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?

A Brand New You

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“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone the new has come!”  2 Corinthians 5:17

I don’t like reminders of my past – I tend to bristle at memories of my rebellion and selfishness, and sin.  That is why I love Paul’s words.  He wrote in his letters, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world” (Ephesians 2:1-2).  He gives a list of sinful and wicked behaviors in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and says, “That is what you were. (1 Corinthians 6:11)” In Ephesians 5:8 He says, “You were once darkness…”  Paul is coloring in the shadows of his readers’ past to highlight the contrast when he says “but now…you are light in the Lord.”  He is painting a before and after portrait.  “You were once…but now you are.”   He is saying, “You were dead in sin and rebellion and selfishness. But that is not who you are anymore.  Now you are in Christ.”

One of Satan’s favorite ploys is to assault us with our past, to tell us that we will always be who we were and there is no point in trying to resist those old familiar sins.  “You know deep down, you still want it.  You haven’t changed. You are bound to your past.  You are bound to me.”  But if you belong to Jesus Christ, Satan has no authority over you. You are free from your past; you are free to choose not to give in to sin.  You are a child of light, purified from all your sins (1 John 1: 7).  Where you were once bound to your sin, you are now bound up in God’s love.

In Philippians 3:13, Paul gives us the secret to walking in our new identity when he says, “one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on…”  We can forget what is behind because “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)” If only we could understand that because Jesus Christ has completely removed all our transgressions our old sinful desires have no authority over us any longer.  Yes, they still call to us, but we are no longer captive to do their bidding.

Beloved, look at yourself in the mirror.  You are a new creation in Christ.  You have light in your eyes, and God’s love shines on your face.  You are free to choose all the wonderful things God has planned for you.  You are no longer bound to a painful, sinful past. You are not who you once were.  Now you are His.

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.

Hebrews: The Tabernacle

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Lovely Lane Chapel at Epworth by the Sea, St. Simons Island, Georgia

I love church buildings. I visited some beautiful, ornate cathedrals when I lived in Germany.  My late brother’s high school graduation was held in one in Worms. I didn’t see him walk for his diploma because I was looking at the intricate carvings and high, soaring ceilings. I met for a weekly Bible study in a church with incredible wood beams that always spoke peace to me.  I worked in a church in Florida with beautiful stained glass windows. I loved to sit in the sanctuary and watch the light cast colors across the room. But the church I fell in love with was a small chapel in Georgia on St. Simon’s Island called “Lovely Lane Chapel” at Epworth by the Sea. It is an unassuming white building in the traditional style of the late 19th century set on the banks of the historic Frederica River. But when you open the doors and step inside the all-wood interior will take your breath away. It is an impressive work of architectural art. But it’s just a copy and shadow of the true tabernacle in heaven (Hebrews 8:2, 5).  St. Peter’s Basilica and the pre-fire cathedral at Notre Dame, even the gold walls of Solomon’s temple pale in comparison to the divine original.

Likewise, the ministry of the priests who served in the temple in Jerusalem was significantly less than that of Jesus Christ, the great high priest. The writer of Hebrews pointed first to the gifts and sacrifices presented by generations of human high priests (8:3-4), and later we will see why those gifts and sacrifices fell short of the perfection the Law and the Law-giver demanded. But Jesus’ ministry “is superior to theirs” (8:6) because the gifts and sacrifices He offered were superior.

Jesus’ ministry did not happen in the earthly tabernacle and the sacrifice He offered was not given to a diety shrouded in smoke and incense. Jesus went personally before the Lord with His own pure blood.

Ornate buildings and animal sacrifices don’t make men holy. Neither do programs and weekly services. None of these satisfy the demands of a righteous God. But there is a way. It’s through the better tabernacle and the better offering – through Jesus, the Son of God, the Great High Priest, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Who takes away your sin, Beloved. He will make you holy.

Who I am in Christ — or Whose?

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There is a trend in Christianity that both excites me and makes me wary. “Discipleship” is the command of our Lord and Savior: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Discipleship is Jesus’ marching orders for the church. But what are we to teach? Everything He commanded. Everything He taught. Everything He did. But above all, everything He is. The focus of all our teaching and discipleship should always be centered on Christ.

And that’s why I have had a wariness in my spirit. For the past several years the content of our discipleship, especially to women has taken a spiritually unhealthy turn.  This morning I was reading in Colossians, where Paul said: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved . . .” (3:12) and immediately my mind went to the manta of women’s Bible studies: “Who I am in Christ.” Now, please don’t misunderstand me, I am all for us claiming our identity as sons and daughters of God. As one who grew up rejected by both sides of the kickball teams, it is a great comfort to know that I am chosen in Christ. Because my former husband said, “I don’t love you anymore,” it is a balm to my heart to know that I am dearly loved by God. But the focus has turned in recent years from awe at what God has done for a wretch like me, to how God has elevated me, to it’s all about me. It reminds me of an advertisement I heard once for a “Christian” talent agency whose tagline was “Become famous for God!” No! No! No! We make God famous, not ourselves.

All the verses that we claim as our identity labels, when taken in their full context, are teaching us who we are so that we can then walk appropriately. The rest of Colossians 3:12 says “clothes yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Paul goes on to talk about forbearance (patience) and forgiveness and the unity that comes with love. He said, “because you are this, your character should be this.” The Scriptures never tell us “who we are” to boost our ego but to humble us in our relationships with one another and with Christ. When we pick out select words to focus on ourselves, we miss the point entirely.

Beloved, I encourage you to learn what the Bible says about you because above all else, you are God’s image-bearer. Now act like it.

Hebrews: Perfection

I’ve known many pastors in my life and my  25+ year career as a church administrator – some of whom I had more confidence in than others. But none of them were perfect. Yet, the Law of God demands perfection, so how can these imperfect men help me to reach perfection? They can’t – and they will tell you that themselves.

The author of Hebrews said, “If perfection could have been obtained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come—one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?” (Hebrews 7:11). The perfect law was given to imperfect people and they were instructed in it by imperfect priests. How then, could they ever meet the law’s demands? Enter Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the other person worthy of both a crown and a mitre.

The author pointed to Jesus’ lineage as a descendant of Judah, the royal line, but what of his priestly role? He said, like Melchizedek, Jesus is “one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to His ancestry, but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life” (7:16). What does that mean? Indestructible at its root means unable to be dissolved, disunited, overthrown. It means Jesus’s life, ministry, and mission would never be diminished or rendered vain because of His personal moral power. And because His position as priest was not something He inherited, but something He always was – the perfect mediator of the perfect law and the only one who had the power to make imperfect people perfect before God.

Many priests served and retired or died, and the law was never satisfied through any of them. But hear this: “Because Jesus lives forever, He has a permanent priesthood. Therefore He is able to save completely [forever, to the uttermost] those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them” (7:24-25). He alone can guarantee our salvation because He alone is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, [and] exalted above the heavens” (v. 27).

Beloved, you will never pull off perfect obedience, but you can put your faith in one who has. You can trust in the indestructible life of the Lord Jesus Christ, your priest and king to make you perfect.

The Gift

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“The Gift of the Magi” was published in 1905 and is a sweet tale of love and sacrifice at Christmas focused on a young couple who wanted to give their beloved a gift. But money was scarce and so, unbeknownst to the other, the gift-givers sold their prized possessions to buy something special for their spouse. Della sold her long, beautiful hair to buy Jim a chain for his pocket watch. Jim sold his heirloom pocket watch to buy Della a set of bejeweled hair combs. O. Henry finished his story with a nod to the Magi – the Eastern wise men who traveled long to bring gifts to the Christ Child. He wrote: “The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”

While I appreciate this lovely story, I think O Henry got one thing wrong – Christmas presents didn’t originate with the Magi – the first Christmas present was given by God. The story of the Young’s Christmas is a shadow of the real story of Christmas. The young lovers sacrificed their most treasured possessions to give to their beloved, God’s sacrifice was far greater. He gave His One and Only Son to redeem men from their sin. The gifts they gave one another were costly – the gift God has given is priceless. “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed … but with the precious blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1:18, 19). Jim and Della’s gifts – and the sacrifice that enabled them – were given from love, but their love pales in comparison to the great love of God. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .” (John 3:16). In O. Henry’s story, the sacrifice is part of the gift. In the Gospel story, the sacrifice is the gift.

Have you received this gift? Watch chains and hair combs can never express love like the cross can. Have you received Jesus Christ as your Savior Beloved? He is the greatest gift of all.

Hebrews: Melchizedek

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

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

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

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

Hebrews: the Anchor Holds

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

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?