Don’t Pack Up the Christmas Spirit

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Christmas Day has come and gone and my living room looks like a toy store exploded all over the place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So what now? Well, I’ll clean up the blast zone and eventually pack away the ornaments on the tree. We’ll finish off the last of the Christmas dinner leftovers today. But, where does the Christmas spirit go for the next 11 months?

You probably know by now that Joy abides in my house year-round in my precious granddaughter. But what of the peace the angels declared? According to Jesus, that peace was His gift to me, something the world can’t offer (John 14:27). It doesn’t belong in a box in the shed. It belongs in my heart to rule over my relationships (Col. 3:15). 

Is there a box in my shed for the “Hope” of Christmas? The Hope that God is who He claimed to be, that He is trustworthy and faithful (2 Thess 3:3), that His love is unfailing (Ps. 136) and His promises are as sure as His Name (Heb. 6:13). Hope that His eye is ever on me and His ear is tuned to my cries (Gen. 21:13, 11). Hope that one day this wicked world will be turned right-side-up (Rev. 21:5). I am hanging on to hope – it is my word from the Lord for the coming year. I need it desperately; this past year has drained most of my hope.

And then there is love – the greatest of all gifts (1 Cor. 13:13). Love slept in a manger (Luke 2:7). Love walked the dirty streets, healing and lifting up the downtrodden (Matt. 8:1-3). Love died on a cross (Mark 15: 37) and love brought life from death (Mark 16:6). Love must never be packed away for the world needs it more than any other thing. Love – holy love – is the only thing that can save mankind. And it is the only thing that will draw men out of darkness into the light.

I don’t know if your Christmas was merry or jolly or less than you’d hoped, but I know that the spirit of Christmas lives in the hearts of God’s people all year long. Beloved, pack up the decorations but don’t pack away the Joy and peace and hope and love. Set it out for all the world to see.

Hebrews: Sowing Seeds

“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away . . .” (Hebrews 6: 4-6a).

This is one of the hardest passages I’ve ever studied. Once saved, always saved? Or can a person lose their salvation? The word terminologies we looked at in our last devotional could support either perspective. But I will defer my answer to the original author of the entire Bible.

Jesus told a parable of a man sowing seeds, some of which fell on hard ground, “and the birds of the air ate it up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, sprang up but “withered because they had no moisture.” Still more seed fell in the thorny grass, and the thorns “choked the plants.” Finally, some of the seed fell on good soil and produced a bountiful crop.  The Lord explained that the seed is the gospel that is sown in men’s hearts. The seeds on the path “are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts so that they may not believe and be saved.” The seed sown among the rocky ground are “the ones who receive the word with Joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing, they fall away.” The seed that falls among the thorns are those who hear “but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures, and they do not mature.” The seed that falls in the good soil are “those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”  (Luke 8:1-15)

Laying this parable beside the Hebrews passage (let Scripture interpret Scripture) we understand that the one who falls away never took root and grew to maturity. They are the rocky hearts in which the gospel doesn’t take a firm hold. And they are the hearts that are distracted by “life’s worries, riches, and pleasures.” Which soil did Jesus call good? The one that “by persevering produce a crop.” And perseverance isn’t gritting your teeth and hanging on for dear life. It is trusting in the promises and the Promise Keeper. Perseverance isn’t something you do to keep your salvation. It is the evidence of your salvation. Simply put, if you are not saved, you will not persevere.

Can you lose your salvation? You cannot lose what you never had.  But be assured, if you are in Jesus’ hands you will not fall away. “The one who calls you is faithful and He will [keep your whole spirit, soul, and body blameless]” (1 Thess. 5:24, 23).

Hebrews: Judgement’s Coming

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Its earliest origins were in the 1720s in a small Dutch Reformed Church in New Jersey, but the First Great Awakening caught fire in 1741 when Jonathan Edwards preached the sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards’ message revisited the biblical truth of God’s wrath on unbelievers. He reminded his listeners that all men are sinful creatures and under the condemnation of God. ButGod is withholding His righteous wrath so that all may have an opportunity to repent and turn in faith to Christ. Faced with the fearsome wrath of God, people fell trembling and wailing, “What must I do to be saved?” I wonder why people are not asking that question anymore.

The final subject in Hebrew’s “elementary teachings” is “eternal judgment” and I daresay that is even rarer today than it was in Edward’s day. We talked about God’s wrath when we dug into Hebrews 2:2-3 so I won’t belabor the point (I will post a link to that devotional in the comments) because there’s something else I want you to see. 

The writer had previously listed “the resurrection of the dead” as another foundational truth of the faith. The two are intrinsically linked. The church has claimed “resurrection from the dead” as something saved people have to look forward to, and rightly so. But Jesus didn’t teach resurrection as a “saved-only” deal. “A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear His voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29). The wicked will be raised also, but for the purpose of judgment and eternal punishment. Paul said, Those who do not know God (through Jesus) “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord . . . on the day He comes to be glorified” (2 Thess. 1:9-10). Yes, God is infinite love, grace, and mercy, but He is also infinite holiness that cannot tolerate wickedness. The world needs to hear the whole gospel.

I ask the same question I’ve asked again and again throughout this section. What does the church know of this today? Very little. I say that because if we did every lost person in the church (yes, there are many) would be trembling and wailing, “What must I do to be saved?” And every saved person would be begging sinners to come to Christ. No one will be left in the grave – everyone has an eternal destiny. Beloved, your family members, neighbors, friends, and coworkers need to know.  Will you tell them?

In His Hands

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“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Yes, I know, you’ve heard this verse a thousand times. It’s an old favorite of the church and might even be a bit overused. But that’s because it is true and hopeful and if ever we needed hope, I think it’s now. It seems like the whole world has gone crazy, doesn’t it? Or perhaps the world is too big to contemplate, but your life has been crazy lately.  You find yourself asking “Why?” and wondering if God has forgotten about you. Let me take you on a ride through history to show that the Lord is still very much in control.

In 332 BC, the nation of Israel, along with much of the known world was conquered by Alexander the Great, a Greek warrior and king. Alexander’s conquests were not meant for destruction, but rather for assimilation into the Greek empire. All nations were educated in the Greek language for unification. Alexander ordered the ancient Hebrew Scriptures to be translated into Greek, a work that was accomplished in 70 days.

In 63 BC, the Roman Empire conquered Israel. Though known for their cruelty and harsh rule, they were also known for establishing strong infrastructure wherever they went to enable swift transport for their military. Roads were laid by the Romans throughout the European and Asian continents.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus persecution drove His followers from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria and throughout the region. As they went, they walked along Roman-built roads and shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the unified Greek language. The story of God was read and taught everywhere they went because the language was the same wherever they went.

While all these events seemed to be unconnected, harsh circumstances, it’s clear that the God of heaven and earth was “working all things together” for the spread of the Gospel. Now, don’t you think this same sovereign God is able to manage the circumstances of your life? Not only has He not forgotten about you, but He is “perfecting that which concerns you” (Psalm 138:8). He’s got the whole world in His hands – and that includes you Beloved.

Why Doesn’t the World Want Jesus?

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I’m mystified as to why people don’t want Jesus. I mean, who doesn’t want joy, peace, hope, and eternal life? Why do people reject the love and grace of God? Why do they refuse to receive the beautiful message of the Gospel? It makes no sense.

Then I read in Exodus, about the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt. When Moses and Aaron delivered the Lord’s message: “Let my people go” (Ex 5:1), Pharaoh instead made their work even harder. Moses tried to encourage the Israelites, telling them that God would set them free from their bondage, give them a land of their own, and most importantly, He would be their God. The Scripture says, “They did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage” (Ex 6:9).
Why does the world reject God? Because they are under bondage to Satan. They have no hope because they are over-burdened by a cruel taskmaster. They don’t understand the beauty of God’s offer because their minds are numbed by discouragement from the devil. Matthew said, “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36).   Jesus saw the hopelessness of the people and He felt great pity. Not hate, not disgust, not judgment. He felt the weight of their bondage and it broke His heart.
Maybe – just a thought here – but maybe Jesus is showing us the better way to reach the lost world. Maybe compassion rather than pointing fingers is the way to lead people to Christ. I’m not talking about the world’s humanitarian efforts to ease suffering, although caring for physical needs must be part of our ministry in the world. I  am talking about the love of God that cares about the body and the eternal soul. I’m talking about the kind of compassion that gives a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name (Matthew 10:42). Because the lost world is under bondage and they cannot even envision freedom.  Satan continually tells them how helpless they are and how hopeless their situation is. Genuine Christian compassion can loosen their chains so God’s mercy can set them free.

Will you be His conduit of love and grace so that heavy hearts may be open to life without chains?  It was His compassion that saved you, Beloved, will you share that compassion so others might be saved too?

Pointing Fingers

“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do good, but I cannot carry it out” Romans 7:18
One of the biggest challenges of being a Bible teacher is the tension between expressing what the Bible says about sin and recognizing my own sinful nature. How can I stand before a class or post something I’ve written that tells others “how to live” when I fail so often in my own walk? Who do I think I am?
That’s why I find great comfort in Paul’s letters. Paul addresses every kind of sin we can imagine – sexual sin, lying, stealing, hate, laziness, idolatry, marital unfaithfulness, abuse, self-centeredness, drunkenness, and yes even gluttony (Ouch!). He is very outspoken about sin and points a finger wherever he sees it. But he also points a finger back at himself. Paul frequently admits his own human failure to walk the walk of which he talks. In Romans 7, he laments this all too common push-and-pull of righteousness vs. sin. “What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (v. 15). “The evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (v. 19). From Paul’s words, we realize that the sinful nature we inherited from Adam constantly “wages war” against our new nature in Christ (v. 23).
So what do we – as those called to share the gospel and the truth of righteousness – do with that conflict? First, we stop focusing on ourselves. That’s a guarantee to keep failing. Instead, we follow Paul’s example and shift our focus upward. He wrapped up his lament, by recognizing his failure: “What a wretched man I am!” He admitted his need for a savior: “Who will rescue me from the body of death?” Then he rejoiced in the goodness and faithfulness of God: “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24-25).
You and I are part of the fallen human race, and even though we have trusted in Christ as our Savior, we still fall to our sinful nature. Satan would have us languish there in self-hatred. But we are no longer under the sentence of condemnation (Romans 8:1). We have been rescued and redeemed. When we focus on Jesus we live more in the freedom of our new nature and less in the bondage of our sin. Yes, Beloved, you will still fail – but thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord – you don’t have to stay there!

Rock the Boat!

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When I read in the Scriptures about the early church, I’m jealous. They had such an incredible experience witnessing “many wonders and miraculous signs” (Acts 2:43).  I long for the sense of purpose and community that they had: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (v.42). They met daily and “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God (v. 46). And He blessed them greatly: “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47). What an exciting, fulfilling time to “belong to the Way” (9:2). Even the community outside of the faith appreciated them, “they enjoyed the favor of all the people” (47).

Well maybe not everyone.

After healing a man who had been crippled from birth, Peter and John proclaimed the gospel to the astonished crowd.  A great number of people believed and that angered the Jewish authorities. They questioned the apostles who then boldly proclaimed the name of Jesus to them. They commanded Peter and John to stop teaching in His name. Their response? “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (4:19-20). Later they arrested and flogged them. Remarkably, they rejoiced at their mistreatment “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (5:17-41)

How very different from our modern, western culture, where religion is regarded as a personal preference and not a life-giving entity. In the US the battle cry is “separation of church and state,” and in our workplaces, schools, the public square, even among our peers, we are told to keep our religion to ourselves. Unlike the bold apostles, we do it because we don’t want to rock the boat. But true Christianity is all-or-nothing. It spills over into every aspect of our lives because “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” We’ll gladly take the scorn of the world for the Name. Besides, it’s only going to get worse, not better. Beloved, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, it’s time to not only rock the boat but get out of it and walk on the water.

Hebrews: Do You Need Some Rest?

My sleeping angel, Joy.

I kept my phone close, anticipating a call about a test I had undergone. Cancer took my mom away too soon – and I knew that increased my risk. The call finally came late in the afternoon. “The images were clear. There was no sign of cancer.” Relief filled my heart and that night I got some much-needed rest.  But what if I decided the doctor was wrong? What if I doubted the results? What if I continued to worry and toss and turn at night?

The writer of Hebrews drew from the Psalmist’s recollection of the Israelite’s in the wilderness and God’s declaration that this unbelieving people “Shall never enter my rest” (Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 3:11; 4:3). At the threshold of the Promised Land, Moses sent out twelve spies into Canaan to explore the territory and assess the inhabitants from a military standpoint. They returned with a glowing report of “the land of milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27), and an alarming report of the people they would have to defeat to take the land. They said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are!” (13:31) The people grumbled and wanted to turn back to Egypt – to slavery. Only Joshua and Caleb urged them to trust the Lord and proceed – and only Joshua and Caleb survived God’s judgment.  Because of their unbelief, the whole company would wander for forty years until the last of the unbelieving generation fell in the desert.

The author used them as an example of people who “had the gospel . . . but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith” (Hebrews 4:2).  Faith, as the Bible uses it means belief and trust – with the implication that actions based on that trust will follow. Faith is not just ethereal thoughts – it is acting with confidence in what God has said. The Israelites heard about the Promised Land, but they doubted they could get the victory so they gave up on God’s rest. When the gospel is declared some will have faith and some will not. Some will rest in the promise of salvation and eternal life and some will live in hopelessness and anxiety.  The author adds, “Now we who have believed enter that rest . . .” (4:3a).

Beloved, are you weary? There is rest for those who trust in Jesus. Today and eternally.

Tell Them About Jesus

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Paul covered over ten thousand miles on his missionary journeys and spoke about Jesus all along the way. One significant place Paul visited was Athens, Greece. What he discovered there could be said about almost any city in the world today.  He found much curiosity about religion, but no commitment to God. The city was full of idols and temples of worship to pagan gods. All of them. To make sure they didn’t miss any of them they had created an altar with the inscription: “To An Unknown God” (Acts 17:23). Luke said Paul was “greatly distressed” (v. 16) and rightly so because satan had established a powerful stronghold in Athens and people were being seduced away from God. Satan’s hold on the world should distress God’s people. We should love people so much that we hate everything that keeps them from God.

The church today has taken a “live and let live” attitude towards the world. “If they don’t want to believe in God, it’s their life. Let them do whatever they want.” Does that sound like the heart of a God who would send His Son to die for lost souls? Charles Spurgeon said, “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.”

Paul said, “We are Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). The church – that’s you and me – has been called to care about the lost world. No, we can’t save them, but we can share the gospel and pray for them to be saved.

I love serving the Body of Christ but I confess I haven’t been faithful to this ambassadorship. It’s not that I don’t care, but I get caught up in my own life and my own issues, and – honest statement here – I don’t have the sense of urgency that should compel me.  I think that’s true for most of us. So I’m praying for a heart to share Christ with lost souls. Because I once was one, and somebody cared enough about me to tell me about Jesus. Beloved, let’s pass that legacy on.

God Knows Your Heart

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My friend had been trying for 20 minutes to explain why she kept doing something she knew was a sin. She honestly wanted to put this thing behind her, but she kept going back to it like a drug. We’d had this discussion many times over the years.  She stayed in this continuous cycle of sin and defeat. “I guess I’m just weak,” she sighed. “In my heart, I want to do better, isn’t that good enough?” “After all,” she said with a shrug, “God knows my heart.”
I threw out one of those breath-prayers, took her by the hand, and said, “Yes sweet friend, God knows your heart – that’s why He sent you a Savior.”
God does know our hearts. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:15). God knows that in its natural state “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9). He knows that our hearts are very human and prone to mislead us by our own desires (James 1:14). It’s why we struggle to break away from sins that we cherish (Psalm 66:18).  It’s why the devil has such a grip on the world – because sin, at its core, is not so much a matter of what you and I do but what our hearts desire. Our actions will always follow our hearts. And there’s only room in our hearts for one. If our hearts desire what the world offers, we will not desire God.

But there is hope for the human heart. He is the divine Savior, Jesus. He knows your heart and mine and He came to redeem our hearts through His death on the cross. Covered by the blood of the Son of God our hard, stone hearts can become living flesh again (Ezekiel 36:26).

Beloved, God knows your heart – does your heart know Him?