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.
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