The Valley

This morning I was thinking about something I needed to do, something I didn’t really want to do because it often raised up a temptation I’ve been trying to put down for a long time. I prayed for help and a verse came to mind. It comes out of Psalm 23 – The Shepherd’s Psalm. Verse 4 says “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Now, what does that have to do with temptation?

This valley is not a pastoral scene of gentle slopes between the hills but a steep, narrow gorge where the sun never reaches. The valley most attributed to this passage was the Valley of Hinnom outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was a horrible place of death as bodies of criminals and animals and the town’s rubbish were thrown there and fires burned continually to consume them. The ”shadow of death” is a place of extreme danger and thick darkness – an apt description of the valley. It was also a place where kings and priest sent their own children to be burned alive to appease the gods – a horrible sin.

Death and sin go hand in hand. From the very beginning, God told the first humans that when they sin (disobey God) they “will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Paul said that “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The valley was a terrifying place of sin and death. But it was also a place people had to pass to get to the gates of the city. Here’s where this all comes together. You and I will be faced with sin and its consequences as long as we are on this earth. We can’t escape it. But we don’t have to fear it. God is with us. If we walk closely with Him we can traverse the sin and death of this world without falling into it. That’s what God was saying to me this morning. “Don’t be afraid of what you need to do. I am with you. I will not let you fall.” And He didn’t.

Beloved, the world is filled with sin and death, but if you belong to Christ you can face it with faith in your Shepherd. Your very Good Shepherd who died to save you – His precious little lamb.

Listen!

She was in trouble and she knew it. She turned her face away from me. “Joy, I need you to listen to Nana so you can get out of time out.” But she refused and stayed in her chair for another minute. I can’t count the times I’ve said: “Listen to me!” How often do you think God says that to us?

Believe it or not, listening to God is not difficult. Everything He wants to say to you and me is written in His Word. So often when we read God’s Word or hear it being read it comes across like the grown-ups in a Charlie Brown special. “Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa.” Solomon knew what it meant to listen to God. Grab your Bible and read Proverbs 2:1-5 – I’ll wait for you.

Solomon offered several keys to listening. (Yes, this passage is about wisdom, but the principle applies.) Accept the Bible as the true, authoritative Word of God. That means that the Bible calls the shots. If the world or your flesh says “do this,” but the Bible says “don’t” the Bible wins. Store up Scripture –That memorization. You don’t have to have it word-for-word, but have enough that you can use it when you need it – cause you’re gonna need it. Ask God for insight and understanding. I was not a Bible geek until my 40’s. I got a tiny taste of the depths of the Word and I wanted more. So I asked God to make me hungry. Twenty years later and I’m still ravenous. But I had to decide it was worth it. I had to regard it as a hidden treasure to be mined. I had to invest time and effort in it. I had to get up early and turn off the T.V. I had to put down the phone and pick up The Book.

There’s one other key to listening that comes from Paul who said, “the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). You and I have to shut down every other voice but the voice of truth.

Eve listened to the serpent. Adam listened to Eve. Neither of them listened to God. Beloved, who are you listening to?

Adam and Eve and the Hall of Faith

I was up very late trying to finish my last assignment for school. I am so tired. I don’t have the brainpower to think very hard. I’m going to share an observation as we work through the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11. School is over until Fall for me. More profound things will come later. Anyway, just read this while I go get more coffee.

Think about all the people listed in this chapter. You know what strikes me. Adam and Eve aren’t here. The first two people – the Lord God’s hand-made human beings are not in the Hall of Faith. Why? Because they sinned? Yes, but not entirely.  This chapter is all about faith and their sin showed they had none. Faith = obedience. That’s what James was pointing out: “Faith by itself if it is not accompanied by action [aka obedience] is dead” (2:17). The corollary then is disobedience = no faith. Yet Adam and Eve had the most intimate knowledge of God of any human being in history. They walked with Him in the Garden every evening ((Gen 3:8). They saw His face. Their eardrums vibrated to the sound of His voice. Don’t you imagine He put His hand on Adam’s shoulder as He pointed out the animals?

Do you know what that tells me (the seminary grad student and Bible teacher)? Knowledge of God doesn’t equal faith. Remember that the writer of Hebrews said “the message [the Israelites] heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith” (4:2). You can know all about God and still not know God. You can even believe that He is real and not believe Him. James also said, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder. You can even memorize every word in the Bible and still not have faith. Jesus talked about the religious leaders who “diligently study the Scriptures” but did not believe Him (John 5:39-40). Beloved, with all my heart I plead, don’t let Jesus say that of you. If all you want is a head full of knowledge, go study philosophy. But if you want Jesus and eternal life, apply your mind and heart to the Scriptures and bend your knee to the Word.

Hebrews: Draw Near

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is His body and since we have a great priest over the house of God . . .” (Heb 10:19-21).

The writer of Hebrews proclaimed that the curtain that separated man and God has been removed. The priests who alone went behind the curtain have been replaced with the great priest who replaced the curtain with His own body, torn asunder. God has removed all the obstacles. Nothing prevents us from coming to the Lord now. Nothing but fear. And why are afraid? Because we are sinful people and He is a holy God. And “no one may see [Him] and live” (Ex 33:20). And because we know that God is “the One who can destroy both body and soul” (Matt 10:28). So we hide ourselves from Him, just as Adam and Eve did. I have good news for you my friend; this same God loves you with an everlasting love. A perfect love. And “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18).

Now we are invited to “draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith . . .” That “full assurance of faith” is the antithesis of fear.  Mind you, this is not the “pull up your bootstraps” kind of faith. This is faith that knows that “our hearts [have been] sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” and “our bodies [have been] washed with pure water” (Heb 10:22). It is faith that rests on the perfect love of God and the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood.

John also noted that “The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The corollary then states that those who have been made perfect by the blood of Christ (go back to Heb 10:14) have nothing to fear.  Mind you, there is a healthy, reverent fear of the Lord that we should always have. He is, after all, the God of heaven and earth. But reverent fear and fear of punishment are two very different things. Beloved, if you have trusted in Jesus be assured that you are welcomed in the Father’s house – and in His arms.

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 Better Covenant

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“I promise.” There was a time when those two words meant something. When you could count on the person and the pledge. A couple stood before “God and these witnesses” to declare their life-long love. A politician made campaign promises that ensured his election, and his supporters could depend on the word of their elected official. A prospective employee agreed to a salary and benefits in exchange for faithful, dependable, service. All of these are the pattern of a covenant and covenant is the foundation of the relationship between God and man.

A covenant involves three people (or people groups) – two parties who wish to make an agreement of mutual benefit and a mediator to bring them to agreeable terms.  The covenant would stand as long as both parties lived and fulfilled their responsibilities. God made a covenant with Adam and Eve, first to allow them to rule over the earth (Gen 1:26), and then, after their sin, to bring a redeemer to crush their enemy (Gen 3:15). He made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the earth with a flood (Gen 9:15). His covenant with Abraham was for his descendants to possess the land of Canaan (Gen 17:8). He made a covenant with Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai which involved a host of laws. He also made a covenant with David that his descendants would always sit on the throne of Israel, including One who would rule over an eternal kingdom ( 2 Sam 7:1-16). All of those covenants except one were dependant solely on the faithfulness of God. The Mosaic covenant demanded obedience from the people for God’s blessings and promised curses for disobedience.

The writer of Hebrews said the old covenant was perfect, but “God found fault with the people,” (Heb 8:8) because they were unable to maintain obedience. Rather than give up on them, he determined to “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (v. 8). It was a covenant of forgiveness (v. 12) and of the Holy Spirit. The writer quoted Jeremiah saying, “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time . . . I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people . . . and they will all know me” (v. 10,11).

While Moses was the mediator between God and Israel, Jesus Christ is the mediator between a holy God and sinful humanity – and the covenant was sealed with His blood. This covenant will never become “obsolete” and it will never “disappear” (v. 13) because its foundation is the obedience of Christ, not man.  Beloved, it’s not up to you. It’s up to Him, and He is forever faithful.

This is Huge!

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Sometimes I can read a verse a hundred times and on pass 101 something clicks and blows my mind. Last night was #101 for Hebrews 5:14. The writer had been admonishing his readers for refusing to grow up in their faith and take in the rich, nourishing “meat” of biblical truth. They were satisfied to know just enough to ensure their salvation. “What’s wrong with that?” you may ask. “Isn’t that what Christianity is all about?” The core of Christianity is the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. But for the spiritual babies among us, and for this “mature” teacher, there is something huge that we’ve been missing.

“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Pay attention to “by constant use have trained themselves.” Remember that the writer had declared that they were lazy and undisciplined in their spiritual growth. He was urging them to consistently and vigorously “exercise” in the Word of God. For what purpose?” And this is where I have holy goosebumps. “to distinguish good from evil. “Yeah, yeah, that’s good.” But wait, there’s more – and the only reason this caught my attention is because I wrote a school paper recently that made this very point.

Go back to the Garden of Eden, and Genesis 3 where Eve is having a foolish conversation with a serpent who said, “God knows that when you eat [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge good and evil] your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v. 5). And it happened just as he said; they ate and they suddenly knew things they’d never known – evil things. But it was knowledge they could not bear for they did not have God’s divine capacity, in knowing good and evil, to distinguish good from evil. There’s a difference. That’s why I am so excited about this verse. Hebrews 5:14 says that by consistent, disciplined training in God’s Word we can distinguish one from the other.

 “Good and evil” is used only five times in the Bible – four of which appear in the Fall narrative. “Good from evil” only appears once in the entire Bible – right here in our key passage. Do you see it? This evil knowledge that was unleashed on the human race by Adam and Eve’s sin can only be brought under control by consuming and applying the Scriptures diligently and purposefully.

In my spirit, I am standing on a table shouting: “YOU CAN OVERCOME EVIL THROUGH THE WORD OF GOD!” You can and you must or you will forever struggle with the sinful nature you inherited from the first sinners. This is huge! This is life-changing. I implore you, take this to heart. Pick up your Bible Beloved, and be set free.

Hope in Days of Evil

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Another day, another multi-victim shooting, another child abused, another murder, another robbery, beating, and theft. I remember the day when such things were shocking; now they are commonplace. I read just yesterday of a mother who killed her child and I want to ask, “Why?” But I know the answer. Because Adam and Eve ate the fruit. And their actions ushered in sin that has infected the human race at a far greater pace than COVID 19. It is part of our human make-up. It’s even part of our culture. And the Bible makes it clear that it’s only going to get worse.

Jesus said as the time for His return draws near, wickedness will increase, and “the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). Love – love for what is good – will die and evil and wickedness will grow at alarming rates.

Paul added, “People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:2-5). Can anyone doubt that we are in the last days?

Does that frighten you? It should if you don’t belong to Jesus Christ. But if you are His, if you have surrendered yourself – heart, mind, soul, and strength – to Him, the state of the world should concern you, but not scare you. It should compel you to share the gospel. It should urge you to live in holiness. It should move you to intervene for the innocent. But it shouldn’t frighten you. Because the increase of wickedness means a decrease in our wait for Christ’s return.

Jesus said when the world turns more and more to evil, and the heavens and the earth react to it (because they are also subject to the curse of sin), we need to look up. “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky . . . the nations of the earth . . . will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory (Matthew 24:30). And every evil, wicked, sinful thing will be cast out. Yes, these are evil days, and there is likely more to come. But lift up your head, Beloved, that means the Lord is nearer now than ever before.

Hebrews: Do You Believe God?

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Buckle your seatbelts, because today we’re going to cover five verses: Hebrews 3:15-19 (woohoo!). But we’re going to focus on just one word. Verses 15-19 serve as a commentary 7-11, which recalled Israel’s rebellion and subsequent forty years of desert wandering. The writer of Hebrews, in describing this band of wanderers said that they “rebelled” (v. 16), they “sinned” (v. 17), and they “disobeyed” (v. 18). All of these verbs culminate in one word, see if you can figure it out: “So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (v. 19). Rebellion, sin, and disobedience are all symptoms – the deadly disease that killed an entire generation of Israelites was unbelief. Here’s the key: those who believed and those who did not believe heard the same promise from God: “See, I have given you this land” (Deuteronomy 1:8). An entire generation of “bodies fell in the desert” (v. 17).

But they weren’t the first to doubt God. A long, long time ago God told a couple in a garden, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Then along came the serpent who asked, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (3:1). The serpent wasn’t trying to clarify what God had told them. His question went to Adam and Eve’s heart: “Did God really mean what He said?” We see that in verse 8 when he completely and exactly contradicts what they had heard: “You will not surely die.” They took the bait because, in their hearts, they didn’t believe His word was true.

The essence of unbelief is not rejecting God but rather doubting if God is trustworthy. Like Adam and Eve and the Israelites, we act on our unbelief with rebellion, sin, and disobedience. To believe God is to take Him at His Word – that He is who He says He is and will do what He says He will do* – and then act on what we heard. That’s what we’ll find in the “Hall of Faith” a few chapters ahead. So the question then is, Beloved, do you believe God?

*From Beth Moore’s study: “Believing God.”

Chocolate-covered Doughnuts

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Someone brought doughnuts to our office again. And the battle is on. Will I or won’t I. I promised myself that I would eat better and try to lose some weight. But doughnuts. Oh, no! Chocolate covered at that. I love chocolate-covered doughnuts. How do I know the box has chocolate-covered doughnuts? Because I walked over to the table and raised the lid.  Now my hand is reaching out and grabbing this delicious pastry. The first bite is so good. I have given way to temptation. I have succumbed to my weakness. I have betrayed my promise to my body.  But my fall, much like in the garden of Eden, didn’t happen with my first bite, or even raising the box lid and reaching in. It happened when I kept looking at the temptation from my desk. It happened when I began to justify to myself what I had every intention of doing.

The Bible says, “God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).” Oh, how I wish it just stopped at “He will not let you be tempted.” I wish it said that God would not let anyone bring chocolate-covered doughnuts into our office. I wish it said that God would make chocolate-covered doughnuts repulsive to me. But no, it says I will be confronted with temptation. I will have tempting things cross my path. I will have tempting thoughts and desires. It’s guaranteed.

What God has promised is an escape route – a way out when temptation strikes. I wish that meant that all the other staff members would gobble them up before I could get to the table. Sometimes God does intervene in physical ways, but most often the way out is internal, it’s self-control – or more to the point, “Spirit-control.”  It’s listening and responding when the Spirit reminds me of who I am and why I need to separate myself from the temptation. Yes, God provides a way out when we are tempted. The question then is am I willing to look for the way out? When I find it am I willing to use it? And once I’ve used it, am I willing to resist the urge to leave a forwarding address?