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: Don’t Turn Back

“I wanna go home!” Joy wailed in my arms.  It was the last day of VBS and everyone was in the “big church” for the grand finale. She wanted no part of it.  I coaxed her into sitting on my lap, but it didn’t last long.  She was trembling when her mommy took her out after just a couple of minutes. It’s not unusual when facing challenges to want to run back to what we know is safe. Even if safe is not God’s will for us.

Hebrews says the heroes of the Bible considered themselves “aliens and strangers” not just in the new lands they settled, but “on earth” because they were “looking for a country of their own” (Heb 11:13b-14). The place of promise. Abraham was given that very promise and he did settle in the land of Canaan, though it was not his possession. The writer added, “If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return” (v. 15). They could have gone back home at any time. Case in point:

Abraham realized that he needed a wife for his son, Isaac, but not from the local, pagan women.  He tasked his servant with going back to his hometown to bring back a woman from his own people for his son. The servant asked, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back . . . shall I take your son back to the country you came from? (Gen 24:5). Abraham answered an emphatic “No.” “Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” (v. 6). Why? Because the promise of God was tied to the land of Canaan. If he went back the promise would be lost. Abraham was protecting the promise by his obedience (Gen 24: 6-8).

The writer of Hebrews was addressing Jewish believers whose conversion had caused heartache and struggle. Many abandoned their faith in Christ and returned to the laws and life of Judaism. They returned to a dead end. This world is the domain of the evil one; it will never be home for those who love and follow Christ. But our promised land is coming (more on that later). It’s tempting to take the easy way and return to the world. But the easy way is not the eternal way. “A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.”1. Beloved, you were made for eternity.

  1. John A. Shedd, 1928

Know Thine Enemy

Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher in the early 6th Century wrote the classic, “The Art of War,” From which we have taken the phrase “Know thine enemy.”  Paul cautioned believers with similar words saying that satan will not outwit us if we are aware of his schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11 paraphrased). We need to know our enemy to the degree that we recognize his evil hand in situations we face.

I thought of this yesterday as I was writing out a passage from Job. “God has found fault with me;” Job 33:10. This is one of Job’s detractors summarizing Job’s lament. Yet in the very beginning of his story, God said of him: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8; 2:3). The truth is, God didn’t find fault with Job. Satan did.

One of Satan’s favorite schemes goes like this: he presents a temptation, dangling the carrot of pleasure or power or wealth before us, enticing us until we bite. And as soon as we do he changes his tactic from temptation to condemnation. “Look at you! You call yourself a Christian? God is disgusted with you! He will never love you after what you’ve done!” Pretty soon we’re crying, “God has found fault with me.”  Sound familiar?

You and I need to know the difference between satan’s guilt trips and the Spirit’s conviction. When the Spirit speaks to us about our sin he does so with the goal of restoration. Conviction from the Holy Spirit brings “godly sorrow [which] brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. But satan brings “worldly sorrow [that] brings death”  (2 Cor 7:9-10). Satan just wants to tear us down and bury us under a load of shame. Here’s how you can recognize one from the other. Satan’s attacks turn our attention to ourselves and what horrible creatures we are. The Spirit will always turn your attention to God and His mercy, forgiveness, and grace. And love.

In heaven, satan is called “the accuser of [God’s people], who accuses them before our God day and night” (Rev 12:10). But God’s not buying it. And neither should you Beloved. If you are in Christ, God sees His Son when He looks at you. Not your sin. And so should you.

How to Calm a Restless Life

I almost did it. I almost gave you a devotional with a verse taken out of context. I’ve taught the importance of context, context, context for years and I was about to break the rule. Let me explain. James 1:6 says, “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” This verse, plucked out of the surrounding passage, sits nicely on a platter of “pray and believe and you will receive.” But wait. What is that “but” all about?

James was writing to encourage Jewish believers who were under great oppression and persecution for their faith in Christ. He said their trials were God’s tools to make them “mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (v. 4). Then he adds, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (v. 5). Put all the pieces together and James is saying that wisdom is the mark of a mature, complete Christian and that God will give wisdom to anyone who asks.

But there’s the “but” and that’s where verse 6 above comes in. By now you know that believing = obedience. The wisdom God gives is not just a head full of theology, it is practical action He expects you to take. God doesn’t speak just to be heard, He speaks to be obeyed. The opposite of believing is doubt, so the corollary to our equation is doubt = disobedience. “Doubt” means to make a judgment and thus to hesitate. When we doubt God’s Word, when we hesitate to obey we are judging His wisdom – or more to the point, judging Him – and deciding to reject His Word – and His authority. Hesitance is disobedience.

James calls that being “double-minded” and “unstable” (v. 8 ). A double-minded mind is a divided mind – a mind with two opposite opinions. A double-minded heart is a divided heart – a heart with two opposite affections. Being unstable means being inconsistent – acting first one way and then another. It’s a restless life. It’s no wonder the person who doubts God’s wisdom is “blown and tossed by the wind like a wave of the sea.” 

Beloved, if you’ve been tossed around by life lately, maybe it’s time to take God’s Word – all of God’s Word – to heart. Obedience is a sturdy foundation.

Waiting for the Sunrise

Psalm 130 is a cry for the Lord to rescue and redeem His people Israel. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His Word, I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (v. 6). This is not just aimless waiting, it means “to hope in, to look for, to expect.” It’s the difference between waiting with doubt and fear of disappointment and waiting for something you are certain will come.   Notice that the Psalmist twice says he waits “more than watchman wait for the morning.” Have you ever gone outside before dawn, while the night was still black to see the sunrise? Would you have been out there if you didn’t think the sun would actually come up? We watch for the sunrise because we know it will come, and when it does it will be a glorious sight. The watchman stood guard through the night, scanning the inky horizon, knowing that when the first rays of light hit, he could go home to rest.

When we are in a position of waiting, whatever we may be waiting for, we must adopt the attitude of the watchman and trust that when the waiting is over, the sun will shine and our rest will come. We must follow the model of Joseph who put his hope in the word of God while he waited. He was confident that what God had promised him would come to fulfillment. If you know his story (Genesis 37, 39-50) you know that while he waited he served and ministered wherever he was – in Potipher’s house and even in prison. He knew that God had not forgotten him and He would be faithful to His promise.

What has God promised to you? Do you trust Him to fulfill that promise? Then spend your waiting season serving wherever God has placed you for the moment, and know that when the waiting is over and the promise comes, it will be more wonderful than you ever imagined. God never forgets His promises, Beloved. He is forever faithful, and even more dependable than the sunrise.

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 Promise

Joy has a very good memory. She plays a memory game on my phone and can recall where the puppy was that she spotted three turns ago. She remembers that she sleeps with Nana and Poppy the night before she goes to “honey school” (Sunday School). She remembers letters and numbers and all the words to her favorite songs. And let me tell you, she remembers when we make a promise to her. If I say I will take her outside after a nap she will wake up and immediately put her shoes on. This girl doesn’t forget a promise.  And neither should you.

We’re still camped out on Hebrews 10:36 – it’s just such a rich verse. The author said, “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised.”  So what is it that God has promised? We saw it earlier: an “eternal inheritance” (Heb 9:15). What it is we’re inheriting? Hold on to your hat, cause this is so good!

In His discourse on “the sheep and the goats” in Matthew 25, Jesus said, “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (v. 34). What is your inheritance? Only the Kingdom of God. To a people who had lost their beloved Jerusalem to Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, the idea that they would inherit the Kingdom of God was more than comforting, it was extraordinary. They were promised more than a nation. They were promised everything. And so are we.

For every believer, this is a remarkable promise of eternal life and blessings in the Kingdom we can claim as our own. I don’t think we get how huge this is. The kingdom of the God of the Universe, who called light from darkness and a dead man out of the grave is ours. How can we be so sure? Go back a few verses; the writer said, “He who promised is faithful” (v. 23). Go back even further if you need more assurance. Joshua 21:45 says, “Not one of the Lord’s good promises . . . failed; every one was fulfilled.” Every single promise God has ever made is as good as done. Including His promise to save you and bring you home. You can count on it, Beloved – your room is already waiting on you.