A Work in Progress

If there was ever an extra-biblical word of wisdom that I believe with my whole heart it is this. “Do not think, believer, that your sorrows are out of God’s plan; they are necessary parts of it.” Charles Spurgeon. Like you, I have experienced sadness, sorrow, shock, grief, despair, anguish, and brokenness in my life, and often wondered why God would allow it. What good can possibly come from such pain? But I have learned, and am still learning, that these are the tools He uses to shape me into the image of His Son.

When the great Michelangelo was asked how he could take a block of marble and bring from it his beautiful sculpture of David, he replied, “I took my chisel and removed everything that didn’t look like my vision of David.”  That is God’s purpose for our sufferings and sorrows.  God uses them like a hammer and chisel to remove everything that does not look like the vision before Him – the vision of His Son (Rom 8:29).  It is not always pleasant – in fact, it is very painful – but it is necessary because our hearts are often as hard as a block of marble. 

It reminds me of the work of the ancient craftsmen who made the priestly garments for Aaron. The Scripture says that “they hammered out thin sheets of gold and cut threads from them” to weave into the fabric  (Ex 39:3).  Can you imagine the amount of dedication and intricate work that required? Beloved, that’s nothing compared to how God is working on you And He’s not just weaving the glory of His Son into your life. He is making you into His very image.

You may not welcome it at the moment, but one day, when you stand before your Savior you will be so glad for every blow and every tear that made you into the reflection of your King.  The Bible says that Jesus was made perfect through suffering.  Do you think it will be any less for you?  Oh, Beloved, there is great purpose in your pain. As Paul said, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death . . .” (Philippians 3:10).

Hebrews: Everything Old is New Again

New Testament writers often referred back to the Scriptures – what we know as the Old Testament to confirm the fulfillment of prophecy. The writer of Hebrews is one of them. One key I learned in hermeneutics (how to study the scriptures) is to go back to the OT reference to gain the writer’s context.

In Hebrews 10:38 the author loosely borrowed from one of the OT prophets when he wrote, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.”  Verses 19-39 are a call to persevere in Christ. The promise of Jesus’ return was given in verse 37 and is followed by this “gentle” warning. So what was happening in the OT that influenced this NT verse?

Habakkuk prophesied to Judah in the final days before Jerusalem fell. He lamented the injustice, violence, strife, lawlessness, and wickedness in the land. Does that sound familiar? God’s answer was to announce judgment – the nation would be destroyed and taken captive by the Babylonians, a “ruthless and impetuous people . . . bent on violence . . . guilty men, whose own strength is their god” (1:6,9, 11). Habakkuk questions God’s plan and the Lord responds by contrasting the evil Babylonians with “the just” – the one who remains righteous despite the circumstances. The one who perseveres.

This was the author’s theme throughout Hebrews. The Babylonians would take the Jews that survived the onslaught and either enslave them or indoctrinate them into their culture and completely erase their way of life in God. Just as the enemies of the believing Jewish community were trying to do. Just as the world, satan, the culture, and our own sinful nature are trying to do today.

“But,” said the author, “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved” (v. 39). He expressed his confidence in their faith and their ability to persevere in it under the most dire circumstances. Our enemies may look different today, but they all spring from the same root – satan, the devil, the enemy of God and God’s people.  The call to persevere is as important today as it was thousands of years ago. Only those who stand firm in their faith please God and inherit eternal life. I want that.  And I want that for you, Beloved. Let’s hang on to Jesus together.

What Has Happened to the Church?

Charles Spurgeon said, “If we cannot be torn in pieces by the roaring lion, we may be hugged to death by the bear.”

(I hope you’re ready for a history lesson)

In the earliest centuries of the Church, Christians faced unfathomable persecution. Their property was confiscated, their jobs taken away, and they were subject to physical attacks. Steven, the first martyr was stoned to death for the name of Jesus. James was beheaded for His commitment to Christ. Paul wrote of “troubles, hardships and distresses, beatings, imprisonments and riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger” (2 Cor 6:4-5). He was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19), shipwrecked three times (2 Cor 11:25), and in constant danger everywhere he went (2 Cor 11:26). We’re all familiar with the stories of Christians facing lions in a public arena for the amusement of the Romans. These men and women gladly surrendered their lives rather than deny the name of their Lord, Jesus Christ. The faith of the martyrs shone brilliantly and boldly against the dark backdrop of persecution.

But in later years, when Emperor Constantine of Rome (272-337) declared Christianity as the state religion, persecution in the west ended and every citizen became a “Christian”–whether they believed or not. Being a Christian was all about nationality, not grace as Christianity was fully embraced by the civilized world. It could be considered the worst thing to ever happen to the church. The standards for Christians became more and more lax over the centuries, and by the twentieth century “Christianity” looked nothing like the faith that men and women once died for.  It had been smothered in a bear hug of cheap grace as the church preached a “light” version of sin and salvation.

But I believe we’re coming back full circle to the days of persecution for true believers. Once again, Christians – Bible-believing, Christ-following Christians are persona-non-grata. Christianity has become the enemy once again. Even in the church.  As churches embrace every sin that the culture can dream up, they also reject the truth and those who live by it. Subtly, degree by degree, hatred for true believers is growing and they are being forced out. It’s happening in churches right now in your own community. The days of the bear hug are coming to an end – and it may be the best thing for the church. It’s certainly following in the footprints of Jesus who said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matt 16:25). The lion is stirring again. Beloved, are you ready to stand firm?

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.

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?

Hebrews: The Disgrace of being a Christian

I became a Christian at nine years of age. I still remember sitting in the pew after I was baptized and feeling the water dripping from my hair and down my back. I remember standing in front of the church and receiving “the right hand of Christian fellowship.” One of my teachers hugged me in class on Monday and congratulated me on my decision for Christ. But for first-century believers, being a Christian was vastly different.

The writer of Hebrews said, “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publically exposed to insult and persecution, at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated” (Hebrews 10:32-33). For a Jew to make a public profession of faith in Jesus was, at best, to open yourself to public ridicule and often worse. Many lost their employment or the community would cease doing business with them. Sons were disowned by their fathers and wives faced severe repercussions from their husbands, including beatings. They were stripped of their possessions, even their homes, and many were imprisoned just for taking hold of new life in Christ.

How did these early believers respond to such awful treatment? Better than I would have. “You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property . . .” (v. 34a). They found Joy in the persecution they faced. Why on earth? Because they weren’t thinking about earth. “You knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions” (34b). They were thinking about heaven and eternity. They were thinking about what Peter called, “an inheritance that can never perish spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet 1:4).

They remind me of the apostles who, after being beaten by the Sanhedrin for preaching the name of Jesus, rejoiced “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

I live in the US where the cost of being a Christ-follower is mild compared to the early Christians and to believers today in places where faith in Jesus is tantamount to a death sentence. We might get insulted on social media, and some factions are working through the liberal courts to shut down Christian businesses, but on the whole, being a Christian here is not a hardship. And maybe that’s the problem. But I am certain it’s coming. The cultural winds are shifting to the left and blowing in real hatred for God and His people. You and I need to be ready. It takes a firm faith and an eye to eternity to rejoice in the face of persecution. Beloved, are you willing to suffer disgrace for the Name?

Blood-stained Faith

I know, this is Hebrews Monday, but this morning the Holy Spirit has a different word from the Word. It is one of those Old Testament to  New Testament connections I love so much.

The psalmist said, “May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands” (Ps. 149:6). You probably picked up on that “double-edged sword” and recognized it from Hebrews 4:12: “For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword . . .” You may also recall John’s vision of Jesus in heaven: “out of His mouth came a sharp double-edged sword” (Rev 1:16). You know that this sword is none other than the Word of God – the Bible – the Holy Scriptures. You know that in the Armor of God the sword of the Spirit is the only offensive weapon we have (Eph 6:17) – but it is enough because the Word of God sends satan packing. This sword is powerful and purposeful.

But the Spirit made another connection for me as He reminded me of the scene in heaven. Under the altar dwelt “the souls of those who had been slain” – martyred saints. Why? “Because of the Word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (Rev. 6:17). And what was their testimony? The same writer said, “And this is the testimony: ‘God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son’” (1 John 5:11). Do you see the connection?

What is praise but declaring the great Name and work of Almighty God? The martyrs throughout the history of the church have held tightly to the name of Jesus and the Word of God as their source of strength and conviction. But martyrs are not only part of the church’s past. Believers are being slain for their faith today, and as the world moves farther away from God, more saints will face the same fate. Maybe even you and me. How will we endure? How will we not fail our Savior? The same way they did. With the name of Jesus on our lips and our hands frozen to the sword (2 Sam 23:10). Come to think of it, this verse is right in line with the message of Hebrews: stand firm in Christ Jesus and do not lose heart. Hard times are coming Beloved, but so is Jesus!

Hebrews: We’re Better Together

A few years ago I worked in retail and had to pull some Sunday shifts – usually every other Sunday. However, at one point, I worked four Sundays in a row and missed a whole month of church. I felt it. I felt my spirit shriveling up a little more each day. I felt the pull of sin getting stronger. I felt the weight of the world getting heavier. I felt disconnected and alone. The writer of Hebrews understood the need for Christian companionship when he wrote “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25).

It sits in the middle of a passage that calls for perseverance. The Hebrew Christians were under extreme persecution from both the Roman government and the Jewish religious community for their faith. The entire book of Hebrews is a call to remain firm in the faith and one of the most dependable ways to do so is to stand together in one accord. The author says that Christian fellowship has several purposes: to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” to encourage one another,” and to hold each other accountable, (vs. 24, 25, implied in v. 26). Over the centuries, many martyrs of the faith were imprisoned, publicly tortured, and put to death. But they went through those abuses united in heart and faith, and they drew strength from one another. In 1555 two faithful Bishops, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer we burned side-by-side at the stake for their testimony of Christ. As they embraced before the place of burning, Ridley told Latimer, “Be of good heart, brother, for God will either make the fire less painful or strengthen us so that we can endure it.”

Beloved, we may not be facing a fiery death for our faith (yet), but we still need one another to endure the struggles and challenges of our lives. I need you. I need your encouragement. I need your prayers. I need your witness. I need you to remind me to remain faithful. You need me for the same reasons. Church is not just something we do as long as the kids don’t have a soccer match or the beach isn’t calling our name. Church – Christian fellowship – is something we need for the sake of our spiritual lives. I hope to see you, Beloved, in church tomorrow.

In God’s Waiting Room

I stood there tapping my toes impatiently. “Come on!” I muttered under my breath as I watched the timer tick down. 5 . . . 4. . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1. Then the shrill “beep, beep, beep.” About time! My breakfast pastry was finally done! I popped open the microwave door and juggled the hot food. Then it dawned on me. I just told a microwave to hurry up. I couldn’t wait a minute and forty-five seconds for my breakfast.

In our hurry-up society, we hate waiting. Doctors’ offices, the DMV, a child who’s late coming home – they all make us a little crazy as precious minutes –or – hours tick away. Perhaps you know the anxiety of waiting days for test results, or for a phone call after a job interview. Or maybe your waiting has stretched beyond minutes and days to months and even years. And you’re not waiting on a doctor or a kid or a phone call. You’re waiting on God. You’ve been praying. And praying. And God delays. You haven’t gotten a closed door. But you also haven’t gotten an answer yet.

You’re in good company. Revelation tells of some folks who are also waiting on God. They are “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’” (Revelation 6:9-10). They are waiting for God to do what they know He alone is able to do – but isn’t. Sound familiar? “God, You can do this, You can fix this, You can stop this. But You aren’t.”

The Scripture says that “each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer . . .” (v. 11). When God tells us to wait it is because He intends to act. Are you waiting for God? Have you been praying for a long time with no end in sight? Oh, please, don’t despair. Our Father doesn’t tell us to wait in vain. And He doesn’t tell us to wait unless there’s something worth waiting for. Beloved, will you “wait a little longer?”

Heaven

 When I was a little girl, I heard a minister preach about eternity – and it terrified me. I couldn’t wrap my childish mind around something that would never end.  I still cannot wrap my gray head around the concept of eternity – but I am no longer afraid.

Revelation 3:12 speaks of “the New Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from God”  where we will drink “from the spring of the water of life” (Rev. 21:6). The Holy City will shine “with the glory of God,” with the “brilliance of a very precious jewel” (Rev. 21:11) Try to picture with me the descriptions in Revelation 21 and 22:  The city walls are made of jasper, the foundations are twelve precious stones, the gates of the city are giant single pearls  The gold that our world revolves around – that’s just pavement in heaven, where the streets are made of pure, transparent gold.  There is no sun or moon, “for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.” 

But here is the most beautiful sight of all: “The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and His servants will serve Him.  They will see His face…” (Rev. 22:3-4, emphasis added).  We will see the face of our Savior!  As a writer, here I fall silent.  What words could I offer to describe the glory of beholding the face of Jesus? And we will have to privilege of looking into His face forever.  For we will have life everlasting!  As hard as it is to comprehend, it is one of the foundations of our faith – everlasting life.

Everlasting life is the promise that has kept the heart of the Christian faith beating strong through trial, persecution, and oppression.  It has been the song on the lips of the martyrs down through history.  Life everlasting is not just about existence that never ends,  It is about the uninterrupted presence of God and His everlasting love (Ps. 103:17); everlasting righteousness (Ps. 119:142); an everlasting kingdom (Ps. 145:113); everlasting joy (Is. 35:10); everlasting salvation (Is. 47:17); everlasting kindness (Is. 54:8); everlasting light (Is 60:19 & 20); an everlasting name (Is. 56:5); and an everlasting Father (Is 9:6)?  It will be an everlasting paradise (Rev. 2:7)!

Beloved, I pray that this is your hope too. Heaven is very real, and so is hell. Your eternal destiny lies in one or the other. Don’t let the day end until you know where you’re going.