A blog about everything about teaching the Bible. "And still I will show you a more excellent way..." (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Friday, April 29, 2011

(Family Devotional) Think on These Things: Guarding Your Heart

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8 ESV).
Jesus said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23 ESV). But, how do they get there? Paul answers, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’” (1Corinthians 15:33 ESV). Influence! Like the old saying, “You are what you eat.” So it is with the flesh, and so it is with the spirit. Whatever you let influence you is what you will become. Fill your mind with bad words, and you’ll eventually say them.

We have to be very selective about what we see and hear and spend time thinking about. If it isn’t wholesome, leave it alone. You don’t want it in your heart. Once you let a lot of bad stuff in your mind, like grass stains on white pants, it can be real hard to get out!

But, it’s not just about what we don’t do. God doesn’t want us to spend our lives just trying not to do bad things. He wants us to actively do good things instead. That’s what Paul is teaching us in Philippians 4:8. We become what we think about, so if we’re going to be people who live right we have to think right first. So, we all need to seek truth, honor, justice, purity, loveliness, and so on. When you find something that fits into one of these categories, think about it. Really think about it. Keep on thinking about it and it will be like a padlock on the door to your heart keeping the bad stuff out.

Remember, you will become just like whatever continues to influence you. Trashy influences will turn you into trash! Thinking about clean things will keep you clean, and in this sense, “cleanliness” really is “next to godliness!”

Suggestions:

Take a few minutes to talk about possible bad influences that lead you to think on bad things. Discuss solutions that will help you keep your thoughts more wholesome and positive.

Most families are just way too busy these days. While we all have a lot of legitimate things we have to do, a lot of what eats up our precious time isn’t really necessary. I urge you to select an evening once a week and make it “unplugged night.” On this evening nobody watches TV, plays video games, and no one gets on a computer or talks on the phone unless it’s an emergency. Just “unplug” and spend time reading, praying, talking with your family, and playing cards or board games. I challenge you to try this and you’ll feel stress melt away and relationships deepen as you grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. “Unplugged night” is also a great time for a family “memorization meal”!

Close with a prayer, and to ask God to help you keep your minds on good things.

May the Lord bless your family devotionals!

“Didn't God create you to become like one person with your wife? And why did he do this? It was so you would have children, and then lead them to become God's people. Don't ever be unfaithful to your wife” (Malachi 2:15 CEV).

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Calm after the Storm

It could hardly be a more beautiful day today in middle Tennessee! The storms have blown away and left a nice, warm, breezy day with a clear blue sky. I’ve been out and about for about half the day today and it’s been nice to be able to enjoy it a little.

It’s been an interesting week. I planned this little series of posts in late January or February, and it’s turned out to be one of those strange things. “April showers bring May flowers…” “The calm after the storm…” -If you’re in the southeastern United States, or have a clue what the weather’s been like here this week you know exactly what I mean!

Tornados devastated several of our communities this week. One of the tornadoes in Alabama was a mile wide. At one point I was watching live video of its rampage and it sickened me. I couldn’t help but be in dread with concern for whomever was in the path of that behemoth. Many lost their lives yesterday. Many more lost everything else. The storms were horrible, but now there’s calm. I’m thoughtful and prayerful for those trying to pick up the pieces. I heard of one church of Christ that meets somewhere near Athens, Alabama whose building was destroyed. I’m especially sorry for any who left this life so violently yesterday unprepared to meet their Maker. Yet, there’s something so powerful about the feeling such a beautiful day like today inspires in the human heart that I can’t help, but feel some joy.

Three thoughts for you today:

First, there’s nothing more important in life than to be prepared to die! I think of Amos 4:12-13, “’Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!’ For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth-- the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!” -ESV. The prevailing concern for continuing physical and material prosperity that idolatrously dominates the hearts of so many is so foolish! Re-read the parable about the man who built bigger barns (Luke 12:16-22). “[It] is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 ESV). Just be ready, because you’re not guaranteed the next moment!

Second, if you can’t relate to someone else’s misfortune, you must be pretty young. Wait around and things will change! I say this in good humor, but it’s absolutely true. Thankfully we don’t all experience the same degree of sufferings in this life, but pardon me if I quote C.S. Lewis (from The Problem of Pain, which I heartily urge you to read): “100 percent of us die and the percentage cannot be increased.” We ought to relate to our fellow man in his sufferings, and if there’s anything good in us we ought at least to sympathize, and if possible, make sacrifices to help him up. 2Corinthians 1:3-5 is so relevant here: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” –ESV. I urge us all to do whatever we can to help our storm-harassed neighbors!

Finally, remember as long as you’re still alive there’s hope for a brighter day. Hope is one of the three great “theological virtues” in life (1Corinthians 13:13). I found out a long time ago, anyone can be happy if he trusts the best is yet to come. There’s peace in that and endurance to weather the storms. It doesn’t matter how dark and dank the tunnel, if there’s a light at the end upon which we can fix our eyes we can make it! Truth is there is a great Sabbath rest for the people of God awaiting all those who follow Jesus to the end (Hebrews 4:9). In that coming eternal age there will be no floods, fires, droughts, or tornados to fear. The hope of sharing that land with you in the presence of Jesus is the light at the end of my tunnel. I’m pressing on! Yes, there’s something so powerful about the feeling such a beautiful day like today inspires in the human heart that I can’t help, in spite of yesterday, but feel some joy. I know that’s what heaven will be like. Care to come along?

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April Showers...

You can probably finish the little rhyme that follows this one’s title. Here in the great state of Tennessee, we’ve had our April showers. In fact, we’re having a drizzling rain on the heels of a serious storm as I write. I set a pot of flowers on the front steps this morning to soak in a bit of the free stuff. Will we get our “May flowers?” I hope we can get a couple of sunny days soon so I can get my tomatoes and squash planted on time. But, I digress…

“April showers bring May flowers” is more than a cute way to remember the general weather patterns of these spring months. It’s also a way to look at life. We all have bleak gray days and periods when it seems like there must be a little black raincloud following us wherever we go. Most of us also experience outright thunderstorms of trial and temptation. While we may find courage to dance barefoot in the rain during the minor ones, it isn’t easy to have fun in a gale.

Even torrential downpours end. Floodwaters drain away. Drizzles dry up. Gray gives way to bright blue! There’s a silver lining to every cloud, and if we can muster the faith to endure the rain, a bright day always follows! “April showers bring May flowers.” So endure!

But wait, before I stop writing today, there’s another good point to get. The old rhyme says April showers BRING May flowers. There’s something good about the rain. Even lightning has the beneficial purpose of repairing earth’s atmosphere that protects us from the sun’s harmful rays! Don’t just wish the days away. Friday isn’t the only good day of the week! Take stock of the trials you face, and try your best to see them as opportunities. Ask the Lord to help you, and remember the words of James. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” -James 1:2-4 (ESV).

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Power of Positive Thinking

Are you a “cup-half-empty” kind of person, or is your cup “half-full”? Do you know that you have the power to affect many things in your life just by the way you think about them? It’s nothing mystical. I’m not talking about some kind of intangible “energy” people like to go on about these days. What I mean is all very simple. Having a negative attitude affects you and those around you emotionally. Your emotional state affects your will. The state of your willpower affects what you’ll do and how you’ll do it, and that’s responsible for much of the quality of your life.

Every good thing comes from God (James 1:17). Little do they know, but even the wicked and unbelieving are blessed by God in whatever ways they experience the good things in life (Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17). (If they persist in rebellion the good things will eventually end for them –Psalm 1:4-6.) There’s nothing good apart from God, and God is active in answering prayers and working things out in favor of those who love him (James 4:2; Romans 8:28). There’s also an “auto-suggestive” blessing we get by praying. The more we ask God in prayer for patience the more we’re reminded of our need for it when challenged to have to wait. When we pray for a job, hopefully we recognize our responsibility to look for one, and when we trust God has answered our prayer, we go into the interview with confidence and are much more likely to make a good impression. This is not all there is to prayer, but it is one blessing that comes from it. Having a positive attitude can affect so much!

So, what does it mean to have a positive attitude? How can I face temptations and trials in a positive way? By nature such things are negative and invoke a negative response! We can do it by removing focus away from particular events and situations to see them in light of the “big picture.” Just as we don’t eat a steak in one bite, we have to break problems down into “bite-size” pieces and process them accordingly. Ask questions like, “What blessings are there in this I’m overlooking or taking for granted?” “What can I learn from this?” “How can I use this as an opportunity to serve someone?” Be sure to check out this post from our friends at SFT Awareness for more reading about positive thinking.
---JLP

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Saturday, April 23, 2011

(Family Devotional) The Resurrection

“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise” (Luke 24:1-7 ESV).

There’s something about walking through a cemetery that makes you think. All those people who lived their lives start to finish. Some died young. Some died old. What were their lives like? What things did they see? It’s good to think of such things—helps keep us grounded. We do know one thing with absolute certainty. They all died and their bodies are still sleeping in those graves.

But, one day they’ll get up. We know it’s true, because of one peculiar fact that has long stood out as the only one of its kind. There’s one grave that’s different. It’s empty. Jesus died just like everyone buried in every graveyard. But, unlike all of them, he came back to life and got up again. He walked forth from his tomb more alive than ever, so full of life that he cannot ever die again! (Romans 6:9).

Of course that’s good for Jesus, but it ought to be good news for the rest of us too! God proved what he can do by raising Jesus from the dead, and he’s promised to do the same thing for all of us. Jesus said, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29 ESV).

There’s an empty tomb. That’s more important than anything else in the world! It’s not just a religious belief; it’s a fact of life! So, make sure you live for Jesus in this life, because you’ll see him in the next, and the next time you’re in a cemetery, look around at the graves and remember, one day they’ll all hear his voice….

Suggestions for Parents:

In an age appropriate way, explain the reality of death, but encourage everyone in the family it’s nothing for Christians to fear, because when we die, though they bury our bodies, our souls go to a place of comfort, and one day we’ll get new bodies and rise again to live with Jesus forever. If necessary, explain the resurrection isn’t like a horror movie with dead bodies rising up from their graves, but for the righteous, a glorious moment of victory and glorification.

Discuss how Jesus’ resurrection may be the most important and wonderful thing that ever happened. Let each member of the family think of a way to thank Jesus for all he’s done for us when we see him.

May the Lord bless your family devotionals!

“Didn't God create you to become like one person with your wife? And why did he do this? It was so you would have children, and then lead them to become God's people. Don't ever be unfaithful to your wife” (Malachi 2:15 CEV).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jesus' Last Week

You probably won’t notice it the first few times you read through Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but several of the most notable events and teachings of Jesus’ ministry happened during that last week before his betrayal and crucifixion. It was what we would call “a long week,” and for Jesus it didn’t end so well. At least that’s how it looked to the people in Jerusalem at the time.

All the events in Matthew 21-27 (that’s 25% of the book), Mark 11-15 (that’s about 1/3 of Mark), Luke 19-23 (20% +/-), and John 12-19 (something like 40%) take place during that pivotal last week of Jesus’ “earthly ministry.” Nearly useless trivia like that entertains me.

The ESV Study Bible has a chart on p.1866 that combines the four gospels and lists the events of the week in order. On Friday or Saturday of the preceding week Jesus arrives in Bethany. There Mary (famously) anoints Jesus and crowds come to see Jesus and Lazarus whom he recently raised from the dead. Sunday is the day of his “triumphal entry,” during which throngs of people laid palm branches on the road in front of him as he entered the city on the back of a colt that had never before been ridden. They cried “hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” You might say this was the pinnacle moment of Jesus’ messianic ministry to that point. Masses of the people believed in Jesus and. He then retired to Bethany again.

Early Monday a hungry Jesus curses the barren fig tree, and in fulfillment of prophecy Jesus enters the Temple to cleanse it by turning over the tables of the money-changers and driving out the salesmen. Again, he retires to Bethany with the Twelve.

On Tuesday the disciples are started to see the fig tree cursed the previous day now withered. It is a day of controversy as Jesus debates the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees in the Temple. He has the “Olivet Discourse” with the disciples on the way back to Bethany during which he foretells of the (then) coming destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple (fulfilled in A.D. 70), and mentions the end of the world.

On Wednesday Jesus keeps teaching in the Temple, and the members of the Sanhedrin council plot to kill him.

Thursday, 13 Nisan, A.D. 30 (some say 33): Jesus prepares to observe Passover.

Friday (starts on what would be Thursday night for most of us), witnesses the most horrible, wonderful event in all eternity! Jesus observes the Passover in the “Last supper” with the Twelve. He washes their feet and institutes the Lord’s Supper. Judas leaves into the night to betray his Teacher. While walking from their upper room to Gethsemane, Jesus imparts vital truth to the unsuspecting disciples culminating in his “High Priestly Prayer.” He leads them into the Garden of Gethsemane where he prays sorrowfully, and is finally betrayed into the hands of a mob of Jews and Gentiles. Before sunrise he faced abuse and illegal trial in both the houses of Annas (Caiaphas’ father-in-law and the “people’s High Priest”) and Caiaphas (the official High Priest) and with first light he finds himself before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. Our Savior endures the cross from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. when he cries out and gives up his spirit in death. Before sunset his body is wrapped and placed in the tomb belonging to wealthy disciple, Joseph of Arimathea.

The week ends with a silent Sabbath as Jesus’ body rests in the tomb.

But, then comes Sunday! -Perhaps the greatest day in all eternity—the central event in history! Jesus came back to life. He rose from the dead! He walked forth from the tomb! He’s still alive—a glorified human being, and the divine Son of God all at once, living in an immortal body. It changed everything. It’s changed me. Has it changed you?

Think you’ve had a busy week? Trust me, Jesus knows all about that!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Easter Sunday

This coming Sunday is Easter, a day of togetherness and celebration for families far and wide. Hams will be devoured! Sweet potatoes will meet their doom, and thousands of chocolates will melt as the sun beats down on their plastic-egg-ovens. Somewhere while hiding this year’s eggs, a grandpa will find one from last year! Attendance at church gatherings will swell. In many churches, the normal program of worship will be altered to accommodate special Easter services.

Easter is an important opportunity for churches. Many will be present at worship services that haven’t attended all year and may not again until this time next year. Therefore, it’s an infrequent opportunity for churches to make an impression on folks who believe at some level, but haven’t yet made a commitment to Christ.

Easter began as a pagan fertility celebration, honoring false gods, but Catholic missionaries, to ease the transition of pagans into Catholicism, “Christianized” the celebration, moving its date to the first Sunday after Passover, and making it a celebration of the resurrection. Today both Catholics and Protestants celebrate Easter as a religious holiday.

Though some have veered from tradition, historically, churches of Christ have no special programs honoring Easter. It’s not because we disdain the day, or wish to be judgmental, nor is there anything inherently wrong with the personal celebration of holy days (Romans 14:5-6). It’s because we’re committed to simple Christianity as described in the New Testament that we strive not to do anything in our assemblies for which we find no New Testament precedent, or that would bind one man’s opinion upon another (Galatians 4:10-11). The New Testament says nothing about celebrating Easter. Every day of a Christian’s life is supposed to be a celebration of “the first-born of the dead” (Revelation 1:5).

Nevertheless, many souls will come out Sunday interested in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you don’t ordinarily come to church, but plan to on Easter, I encourage you to do that, and hope you’ll hear something that will make you want to attend regularly, and more than that, to make a commitment to Christ! Though I don’t believe the church should have special “Easter services,” so to speak (I don’t have a problem with egg hunts and the like—things outside of the worship service), every church should try to reach out to those who’ve come to church in honor of the day. Their intentions are good. There’s nothing wrong with preaching about the resurrection on “Easter Sunday,” but nothing in the Bible requires it either. I hope all of us who are committed church members will be prepared to reach out to the souls who visit our churches this Sunday!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

(Family Devotional) The 23rd Psalm

“(A psalm by David.) You, LORD, are my shepherd. I will never be in need. You let me rest in fields of green grass. You lead me to streams of peaceful water, and you refresh my life. You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths. I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won't be afraid. You are with me, and your shepherd's rod makes me feel safe. You treat me to a feast, while my enemies watch. You honor me as your guest, and you fill my cup until it overflows. Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and I will live forever in your house, LORD” (Psalms 23:1-6 CEV).

God loves us! He really does! He wants us all to be whole and happy and knows we need to always do what’s right if we’re going to be. So he’s given us this book, the Bible, which tells us how the world got to be the way it is, shows us how to live right in it, and gives us glimpses of the wonderful things to come when this life is over. He’s like a kind, protective shepherd to those of us who love him, and he’s not afraid to unleash great fury against those who would harm us. He has all power and can bless us with good things even if we’re surrounded by enemies. That’s how great and good our God really is!

That’s what the 23rd Psalm is all about. It’s a song David wrote. Before he was king of Israel, he grew up as a shepherd caring for his father’s sheep and knew what it was like to guide and protect them. He even fought wild animals like lions and bears to keep them safe! He also had a lot of enemies—bad people who wanted to harm or kill him, and yet he always knew he could pray to God for help, and God always helped him. So, when David sang these beautiful words of praise about how God cared for him like a shepherd does his sheep, he knew what he was talking about. By reading about David’s life in the Bible we can learn to trust God just as much as he did.

When God is your leader you know he’ll always take care of your needs. When God is your leader you’ll have rest and peace and refreshment for your spirit when you’ve given your all. When God is your leader you’ll know right from wrong and be strong enough to choose what’s right. When God is your leader you’ll have no reason to fear. When God is your leader your enemies will never be able to defeat you, not even in death. When God is your leader you will know your future is always going to be bright, and that no matter where you are in life, the best is always yet to come. That’s what the 23rd Psalm is about.

Now, read it together in a few translations and talk about how good it is to be one of God’s sheep!

If you know one of the traditional hymns based in Psalm 23, sing it together. As always, close your family devotional with a prayer.

“Didn't God create you to become like one person with your wife? And why did he do this? It was so you would have children, and then lead them to become God's people. Don't ever be unfaithful to your wife” (Malachi 2:15 CEV).

Friday, April 15, 2011

Like Sheep Without A Shepherd


We’re all called to shepherding in one way or another. That doesn’t mean we all heed the call! By that I mean shepherding souls, not actual sheep—although you can do both if you’d like. Cain’s question to God in Genesis 4:9 reveals the general human tendency to be anything but a shepherd: “Am I my brother's keeper?” Just about everything in the Bible from that chapter on answers YES! Before any of us who haven’t committed murder start thinking ourselves too much better than poor, sinful Cain, remember the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22 ESV).

Yeah, Jesus did say that!

Nothing so beautifully demonstrates the shepherd’s heart we’re all called to imitate that Jesus’ love for us. Mark records, “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34 ESV). Like sheep without a shepherd! That’s what we all are without the guidance of Jesus! A shepherd of souls shines the light of truth into darkened hearts and blinded eyes. The general human condition and the Good Shepherd’s compassionate concern is voiced nowhere better than in the closing words of the book of Jonah. “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left…?” (Jonah 4:11 ESV). Thank God for his pity, because I have regular need of it, pitiful as I am!

In every way the church is called to embody Christ to the world (Ephesians 1:22-23). Peter says to the church in 1Peter 2:21, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” Christ is Chief Shepherd (1Peter 5:4). His disciples are all junior shepherds called to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Certain disciples are especially called to shepherd the flock, namely those qualified men who’ve accepted the work of overseeing a local flock, or church (1Peter 5:1-3). Of all men theirs is most soberly the task of shepherding, for they will give an account to God for how they’ve done it (Hebrews 13:17). We all should appreciate the men who shepherd local churches faithfully for they watch out for our souls! However, the work of shepherding souls belongs to all God’s children. Members of the church are to look out for one another, and we do our best to have compassion on those who do not know Christ, and mature shepherds in a healthy church can “teach them many things.” But, we best not be arrogant in our knowledge of Christ. I leave you today with the expanded context of 1Peter 2:21.

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:21-25 ESV).

(Image Source: http://godoverallcreation.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/carrying-sheep.gif)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Psalm 23 and John 10

I’ve been thinking and writing about “that beloved psalm,” Psalm 23, this week, and I’ve also been listening to the Gospel of John in the car (on cassette believe it or not) over and over and over again. (Listening and driving is about the only kind of multi-tasking I’m capable of pulling off!) The connections between Psalm 23 and John 10 are striking!

In the 23rd Psalm, David sings of the blessings of having the Lord as shepherd. Being a sheep in his fold is having all needs met, abundant comforts, protection, and hope that cannot be shaken even by death. What sweet blessings belong to the children of the one true God!

In John 10:1-18, Jesus uses two figures drawn from the old-world shepherd’s life and work to explain his work. In verses 1-6 he pictures himself as the good shepherd and God the Father (I believe) as gatekeeper of the sheepfold. He pictures himself as the only one having a right to come in by the gate and lead God’s sheep (i.e. people). The gatekeeper opens the gate for him and he leads out his sheep who know his voice and will follow him and no other. However, verse 6 tells us the people to whom Jesus was originally speaking didn’t understand the symbolism.

So, in verses 7 and forward he expands the metaphor and speaks of himself as both the door to the sheepfold and the good shepherd. As the door, he’s the only way in. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ESV). The only way to spiritual peace and security in this life and the next is Jesus! The only ones who truly know the blessings of “that beloved psalm” are those who are in covenant relationship with God, and, the only door into that covenant is obedient faith in King Jesus!

As “good shepherd,” Jesus reveals the truth about him that David could only have dreamed about! The shepherd’s rod is a comfort to the sheep, because with it the good shepherd protects them from harm and saves their lives. The old-world shepherd went up against all foes with only a club! Hired sheep-watchers wouldn’t risk their lives for the sheep so meagerly armed. They’d flee. The Lord contrasts his role with all other teachers by pursuing that metaphor all the way. God loves Jesus because he was willing, and did indeed lay down his life for the sheep! With the great two-handed club of sinless perfection Jesus gave up his own life to save yours and mine! How short-lived was Satan’s thoughts of victory when Jesus freely gave his own life and then so quickly took it up again. It’s as if he plucked the cross out of the earth and made it the ultimate shepherd’s rod. With it he fulfilled the first prophecy (Genesis 3:15) and crushed Satan’s head. Our enemy is defeated if we are and remain on Christ’s side!

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me…”

(Image Source: http://godoverallcreation.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/carrying-sheep.gif)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Shepherd and Sheep

Many in the sheep business across the world these days raise and keep them similar to the way ranchers keep cattle: large herds, fenced-in pastures, and (especially with sheep) dogs that help drive the sheep here and there. It’s more of a hands-off, big business process than the old-world way of the shepherd living with his flock night and day. There’s nothing at all wrong with the more hands-off method, but to understand the meaning behind the shepherd and sheep symbols of our relationship with God, we have to clarify things. It’s the old-world-shepherd-living-with-his-sheep model David has in mind in Psalm 23.

There are still “old-world” shepherds in some parts of the world today. We can learn a lot from studying their ways. Old-world shepherds lead their sheep all the time. That means they often sleep under the stars. They face the heat and the cold along with the flock. His staff isn’t meant for striking the sheep, but to nudge them along. The sheep can graze unconcerned about anything, because the shepherd guides them. Sheep learn their shepherd’s voice, so what Jesus says is literally true: “The sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:4-5 ESV). Shepherds protect the sheep. It doesn’t matter what danger approaches—wolf, bear, lion—the shepherd has to face it or the sheep will be eaten. Read what David said to Saul while preparing to face the giant Goliath:

“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” (1 Samuel 17:34-36 ESV).

This is what the shepherd’s rod was for in old days. It was a club he used, when necessary, to fight off predators, and those who would harm or steal the sheep.

A good shepherd knows and cares for each individual sheep. That’s the basis of Jesus’ lesson about the good shepherd leaving the “ninety-and-nine” that are safe and sound to seek the one sheep that has gone astray.

When we consider these truths as the background of “that beloved psalm,” our eyes are opened to the love God has for us. And considering the way most of us have spurned his love in the past or present, his adamant love is shown to be the more beautiful still. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6 ESV).

The Lord IS my shepherd, and may his grace gently guide me all the way!

(Image Source: http://godoverallcreation.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/carrying-sheep.gif)

Monday, April 11, 2011

That Beloved Psalm

One of the most widely known and beloved Bible passages is “the twenty-third Psalm.” For about 3,000 years its gracious words have soothed the hearts of the grieved and suffering, and given confidence to those in need of encouragement. It paints a word-picture of God so beautiful even hardened unbelievers cannot help but be touched by it.

Many believers know Psalm 23 by heart. If you don’t, you should. It’s short and sweet. Read and recite it over again a few times a day for a week and you’ll have it down (you can permanently etch it on your heart in far less time if you really try). I wish I could have sat beside David and heard the bleating of the sheep as his spirit-filled mind composed these timeless words.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (ESV).

I hope you’re comforted by knowing we are all like sheep, and God is our shepherd. He provides all good things for us to enjoy, gives us rest and peace, and is present to strengthen us in the darkest valleys of trial. He is the best possible ally, stronger than any foe, and wills to bless us in spite of their hatred for us. I can testify he knows how to give his children what we need and more. Like David, I’m assured of God’s never-ending love and faithfulness and look longingly forward to dwelling in his house forever. Perhaps when I do, I’ll be blessed to hear David sing this beloved psalm himself. May goodness and mercy follow all who love the Lord this week!

(Image Source: http://godoverallcreation.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/carrying-sheep.gif)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

(Family Devotional) Saving the Family

Didn't God make you one body and spirit with her? What was his purpose in this? It was that you should have children who are truly God's people. So make sure that none of you breaks his promise to his wife. "I hate divorce," says the LORD God of Israel. "I hate it when one of you does such a cruel thing to his wife. Make sure that you do not break your promise to be faithful to your wife” (Malachi 2:15-16 GNB).

In the old days only men could divorce their wives, women couldn’t get a divorce no matter what. This put women in a tough place sometimes. They were definitely at the mercy of their husbands. If a woman had a good, loving husband, with God’s help she’d be fine. If she had a bad one, well, you get the idea. That’s why Malachi 2:15 is hard on husbands and not on wives. These days when a woman can divorce her husband, what the prophet says applies to all of us!

God wants everyone to be saved! That’s why he sent Jesus to die for our sins on the cross, and why he raised him from the dead to reign as king. Being saved isn’t only about going to heaven after this life is over though; it’s also about living a new and better life now. Being saved the Bible way means the love and rule of Jesus affects every part of our lives, including family relationships.

God saves us by grace, which means he looks on us with favor. To get into God’s grace we have to put our trust in Jesus and, when we’re old enough to decide for ourselves, obey the plan of salvation. Part of that is looking to Jesus to show us the way through his word which tells us to share God’s love with everyone. Husbands share his love with their wives, and wives with their husbands. Parents share Jesus’ love with their children, and children with parents. We share his love with friends and strangers, letting everyone see what being saved means and hoping others will see the love and want to follow Jesus too. This means we have to treat others right—with kindness, forgiveness and patience. This kind of true love is the most powerful force in the world, and it can keep families together through thick and thin, and that’s one thing our world really needs right now!

Suggestions:

If there is someone in the family old enough to be responsible for his/her own choices who hasn’t yet obeyed the plan of salvation, talk about the “steps”: Belief (John 3:16); Repentance (Acts 17:30); Confession (Romans 10:10); and Baptism (1Peter 3:21). Explain these aren’t good “works” that make God owe us anything, but parts of the loving acceptance of his offer of free salvation.

Talk about how you treat each other in your family. Discuss what it means not only to be saved, but to act like it. Talk about how each of you can start showing God’s love to each other every day in your home.

May the Lord bless your family devotionals!

Didn't God create you to become like one person with your wife? And why did he do this? It was so you would have children, and then lead them to become God's people. Don't ever be unfaithful to your wife (Malachi 2:15 CEV).

Friday, April 8, 2011

Salvation by Grace Alone through Faith Alone?

The cornerstone of Protestantism is the doctrine of salvation in Christ by grace alone through faith alone. Numerous Bible passages talk about how grace and faith affect salvation, but none speak with more clarity than Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (ESV). Clearly anyone who is saved is saved by grace through faith. We know it falls beyond the scope of human will and effort to make ourselves worthy of salvation—none of us have anything to brag about—but that hardly clarifies how you or I may come to find ourselves in the position of salvation by grace through faith. In other words, what are the conditions of this salvation if any, and how does one know if he’s saved or not?

Right answers come from the Scriptures when we study carefully and critically—not merely reading with the intention of finding what we want to. For starters, I read nothing in the Bible about Catholicism vs. Protestantism. My hope is to be just a Christian “with no subtitles.” I’m convinced this is the clear and right path, and while we all have to deal with preconceptions and prejudices with regard to understanding the Scriptures, not having to defend one sect or another will allow us to approach the good book with more purely open minds.

It’s interesting the only time the phrase “faith alone” is used in the Bible is in James 2. There he says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24 ESV). To understand James you have to take in the whole context. Some “scholars” these days like to pit James against Paul and say there were two “brands” of Christianity competing for dominance in the First Century: Paul’s Gentile brand with its doctrine of salvation by faith alone, and James’ more Jewish brand with an emphasis on works-based salvation. Nothing could be farther from the truth! We see that Paul and James were brothers of like mind in passages like this: “When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God…” (Acts 21:17-20a ESV).

In James 2 he isn’t saying we can actually save ourselves through works of merit any more than Paul is saying we can be saved by grace through faith without responding in obedience to the terms of the Gospel. In Ephesians 2 Paul says we’re saved by grace through faith apart from works. True! In James 2, James helps us understand what real faith looks like. True saving faith is alive and active in works, and if it is mere belief, it isn’t saving faith. You can believe in Jesus until your dying day (just like the demons do), but unless you take the steps necessary to become his disciple (which demons will never do) you cannot be saved (James 2:19). Belief alone isn’t saving faith! That’s James’ point and it’s in 100% agreement with Paul.

The Bible talks about different kinds of works. There are works of merit, such as “perfect law-keeping,” by which one might say he deserved to be rewarded by God (see Romans 4:1-8). Then there’s the kind of work God requires of everyone who will be saved, works of faith. “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’” (John 6:28-29 ESV). So, according to Jesus even belief can be described as a work from a certain point of view. If one takes Ephesians 2:8-9 out of context to argue salvation has nothing to do with any human activity whatsoever, then he has to even take faith out of the picture, but that won’t work! Salvation is by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, and this faith isn’t mere belief (remember James 2:19!). It’s the combination of belief + trust + obedience to the terms of grace. Abraham was saved by grace apart from works (i.e. works of law-keeping -Romans 4:1-8), but his faith wasn’t complete until it came to life in his works (i.e. works of faith, or faithful responses to God’s gracious invitation -James 1:22). The roots of the debate over the essentiality of baptism, proper worship, church organization, etc., and the idea of salvation by grace apart from works is rooted in an unscriptural definition of faith, and as long as Bible students fail to recognize the difference between mere belief and true belief (which is obedient faith) the misunderstandings, and subsequent debates and divisions, will persist. As long as we properly define saving faith, I can agree that salvation is by grace through faith alone. But, with one who defines saving faith as merely believing in Jesus I have to strongly disagree.

So back to the question: What are the conditions of this salvation, and how does one know if he’s saved or not? Of course choosing to believe in Jesus after considering the message of the gospel is condition 1 (John 3:16, 8:24; Romans 10:17). Repentance, which means turning away from embracing sin to resisting sin as God’s child, is step 2 (Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 17:30-31). Making confession of faith might be said to be step 3 (Romans 10:10). Step 4 is submitting to baptism into Christ, which numerous passages show to be the point one’s sins are forgiven/washed away, of entrance into covenant with Christ, of putting on Christ, and of salvation (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38, 22:16; 1Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:26-27; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1Peter 3:20-21). After submitting to God in obeying these commandments, which are all acts of faith (if you truly believe, you’ll do these things) you’re saved by grace (nothing about these steps of the plan of salvation makes one able to say “look what I did, now I deserve to be rewarded!”), just remain in Christ serving and growing throughout life or until he returns and you will be saved! (Revelation 2:10). May God help us all to understand and submit to him in true, trusting, active, “saving faith!”

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, April 4, 2011

Grace and Works

Are we saved by grace or works? There are still many religious people who will say either or a combination. What do we believe? What does the Bible say? What is grace, and what kind of works are we talking about when this supposed “either/or” question comes up? These are the questions about which I’ll be writing this week.

Any time there’s a debate, start with the definitions. Often debates occur between folks who actually agree on the issue, but talk past each other, meaning different things with the same words. I’ll start with a couple of dictionary definitions. GRACE – noun \ˈgrās\ 1: a: unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification; b: a virtue coming from God; c: a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine grace. WORK – noun \ˈwərk\ 1: activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something: a: sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result; b: the labor, task, or duty that is one's accustomed means of livelihood; c: a specific task, duty, function, or assignment often being a part or phase of some larger activity (both definitions from m-w.com).

The definitions are valuable and will come up again later in this week’s writings, Lord willing. However, Webster’s offers definitions corresponding to common use and isn’t the final authority on what the Bible means. Sometimes a word can mean different things depending on context. It’s not so much that its definition changes, it’s that context must have the final say about what a writer means. There are instances in the Scriptures in which both grace and works refer to different things, because the writer has something entirely different in mind as his underlying subject. For instance, Paul says we’re saved by grace apart from works in Ephesians 2:8-9. On the other hand James says one is justified by works in James 2:24. Note that salvation and justification refer to the same process or state. So, which is it? The Scriptures don’t contradict themselves! Maybe one of the passages shouldn’t be taken literally? Maybe the war between grace and works is a false dilemma? You’ll have to keep reading this week to find out!

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Love Who?!

“But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong. If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends. If you greet only your friends, what's so great about that? Don't even unbelievers do that? But you must always act like your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-48 CEV).

Isn’t it easy to love your friends! It’s definitely easy to love your family, right? Truth is it’s probably easy enough most of the time with both, but not always for either. Hopefully we all love friends and family deeply, but nobody in his right mind ever said it was always easy! Sometimes close friends and family say and do things you don’t like, and sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do for their sakes. When it really comes down to it, love isn’t always easy, no matter whom you have in mind.

Then we have Jesus telling us to love our enemies. Does it seem like he’s asking the impossible? He’s not. I’ve seen people go the distance in love for friends and family (the second mile and many more). Love can be rich, deep and wide when lived out in the bonds of familiarity, tenderness and respect. But few people have any real love for those they would classify as foes.

It just doesn’t seem to make sense! They want to ruin us, cause us trouble, and sometimes worse? How can we love them, and how can that ever be a good thing? The answer is simple enough on both accounts. We love them the same way Jesus loved his tormentors as he hung on the cross. We love them the way he loved Paul when he was still perhaps his church’s biggest enemy. You just do what love ought to do. How can it be a good thing? Well, experience has taught me sometimes love can turn your worst enemy into your best friend. (It’s happened to every sinner who’s ever found the grace of God!) God says “love your enemies," because that’s what he does, and this whole life is about striving to be more and more like him. He does it because he’s good; because “he is love” (1John 4:8). Are you? Am I?

Suggestions:

This time talk about your enemies. Hopefully the list is short. Let each member of the family think of a way he/she can do something good for him/her. When you close your devo with prayer, pray especially for your enemies.

May the Lord bless your family devotionals!

“Didn't God create you to become like one person with your wife? And why did he do this? It was so you would have children, and then lead them to become God's people. Don't ever be unfaithful to your wife” (Malachi 2:15 CEV).

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Law of Love

"All you need is love…” “Love, love, love…” Everybody wants to love and be loved, right? Absolutely—well, most of the time, at least.

I really love the things C.S. Lewis wrote about love (in the chapter called “Charity”) in Mere Christianity. He said, “But love, in the Christian sense, does not mean an emotion. It is a state not of the feelings but of the will; that state of the will which we have naturally about ourselves, and must learn to have about other people.”

This is something that married people (or you who will be) must realize as soon as possible! You don’t fall in and out of the kind of love that undergirds a strong marriage. You either will yourself to love that way or you will not. (Incidentally, that’s close to what agape means.) Feelings of adoration, desire, and romance will ebb and flow through the phases of life, and we ought to cultivate them, because even those feelings are very much subject to the will, especially over time. (That leans in the direction of phileo, and also eros, which I haven’t written about yet.) Bottom line: love is a matter of the will—you must decide to love—and therefore it is something God can and has commanded. According to true religion, love is the law!

We have the following dialogue in Mark 12:30-31 (ESV): “And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.”’”

That’s the law of love. It is inseparable from the commandments of God, and one cannot obey the commands without it (John 14:15). It must be our deepest motivation, and in this God isn’t asking any of us to feel a certain way, or to manufacture emotions, genuine or false. God is commanding we make a decision—an act of the will. He commands us to love him and then our fellow man as ourselves. We wither will ourselves to do it, or we will not.

I’ll finish with another word from Lewis, “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.”

Are you lawful?
---JLP

Image: xedos4 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net