The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Know

resurrectionChrist Jesus, who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God.  Romans 8:34

In the world of biology, all organisms are classed or grouped together by certain similarities and separated by differences in their cellular makeup.  These grouping are known as “kingdoms,” such as the “plant kingdom,” and the “animal kingdom.”  Those are pretty obvious in their classifications, but other groupings such as bacteria and a kingdom known as “Prostista” (complex microscopic cells) have a far wider range of characteristics.  So how do the biologists determine the criteria for classifying species? My Biology 101 textbook made a statement that drew my attention: “Evolutionary assumptions are generally used to decide which characteristics are most primitive and therefore most important.”[1]  In other words, in tracing a species’ changes and growth, classifications are based on the most basic characteristics—it’s “starting point”—as the most important.  Please note, I am not endorsing an evolutionary perspective, but merely pointing to the way all life forms grow and change from their earliest state.  For instance, all human beings start from the same organisms and from there a person changes and grows, but the basic building blocks of human life are evident throughout those changes.  All humans share this starting point, regardless of gender or ethnicity or location.  Thus we classify all humans differently from say plant life or bacteria.

So how does a biology lesson apply to a Christian devotional?  I’m glad you asked.  The Christian faith has experienced a tremendous amount of change over the past two-thousand years.  Some of these changes have been positive, such as the agreement of the doctrines of the faith and some have challenged and strengthened the faith—consider the inspiration of the martyrs during the persecution of the church.  Some changes have been hard, but necessary, such as the Reformation, which gave birth to Protestantism.  From there we have multiple branches of denominations, each with their own traditions and structure.  These are not bad things in themselves but they have changed the complexity of the faith.  And yes, some changes have caused havoc, confusion and turmoil in the church.  I’ll leave those unnamed so we don’t lose focus.  The point is, all these changes have added layers to the basic truths of Christianity.

The question then becomes, when we strip away all these added layers what is the “most primitive and most important” aspect of the Christian faith?

Paul makes it very clear in his letter to the church in Corinth:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time . . . Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appear to me also.”  1 Corinthians 15:3-7.

The death of Jesus Christ, His burial and His resurrection are the core, the root, and the foundation of the Christian faith.  Paul said that those are “of first importance.”  That does not mean that other doctrine of the faith are of lesser importance.  We must recognize the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the incarnation and the virgin birth, but the heart of our faith is the fact that Jesus died, evidenced by His burial, and that He rose again, as seen by the many witnesses afterward.  If your faith is built on anything other than this, if your confidence is in your religious affiliation, if you follow a Jesus who is a “good teacher and moral example,” if you adhere to traditions rather than truth, I dare to say you do not have saving faith.  Only faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus is saving faith.  If your Christianity is not built on this single most important truth of all, then you should reconsider whether you truly are a Christian.

Why are these so important?  Without the death of Jesus, our sin debt remains.  Only Jesus could be the perfect sacrifice for your sin and my sin and the sins of all of humankind.  Simply put, Jesus’ death paid for our sins.  But why is it so important to know about His burial?   Because without the grave His death is a question not a fact.   Jesus was visibly buried in an earthly grave to validate His death.  It is also important because, to borrow from Bill Gaither, “The empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives.”[2]  The empty tomb was the first indication that Jesus’ followers had that He was alive.  Jesus’ resurrection is the assurance we have of eternal life.  Without His resurrection, we are trusting in a dead man with no power.  But He is alive and He promises us that we will have life everlasting if we believe and trust in Him.

There are many facets to the Christian faith and we do well to learn about atonement, justification, sanctification, grace, Christology and the other great truths of Christianity.  If you’ve never studied these important doctrines, I encourage you to do so.   They will enrich your understanding of the Bible and of your relationship with Christ.  Consider them the building blocks of your faith.  But before you start building, make certain you are on the rock-solid foundation of “first importance.”  Be sure your faith is resting on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Chris. “All other ground is sinking sand.”[3]

Lord Jesus, there are many voices that claim to know the truth, but only Your Word tells us what is “of first importance.”  Guard Your church Jesus lest we wander from the substance of our faith and lose our foundation.  Amen.

 

[1] Charles Detwiler, Kimberly Mitchell and Norman Reichenbach, Life by Design, (Boston, Cengage Learning, 2014), 14.

[2] William J Gaither and Gloria Gaither, Because He Lives, (1971).

[3] Edward Mote and William B. Bradbury, The Solid Rock, (n.d.)

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When Your World is Shaken

“At that time His voice shook the earth, but now He has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” Hebrews 12:26-27

There are two perspectives taught in the church about suffering, one is that suffering is inevitable and unavoidable and the other is that suffering is evil and its presence should be rejected, and in truth they are both correct.

Suffering and hardships are part of human life. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, mankind has been subject to the travails of life outside of the perfect world of the Garden.  Sickness, death, failure and even the ravages of nature are all part of the consequences of that very first sin.  In that sense suffering is unavoidable.

Suffering is also part of the Christian’s life—Jesus told us as much: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). He said the world would hate and persecute His followers because they hated and persecuted Him (see John 15:18-21).  It is both a painful experience and a joyful one to suffer for the name of Christ.  As we watch the world turn farther and farther away from God, it is reasonable to believe that suffering in this way is inevitable.

Suffering is also rooted in evil, as we noted—a direct consequence of the actions of the first humans who listened to the evil one rather than their Creator.  In the Garden, all was perfect.  No disease, no death, no hatred, no failure, do destruction.  Evil entered the picture and Adam and Eve were banished from their perfect home.  If only they had resisted . . .  Now mankind and creation are subject to evil in the forms of hatred, war, crime, poverty and abuse, to name a few.

How are we to comprehend a good God who allows suffering to befall His beloved creation—human beings, animals and the planet He spoke into being?  Look around the world at what evil men have done, at the pain they have inflicted. Why would God allow this to be?  Let’s bring this closer to home—how can we understand when He allows suffering to touch our lives?  Is it possible that God has lost control?

Beloved, God has never lost control of this universe; He is just as sovereign over the affairs of creation—including suffering—as He has ever been.  And He has never lost control of the lives of men.  He continues to hold the reigns of the world, just as He continues to hold your life and mine in the palm of His hand.

So how do we reconcile God’s sovereignty and suffering?  Do we become spiritual Eeyores and resign ourselves to it?  Pat each other on the shoulder and say “Just trust God,” with a sigh?  There are many theological reasons we can consider, but I don’t think that will comfort our hearts.

Our key verse is the hope I hang on to in suffering.  This verse references a passage in the Old Testament book of Haggai, which is written to the Israelite refugees who had returned to Jerusalem after their 70-year Babylonian exile.  The weary and bedraggled Jews came home, not to the shining city of their past, but to a burned out shell.  The walls had been knocked flat, their homes decimated, and worst of all, the temple of the Lord has been burned to the ground.  In their recovery efforts they restored the wall and built homes and even began the work on the temple, but they were too overwhelmed to finish.  God declared to His people, “Be strong and work, for I am with you” (Haggai 2:4), and the Jews did indeed complete the task.  Yet they became discouraged because this second temple was much smaller and less opulent than Solomon’s temple.  So God declared to them that an even greater Temple was yet to come, a heavenly temple far beyond their wildest and greatest dreams.  This is what the writer of Hebrews was drawing on in our key verse.

Times of suffering in the lives of God’s people are tools He uses to prepare us for what is to come.  In this verse, the author used the image of being shaken.  Some things are “shakable,” unstable and unfixed.  They are the temporary things that we too often set our hearts on in this life.  Power, popularity, prestige, wealth, health and beauty—all things that fade away.  God wants us to realize that these things, so sought after in this world, have no value or permanence in the eternal.  So He shakes things up, causing these worldly “treasures” to fall away, and with them our dependence on and affection for them.

What remains after all the shaking is done?  Look at Hebrews 12:28: “a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” What remains is the eternal, unshakable Kingdom of Jesus Christ.  The New Jerusalem, the Holy City where we will live forever in the presence of the Lord.  What value is there in worldly treasures when we stand before the King of kings and Lord of lords?  Those things that captured our hearts in this life are meaningless in the light of heaven.  Oh why do we hold on to the unstable things of this world when an unshakable destiny awaits us?

What is God shaking loose in your life?  What are you holding on to that has no eternal value? Dear one, He will not take anything from you that is lasting and true.  Let God have His way with the temporary treasures of your life so that you may inherit the unshakable and eternal.

Holy Father, in my hand are worldly treasures, trinkets and false gemstones set in fool’s gold.  Shake them from my hands that I may grab hold of that which is unshakable and eternal.  Amen.

Did God really say . . .?

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“He who doubts is like is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” James 1:6

Satan’s favorite weapon against us is to cause us to doubt God.  I don’t know why we fall for it time after time, it is such an old trick that he used all the way back to the Garden.  Check out Genesis 3, the account of the fall of Adam and Eve which is the fall of all mankind.

Satan, in the form of a serpent, slithered up to Eve with evil in his heart and a question on his lips: “Did God really say…?”  (Genesis 3:1). He was not asking for clarification of the Creator’s words, he was sowing that tiny seed of doubt.  You can almost hear him stress the word really.   He was asking Eve if she thought God meant what He said in pronouncing the inevitability of their death for eating from that one particular tree.  Well Eve took the bait and took a bite and Satan knew then that he has a sure-fire missile to use against God’s beloved creatures.  But the truth of God’s words proved itself, and mankind has suffered death—physically and spiritually ever since.  Oh if only Adam and Eve had believed God, how different it all would have turned out.  They learned the hard way the one thing you can be sure of, God doesn’t mince words.  He says what He means and He means what He says.

He used that same ploy against Jesus in the wilderness: “If you are the son of God… (Matthew 4:3, 6).  He questioned Jesus’ identity, but the Lord did not fall for it, because He knew the truth.  You will recall that the wilderness episode followed immediately on the heels of Jesus baptism.  Do you remember the Father’s words? “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).  Right away Satan began to question Jesus’ confidence. That is the enemy’s other favorite dart against us; he plants doubts in our mind about our relationship with God.  “If you really are God’s child, why is He allowing you to suffer so much?”  “You can’t really be a Christian and behave the way you just did!”  Satan tried to cast doubt in Jesus’ mind, but his attempts failed, because Jesus knew exactly who He was; His Father had proclaimed it and Jesus never lost that confirmation.

Friend, Satan still works to cause you and me to doubt God.  He wants us to doubt what His Word says about what is right and what is wrong.  He uses the culture of the day to cast doubt on the reality of sin and the consequences of rejecting Christ.  He even uses the most learned people in society to cast doubt on the existence of God.  In the church he brings in those who twist and misinterpret the Scriptures to say “what their itching ears what to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3).  That is where we have to go back to the only source of truth—the Word of God and refresh our minds with what God really said so that we can stand firm in this evil day.

But I think Satan’s strongest weapon against us is casting doubts in our mind about our identity and about God’s love for us.  When we are unsure about who we are and about our relationship with God everything else gets shaken too.  Hear this loud and clear dear ones, when you received Jesus Christ as your Savior, God spoke the same words over you that He spoke over His own Son: “This is my child, whom I love; with him (or her) I am well pleased.”  How do I know that?  Check out Jesus’ words in His prayer just before His arrest and crucifixion: “My they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23, emphasis added).  God loves those who are in Christ Jesus just as He loves Jesus Himself.  Because of the Son’s sacrifice, you and I are loved—eternally, unreservedly, and completely.  You can be sure of God’s love and of your place in His family.

My friends, don’t give Satan another victory over you.  Every time you and I give way to his words of doubt we stumble and fall in our faith-walk.  God has given His word in His Word to enable us to walk with confidence in the face of doubt.  Don’t let Satan trip you up with his old, tired routine. Trust God to always speak the truth, to speak it clearly through His Word, and to assure you of who you are and Whose you are.

There’s no doubt about it!

Holy Father – yes, You are my Father, and because of Jesus Christ, I am Your child.  Help me today to walk in the assurance and freedom of Your truth and cast aside every whisper and shout of doubt.  I trust in your Word and in You. Amen.

To See the Extraordinary

rainbow stars“Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” John 21:25

When we read the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we are amazed at the record of Jesus’ miracles and wonders while He was on the earth.  Healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, walking on water, feeding the multitudes, calming the storm, just to name a few.   We read of His teachings and his sermons and think how exciting it must have been for the disciples to be with Jesus on these occasions.  But the gospel accounts only highlight a select few incidents on certain days in the Lord’s life.  Does that mean the other days they walked with Jesus were just ordinary, hum-drum days?   I find that hard to imagine.  I can’t help but believe that every single day with Jesus the disciples witnessed something extraordinary.  I believe that is what today’s key verse means.  Jesus did more amazing things than could be contained in written records.  Surely every day they saw and heard more than just everyday things because they were in the company of the divine Son of God.

You and I don’t have the incarnate Christ physically present with us, but that doesn’t mean we have to miss out on the miraculous.  You see, we have the presence of Jesus Christ, in the person of the Holy Spirit living in us, and if we are willing, living through us.

We find recorded in John 14, Jesus’ promise to His disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (v. 18).  He was not talking about His appearances after His resurrection; He was talking about the Holy Spirit, whom He would send to empower His followers.  By that Spirit, Jesus said, “[you] will do what I have been doing; [you] will do even greater things than these” (v. 12).  That is how Jesus could tell His disciples: “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  He would be with them—and with us, through His indwelling Holy Spirit.

What does that mean for us?  It means that, just as was so for the disciples, we are living every day in the extraordinary presence of Jesus Christ.  That means every day for us is never just an ordinary day.  Every day you and I walk with Jesus, we are filled with the power of the divine Son of God.    He’s right there with us, because He is in us.  Does that mean that we will see the sick healed, the dead raised, multitudes fed and all the things the disciples saw with their own eyes?  Well, yes and no.  I will never count out the possibility of God doing today what He did in the first century, He is still the same God of miracles in every age.  And through His followers, healing takes place (consider the ministry of Samaritan’s Purse physician Kent Brantly and team during the Ebola crisis); and multitudes are fed (have you ever had the privilege of serving at a homeless shelter?)  I will say the likelihood of seeing the physical dead raised to life is pretty slim, but every day we have the opportunity to see dead marriages come back to life, to see dead churches restored to vibrancy, and especially to see the spiritually dead resurrected to spiritual life.

Maybe your life feels like a drudge of laundry, kids, paperwork, telephones, machines or assembly lines.  Day in and day out it’s the same routine, the same faces, and the same struggles.  Where is the extraordinary in that?  I believe we can find it if we have our eyes open to what God is doing around us.  Every sunrise is a wonder, those sweet babies are living, breathing miracles, and even our own bodies are a marvel to behold.  Nature offers us glimpses of God’s power all around us: the beauty and fragrance of the flowers, the warmth of the sun with the cooling breeze, and the glorious colors of the sunset all give witness to the awesomeness of God.  I also believe we can be part of the extraordinary by letting the Spirit of Christ work through us to accomplish incredible things beyond our own natural abilities and strengths.  Your testimony can be the springboard to the miracle of a transformed life.  Your kind words and caring actions have the power to restore hope—and if you’ve ever lost hope, you know that finding it again is nothing short of a miracle.

What wonders await our senses when we look for God’s hand in this world?  What miracle can He work through you in someone’s life today?  My friend, I encourage you to look around with fresh eyes and a seeking heart for the extraordinary presence of God around you and inside you.  If you are a follower of Christ, no day is “just another day,” because nothing is ever ordinary when Jesus is there.

How wonderful are Your ways, O Lord, how miraculous are your deeds.  Please give me eyes to see all you are doing around me in and within me.  Help me to see the extraordinary in my everyday life.  Amen.

The Measure of Success

header_success“To obey is better than sacrifice.”  1 Samuel 15:22

What does success mean to you?  A six-figure salary?  A big house in the best neighborhood? Power? Prestige?  Popularity?  Maybe success is excelling at a sport or with a talent.   Parents want their children to succeed in life – get good grades, get in the best college, graduate with honors and land a great job.  I am a late-in-life seminary student and I approach every exam and assignment with the desire to succeed, to make the highest score possible.  There is nothing wrong with wanted to do your best and be your best, but have you ever wondered how God defines success?

By our human standards Abraham, the father of the entire Jewish nation would surely be a success. Moses, however, is a mixed bag – he brought the Israelites out of Egypt, but did not himself get to enter the Promised Land because of his disobedience.   Joseph’s story at first looks anything but successful, he was sold into slavery by his brothers and imprisoned under false accusations; but he came out of that to be very successful as the second highest authority in Egypt and the savior of his family.  David gets a big thumbs up as a successful warrior and King, and Solomon successfully built the Temple of the Lord, however both kings get a thumbs down for their infidelities.

Yet the great things that these great heroes did are not the true measure of their success.  Look again at Abraham, the patriarch of the nation of Israel.  Take a few minutes to read Genesis 22:1-19.  The scene starts as God comes to Abraham and tells him to “take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and . . . sacrifice him as a burnt offering” (v. 2).  The scripture says that the very next morning Abraham, Isaac and his servants set out for Mount Moriah.  If you know the story, you know that Abraham bound up Isaac, laid him on the altar and raised the knife above his son in obedience to the Lord’s command.  Thankfully, the Lord stayed his hand.   God declared that Abraham would be blessed and that his descendants would be “as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore” and would possess the best of the land (v. 17). That sounds like success to me!  But God measured success by a higher standard.  Look at verse 18 – “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”  Abraham was a success in the eyes of the Lord because he was obedient.

Obedience is what God counts as success.  It’s not how much money you make, it’s not how high you climb the corporate ladder.  It’s not even how many Bible verses you memorize or how much you give to the church.  To obey God is the highest mark of success in the Kingdom.  Do you feel the nudge to teach a Bible class?  Has God laid it on your heart to witness to your neighbor? It is obedience even to the smallest things.  Has God asked you to call and encourage a friend today? Your obedience will be your success.

Listen to Joshua 1:7: “Be strong and very courageous.  Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.” With our obedience, God gives success in the form of blessings above anything we can imagine.  Isaiah 1:19 says “If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land.” Deuteronomy 28 is God’s prescription for success. He tells the Israelites “If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all His commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth” (v. 1). And God detailed the signs of success that they would enjoy: children, wealth, land, rich harvests and large herds, provision for all their daily needs, victory over their enemies, respect among all the peoples of the earth, and more.

In the Kingdom of God the greatest success was Jesus. But how does a successful ministry end on a bloody cross and a borrowed tomb?   Even the disciples who followed in His footsteps all met with persecution and martyrdom – not a very successful movement, wouldn’t you agree? Yet Jesus was a success because “He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8). And we are the beneficiaries of His obedience as Hebrews 5:8-9 says, “Although He was a son, He learned obedience from what He suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him.” Jesus’ obedience led to our eternal salvation. Moses may have saved the children of Israel, but Jesus Christ saved the entire human race!

If you have been trying to win God’s favor and blessing by working hard to succeed, I have good news for you. God is not interested in your success, He is only interested in your obedience. He does not give you and me a mission or task or ministry and expect us to make it into a rousing success. He only asks us to step into His will, and when we act in obedience, we are a success to God. So slow down, jump off the hamster wheel and quit trying to show God how much you can accomplish for Him. In God’s eyes a simple “Yes” means success!

Holy Father, I’m so grateful that all You expect from me is obedience. When I say “Yes” to You, I am a success. I’m through trying to make success happen, I’m just going to obey You and know that that is all the success You desire. Amen.