Bought Lessons

If you’ve read my devotionals for very long, you’ve heard me quote my Mom who used to say “Bought lessons stay with you longer than taught lessons.” It is the most profound thing she ever told me and I have the scars to prove that she was right. I’ve done some very foolish things in my life that I will never, ever do again. Her mantra reminds me of Psalm 119:67: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your Word.”

One lesson I bought is that when I ignore the Word of God I will wind up in trouble. Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew 7:24-27. He said the wise man built his house on the rock and the foolish man built on the sand. The wise builder illustrated a person who built his life on obedience to Jesus’ words. No storm could destroy the house built on the rock, and no storm can destroy the person who builds their life on – not just by reading the Bible – but by putting its teachings and principles into practice. Knowing and obeying the Bible can save us so much trouble and heartache in life.

But I’ve also learned a gentler lesson: God doesn’t give up on us just because we messed up. He won’t write you off, wash His hands of me or turn away from us because we stumble. All through the Bible God tells us that He is patient, forgiving, compassionate, merciful, and full of grace. He loves you, even when your knees are bloody because you fell. He loves me, even when I am covered in the muck of my own choices. Jesus died so you and I can be forgiven, so we could have a second chance at life.

Have you made a mistake somewhere along the way? Have you run in the wrong direction, played with the wrong people, touched something that left you in pain? Take heart, Beloved, God has not given up on you. Take this affliction, this difficulty, and the pain it has caused and place it before your loving Heavenly Father. Then put your hand in the nail-scarred hand of Jesus and start walking, a little wiser, in the right direction.

Hebrews: In the Beginning . . .

It’s the simplest truth, taught to the littlest children: God created the whole world. It is the opening statement of the Bible and is foundational to our understanding of who God is, and in turn who we are.  It is also the first step of faith. The writer of Hebrews said, By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Hebrews 11:3).

Modern science spins a tale of colliding gasses that somehow formed into a diverse group of planets, stars, and galaxies. But that is not the biblical account of creation. The Bible says that God created ex nihilo – out of nothing. There were no prior elements that He scooped up into His hand and rolled into a ball.  He spoke into the empty nothingness and the response was immediate obedience. He said “Let there be” . . . light, water, dry ground, plant life, sun, moon and stars, and living creatures of all kinds. And they were. Nature obeys the creator, even if man, God’s highest creation doesn’t.

Does it really matter how the universe got here?  Yes, it really does, but not for the sake of scientific argument. If I side with the scientific versions – even from a “Christian” perspective – I have said that the very first truths of the Holy Word of God are questionable.  That leaves everything else from Genesis 2 to Revelation 22 open to debate and alteration for the sake of human agreement.  Those who doubt the creation account then say that Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the Whale, and many other extraordinary biblical stories are just myths.  How easy it becomes then to question the truth of the virgin birth of Jesus, His miracles, and even His resurrection. Think I’m stretching too far here?  Go sit through a lecture at a liberal-leaning seminary.  It’s a wonder students have any semblance of faith left when they graduate.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).  Faith, the author of Hebrews says, starts right here, at the beginning.  Christian, it is absolutely vital that you know what you believe and then believe what you know – but be certain, Beloved, that what you know and believe is the truth. The Bible is not written as a science manual; it is written for faith.

Hebrews: The Promise

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

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

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

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

Do You Believe?

No other event on the stage of world history is as important as the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Skeptics have long sought to discredit Christianity’s claims with attacks on the foundational veracity of the gospel.  So is it really true? Let’s take a look at the facts that are recorded in the secular history of the time.

The Jewish and Roman historical records note that a man named Jesus from Nazareth was crucified at Golgotha and buried in a garden tomb.  The grave was sealed and Roman guards were posted to prevent the theft of the body.  History records that the condemned man’s tomb was found empty three days later, despite the extreme measures the Romans took to secure the grave.  Jewish records note the claims of Jesus’ followers that their Lord had been resurrected.  Historical writers of the time frequently mention eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus, just as Paul spoke of Peter, the Apostles, more than five hundred brothers, James (Jesus’ own doubting brother), and finally Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  In these verses, Paul reminds the believers of the gospel message “that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scripture” (v. 3-4).  These verses are almost certainly a creed that was well established in the ancient church and based on the testimonies of the very ones who firmly and emphatically believed they saw the literal resurrected Lord.  These are men who had been transformed from terrified, despondent fellows cowering behind locked doors (John 20:19) to bold witnesses willing to die for their faith, confident in what they saw (Acts 4:1-20).

The gospel message – the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus – is strongly supported by men and women who had an encounter that transformed their lives and the landscape of world history.  The evidence is clearly shown in their testimonies and the traditions that are built on the foundation of their testimonies.  The eyewitness accounts of Peter, James, John and Paul, and hundreds of others, combined with the early creedal statements of the church provide good support for the claims of the resurrection of Jesus. 

Still, facts alone cannot convince anyone of the reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Generations of believers who have also experienced this life-changing Jesus provide the greatest proof that the claims of Christianity are true. People like me. I was a sinner, lost and bound for hell, but I heard the good news that God loves me and send His Son to die for my sins and rose to life three days later. I believed in Jesus. His Spirit lives in me and I have been changed. Forever.

Beloved, this same Jesus died for you too. He can change your life and your eternal destiny. Will you believe today?

Hebrews: Just Jesus

History is littered with men and women quitting before the victory. Do you remember any of their names? Neither do I. We remember the ones who stuck it out and stayed the course.  The whole premise of the book of Hebrews is about not giving up; a message twenty-first-century believers need as much as first-century believers. The author said, “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded” (10:35). That begs a question: Do you have confidence in God? I hear your “Yes!” ringing loudly through the air. So let me press you a little farther. Confidence for what? That He will fix your problems, clean up your messes, open all the right doors, straighten out your kid, and bring world peace? There’s nothing wrong with any of those things; I’m praying for some of them myself. But the author had bigger things in mind. Eternal things.

The people reading this message were being challenged by the writer to put their confidence in one thing: the grace of God through Jesus Christ for eternal life. Remember these folks are largely Jews and for centuries their confidence was in obedience to the Mosaic Law. Something tangible. Something they could do. It was a constant mantra from the cradle to the grave. But they were now expected to believe that one man bore the burden for all of their sins and there was nothing they needed to do to ensure their salvation beyond trust.  Put yourself in their sandals – you only get one shot to make the right decision about the hereafter. How difficult would it be to stake your eternal security on this – on Him?  But this is what the writer was encouraging – even pleading with them to do. It’s what I am encouraging – even pleading with you to do.

You and I can believe God for many good things. My hope for my life is in His Word and His Name. You place your kids and your future, your struggles and heartaches, and your needs and desires in His hands and you do well to do so. But the one question that you need to answer Beloved is this: What is your hope for eternal life? If your confidence is in anything or anyone but Jesus, you have no hope and no reward. Only Jesus saves.

Believing is Seeing

One reason I love to write out Scripture is because it slows me down and forces me to notice every verse, every phrase, and every word. When I take it like that things jump out at me that I never noticed before. Take Joshua’s story, for example. In Joshua 6:1 we get the casual mention that: “Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in.” Why is that so important? Because in the next verse, “The Lord said: “See I have delivered Jericho into your hands . . .” (v. 2). Yet Joshua stood on the outside of the city, shut out by a wall and heavy gates. He did not at that moment literally have possession of Jericho. What he had was a promise and a very strange battle plan. And faith. God said it was a done deal, even when it wasn’t actually done. But Joshua knew God well enough to believe that what God said was so. Not will be. Was.

I want Joshua-sized faith. I want to believe that whatever God says is as good as done. I want to march around the promises of God confident that they are mine – even while the wall is still standing and the gates are still locked. There are things that God has promised to me – things I’m still waiting to see.  I gotta be honest with you, sometimes my faith wavers. Your’s too? Well, I’m glad I’m not the only one. So how do we get Joshua faith when our hope is shakey? I go back to the Word of God and remember what He said. Here is one of those promises: “O Lord, truly I am your servant . . . the son of your maidservant; You have freed me from my chains” (Psalms 116:16). Not “will one day.” “Have.” I’m trusting God to accomplish what He has proclaimed.

If your God is the God of the Bible then you have Someone that can and will fulfill every promise He makes. When He speaks it, He sees the thing as done. You can too. You can believe Him. You can look at that wall and know it will fall and the promise on the other side is already yours. Beloved, you can take Him at His Word.

Hebrews: Hope

Hope. According to Webster, hope means to cherish a desire with anticipation: to want something to happen or be true. As in, “I hope we catch a lot of fish today.” or “I hope Susie will go to the prom with me.” Webster gives another definition that it designates as “archaic.” Trust. Guess I am an old fogey because hope and trust are synonymous in my mind. And that’s how hope is regarded in the Bible.

After explaining what Christ did for us on the cross the writer of Hebrews said, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:23). What is our hope? That by His broken body and shed blood we have direct access to God. Wait. Don’t rush past that statement. Take it in. We have direct access to God. Do you understand how stunning that is? You and I don’t have to go through any man to bring our needs to God. We can just open our hearts to Him. And He hears us. Sinful mortals speaking to the God of the universe. That should put us on our faces.

The writer said we can “hold unswervingly” to this hope we profess. Yesterday in worship we sang a sweet old hymn – “At the Cross” – which has a line that I’ve sung a thousand and one times, but never thought too much about: “At the cross . . . where “the burden of my heart” rolled away.”* At first, I thought “the burden of my heart” meant the struggles of my life – relationships, finances, worry, fear, sickness, etc. But the Spirit revealed that the burden of every man’s heart is condemnation before God because of our sin. Not that God doesn’t care about the struggles we face in life – He absolutely does. But if all of our problems were resolved and our sin burden remained, we would still have no hope. The profession we hold to unswervingly is the hope of redemption.

How can we be sure certain of this hope? Because “He who promised is faithful.” Paul said, “The one who calls you is faithful and He will do it” (1 Thess 5:23-24).  Beloved, your hope is not how strong you’re holding on to Jesus, but how firmly He is holding on to you.  

*At the Cross – Isaac Watts 1707

This is My Story

Mom, me, brothers Jimmy and Michael, Easter Sunday, mid-sixties, Okinawa, Japan

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” 1 Timothy 1:15

Several years ago a Sunday School teacher said: “The only reason I’m a Christian is that Jesus had the best offer.  If someone had presented something better I would’ve taken it.”  I left that class and never returned, But I also examined my own heart and asked myself why I am a Christian.

I grew up in a good, Baptist home. Mom took us to Sunday School, church, Sunbeams, Vacation Bible School, and so on.  I knew about the God who created the whole world and the sun, moon, and stars.  I knew about Jesus and the cross and the empty tomb. I knew that I wanted to go to heaven, so I asked Jesus into my heart when I was nine years old and was baptized. I rarely missed a Sunday or Wednesday night as a kid.  But as I grew up church and faith went on the back burner.  I became less concerned with heaven and more focused on the things of earth.  I married, and then my world came crashing down when my marriage failed.  I went back home a broken woman and returned to the church of my childhood.  And I got deeper into the Bible than I had ever been and saw God and Jesus with new eyes. I realized that what I had was “faith” in sweet Bible stories, not saving faith in the Son of God. He moved my heart to believe the gospel and receive His gift of salvation. 

I am a Christian because God saved me through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ.  I have eternal life in heaven because of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  I am not bound as a slave to my sins any longer, I am now bound up in the freedom of Christ.  Every day I remember both who I was as a slave to sin, and who I am now, a freed daughter of God.

Can you say the same?  Do you know the freedom that only comes through Jesus Christ?  Do not remain in the chains of sin for one more minute Beloved. Right now tell God you want to be set free.  The chains will fall and you can walk away as His child. That’s my story. I pray it is yours too.

Blessed Faith

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“Did that really happen? It must have been a dream. I have been so anxious over all the preparations Joseph and I are making – it must have caused me to have this strange dream.” Mary was traveling through the hill country of Judea on her way to visit her dear relative, Elizabeth. The angel in her dream had said something strange about her too – that she was going to have a child – in fact, he said she was in her sixth month. Elizabeth – of all people. She and Zechariah were too old to have a baby. Yes, this had to have just been a dream.JBut what if it wasn’t.Could she really be with child – with THE child – the Messiah? Why would he have chosen her? She was nothing special, wouldn’t God have chosen the wife of the high priest for such an honor? Someone in a lofty position in the temple, someone more mature, more wealthy, more righteous. No. She shook her head as if to shake loose the crazy idea. This was just not possible. She saw the familiar house and spied her relative in the doorway with her back turned toward the road. “Elizabeth!” Mary called out and gasped as the older woman turned to face her. The smile on her face was warm and welcoming, but the bulge under her dress was a shock to Mary’s heart. It was true! Elizabeth was pregnant! If that were true – then . . . “Mary! Dear Mary!” Elizabeth exclaimed, and then as if from deep within her spirit she began to speak. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for Joy” (Luke 1:42-44).

Oh, it was true! It was all true! Elizabeth was pregnant. That meant she really was pregnant too – with the Messiah! Then, as if reading the thoughts the younger woman had carried with her along the journey, Elizabeth took Mary’s hands in her own and said, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished” (v. 45).

Beloved, faith is the sweetest blessing of all.

Hebrews: Where the Rain Falls

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For the past several weeks we’ve looked deeply at what many scholars consider some of the most challenging verses in the entire Bible: Hebrews 6:4-6. But the author of Hebrews is not letting go of the theme yet, and so, neither will we. In 6:7-8 he makes what is the crucial point to understanding what he has laid out. “Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.  But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed.  In the end, it will be burned.”

Again, this passage should be laid beside Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds. Just as the sower tosses the seeds out to let them fall where they may, the rain falls over the whole field and all the land soaks it up – good, productive soil and poor, rocky, thorny soil. All receive the rain – that is the gospel of Christ and the grace and mercy of God – but the fruit – bountiful crops or thorns and thistles – is the evidence of the condition of the soil.   Jesus said, “By their fruit, you will recognize them. Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matt 7:16, 17-18). People who do not produce good fruit despite receiving God’s blessings demonstrate the poor condition of their hearts. Those who do produce good fruit give clear evidence that they are receiving God’s blessings with a good and sincere heart.

Those who persevere with Christ to the end prove two things: their hearts are good and the Lord is faithful to keep His own (John 10:28-29). Those who abandon Christ also prove two things: their hearts were always wicked and Jesus has no place for them (Matt 25:12). And I remind you that the Lord also said that both would sit together in the same pews until the end when the angels will sort them all out (Matt 13:24-30). While Jesus told us never to judge the condition of another person’s heart, He did strongly advise us to become fruit inspectors.

I suspect the writer of Hebrews included this information so that the true believers would not become discouraged by the falling away of the false believers. He also wanted them to know that he had seen good fruit in them – fruit that would endure and would be productive for the kingdom. “Even though we speak like this, dear friend, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation” (v.9).

I’ll leave you with one simple question Beloved: What does the fruit of your life say about the condition of your heart?