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?

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.

The Rescue Plan

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Some themes have become so familiar in the Christian world that we speak them and receive them without a second thought. Things like: “God helps those who help themselves.” Now, I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover many times over and I tell you for certain, it’s not in there. Or how about, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Again, I’ve never found that in the Bible and  I can tell you from my own life, it ain’t so.  I heard another one recently that always comes around at Christmas and Easter, this human idea that God looked down from heaven and saw mankind in bondage to sin and death and sent His son in response. While it certainly expresses God’s heart of mercy for His creation, it’s not exactly the truth.

How do I know that? Because the Bible says that Jesus is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Before man could ever cry out for redemption, the Redeemer had already paid the price. What in the world does that mean? Well, it’s not a worldly concept at all, it’s the divine plan created in heaven before God scooped up a handful of dust – even before He said, “Let there be light.” Jesus was always meant to come to earth as a tiny baby and live a perfect, sinless life, and die an undeserved and cruel death.  He was always meant to lie in a tomb for three days and heaven never doubted that He would rise again, because that was the plan all along. Christmas and Easter were not God’s knee-jerk reaction to our predicament.

We also need to understand that time in the heavenly realm is not like time here on earth. God sees the end and the beginning all at the same time because He is the sovereign Lord of Heaven and Earth – and time. His plan wasn’t something that had to unfold from heaven’s perspective, though it took thousands of years to accomplish on earth. It was already a done deal. When the Father gazed at the Baby in the manger he saw the man on the cross. And so should we.

Aren’t you glad that He didn’t wait for you to cry out from the pit before He set a rescue plan in place? He planned it long before you needed it. That should give you great hope, Beloved. God had you in mind all along.

Dance Anyway

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David danced before the Lord with all his might.” 2 Samuel 6:14

Deep within the soul of a little girl beats the heart of a dancer. When she was very small she would twirl around the room making her skirt billow out wide, curls bouncing as her feet leapt with the joy in her heart. But sometimes life can just knock the breath—and the joy—right out of us. We start out well, full of dreams and enthusiasm, but real-life struggles and heartaches come along and we find those dreams fading and our excitement waning.

Perhaps you are not a dancer at heart, but you have a God-given desire to step into something that would bring Him great glory, yet you also have a past that has weighed you down with shame and regret. You think, “I can’t dance (or sing or write, or whatever that desire is), people know my past and they will not approve.” My friend that is the very reason you need to tie on your ballet slippers.

King David tried to return the Ark of God to Jerusalem after it had been captured in battle. But his first attempt was a humiliating failure. At his second attempt David celebrated, “dancing and leaping before the Lord,” and his wife chastised him saying, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would” (v. 20). Sound like some voices you’ve heard lately? David replied: “It was before the Lord [that I danced]” (v. 21). He didn’t care what she thought because God was glorified in David’s dance.

Why do we think we can’t live for the glory of God when we have made mistakes – that we have to sit down when we’ve stumbled in life? Everyone out there has made mistakes. If we all sat out the dance because of the mistakes we’ve made, no one would ever dance again. And that is all the more reason why we should– to show the world that Jesus forgives and restores and makes life worth living again.

Beloved, someone else has stumbled over the same rock that brought you down; let them know they can get back up again. Celebrate before the Lord with all your might. The world doesn’t need to see you dancing out of perfection, they need to see you dancing out of redemption.

Morning Prayer

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You give life where death once ruled.

You give hope in the midst of turmoil, and peace during the storm.

You give assurance in the face of doubts.

You give wisdom when we are bewildered, and strength when we are weak.

You give sweet rest for the weary, welcome to the lonely, and Joy to those who have been trampled by life.

You give cleansing for the stains of sin and redeem all we once thought was lost.

Lord, You are life and love, light and hope, joy and peace.

Oh that my heart would always stay fixed on You.

God teach me to abide in You, until that day when I abide with you for eternity.

The Ministry of Experience

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Ever done anything foolish in your life? Yeah, me too. What do we do with the failures of our past? We put them in God’s hands so that others can benefit from our hard-earned wisdom. I believe that’s what Paul meant when he said, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). As survivors redeemed by Christ we reach back and help someone else who is fighting the same battle. Why is AA so powerful? Because it is built on experience and a shared struggle. It is one person who has found freedom from addiction walking alongside someone who is trying to break free.

I can minister to a child who is bullied by her peers, to a teenager suffering sexual abuse, to a woman abandoned by her husband, to a person who struggles with depression, to someone battling anxiety and fear, to a mom with a wayward child, to a couple who has lost everything, but most of all, I can reach out to someone suffering the consequences of their own foolish actions because I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt to prove it. And because I have the grace of God to show how He ministered to me in the midst of it all.

It is the deepest belief of my heart that God will take what the enemy meant to harm me and turn it into a means of blessings for others. When I allow God to turn my misery into ministry, Satan loses.  Then I can say with Joseph, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

This is how we redeem our foolish past—we take our experiences, our failures, and our sins to the table and say to another struggling soul, “I know where you are, I understand what you’re feeling and I will walk with you until you are free in Christ.” Beloved, don’t let the enemy bury you in shame. Let God use you and your scars to turn mistakes into ministry and heartbreak into hope.

Hebrews: Faith in God

In June of 1995, British actor Hugh Grant was arrested in Los Angeles, California for hiring a prostitute for a sexual encounter. After a few weeks of hiding out with his PR people, Grant went on an “apology tour,” which famously led to an appearance with Jay Leno who called the actor out. Grant sheepishly said, “I think you know in life, pretty much, what’s a good thing to do and what’s a bad thing. I did a bad thing, and there you have it.” Come to think of it, Grant acknowledged his “bad thing,” but never apologized for it.

It’s one thing to be sorry for our actions. Lots of people have apologized publically and privately for things said and done (or not said and not done). Lots of people have even prayed for forgiveness, but few follow that prayer with “faith in God” (Hebrews 6:1).  In our last Hebrews study, we talked about “repentance from acts that lead to death.”  We defined repentance as a spiritual and moral change of attitude toward God which turns an individual from sin to God.  And we pointed out that true repentance must have both sorrow and turning.  If repentance is turning away, faith in God is turning to. Repentance for the Jewish readers of this message was turning away from the Law as a means of righteousness and turning to God through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.

But I’m pretty sure the vast majority of you reading this devotional are, like me, not Jewish. We’ve never been a slave to the Mosaic Law. So what does this mean for us?  The same thing. It means we must come to God with both a sincere heart of repentance and faith in God through the work of Christ.  It is saying, my old way of life, my selfish, self-centered, it’s-all-about-me attitude is wrong and the ways of God are right. It’s saying I am a slave to sin and I cannot redeem myself, but I trust that God can through His Son.  And remember, the writer contends that this is an “elementary, foundational teaching.”

I love to expound on things in Scripture, to take you deep into the truth of God’s Word and help you grow, but you and I have to get this right first. Beloved, “today is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Have you, will you, turn away from sin and turn to faith in God through Jesus Christ?

Hebrews: Why Did Jesus Come?

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Over the past several weeks in Hebrews, we’ve focused on eight theological reasons why God sent His Son from glory to this sinful earth. Let’s put them all together for a recap.

  1. God sent Jesus to “bring many sons to glory” (v. 10). To bring lost human beings – now redeemed – into His eternal family.
  2. He sent Jesus to earth to “Make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering” (v. 10b). Remember that “perfect” means complete and doesn’t imply that Jesus was every imperfect. His role as “the author of [our] salvation” was completed by his suffering on the cross.
  3. Jesus came so that He could present us to God as “the children God has given me” (v. 13). Children who were set apart for Him and transformed into His own image.
  4. God sent Jesus to “destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil” v. 14). Jesus came to fulfill God’s first promise “to crush the head” of the devil (Genesis 3:15).
  5. In destroying the devil, Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (v. 15). As children of God, we do not fear the end of this life because we know that we have eternal life with Him in heaven forever.
  6. God sent Jesus to be for us “a merciful and faithful high priest” (v. 17). He is the only high priest who does not need to make atonement for His own sins before He can atone for ours.
  7. As our high priest, Jesus came to “make atonement for the sins of the people” (v. 17b). By His death, He made us “at one” with God as we were “me[a]nt” to be.
  8. God sent Jesus “to help those who are being tempted” (v. 18).  He suffered from the same demonic temptation you and I face. He understands and He is able and more than willing to help us.

All of this comes back to one core reason God sent Jesus to earth: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God loves His creation. He wants to redeem sinful humans and restore the relationship for which we were created. He did that through His Son. He did that for you and me. Beloved, God gave the most precious thing in heaven to save you forever. Because He loves you.

Hebrews: The Atoning Work of Jesus

Nothing but the Blood of Jesus - Lyrics, Hymn Meaning and Story

Last night I let my granddaughter play in the bathtub with washable paint. When it was time to get out she looked around and announced, “I made a mess!” I replied, “Yes, you made a pretty mess, but we can clean it up,” as I grabbed the pop-up wipes. She wanted to help clean up, but with her still paint-covered fingers she just spread the red paint even more. I had to clean her up before we could finish cleaning the bathtub.

The author of Hebrews identified yet another reason that God sent Jesus to earth – “That He might make atonement for the sins of the people” (2:17b). That’s not a common word in the non-Jewish church today, but it’s the heart and soul of Jesus’ ministry. Atonement is the work of Jesus on the cross by which our sins are forgiven. I don’t know about you, but I have a lot for which I need forgiveness. I am grateful to the depths of my soul for God’s mercy on this wretched sinner. But atonement provides even more. It also allows for reconciliation between God and sinners.

I unknowingly did something awful to a friend once. It broke her heart, and when I realized what I did it broke mine too. I begged for her forgiveness and she gave it, but she said she could never be my friend again. I was forgiven but still shut out. Atonement provides both forgiveness and reconciliation. Through Jesus, you and I are clean before God and we are welcomed as His beloved child.

We’ve made a mess of our lives with sin, and like Joy in the bathtub, the more we try to clean ourselves up, the bigger the mess becomes. Only the atoning blood of Jesus can wash away all our sins and allow us to stand before God in a righteous state. I love the definition of “atonement” that I heard in a children’s sermon: “at one ment.” Through Jesus’ sacrifice we are “at one” with God – as we were “me[a]nt to be.”

Beloved, are you at one with God?

Hebrews – God speaks

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Hebrews is one of the most challenging books of the Bible for contemporary Christians. It is full of references that would be familiar to a Jewish-Christian congregation but less so for you and me. To grasp the author’s original intent, we will be dipping frequently into the book of Leviticus to understand the many references to the Old Testament sacrificial system. Don’t worry, it won’t be boring!

The most prominent subject in Hebrews is Jesus.  His Name – and names (more than twenty) –  and roles are the core of this message. There are also significant warnings we’ll discuss, warnings that may not sit too comfortably with the 21st-century church. But we will be faithful to the Scriptures and will sprinkle no sugar on the text to make it go down easier.

Hebrews opens with the reminder that God has been speaking faithfully for a very long time.

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways,” (Hebrews 1:1). The forefathers would be Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their descendants – the earliest generations of the Jewish people who would become the nation of Israel.  The prophets were men like Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and all the rest. 

In the days of the first humans, God communed and communicated with Adam and Eve, “walking in the Garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). Wouldn’t you love to hear those conversations? I like to imagine God telling them about how He created all the things they saw as they walked. I wonder if they laughed together over the platypus? But then along came a snake with an apple and the gentle conversations were over. From then on, the Lord God had to talk about sin and death. And, thankfully, redemption. The Bible tells the story of our Redeemer. With every word in the Scriptures,  God spoke about His Son, and then “in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:2a – emphasis added). And what the Son speaks is important. At the transfiguration, while Peter was rambling about booths, a bright cloud surrounded them, and “a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him.’” (Matthew 17:5). (When we finish Hebrews, we’re going to study the Red Letters.) John opened His gospel by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” . . . “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:1, 14).

This study of Hebrews is all about what God said in His Word – the Bible – and through His Word – Jesus. Are you ready to hear the Word of God speak, Beloved?