July 15th, 2019

The Customer Is Not Always Right

John 19:4 “Pilate came out again and said to them, ‘Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know I find no guilt in Him.’”

Observation: For forty verses Pilate was on stage as an integral player in John’s narrative leading to Christ’s crucifixion. These verses tell of Pilate’s role in questioning, scourging, and ultimately sentencing Jesus to die. Along the way he had moments of genuine exchange with Jesus, seeking to understand why Jewish leaders were so angry, and clarifying whether Jesus intended to threaten Roman rule by establishing a rival political kingdom. Pilate concluded that no valid threat to Rome existed, and that Jesus was guiltless. In fact, Pilate announced that conclusion twice, but he ordered Jesus scourged anyway and allowed the guard detail to horribly abuse Him. 

Application: It is possible to read these forty verses and come away with at least a multidimensional view of Pilate, if not a sympathetic one. Here was a Roman governor doing his level best to pick his way through a minefield laid by his customers (Jews) on the one hand, and pressures from the home office on the other. But any thought of sympathy for Pilate ought to be fleeting. Pilate will be judged not only for what he did, but for what he did not do. He had a great deal of information about Jesus and an unparalleled opportunity to question Him face to face. 

Ultimately, though, Pilate will be judged by the standard applied to the screaming crowd, and to me: what is to be done with this One who claims to be Savior of the world? (see Matt. 27:22). Jesus told Pilate, as He tells me, “For this I have been born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:37). Is Pilate accountable for Jesus’s death? You bet. Are the Jewish leaders responsible? Absolutely. Am I? Yes. It always comes down to this: it is not my sins that condemn me, those frustrating, self-disappointing failings I am prone to; rather, it is my unwillingness to accept the best deal in history. I am invited to trade in my old sin nature to become an unblemished, new creation, one no longer touched by sin now hidden beneath His shed blood—the Blue Light Special of all time!

Pilate and Lot (see Genesis 19) had similar choices. Lot did all he could to protect God’s angels from the lustful demands of the crowd. Pilate, though he twice determined Jesus to be innocent, chose not to protect Him. My response to God, and my response to the culture always presents choices. His heart’s cry is that I would choose life.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank You for this review of Pilate’s role in Your death on a cross, a role that for him was the same as my own. Clarify issues that may confuse my heart and mind, Lord, that I might choose You in every instance.

July 14th, 2019

The Death Wish

John 17:1 “Lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You.’”

Observation: Jesus had just completed His “Last Will and Testament” to believers, magnificently summing His life’s work on earth. But in John 17 the focus shifted. Here He began the true Lord’s Prayer: His prayer to His heavenly Father. In the first verse He twice uses the word glorify, once regarding Himself (“glorify Your Son”), and again as applied to His Father, (“that the Son may glorify You”).

Application: Jesus had spent His entire ministry on earth with one primary focus: to bring glory to the Father. He only spoke what the Father told Him to speak; He only did what the Father told Him to do. So this business of praying that He might bring glory to the Father was a perfect extension of everything His life had been about. He wanted above all else to shine a brilliant light on the Father, to exalt His beauty, His splendor, His majesty. 

But think for a moment about His other use of the word glorify as applied to Himself: “glorify Your Son.” Here the meaning is surely something profoundly different. It is inconceivable that in His last days on earth He would suddenly violate all His life principles by making Himself the focus, that He be the one seen as magnificent. In His applying the word glorify to Himself, I must see His voluntary agreement to die for me. His glorification was His death wish, a journey to the cross where He would be lifted up in a final spasm of agony mixed with ultimate victory. In this, He becomes my model, the substitutionary sacrifice, the Lamb of God made scapegoat for me. And astonishingly, He calls me to follow Him, participating in His suffering. 

He seals His remarkable plea in its application to me when He says in John 17:24, “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am.” There is within me complete and utter resistance to joining Jesus “where He is,” headed to His glorification on the cross. But without my voluntary death, I can have no part in Him. Without death, there can be no resurrection into newness of life. I must ask myself, what do I value? Is any part of my treasure to be found in clinging to hopes, aspirations, or treasures upon earth? Have I yet died to all things considered important here, that I might be alive to what He has said is important?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, how narrow indeed is Your path, and how easy it is to miss it entirely. There is no room for wandering, but only a call to perfectly and fully identify with You. I love You, Lord, and I choose to follow Your example. Bring me to the complete end of myself.

July 13th, 2019

Laughingstock of the Temple

John 12:1 “Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.”

Observation: John 11 leaves us watching all Israel preparing for the Passover. Chapter 12 begins with a description of events in Bethany where Jesus stopped for a last visit with His friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus before heading on to Jerusalem. Most teaching on these verses has focused on two incidents: Mary’s anointing Jesus with costly perfume and Judas’s objecting to her supposed wastefulness. But some fascinating side comments are made about Lazarus that are fun to consider as well. In verse 1, John reminds us that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, and in verse 9 we are told that multitudes of Jews learned that Jesus was in town and had come to see not only Him, but also Lazarus whom Jesus had raised. This led the chief priests to plot how to kill Lazarus also, “because on account of him many of the Jews were…believing in Jesus” (v. 11).

Application: John 12:2 says that Lazarus was reclining at the table with Jesus and his friends.  What do you suppose conversation with him was about that evening? “Hey Lazarus, have you had any more resurrections lately?  What was it like to be dead? Did you feel anything? Were your mind or your spirit aware of anything? How did ears four days dead hear Jesus call you out of the tomb?” The Word simply says he was reclining at the table, but we can be sure more was going on because “the large crowd of the Jews” came to see Him and then many became believers. And what of the poor, hapless chief priests? Could anything be more comical than for them to plot to kill Lazarus? He had already been dead once; had they succeeded in killing him again what would have become of their lofty reputations had Jesus raised him yet again? Surely Mrs. Caiaphas hissed that night to her husband, “Are you insane? You’ll make us the laughingstock of the temple!” This is the last we read of the plot against Lazarus. He was not going to stay dead ‘til it suited Jesus for him to stay dead.

What a great lesson for me to remember as I respond to life’s body blows. There will indeed come a day when I will be ushered into His presence, but until that moment arrives, all the demons and dark principalities together cannot defeat me. Our enemy is a tired, mangy lion with no teeth or claws; he even had Lazarus in the grave yet could not hold on to him!

Prayer: Lord Jesus, the truth of this causes my spirit to soar today. You have set me far above my enemies and have placed a hedge of Your protection around me. How I rejoice in Your good plan for my life. Grow me up, Lord, so I, like Lazarus, might recline at Your table and talk of Your exploits.

July 12th, 2019

Biases Exposed

John 4:39 “Many of the Samaritans…believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony” (NIV).

Observation: This passage follows the lengthy description of Christ’s meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. In the end she became a trumpet of good news, encouraging others in her city to “come, see” this remarkable man, Christ Jesus. She had earlier noticed Jesus’s break with custom and asked, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (John 4:9).

Application: In this single encounter, Jesus broke both sexual and racial taboos.  But here is something easily missed in the story: Jesus went into the Samaritan city and taught them for two days. Verse 39 says that many believed in Him because of the testimony of the woman at the well, but in verse 42, His greater impact is shown when Samaritans tell the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know this One is indeed the Savior of the world.” 

I am guilty of past casual attention to this, as it shows Jesus clearly and assertively destroying cultural icons. It isn’t just that He talked to a woman who was also a Samaritan. After all, didn’t He in another story praise the Samaritan who stopped to help an injured stranger? No, what we see here is something more profound than a forbidden conversation at a well. Jesus pushes far beyond that exchange by interacting among Samaritans for two full days. Why then did Peter’s later dream seem such a breakthrough when he was shown he should preach to the household of Cornelius, a Gentile? Peter is quoted as saying, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right”  (Acts 10:34, NIV).  Later, when word of this got back to the Messianic Jews in Jerusalem, they criticized Peter thus: “You went into the house of uncircumcised men [Gentiles] and ate with them” (Acts 11:3, NIV).

Well, yes. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus had done by accepting Samaritan hospitality for two days? He is our model, our pattern. Yet Peter and the Jerusalem brothers, some of whom had surely participated in the Samaritan visit, had not allowed that startling example to alter their firmly held biases. The fact that many Samaritans had believed had not changed the arrogant paradigms long held by Jewish tradition. I wonder how much of what I “know” to be right, really is. When I am honest, I must admit that the box I have constructed to contain my religious beliefs seems to need its sides blown out by the insistence of Jesus to have His way rather than my own.

Prayer: Lord, thank You for this reminder to reexamine my convictions to be certain anew that they are Yours, rather than my own construct.

July 11th, 2019

A Personal Shaking

Hebrews 12:27 “And this expression, ‘Yet once more,’ denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.”

Observation: Paul filled this chapter with good advice for living, and he assured that God, who once “shook the earth” by appearing on Mt. Sinai, will again shake everything that can be shaken. God prophesied this shaking in Haggai 2:6, and Paul warned us to expect its fulfillment in our day. Ultimately, our only hope of rescue, according to Paul, is described in Hebrews 12:28: “Therefore since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God our acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.”

Application: I experienced a foretaste of this shaking as I made the final trip to the home my wife Cindy and I shared before her death. The process of leaving the house itself had not been particularly difficult.  Illness had limited her life there to a hospital bed other than occasional wheelchair-bound forays to family gatherings beyond our bedroom. The whole of the house had never really been her domain. As I lingered momentarily in the doorway of our now-empty bedroom, I found myself instantly transported back to the edge of the abyss as renewed awareness of death, loss, and separation again washed over my heart, startling me by the power and freshness of its unwelcome intrusion. 

This is, of course, not the ultimate shaking Paul tells me to expect, but it was useful nonetheless. When the shaking Paul writes of comes, it will utterly and profoundly change all that is familiar. Death will be one of its components, but not its fullness. Peering into our empty bedroom was a good metaphor of what is yet to come. Just as taste buds spring to life from smell alone long before a favorite food enters the mouth, so do these momentary, personal shakings foreshadow what is yet to come. And with the same measure of certainty as death itself, I can absolutely count on the great and final shaking, the one designed to remove all things that can be shaken. 

The only place of safety is under the wings of the Lord Jesus. He alone is the immovable Rock; His alone is the only kingdom that cannot be shaken. Only the light of His majesty can overtake the abyss of unspeakable loss I saw that day as I turn my gaze once again toward Him. For it is upon that Rock, the truth of Who Christ is, that His kingdom is built, and hell itself shall not prevail against it.

Prayer: O Lord, how thankful I am that You are my Rock, my Shelter. In You I rest. In You alone I find peace.

July 10th, 2019

Emotional Widows

1 Timothy 5:3 “Honor widows who are widows indeed.”

Observation: Paul here counsels regarding widows within the church. He draws a distinction between younger widows whom he advises to remarry if possible, and widows above the age of sixty. Each widow, he says, should have “fixed her hope on God” and continue “in entreaties and prayers night and day” (1 Tim. 5:5)—a wonderful example to the church. In these verses, Paul twice uses the phrase, “widows indeed” to distinguish between those who had family available and those who did not, and were thus to be cared for by the church.

Application: Widows indeed. How does a woman become a “widow indeed”? The first and most obvious thought is that her husband has died and she either bore no children or they have also died. Children who transfer across the country for a high-tech job are no excuse; such a woman would be a regular widow, not a widow indeed. 

Paul, of course, is describing the physical condition of widowhood, but there are others, perhaps in our immediate families, who need covering, protecting, and all sorts of care. Look beyond Paul’s intended definition for a moment and we may find, to our shame, that there may well be widows among us whose husbands have not died—emotional widows. It’s easy to identify a “widow indeed”; her needs are glaring, and she hasn’t a family to meet those needs. But discerning an emotional widow is another matter entirely. A loved one whose physical needs are well met may be shriveling within her (or his) heart from emotional abandonment. He or she has a spouse through whom God intends to prosper the spirit, but if the spouse’s focus is elsewhere, how will the emotionally widowed be honored as today’s reading demands? 

There was a season early in our marriage when Cindy and I were strong as a couple, physically satisfied, growing closer to the Lord and to one another. Then a season of illness intruded, a season, as it turned out, that was not to be a brief skirmish, but an all-out invasion. To the extent that I allowed disappointment with God to intrude upon my own heart, my wife gradually but inexorably moved toward a position of emotional widowhood. As my heart shut down toward dreams of the future, I became less effective in meeting her needs in the present. Finally, thankfully, the day came when God’s love once again burst within me; I was filled with fresh passion to care for her, to be by her side till the end. 

I wonder: are there other emotional widows in my life? God wants me to fulfill His purposes in that loved one’s life as well. 

Prayer: Father, I am so grateful for what You taught me about Your faithfulness through Cindy’s illness. Keep the fires of Your passion burning in my heart, Lord, as I serve others You have placed in my life.

July 9th, 2019

Deep Mining

1 Timothy 4:4 “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude.”

Observation: Paul wrote his letter to Timothy more as a coach than an evangelist. Still, in this passage I see his devotion to consistent themes that seem to recur no matter the setting. He addressed “later times” when even people of faith would fall away, led astray by false doctrine: forbidding marriage and advocating “abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth” (4:3). So one of his favorite themes has popped up again—freedom in Christ, to be tempered always by the desire to do nothing to bring offense needlessly to a brother or sister.

Application: What overwhelms my heart through this passage is the earthly model I see of a good father’s heart. Pages of Scripture are littered with remnants of lives broken by unrighteous fathering; all the kings of Israel and most of the kings of Judah, including David, spawned evil, destructive offspring. Such an important priest as Eli produced priestling sons who profaned God; patriarchs such as Abraham fathered Ishmael whose progeny oppose God to this day, while Jacob sired the heads of the tribes of Israel who were happy to abandon a brother and then lie to their father about it. 

The pace was set by my first father, Adam, who produced a murderer, and I fell in step with that pattern. What deep, unremitting pain must my heavenly Father bear as He surveys the damage each generation carries because of the decisions of the previous. Only God Himself could break the pattern. It was His intervention that would enable Paul to say that he wrote from a heart of pure love, good conscience, and sincere faith. As a result of Paul’s internal transformation, he could then encourage and model a better way.

Paul surely intended to specifically affirm my freedom in matters such as marriage and permissible foods (although he may not yet have met the singular temptations of chocolate), but it seems reasonable to infer that marriage and foods were also examples of a much longer list of behaviors and appearance in which I must extend grace. Never content with surface panning for the occasional nugget, God seems always to be mining deeper into my heart to that place where rich veins of gold may be struck, to that place where intense heat and pressure can change a lump of dark, sooty coal into a diamond’s brilliance. 

Prayer: Father, I am deeply grateful for Your work to wring out of me the bitterness and judgment of past immaturity. You are growing me up in Christ, changing my heart. Thank You for these changes as they produce grace to live in freedom; cause me always to extend that grace to those around me.

July 8th, 2019

The Circumcision Fairy

Colossians 2:11-12 “And in Him you were circumcised by a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”

Observation: Paul’s writings never seem to stray far from the idea that if we have truly come to Christ, we now live our lives in Him, and He lives in us. The two have become one. As in a marriage, there is no longer enough daylight between the two where a pry-bar could be inserted to cause separation. Once cloth has been dyed, we can never again see the cloth without seeing the dye or the dye without seeing the cloth. Just so, the Christian’s life ought to be lived so “I” can no longer be seen without seeing Christ. In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul told us precisely when and how this was accomplished: at the moment of our spiritual circumcision, which he calls a circumcision made without hands, our baptism.

Application: Baptism is more than a mere symbol. Most of us understand what it means to be physically circumcised, but in case we’re a bit foggy, Paul made it clear: the removal, the cutting away, of the body of the flesh. Once circumcision was completed, the part cut off was discarded because it was now dead. Unlike a lost baby tooth slipped hopefully beneath our pillow, no one in his right mind would think to retain the old flesh as a souvenir. As we come into relationship with Christ and identify with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection through baptism, our old sin nature is cut away and discarded just as in the circumcision of the flesh. 

If my baptism into Christ has caused my old sin nature to be cut off and thrown away, then for the first time in my life I have become free to not sin. That’s why 1 John 2:1 says, “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus.”  “If” we sin, not “when.” 

Think of it! Why does a child put an extracted tooth under her pillow? Isn’t it due to her expectation of a visit from the tooth fairy? Why in heaven’s name do I continue to live as though expecting a visit from the circumcision fairy, as though expecting what should have been discarded in disgust remains nearby, ready to be resurrected in a moment’s notice? If I carry that attitude, perhaps I ought to rethink the meaning of my baptism experience. The Lord well knows that true baptism conveyed freedom, not complete maturity, so I do fail from time to time. But it is now always a failure of will; I am never compelled to sin. Sinning has now become a willful, knowing choice.

Prayer: Lord, I am amazed at the breadth and scope of freedom You have purchased for me through Your death, burial and resurrection. Hallelujah!

July 7th, 2019

Groupies Galore

Philippians 2:20 “For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare.”

Observation: Paul was an exhorter. Most of his letter to the Philippians was to stir them to greater zeal, encouraging them in their walk, affirming them in Christ. He called them to humility in Christ and pointed them to ultimate victory. Then came five verses in which Paul expressed his longing to send Timothy to them so he could serve as Paul’s eyewitness as to how the church was doing. Paul expected to be greatly encouraged by Timothy’s good report. In proposing to send Timothy, he reminded them of Timothy’s proven worth in that he had served Paul like a child serving his father. His heart obviously overflowed with love and appreciation for Timothy. But Paul gave us a glimpse of something else when he said, “I have no one else of kindred spirit” to send.

Application: Paul, had you truly no one else to send? There is in this brief statement a passing cloud of sadness, a sense of being largely alone despite adoring crowds. How can this be? Surely Paul had his groupies in every town, followers whose lives had been changed by meeting Christ through Paul’s teaching. And I don’t have to read far to imagine Paul’s ability to fire up his audience; zeal must have been common at the close of his weekend conferences. What then could cause him to make such a forlorn statement? It was, Paul said, Timothy’s kindred spirit that qualified only him.

Oh, Paul! Are you saying that the admiring crowds didn’t necessarily share your heart commitment to Christ? Are you saying that most of us simply returned to our homes and jobs and picked up where we left off? Surely we know more about Jesus having sat under your teaching. Surely you appreciate that we learned a great deal; we even bought all your teaching tapes! Don’t you know, Paul, that we will carry with us for weeks to come the glow of fervor and fire we saw in you? You were so encouraging, so challenging, so right on! We came away with some great ideas for making our marriage better, and your “nine steps to financial freedom” were a huge winner!

Only Timothy was a kindred spirit. This causes me to reflect soberly on my personal response to the Gospel. Do I merely try to fit it in with all the other stuff on my plate, or am I one of those few about whom Paul would say, “I can send him, or her; I have no one else of such kindred spirit.”

Prayer: Lord, I think about Isaiah saying “Here I am; send me,” and I wonder if You could take me up on that offer were it to come from me. Show me everything that must change, Lord, for me to be known as Your kindred spirit.

July 6th, 2019

Snowball Defenses

Ephesians 6:13 “Having done everything,…stand firm.”

Observation: Beginning with Ephesians 6:10, Paul focused on how to achieve full protection from attacks of the enemy: by putting on the full armor of God against Satan’s schemes. Then Paul said this: “Take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (6:13).

Application: Everything? What exactly does Paul mean by everything? Doesn’t the term conjure a flurry of activity…a whirlwind of marriage seminars, counseling sessions, financial planning, specialized training, and outside consultants? 

Imagine boys hiding behind the battlement of their snow fort, preparing for coming war. Doing “everything” for them may mean two things: making sure they are facing the right direction, and creating a generous supply of snowballs. For a nation concerned about future attack it may require a full-orbed marshalling of defensive and offensive strategies including armaments, border protection, intelligence, and surveillance. 

But Scripture always comes down to me personally. What do I do to “do everything”? How can I, faced with the reality of a personal enemy of unsurpassed cunning and evil ever get to a point of “having done everything” so as to be unshakable in the knowledge that I can now “stand firm”? Snowballs melt, and in any event, the arsenal will eventually be depleted. Illness, death, or the unexpected cratering of the economy can reveal my best financial strategies to have been thin indeed. My heart commitment to my marriage may mean little in the face of the wandering heart of a spouse. And, as I have seen daily both in the nation of Israel and in my own, all the determined strategies and creative leadership, all the sophistication of defensive and offensive weaponry are insufficient to keep the lone madman from occasionally succeeding in his dark resolve. 

No, this “having done everything” suggests another kind of preparation altogether, one that appropriates all the power and authority of heaven itself in my behalf. To have my heart remade by Christ’s righteousness, to bring peace wherever I go, to be so filled with faith that there is no room for fear, to don salvation by which I begin life hid in Christ, and to properly wield the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, these are my armaments. These are my only effective tools and strategies for life lived well in the midst of great danger.

Prayer: Father, You have given me all the resources I need to live in safety, and You have clearly shown me the enemy. Keep me hidden in Christ, so He can war in my behalf. You are sufficient, Lord; You are my Everything.