Hebrews: By faith Abraham . . .

“Abraham! Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love . . . and sacrifice him as a burnt offering . . . (Genesis 22:1-2).

As I meditate on Hebrews 11:17-19 (grab your Bible and read it) two questions come to mind: Why would God make such a horrific demand of Abraham and why would Abraham obey it? As I pondered those questions, two points emerge about Abraham and Isaac’s story.

To the first question, the author says that “God tested [Abraham],” (v. 17) and, as He often does, the Spirit whispered in my heart: “what does that mean?” The word “tested” actually has two meanings: to temp or to examine. How can you know which is happening? The difference is in the tester’s purpose: the devil tempts that the believer might fail God’s standards of faith and sin; God tests that He might determine and sharpen true character, with no desire of making the believer fail. God was examining Abraham’s willingness to obey Him, even in the most difficult requests.  Sometimes it’s difficult to understand who’s behind the test, but the way through is always the same. Keep your eyes on Jesus and your heart firmly planted in the Word. In either case, you will emerge with deeper roots of faith and a testimony of God’s power and goodness.

As to Abraham’s part, I never understood how he could willingly sacrifice his son until I studied his story alongside this Hebrews passage and Romans 4:18 – 20: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed . . . he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God.”  Did you catch it? Abraham believed the promise because of Who made it. He fully expected that God would still build a nation through Isaac and that meant Isaac would have to live. In his reasoning, he expected God to raise Isaac from the dead after the deed was done. But God stayed his hand at the last moment and provided a replacement sacrifice instead. The point is that Abraham’s faith was not in the promise – it was in the Promise-maker. And so must ours be.

Those are two solid truths you can build your life upon. God will never test you to make you fail and He will never make a promise He doesn’t intend to keep. Abraham is known for his great faith. Beloved, are you? Am I?

Tell Them About Jesus

As I study the Scriptures I see three types of people:

Those who by faith receive Christ and follow Him – the Bible calls these righteous, saints, and children of God.

Those who attempt to live up to a standard of “goodness” but find the load impossible to bear – the Bible calls them lost, burdened, weary souls.

Those who reject all thought of God and every standard of right living. These the Bible calls evil, wicked, lovers of self, and children of the devil.

The first group has found hope in Christ and the promise of eternal life. Their lives are marked by the fruit of the Spirit: “love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). They look at life with eternal vision and they live to serve the Kingdom of God. They show their love for Christ by their obedience. They will gladly give their lives for the name and the gospel of Christ (Rev 12:11).

The second group knows there is a God but they do not know Him. There are weighed down under a constant burden of trying to live up to the traditions of men in a vain attempt to gain God’s favor. Their lives are marked with worry and anxiety (Luke 8:14).  To them, Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Some come and receive His rest. Some do not and never find it.

The third group has no concern for nor belief in God. They don’t need Him nor want Him. They have no thought of eternity. Life ends and that is all there is. They believe themselves wise and think the gospel is for fools. They fail to see that they are deceived by the devil and most to be pitied (Rev 12:9).

Should the first group respond differently to the second and third? No. We respond to everyone in the same way – with the gospel. It is the truth for all mankind. Its message will be a welcome comfort to the lost, but it will be an offense to the wicked. Still, whether it falls on closed ears or receptive hearts, we must tell the world the way to eternal life. Let it land where it may, but never stop proclaiming the beautiful Gospel of Jesus.

You can be Free from Shame

If your life has always been sunshine and rainbows, you can skip it today. But if you have scars on your body or on your heart, if you carry a backpack of sorrow and shame, please stay. God has a word for you.

Isaiah prophesied the coming Babylonian captivity. Why was all this happening? Because they were a “sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They [had] forsaken the Lord; they [had] spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on Him” (Is 1:4). They were steeped in sin and idolatry. Judgment was coming.

Can you relate? I sure can. I have a past filled with regret and shame. I have been places, done things, and been with people I should have given a wide berth. I have made some foolish, disastrous decisions. I hurt people. I hurt myself. You may be nodding your head right now. You understand. You’ve done the same. Maybe you’re still doing it.

But maybe your past wasn’t your foolish actions, but someone else’s. You were abused, misused, rejected, stepped on, then stepped over. I understand that too. Mixed in with my own sin is the stain of others’ sins. A counselor once told me that my actions were a reaction to others’ actions against me. If you hear, “You’re so stupid!” enough you start to act stupid. If you’re treated like you’re worthless you believe you’re worthless and you act like you’re worthless. This is my life story, but I bet I’m ringing some bells.

However you got your backpack of shame, I want you to listen to God’s words: “Do not be afraid, you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace, you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth” (Is 54:4). “How?” you ask, “it’s a huge, heavy burden”. Jesus. Jesus is how you can be free from shame. Because Jesus took it all to the cross. And to the grave. And when He rose to life three days later, He left it all in the ground. God declared, “The former things will not be remembered; nor will they come to mind” (Is 65:17). In Jesus you are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17). That’s your story now, Beloved. Set your backpack down and go live like who you are. Forgiven and free.

But I don’t want to, God!

I love the Word of God with all my heart. The Bible has transformed my mind and heart and life. It has become my passion, my calling, and my ministry. I believe every verse is true and right. I believe as Paul said, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man [or woman] of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-7). I honor the Scriptures as the authority over all creation – especially over me. But I don’t always like what it says. Sometimes the Bible meddles. Like Philippians 2:14: “Do everything without complaining or arguing . . .” Uh-oh.

I believe that obedience to the Scriptures is vital to God’s people. It was a major issue with the Israelites. They wanted God’s blessings without obedience. I strive to obey God every day. I don’t always get it right, but I so want to follow Him and walk in His ways. But sometimes I do so with a chip on my shoulder and a bit of an attitude. “I’ll do it God, but I really don’t want to.” “I will make this sacrifice, but it’s not fair, they’ve done nothing to deserve it.” “Why do I have to take this on God? Don’t I have enough on my plate?” I’m like a petulant child stomping her feet in protest on the way to bed. I sure hope you’re nodding your head in agreement, otherwise, I’m the worst kind of Christian.

But Paul said God expects obedience with a humble and grateful spirit. That is exactly what Jesus did. Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus went to the cross – to His death with Joy. How could that be? Crucifixion was a horribly painful and humiliating way to die. Because He knew what the end result was going to be. Granted we don’t have that same advantage. But we have the same Heavenly Father who has never failed us, who works all things to fulfill His good purpose. We have a God we can trust when we are told to do something hard.

What is the end result of our humble obedience? We “become blameless and pure children of God [who] shine like the stars in the universe” (v. 15). In other words, we become like Jesus. And that is the desire of my heart. How about you, Beloved?

Death vs. Love

“In all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” Romans 8:37.

It was the rallying cry of the martyr in the early church, the prayer of the saint drawing his last breath. It is the hope and promise for God’s people. “We are more than conquerors.” But what does that mean? And what are “all these things,? Trouble. Hardship. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Danger. Sword. Death. Where does your life fall on this list? Do you have trouble? Do not despair – God will help you. Are you under hardship? Do not faint – God will bring you through. Are you being persecuted? Do not shrink back – God will give you strength. Not many of us are experiencing famine or nakedness – most of us live in plenty to one degree or another. Nor do we face danger or threats to our lives, though that day seems not far off.

But all of us – sooner or later – will meet death. And here is where our Conquering Hero leads the way. Jesus made an astounding promise: “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). The greatest threat we face is death – but not the end of our mortal lives. No, our enemy is eternal death – separation from God forever.

Jesus drew a final breath. His heart stopped beating. He was placed in a tomb. But He rose from death to complete life. And in doing so, He conquered our chief enemy. Because of His resurrection, we too have the promise of eternal life. Oh, most of us will likely draw a final breath, and our mortal heart will cease its beating. But another life is coming for those who believe in Jesus – a life that cannot end. A life that will never be taken away. A life that cannot be touched by trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword. Not even by death.

What is the power that overcomes? Love. Holy love. Love that went to the cross. Love that succumbed to death. Love that lay in the tomb. And love that rose again. Paul said that “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). The empty tomb proves it. In Christ, dear one you are more than a conqueror – you are the Beloved. What could possibly be greater than this?

Do You Believe?

No other event on the stage of world history is as important as the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Skeptics have long sought to discredit Christianity’s claims with attacks on the foundational veracity of the gospel.  So is it really true? Let’s take a look at the facts that are recorded in the secular history of the time.

The Jewish and Roman historical records note that a man named Jesus from Nazareth was crucified at Golgotha and buried in a garden tomb.  The grave was sealed and Roman guards were posted to prevent the theft of the body.  History records that the condemned man’s tomb was found empty three days later, despite the extreme measures the Romans took to secure the grave.  Jewish records note the claims of Jesus’ followers that their Lord had been resurrected.  Historical writers of the time frequently mention eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus, just as Paul spoke of Peter, the Apostles, more than five hundred brothers, James (Jesus’ own doubting brother), and finally Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  In these verses, Paul reminds the believers of the gospel message “that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scripture” (v. 3-4).  These verses are almost certainly a creed that was well established in the ancient church and based on the testimonies of the very ones who firmly and emphatically believed they saw the literal resurrected Lord.  These are men who had been transformed from terrified, despondent fellows cowering behind locked doors (John 20:19) to bold witnesses willing to die for their faith, confident in what they saw (Acts 4:1-20).

The gospel message – the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus – is strongly supported by men and women who had an encounter that transformed their lives and the landscape of world history.  The evidence is clearly shown in their testimonies and the traditions that are built on the foundation of their testimonies.  The eyewitness accounts of Peter, James, John and Paul, and hundreds of others, combined with the early creedal statements of the church provide good support for the claims of the resurrection of Jesus. 

Still, facts alone cannot convince anyone of the reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Generations of believers who have also experienced this life-changing Jesus provide the greatest proof that the claims of Christianity are true. People like me. I was a sinner, lost and bound for hell, but I heard the good news that God loves me and send His Son to die for my sins and rose to life three days later. I believed in Jesus. His Spirit lives in me and I have been changed. Forever.

Beloved, this same Jesus died for you too. He can change your life and your eternal destiny. Will you believe today?

Heaven Wept

“It was preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how His body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” Luke 23:54-56

It was the darkest day of their lives – the day after Jesus had been crucified on the cross. They’d heard the hammers pound the nails into His hands and feet. They listened to Him cry out to His Father in anguish and surrender. They saw His body slump as He give up His Spirit. They watched the soldiers pierce His side and witnessed blood and water drain from His battered body. They held their breath as Joseph and Nicodemus took His lifeless body down from the cross. They followed in a sad processional to the garden where their Lord was entombed.

In our modern understanding of these days, we hold solemn vigils on Good Friday, remembering the death of Jesus, and we come together for joyful celebrations on Easter Sunday to celebrate His resurrection. But Saturday is the day for egg hunts, travel, shopping, and preparing our Easter Sunday finery.

More and more the Holy Spirit is teaching me to sit in the moment with the Bible characters. To put myself in their sandals and their experience and not rush on to the end of a familiar story. He is teaching me to take a holy pause.

What must this day have been like for these devoted women? Were they numb with grief? Or was it the kind of sorrow that aches deep in the bones? This day – the day after darkness filled the noon-day sky and the curtain was torn in two – must have left them empty inside – confused, in anguish, and filled with disbelief. How could this be? Their Jesus was dead.

Looking back from this side of the Cross, we want to take their faces in our hands and tell them, “Just hold on! Don’t grieve. Everything is going to change tomorrow!” As Paul Harvey says, we know “the rest of the story.” We know death cannot keep its grip on Jesus. We know they will soon find the tomb empty. We know this is only the day between death and life. But they didn’t. In their world, death was final. It was all over.

They didn’t know they were only waiting. . .

Foot-washing

He rose from his place, removed his outer garments and took the towel and basin to the pitcher of water, and poured. Imagine the shocked silence that filled the room at the sight of Jesus, their beloved Teacher, kneeling before the first man, removing his dusty sandals and touching the filthy feet before Him. Surely all that could be heard was the splashing of water as He moved around the room. Peter wanted to spare His Lord such humiliation and drew back his feet, but Jesus refused to pass him by. When the task was done, Jesus told them to take His example and live by this expression of humility and service.

Something strikes me about it this scene. John (who was the only gospel writer to record this scene) never says that anyone washed the feet of Jesus that day. Perhaps one of them did, but surely John would not leave out such an important detail.

There will come a day – sooner or perhaps later – when I will see Him face to glorious face. When I bow before Him in grateful adoration, I want to wash my Jesus’ feet. I want to hold those beautiful feet in my hands. I want to splash water from the River of Life (Rev. 22:1) on His feet. Yes, Mary washed Jesus’ feet. But the feet she washed did not bear the scars from the cross. Those precious marks would come after His act of holy love. I want to touch the imprints left by the nails and kiss the scars that bought my redemption. I want to show Him “the full extent of my love” (Jn 13:1 NIV). I want to wash my Savior’s feet. The feet that kicked against the swaddling clothes in the manger. The feet that carried the Teacher to the shores of Galilee. The feet that walked the dusty road of the Via Dolorosa. The feet that bore the weight of His body and the weight of my sin on the cross. I want to wash those beautiful, glorious nail-scarred feet that speak of this sinner who has been set free.

I Want to See Jesus

She called out my name – not the name “Beth” that folks in Tallahassee called me, but “Dorcas,” a name I hadn’t used since we left home a dozen years before. I was surprised that I would hear my “real” name. She said, “You haven’t seen me since I was a kid,” and then she told me who she was and everything clicked. Her family had lived next door to us for a few years and I had watched her and her brother a few times for her mother to run errands. I asked “How did you recognize me? It’s been so long and you were so young when we moved away.”  She hugged me and said, “I’d know that smile anywhere!”

People change so much – ask anyone who’s gone to their high-school reunion. I was so glad the reunion committee put our senior yearbook pictures on our name badges or I would have been completely lost. We all walked around with puzzled faces until we glanced down at the badge and – “Oh, it’s you!”

Heaven will be filled with faces both strange and familiar. I know I will be scanning the multitude, looking for my mom and dad and brother Jim and my friends Judy, Joey, Dorothy, Virginia, Mavis, Bob, and so many more. But there’s one Face I want most to see. One person who changed everything for me. I want to see Jesus. But how will I recognize Him?

The Bible gives no physical description other than “He had no beauty or majesty” (Isaiah 53:2). Nobody really knows what Jesus looked like and the paintings we have are not true representations of the Lord. I highly doubt he was a light-skinned, auburn-haired man with a chiseled, European face. True, we can make assumptions based on His nationality. But how many people will have the same olive complexion and middle-eastern features in heaven? Yet the Bible does say that we will recognize Him when we see Him. How? I imagine the crown on His head and His throne at the right hand of the Father and the glory that will emanate from Him will be big clues.  But there’s one other way. When He appeared to the disciples John said, “He showed them His hands and side [and] the disciples were overjoyed” (John 20:20). There be no doubt about which one is Jesus – we’ll know Him the same way they did – by His scars.

In the Shadow of the Cross

Time and eternity intersect at the Cross

My granddaughter loves crosses. She knows the cross has something to do with God and Jesus, and at almost three, that’s a good foundation. But in the first century, the cross was a symbol of shame. So why would the church adopt it as our standard? We get a clue from Peter who said, “[Jesus] bore our sins in His body on the tree [cross], so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24, emphasis added). Pete packed a lot into that short sentence.

First, the cross is for sinners. It is for people who make mistakes, for the ones who are weak, for those of us who do foolish things, who fall into a pit of sin and walk in the wilderness of the consequences. The cross is the place where Jesus took on all our sin and shame, our profane mouths and promiscuous acts, our greed, and selfishness, our lies, our addictions, our lustful thoughts, our rebellion, and disobedience.  Jesus didn’t die for those who have it all together. He died for those of us who are falling apart in our own human sinfulness. The cross is for me.

Second, the cross helps us in our weaknesses. By holding fast to the cross of Jesus, we draw strength to enable us to overcome our un-Christ-like habits and attractions. When I look to the cross, I am reminded again of what Jesus did for me, and I find the strength to fight against the enemy and flee from temptation.   I’m not implying that the cross is some magic talisman; but it is a symbol of the transforming power of Christ – a power we are encouraged to call on every day and every moment. You and I can’t control the sinful desires of our flesh, but Christ can help us stand strong in godliness. Through the cross, Christ empowers us to live for righteousness.

Many criminals before and after Him died on a cross, but the cross of Jesus is the hope for all mankind. It is the place from which love dripped down Christ’s body and bought us our freedom. Paul said, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Beloved, have you come to the cross of Jesus?