Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Ezra 6 - Finding Joy

Ezra 6:22 (ESV)
And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.
“The LORD had made them joyful.” Pastor Steven Cole of Flagstaff Christian Fellowship preached a message on Ezra 6 in which he outlined what he called “five strands of the joy that God wants us to have as His people.” I am indebted to his message, and have combined his five strands into three sources of joy. Joy is something God intends us to experience, but to use C.S. Lewis’s concept in Surprised by Joy, when we seek for joy we seldom find it. When we stop looking for it we are often surprised by it.

Ezra 6 begins with opposition to the work of God, but ends with joy. Verses 16 and 22 mention the people of god experiencing joy. Psalm 100 says, “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth!” Philippians 4:4 instructs believers to, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Galatians 5:22 reminds us that “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy…” God desires that we experience joy. John Piper writes in Desiring God, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." God takes pleasure in our taking pleasure in him.

So why is joy so seldom the experience of those who claim to follow Christ? We’ll think through that question over the next few days, but the short answer is that we too often have the answer backwards. We think that the pursuit of joy will produce joy, but it almost always produces disappointment and frustration. Joy is seldom found in the pursuit of joy. It is more often found in genuine worship, selfless service, and appreciating the un-deserved blessings of God. When we seek joy we are most often disappointed.

When we set our hearts on God and others we are most often surprised by joy. Selflessness is foundational to personal fulfillment and joy. I know it is backward to man’s way of thinking, but then God’s economy is almost always contrary to that of the world. “The LORD had made them joyful” (Ez 6:22). May that be the case with us today.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Exodus 1-2 Foundation for Deliverance

Exodus 2:24 NIV
God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.

The first two chapters of Exodus lay the foundation for the delivery to come. This verse, at the end of chapter 2, indicates that God is ready to act in delivering his people. But God has been working behind the scenes all along. He blessed and multiplied Israel even when they were being treated harshly. He blessed and protected the midwives who refused to obey Pharaoh. He protected Moses in his birth and childhood. God is not in a hurry.

I get impatient. I'm ready to take immediate action. God, however, seems to take his time. He doesn't get anxious. He doesn't get impatient. Yet he perfectly accomplishes his purpose his way in his time to his glory and our good. Father, give me the grace to wait on you and the discernment to know when it's time to act.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Mt 11 - True Greatness

Matthew 11:11a (ESV)
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.

There is no one greater than John the Baptist? You mean the John the Baptist sitting in prison wondering if Jesus really is the Messiah? You mean the John the Baptist who is second-guessing himself and questioning whether he made a mistake when he said of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29)? That John the Baptist? Because he doesn’t look all that great to the crowds. He looks like a man who started a movement and then it all fell apart. He looks like a man who is doubting his own ministry. He looks like a man destined to die behind bars.

But isn’t that the point? God has a different measurement of greatness. When the world looks at David they see a man who coalesced Israel into a great nation only to become involved in immorality. Later his own grief over his son undermined his ability to make wise choices and lead effectively. Yet God called him a man after God’s own heart (1Sam 13:14). Over and over again throughout the scriptures God used and exalted faulty individuals. God has a different measurement of greatness.

That gives me hope. Greatness is not defined by the size of one’s congregation. Greatness is not defined by one’s resumé. Greatness is not defined by one’s popularity. God has a different measurement of greatness. When Samuel was looking over Jesse’s sons, wondering which one God had chosen as the next king (1Sam 16:1-6), God instructed him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, . . . . For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1Sam 16:7).  God is not looking for great individuals to do great things for him. He will accomplish his purpose through those with a good heart. We need to stop seeking greatness as the world defines greatness and learn to rest in the greatness of God. Therein lies true greatness.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Matthew 10 - Not So Good News

Matthew 10:16 (ESV)
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Matthew 10 is a difficult chapter to read. At the end of chapter 9 Jesus said that the harvest is white but the workers are few. In chapter 10 Jesus sends his twelve apostles out to preach, heal, and cast out demons. One would expect that the crowds will surge around them as it has around Jesus. But that is not what Jesus says. He says that there will be rejection, opposition, and persecution. Families will divide. Enemies will reject and attack.

That is not what the disciples expected to hear. Jesus says, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (Mt 10:24-25a). If he had stopped there the disciples might have expected a large following like Jesus had. They might have forgotten the opposition of the Pharisees. But Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Mt 10:25b). Jesus had just been accused of casting out demons by the prince of demons (Mt 9:34). Could the disciples expect any less?

Following Jesus will not be a cakewalk. Following Jesus may involve rejection and even vehement opposition with violence and lies. What is Jesus’ instruction? “So have no fear of them” (Mt 10:26). When our minds are set on things of this earth we have fear. When our comfort, peace, and prosperity is our primary goal we will have fear. When our primary objective is the “good life,” then fear will infiltrate our minds and hearts. Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34). He doesn’t mean that he wants us to go to war. He means that his message will divide people sharply, yet we should not live in fear.

How can we possibly avoid living in fear when lies are told about us, false accusations are made, and our very lives are threatened? Three truths must be kept before us at all times. First, the job is not done. We have a higher calling than safety and prosperity. The disciples were told that their job would not be finished “before the Son of Man comes” (Mt 10:23). Our job is not yet done. Stay focused on why we are here. Second, God is watching over us. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mt 10:29-31). Nothing escapes God’s notice. We are of value to him and he is watching over us. Third, people will respond to our message and God will reward those who are kind to us. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (Mt 10:40). Our work is not in vain.

Jesus’ warning was not what his disciples expected. There is much more in this chapter, but this truth is clear: We can be certain that there will be opposition to our message and our faith, yet we are called to live in His peace, not the world’s fear. We are to be faithful to our calling. The harvest is white. The laborers are few. The work will be difficult, but nothing escapes God’s notice. So let us stop looking down at our own peace and prosperity and take Jesus’ advice to look up and see that the harvest is plentiful. Let us then pray (Mt 9:37-38), trust (Mt 10:26-33), and get on with the work (Mt 10:16).

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Mt 9:32-38 - Seeing through Jesus' eyes

Matthew 9:32-34 (ESV)
[32] As they were going away, behold, a demon-oppressed man who was mute was brought to him. [33] And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.” [34] But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.”

Earlier in this chapter a group of mourners laughed at Jesus when he told the them girl was not dead, only sleeping. He healed the girl. Now the Pharisees are accusing him of casting out demons by demonic power. Jesus continued to minister. He didn’t pay attention to the laughing. He knew what he was about to do. He didn’t react to the accusations. He knew the truth. What Jesus saw was not the opposition or misunderstanding, but the crowds “harassed and helpless” (Mt 9:36). He was moved with compassion toward them.

We are too often concerned with what people think of us, or what they say about us. We are too often so self-focused that we fail to see the crowds. Jesus had to point out the crowds to his disciples. “Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’” After he called for them to pray for laborers he sent them out as laborers. But before he sent them out he called attention to the harvest. They saw the crowds, but they didn’t see the harvest.

This makes me wonder how often I have so focused on me and my needs that I failed to see the harvest in front of me. It makes me wonder how often I have reacted to rejection and accusations against me when I should have been looking for the harvest. It makes me wonder why I find it so difficult to stay focused on the power and purpose of Jesus and so easy to stay focused on me and my own comfort. Father, today give me eyes to see the crowds and the harvest. May I see them with the compassion of Jesus.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Mt 9:10-13 - Jesus came for sinners, not righteous

Matthew 9:10-11 (ESV)
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

In Matthew 9 Jesus healed a paralytic in order to prove that he had the power to forgive sins. He then called a tax collector to follow him, and met with his friends and associates for dinner that night. None of this makes sense to the Pharisees. To them, the well and the wealthy are the ones blessed by God. Their health and wealth is evidence to them that God is pleased with them. But Jesus had a different perspective. “Go and learn what this means” he said, “‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13).

We preach this all the time in our evangelical pulpits and Sunday School classes, yet I wonder if we really get it. Our tendency is still to look at certain people and expect that they will never respond to the gospel. Our tendency is to look at “nice” gifted individuals and think, “They would make a great Christian. If only they would trust Christ.” But Jesus didn’t come for the competent. He didn’t come for the nice people of this world. He came for the broken. He came for the helpless. He came for sinners. He is not looking for people who will help him out. He is showing mercy to those who have nothing to offer. That is the great news of the gospel.

Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners? Because those are the very people he came to save. Maybe we need to rethink our own attitudes toward people. Maybe we need to see people through Jesus’ eyes. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13). Father, help me to see as Jesus sees.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Ph'p 1:21-22 - Fruitful Labor for Christ

Philippians 1:21-22a (ESV):

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.

Mothers are characterized by a number of things. There are good mothers and bad mothers, new mothers and old mothers, mothers who are close to us, mothers who live far away, and mothers who are no longer with us. But the one characteristic that all mothers have is fruitfulness. Each of us are the fruit of our mother's womb. 

The first command given to people was the command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth… (Genesis 1:28).” The first command given to the church, even before it was a church, was to “make disciples (Matthew 28:18).” Mothers are fruitful. That’s what it means to be a mother. In several passages in the Old Testament children are called the “fruit of the womb.” When Elizabeth meets Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus, she says, “Blessed are you … and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Fruitfulness is a primary characteristic of mothers, but it is not limited to mothers. Paul writes, in Philippians 1:21-22a, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me."

Paul speaks to the Corinthians as his children in 2 Corinthians 6:13. John writes, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth (3 John 4).” In 1 Corinthians 4:17 Paul calls Timothy his “beloved and faithful child in the Lord.” God commanded mankind to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth. We’ve done a pretty good job of that. He commanded the church to be fruitful by making disciples. In half a lifetime the church spread from 120 people hiding in an upper room in Jerusalem to the center of Roman civilization, and had expanded across Asia and into Europe and Africa. 

The church spread best through the influence of small groups of devoted individuals. God has not called us to stop the invasion of immorality in our country, nor to halt the growth of Islam, nor to save our country, as commendable as all of those things might be. He has called us to be fruitful. He has called us to make disciples. There is nothing more exciting to me than hearing about believers talking with co-workers about Christ, answering questions about the Bible to people of others faiths, sharing the hope they have found in Christ with friends, family and strangers. This earth didn’t get filled with people from top to bottom because of a corporate plan for expanding and filling the earth. It became full of people because couples had babies. The church doesn’t grow because of grand corporate strategy and throwing money at systems and events. It grows because the Holy Spirit, who convinces the world of “sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8),” lives within and empowers every believer to be fruitful. How fruitful are you?

Saturday, May 11, 2019

2 Corinthians 2:14-15 (ESV):

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.

A baby's sense of smell is incredible. I watched a video the other day where a crying baby was given a shirt from her mother and immediately she stopped crying. She could smell her mother. There are two words used in the verses above  for fragrance or aroma. The word translated “fragrance” in this passage means smell. It can refer to either a good smell or a bad smell. The word translated “aroma” takes the first word and adds a prefix to it so that it means “good smell.” Through us the smell of the knowledge of him is spread. We are the good smell of Christ. What does it mean to be the fragrance or aroma of Christ?

In the Jewish tabernacle and temple twice a day a priest would enter the Holy Place. One of his tasks there was to burn incense on the Altar of Incense. The incense was a picture of the prayers of God’s people being lifted up before the throne of God. Today believers are invited to come confidently before the throne of God and find mercy. We are not limited to using priests or even to twice a day. We have an open invitation to the throne. When the priest left the holy place the smoke from the incense would have left a fragrance clinging to his clothing. It was an incense that was to be used exclusively for worship. The law forbid that incense to be used for common purposes. The priest would smell it as he offered the prayers of the people. The people would smell it if they were near the priest who had offered the incense. It was the good smell of having been in the presence of God. That raises a question in my mind. When I encounter people do they smell the fragrance of one who has been in the presence of God, or do they smell the stench of self?

Friday, May 10, 2019

2 Thessalonians 3:7-9 - Following the Example of Naomi and the Apostle Paul

2 Thessalonians 3:7-9 (ESV)
[7] For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, [8] nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. [9] It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.

From the book of Ruth, we noted that Naomi was a selfless woman of faith. These are godly characteristics for every believer. Naomi was Industrious. She was quiet. She was in the background of the story. Yet she was actively involved throughout the whole story from beginning to end. She was respectful and submissive to those in authority, but she was not afraid to take initiative. When her family was gone she made the decision to go home. She counseled her daughters-in-law according to what she thought was best for them. She encouraged Ruth when she went out to glean. She counseled her about where to glean when Ruth came back after her first day gleaning in Boaz’s fields. She put events in motion that resulted in Boaz stepping into the role of Redeemer. Naomi may have been quietly in the background, but she was industrious.

In 2 Thessalonians the Apostle Paul reminds believers of his own example of industrious living. He did not sit around waiting for someone to care for him. He did not demand that others pick up his tab. He labored “night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you” (2Thess 3:8). He challenged the Thessalonians to follow his example, even going so far as to say, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2Thess 3:10). Independence is not a Christian virtue. We need one another. But neither is dependence. God calls us to take responsibility for our lives. When there are those who are incapable of caring for themselves, then we as the church should step in and help. But, those who are capable should take responsibility for themselves.

Naomi had no way of working her fields or providing for herself, but even then she did not sit idly by waiting to die, or waiting for someone to fix it. Perhaps industrious is not the best word to describe her, but whatever the proper word, she was willing to take the initiative to do what needed to be done to care for her daughter-in-law. We would do well to follow her example.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Naomi - A Selfless, Industrious Woman of Faith

The book of Ruth in the Bible starts with Elimelech, whose name means God is King, making a poor choice by moving to Moab. It ends with God’s blessing. It is a story of incredible grace. At the center of the story is a quiet individual that we almost forget about, Naomi. Naomi first shows up in the second verse of Ruth, and plays a part in every chapter. She is the center of the story again in the last paragraph of the story just before the final, short genealogy. When we think of the book of Ruth we think about Ruth. We think about Boaz, the redeemer who is a picture of Christ. We think about their great grandson, David. We sometimes forget Naomi.

That is a lot like motherhood. William Ross Wallace wrote a poem about mothers entitled, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is the hand that Rules the World. Yet that hand is often an invisible hand. Thinking about the quiet presence of Naomi in the background of the book of Ruth, she demonstrates three godly characteristics that we would all do well to emulate?

She is Selfless. In her selflessness she shows kindness to her daughters-in-law. In her selflessness she is a blessing to Ruth. In her selflessness she is willing to patiently wait for God’s timing. Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” The passage then goes on to remind us that selflessness is exactly how Jesus lived. Even before Christ, Naomi was demonstrating Christlikeness.

Naomi was also industrious when she took initiative in her decisions. She moved home after the death of her husband and sons. She counseled Ruth on where to glean and how to respond to Boaz. She even counseled Ruth in how to take the initiative in approaching Boaz. Proverbs 31:10-19 describes “a wife of noble character” as one who is industrious, taking initiative to provide for her family. That was Naomi.

Naomi was a woman of faith. She willingly submitted to what she perceived as the discipline of God, while trusting the faithfulness and sovereignty of God. George Mueller said, “To learn strong faith is to endure great trials. I have learned my faith by standing firm amid severe testings.” It was that kind of strong faith Naomi possessed and that reproduced itself in Ruth.

The book of Ruth starts with Elimelech, whose name means God is King, making a poor choice by moving to Moab. It ends with God’s blessing. It is a story of incredible grace. Whatever happened Naomi lived her life centered on Almighty, Faithful God. The challenge for us is to trust God enough that we too live in such a way that life is not about me. It is about him. That kind of faith will express itself as selfless, industrious, and reproducing faith.

Ezra 6 - Finding Joy

Ezra 6:22 (ESV) And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had made them joyful and had turned the h...