The New You

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This morning I was reading in Romans 6 – the NIV titled this chapter as “Dead to Sin, Alive in Christ.” It struck me: for a man who had grabbed hold of the holy life of Christ Jesus, Paul sure talked a lot about sin. And that is a good thing. In fact, it’s something we hardly hear about in the church anymore. But we’re sure doing a lot of sinning, aren’t we?  It seems that the less we say about it, the more we participate in it. Almost like our silence is approval. Hmm.

But not our friend Paul. His mantra in this portion of his letter to the church in Rome was: “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (6:2). He pressed this point over and over. He said that our old body of sin was crucified with Christ, that we are no longer slaves to sin, that we have been freed from sin. He insisted that we must consider ourselves dead to sin, that sin must not reign in our bodies, that we must not obey sin nor offer the parts of our body to sin. I love this: “sin shall not be your master” (v.14). And this: “You have been set free from sin” (v. 18 and 22). Paul said that we used to live for and serve sin, but – oh hear this loud and clear – that’s not who we are anymore. Let me say it again: If you are in Christ you are not who you were – you are dead to sin but alive in Him.

I know – you have a past that is riddled with sin. So do I.  But like those before and after weight loss ads – that is who you and I used to be, but this is who we are now. Redeemed. Righteous. Pure. Holy. Beloved, I want to encourage you to leave your sinful desires in the grave with the old dead you. You have been made new in Christ. Believe it. Receive it. And walk in it. Holiness looks so good on you.  

Roots and Fruit

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It’s the twenty-first century and everybody has an opinion and a platform from which to share it. Which is good because all opinions are equally valid – even if they contradict one another. (Except Christians of course.) How do we know who’s right and what’s wrong? Jesus has some pretty sound advice for us in the Sermon on the Mount. “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16). He said a good tree will produce good fruit and a bad tree will produce bad fruit. It’s a horticultural fact: the fruit proves the root. The Bible even tells us how to discern the difference between good and bad fruit. Ready to go to the orchard?

Bad fruit is full of false hopes and self-made visions; good fruit offers real hope and visions from God. Bad fruit is heretical, denies the sovereign rule of God, leads many astray, questions the truth, and exploits believers. Good fruit is truthful, submits to God, leads by following Christ, upholds the truth, and builds up believers. Bad fruit is the product of liars who walk in darkness. Good fruit is truthful because it grows in the light. Bad fruit hates fellow believers. Good fruit “loves one another.” Bad fruit denies that Jesus is the Son of God and rejects the truth of His human nature. Good fruit acknowledges that Jesus is fully God and fully man. Bad fruit rejects the message of God and speaks from a worldly viewpoint – and the world listens. Good fruit listens to God, speaks from His point of view, and those who love God listen. John summed it all up this way: “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10). Righteousness and love are the good fruit. You can trust that tree. You can trust that person.

When it comes to your faith life you need to be certain the messages you are hearing are right and true. You need to be sure you are chewing on good fruit that comes from good trees. Who is feeding your mind and heart? Beloved, you need to be a fruit inspector.

Nothing But the Blood of Jesus

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Leviticus is the Old Testament book that holds all the laws of worship, community, and purity for the nation of Israel. It was all very clear to the Jews of that day – and very burdensome. But to a twenty-first-century western reader, it makes no sense. What does a bunch of antiquated rules have to do with New Testament Christians? But there is much value in reading Leviticus – the key is to read it through the lens of Jesus Christ.

Jesus designated ‘love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) as the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39).  And the writer of Hebrews drew from Leviticus to describe the person and role of Jesus Christ. Studying Leviticus gives us a deeper devotion to Jesus, helps us grasp the holiness of God, and teaches us how to live daily as Christians.

It also enables us to see sin as God sees it – and reveals the true cost of our redemption through the death of His Son. Leviticus sets the sin of man in stark contrast to the holiness of God and reveals the only resolution: blood, and not just blood from a pricked finger, but the blood of death. Here is what I find most compelling. Repeatedly, the Lord graciously allows sacrifices for “unintentional sin” – that is sins that were committed inadvertently. But not so for intentional sin. “Anyone who sins defiantly . . . must surely be cut off from his people; his guilt remains on him” (Num. 15:30-31). To be cut off from the community meant also being cut off from any hope of atonement for his sin. He would forever stand guilty before God.

Now view this through the lens of Jesus Christ. He who was perfectly sinless sacrificed Himself for sin – but not only unintentional sin – His blood covered every sin of every person for all time.  “He sacrificed for sins once for all when He offered Himself” (Heb. 7:27).  That means the sins we “stumble into” and the sins we choose with our eyes wide open. Jesus paid it all.

There’s great hope for you and me in that statement. When Jesus died, He took every single sin to the cross and to the grave and when He rose again, he left our sins forever buried. All of them. I pray that means something to you. Beloved, nothing you’ve done is too much for the blood of Jesus Christ. 

Factory Settings

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My laptop did an automatic update last night. I know it’s necessary, but it is also annoying. Every time my laptop does an update and restarts, it returns to the factory settings and changes the changes I made to help me as I work.  Like all laptops, mine has a touchpad on it which I don’t use because I have better control with a handheld mouse. This thing drives me crazy. I have rather large hands and the touchpad sits right where I rest my hands. When my hands brush it as I’m typing, it moves the pointer so that I am typing in the wrong place on my document. Argh! I have to stop what I’m doing, go to the settings, and deactivate the touchpad. Then try to go back and reclaim my train of thought. So this morning I was typing a verse of Scripture and looking at my Bible, not at my screen. When I lifted my head, I realized my verse what not where it was supposed to be. Then I remembered the restart and had to go back to turn the touchpad off again. I do wish there was a way to permanently deactivate it so it wouldn’t come back on with every restart.

It made me think of our human “factory setting,” of our sinful nature that came with us when we were born. My granddaughter is almost two, and we are dealing with temper tantrums and disobedience and “NO!” At this age, it’s not entirely intentional; she is reacting out of the sinful nature that bedevils every human being. How I wish for her sake and mine there were a way to turn that sin nature off completely.

Unfortunately, it isn’t an automatic adjustment when we are saved.  Rather, it is our daily task to put aside our sinful nature and take up the righteous life of Christ Jesus. It is taking control of our thoughts (1 Cor. 10:5), renewing our minds (Rom. 12:2), “putting to death the misdeed of the body” (Rom 8:13), and “living in accordance with the Spirit” (Rom 8:5). And it’s a lifelong fine-tuning. But the end result will be a beautiful thing because we will become more and more like Jesus, which, by the way, is our original factory setting.

Godly People in an Ungodly World

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“Be wise about what is good and innocent about what is evil” (Romans 16:19). Turn on the television, open a newspaper, log onto the internet and you are face-to-face with evil. You don’t even have to look for it; it’s on roadside billboards, flashed in commercials, and reported daily in the news. Satan rules the world – for now. Yet believers are called to live godly lives in an ungodly world. How?

Jesus said, “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). I love this verse and the two contrasting words. “Shrewd” means “wise, sensible” and comes from “thinking and understanding.” Simply put, we need to think, then make a wise determination. Let’s be honest – we can become mentally and spiritually lazy – accepting as truth whatever we are told. If you don’t believe me, spend a day on Facebook. We need to be discerning about everything our minds take in. Because we must live in this world, Jesus tells us to “think and come to a sensible conclusion.”

In contrast to being shrewd, Jesus commands us to be innocent which means pure, not mixed with evil. His command here is to not allow ourselves to be mixed up with the world’s philosophies and ideas; to not allow them to be poured into our minds and hearts. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel tried to compromise with the Lord and the world, believing that they could dabble in paganism as long as they continued to also follow the sacrificial Law of God. They “poured” paganism into with their worship of God Almighty, and in their dulled minds, believed they were still being obedient to the Lord. Despite what the bumper sticker claims, God’s people cannot “coexist” with ungodliness. It didn’t work for Israel and it won’t work for you and me.

We must let the Word of God be the determining factor in everything we do and say and think. The world will not tell you the truth. The Word will never tell you a lie. Beloved, be wise – consider everything through the lens of Scripture. It will never steer you wrong. Be innocent – keep your mind and heart pure from the world’s philosophies and attitudes. It might help to turn off the T.V., put down the newspaper, and log off of the internet. That’s how we live “in the world,” but not “of the world” (John 17:15-16).

You Must be Righteous

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Continuing our study of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s gospel is all about the Kingdom of Heaven and revealing Jesus as the rightful King. So far we’ve learned about who the Kingdom people are in the Beatitudes. We’ve learned about the influence Kingdom people should bring to the world in 5:13- 20. In Matthew 5:17-26, Jesus taught about Kingdom righteousness. I’ll jump ahead and give you the key to this passage: “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20). The Pharisees and teachers of the law were considered the most righteous people in Jerusalem. They built their righteousness on following every jot and tittle of the law – and most of those jots and tittles had been added to God’s Law by man. Their lives were consumed with following rules and rituals, even washing their hands was an elaborate process that was more about the show than about cleanliness.

Who does the Bible point to as “righteous?”  Matthew 1:19 says, Joseph [Mary’s husband-to-be] was a righteous man, but not because he adhered to the letter of the law. When Mary announced that she was pregnant, and he knew this baby was not his, by the Law he should have taken her out to be stoned to death. But “he did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Joseph chose to treat Mary with mercy. That is why the Scripture called him “a righteous man.”

Jesus later called the religious leaders hypocrites (and a brood of vipers!) because, though they did everything right, they did it all for the wrong reasons. He said “You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matter of the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matt 23:23).  They obeyed the letter of the Law but neglected the heart of the Law, which is love.

So how could anyone be more righteous than the religious hierarchy? By understanding that God commanded obedience to the Law, but not for obedience’s sake. The Israelites were to obey the law because they loved God. And love changes everything.

Okay, I’m Saved. Now What?

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Yesterday I wrote about God’s grace, about how salvation is a work that God alone accomplishes on our behalf. It is truly an amazing thing. But what comes next? Now that we are a “new creation in Christ” (2 Cor 5:17) do we just wait around for heaven? No. Now a new work begins. It’s called sanctification and it’s not just behavior modification though your behavior will change. It involves a transformation on the inside that works its way to the outside.
Like salvation, sanctification is God’s work. But it is not His work alone. It is also our work. It is a combined, life-long partnership between us and the Holy Spirit. Paul explained it well saying, “It is God who works in you” (Philippians 2:13) as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (v. 12). After His opus of salvation, God works in us through His Word and His Holy Spirit. We read the Word which “teaches, rebukes, corrects and trains us in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). The Spirit roots those truths in our hearts. He convicts us of sin, encourages us to persevere, and empowers us to obey and to walk in righteousness. That’s a lot! What’s left for us to do? Our part is studying His Word, praying, coming together with the Body (the church), and especially, responding in obedience to His commands and His promptings.
“Working out” what God is “working in” us is a daily discipline. And it’s hard work. There are no shortcuts to sanctification. It will require everything of you. Part of sanctification is pruning – removing from us those things that hinder our progress – habits, addictions, wrong thoughts, immorality, prejudices, pride, rebellion, selfishness, anger, laziness, lack of self-control. Oh, He has so much work to do in me. But then He begins the building work – filling us with “the fruit of the Spirit:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). That’s where we see the transformation on the inside working its way to the outside.
What’s the goal? That you and I might be “conformed to the likeness of the Son of God” (Rom. 8:29). That the world might see Jesus when they look at you. Beloved, will you join God in the good work of sanctification?

This is My Testimony

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I was always a church kid. From the cradle roll in the church nursery to a “sunbeam” with perfect attendance bars cascading from my pin.  I “asked Jesus into my heart” and was baptized when I was 9. I tried hard to live by the rules, but always had a nagging sense that something was “off.” So I tried harder. For every time I fought with my brothers or disobeyed my mother, I sentenced myself to extra chores as penance.  I swore I would do better – that I would be better. I repeatedly “rededicated my life to Christ,” And I failed more and more. As an adult I heard preachers talk about thinking they were saved, even serving in ministry, only to discover that they were really not. Surely that was me. So I would pray the “sinner’s prayer” again and wade through those baptism waters trying to get it right.  I was convinced that I had to do and say all the right things to be saved and finally stop the cycle of sin in my life.

Then in my late 30’s through the Scriptures, I came to understand grace. Paul said, “It [meaning God’s compassion to sinners] does not depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” (Romans 9:16). A light dawned in my heart and I realized that it wasn’t anything I did or anything I was that saved me. It was the work of Christ because of the love of God that saved me. The only thing I contributed to my salvation was realizing that I was a sinner in need of a Savior.  I surrendered to His amazing mercy and grace and was set free from the demands of my own guilt and shame. I am no longer driven by the need to be good enough for God. Now I am driven to live by the Word and the Spirit. I desire righteousness, not doing everything right.

Mine isn’t one of those “powerful testimonies” of Jesus saving me out of a life of debauchery – though I was just as lost as the ones who were. But I’ve discovered that it is a testimony a lot of people who live a frustrated Christian life can connect with. Beloved, God didn’t save you because of you, He saved you because of Jesus. And Jesus is enough.

Sermon on the Mount – The Beatitudes, part 2

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This is the second lesson in our study on the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel, focusing on “The Beatitudes.” The first four “Blesseds” show the priority of the Kingdom of God versus the world as Jesus said the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed. The second set of four “Blesseds” shows the characteristics that should mark the citizens of God’s Kingdom.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (v. 7). Merciful people have compassion for those in need, to the point that they actively and practically work to meet the need. God sets the standard for mercy as He showed needy sinners mercy through the cross of His Son. Those who show mercy, Jesus said, will be shown mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (v. 8). The heart, being the seat of thinking and understanding, is where we talk to ourselves. The pure in heart will speak to themselves of pure things – Philippians 4:8 things. And Psalms 23:7 shows us that pure hearts will always lead to clean hands. These are the ones who will see God. That should make us pay careful attention to our thoughts.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (v. 9). Peacemakers are not doormats. Peacemakers work to restore broken relationships and bring peace to both parties. The most important of those broken relationships is between God and men. Until there is peace there, there will never be lasting peace among men. Peacemakers are called sons of God. Not every human being is a child of God, only those who prioritize the Kingdom of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven, for, in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (v. 10-12). If you are living the righteous life of a Christian you will expose the wickedness of the world without saying a word. And the world will hate you for it. This is normal. Jesus said it is cause for rejoicing. If the world does not hate you, you better check your brand of Christianity. These are the ones for whom the Kingdom of God is a present reality.

What’s interesting is this is not just a random list, but shows the progression of the life of a true believer who goes from knowing they have nothing to offer God for their sins, to becoming a person who so emulates Christ that the world hates them for it. Blessed are you, Beloved, when you abandon yourself to the God who created you and loves you.

Sermon on the Mount – The Beatitudes, part 1

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This will be a little different. Once a week over the next couple of months, we’re going to study the Sermon on the Mount. While this devotional is not written specifically as encouragement, studying the Word of God always encourages us. The focus of the Sermon on the Mount – in fact, Matthew’s focus for his Gospel – is the Kingdom of God/Heaven. Matthew wants to prove that

Jesus is the long-expected King in the line of David and the promised Messiah.Jesus opens with what we know as “The Beatitudes,” nine times that He describes people who are “blessed” in the Kingdom. The first four, vs 3-6, turn the idea of blessing on its head.

Jesus said blessed are “the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” But these are people who are nobodies in the world. But remember, we’re dealing with Kingdom values, not the world’s values.The poor in spirit are those who realize that they have nothing to offer God for their souls. They have no hope in themselves for eternal life. Their hope is in the promises of God. They will receive the Kingdom. Those who know they have nothing are given everything.

Those who mourn are mourning their sin. Jesus said they will be comforted. How? Paul said that “godly sorrow” for our sins “brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret” (2 Cor. 7:9-10). Those who mourn are comforted when their sorrow turns to repentance then forgiveness and the burden of their guilt is lifted.

The meek are not the weak. Meekness is the fine art of being kind and gentle towards others, especially those who “do not deserve it.” It’s how God treated us. The meek, Jesus said, will “inherit the earth.” Now honestly, who would want this earth? But wait. Rev. 21:1 says that there will be “a new heaven and a new earth.” A new earth would be a truly blessed gift.

Then, “Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled.” How do you know that you’re hungry? You have hunger pains. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness feel genuine pain at the unrighteousness in the world. If you don’t, you may need to check your relationship with God. Unrighteousness breaks the heart of God. It should break our hearts as well. How do we deal with hunger? We eat. This unrighteous world is hungry for God. Let’s feed them the Gospel. We – and they – will be filled, satisfied, beyond measure.

What does all this mean for you? Unless I miss my guess, you, like me, are not great in the world’s eyes. But God has great things in store for those who trust in Him. Beloved, are you blessed by the world’s standards, or by God’s?