Hebrews: Grace to the End

And so we come to the end of Hebrews and fittingly the author says, “Brothers, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written you only a short letter” (Heb 13:22). It may have been “a short letter” (I’d hate to see his long letters) but we’ve been working through this book for 19 long months. We’ve examined Hebrews like a jeweler turning over a gemstone, marveling at its every facet. We’ve discussed a lot of deep doctrines and theology. We’ve pondered the humanity and deity of Jesus and His role as both our Great High Priest and the perfect sacrifice for our sins. We spent a lot of time in the Old Testament, looking at the law, the temple, and the lives of God’s faithful heroes of the past. We’ve covered some difficult passages, even some very controversial texts, and I’ve upset a few folks along the way. We’ve had our toes stepped on so much we wear boots every time we open our Bibles.

But like the unknown author, my intent with every devotional has been to give you a “word of exhortation” – to encourage you in your faith journey. Remember that the original recipients of this letter were Jewish believers who had transferred their confidence from the law to Jesus Christ. They trusted in the better sacrifice that came through the blood and body of the Son of God. But their faith put them under attack and some abandoned Jesus and returned to the law that could never save them. It was easier that way. Just like those who compromise their faith to get along with the culture today. But easier isn’t always best in the long run. And the long run is eternal.

After the good news of Timothy’s release and the author’s pending visit with their beloved brother, and after passing greetings back and forth, he writes a closing word that I offer to you as well. “Grace be with you all” (v. 25). Grace. The mercy and kindness of God which draws lost souls into an eternal love relationship through Christ Jesus. Grace saves us and keeps us. Grace strengthens us, and grows us up in faith, knowledge, and love. Grace moves us to live as Jesus lived and walk in all His ways. The grace of God brings us Joy, peace, hope, and sweetness. May His grace claim you, fill you, hold you, and delight you, Beloved. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

The Chasm

As this year comes to a close, I find myself wondering how much longer the human race can survive. With wars and violence and hatred and abuse all across the globe, and the rise of sexual perversion taking firm root in the culture. It seems we’ve turned right and wrong upside-down. But if you study the Bible you are not completely shocked. Isaiah prophesied a day when evil will be called good and good evil (Is 5:20).  Unless you’re living under a rock, you know we’re there – even in the church. Paul warned “The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim 4:3). We’ve seen this sad reality as every kind of sin has been welcomed and celebrated by the “church” in recent years. But where the line between “right and wrong” has been so blurred, it must become more clearly defined. The fence is getting to hot to sit on much longer.

Scripture tells us that the chasm between the people of God and the people of wickedness will get wider as the day draws near. And how does a chasm grow? Quakes and tremors deep in the earth. The same is true for the church. We are experiencing the “birth pains” of that chasm growing as faithful Christians are separating themselves from those on the side of wickedness. Again, if you know the Scriptures, you are not surprised. Daniel 12:10 says – “Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked.” And Jesus said, “Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right and let him who is holy continue to be holy.” (Rev. 22:11).

So what does that mean for you and me? We are the church. We are the Body of Christ. We must make a stand for what is right and true – but it must come from the conviction of our own hearts. It’s not enough to rant about the sin in the church or the world if we’re not ready to confess the sin in our lives.  Beloved, you and I must separate ourselves from sin and wickedness. The quakes and tremors have to start here. May we be a generation of faithful, holy people.

Look How Much You’ve Grown!

Joy has grown so much this last year. It’s obvious when you look at her. She’s taller and stronger. Her legs and arms are longer. Even her hair is longer. Her vocabulary is incredible, she doesn’t use baby talk and she annunciates her words very well. She can do more things for herself like spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. And she’s learning how to calm herself when she gets upset. (I hope she will teach me.) Potty training is still a work in progress, but I know she will get that too. One thing hasn’t changed – that mega-watt smile can still melt Nana’s heart. She’s a growing, beautiful, amazing little girl.

Which makes me wonder, how do we know that we’re growing spiritually? We don’t get taller, but we should see signs that mark spiritual maturity. Like Joy, our speech is a clear indication of growth. Jesus said it’s in our words. “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt 12:35). We talk about God and the things of God. We reject profanity and gossip and complaining (Eph 4:29; Phil 2:14).

It’s also seen in what we desire. Growing in God means we want the things that He wants and we are repulsed by the things that offend Him (Ps 40:8; Col 3:5). We look and act more like Jesus, which is God’s goal all along – “to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Rom 8:29). We are compassionate (2 Cor 1:3-4), kind and gentle (2 Tim 2:24-25), loving (1 Cor 13), self-controlled (1 Pet 1:13), and “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (Jas 1:19).

Perhaps the most visible sign of spiritual maturity is how we deal with sin in our lives. As spiritual babes, we sin and the Spirit convicts us of our sin. We confess, repent, and receive forgiveness. But we go back to it again. And we repeat the cycle, sometimes multiple times. The true evidence of spiritual growth is when we stop going back to our sin. When the Spirit helps us recognize the pattern and break the cycle, we’ve made a major step in spiritual maturity.

I look at myself and see some signs of growth as well as places where I’m still a toddler in Christ. You too? Growth comes when we take in the things that nurture our spirit, like God’s Word, fellowship with other believers, prayer, and resting in the Lord. And trust. Paul said, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil 1:6). God’s not going to give up on you, Beloved. Don’t give up on yourself.

How to (not)Resist Temptation

I love fall. I love the colors of the leaves (even though they don’t change here in the deep south). I love the cool, crisp bite of the morning air. I love back-to-school season. I love the ground carpeted with shed leaves. I love college football. I love to watch the harvesters at work in the fields, bringing their bounty to bless the world. Except for peanuts. Oh, I love to eat peanuts. But the nut is produced under the soil and the farmer has to turn the plants over to harvest the crop, which releases all kinds of things into the air – like mold – to which I am highly allergic. And I live in the peanut capital of the world. Achoo! And yet I keep the window in my study open to enjoy the aforementioned cool, crisp air. I know. That’s pretty stupid. Just like standing in the path of temptation.

The mainstay of Christian conviction has always been  “Resist temptation!”  But the Bible says we are to run from temptation.  We are told to “flee from sexual immorality” and “idolatry” (1 Corinthians 6:18; 10:14); “flee from greed [the love of money]” (1 Timothy 6:10,11); and “flee from evil desires” (2 Timothy 2:22).  Why flee? James said we are all “tempted when, by [our] own evil desire, [we] are dragged away and enticed” (1:14). Our evil desires are internal. We have to flee from temptation because it is tapping into those desires. That’s why you can’t stand in front of temptation and try to talk yourself out of it – you have to get away from it. If your flesh is agreeing with the thing in front of you, run. You are standing on dangerous ground.

I knew a man who drove six miles out of his way on his daily route just to avoid driving past a bar he used to frequent in his drinking days. He knew the desire was always in him so he detoured away from the temptation. He took Paul’s word to heart: “when you are tempted, [God] will provide a way out” (1 Corinthians 10:13). The way out for him was an alternative – if longer – route. A married woman quit her lucrative job to distance herself from a coworker to whom she was attracted. Another man gave up his smartphone with internet capabilities for a simple call-and-text-only phone to avoid the pull of pornography.

Jesus wants you and me to be victorious over temptation. He gave us His Holy Spirit to empower us to do just that. But we still have to put distance between ourselves and temptation. If I want to stop sneezing I’ve got to close the window. Beloved, If you want to stop falling into sin take the way out. Take the long way home. Change your job. Cancel the subscription. Change your phone. Cry out to Jesus for help. Then run.

Sing to the Lord!

For many years I sang in church choirs as an alto –in the lower female range. In one choir, I was seated with a soprano to my left, and a tenor and bass directly behind me on either side. Everyone was going in different vocal directions and I had the hardest time staying on my alto notes. Because the soprano was a strong singer, I was constantly being pulled in her direction. The choir director didn’t want to move me (he had us arranged aesthetically by height), but he did give me some advice. He told me to concentrate more on my note – and to lean just a little towards the alto to my right. He said that he could hear me singing the correct notes, but at the same time, he could tell that I was listening to all the other singers around me and losing confidence in myself. I will always remember what he told me, “You’re on the right notes, but you have to stay focused and not back off.”

I think about that often when the world is loud and I’m struggling to stay on the right way. Many different voices are saying many different things, and they are apt to draw me away from what I know is true. The culture wants me to embrace things that God’s Word has clearly forbidden. The scholar wants me to trade truth for worldly philosophies that have no regard for God. The unsaved world wants me to stop singing God’s praises altogether. My choir director’s advice rings loud and clear: stay focused. Concentrate on what you know is right and true; lean into godly wisdom and don’t back off. This world is becoming more evil and more vocal every day. If we are not intentionally listening to God, you and I will be pulled away from what is right and true. I love this word from Paul to his protégé Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of” (2 Timothy 3:14). Stay the course. Focus on the truth. Let God’s Word drown out the voices of the world. The way of righteousness has not changed just because the music around you has. Beloved, don’t let the world change your song.

The Man (or Woman) God Uses

“Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said, ‘Who am I, O Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?’” (2 Samuel 7:18).

Think you have nothing to offer to God and His kingdom? Do you believe that you’re too young or too old or have no gifts or talents? Sure you want to do great things for God, but you’re just a mom wiping dirty noses or a regular guy at a regular job, or a college student trying to get through finals. You’re in very good company, my friend!

A young woman had nothing to offer God but a loyal heart. She followed her mother-in-law home and did the most normal thing – she went out to gather grain to feed them both. But God interceded and Ruth became the great grandmother of God’s anointed King of Israel and part of the lineage of Jesus.

Esther had no influence in the politics of Persia – but she had courage. Because she stepped up and stepped into the King’s court, the Jewish people throughout the Persian empire were saved.

A young captive in a foreign land, Daniel had nothing of value. But he did have integrity. God used him to show His sovereignty and power to two of the greatest rulers in history: Nebuchadnezzar and Darius.

Jesus called twelve men from fishing boats and tax booths and used them to turn the entire world upside down.

Two women did what women throughout the ages have done – raised children and grandchildren. God used Lois and Eunice to shape young Timothy into the Apostle Paul’s right-hand man and true son in the faith.

You may not be in a position of importance, but you are important to the Kingdom of God. You may see yourself as small and insignificant or past your prime, and that’s just fine with Him. He likes to use the least likely people to accomplish the most amazing things. That way He gets all the glory.

If you think you have nothing of value to offer God, you’re wrong. You have yourself. That’s all He needs. He will take you and use you in the most ordinary – and yet extraordinary – ways. I’m living proof of that. Beloved, He’s got an important task, and you’re just the person He’s been looking for. Just be available and watch Him work.

Silver Vases and Chamber Pots

When I was a very young girl, and we visited my grandmother we experienced true “country living.” We slept on real feather beds (John Denver anyone?), helped granny pick and snap beans for supper, slopped the hogs, and on cold mornings huddled around the coal-burning stove.  And during the day – when [ahem] the need arose – we visited the outhouse.  But at night, no one wanted to traipse out in the dark and cold, so granny had pans that sat under the bed for our nightly needs. 

Where am I going with this? To Paul’s second letter to Timothy. He said, “In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:20-21). 

Keep in mind that Paul is addressing Christians – not the world. He is talking to people God desires to use in Kingdom work on earth. He is saying that how God uses us largely depends on how we live.  We can be “an instrument of noble purposes” if we strive for holiness in our daily lives. Think of a silver vase that holds beautiful flowers in God’s throne room or the golden goblet from which He drinks each day. But if we pursue “ignoble purposes” – if we live for the world and our flesh we will be good for nothing more than an iron dustpan, or a tin mop bucket in the King’s great house. Or the pan under my granny’s bed.

So how do we endeavor to be vessels for noble purposes? Paul continued: “flee evil desires and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (v. 22). We run from things that lead us into sin. We cultivate desires for the things of God, and we align ourselves with believers who are on the same path. If you are in Christ the Father has cleansed you with Jesus’ blood, clothed you in robes of righteousness, anointed you with the Holy Spirit, and set you apart for a holy purpose.  Beloved, how will you be used in the house of God?

Listen!

She was in trouble and she knew it. She turned her face away from me. “Joy, I need you to listen to Nana so you can get out of time out.” But she refused and stayed in her chair for another minute. I can’t count the times I’ve said: “Listen to me!” How often do you think God says that to us?

Believe it or not, listening to God is not difficult. Everything He wants to say to you and me is written in His Word. So often when we read God’s Word or hear it being read it comes across like the grown-ups in a Charlie Brown special. “Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa.” Solomon knew what it meant to listen to God. Grab your Bible and read Proverbs 2:1-5 – I’ll wait for you.

Solomon offered several keys to listening. (Yes, this passage is about wisdom, but the principle applies.) Accept the Bible as the true, authoritative Word of God. That means that the Bible calls the shots. If the world or your flesh says “do this,” but the Bible says “don’t” the Bible wins. Store up Scripture –That memorization. You don’t have to have it word-for-word, but have enough that you can use it when you need it – cause you’re gonna need it. Ask God for insight and understanding. I was not a Bible geek until my 40’s. I got a tiny taste of the depths of the Word and I wanted more. So I asked God to make me hungry. Twenty years later and I’m still ravenous. But I had to decide it was worth it. I had to regard it as a hidden treasure to be mined. I had to invest time and effort in it. I had to get up early and turn off the T.V. I had to put down the phone and pick up The Book.

There’s one other key to listening that comes from Paul who said, “the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). You and I have to shut down every other voice but the voice of truth.

Eve listened to the serpent. Adam listened to Eve. Neither of them listened to God. Beloved, who are you listening to?

A Mother on her Knees

I believe the heart of a mother comes closest to God’s own heart than any other on earth.  I love mothers in the Bible like Hannah who prayed for many years to have a child, and Lois and Eunice, a grandmother and mother pair who passed their strong faith on to Timothy – Paul’s “son in the faith.”  And, of course, Mary who, when told of her unconventional “assignment” from God simply said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). At this stage in my parenting I most identify with a mother who’s not in the Bible, but her influence on the church is remarkable.

Monica lived in a.d. 300-400.  She loved God passionately and also loved her son deeply.  Monica’s son was a young man with a – shall we say – “zest” for all the world had to offer.  He pursued pleasure and made choices that broke his mother’s heart.  Monica prayed fervently and faithfully for her son.  She wept and pleaded with God to bring her son out of the darkness and into His Kingdom.  Her son later wrote these words about her, “I cannot adequately tell of the love she had for me, or how she continued to travail for me in the spirit with far more anguish than when she bore me in the flesh.”[1]  As Monica sought godly counsel for her son, she begged the local bishop to help him find God.  “Finally,” said her son, “the bishop, a little vexed at her persistence, exclaimed, ‘Go your way; as you live, it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.’”[2]  Monica and God won the battle for her son’s soul and he came to salvation at the age of 32.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him – Saint Augustine of Hippo – one of the greatest fathers of the Christian faith. 

Motherhood is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. But I want to encourage you to take a look at the mothers of the Bible and the Church.  The one common denominator in every one of their stories is a mother on her knees for her child.  Come join me in the Mother’s prayer room – we’re all in this together and best of all – God is in it with us too.

[1] Saint Augustine, Confessions of Saint Augustine, Edited by Tom Gill. (Alachua, Bridge-Logos,2003),117.

[2] Augustine, 72.

Hebrews: Church Leaders

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“So you want to do something in the church,” the Pastor said.

“Yes, sir!” the man answered.

“What do you think you want to do?”

“I don’t know. What do you have?”

“We could use some help in the youth department.”

“Hmm. Teenagers are not really my thing.”

“Okay, we need people to help with cleanup after Wednesday night suppers.”

“Oh. Well, I was thinking of something . . . more . . . I guess, more important.”

“Well, tell me what you have in mind then.”

“I want to be a deacon – you know, hand out the bulletins and take up the offering.”

“Being a deacon is much more than that, it’s a calling from God. Deacons are spiritual leaders in the church.”

“Yes! I can do that – I can be a leader.  Go call the rest of the guys to come lay hands on me!”

I may have embellished this conversation just a bit, but the truth is, a lot of people want to be leaders in the church. But leadership is not something to be taken on a whim; it is a holy responsibility and should be approached with reverence – and a calling. The author of Hebrews addressed “the laying on of hands,” as part of the ”elementary teachings” of the faith (6:2). This is a practice within the church of conferring a spiritual office on someone who has proven their call to leadership, usually as a pastor, elder, deacon, or other position of ministry.  It expresses the gravity of the role they are assuming in the church.

Paul warned Timothy to be careful in selecting leaders for the church in Ephesus. He counseled him not to appoint out of partiality or favoritism then added, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands,” (1 Timothy 5:21-22). Church leadership should never be handed out as favors and candidates for church leadership must prove their calling and fitness for service. You’ve probably seen the damage that can result from ungodly leaders – they can destroy a church and people’s lives.

What should we look for in a leader? The Bible gives us a great example in Acts 6 through Stephen who was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (v. 5), “full of God’s grace and power” (v. 8), and spiritual wisdom (v. 10). He knew the Scriptures well (I once had a deacon ask me where in the Bible is the story of the Little Drummer Boy). Stephen died defending the name of Christ. That’s a man who is called to serve the church. Beloved, we must be wise in choosing leaders and wise in whom we follow, lest they lead us right to the gates of hell.