In God’s Hands

Have you noticed that the Scriptures call us “sheep?” I’ve heard people say that sheep are dumb, and I don’t think that is entirely fair. Sheep just get focused on one thing – filling their bellies – and don’t pay attention to what they are doing or where they are going. A sheep will put his head down to graze and keep it down as he moves from one succulent tuft of grass to another. He doesn’t look up to see where he’s headed or how far he has gone from the shepherd or how close he is to the edge of a river bank. One more step and he is tumbling down, down, down, and into serious trouble. If the shepherd doesn’t find him soon he’ll fall prey to a predator and sheep are helpless in a fight.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve wandered. Or maybe you know and love a wanderer. I’ve shared before that I have a prodigal – a wanderer. He grew up in the church and a godly home. But he’s grazing out in the world with his head down. I’ve prayed for him for many, many years: “God, please don’t let him fall away from You.” One morning the Spirit impressed on me to sing “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands.” “Mama,” He said to my heart, “If I have room for the whole world in my hands then you can be sure my hands a big enough for him to roam far and wide without falling off.”

David said, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps 139:7-10). Re-read that last sentence. Your right hand will hold me fast. God loves you too much to let you go. He loves your wanderer more than you do.

If you have wandered from the shepherd, just call out His name from wherever you are. He will leave the ninety-nine and come rescue you and bring you back to the flock. If you are praying for a wanderer, don’t give up. God’s got them, even while they roam. Jesus said the Father is not willing that any of his sheep should be lost (Matt 18:10-14). Beloved, He’s a big God with big hands.

Sin No More

When I read the Gospels, I marvel at Jesus’ patience and understanding with sinful people. No, He was not (is not) gentle with sin – He called it out for what it was. He didn’t excuse it or call it a disease or disorder. He didn’t accept it or tolerate it or celebrate it. Sin was and is appalling. It needs to be confronted – and Jesus did. Yet even while correcting sin, was always gracious to those lost souls caught in the devil’s snare. “He had compassion on them because He saw that they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:6).

While walking through Jerusalem one day, Jesus passed by a pool that was believed to have healing properties when the waters were stirred by “an angel.” A helpless invalid had laid by the side of the pool for thirty-eight years, waiting and hoping for his chance to slip into the waters at just the right moment. But he was alone and never managed to get there. Along came Jesus who healed Him. At a later encounter, Jesus told the man, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (John 5:1-14). He healed first, then corrected. We need to take notes.

On another occasion, Jesus was teaching in the temple and the religious leaders brought to him a woman caught in adultery. But just the woman – isn’t that interesting? He defended her against her accusers – but he did not defend her actions. When Jesus confronted the men with their hypocrisy they left in shame.  After assuring her that He did not condemn her, Jesus told the woman, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:1-11). I have no doubt that she did. Grace and correction always work hand in hand.

I often look up words to build a devotional and that is what I was doing as I was developing a different point when God turned this in a whole other direction. When I looked up “sin no more” I found these two stories – and something else. Those same words appear again in the Scriptures when the writer of Hebrews talked about the new covenant in Christ. The Lord said, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Heb 8:12). No more. No more guilt. No more shame. No more condemnation. Because all your sins are washed away by the blood of Jesus. The affair. The abortion. The sexual immorality. The lies. That sin you don’t want to remember? You won’t have to Beloved, because in Christ your sins are “no more.”

Hebrews: Outside the Camp

“We’re New Testament Christians, why are we studying the Old Testament? This stuff doesn’t apply to us anymore.” “One reason,” I answered “is because the New Testament writers used it quite a bit in their books and letters.  If we want to understand what they were saying, we need to understand their references.” That’s what we’re going to do in today’s passage.

“The high priest carried the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp” (Heb 13:11). It was Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish year. The day when the sins of the nation were atoned for. It was a day for fasting and prayer and confession. It was the day that the slate was wiped clean and the people were declared righteous – at least until they sinned again.  The high priest took the blood of the slaughtered animal into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle/Temple as a sin offering and sprinkled it on the mercy seat of the Lord. The carcass of the animal would be carried outside of the camp/city to be burned because it represented the sin of the people. Sin must not be allowed to remain among God’s holy nation.

The writer makes the new covenant connection in verse 12: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His own blood.” Jesus was the sacrificial animal. Jesus’ blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Lord. And Jesus was crucified and buried outside of the city of Jerusalem because He bore the sin of all humanity. And by His blood, those who believe and receive His atonement are made holy.

An interesting aside here is that the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus and had Him crucified at Golgotha because of His radical message. But by putting Him outside of the city proper they were unknowingly confirming that He was indeed the sacrifice for the sins of the people. Because his original audience was believing Jews, the writer urged them to “go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore,” symbolically rejecting the old ways of Judaism (v. 13).

As believers in Christ, you and I will often have to “go outside the camp” of popular opinion and cultural relevance, even within the church, to live in holiness. But we’re in good company. We’re out there with Jesus. Remember what He said: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18).

Oh, and there’s one more reason why we need to study the Old Testament, even as New Testament Christians – because Jesus is all over it and all in it. It’s worth digging into the early texts to know Him better. All of history, including the entire Bible, is His story. It’s the greatest story ever told.

Consider it All Joy (part 2)

Yesterday’s devotional started a conversation about God’s purposes in our suffering. We’re going to continue today in part two. I’ll post a link to part one in the comments.

Sometimes trials are a means of discipline in our lives – I know this one well.  The psalmist declared, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your Word” (Psalm 119:67).  Hebrews adds, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).  Trials that come as a consequence of our sinful and foolish behavior are meant to teach us valuable life lessons.  Or as my mother said, “Bought lessons stay with you longer than taught lessons.”  If you can connect your trial to your actions, take that as a means of discipline and training. The writer of Hebrews also said that discipline identifies us as God’s true children. “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” (See Hebrews 12:5-10). Discipline means that God is being a good Father to you.

Our trials reveal God to the world.  When Jesus and His disciples encountered a man who had been blind from birth, He said, “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). When the Lord healed this man everyone knew it, and he became a living testimony to the power of God.  You and I are the canvas on which God paints His own portrait for the world to see.  Just as silver and gold show up most brilliantly against a dark backdrop, the power and glory of God are on vivid display in our trials.  Our difficulties become the means by which God shows up and shows off.

Beloved, I don’t know what trial you are facing today, but I know that God has brought you to it for a good purpose.  He is at work in your life, stretching your faith, moving you into His will, preparing you to minister to someone else, teaching you discipline, and making your life a display of His glory.  Every trial is an opportunity for you and me to draw closer to our Father, to walk by faith, and to point others to Him.  Yes, we can count it all Joy when trials come, because we know God has a purpose and a plan – and we will be the richer for it.

“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12).

Look How Much You’ve Grown!

Joy has grown so much this last year. It’s obvious when you look at her. She’s taller and stronger. Her legs and arms are longer. Even her hair is longer. Her vocabulary is incredible, she doesn’t use baby talk and she annunciates her words very well. She can do more things for herself like spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. And she’s learning how to calm herself when she gets upset. (I hope she will teach me.) Potty training is still a work in progress, but I know she will get that too. One thing hasn’t changed – that mega-watt smile can still melt Nana’s heart. She’s a growing, beautiful, amazing little girl.

Which makes me wonder, how do we know that we’re growing spiritually? We don’t get taller, but we should see signs that mark spiritual maturity. Like Joy, our speech is a clear indication of growth. Jesus said it’s in our words. “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt 12:35). We talk about God and the things of God. We reject profanity and gossip and complaining (Eph 4:29; Phil 2:14).

It’s also seen in what we desire. Growing in God means we want the things that He wants and we are repulsed by the things that offend Him (Ps 40:8; Col 3:5). We look and act more like Jesus, which is God’s goal all along – “to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Rom 8:29). We are compassionate (2 Cor 1:3-4), kind and gentle (2 Tim 2:24-25), loving (1 Cor 13), self-controlled (1 Pet 1:13), and “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (Jas 1:19).

Perhaps the most visible sign of spiritual maturity is how we deal with sin in our lives. As spiritual babes, we sin and the Spirit convicts us of our sin. We confess, repent, and receive forgiveness. But we go back to it again. And we repeat the cycle, sometimes multiple times. The true evidence of spiritual growth is when we stop going back to our sin. When the Spirit helps us recognize the pattern and break the cycle, we’ve made a major step in spiritual maturity.

I look at myself and see some signs of growth as well as places where I’m still a toddler in Christ. You too? Growth comes when we take in the things that nurture our spirit, like God’s Word, fellowship with other believers, prayer, and resting in the Lord. And trust. Paul said, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil 1:6). God’s not going to give up on you, Beloved. Don’t give up on yourself.

Seeking Jesus

“Why are you here?” I asked my class asked one Sunday morning. After a minute someone said, “Because it’s Sunday morning and I’ve gone to church every Sunday for my whole life.” Another answered, “I am here for the fellowship of my church family.” Others chimed in: “I’m here because the Bible said ‘Forsake not the assembling of your selves together.’” “I am here to be fed in my spirit.”

I recalled this conversation while reading John 6. Jesus confronted the crowd that followed Him after He had fed more than five thousand people the day before (John 6:1-13). When they came looking for Him Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” (v. 26).

Now verse 2 said that the people “saw” the miraculous signs He had performed.” So what did Jesus mean? Here’s where the Spirit stirred up the word nerd in me and said, “Saw?” The word used in verse 2 is to see as a spectator, to view with the eyes. But the word that John used in verse 26 means to discern clearly, to behold – to experience. It’s like the difference between watching a football game from the stands and playing it on the field. You can be a fan, but until you put the pads on and take the hits and cross the goalline with the ball in your hand you haven’t experienced the game. The crowd has seen with their eyes the miracles of Jesus – healing the sick and feeding the multitudes – but they did not understand what the signs were pointing to because they did not see them with their hearts. They were fans, but they hadn’t experienced Jesus.

The Lord said they were back because He fed their bellies and they expected more of the same, but if they had looked with faith – if they had experienced Him – they would know Him. They would follow Him because He is the very Son of God and the only means to eternal life.

You and I need to seek Christ for who He is, not just for what he can do for us – to know Him for the Joy of His presence, and not only for His presents. I can find nowhere in Scripture that God says, “I want You to know all I can do for you.” But I lost count after 200 times that I read “That you may know Me…” In knowing God, we discover what He can do, but if we are only seeking Him for what we can gain we have missed the whole point of the relationship.

Beloved, why are you seeking Jesus?

Sin in the Camp

I don’t want to write this devotional. I’ve tried to talk God out of it, but He is persistent. This is His word to the Church – and the individual parts of it. Get your boots on and read Joshua 7.

Joshua and the army of Israel had just taken the city of Jericho. It was an extraordinary victory. Now they prepared to take Ai and the spies come back saying “Just send two or three thousand men to take it, for only a few men are there” (v. 3). But those three thousand were routed by the few men of Ai, and thirty-six were killed. The Israelites were in mourning – and in shock. Joshua went before the Lord and accused Him of bringing them out to destroy them (vv. 6-9). God corrected him saying, “Israel has sinned” (v. 11).

When the army went into Jericho they were commanded to not take any of the “devoted things” – the precious metals and other costly things – for themselves. All of those things were to be designated as “sacred to the Lord and put into His treasury”. Joshua said anyone who took them would bring about their own destruction and bring trouble on the whole camp of Israel (6:18-19). But somebody ignored that command. Through a process of elimination, Achan was found to be the guilty party. He saw a beautiful robe and silver and gold and he took them and hid them under his tent. He was the reason for Isreal’s defeat by a much smaller army. One man. One sin. But God regarded it as the whole nation’s sin. Achan and his entire family and even his animals were stoned to death and God’s curse was lifted from the nation.

Here’s what the Lord keeps speaking to me. The reason the Church today has so little power and has lost her godly influence in the world is because there is sin in the camp. The Church – the bride of Christ – has failed to keep herself pure and devoted only to Him. She has taken on lovers and allowed them to infiltrate His holy place. She has welcomed what God has called an abomination. She has championed perversion. She has fought for the slaughter of innocent babies. She has become like the world.

But here’s the other part of the problem. You and I are the church. You and I share the guilt because our personal, private lives affect the faithfulness of the camp, just as Achan’s did. You and I are joined to the whole body. We don’t live one life at church and a separate life outside of it. We cannot invite sin into our private lives and think it won’t matter. It all matters. To all of us.

So here is my pointed question – and believe me, I’m asking it of myself as well. What is buried under your tent Beloved? “You cannot stand until you remove it” (Joshua 7:13).

Hebrews: Are You Listening?

Several years ago I turned down an invitation to an event. Afterward, I discovered that one of my favorite authors was a surprise guest speaker that day and I missed it. I was so disappointed. A few years later this speaker passed away and I realized that I had missed my one opportunity to hear her in person.

The writer of Hebrews offers a warning that you and I need to heed. “See to it that you do not refuse Him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned those on earth, how much less will we if we turn away from Him who warns us from heaven.” (Heb 12:25a). The writer started this sermon by saying “In the past, God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various, but in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb 1:1-2).

The history of Israel had been a sad story of God’s people rejecting God’s word through His prophets. The Lord said, “They have not listened to my words, words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets” (Jer 29:19). Their stopped-up ears and stubborn hearts put them in exile in Babylon for seventy years. But now, the writer said, His people have rejected the very Son of God, whom John called “The Word [made] flesh” (Jn 1:14). God was speaking to His people face to face and they didn’t want to hear what He had to say. It’s not just that they couldn’t hear and comprehend – they refused to hear. It’s like the little kid with his fingers in his ears saying, “Lalala – I can’t hear you.” The writer said if the Lord didn’t excuse those who rejected the prophets, what makes you think He will excuse us for rejecting His own Son?

Here is something important I want you to notice. What were the prophets speaking? What was the Son speaking? Not “you can decide for yourself what is right and wrong.” Not “I just want you to be happy.” Not even “unconditional love.” Their messages were words of warning. It was always, “Repent.” Turn away from your sin and turn back to God.

Here’s another thought: If God did not excuse those who rejected the words of the prophets and the word of His Son, will He excuse you and me who have the luxury of His Word in written form? I have at least fifteen Bibles on the shelves in my office. I expect most of us have a Bible app on our phones – and every one of them says the same thing: “Repent.” It’s not that we don’t have His Word. It’s that we’re refusing to listen. Beloved, we have no excuse.

When I Stand Before Jesus

I wrote this several years ago, and as I was reading this passage this morning, the Holy Spirit revealed something new to me (which is why we read the Scriptures over and over and over – there’s always something new to learn.)

I have always been drawn to the story of the woman caught in adultery (see John 8:1-11), mostly because I can see myself in two of the main characters.  So many times I am part of the judgmental crowd.  Like the religious leaders, I catch someone and call them out, accusing them and looking on with scorn.  Oh, I’m never obvious about it mind you – it’s all done in my head – but I might as well have drug them before the church because I’ve declared them guilty.  Yet, I have also been the woman, the sinner caught in the act standing before Jesus shamed and ashamed.  I know I am guilty as I stand clutching my sheet of self-reproach, trying to cover my nakedness and my sin.

Here is where something new came to me. I initially said that Jesus sees me in both roles and reminds me of my own sinfulness as He calls me to drop my rock of condemnation. But I realized that I was wrong.  Because I am washed in His blood, my sin has been removed – “As far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12) never to be remembered again. He will never throw my sin back in my face. He may gently chastise me for my judgmental attitude, but He does not remind me of my past transgressions because He has forgotten them. That’s huge to me, because I have an enemy who loves to taunt me with my past – and I have a past that gives him lots of ammunition. But Jesus steps in with His scars and declares me forgiven and free.

After He turned her accusers away, Jesus told the woman He did not condemn her. He didn’t even condemn her accusers. He condemns no one.  Paul said that He is the only one who rightly could, but He doesn’t (Rom 8:34). Instead, He sacrificed Himself to take away the condemnation our sin has heaped on us. Yes, sometimes you and I are both the accused and the accuser, but oh, to be like the One who pours out grace and mercy to all who believe. Lord, help me to be more like you and less like me.

Mistakes – I’ve Made a Few

When I study, I write with a pen in hand and put ink on paper – old school. It helps me remember things like I’m writing stuff directly in my brain. I was writing down a Scripture reference the other day and wrote the wrong number, (I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I do make mistakes) so I wrote the correct number over it. I traced it several times to make the right number show up better and cover over the wrong number, and in the process, I made the right number unreadable. I finally had to just scribble out the whole thing and rewrite it correctly and clearly.

Some of us are trying to fix our own mistakes. We’re trying to write over our sins and failures. We think, “If I just do enough things right, no one – especially God – will notice what I did wrong.” The problem is, the more we try to fix it, the worse we make it. Yep, I see you nodding your head. You’ve done it too.  And what we mess up is not a written word but ourselves.  If we keep going we will not even know who we are. Here’s the hard truth folks, you and I cannot overwrite our sins. God is not fooled. So stop trying.

God has a better plan. He said, “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgression, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25). The idea here is that all your sins are written down in a book and God erases them, No, even better than erasing them, He removes them forever by washing our sin-page – and us – with the blood of His Son. John put it like this: “The blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). All of it. Every. Single. One. Jesus’ blood makes us spotless, innocent, and pure with no trace of our former sin left behind. Does that seem too good to be true? Trust me, it is true. Better yet, trust Him.

 Give your mistakes to Jesus. Give Him every sin and every failure. Give Him the shame and the guilt. Give Him the pain and regret. Let Him cover over it all with His precious blood and rewrite your story with His grace. Then, Beloved, you will be who God created you to be. His.