Give Thanks

On this Thanksgiving Day I am drawn to 1 Chronicles 16:41: “With them were  . . . those chosen and designated by name to give thanks to the Lord, ‘for His love endures forever.’” Let me set the scene for you.  The Ark of the Covenant, the one element of the tabernacle that was God’s special seat, had been captured by Israel’s enemy, the Philistines.  David set out to bring the Ark home, and the people and their king were ecstatic. They celebrated the return of the Ark with sacrifices, offerings, praise, and joyful thanks. David crafted a beautiful Psalm of Thanks, which I encourage you to read in its entirety (1 Chronicles 16:7-36).

After the Ark was securely in its place in the tabernacle, David chose a group of priests to minister daily before the Lord, “To present burnt offerings . . . morning and evening, in accordance with . . .the Law” (v. 40). That was a crucial position in the spiritual life of the nation. But look again at verse 41.  Do you see that there were specific priests who were “chosen…to give thanks to the Lord”?  Their sole responsibility was to express gratitude to the Lord who was again dwelling among His people. They led the Israelites in exclamations of thanks with trumpets and cymbals and sacred songs. Theirs was a sacred responsibility.

Did you know that you and I are chosen by God to be His royal priests?  Peter said, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Pet 2:9). Jesus has provided the sacrifice, so the only priestly duty that is left is thanksgiving.  We have been chosen to lead our families, churches, communities, and nations in gratitude to the God who created us, sustains us, provides for us, and, most importantly, saved us.  We have been chosen to be thankful people. In the days of King David, the Ark was the assurance of God’s presence with His people, and they were grateful for His return. Today we have God’s presence in the indwelling Holy Spirit – and no one can take Him away. He will always be with us. And one day we will forever be with Him. Now that, Beloved, is something to be thankful for.

Hebrews: A Sacrifice of Praise

Several years ago I had a serious mental and emotional crash. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. I descended into a pit of depression and despair that was so deep I thought I would never see the sun again. Oh, I continued to go to church every Sunday and stood with the congregation during praise and worship. But I couldn’t sing. I wept. One day as I was driving, Crowder’s song, “Oh Praise Him” came on the radio. I felt a nudge in my spirit, “Sing child.” “I can’t” I replied, as tears began to burn my eyes. “Sing anyway.” So I choked out the first chorus, “Oh, praise Him. O praise Him. He is holy. He is holy.” I kept singing – or croaking – to be honest. But by the end of that song, I was singing clearly, “Oh, la, la, la, la, la, la” with tears streaming down my face. That was the day my healing began.

The author of Hebrews wrote, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His name” (Heb 13:15). I understand this verse. Sometimes praise is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Remember, this was written to Jewish believers in Christ who were facing extreme oppression and persecution for their faith. Many were turning away from Christ and abandoning the faith because it was just getting too hard. The author implored them to instead offer praise to God in their suffering, even if it came at a high cost.

I won’t deny that life is hard and pain is real. But God is still worthy of praise. He is still good. He is still sovereign. He is still awesome in power. He is still holy. And He is with us in our pain. David said, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted . . .” (Ps 34:18). If that’s you today, let me assure you that God is near. He has not abandoned you in your heartache. He has tenderly drawn you close. If you’re still you can feel His breath ruffling your hair. If you listen you can hear His heart beating. Then you may hear Him say, “Sing, child.” I know. It’s not easy. But sing anyway Beloved, even if all you can do is whisper through your tears. He’ll hear you. He’s not listening to your words; He’s listening to your heart.

Hebrews: Outside the Camp

“We’re New Testament Christians, why are we studying the Old Testament? This stuff doesn’t apply to us anymore.” “One reason,” I answered “is because the New Testament writers used it quite a bit in their books and letters.  If we want to understand what they were saying, we need to understand their references.” That’s what we’re going to do in today’s passage.

“The high priest carried the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp” (Heb 13:11). It was Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish year. The day when the sins of the nation were atoned for. It was a day for fasting and prayer and confession. It was the day that the slate was wiped clean and the people were declared righteous – at least until they sinned again.  The high priest took the blood of the slaughtered animal into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle/Temple as a sin offering and sprinkled it on the mercy seat of the Lord. The carcass of the animal would be carried outside of the camp/city to be burned because it represented the sin of the people. Sin must not be allowed to remain among God’s holy nation.

The writer makes the new covenant connection in verse 12: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His own blood.” Jesus was the sacrificial animal. Jesus’ blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Lord. And Jesus was crucified and buried outside of the city of Jerusalem because He bore the sin of all humanity. And by His blood, those who believe and receive His atonement are made holy.

An interesting aside here is that the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus and had Him crucified at Golgotha because of His radical message. But by putting Him outside of the city proper they were unknowingly confirming that He was indeed the sacrifice for the sins of the people. Because his original audience was believing Jews, the writer urged them to “go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore,” symbolically rejecting the old ways of Judaism (v. 13).

As believers in Christ, you and I will often have to “go outside the camp” of popular opinion and cultural relevance, even within the church, to live in holiness. But we’re in good company. We’re out there with Jesus. Remember what He said: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18).

Oh, and there’s one more reason why we need to study the Old Testament, even as New Testament Christians – because Jesus is all over it and all in it. It’s worth digging into the early texts to know Him better. All of history, including the entire Bible, is His story. It’s the greatest story ever told.

Praying for My Prodigal

I found a word today in the Old Testament story of Elijah vs. the priests of Baal that spoke such comfort to me. If you are so inclined, read 1 Kings 18:16-40. The people thought they could worship both pagan gods and the God of heaven and earth. Elijah called Israel to return to exclusive worship of God. When the Lord God is in the house – or the heart – there is no room for another god. Elijah said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (v. 21).

Elijah proposed a showdown between good and evil – between the Lord God and Baal the pagan god of the people. Each would be given a bull to be sacrificed by fire, but the fire had to be produced by the deity. The priests of Baal prepared their bull and called on Baal from morning till evening. They danced and shouted and slashed themselves in hopes of rousing their god to action. “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention” (v. 29). Because there was no one there.

Then Elijah repaired the altar of the Lord, dug a trench around it, prepared the bull for sacrifice, and commanded the people to drench the bull and the wood until both were saturated and water filled the trench. Then Elijah called on the Lord, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known today that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant . . . [and] that You O Lord, are God” (v. 36-37). And of course, God answered in a mighty way burning up the bull and the wood and drying up the water in the trench. There was no question anymore as to who was the one true God.

Here’s what jumped out at me. When Elijah called on the Lord he prayed that God would “turn their hearts back again” (v. 37). And He did. And that is the prayer of this Mama’s heart. I have a wandering prodigal. I know many of you do as well. The thing is he was raised in a godly home and in church and he even goes to church with his family on Sunday, but he is drawn to things that are not of God Monday – Saturday. I have prayed and pleaded with God for many years with many tears. But now, this is my simple prayer: “Lord, turn his heart back to You.” And I believe He will. Heavy-hearted Moms and Dads, Grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and friends; keep praying. Keep believing. Keep hoping. God is still in the business of turning hearts around. Watch for miracles up ahead.

Hebrews: Who Will You Follow?

Today we’re looking at one of those verses folks love to lift out of its context and make it say something quite different on its own. Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” I understand the church’s application as a condemnation of lifestyles that were once rightfully regarded as sinful and are now accepted and even celebrated in many denominations. What God once called sin is still sin today. He hasn’t changed his mind to fit the culture. But that’s really not what this verse is all about. 

The message of the whole book of Hebrews is “Don’t abandon Christ.” From the first chapter to the last, the writer has declared that Jesus is the only way to redemption and eternal life and any other way is a lie that leads straight to hell. He is encouraging his audience to stay with the One who is superior to the angels, greater than Moses, whose ministry was more effective than the priests, who was made like men but wholly unlike men, who presented Himself as the perfect sacrifice and was the object of the faith of their past heroes. “You started with Christ,” the author says, “you must stay with Him to the end.”

So, let’s put this verse back in its original context. Verse 7 indicates that the leaders they had followed had died and they likely felt adrift now. But they were not without a holy and righteous example. They had Jesus Christ who “is the same yesterday and today and forever.” I followed the cross-reference back to Psalm 102:25-27 which declares the eternal nature of God – not only that He lives forever, but He is the same forever.

The Church has been rocked in recent years by very public Christians who have abandoned their faith and “deconstructed.” A powerful apologist and evangelist was posthumously accused of living a sinful life that belied his testimony and teaching. A popular female Bible teacher has shaken her followers recently by changing her personal religious affiliations and taking an unbiblical stance.  Even our beloved local pastors are human – and fallible. So is this Bible teacher. If I haven’t disappointed you yet, stick around. That’s why I want to always and only point you to Jesus Christ. You can follow Him with confidence that He was and is and will forever be faithful and true. Men (and women) will almost certainly let you down. But you really can trust Jesus, Beloved. All the way through eternity.

Just Tell Them About Jesus

Several years ago we made a trip to North Carolina for the wedding of our son in the faith. We rented a car and my husband was excited to find it had built-in GPS. I, however, was not as thrilled. I didn’t trust that thing. Now I depend on mine like a man depends on oxygen, but this was my first personal encounter with one. Fearing it would fail us, I printed out turn-by-turn directions from MapQuest as a “back-up.” All was fine until we got into Tennessee. My directions wanted to take us one way and the GPS wanted to go another. I expressed my concerns forcefully and my husband reluctantly followed my directions. Big mistake. Instead of bypassing Chattanooga, we ended up going right through it and adding time to our trip we could have avoided. Hubby stopped for gas outside of the city and threw my printed directions away. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Do not attempt to use MapQuest to second-guess the GPS. Frustration will follow.

Including in our faith life. Paul confronted the church in Galatia saying, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Gal 3:1). Someone had come to these believers and preached “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all” causing confusion and “perverting the gospel of Christ” (1:7). Paul’s gospel was simple: Christ was crucified to redeem man from sin and death. He alone gives life to all who believe in Him. The infiltrators were insisting that salvation required adherence to the Mosaic law of circumcision. Paul said, “No!” These are “human commands and teachings that are destined to fail” (Col 2:21-22).

The current version of Christianity tells us we have to say all the right things, think only positive, affirming thoughts, keep a smile on our face, have perfectly behaved kids, and know all the correct church lingo to “prove” our place in God’s people. It’s time to stop. Stop all the rules and expectations and get back to the sweet simplicity of the gospel of Christ Jesus who gave His life to set us free – nothing more and nothing less. Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient to save. There is nothing you or I can add to make it better.

I’m convinced that the world refuses to listen to the church today because we’re still all about the “dos and don’ts.” But they will listen to the gospel. Just give them Jesus, Beloved. That’s all the world needs.

Hebrews: By faith Abraham . . .

“Abraham! Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love . . . and sacrifice him as a burnt offering . . . (Genesis 22:1-2).

As I meditate on Hebrews 11:17-19 (grab your Bible and read it) two questions come to mind: Why would God make such a horrific demand of Abraham and why would Abraham obey it? As I pondered those questions, two points emerge about Abraham and Isaac’s story.

To the first question, the author says that “God tested [Abraham],” (v. 17) and, as He often does, the Spirit whispered in my heart: “what does that mean?” The word “tested” actually has two meanings: to temp or to examine. How can you know which is happening? The difference is in the tester’s purpose: the devil tempts that the believer might fail God’s standards of faith and sin; God tests that He might determine and sharpen true character, with no desire of making the believer fail. God was examining Abraham’s willingness to obey Him, even in the most difficult requests.  Sometimes it’s difficult to understand who’s behind the test, but the way through is always the same. Keep your eyes on Jesus and your heart firmly planted in the Word. In either case, you will emerge with deeper roots of faith and a testimony of God’s power and goodness.

As to Abraham’s part, I never understood how he could willingly sacrifice his son until I studied his story alongside this Hebrews passage and Romans 4:18 – 20: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed . . . he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God.”  Did you catch it? Abraham believed the promise because of Who made it. He fully expected that God would still build a nation through Isaac and that meant Isaac would have to live. In his reasoning, he expected God to raise Isaac from the dead after the deed was done. But God stayed his hand at the last moment and provided a replacement sacrifice instead. The point is that Abraham’s faith was not in the promise – it was in the Promise-maker. And so must ours be.

Those are two solid truths you can build your life upon. God will never test you to make you fail and He will never make a promise He doesn’t intend to keep. Abraham is known for his great faith. Beloved, are you? Am I?

Do You Know Jesus?

I recently saw a meme that said, “I follow Jesus, not the Bible.” But the Bible is where you will find everything you need to know about Jesus.

He is the Seed of the woman who will one day crush the head of Satan and the Passover Lamb. He is the great high priest and the perfect sacrifice, the Prophet and the Captain of the Lord’s army.  He is the Deliverer and our Kinsman Redeemer and the King in the line of David. He is the Restorer of Jerusalem, the Shepherd, and the Source of all wisdom.  He is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and Suffering Servant. He is the Man acquainted with sorrows and the one who brings life to dry bones. He is the Ancient of Days, a faithful Husband, Source of Hope, Judge, Preacher, Mighty Savior, and the Son of Righteousness.

Matthew declared Him as the long-awaited Messiah and the fulfillment of prophecy. Mark showed that He was the King with power and authority over every realm. Luke proclaimed Him as the Son of God full of compassion and mercy.  John said that Jesus “was the Word” made “flesh” and the “true light” and the “One and Only” from the Father (John 1:1, 14, 9, 14, respectively). And throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is revealed as “the Bread of Life” (6:48), “the Light of the world” (8:12), “the Door” and “the Good Shepherd” (10:9,11), “the Resurrection and the Life” (11:25), “the Way and the Truth and the Life” (14:6), and “the true Vine” (15:1). Paul said Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) and the writer of Hebrews said that “the Son is . . . the exact representation of [God’s] being. In other words, when you see these truths about Jesus, you are seeing God. What we know about Him from the Scriptures is enough to change our lives forever.

The Lord posed the most important question when He asked, “Who do you say I am?” (Matt 16:15). You need to know the right answer, Beloved. Your eternal destiny depends on it.  You will only find Him on the pages of Holy Writ. I encourage you to pick up a Bible and meet the Son of God. It’s the most wonderful discovery you’ll ever make.

Hebrews: Don’t Reject the Living God

I really didn’t want to belabor this point any longer in our study of Hebrews, but the author does, and so, then, will we. What point? The danger of rejecting God. And he’s not speaking to the lost world, he’s talking to those who have professed Christ then turned away from Him. This is not exactly a pleasant passage and I’m sure you’re tired of this topic, but it was an important message for first-century Christians and even more so for us in the twenty-first century. The number of “Christians” who are denouncing and “deconstructing” their faith is astonishing – and it’s exactly what the Bible says we can expect as the end draws near.

The writer first pointed back to the law of Moses which was a non-negotiable for God’s people. A Jew who was convicted of rejecting God’s law was subject to death without mercy. Do we think He will be any gentler with those who reject His Son? He asked, “How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him?” (Hebrews 10:29). They despised the grace of God in Christ and threw it out as if it was nothing more than dung. As you might imagine, that “insults [or grieves] the Spirit of grace.”

The writer then pointed to the judgment of God. His people will be received into His presence. His enemies will face judgment and wrath. Who is God’s enemy? Anyone who rejects His grace. The author said, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (v. 31). The hand of God can be a soft and gracious thing, or it can be as hard as steel – the choice is yours.  God’s grace is free, but it wasn’t cheap – it cost God His one and only Son. Please, Beloved, don’t throw it all away. Without Jesus, there’s nothing left.

Hebrews: The Living Way

In our last Hebrews devotional, we talked about the confidence we have to come to the Lord with all our needs and concerns – all because of the blood of Jesus (Heb 10:19). The author went on to call Jesus’ sacrifice “a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body . . .” (v. 20).  There is so much here, we could spend days unpacking this one verse. The old covenant was built on the sacrifices of dead animals, whose blood had been drained away. But Jesus shed His blood on the cross and rose from the dead – He is a living sacrifice and a living Savior. And He is The Way (John 14:6) – the only way – to the Father.

But I want to focus your attention on “the curtain, which the writer says is “His body.” Picture Jesus on the cross, his hair matted with blood, His body beaten and broken, life draining from the holes in his hands and feet and side. And as death begins to crush the life out of Him, an unseen hand reaches down from heaven, into the Temple, and tears the tall, heavy curtain in two – from the top down (Matt. 27:51). The curtain had long separated sinful man from holy God. Now the perfect blood sacrifice had been given and God Himself tore the curtain and opened the Way into His presence.

Do you see the beauty here in Jesus’ broken body and the torn curtain? For centuries there was separation between God and man. But through the blood of Jesus, we are invited to “draw near” and “approach the throne of grace” (James 10:22; 4:16). Paul confirms that we have been reconciled to God in his great doxology: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword. I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35, 37-39).

Do you know who Paul was talking to? You, Beloved. The one scrolling through this devotional on your phone. God loves you. Jesus died for you. If you trust in Him, there is nothing – not even your sin – that will keep you from God.