Hebrews: Do You Need a Little Encouragement?

Jesus is coming back. Do you believe that? Does it show in the way you live your life? The writer of Hebrews said, “In just a little while, He who is coming will come and will not delay” (Heb 10:37). He offered this as both a word of encouragement and a warning. We’re going for the encouragement today and will take the warning in the next devotional.

The first-century believers were being harassed and oppressed daily for their commitment to Christ. They needed hope. So do we. So Paul said, “Therefore encourage each other with these words” (1 Thess. 1:18). What words? The Lord Jesus is coming again!  Paul said,  “The Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess. 4:16-17). This was great news to the weary Christians – just as it is for you and me. 

Jesus has promised to come again, to raise the dead in Christ to life, and to call the living to Himself.   When He came in His first Advent, He entered the world as a helpless baby, lived as a humble servant, and died as the suffering Savior.  But when He returns He will come with power and authority, and there will be no doubt that Jesus Christ is LORD. If that isn’t encouraging, if that doesn’t give you hope, then I don’t know what will.

Are you weary of this world? I know I am. But God has not yet called us home. That means for as long as we’re here, we need to continue in our faith – believing and walking in Jesus’ footprints, telling others about our Savior, and encouraging one another with the hope of His return. So I’m holding out this promise to you, Beloved. Keep your feet on the ground and your eyes on the sky. He said He will come back for you and He is a Man of His Word.

The King is Coming!

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In the first-century world, before a king came to visit one of his cities, the call would go out to prepare the roads on his path – to make the way level and straight and free from any possible danger. When God prepares a people for a great move on His part, He always calls them to make themselves ready by repentance – confessing and turning away from sin, and consecration – setting oneself apart exclusively for Him. “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy” (Lev 11:44).  Before Jesus began His earthly ministry John the Baptist was sent to “Prepare the way for the Lord, [to] make straight paths for him” (Mark 1:3).   John was calling for the people to prepare their hearts for the Lord by repentance and consecration. He declared a clear warning of the coming wrath of God – but you might be surprised to know his comments were aimed directly at the “religious leaders.” 

Christians have pleaded with God for a great move of His Spirit in the world.  We want Him to “do amazing things among us.”  But are we hearing the call to prepare the way for Him?  Are we heeding the call for repentance?  Am I carefully examining my life for habits, desires, laziness, distractions, and selfishness that serve as a quiet rebellion against God?  Are our lives straight paths for the King? Are we consecrating ourselves unto the Lord?  Are you willing to let go of everything that draws your heart away?  Are you getting rid of the things that compromise your testimony and drag you into the world?  What T.V. shows, movies, music, magazines, and websites need to go to make your heart ready for the Lord?  What attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, rights, and worldly influences do I need to turn from in order to be used for the Kingdom of God?

I believe God is getting ready to do a great work in the world.  But it will require His people to will set everything aside and prepare the way.   That means wholehearted devotion to Christ and an unwillingness to compromise with the world.  I also believe a great battle is coming in this nation; the lines have already been drawn in our culture and our courts.  Only people with pure, consecrated hearts will be able to stand firm in the face of it.   Beloved, how will you get ready?

Don’t Pack Up the Christmas Spirit

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Christmas Day has come and gone and my living room looks like a toy store exploded all over the place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So what now? Well, I’ll clean up the blast zone and eventually pack away the ornaments on the tree. We’ll finish off the last of the Christmas dinner leftovers today. But, where does the Christmas spirit go for the next 11 months?

You probably know by now that Joy abides in my house year-round in my precious granddaughter. But what of the peace the angels declared? According to Jesus, that peace was His gift to me, something the world can’t offer (John 14:27). It doesn’t belong in a box in the shed. It belongs in my heart to rule over my relationships (Col. 3:15). 

Is there a box in my shed for the “Hope” of Christmas? The Hope that God is who He claimed to be, that He is trustworthy and faithful (2 Thess 3:3), that His love is unfailing (Ps. 136) and His promises are as sure as His Name (Heb. 6:13). Hope that His eye is ever on me and His ear is tuned to my cries (Gen. 21:13, 11). Hope that one day this wicked world will be turned right-side-up (Rev. 21:5). I am hanging on to hope – it is my word from the Lord for the coming year. I need it desperately; this past year has drained most of my hope.

And then there is love – the greatest of all gifts (1 Cor. 13:13). Love slept in a manger (Luke 2:7). Love walked the dirty streets, healing and lifting up the downtrodden (Matt. 8:1-3). Love died on a cross (Mark 15: 37) and love brought life from death (Mark 16:6). Love must never be packed away for the world needs it more than any other thing. Love – holy love – is the only thing that can save mankind. And it is the only thing that will draw men out of darkness into the light.

I don’t know if your Christmas was merry or jolly or less than you’d hoped, but I know that the spirit of Christmas lives in the hearts of God’s people all year long. Beloved, pack up the decorations but don’t pack away the Joy and peace and hope and love. Set it out for all the world to see.

The (Complete) Nativity Creche

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When we set up our nativity scenes, we place the star above the stable, and we add the animals – cows and sheep (but no pigs, this is a good Jewish family) – and an angel or two (which the Bible doesn’t mention in the birth scene) and the shepherds. We set Mary and Joseph beside the manger where the little baby sleeps. We even add the wise men, though they didn’t actually come on the scene until some 2 years later. Now everyone is present and accounted for.

The truth is, Satan is also part of the Christmas story, for the Holy Child in the manger was born to break the curse of evil. He was born to set men free from their sins (Romans 6:18). He was born to bring light and life where death and darkness reigned (John 1:4-5). He was born to set right what had been made horribly wrong (Romans 8:22-24). This little baby was the fulfillment of God’s promise, the seed that would crush the head of the enemy (Genesis 3:15). When this newborn baby’s cry pierced the silent night, all of hell trembled.

As you celebrate Jesus, the reason for the season, remember the reason Jesus came and praise God for the greatest gift ever given. The Savior of the world is born.

Mary’s Treasure

I love Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth because, according to church tradition, it is Mary’s own recollections. Only Mary could recall intimate details about Gabriel’s visit the remarkable announcement: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (vs. 31-32). She remembered her question “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (v. 34), and the angel’s reply about the Holy Spirit’s part in the conception.

She even included the report about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy and her aged cousin’s joyful greeting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed I the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (vs. 42, 43). And “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (v. 45). She remembered the song she sang: My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior . . .”  (vs. 46-55).

Mary was the one who included Caesar Augustus’ decree that sent them to Bethlehem where her Son was born among the beasts of domestic life, bound up in rags, and laid to sleep in the animal’s feed trough.

Mary told about the shepherds who surely reported the angel’s proclamation to the parents. And the angel’s song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (2:14). Mary also remembered when Jesus was presented in the temple according to the law and the old man and woman who spoke powerfully about her son (2:25-38). Mary remembered Jesus when he was twelve years old, being separated from her and Joseph, and how He amazed the Jewish teachers by speaking with wisdom and authority beyond His years (2:41-50). And he amazed His mother by answering her scolding by saying, “Did you know I had to be in my Father’s house? (v. 49). Oh, how I wish Luke had picked her memory for more details of His childhood – clearly He was no ordinary child. Or maybe He was and the details are much the same as your childhood and mine.

Luke said that Mary, “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). I’m so glad she did because we have the most detailed, intimate account of our Savior’s birth and early glimpses of His ministry. Here’s my question for us both: What marvelous things has God done for you? Have you treasured them up in your heart (or written them down in a journal)? When someone (a grandchild, perhaps) asks you about your relationship with Jesus you will be glad you did.

The Gift

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“The Gift of the Magi” was published in 1905 and is a sweet tale of love and sacrifice at Christmas focused on a young couple who wanted to give their beloved a gift. But money was scarce and so, unbeknownst to the other, the gift-givers sold their prized possessions to buy something special for their spouse. Della sold her long, beautiful hair to buy Jim a chain for his pocket watch. Jim sold his heirloom pocket watch to buy Della a set of bejeweled hair combs. O. Henry finished his story with a nod to the Magi – the Eastern wise men who traveled long to bring gifts to the Christ Child. He wrote: “The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”

While I appreciate this lovely story, I think O Henry got one thing wrong – Christmas presents didn’t originate with the Magi – the first Christmas present was given by God. The story of the Young’s Christmas is a shadow of the real story of Christmas. The young lovers sacrificed their most treasured possessions to give to their beloved, God’s sacrifice was far greater. He gave His One and Only Son to redeem men from their sin. The gifts they gave one another were costly – the gift God has given is priceless. “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed … but with the precious blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1:18, 19). Jim and Della’s gifts – and the sacrifice that enabled them – were given from love, but their love pales in comparison to the great love of God. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .” (John 3:16). In O. Henry’s story, the sacrifice is part of the gift. In the Gospel story, the sacrifice is the gift.

Have you received this gift? Watch chains and hair combs can never express love like the cross can. Have you received Jesus Christ as your Savior Beloved? He is the greatest gift of all.

The Day Jesus was Born

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A friend asked me about the validity of celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25th. The Bible doesn’t put a date on a calendar, and while we can get a good idea from tracing the astronomical records of a unique star, no one wrote the exact date into the annuals of human history. Many people have commented that shepherds would never have their flocks out in a field or on a hillside where they would be exposed to frigid temperatures. But several scholars have noted that generally, the temperature does not drop to those levels until after our traditional Christmas season, so there is reason to assume we’re pretty close.

I did say that the Bible doesn’t give us a precise date, but it does actually tell us when Jesus was born. Galatians 4:4 says, “When the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman.” I find so much comfort in that. The Bible is chock-full of references to time, from the record of Creation to “the day [when] His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives.” God actually does have a calendar of sorts – a divine calendar – and all of human history flows according to the plans He made before the creation of the world. Everything will happen “when the time has fully come.”

I hope you take that personally. Because the same God who established the universe’s timeline has your name on His calendar too. He is moving in your life according to His purpose and design. He is making things and people and events come together just as He planned. Beloved, your life is not some crazy quilt with pieces of all shapes, sizes, and colors haphazardly sewn together. It is a work of beauty, precision, and exactness, stitched firmly together with blood-red cords. Every moment of your life has been leading up to the magnificent finished project that will be revealed, “when the time has fully come.”

The point is not to know when He came, but to know that He came and why He came. To set you free from your bondage of sin and to give you eternal life. So feel free to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th with joy and thanksgiving for God’s perfect, divine plan. And remember that He’s an “on-time” God. It won’t be a second late. Nor will it be a second early. It will be “when the time has fully come.”

A Baby Changes Everything

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“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first-born, a son” (Luke 2:6).

They say that having a baby will change your life completely, and every parent knows that is true. You give your whole self away to your child and you never get yourself back. Your time is no longer your own – your days are filled with feedings and diaper changes, and more of the same through the night. Your money is not yours anymore – whoever imagined someone so tiny would need so much stuff? Your priorities are different, your goals are reshaped, and your entire identity is redefined. And you wouldn’t have it any other way.

There is a baby who will change your life in far greater ways. This baby will give your life direction and purpose. This baby will bring you peace in the midst of a storm. He will comfort you when you are weary and broken. He will lift you up when you fall. This baby will bring you immeasurable Joy. He can wash away the stain of guilt and shame and make you new. This baby brings hope where all hope is faded. He brings light into the darkest night. This baby brings healing of body and mind and heart. This baby will change the way you think and the way you live. He will transform your heart and cause you to love in ways you never expected. And if all that wasn’t enough, this baby will change your life beyond this life.

This baby left the glory of heaven to save the entire human race. He brought peace between God and man. He broke the chains of sin. He erased the curse of death. This baby took on your sin and mine; He bore the punishment that you and I rightly deserved. He surrendered His body to the cross and the grave. He did it all so that you and I could have life – full and abundant and eternal. He gave Himself away so that you could get yourself back. This baby – the Lord Jesus Christ – changes everything.

Why Was a King Born in a Stable?

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“While they were there the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped Him in cloths and placed Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7)

When I was a kid the Christmas story made me sad because Jesus was born in a nasty stable. He should have been born in a palace! He was the King of kings for Pete’s sake! It was a shame that Mary and Joseph were forced to seek refuge in such an ugly, smelly place. She should have had the best doctors tending her as she gave birth instead of dumb animals. This was the Son of God! It was so unfair.

Or maybe, that was just how He planned it all along. Perhaps, in His divine purpose, Jesus chose the stable as His birthplace and a manger as his bed to make a statement that no place is too lowly for Him. Not the slums of the city or the farthest backroads of the country. Not a crack house or a bar or a brothel.  And I believe he wanted to assure humanity that no person is too sinful for Him. Not an alcoholic or drug addict. Not the girl who had an abortion or the young man who sits in a prison cell. Not the woman with the worst reputation in town nor the man who drove away everyone who ever loved him. Not me. Not even you.

Aren’t you glad to know that there is no place that is too smelly or ugly that Jesus will not go? There is no person too far gone that Jesus cannot love.  The Bible says His closest friends were smelly fishermen and hated tax collectors and healed demoniacs and lepers and people at the lowest rungs of society.  I think there was no room in the inn because Jesus wanted to show that there was enough room in His heart for the whole world – wherever and whomever you are.

The Face of God

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The ancient blessing from God contained the words: “The Lord make His face shine on you . . . The Lord turn His face toward you . . .”  (Numbers 6:26). In the terminology of the Old Testament, to “turn one’s face toward” someone was to signify favor and blessing from the greater to the lesser.  A king might show favor to a trusted soldier or advisor and shower him with gifts and position—he had turned his face toward him.  It was a mutual benefit as the king gained greater loyalty from the one he favored.  For the nation of Israel, the God of heaven and earth turned His face toward them and promised His blessing, His grace, and His peace (see vs. 24-26).  This weary group had just escaped from Egypt after four hundred years of slavery.  They had nothing to offer that would garner His favor, they had no country of their own, no wealth or treasure, and no political or military power.  When God turned His face toward them, it was purely an act of unmerited favor on the part of the Lord.

As we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the favor of the Creator poured out on us, His creation.  We celebrate the gift of His mercy and His grace given in the Baby in the manger. Our celebrations are meager compared to this gift. We hang lights in our homes to honor the Light of the World.  We give gifts just as the Magi gave gifts to the Christ Child.  We sing songs remembering the song of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2:14).  We rejoice at the Joy of the shepherds who first saw this wondrous gift from heaven.

But let us not forget that God showed His highest favor toward us at Calvary.  The gift given at Jesus’ birth was made complete in His sacrifice.  At the cross, the Father turned His away from His one and only Son so that He might turn His face toward sinful humanity – toward you, Beloved – and give you peace.  It is the highest act of benevolence and it is the greatest gift you will ever be given.