus came as the incarnate Son of God. He was on this earth a brief time. There was clarity. There was order. His ascension, however, changed that, humanly speaking, but a short time later He sent the Holy Spirit to fill the hearts and lives of all those He called to faith. The Holy Spirit is the genuine and real presence of the Lord Jesus, the genuine and real presence of the “shekinah” glory cloud, if you will, in our hearts and minds and souls and lives. Through the Holy Spirit, He now provides all the clarity and order we need in order to live freely a victorious life.

Lord, Fill us with Your Spirit, so that we may walk fully by faith. Amen.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Sin and Sickness

“After this Jesus found him in the temple complex and said to him, ‘See, you are well. Do not sin anymore, so that something worse doesn’t happen to you.’” (John 5:14 CSB)

An interesting story accompanies the verse above. A man had been sick for 38 years. How old he was when Jesus walked by him at the Pool of Bethesda, near Jerusalem’s Sheep Gate, we do not know, but it probably safe to say that he had been there the majority of his life, virtually unable to move, according to his statement. Jesus healed the man on a Sabbath, but did not identify Himself to the man. After that comes the words of this verse. Jesus found him in the temple and told him to not sin anymore so that nothing worse would happen to him.

What Jesus said to this man tells us that some illnesses are the result of sin. In the larger sense, all illnesses are the result of sin, Adam and Eve’s sin to be specific, since their sin is what brought God’s judgment of death. Prior to that there was no death or illness. But in the more particular sense, some illnesses are the direct consequence of committing a particular sin.

This is a truth that many in western cultures are not especially comfortable with in our “politically correct” society. Many tend to prefer to see sickness as just the result of bacteria or virus or such, unrelated to anything to do with morality or sin. Many have been educated, in fact, to think this way and ignore any question of personal sin. But the words of Jesus lay bare the awful truth that sometimes sickness is the result of sin that people have committed.

The problem here is the human preponderance for setting ourselves up as judge, jury, and executioner of others. We tend to judge the sinner rather than the sin. While we have to call the behavior of sin what it really is – sin – it is not up to us to judge anyone. It would be more important that we limit our thinking toward our own lives, toward our own sin. That helps us to keep this in perspective. Jesus said it this way, “First get the plank out of your own eye. Then you will be able to see clearly enough to help someone with the speck in their eye.”

Lord, Help us to remember to balance the truth of sin with the personal nature of sin. Amen.