No one likes conflict. In fact, most people dislike it so much they try and avoid it at all cost. We especially do not like it when others confront us regarding our flaws or some perceived sin we have committed against them or someone else. Yet the Bible is clear that “better is open rebuke than hidden love” (Prov. 27:5). But what does that mean? It is better for someone to come to you and rebuke you, correct you, for some character flaw they have noticed in you or for something they believe you have said or done that is wrong, inappropriate or sinful, rather than to say nothing in the misguided belief that that is what love does. Too often people falsely believe that if you love someone, then you certainly should not want to upset them. You should not want to damage their self-esteem or self-confidence. And you most certainly should not want to do or say anything that might damage the relationship. Thus, far too often when we notice a sinful character flaw in a friend or loved one or when they have said to done something to offend us, our kneejerk response is to say nothing, to do nothing. We wrongly believe it is better to simply love them as they are and overlook their transgressions. After all, does not the Bible tell us that “love covers a multitude of sins”? (1 Pet. 4:8). Yet in other places we are told that “if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matt. 18:15), and “if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1 ESV). When Peter tells us that “love covers a multitude of sins” he means that love extends grace and is patient and understanding. He does not mean that we allow those whom we love to continue in sin to their detriment. If we truly love someone, if we truly care about the condition of their soul and about their spiritual health and growth, then we will gently and lovingly go to them and correct them when we see them engaging in sinful behavior or when we see that they have sinned against us or someone else. “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” It is far better to have someone correct our sinful behavior than to remain silent and pretend they love us.
In Proverbs 26:6 scripture says, “Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence.” It is an interesting proverb. What does it mean? In ancient times, before the advent of the internet or social media or email or text messages or even a postal service, people sent messages by the hand of someone else. This could either be a written message that one would hand someone else to hand carry to the person for whom it was intended, or one might give someone a verbal message to carry to someone else. But whether one was handing someone a written message to carry or a verbal message to carry, it was important to select someone who could be trusted. If you asked a fool to deliver a written message, he might lose it or damage it or he might open it and read it and then possibly use the information to his own advantage. If you asked a fool to deliver a verbal message, he might get the message wrong. He might say it in a way or in a tone that was never intended by the sender. In any of these cases, to send “a message by the hand of a fool” is to cut off one’s own feet and drink violence. In other words, you are asking for trouble. The point of the proverb is to think carefully about how the message is delivered otherwise you may create more problems than you realize. This proverb is still very applicable today. So often we send messages via text message that really should have been sent via a longer email. Or, we send a message to someone in an email that really should have been communicated with a phone conversation. Or, we have a phone conversation with someone about a topic that really should have been done face to face. Often, we end up cutting off our own feet and drinking violence because we fire off a text message or an email about something that should have been handled in person or at least with a phone conversation. It has taken me years to learn this the hard way. Some messages are fine through text message (e.g., ‘Can you pick up milk on the way home?’). Other more important messages require an email where you know people will be more likely to sit down somewhere and read it (e.g., ‘I would like to explain the process of church membership at our church.’). Some communication should minimally take place over the phone (e.g., ‘I’d like to talk with you about something you said recently that is concerning me.’). Some topics absolutely require a face to face conversation (e.g., ‘I would like to talk to you about sin in your life I have noticed.’). Whatever the message, make sure it is being sent via the correct means. Don’t send a message by the hand of a fool.
As I write this post, we are nearing the end of 2020, which by many accounts will go down in history as one of the most tumultuous single years in American history. With being a very contention election year, Covid19, government lockdowns, mass unemployment, widespread rioting, and mask mandates, nearly one-third of Americans reported struggling from anxiety and depression. According to the Center for Disease Control, that is nearly the double the number from 2019, and about one-tenth of Americans said they had considered suicide in 2020. It can be impossible for people to feel at peace when they feel like their life is a leaf being blown around by forces beyond their control. Times like these is when it is good to be reminded of the words of Stephen in Acts 7 where he gives an amazing sermon summarizing all of Old Testament history and explaining that Jesus is the Messiah and demonstrating that through biblical theology. Toward the end of that incredible message he says, “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’” (vv.48-50). In other words, God is the one who is completely unaffected by the things that happen in this world. He is the divine mover. He is the one who moves but is himself unmoved. We look at the world around us and it can seem like no one is in control, like we are all at the mercy of chance and circumstance, and it creates an enormous about of frustration. But God is not frustrated. God is not in heaven pulling out his hair on his hands and knees pleading with people to do the right thing. Rather, the King of all kings and Lord of all lords, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, sits upon his throne and he rules with a mighty arm and he is moving all of world history in the direction he desires it to go in. Heaven is his throne, and the earth is his footstool. Thus, regardless of what you see happening around you, know that this is not chaos. This is all a part of God’s perfect plan.
We now live in a time where up is down, right is wrong, and black is white, where vices are praised and moral standards are a sign of weakness. As a result, people see it as praiseworthy to simply speak one’s mind and let the chips fall where they may. I have heard people defend this kind of behavior by saying, “Well at least with me, you know where I stand. You don’t have to wonder what I’m thinking because I’ll tell you,” never considering the ramifications and the consequences of their words. Or worse, not caring. Sadly, this is why so many marriages don’t last. Too many carry this way of thinking and communicating into their marriage, only to cause irreversible damage. Proverbs 25:11 reminds us, however, that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” What a beautiful sight to behold! Imagine seeing that as a center piece! Apples of gold on a silver platter! Proverbs 25:11 reminds us that just because something is true, that doesn’t mean it needs to be spoken. Some thoughts are far better left unspoken. And when we do speak, we should think before we speak. We should carefully choose our words because a word spoken is like toothpaste—once it’s out of the tube, there is no putting it back. Often we are simply left with trying to clean up the mess. Today, let’s practice thinking before we speak and choosing our words carefully. Let’s do our best for God’s glory to present with our words golden apples on a silver platter. Words that will be pleasing to the ears and easy on the heart.
We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks, for your name is near.
We recount your wondrous deeds. (Psalm 75:1)
Today as we celebrate Thanksgiving, as we enjoy the smell of Turkey roasting, pies baking, and gravy simmering, as we take in the sight of fall colors and the sound of a fire crackling or football playing, let us remember that Thanksgiving is not primarily about the here and now because the here and now can be difficult for some. Thanksgiving can sometimes be difficult to celebrate if you are experiencing trying times. In fact, Thanksgiving is known to be a time when many people will go into depression—people who are lonely, who may be struggling financially or dealing with some physical disability or may have recently lost a loved one. Thus, if we focus on the here and now, Thanksgiving for many can be difficult because living life in a fallen world is often difficult. Rather, Thanksgiving should primarily be about ‘recounting God’s wondrous deeds’ which took place two-thousand years ago on a hill called Calvary. It should be a time of remembering that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6 ESV), a time of remembering that God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21 NASB). It’s a time of remembering that if all we have in this world is Christ and the salvation he has given to us, we have more treasure and more to be thankful for than we can ever possibly imagine or deserve. Today, let us not reflect on what we don’t have, but on what we do have.
It is interesting that in Numbers 35 God establishes “cities of refuge.” These cites are where someone can flee who has committed manslaughter and be spared from the “avenger of blood.” Anyone living in a city of refuge cannot be harmed so long as he remains inside. “But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the boundaries of his city of refuge to which he fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the boundaries of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood” (vv.26-27). Additionally we are told that “he must remain in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest, but after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession” (v.28). Thus, as long as the high priest lives and the guilty person remains in the city of refuge, he remains safe and secure. What is clear from passages like Gen. 6:5; Ps. 58:3; Jer. 17:9; Matt. 5:21-30, Rom. 3:11-18; 8:7-8, is that we have all committed murder in our hearts, and worse. And the “avenger of blood” who seeks to destroy us is God himself. We have all violated the Laws of God and in the Old Testament God made clear that “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). But there is a way of escape. In Psalm 18:2 we read, “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” The very one who demands the soul that sins shall die is also the very one who is our city of refuge. So long as we run to God and remain in him, we are safe from the justice and the wrath of God. And just as in Number 35, we are safe so long as our high priest lives and we remain under his care and protection. The good news is that Hebrews 7:24-25 tells us that Christ “holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Praise be to God we have a high priest and a city of refuge that will last forever!
One of the most frightening stories in the Bible is the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. There we are told in chapter 4, leading up to chapter 5, that there “was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (4:34-35). All of the believers in amazing generosity and charity were selling their possessions and then distributing the proceeds to all the believers so that no one had any need. Of course, Ananias and Sapphira saw this and wanted to be a part of such exciting events. They loved seeing how people were being blessed by the generosity and how those who were doing the selling and giving were being praised by others for being such a blessing. But the idea of selling all their property and giving away all the proceeds just seemed a bit extreme to Ananias and Sapphira. And so they concocted a plan to sell their portion of their land for an undisclosed amount. They would then give to the distribution of the saints a portion of the proceeds without telling anyone how much they sold the land for, and if people just happened to assume they were giving all the proceeds from the sale of their land, well, Ananias and Sapphira would not correct them, but they also were not going to lie and tell people they were donating all the proceeds. If people wanted to assume they were, Ananias and Sapphira could not help that. It was the perfect plan to do something good, to make a little profit and, at the same time, receive praise from men for giving away ‘all the proceeds’ from the sale of their land. That is, until Peter calls them out on it and says, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God”, and then Ananias falls over dead (5:3-5). Three hours later Peter says to Sapphira, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she says, “Yes, for so much.” Then Peter says to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” She then falls over and dies. Through it all, Ananias and Sapphira never "spoke" a lie. Presumably when Peter asked Sapphira if they had sold the land for X amount of money, she answered truthfully. Then why did God strike them both dead? They were lying by their deeds. They were behaving in such a way so as to deceive people into thinking they were donating ‘all the proceeds’ from the sale of their property just like everyone else was doing. Lying is a sin that can be committed with or without words. It’s called deception.
As you read through Joshua chapters 13-19, which describes all the allotments that were given to the various tribes of Israel, what is interesting to notice is what is said about the tribe of Levi. “But to the tribe of Levi Moses gave no inheritance; the LORD God of Israel is their inheritance” (13:33). The tribe of Levi is where the priests of Israel were to come from. Every priest in Israel was required to come from the tribe of Levi (Num 18). Thus, they were to have no land of their own, no allotment in the land of Israel. Rather they were to be supported by the tithes and offering given by the people of Israel. Their job was to minister to the people on behalf of God and speak and teach the word of God to them. Thus, they were to delight not in the land, not in material possessions, they were to delight in God. In 1 Peter 2:9, scripture tells us that all believers “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood.” Believers are priests of God in that, much like the Levites, God has chosen us to be his own possession. God has chosen us to be the ones who minister to the world on behalf of God and preach and teach God’s word—the gospel—to the world. We have been placed here for a purpose. Thus, this world is not our home. We are simply passing through. For this reason, we are not to seek to find our delight in the things of this world, rather the Lord God is our inheritance. Christ is our prized possession. The apostle Paul clearly understood this when he wrote, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). Paul was willing to give up all the things of this world because it is all rubbish in comparison to the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.”
In John 20:19ff., on the evening of Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to all but one of the disciples—Thomas. As a result, we are told that when the disciples told Thomas they had seen the resurrected Lord, he says to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe" (v.25). I don’t think Thomas was being obstinate or that he simply did not trust the men he had spent the last three years with, but Thomas was not interested in a blind faith. If he was going to commit his life to following someone he saw die on a cross, he needed more that words. He needed a reason to believe. Something we all need and should all demand of our faith. Christianity is not a blind faith. We don’t believe the gospel story simply because it seems like a good story to believe. We believe because there is a reason to believe. Thomas was asking for the same. Words would not be enough. “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails,…I will never believe.” In Galatians 2:20 the apostle Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Paul was crucified with Christ to his old way of life and that was evident in the radical shift in his worldview and in his behavior, in the way that he loved people and was willing to serve them and sacrifice for them. He later points this out when he says, “far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (6:14). Paul did not expect people to simply believe his words. He expected people to look at the evidence of his transformed life. He gave them a reason to believe. The late 19th century British pastor and theologian, G. Campbell Morgan, stated it best when we said that what Thomas said to the disciples, the world is saying to every Christian—“Unless I see in his [or her] hands the mark of the nails,…I will never believe.” Are we expecting the world to simply believe our words about Christ or are they able to see the evidence of a life transformed by the gospel? Do they see in our hands the print of the nails? Do they see that we have been crucified with Christ; thus, it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us? Are we giving them a reason to believe?
In a culture that is increasingly becoming post-Christian, it can sometimes be difficult to adhere to our biblical convictions. There was once a time when believing that marriage is between one man and one woman, that adultery is dishonorable, that abortion is wrong, that homosexuality is immoral, that prayer in public schools is good was the norm rather than the exception. Today, those who hold to Christian moral values find themselves in the minority and more frequently the target of ridicule. However, regardless of the reasons, Christians being persecuted for their faith has always been the norm. In Acts 5 we find the apostles in prison having been arrested for preaching the gospel and performing miracles. Then in v.27ff. we read that the “high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man's blood upon us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’” The apostles understood that although we are to respect those in positions of authority, we answer to a higher authority than any man or institution on earth. This is because, as Peter goes on to say, “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” In other words, in light what Christ has done for us and in light of what he was willing to suffer for us, how can we not proclaim the gospel and be willing to suffer for him? How can we not be willing to live out our convictions and our faith? If you are a believer in Christ, I pray the words of Peter will be your lifelong motto—"We must obey God rather than men.”
In Joshua 9 there is an interesting event we read about regarding the Gibeonites deceiving Joshua and the Israelites regarding who they were and where they had come from. To summarize, the Gibeonites had heard about the conquest of the Israelites and had become very afraid about the prospect of having to face them on the battlefield, so they come up with a plan to take advantage of the Israelites' kindness and deceive them into making a covenant of peace with them. We are told that they came to Joshua and the leaders of Israel and said to them, “‘We are your servants.’ And Joshua said to them, ‘Who are you? And where do you come from?’ They said to him, ‘From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the LORD your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth. So our elders and all the inhabitants of our country said to us, ‘Take provisions in your hand for the journey and go to meet them and say to them, “We are your servants. Come now, make a covenant with us.”’ Here is our bread. It was still warm when we took it from our houses as our food for the journey on the day we set out to come to you, but now, behold, it is dry and crumbly. These wineskins were new when we filled them, and behold, they have burst. And these garments and sandals of ours are worn out from the very long journey’” (vv.8-13). Thus, Joshua and the leaders make a covenant with them and promise not to harm them. But then we are told later that Joshua and the leaders discovered that the Gibeonites had deceived them and tricked them into making a covenant with them and that many of the people of Israel wanted to put the Gibeonites to death. “But all the leaders said to all the congregation, ‘We have sworn to them by the LORD, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them. This we will do to them: let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them’” (vv.19-20). Truly amazing that the Israelites chose to keep their promise even though they had been deceived into making it. Psalm 15:4 tells us that a righteous person “swears to his own hurt and does not change.” And in Matthew 5:33ff. Jesus says we should let our ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ be ‘no’. In other words, we should say what we mean and mean what we say. As Christians we should be people of our word no matter how difficult it may be to keep that promise or whether we think we have been deceived into making that promise. This, of course, is why we should follow the instruction of James 1:19 and be “quick to listen and slow to speak.” We should think carefully before making promises. But once we do, we should keep our word.
One of the most amazing and interesting stories in the Bible is the event of Jesus interacting with Peter after he had been raised from the dead. In John 21 we are told that Jesus, post-resurrection, appeared to seven of his disciples, Peter included, by the sea of Tiberias. And while they are eating a breakfast of fish and bread on the shore, cooked over a charcoal fire, Jesus turns and says to Peter, “‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’” (vv.15-17). Why does Jesus do this? Most understand this to be related to Peter denying Jesus three times on the night of his betrayal and arrest (John 18). Still, this being the case, why does Jesus ask Peter three times if he loves him? We are told in Luke 22:61-62 that after Peter denied Jesus for the third time and then heard the rooster crow, he “remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” Undoubtedly, Peter was struggling from guilt and possibly a lack of salvation assurance and his level of commitment and love for Christ. Thus, when Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, it is not because Jesus did not know the answer to the question. And he does not ask Peter two more times because he is questioning Peter’s honesty. Jesus, being God, knew what was in Peter’s heart (see John 2:24-25). Jesus was not doubting what was in Peter’s heart, but Peter was. Thus, Jesus wanting to restore and heal Peter’s brokenness, knew that Peter needed to hear it for himself. He needed to confess his love and devotion to Christ for each time he had denied him. Here is an important lesson in the power and value of confession. Not just confessing our sins privately in our minds to God but confessing our sins to others when we sin against them and confessing our sins to each other as a means of mutual accountability. James 5:16 says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” This does not mean we need to find a person to whom we confess all our sins on a regular basis. We are not talking about going to confessional here. It does mean confessing grievous sins we are struggling with to a trusted friend can be used by God as a means of grace, restoration, and encouragement. Since Peter’s sin was a private sin committed against Christ, Jesus did not have him confess his sin publicly. But he did have him confess his love for Christ as a means of grace, restoration, and encouragement. There is power in confession.
It has been said that listening is becoming a lost art. I believe this is true, and the demise of listening is made all the more rapid by the invention of the internet and social media. We no longer need to listen. We just express. And believe me, the fact that I am writing this and getting ready to post this short article on the internet is not lost on me. This is because the internet and social media is a tool which can be used for good or evil. Sadly, however, many people use the internet for evil, rather than good. They use the internet to express, express, and express, without listening. This results not only in poor listening skills but, more detrimentally, a decreased willingness or even desire to listen. Proverbs 18:13 says, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” Too often we make the mistake of thinking we know what someone is trying to say or we think we know where they are going with this and so we cut them off without hearing all the facts. Or, we only catch part of someone else’s juicy conversation and we jump to false conclusions without verifying what we heard. Often where I’ve seen this mistake played out is when a person's friend comes to him or her and complains about someone else, about how they have been mistreated or sinned against. And because this person is a friend, we take their side against the other person. We tell them they are fully justified to be angry or to feel hurt because of how they have been treated. We give an answer before we hear [all the facts], and it is to our folly and shame. I must admit, I am notorious about doing this with my children. I give an answer before hearing all the facts because I don’t have the time or the patience to listen to why they are fighting or what the dispute is about. I pray we would all do better at not giving an answer before we hear.
Most of us are familiar with the story of King Saul being commanded by God to completely destroy the Amalekites and all their flocks and herds (1 Sam 15), but then returning with King Agag and some of the best sheep and oxen. When the prophet Samuel confronts him and asks him why he did not obey the voice of God and completely destroy the Amalekites and all their flocks and herds, Saul responds by saying that he essentially destroyed everything but only returned with the king and only the best sheep and oxen “to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal” (v.21). This proved to be a fatal mistake and the reason for which God took the kingdom away from Saul and would ultimately give it to King David. The reason was simple, according to Samuel: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (v.22, emphasis added). What God wants more from his people than sacrifice is obedience. Saying that can sound like a no-brainer and we often wonder why Saul failed to see the obvious. But before we are too quick to judge, how many of us live our lives committing the same fatal mistake—like Saul—not even realizing it? So often we think our many sacrifices will make up for our disobedience to the clear commands of God. We sacrifice our time and energy being heavily involved in ministry. We sacrifice our relationships with our spouse, our children, our friends to pour ourselves into serving the church. We sacrifice our finances by giving 10, 15, 20% of our income to the church, all the while looking at internet pornography (Matt 5:27-30), being cruel and unkind to our wives (1 Pet 3:7), being un-submissive and disrespectful to our husbands (Eph 5:22-24), rejecting our biblical mandates as husbands and fathers (Eph 5:25-33; 6:4; 1 Tim 5:8), refusing to embrace our biblical role as wives and mothers (Titus 2:3-5), provoking our children to anger (Eph 6:4), not sharing the gospel with anyone (Matt 28:19-20), refusing to forgive (Matt 6:14-15), and the list goes on and on. ‘But hey God, look at all the ways I am sacrificing for you!’ “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice.” Scripture tells us that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4). All the historical events recorded in the Bible are there for us to learn from. When we point our finger at Saul, very often there are four pointing back at us.
For believers, the process of becoming more like Christ and mortifying the sins that indwell us can often feel like two steps forward and one step back. Or, sometimes two steps forward and three steps back. We can do all the things we are told to do as newborn Christians and can become discouraged, wondering if it is even making any difference? We pray. We attend church. We attend weekly Bible studies. We read the Bible. We memorize scripture. But at the end of the week, or sometimes just by the end of the day, we can feel like miserable failures. Does any of it even matter? Is any of it making any difference at all? Well imagine coming across an Olympic size swimming pool which holds 660,430 gallons of water. Then imagine that water was filthy dirty brown because it had been unkept for a very long time. Now imagine taking an ordinary garden hose, turning it on, and then placing it in one end of the pool. Eventually, slowly, gradually, the level of the pool would begin to rise. And if the hose was left running long enough, the pool would begin to overflow. Over time, as more and more clean water was put into the pool, more and more of the dirty water would overflow and be displaced by the clean water. When you’re talking about 660,430 gallons of dirty water, this process could take a very, very long time. If the average household garden hose puts out about 10 gallons of water every minute, the hose would have to run for 50 days straight just to put in 660,430 gallons of water. But it would likely take a lot longer to put in enough water to fully displace all the dirty water until there was only clean water in the pool. But eventually, this would happen…eventually. The point is this. In John 17, during Jesus’ prayer in the garden before his arrest, one of the things he prays for all believers is that God the Father would “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (v.17, emphasis added). In the end, the process of sanctification (the process of being transformed in the image and character of Christ by the Holy Spirit) comes by means of God’s word. The more we take in God’s word through reading, meditating, memorizing, studying, and sitting under good expository teaching and preaching of it, the more God’s word, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will displace the sin that indwells us. This may be a very slow process that is hardly noticeable. But God’s word never returns void, and Jesus’ prayers are always answered, so immerse yourself into God’s word and let the cleansing begin.
As I write this devotion, the presidential election in the United States is still undecided. The presumptive President-elect is claiming victory while the current President is fighting the results in the courts and refusing to concede the elections. How this will all end up is anyone’s guess. All this has caused no small amount of anxiety and fear in the hearts of many. What will be the future of our nation? Who will occupy the White House? Depending on which side of the issues one stands, each side believes the other person as President will destroy our country and make miserable the future lives of our children. Thus, many fret and moan and lose sleep at night. However, Proverbs 21:1 reminds us that “the king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” This should bring us great comfort knowing that whoever occupies the White House is under the sovereign control of God. We may not like his policies. We may think he will destroy this nation. We may not like him as a person. But we can trust in the wisdom and goodness of God. We can trust that the next President will not go beyond the sovereign foreordained will of God. This is not to say that we should not care about politics, that we should not vote in elections, or that we should not hold our politicians accountable. We certainly should. It is to say that we serve a God who is far greater than any one man or any singular institution. And as believers, through the shed blood of Christ, we have direct access to the God of all gods and the King of all kings. The office of the President may be the most powerful position in the free world, but all of God’s people have a direct line to the power behind the power. Thus, we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Lk. 18:1).
So often we can read the Bible and long for the days of Christ. 'Oh, what it would have been like to sit at the feet of Christ, to learn directly from him, to hear his voice and to touch his feet.' We long for the day when we will get to heaven and see Jesus face to face. And it is right for us to long for that day, for Christ is our treasure. Christ is our reward. For the believer, heaven is not our reward. Heaven is the place where we will receive our reward--Christ. Still, it can be easy to sometimes think we are missing out by not having Christ physically present with us in the here and now, to somehow think the disciples had more than what we have and, thus, our lives are a little more difficult than theirs. However, in John 16 Jesus begins telling his disciples that very soon he will be leaving them. Understandably, they are upset at the thought of losing Christ and no longer having him there. And so Jesus says to them, beginning in v.6, “But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” This is very interesting language Jesus uses. He is actually saying to his disciples it will be better for them if he departs because when he departs he will send them the Holy Spirit to be their helper. Why would Jesus say that? Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, the Holy Spirit had been his closest companion. It was the Holy Spirit who strengthened and encouraged him during his wilderness temptations. It was the Holy Spirit who ministered to him throughout his life on earth. And it will be the Holy Spirit who will sustain him on the road to Calvary. Thus, in Matthew 12 when they insult the Holy Spirit by accusing Jesus of performing miracles by the power of Beelzebub rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ response is as much an emotional response as it is a theological one. “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (vv.31-32). In other words, Jesus is essentially saying, ‘If you’re going to insult me, the Son of Man, that’s one thing. For that you can be forgiven. But don’t you dare insult my close friend and companion the Holy Spirit! For that you will never be forgiven!’ Jesus knew how much the Holy Spirit had helped him and ministered to him during his life on earth and so he says to the disciples, and to all future believers, “It is to your advantage that I go away.” In other words, he is saying to them and to us, ‘Trust me. You really do want the Holy Spirit as your lifelong companion. He is truly amazing!’
Over the years I have met many Christians who struggle in various areas of life and simply cannot figure out why. Their personal spiritual life is struggling. Their marriage has been struggling for many years. No matter how many parenting books they read, their children are getting worse. One of the reasons they often struggle to figure out why is because on the surface it would appear they are doing all the right things. They read their Bibles. They pray regularly. They attend church and Bible study weekly. So what’s going wrong? What are they doing or not doing that needs to change? That is when I usually begin to ask how they spend their leisure time. What do they like to do in their spare time and what kind of people do they like to spend time with? Proverbs 13:20 tells us that “whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” Human beings by nature learn by imitation and are very impressionable. Privately, a person may be doing all the right things but if they are spending time with all the wrong people, then the two may be canceling each other out. Whether we realize it or not, the people we spend time with will have an influence on our lives, whether positive or negative. They will influence our thoughts, our behavior, our habits, the way we view marriage, parenting, finances, friendships, and every other aspect of life. The wife who struggles in her marriage may be privately doing all the right things but may be more negatively influenced by what her girlfriends are telling her than she realizes. The father whose children are distant may be more negatively influenced by his buddies than he cares to admit. Furthermore, the “companion of fools” are not always personal friends in one’s life. Sometimes a person’s closest companion is television or movies. Bottom line: to become more like Christ, it is not enough to read God’s word, pray, and regularly attend church and Bible studies. We should be willing to take a close look at our friends and ask ourselves— ‘Are these people really helping me become more like Christ or are they hindering me?’ Or, if you do not have any close personal friends who encourage and inspire you in your pursuit of holiness, you should pray to find some. Because according to Proverbs 13:20, to become wise is to walk with the wise, not to walk by yourself. We all need friends, but not just any friends. We need friends who will challenge us and sharpen us in our walks with God.
In the opening verses of John 15:1-11, Jesus provides an illustration that some people find difficult to understand. There he says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Thus, the first thing he says is that every branch that bears fruit, he prunes so that it bears more fruit. To prune a grape vine is to cut off and cut away the dead and dying branches so that new growth may come in. Unless we are talking about our hair or fingernails, cutting off a part of our body is usually painful. In my experience, when God prunes his children, it is usually painful. But he does so that we might bear more fruit.
He goes on to say, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” Secondly, Jesus tells us that for us to bear much fruit, we must abide in him and he in us. But how do we do that exactly? What does it look like to abide in Christ and for Christ to abide in us? Read on.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” Jesus tells us to abide in his love. How do we do that? He then says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.” Striving to live in a way that pleases and honors Christ is how we abide in his love—striving to live in obedience to his commandments. But before we are tempted to think this all sounds like too much of a works type of religion, notice why Jesus tells us God prunes us, and that we need to abide and obey. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (v.11). Jesus wants our joy to be full, and he is telling us just how to do that.
In Deuteronomy 21:22-23 God commands the Israelites that “if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” Someone who has been hanged on a tree is viewed as being under the curse of God, despised and rejected by God. What is interesting is that the apostle Paul sites this text in Galatians when talking about the work of Christ on the cross. In 3:10-13 he says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them’” (emphasis added). Paul’s point is that all who rely on works of the Law for salvation are under a curse because the Law demands perfection. No one can get to heaven by keeping the Law because no one can keep all of God’s laws perfectly. Thus, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree,’” citing from Deuteronomy 21. Christ became the man “cursed by God” for us. According to Deuteronomy 21 we are the ones who have “committed a crime punishable by death” and thus should be put to death and hanged on a tree. We are the ones who should come under the curse of God, feel the wrath of God, and be despised and rejected by God but Christ, because of his love and grace and mercy, “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Christ stood in the place of sinners. He became a curse for us, for all who confess they are sinners and repent of their sin, and then place their faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ alone. At the end of life there are only two options—you can pay for your own sins for all eternity or you can allow Christ to have paid for your sins by believing he died on the cross to pay for them. I hope you will choose the later and not the former.
Imagine being hired as a household servant for a family. That being the case, you understand your sole purpose for being there is to serve them and to meet their needs, to do their bidding, to do whatever they ask of you that will make their life more comfortable and bring them joy and happiness. And if you wanted to be the best household servant you could possibly be, you would not only do the things they ask of you, but you would go above and beyond. At night you might place their slippers next to their bed, so they are there ready for them in the morning. You would learn how they take their coffee and have it ready for them when they wake up. Over time you might learn what their favorite snacks and treats are so you’re sure to have them available in the pantry. Of course, a household servant being your job, you would never complain or be upset by the fact that no one ever brings you coffee, no one ever places your slippers next to your bed, no one cares what your favorite treats and snacks are. You would not be upset that no one cares to serve you. Why? You’re the servant. You are there to serve THEM. In John 13 we are given the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. This is the task that would normally be performed by a hired servant. Of course, Jesus and the disciples not having any hired servants of their own, no one took the initiative to do the job. Jesus did. He got up from the table, wrapped a towel around his waist, took a bowl of water, and began to wash each of the disciple’s’ feet. He then said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you. You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” Teaching his disciples this same point in Matthew 20, Jesus will say to them, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (vv.26-28). Jesus, the Son of God, came as a servant and not to be served, and he calls us to do the same. Imagine what the church would look and function like if every Christian saw himself or herself solely as a servant to everyone else, if we each understood that serving others is our role and our purpose for being in the church. Imagine what marriages would look like if husbands and wives each saw themselves solely and entirely as household servants, who did not care if they themselves were served, but whose only desire was to serve their family. If the Son of God came not to be served but to serve, what should that mean for us?
In John 12 we read the story of Mary coming to Jesus and taking “a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard” and anointing Jesus’ feet with it and then wiping them with her hair (Jn. 12:3). What everyone was probably thinking, Judas actually says out loud: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He sees this as a senseless waste of money. In today’s dollars this ointment was worth about $20,000. That is an expensive bottle of perfume! Jesus, however, not only accepts the kind and generous gesture from Mary, but then rebukes Judas saying, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Jesus’ point was simple. Mary was expressing her great love for Jesus and was desiring to honor him in the greatest why she could think of. There was no length to which she would not go, no cost she would not expend, no effort she would withhold. It was not a matter of being practical. It was a matter of expressing to Christ the honor and glory and worship he so richly deserved. She gave Christ her most and her best. Are we doing that? So often we give God our leftovers. We give him what practically makes sense. If Jesus were here today in the flesh, how many of us would honestly be willing to pour out $20,000 worth of perfume on his feet? Or, would we think to ourselves, ‘Well, that’s a bit excessive. Jesus knows I love him without having to pour out $20,000 dollars’ worth of perfume.’ This is probably more true of most of us than we care to admit. We see it in other ways. ‘God knows I love him even though I don’t attend church.’ ‘God knows how important he is to me even though I only give 2% of my income in tithes.’ ‘Jesus knows how special he is to me even though I get more dressed up for a funeral than to worship Christ on Sunday morning.’ It’s a good thing Mary did not think this way, otherwise we would not have this story here to be blessed by and to spur us on to show our love and honor and worship to Christ in greater ways.
We live in a world where there is no shortage of opinions or ways to disseminate those opinions. With the advent of social media platforms, anyone and everyone can get onto Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or countless other media platforms and let their voice be heard by thousands and thousands of people around the globe. This has caused many to speak with boldness in ways they never would have done before. It is all too easy to be bold and speak one’s mind from behind a touchscreen and the comforts of our own living room. We have a thought; we fire off a Tweet. Never really giving much thought to how our words will be received or how they might impact others. Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” In other words, the more we talk, the more we run on at the mouth, the more likely we are to say something slanderous, hurtful or to engage in gossip. Thus, “whoever retrains his lips is prudent.” James talks about this when he writes, “let every person be quick to hear, [and] slow to speak” (James 1:19). We should listen far more than we talk. Today, listening is becoming a lost art. We hear other people talking but rarely do we hear what they are saying. Today let’s do our best to do that—to listen more than we speak, to do our best to understand others and not just hear them. Let’s do our best today and everyday to be prudent and restrain our lips.
So often we struggle with knowing God’s will for our lives. We want to know what the future holds. What’s going to happen to us next year or ten years from now? Who will we marry? How many children will we have? Does God want me to go into ministry or not? If so, which ministry? But when it comes to God’s will, there are some things we can know and there are some things he has not granted us to know. In Deuteronomy 29:29 scripture says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” From this text and others like, it is clear God has two wills—a secret will and a revealed will. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God.” The secret will of God are those things God has foreordained for our lives which he has chosen not yet to reveal to us. He will in time when the proper time presents itself. Things like, ‘Will I survive this illness?’ ‘Will I live to see my children grown?’ ‘Where will I be in five years?’ Someday God will reveal these things to us but until then, he wants us to trust him with our lives, to follow wherever he leads, knowing and believing that he knows what is best for us. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). But then there are some things regarding his will that he has chosen to reveal to us. “The things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” This is what is known as the revealed will of God. This is the will of God he has made known to us. Notice where we find the revealed will of God—"that we may do all the words of this law.” The revealed will of God for our lives has been made known in his word, how God wants us to live and treat others and how he expects to be worshipped and approached. Thus, if you want to know God’s will for your life, the Bible is quite clear. “For this is the will of God [for your life], your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3). God’s will for you is that you pursue Christ with all your might.
I once read a survey that reported that the number one most visited section in a bookstore is the “Self-Help” section. I know bookstores are gradually becoming a thing of the past (which greatly saddens me) but it would not surprise me if this is still true with online book sellers. The “Self-Help” section is where one can find books on marriage, parenting, healthy living, dealing with stress, how to advance your career, personal finance, etc. Just as the title implies, the Self-Help section deals with topics on how to help yourself in various areas of life. The question is, why is the Self-Help section the most popular section in bookstores? People are looking for answers to all of life’s most pressing issues. Life is a series of overcoming one obstacle after another and people are looking for answers. People are desperate for help. Sadly, the dirty little secret the bookstores don’t want you to know is that there is only one book you need that will answer all of life’s most pressing questions—the Bible. Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” If you are looking for wisdom and insight into how to improve your marriage, how to better parent your children, how to deal with a difficult boss at work, how to manage your finances, and a host of other life issues, the answers are all found in God’s word. Specifically, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One [God] is insight.” If you desire to be wise, to make wise decisions in life, if you desire to be an insightful person, it all begins with seeking to know God through his word. And then v.11 adds, “For by me [by the knowledge of God] your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life.” You don’t need a Self-Help book to answer life’s most pressing questions. You need God’s help.
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