A Pure Heart

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When my son was younger, he was determined to do something he knew was wrong. When I caught him before he could put his plan into action he protested, “But Mom I didn’t actually do it!” “That’s not the point.” I told him, “You wanted to do it – that’s the heart of the problem.

Human nature has reduced “sin” to an act – a thing we do, while the Bible tells us that sin is a condition of the heart – our desires. When Jesus taught about adultery in Matthew 5:27-28 He said that the sin of adultery is committed when the desire arises – “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” James identified the pattern of sin in 1:14-15 as a progression from one’s “own evil desire,” to enticement, then to the action. Sin clearly starts in the heart. After his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Urriah, David pleaded for God to “create in me a pure heart” (Ps. 51:10) for he knew that it was his heart that had led him astray. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mat. 6:21), meaning we will pursue at all costs what our heart desires. If that desire is for sin, you can bet your hands, feet, and body will follow. Jesus also said only “the pure in heart . . . will see God” (Mat. 5:8). That should be incentive enough.

A pure heart recoils at the thought of disobeying and dishonoring God and breaking fellowship. It pursues the heart of God, which never leads to sin. A pure heart runs from temptation (2 Tim 2:22). Does that mean if you struggle with sinful desires You don’t have a heart for God? No – Paul attested to the battle within himself (Rom. 7:15-23) and I know well my own tug-of-war with sin. But it’s not unwinnable. You just need some Help.

Beloved, Are you weary of toying with the sinful desires of your heart? Victory comes as you allow the Word of God and the Spirit of God to purify your heart day by day. God isn’t just after your behavior Beloved, He is after your heart.  When you “delight yourself in the Lord,” that is when He is all your heart longs for, then “He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps 37:4). He will give you Himself.

By Faith . . .

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In the generations of Adam’s descendants, I found the person I most want to be like: Enoch. While I love the great stories of the biblical heroes – the simple description of Enoch’s life is the one that I want most to copy: “Enoch walked with God.” There are no great feats listed, no battles fought, no mighty victories. He walked with God – period. We do get a clue in Hebrews 11 where we find that as he walked he “pleased God” (Hebrews 11:5b). What was his secret for pleasing God? It’s right in the next verse, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Faith pleases God and Enoch clearly had faith. So what is faith? Faith is believing that God exists – that He is who He says He is. But the demons believe that God exists (James 2:19), so there must be something more. Faith is also believing that He rewards those who seek after him earnestly. How do we seek God earnestly? “You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart” (Jer 29:13). Enoch walked through life seeking the face and presence of God with his whole heart. And Enoch’s faith was rewarded. What is the prize for faith? Jeremiah 29:14 says, “I will be found by you.” Enoch found God – he didn’t die but was taken from this earth and into the very presence of God.

Hebrews 11 – the hall of faith – is filled with men and women who did many things in the name of the Lord, but they are all commended for one thing above all others: their faith. Name after name is preceded by the words: “by faith.” These saints worshipped, built, led, sacrificed, and remained true, but they are remarkable for the faith, not their acts. Faith motivates God’s people into action, whether it is great exploits or simple gestures – but it is not our deeds that please God, it is our heart that believes and seeks after Him. I want to do great things for God. I want to study and teach His Word, I want to write to encourage others. I want to share Jesus everywhere I go. But more than all these, I want to walk before God in faith, just as Enoch did. I want to please Him and seek Him with wholehearted devotion and walk through life with Him – side-by-side and heart-to-heart – all the way into His presence.

Power

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The words escaped my lips without thought, “God I am so tired of…” How would you fill in that prayer?  Tired of financial struggles or health problems. Tired of battling family members.  Tired of too many responsibilities. Tired of the struggle against sin. It is so easy to get overwhelmed and feel powerless.  But God wants you and me to know that we are not powerless.  Quite the contrary, as believers in Jesus Christ, we have “incomparably great power (Ephesians 1:19),” power that comes from God.  But do we really understand what that means?

The Bible speaks of God’s eternal power” (Romans 1:20), His “power for the salvation of everyone” (Romans 1:16), “overflowing hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13), and “[God’s ]power made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  He said that God’s “power is at work within us-[doing] immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20), and “by His power, He [will] fulfill [our] every good purpose and act of faith” (2 Thessalonians 1:11).  “God [strengthens us] with all power according to His glorious might” (Colossians 1:11). And Peter declared: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).

But perhaps the most powerful statement about the power of God is found in Ephesians 1:19-20, where Paul writes about God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe.  That power is like the working of His mighty strength, which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead.”  Stop.  Go back and read that again. The same power that God exerted to raise Jesus Christ from the dead now lives in you and me through the Holy Spirit.  That is the power that will enable you to accomplish everything God has called you to.  Do you have a problem that is bigger than death?  No, and neither do I.  Whatever the problem, whatever the challenge, whatever the work you and I are called to do – in Christ, we have the power we need.

You possess the power to love others, to forgive every wrong, to endure trials and suffering, to fight for justice, to remain firm in the face of opposition, and to be Christ’s light in this dark world. You have the power to resist temptations, turn away from sin, and walk in righteousness.  God’s power strengthens your faith so you can be His hands and feet in a world filled with lost and weary people. His power is real and it is mighty. And it is all yours Beloved. What a powerful promise!

Hebrews: The Tabernacle

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Lovely Lane Chapel at Epworth by the Sea, St. Simons Island, Georgia

I love church buildings. I visited some beautiful, ornate cathedrals when I lived in Germany.  My late brother’s high school graduation was held in one in Worms. I didn’t see him walk for his diploma because I was looking at the intricate carvings and high, soaring ceilings. I met for a weekly Bible study in a church with incredible wood beams that always spoke peace to me.  I worked in a church in Florida with beautiful stained glass windows. I loved to sit in the sanctuary and watch the light cast colors across the room. But the church I fell in love with was a small chapel in Georgia on St. Simon’s Island called “Lovely Lane Chapel” at Epworth by the Sea. It is an unassuming white building in the traditional style of the late 19th century set on the banks of the historic Frederica River. But when you open the doors and step inside the all-wood interior will take your breath away. It is an impressive work of architectural art. But it’s just a copy and shadow of the true tabernacle in heaven (Hebrews 8:2, 5).  St. Peter’s Basilica and the pre-fire cathedral at Notre Dame, even the gold walls of Solomon’s temple pale in comparison to the divine original.

Likewise, the ministry of the priests who served in the temple in Jerusalem was significantly less than that of Jesus Christ, the great high priest. The writer of Hebrews pointed first to the gifts and sacrifices presented by generations of human high priests (8:3-4), and later we will see why those gifts and sacrifices fell short of the perfection the Law and the Law-giver demanded. But Jesus’ ministry “is superior to theirs” (8:6) because the gifts and sacrifices He offered were superior.

Jesus’ ministry did not happen in the earthly tabernacle and the sacrifice He offered was not given to a diety shrouded in smoke and incense. Jesus went personally before the Lord with His own pure blood.

Ornate buildings and animal sacrifices don’t make men holy. Neither do programs and weekly services. None of these satisfy the demands of a righteous God. But there is a way. It’s through the better tabernacle and the better offering – through Jesus, the Son of God, the Great High Priest, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Who takes away your sin, Beloved. He will make you holy.

Saving the Best for Last

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I always eat the least favorite thing on my plate first and save my most favorite thing for last. When I have chores to do I do the hardest one first then do the easiest last. Why? Because I know that if I eat my favorite food or do the easiest chores first, I will give up before I do the rest. It’s a discipline I learned as a kid: “save the best for last.”

I think that is a very simple explanation for Paul’s message to the churches in Rome.  He said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (8:18). Let’s get the truth out on the table – this life is hard. And the Christian life, I believe, makes it harder. Christians are constantly at odds with the culture of the world. Our priorities are very different. Our desires are (or should be) counter-cultural. Our sense of right and wrong rubs against the ever-changing “morals’ of the day. And our worldview is 180 degrees from the ethos of the world. Sometimes we wonder why we continue to swim against the stream and make ourselves a target of the enemy. Wouldn’t it be easier to just go along with the world and save ourselves the struggles and pain? Maybe. But at what cost? “Glory.” The reward for endurance and perseverance is glory. And not just a glory we can see at a distance. Paul said the glory to come is “in us.” He told the church in Corinth that this is “an eternal glory that far outweighs our light and momentary troubles” (2 Cor. 4:17).

Maybe you don’t consider your troubles “light and momentary.” You may have lost a job or a friendship because of your commitment to your faith. You won’t be the first. The history of the church is written in the blood of men and women who died for the name of Christ. It still happens today in certain parts of the world, and I believe it is coming to the Western church soon Paul isn’t dismissing these hard things. But he is saying there is something better coming, something that makes all our difficulties in this life pale in comparison. He said, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Those are not just fluffy words – they are a rock-solid promise from the heart of God. You and I cannot imagine the glory that is coming. Hang on Beloved, the best is yet to be.

Who I am in Christ — or Whose?

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There is a trend in Christianity that both excites me and makes me wary. “Discipleship” is the command of our Lord and Savior: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Discipleship is Jesus’ marching orders for the church. But what are we to teach? Everything He commanded. Everything He taught. Everything He did. But above all, everything He is. The focus of all our teaching and discipleship should always be centered on Christ.

And that’s why I have had a wariness in my spirit. For the past several years the content of our discipleship, especially to women has taken a spiritually unhealthy turn.  This morning I was reading in Colossians, where Paul said: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved . . .” (3:12) and immediately my mind went to the manta of women’s Bible studies: “Who I am in Christ.” Now, please don’t misunderstand me, I am all for us claiming our identity as sons and daughters of God. As one who grew up rejected by both sides of the kickball teams, it is a great comfort to know that I am chosen in Christ. Because my former husband said, “I don’t love you anymore,” it is a balm to my heart to know that I am dearly loved by God. But the focus has turned in recent years from awe at what God has done for a wretch like me, to how God has elevated me, to it’s all about me. It reminds me of an advertisement I heard once for a “Christian” talent agency whose tagline was “Become famous for God!” No! No! No! We make God famous, not ourselves.

All the verses that we claim as our identity labels, when taken in their full context, are teaching us who we are so that we can then walk appropriately. The rest of Colossians 3:12 says “clothes yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Paul goes on to talk about forbearance (patience) and forgiveness and the unity that comes with love. He said, “because you are this, your character should be this.” The Scriptures never tell us “who we are” to boost our ego but to humble us in our relationships with one another and with Christ. When we pick out select words to focus on ourselves, we miss the point entirely.

Beloved, I encourage you to learn what the Bible says about you because above all else, you are God’s image-bearer. Now act like it.

Hebrews: The Gift of Grace

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Ask a humanitarian what the world needs and they will quote Hal David: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Ask a politician and he will say the world needs more programs and the money to run them. Teachers will say the world needs to be better educated. Generals think the world needs more control and hippies say the world just needs peace. None of these are bad answers, but they miss the real issue that plagues the world. The writer of Hebrews said the world needs a mediator – a high priest – because we are sinful people before a holy, righteous God.  That is the point of the comparison in Hebrews 7:26-28 of the earthly priests and Jesus.

Jesus, our great high priest (4:14), the writer said, is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, [and] exalted above the heavens” (v. 26). Because we are going to stand before God (and every human being will), we need a mediator who is acceptable to Him. In the Jewish religion (and remember this letter is written to believers with a Jewish background), the high priest comes before the Lord every single day to present sacrifices that atone for the sins of the people. But he has to atone for his own sins first before he can tend to the sins of the people he represented. But Jesus needed no such atonement because He was without sin – He was the perfect sacrifice that could cover all the sins of mankind – “once for all” (v. 27) One sacrifice for all the sins of all the people for all time.

Does that mean that every person is saved by the work of Jesus? Yes. And no. Every persons’ sins are covered – if they accept that covering. But God gave man a little thing called “free will” to accept or reject His offer. The one who rebuffs that grace doesn’t negate the work of Christ, he just refuses it. And God is very much a gentleman who will not force His grace on anyone who does not want it. But why would anyone not want it? Because they do not see themselves as sinners in need of grace. Jesus said, “[Satan] has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn – and I would heal them” (John 12:40).

I imagine that you, like me, have someone in mind as you read this, someone who continually pushes God away. How can we help? Pray, Beloved. Pray that the blindfold of the enemy be removed so that they can see and understand. Grace is a gift, but it must be received.

The Story of God

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The first four words of Scripture tell you everything you need to know about the Bible: “In the beginning God . . .”(Gen. 1:1). The Bible, for all the people and stories it contains, is a book about God. We like to say it is about God and man, God and Abraham, God and Israel. We point to all God’s creative activity, which is worthy of note and awe. But the Bible isn’t about all God did and the humans he worked through. The Bible is about God. The story of Moses is the story of God. The story of David is the story of God. The stories of Jonah and the Apostles are all the stories of God. He is on every page, in every verse, and behind every story, even if His name is not mentioned.

That is because God is the creator and sustainer of all existence. If He were to somehow cease to be, which can never happen because He is eternal, the heavens and the earth – every mountain and tree, every planet and star would disappear. Paul said of Christ (who is fully God) “By Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). And John the Revelator recorded the angels’ praise: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4:11).

Get this – your story and my story is also the story of God. Paul said, “We live and move and have our being” in God (Acts 17:28). We would not exist without Him. We should seek every day to know Him. That is why I teach the Bible. That is why I encourage you to read and study for yourself. Listen to His amazing promise: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:13, 14). You don’t have to hope to know God, you just have to look for Him in the pages of His Word. Beloved, will you open your Bible and seek out the One who created you and loves you?

Walking into the New Year

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I had no clue on January 1 what 2021 would hold, but God knew everything thing that was to occur in the next 365 days.  And as 2022 begins, He is equally aware of how it will unfold.  How can I be so confident?  Because Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and Omega is the last, and they are used to express completeness from beginning to end.  Three times in Revelation Jesus declares, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” and each time He adds a little more to His self-proclamation.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8).

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (21:6).

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (22:13).

Jesus is the Beginning of time (Genesis 1:14) and the End of time; because He is timeless (1 Peter 1:11). He called forth the first light (Genesis 1:3) and He will extinguish it and replace it with Himself (Revelation 21:23). He is the Beginning of all righteousness and the end of all evil (Matthew 25:46).

If you are in Christ, He is also the Alpha and the Omega of your life.  He is Beginning and the End of your day—He is there with you when you wake in the morning and when you lay your head down at night and every hour in between. He continues to watch over you through the night.  He is the First and the Last over your life—He was there when you drew your first breath, and He will walk with you into heaven when you draw your last, and He will never leave your side all the days of your life.

We do not know what 2022 will bring, what blessings and struggles, hellos and goodbyes, joys and sorrows.  But we can greet the coming year confident that the Alpha and Omega is already there.  Beloved, I invite you to begin the New Year with words of this beautiful old hymn:

I don’t worry o’er the future

For I know what Jesus said

And today I’ll walk beside Him

For He knows what is ahead

Many things about tomorrow

I don’t seem to understand;

But I know who holds tomorrow

and I know who holds my hand.

I Know Who Holds Tomorrow – words and music by Ira F. Stanphill, @ 1950.

Hebrews: Perfection

I’ve known many pastors in my life and my  25+ year career as a church administrator – some of whom I had more confidence in than others. But none of them were perfect. Yet, the Law of God demands perfection, so how can these imperfect men help me to reach perfection? They can’t – and they will tell you that themselves.

The author of Hebrews said, “If perfection could have been obtained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come—one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?” (Hebrews 7:11). The perfect law was given to imperfect people and they were instructed in it by imperfect priests. How then, could they ever meet the law’s demands? Enter Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the other person worthy of both a crown and a mitre.

The author pointed to Jesus’ lineage as a descendant of Judah, the royal line, but what of his priestly role? He said, like Melchizedek, Jesus is “one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to His ancestry, but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life” (7:16). What does that mean? Indestructible at its root means unable to be dissolved, disunited, overthrown. It means Jesus’s life, ministry, and mission would never be diminished or rendered vain because of His personal moral power. And because His position as priest was not something He inherited, but something He always was – the perfect mediator of the perfect law and the only one who had the power to make imperfect people perfect before God.

Many priests served and retired or died, and the law was never satisfied through any of them. But hear this: “Because Jesus lives forever, He has a permanent priesthood. Therefore He is able to save completely [forever, to the uttermost] those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them” (7:24-25). He alone can guarantee our salvation because He alone is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, [and] exalted above the heavens” (v. 27).

Beloved, you will never pull off perfect obedience, but you can put your faith in one who has. You can trust in the indestructible life of the Lord Jesus Christ, your priest and king to make you perfect.