God’s (Very) Long-Range Plan

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I’m part of a group that is writing out the Scriptures. We’re writing small sections each day, but by focusing on only a small portion of verses we are able to slow down; by writing it out we pay careful attention to each word. Yesterday one of those words stood out to me.  In the account of creation, Genesis two describes man’s divinely created home, a place of beauty and nurture. The garden featured trees with fruit to feed the human. All the bounty of the Garden was free for the taking, with one exception – the “tree in the middle of the garden” (Gen. 3:3). God expressly forbade eating the fruit from this particular tree. He said, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of the good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Did you notice that one word that caught my attention? When. God said, “when you eat of it,” not “if you eat of it.” Adam and Eve’s act of sinful rebellion was not a surprise to God. He expected it. He predicted it. He knew it was going to happen all along.

And because He knew it was going to happen, He made a way for sinful man to be redeemed before he ever spoke the universe into being. You and I need to know that the cross of Christ was not God’s reaction to man’s sin. John said that Jesus was “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world’ (Rev 13:8), and Jesus said that the Father arranged our inheritance, a “kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matt 25:34). God provided the cure for sin before the first sin ever occurred, even before He called forth the light (Gen 1:3). Jesus coming to earth, living a perfect life, dying a selfless death, and rising from the grave was all part of the plan of the ages. To what end? That He might rule and reign over a kingdom of redeemed people.

Beloved, I want you to be part of that kingdom. I want you to know Jesus, but more importantly, I want Jesus to know you (Gal 4:9; 1 Cor 8:3; John 10:14). God made the plan long ago, and He included you in it. Have you, will you receive His grace today?

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.

Hebrews: Who’s the Greatest?

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In our last devotional on Hebrews 7, we looked at Melchizedek, a mysterious figure from the days of Abraham, who was held in high esteem by the Jewish people. Go back and read verses 1-10. There are several similarities between Melchezidek and Jesus. Melchezidek was both a priest and a king, an unheard of combination in the Jewish nation. Nations outside of Israel often combined the offices, but for God’s people, kings were descendants of Judah, specifically David, and priests descended from Levi, specifically Aaron. Jesus was the only other person in Scripture who could fill both roles perfectly. He was a descendant of David through his adoptive father and was appointed to the priesthood by God (Psalm 110:4). We’re going to come back to this thought.

Melchizedek, the author said, was “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever” (v. 3). Bear in mind that he does not claim that Melchizedek was more than a mortal human being.  And we do know Jesus’s human mother, Mary, and Matthew and Luke record the genealogical record of Jesus (through Joseph). But the Scripture did not mention the birth or death of Melchizedek, which the author used to point to Jesus’ eternal nature, “without beginning of days or end of life.” That is because Jesus is the Son of God and has always existed. “He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:2), and “His years will never end” (Heb. 1:12). Melchizedek was a figure of Christ, but Christ was the reality and the standard.

Finally, Melchizedek’s name and title are the identity of Jesus. His name meant “the king of righteousness” and his domain meant “the king of peace” (Salem=Shalom). Jesus is the one who brings us righteousness before God and peace with God. No human priest or king could ever do that. It is Christ’s work alone.

The author’s point is not to set our focus on Melchizedek, but to turn all eyes to Jesus who exceeds the great priest-king. He continued to press the point that Jesus is – not just the better way to God and eternal life – but the only way. To those who were on the fence about staying with Christ or returning to the Law, the choice is clear. There is no other way but Jesus. The same is true for you and me, there is no other way to eternal life. Stick with Jesus, Beloved, all the way home.

Hebrews: Melchizedek

I had a friend in Jr. High school who followed the most obscure, unheard-of bands. Every time we got together to play records (yes records!) she brought her favorites with her. Some of them, as it turned out were quite good (like Highway Robbery), but they weren’t as popular and well-known as The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, and The Who. Likewise, most of us who grew up in the church know Adam and Eve, David, Moses, and Abraham, but few are familiar with one character the writer of Hebrews calls on as a witness to Christ – Melchizedek.

As the “king of Salem” (which means Peace) “and a priest of God Most High,” Melchizedek (whose name meant “king of righteousness”) had a small but important part in the Old Testament account of Abraham (Abram at this point). Genesis 14 tells the story of Abram rescuing his nephew Lot from a trio of enemy kings.  Two friendly kings came out to meet Abram – the unnamed king of Sodom, where Lot had settled, and Melchizedek. Melchizedek presented bread and wine and a blessing: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand” (v. 19). In response, Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the plunder he had gained from the rescue operation.

Melchizedek is significant for several reasons found in Hebrews 7. He appears mysteriously on the scene and the Scriptures tell us nothing about his genealogy or his life before this encounter, and we hear nothing from him after (v. 3).  The tithe which Abram gave him indicated that he was a great king, for Abram was a great man in the Ancient-Near-East and he humbled himself before Melchizedek (vs. 4, 8).  His dual role as king and priest was also uncommon. The two positions would always be separate in the Jewish nation – kings would be descendants of Judah and priests descendants of Levi (v. 1). The sons of Levi would collect the tithe from the rest of Abram’s descendants, but through Abram, the writer said, Levi  “paid the tithe” to the greater priest (6, 9-10). And most significantly, Melchizedek was, “like the Son of God, a priest forever” (v. 3).

I know, this all sounds very strange and probably confusing, but the story of Melchizedek foretold the greater King and Priest, Jesus Christ. It’s important that you and I study and understand everything the Scriptures say about Him. Stay with me – we will make those parallels in the next Hebrews devotional.

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.

Hebrews: the Anchor Holds

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Before you read any further, please grab your Bible or search online and read Hebrews 6:13-20. I’ll wait for you right here.
The author begins with a remembrance that every Jewish person knew from infancy – the promise of God to Abraham to “bless you and give you many descendants.” He wanted to show the reliability of God’s promise in a way they could understand and then apply that same faithfulness to Jesus. In Genesis 12, God made a promise to Abraham to make him into “a great nation” (v. 2) meaning many descendants. In Genesis 15, after many years of waiting, Abraham received the promise again; the Lord said “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be” (v. 5). Again, in Genesis 17 he affirmed His promise saying, “I have made you a father of many nations” (v. 5). On the side of Mount Moriah, after almost sacrificing his son Isaac, the Lord reiterated His promise: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17).
God made those promises with the only indemnity necessary: His name and His word—the same confirmation He gave over Jesus at His baptism saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him and am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17) and then validated with His resurrection. Therefore the Jewish believers could have the same hope in Christ that Abraham had in the promises God made through because God could never lie. Christ didn’t change God’s promise to Israel, He perfected it as we will see further along. Everything necessary for salvation was accomplished through the sacrifice of Jesus.
You and I have that same assurance and that same hope “as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb. 6:19). In a world where anything and everything goes, where the world touts many ways and multiple paths to God – or a “higher consciousness,” the anchor of God’s name and word holds the Christian firm and secure to the only Way to eternal life. An anchor’s purpose is to keep the boat from drifting away. God’s faithfulness is the anchor that keeps believers from drifting away from the Rock that is Christ. The only anchor you need is painted in the crimson blood of Jesus. Cast your hope on Him, Beloved

The Heavens told the Christmas Story

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“The heavens declare the glory of God . . .” Psalm 19:1.

When my son was very young, we would pull an old blanket out into the yard and lay down to watch the stars.  I tried to identify some of the constellations, but he was much too young to understand, and I was too far removed from high-school science to remember.  But it is a memory I cherish—stargazing with my boy. There were stargazers in the Bible too. Matthew said of the Magi: “When they saw the star they were overjoyed” Matthew 2:10.

Scholars believe that these were Persian astronomers who studied the stars for prophecies, premonitions, and promises.  How did they know about a Jewish prophecy so far removed from Palestine?  Remember Daniel – you know, the guy from the lion’s den?   When the Jewish exiles left Babylon after seventy years of captivity, Daniel opted to stay as did many other Jews who had put down roots in the area.  Daniel knew the Hebrew Scriptures well and likely shared the ancient prophecies of a coming King who would rescue His people.  These were handed down through the generations to the time of Jesus’ birth.  When the star appeared and the astronomers put all the pieces together, they realized something very special had happed in Judea.

For the past fifteen years, I have been a student of the descriptive names of God in Scripture. One of my most names of the Lord is El Emunah—the Faithful God—because it reveals Him as the God who keeps His promises.  The Magi were overjoyed when they saw the star because they understood that the ancient prophecy of a new King of the Jews had been fulfilled.  God had kept His promise to send His people a Messiah.

The same God who was faithful to the Jews has promised His faithfulness to you.  He has promised to redeem you and restore your life.  He has promised to walk with you and guide you every day.  He has promised His presence, His peace, and His unfailing love.  He has promised to prepare a place for you in heaven, and He has promised to come again to take you home.

The Magi rejoiced when they saw the star because God had kept His promise to the Hebrew people.  He continues to be the Promise Keeper today for all who trust in His Son Jesus.  Beloved, every promise God makes is a promise you can take to the divine bank. He is forever faithful.

The Rescue Plan

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Some themes have become so familiar in the Christian world that we speak them and receive them without a second thought. Things like: “God helps those who help themselves.” Now, I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover many times over and I tell you for certain, it’s not in there. Or how about, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Again, I’ve never found that in the Bible and  I can tell you from my own life, it ain’t so.  I heard another one recently that always comes around at Christmas and Easter, this human idea that God looked down from heaven and saw mankind in bondage to sin and death and sent His son in response. While it certainly expresses God’s heart of mercy for His creation, it’s not exactly the truth.

How do I know that? Because the Bible says that Jesus is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Before man could ever cry out for redemption, the Redeemer had already paid the price. What in the world does that mean? Well, it’s not a worldly concept at all, it’s the divine plan created in heaven before God scooped up a handful of dust – even before He said, “Let there be light.” Jesus was always meant to come to earth as a tiny baby and live a perfect, sinless life, and die an undeserved and cruel death.  He was always meant to lie in a tomb for three days and heaven never doubted that He would rise again, because that was the plan all along. Christmas and Easter were not God’s knee-jerk reaction to our predicament.

We also need to understand that time in the heavenly realm is not like time here on earth. God sees the end and the beginning all at the same time because He is the sovereign Lord of Heaven and Earth – and time. His plan wasn’t something that had to unfold from heaven’s perspective, though it took thousands of years to accomplish on earth. It was already a done deal. When the Father gazed at the Baby in the manger he saw the man on the cross. And so should we.

Aren’t you glad that He didn’t wait for you to cry out from the pit before He set a rescue plan in place? He planned it long before you needed it. That should give you great hope, Beloved. God had you in mind all along.

God is Here

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The boy stood looking at the writing on the angry man’s poster: GOD IS NOWHERE. When the man laid down his poster to step into the nearby café, the lad turned the poster over and wrote diligently.  The man came back to his spot on the sidewalk and the boy said, “You had a mistake on your poster, but it fixed it. He picked up the poster to read what the boy had written: GOD IS NOW HERE.

That is the whole point of the Christmas story.  The Bible shows us that God has continually drawn near to man.  In the garden, He had close and personal fellowship with Adam and Eve, walking through the Garden with them in the cool of the evening.  But sin broke that intimate fellowship, and a barrier was placed between God and man.  God commanded the Israelites to make a Tabernacle that He might come and dwell among His people, and He did for hundreds of years until again, the sin of the nation of Israel became so great that God withdrew from the Temple.  The Old Testament records many visitations of God to Abraham, Jacob, Daniel, and others who were devoted to Him.  But these were brief occasions, to impart a message or empower His servant for a specific act.  God desired a deeper communion with man.  And God had a plan.

The angel recalled the prophecy: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him called ‘Immanuel*’ which means ‘God with us’” (Matt 1:23).  Jesus brought God near to us as a tiny baby in Bethlehem, as a man proclaiming the Good News, as the sacrifice on the cross for our sins, and as the risen Lord.  Then He gave us His presence continually in His indwelling Holy Spirit.  Immanuel is with us in storms and darkness and trial and suffering.  He is with us in our times of doubt and fear and loneliness and emptiness.  The joy of Immanuel is knowing that there is no place we can go and no circumstance of life we will face that God is as near as your whispered prayer.  Jesus made Himself one of us that we might be with Him now and for eternity.

Beloved, I pray that the Joy of Immanuel is with you this Advent season.

* Some translations spell this word differently, the NIV uses Immanuel, the KJV uses Emmanuel – either way God is with us.

Tiny King

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Image: “Simeon’s Moment” by Ron DiCianna

The old man shuffling through the temple courts was a common sight. You could tell exactly what time of day it was when Simeon came around. Same gait, same expression, the same sense of yearning. But today there was something different about him. He was excited, his eyes darted around and his feet moved as if every step was determined by a force outside of himself. Suddenly his weathered face lit up like a thousand candles as his arms extended towards a young couple. With Jesus cradled in his arms the old man began to speak in the sing-song voice of worship: “Sovereign Lord, as You have promised, You now dismiss Your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to Your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32)

.Just then an old woman came up to the little group, her eyes bright with wonder and fixed on the infant in Simeon’s arms. “This is Him! This is the One! Oh, praise the name of the Lord – He has sent the Redemption of Israel!” Simeon smiled at Anna and nodded his head in agreement with her proclamation. They had both held tightly to the assurance that God would one day comfort and redeem His people and he was glad to share this glorious moment with his friend. For the two elderly people, the baby was the fulfillment of a promise they had long held to and yearned to see. Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit, had been assured by God that he would see the Hope of mankind before he died. Anna, widowed early in her life, had dedicated her years to worship, fasting, and praying for the Messiah to come. It had been such a long time – not just their lifetime, but hundreds of years for the oppressed nation of Israel. In the temple courts that day, their faith was rewarded and they received the child with great joy.

How do you hold on when the promise of God is a long time in coming? Just like Simeon and Anna did – with faith. They never wavered in their expectations. They never stopped believing that every promise God made was as sure as His name – El Emunah, The Faithful God. Beloved, His name still stands today. You can wait in faith because God is still always and forever faithful. Christmas is the blessed proof that He will never fail to do what He says He will do.