Thursday, September 27, 2018

James 2:14-17 (ESV)
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Now we come to the Faith and Works section of James. It is amazing to me that when people think of James they almost always think of the last two paragraphs of James 2. James is much more than these two paragraphs, and they are written in the larger context of the whole letter. Observe three things about James 2:14. First, these verses are preceded by a discussion about the Law of Liberty. James 1:24 instructed us to be looking into the Law of Liberty and be a doer, not a forgetter. Not doing results from forgetting who we are in Christ. James 2:12 carries this thought even further by challenging the believer to speak and act “as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” Verse 13 goes on to clarify that the Law of Liberty is about mercy, not judgment. “Mercy triumphs over judgement” (Jas 2:13b). These verses on faith and works are rooted in the discussion of the Law of Liberty.

Second, notice that the worthless faith described in the verses above is a faith of words only. “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, …without giving them the things needed.” The illustration of worthless faith is a faith that speaks, but doesn’t translate into action. The problem isn’t with the lack of action. The problem is that faith is understood simply as words. Unfortunately, we have promoted the gospel that way. We don’t care what a person’s heart condition is. We only want to know if they prayed “The Prayer.” We act as though there is some magic prayer that automatically saves someone just by uttering the words. But, if you go back and look at John 3:14-16 you will realize that belief involves desperation. Belief comes out of the depths of the heart. It is not just empty words spoken in the heat of an emotional church service. The problem with faith that did not translate into works is that it wasn’t faith in the first place. It was just words.

Please don’t misunderstand. A person can be a genuine believer and still struggle with depression, mental illness, or even a habitual sin they can’t seem to break. James is not talking about perfection here. But, genuine faith changes us, particularly in the area of how we treat others. That is the third observation, faith changes the one who has faith. Too often, we read James words about faith without works, and misapply them.

We interpret them to mean that in order to have real faith we must stop doing “bad´ things. Every community interprets bad differently. For some it means that if a person claims to be saved, but can’t seem to stop drinking, then they must not be saved. For others it means that if a person claims to be saved, but can’t stop smoking, or looking at pornography, or gambling, or speaking harshly, or… “Works” are somehow translated into our favorite virtues, and “Sin” becomes our favorite vices to condemn. That is hardly what James is talking about.

James is talking primarily about how we treat other people, particularly how we treat the less fortunate. The typical evangelical response to poverty is, “Go get a job.” But it is not that simple. The typical Liberal response is, “Redistribute the wealth and give the poor all they need.” It is not that simple. Conservatives and evangelicals need to understand poverty. They need to learn how to truly help the poor. Liberals need to understand poverty as well. The solution is not just to pass out free stuff. This is a discussion for another time, and other Scripture texts, but, it is important for us to note that when James talks about works, he is primarily thinking about how we treat those less fortunate. He is not primarily concerned here with whether we stop swearing, or drinking, or whatever favorite vice we like to castigate.

Bottom line? James is saying that when individuals truly believe and understand who they are in Christ, they treat other people differently. Mercy begins to characterize their lives. Deference to the wealthy no longer drives them. Compassion for the less fortunate begins to grow. Genuine faith translates into mercy toward others. It emulates God himself, who became a man in order to save us, his enemies. What an incredible truth!

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Zephaniah 1:4-5, 17 (ESV)
[4] “I will stretch out my hand against Judah
and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal
and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests,
[5] those who bow down on the roofs
to the host of the heavens,
those who bow down and swear to the LORD
and yet swear by Milcom,

[17] I will bring distress on mankind,
so that they shall walk like the blind,
because they have sinned against the LORD;
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
and their flesh like dung.

Zephaniah speaks of judgment coming on the whole earth. “In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (Zeph 1:18). Why is God so upset? What has him pouring out judgment on the earth? The wickedness and violence of people of course. But, even more than that is the double minded individuals who claim to worship God, yet mix his worship with other gods, “Those who bow down and swear to the LORD and yet swear by Milcom” (Zeph 1:5).

James says of the one who asks with doubt that “he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” Psalm 119:113 says, “I hate the double-minded, but I love your law.” Elijah challenged the People of God, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kng 18:21).

Idolatry is when we look to anyone or anything to provide for us what only God is to provide. It is when we pledge a loyalty to anyone or anything that only God should receive. We may not bow before images of gods, but if we are honest we must admit that we have often been double-minded. We too often give lip service to God, but look to ourselves, our family or friends, our credit limit, our job, or our education for our security. We talk about trusting God, but we often fail to actually trust him.

Zephaniah calls for his readers to, “Be silent before the Lord GOD! For the day of the LORD is near” (Zeph 1:7). Maybe part of our problem is that we have failed to listen well. We have failed to recognize and acknowledge the awesome fearfulness of God himself. We have been more interested in singing songs that make us feel good, praying prayers to make us feel better, and serving others to feel good about ourselves, than in actually recognizing the presence and greatness of God. In our doublemindedness we have developed a god who is here to serve us and keep us happy rather than an almighty God. This is the essence of idolatry. So today, let us “be silent before the Lord GOD!” (Zeph 1:7). “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!” (Ps 95:6). Let us renounce our other gods and begin to look to the God of Heaven and Earth in truth. “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh 24:15).

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

James 2:8, 12 (ESV)
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well….  So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.

There are two laws referenced in this passage, really three. The first is the Royal Law. That is defined by Jesus words quoting Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). The second is the Law of Moses which is summarized by “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is implied by the discussion in verses 9-11 by the truth that if you break one law, then you are guilty of breaking the whole law. The final law is the Law of Liberty. The reader is challenged to speak and to act “as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” The Law of Liberty is a law of mercy. That’s why James writes says that mercy triumphs over judgment.

As believers, we are no longer under the Law of Moses. Here is the interesting thing, the Law of Moses can be summed up by “Love God and love your neighbor,” but the Law of Moses cannot produce love. The Law of Liberty grows in the believer the very thing the Law of Moses cannot. It changes us. It produces love and mercy. James challenges the believer to speak and act as one under the Law of Liberty. Understanding that we are new creations in Christ both motivates and empowers the believer to speak in love. Believing that we are new creations in Christ motivates and empowers the believer to live in mercy and express that same mercy to others. It understands that the Cross covers all my sins. It also understands that the Cross covers your sins as well. I can show mercy to others because I have been show mercy by God.

Christmas is a time of “Peace and Goodwill.” We can’t conjure up feelings peace and goodwill by simply putting up colored lights, mailing cards, and giving gifts. Peace and goodwill start in the heart rightly related to God through Jesus Christ. Peace and goodwill grow in a heart transformed by the grace and mercy of God. It overflows in grace and mercy to others. We do not show grace and mercy because we will make God angry if we don’t, but because the Spirit of Christ indwells us, empowers us, and grows grace and mercy in our hearts. We are to live as those judged, not by God’s Law of Moses, but by God’s Law of Liberty. What a difference it makes when we begin to understand that God evaluates us according to his mercy, not according to his justice. His justice was satisfied at the cross. We live by the Law of Liberty. It is not a law to obey, but a law that defines who I am in Christ. Obedience, love, and mercy flow out of that identity. That is the spirit of Christmas. That is the Spirit of Christ.

Monday, September 24, 2018

James 2:1-4 (ESV)
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

In 2016 it seemed as though I was repeatedly reading public announcements of the deaths of celebrities. In early 2017 I saw a video that recounted all the celebrities that died in 2016. There were a lot of them. Here is what I find interesting, they were all from the entertainment industry. As a people, we mourn the loss of wealthy, well known individuals with less than stellar morality, while we ignore the deaths of thousands of helpless, unborn children who died of neglect, disease, accident, or abuse, the hundreds or perhaps thousands killed by terrorists, rebels, and war, and the many who died of preventable disease or starvation, not to mention those killed specifically because they were Christ followers. When we look at those numbers, I honestly fail to see the great loss in the death of a few entertainers. In fact, we are very close to being guilty of the very thing James is addressing in the verses above.

The beautiful people, the popular people, and the wealthy and influential people matter. The poor, the helpless, the less fortunate are not important. We do the same in our churches. The ones with a regular paycheck are welcomed with open arms. The ones who appear to have life all together are quickly embraced. The poor, the needy, the broken, the helpless often feel less than welcome. James says that when we do this we have made distinctions among ourselves, and judge “with evil thoughts” (Jas 2:4).

We would never think of ourselves as judging with evil thoughts. Yet, when we make distinctions in how we treat people, we are guilty. When we rush to welcome the important people, we are guilty. When we ignore those in need, we are guilty. No, we can’t fix everyone’s problems, but we can love them. We can welcome them. We can listen carefully to them. Look around church sometime and ask yourself, who is it that I would rather not stand and chat with after the service? Why is it I am avoiding them? Are they needy? Are they dirty? Are they less than beautiful? Are they different? Aren’t those the very people God called us to love?

“If a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing…. have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:2-4).

Father forgive us! May the mind and heart of Jesus Christ be seen in me today.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

James 1:19, 26-27 (ESV)
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

What does it mean to be holy? We tend to define holiness by the things we do not do. We don’t cheat. We don’t steal. We don’t lie. We don’t stay home on Sunday morning. We don’t hang out in bars. But God defines holiness in two ways in this paragraph in James 1. We bridle our tongues and we minister to those less fortunate. Here’s the problem. As believers, we typically don’t do either of those very well. We are quick to speak, and slow to listen. We let our anger spill over into hurtful speech. We throw a few dollars to the Salvation Army at Christmas, and feel we’ve done our duty.

Jesus said that the Law can be summed up with these two phrases: Love God; Love your neighbor. Let’s be honest, the way we define holiness has very little to do with either loving God or loving our neighbor. It is interesting that the two verses quoted above about our speech serve as bookends around James 1:21-22

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

What does it mean to put away all filthiness, and be doers of the word? In this passage it primarily means to listen well, control your speech, don’t let your anger take over, and minister to those less fortunate than you. How do we do that? “Receive with meekness the implanted word” (James 1:21). “The one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25). Holiness has to do with that which God has already done in our hearts.

What is the law of liberty, and what does it mean to persevere in it? Notice three things. First, it is a law of liberty. Not a law in the sense of something we must obey, but a law in the sense of natural laws, or scientific laws. In other words, it is a law in the sense that it defines how things work. The law of liberty is a spiritual law that says we are free in Christ. We have been accepted, embraced, indwelt, and empowered through Christ. It is what Paul is talking about when he says in Galatians 2:20,

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

It is what Jeremiah prophecies when he writes,

Jeremiah 31:33 (ESV)
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Notice the similarity between God writing his law on our hearts (Jeremiah) and the implanted word (James). The Law of Liberty is a spiritual law that defines who we are in Christ. We are new creations with the implanted Word in our hearts, a heart that is inclined toward God. It defines us as accepted, embraced, indwelt, and empowered believers.

Second, our part is to look intently at this Law of Liberty. The word translated “looks into” means to stoop down and look closely. This is not a law to obey. This is a law to contemplate. This is a law to look into carefully. This is a law that we should allow to fill our vision. It tells us who we really are in Christ. It defines us. Our passions don’t define us, God’s Law of Liberty does. God’s part was to change our hearts. Our part is to let that change be our focus.

Third, the text says that when we look at this Law of Liberty, we are to persevere. When we read the words law and persevere our natural tendency is to understand them to mean that we should remain steadfast in obeying, but that is hardly the point James is making. We noted above that this is not a law to obey, but a law that defines who we are in Christ. The word translated “persevere” means to remain closely associated with something. In this case then, we are not only to look intently at this Law of Liberty, but we are to remain there, constantly keeping the Law of Liberty in our focus. We are not to move away from it. We are to allow the truth of who we are in Christ to be in the center of our vision continually.

What does it mean to be holy? According to James, it means to listen well, control your speech, don’t let your anger take over, and minister to those less fortunate than you. How do we do that? By looking intently into the Law of Liberty, seeing clearly who we are in Christ, and not shifting our vision away. Being a Christian is first about who we are in Christ. What we do flows out of that. This is what Paul continually preaches, and what James is clearly saying. So, who are you in Christ? Who you are in Christ looks a lot like Jesus. Don’t let your passions define you. As Hebrews says, we are to be “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2 NIV).

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Colossians 4:7-9, 18 (ESV)
[7] Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. [8] I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, [9] and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here.
[18] I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

Paul closed his letter to the Colossian believers with numerous greetings. What is impressive is how much he cares for those to whom he is writing. He wants them to be encouraged. He wants them to accept one another. He wants them to be motivated to continue in ministry. Here is Paul, sitting in prison, and his primary concern is for others. The one statement he makes about himself is simply, “Remember my chains” (Col 4:18). That’s it! No going on about how miserable it is, or how bad the food is, or how mean the guards are. Just “Remember my chains.”

What if we were less concerned about letting everyone know what terrible conditions we face, and were more concerned about others? How might that change our conversations? How might that change our prayer life? How might that change our relationships? Someone shares about an illness, disease, or difficulty. Our natural response is to share our story, and often it tops theirs. Or we share the secret solution to their problem that worked for someone that knows someone we know. Why do we find it so difficult to truly listen, love, and care for those who are hurting?

Jesus said to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). This does not come naturally. We want others to weep with us, but we don’t weep well with them. We want others to rejoice well with us, but we don’t rejoice well with them. The truth of the matter is, it is called selfishness. Unlike Jesus, and unlike the Apostle Paul, we are too often more concerned about us than about others. May God forgive us, and may he grow in us the heart of Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). He did that on our behalf. May we learn to embrace the joy and pain of others in order to love them as Jesus loves. May we be willing to endure the cross for the sake of those around us, and may we do so without feeling the need to bring it to their attention.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Colossians 4:2-6 (ESV)
[2] Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. [3] At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— [4] that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.
[5] Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. [6] Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Most translations of the Bible put a space or paragraph break between verses 4 and 5. I understand that. Verses 2-4 seem to be talking about prayer. Verses 5-6 seem to be talking about how to live in relation to unbelievers or “outsiders.” But what if it is a single thought? In truth, they clearly flow together. The flow of thought goes like this:
1.     Continue in prayer
2.     Pray for us
a.      That we would have an open door for the word
b.     That we would make the word clear
3.     Walk with wisdom toward outsiders
4.     Make the best use of time
5.     Let your speech be gracious
6.     So we may know how to answer

Pray is directly connected to evangelism in these verses. In fact, there may even be a chiasm in verses 3-6. If so it looks like this:
Pray for:
a) Open door for the word
            b) Clear words
                        c) Walk with wisdom toward outsiders
                        c) Make the best use of time
            b) Gracious speech
a) Know how to answer

In the middle of that chiasm is the idea of how we walk toward outsiders. We need to make the best use of the time to impact our world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. All of that is introduced with “Continue steadfastly in prayer” (Col 4:2). Prayer then, is foundational to outreach.

How much of our prayer time is dedicated to evangelism and outreach? One of the signs of an inwardly grown church is their prayer life. When inwardly focused churches pray, they pray about getting more comfortable. Outwardly focused churches pray concerning the spread of the gospel despite their discomfort. Inwardly focused individuals and congregations want their pains and diseases to disappear, or at least we want to find some relief. Outwardly focused individuals and congregations see their discomfort as an opportunity for the gospel.

Paul is sitting in prison when he sends this letter to the Colossians. His prayer request is for open doors for the word, and the ability to make the word clear. He is not nearly as concerned about a warm meal, nice guards, and a quick release as he is concerned for the souls of those guards, prison workers, and fellow prisoners. He asks for prayer for opportunities to speak God’s word, and the ability to speak it clearly.

What might it look like if we began to see every hospital trip as an opportunity to take the light of Christ into a dark world? What would it look like if we saw every painful experience in life as an opportunity to speak with grace, to look for open opportunities for the word, and to pray for clarity of speech when those opportunities come? What if we were more concerned about the souls of others than about our own comfort? How might that change our prayer lives and our attitudes?

Thursday, September 20, 2018

James 1:16-18 (ESV)
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

This passage is preceded by verses 12-15. They talk about remaining steadfast in the face of testing and temptation. It is followed by verses that talk about anger and thoughtless speech. What is the connection? What do good gifts received from God have to do with temptation and angry speech?

We tend to focus in on the phrase, “every good gift and every perfect gift…” We then start thinking about all the blessings and gifts God has given over the years. We reflect on the times we were without and God provided. We think about the times we felt helpless and hopeless and God brought hope and help. We think about our nice warm houses, our full tables, and our comfortable clothes, and we are thankful. While all that is good and appropriate, that is not really the point James is trying to make.

Notice that the good gifts he refers to are related to the nature of God, the will of God, and the purpose of God. First, every good gift comes to us from God because he is a God who never changes. He doesn’t flicker like a candle in a breeze. He remains steadfast. We can trust him, no matter what gale wind forces of testing come our way. He gifts flow out of his very nature.

Second, these gifts are related to the will of God. “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18a). He didn’t give us good gifts because we earned them. He didn’t give us good gifts because we pleased him. He didn’t give us good gifts because we manipulated him through obedience or prayer. He gave them to us because it was according to his will, and by his word.

Third, these gifts are connected to the purpose of God. They are given to us so that “we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:18b). In other words, God’s good gifts are not given to us to make us happy or contented. They are given to bring us back into right relationship with God. They are given to reproduce the image of God in us. As the firstfruits of his creatures, we are the first part of creation to be redeemed.

The gifts are good because they are related to the nature of God, the will of God, and the purpose of God, in accordance with his word of truth. They are not good simply because we have them. We have this passage backward if that is how we understand it. We possess inclinations that are not good. These are not from God. We cannot say, “Because I have a particular natural inclination, therefore, that is how God made me. It is his gift.” That is hardly the point. He said earlier in the chapter that we are tempted, lured, and enticed by our natural desires. These good gifts God is talking about in this passage are not our natural inclinations. Neither are they what we commonly call the blessings of God. What God is talking about is this passage is the gift of grace, life, and empowerment for holiness.

James talks a lot about doing the will of God. What we miss is that for James doing the will of God flows out of the good gifts of God. He will call this the “law of liberty.” James recognizes that remaining steadfast in the face of testing and temptation, and avoiding angry, thoughtless speech isn’t something we just do. It is something that results from the good and perfect gifts of God’s grace, life, and empowerment. These are the gifts he is talking about. Let us give thanks for these gifts. Let us rejoice over these gifts. Let us never forget the gift of who we are in Christ. Our identity in Christ is a very good gift indeed.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Colossians 3:16-19 (ESV)
[16] Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. [17] And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. [18] Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. [19] Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.

Most Bible’s put a space between verses 17 and 18. In fact, most Bibles put a major break there with a new heading. That is unfortunate because the discussion of wives and husbands, children and fathers, bondservants and masters flows directly out of the passage that precedes it. Paul is writing about unity. He is writing about setting our minds on things above, putting off that which is earthly, and putting on the character of Christ. That character is expressed in forgiveness. Part of the process of setting our minds on things above is to “Let the word of Christ dwell in (us) richly” (Col 3:16). As we listen to the word of Christ and teach it to one another it is then practiced first at home. Therefore, Wives submit, husbands love, children obey, fathers do not provoke, bondservants obey, and masters treat their bondservants fairly. This is how the heavenly life first lives itself out in an earthly manner.

Too often we read these verses and misapply them in at least two ways. First, we separate them from their context. The result is that we are trying to live in church community in unity and forgiveness, but neglect to do so at home. Our household sees the worst in us. Maybe that is why Paul starts the application at home. Second, we assume that these are enforceable behaviors. Husbands insist on submission, parents force obedience in destructive ways, etc. We miss the truth that these behaviors are not listed so that we will enforce them. They are listed so that we will understand what the life of Christ willingly looks like in the most intimate relationships.

The question of whether we, as believers, are walking with God is not answered by going to a church where we all get along on the surface. The question of whether we, as believers, are walking with God is answered by how we live in our homes when no one else is looking. This is what the life of Christ looks like. It flows not out of enforced behavior, but out of those who understand who they are in Christ, set their minds on things above, and fill their minds with the teachings of Jesus. His word transforms us in our intimate relationships first. Church relationships are easy to fake. Who we are at home exposes what we really believe about who we are in Christ.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Colossians 3:12-14 (ESV)
[12] Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, [13] bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. [14] And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

It is interesting that Jesus said, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). Paul wrote,  “If one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13). Go to the one who is offended by you. Forgive the one who offends you. We tend to turn these around.

We say, “If someone has something against me they should come to me.” Jesus said that if someone has something against you, you should go to them. We say, “If I have something against someone, I should go to them.” Paul wrote that if you have something against someone, you should forgive them. I wonder what difference it would make if we would keep this in the right order. Go to someone who has something against you. Forgive those you have something against.

When we turn it around and go to those we have something against, it almost always comes off as accusation and justification. The offending party is put on the spot, and are actually required to be the bigger person through confession before forgiveness. If we forgive those we are offended by, rather than accusing them and requiring them to “repent” we are getting a taste of what Jesus has done for us. But how can we forgive if we don’t first air the offense? We forgive the same way Jesus did. We take it to the cross. We see their sin nailed to the cross right along with ours. We embrace the heart of Jesus that spoke from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:24).

After all, if the cross is enough to take away the sins of the world, then isn’t it enough to take away the sin of my offender? Or do we get to live by a higher standard of forgiveness than God? Forgiveness is not just withholding punishment. It is letting go of the offense, realizing that the punishment has been fully paid.

There are certainly other passages that address offenses, faults, and sin in the scriptures. In Matthew 18 Jesus taught, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Mt 18:15). In Galatians 6:1 Paul wrote,  “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Colossians 3 and Matthew 5 are certainly not the only passages that address conflict. But, it would be interesting to see what it might look like if we were quicker to admit fault, and quicker to forgive rather than being quick to point out fault and demand repentance. It leaves us with the question: Is the cross really enough to cover my brother’s or sister’s sin? Or, do I get to require a higher standard than God?

Monday, September 17, 2018

Colossians 3:1-4 (ESV)
[1] If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. [2] Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. [3] For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. [4] When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

When he says to set our minds on things above, what does that mean? It does not mean, set your thoughts on ethereal, spiritual things versus earthly things like work, commitment, marriage and family, etc. This is not the Greek philosophy that says physical things are evil and spiritual things are good. Paul defines his terms in the next verses. He defines earthly things as, “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5). These things are to be put to death.

These are expressions of the brokenness that resulted from Adam’s sin, but they are not what define the believer. He goes on to write, “In these you too once walked, when you were living in them” (Col 3:7). We are no longer living in them. As believers we are now living in Christ. As such, behavior from that previous life is inappropriate. Our past behavior does not define us. Our identity is found in Christ, with whom we have been raised to new life.

What does Christ’s life look like? “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:12-13). Why? Because that is who we are now in Christ. That is our new identity. As believers in Jesus Christ we are not only forgiven of our sins, we are given an entirely new identity.

As believers it is now love that ought to bind us together, peace that ought to rule in our hearts, and the Word of God that ought to dwell in us richly, “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16). These things ought to be true of us, not because it will keep God happy with us, or conversely that it will keep God from being angry with us, but because this is who we are.

As believers in Jesus Christ our identity is no longer found in our earthly passions, our former way of life, nor our sinful habits that we sometimes find so hard to break. Our identity is now found in Christ. To set our minds on things above is not to be thinking about gold paved streets, and wondering how to play the harp. It is to set our minds on the very life of Christ in whom we find our life.

Today, let us practice setting our minds on the character of Christ, for that is who we are. When the Apostle wrote, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Php 3:13), I think this is what he meant. When the writer of Hebrews wrote, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2). I think this is what he meant. It is time that we, as believers in Jesus Christ, stop fixating on what we did wrong, and what we do wrong, and begin to fix our eyes on Jesus, set our minds on our identity in Christ, and actually believe that we have a new identity, for we “have been raised with Christ” (Col 3:1).

Saturday, September 15, 2018

James 1:12 (ESV)
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

Reading through James 1, between verses 12 and 13 my version of the Bible switches from the word “trials” to the word “temptation.” What is interesting is that it is the same Greek word all the way through. It is the same word found in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation.” The word can mean trials and difficulties, or enticement to evil, but always with an edge to it. Testing and proving are involved. We have an enemy who is trying to prove that our faith is not genuine. The believer, by God’s power, stands up under the test.

This passage in James goes on to say that God cannot be tested in this way. He cannot be tested by evil; neither does he test us with evil. What is interesting is that he does not go on to say that this testing comes from the Enemy. It is true that Satan tests God-followers. Clearly Satan tested Job. Yet James’ focus is on the inner man. The testing comes from within. “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14 ESV).

The real test comes from our own natural inclination toward evil. Of course, when James talks about evil, he is not talking about card playing, dancing, drinking, or going to movies. He is not talking about whether you go into a bar to eat a burger, or whether you wear a tie to church on Sunday. He is talking about envy, divisiveness, anger, and injustice.

This reveals two problems that are at the heart of genuine holiness in the life of the believer. First, we want to blame testing and temptation on outside sources. It is not the man’s fault for lusting. It is the woman’s fault for wearing revealing clothing. It is not my fault for wanting more and more stuff, it is the fault of subversive and manipulative advertising. It is not my fault for being overweight while much of the world starves. I was just born into a wealthier part of the world. We blame outside sources. In doing so, we fail to take responsibility for our own complicity.

Second, we fail to understand what real evil is. We define evil in terms that make us feel good about ourselves, while ignoring the real issues. God is concerned about issues of justice. I am concerned about how people see me. God is concerned about issues of the heart. I am concerned about issues of control and manipulation. God is concerned about faith. I am concerned about keeping the rules. My understanding of evil does not align with God’s heart at all, but it does make it easy to feel good about myself while judging those who are different from me. James says that the real issue is our own heart.

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial” (James 1:12). God has a solution. James will go on to talk about the “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25). We’ll get to that passage eventually, as we work our way through James. But for today, suffice it to say that we need to stop blaming others, and take full responsibility for our own culpability in evil. When we recognize where it starts, we can begin to apply God’s solution. As long as we blame circumstances, Satan, and others for our sin we will never find freedom.

The word translated “remains steadfast” in James 1:12 means, “to stay under.” In this case, it is the idea of continually standing firm in Christ when the brokenness within is inclined to lead us toward selfishness. The word translated “blessed” can mean enviable. So, in the context of James 1, we might say, “Enviable is the individual who stands firm in Christ instead of envying others.” Where is your focus? Are your eyes fixed on the stuff you want, or on the blessing you already possess in Christ? We need to constantly remind ourselves of what we already possess in Christ.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Colossians 2:20-23 (ESV)
[20] If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— [21] “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” [22] ( referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? [23] These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

The Apostle Paul writes that rules and regulations “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:23). That doesn’t mean there is no place for rules or that rules are meaningless. Organizations still need to have and enforce standards of behavior. We still need to drive the speed limit. But rules never changed hearts. Rules and regulations let us know where the boundaries are, but they miss the better thing.

This passage starts with the question, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why…?” (Col 2:20). Just recently I heard an excellent message on repentance, and had a good discussion with other pastors on the topic of repentance. Repentance is turning from something to something. It is a change of mind that results in a change of action. According to Hebrews 6:1 we repent from dead works to faith in God. Dead works are works designed to gain God’s favor. Dead works are rules and regulations that fail to change the heart. Repentance turns from this approach to God. It turns to faith. Faith is not just believing that God will forgive us. It is believing that God has forgiven us in Christ. It is believing that not only are we forgiven, but that we died with Christ. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). Repentance is not just turning from dead works. It is turning to the new life that we, as believers in Jesus Christ, now possess.

The answer to the strongholds of sin in the lives of believers is not more and better rules and regulations. It is not stronger consequences, although consequences to broken rules are appropriate. The answer to the strongholds of sin in the lives of believers is a deep understanding of who we are in Christ. We are new creations. We are dead, buried, and risen to new life. We have the living God dwelling in us to lead us, instruct us, and empower us. Do we really believe that? Because as long as we believe that we cannot help ourselves, we will continue to give in to temptation and sin. Rules will never change that, but the power of Christ will transform us from the inside out. Believe it!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

James 1:9-10 (ESV)
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.

These two verses are directed at two different groups of people within the church. As I read the passage above it occurs to me that we have often gotten this backward. It seems to me that the lowly are told to exalt in their lowliness, and the rich in their exaltation. What if the lowly learned to exalt in the reality that they are children of the King? What if the rich learned to exalt in their lowliness?

The word “boast” means to walk with one’s head held high. You’ve seen people with low self-esteem. They tend to walk with their head down. They don’t look anyone in the eye. Those with a strong opinion of self tend to walk into a room with confidence. That often is determined by wealth rather than intelligence, gifting, or faith. The well-dressed walk into church confidently. They poorly dressed walk in tentatively. The wealthy are known by everyone and deferred to. The poor are looked at with suspicion. This is a reality of our world that is backward to God’s economy.

The answer in many health and wealth churches has been to tell the poor that they too can be wealthy. That is not God’s answer. God says that we need to recognize the inherent value of those who are poor. “Let the lowly brother ‘hold his head up high’ in his exaltation.” Do we understand that the believer who is the poorest of the poor is created in the image of God, bought by the blood of Christ, and treated as a child of the King with welcome access to his throne room? Let the rich “hold his head up high” because of his humiliation. Do we understand that God does not accept the wealthy and powerful because they are wealthy and powerful? They come to God with nothing to offer but their brokenness, just like their poor brother.

What a difference it would make in church and society if Christians learned this truth. One of the most difficult aspects of church life is the challenge of building unity between people who are different. It appears that things were no different in James’ day. The poor envied the wealthy. The wealthy and powerful looked down on the poor. We would like to think that is not true of us, yet it is.

This has affected mission work over the years. Wealthy Europeans and Americans walked into a new culture with their heads held high, believing that they were somehow superior to those they were trying to help. This is evident even in the language we use. Natives were called savages. We were called educated, or cultured, or civilized. That very arrogance hindered the gospel and caused us to export a culture more than a contextualized gospel. We do the same thing today. We tend to view unbelievers as uncouth and unacceptable. We want them to clean up and look like us. What a difference it would make if we carried the gospel in humility instead of pride.

Father, forgive me for the times I have judged people based on their clothing, their education, or their apparent wealth or lack of wealth. Forgive me for the times I have felt superior to someone because I didn’t understand their world. May I learn to walk in humility among those less fortunate than I, and may I learn to walk with my head held high in the presence of those of wealth and power. May I find my significance in you, Father, not in my position in life, nor in the social status of those I call acquaintances. Both my significance and my humiliation are found in Christ. That changes everything. What a difference it would make in our churches if we really lived that truth.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Colossians 1:15-19 (ESV)
[15] He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. [16] For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. [17] And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. [18] And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. [19] For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,

As 21st Century Western believers we have learned the significance of these verses in terms of our theology. We can defend the deity of Jesus, but we miss the point. Jesus is God. As such, thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities “were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). There are two truths here that we give lip service to, but fail to live out on a consistent basis.

First, the goal is that “in everything he might be preeminent” (Col 1:18). In other words, it’s not about me. Too often our prayers, our worship, our board meetings and business meetings, our meetings in the parking lot after the meetings are all about us. What makes us feel good? What keeps us comfortable? What music do we like the best? Why doesn’t God take away my pain, or my problems? We have turned the focus of the church on us when it was never about us. It is about Jesus

Second, we give lip service to God, but fail to trust him. We listen to stories from missionaries about demons and witch doctors. We are wowed by the stories, but scared to death by the demons and witch doctors. Have we forgotten that “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13)? Do we not believe that he is indeed preeminent? Do we not believe that even the demons are subject to the authority of Jesus? We allow these things to fill us with fear.

Then we turn from the spiritual realm to the earthly realm and fear the cults, the false religions, the druggies, and those caught in the dark world of sin. Why should Muslim immigrants fill us with fear? Why would we assume that druggies and alcoholics are beyond salvation and sanctification? Why do we give lip service to the power of God, but live as though he is incapable of transforming lives? If God “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13), does he not have the power to do the same thing for those caught up in cults, false religions, violence, drugs, human trafficking, etc.?

Why would we live in fear and allow fear to drive our decisions and policies if we really believed that Jesus is who this passage says he is? Or, could it be that we love to talk and sing about the greatness of Jesus because that makes us feel good, but in the end we don’t really believe it? Here is the most mind-blowing, incredible, world shaking truth, Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). He created all things, and all things are subject to his power and authority. “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9), and he has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col 2:15). There is no power that can stand against him. Maybe it is time that we live as though we actually believe our theology.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Colossians 1:9-14 (ESV)
[9] And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, [10] so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; [11] being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; [12] giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. [13] He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, [14] in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

The Apostle says that from the day he heard of the Colossians faith in Christ the above verses are what he has been praying for them. How different this prayer is from ours. He prays for the knowledge of God’s will so that they can walk worthy, be fruitful, and increase in their knowledge of God. We pray for God’s blessing. We pray for God’s provision. We pray for Good things to happen to people. Do we pray that they will know God more and more deeply? When was the last time you heard that prayer request in a meeting?

He prays that they will be strengthened in God’s power for the purpose of endurance and patience. We pray for healing. We pray for deliverance. We pray for relief. He prayed for God’s power for endurance and patience. We actually joke, “Don’t pray for patience. God will send trials.” Paul prays for God’s power to be active in their lives so they can patiently endure trials. He knows trials will come.

We act as though it is God’s job to keep us comfortable and happy. God has a higher purpose. He wants us to know his will so that we might know him. He want us to know his will so that we might live in a way that honors him. He wants us to know his will so that we might be fruitful in good works. He want us to know his will so that we might be strengthened with his power rather than relying on our own. He wants us to know his will so that we might know him more fully and deeply. That was Paul’s prayer for the believers in Colossae. Isn’t that what we ought to be praying for each other, not relief, but deep, growing, abiding faith as we know him more and more intimately day by day?

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Habakkuk 3:16-19 (ESV)
[16] I hear, and my body trembles;
my lips quiver at the sound;
rottenness enters into my bones;
my legs tremble beneath me.
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
to come upon people who invade us.
[17] Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
[19] GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.

As Habakkuk lays his concerns before God throughout this short book, his thoughts turn to the greatness of God. He reflects on God’s power, his majesty, and his frightening, awe inspiring presence. An awareness of God’s powerful majesty takes the strength out of his body. “my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me” (Hab 3:16). But as God said, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2Cor 12:9). Habakkuk finds himself experiencing weakness in the presence of God, but it is in that weakness that he can finally say, “I will quietly wait” (Hab 3:16).

When we face difficulties, attacks, failure, or pain, we try to build up our courage and be strong. We even say really spiritual sounding things like, “Never question God,” or “Never ask why.” But that is not what Habakkuk did. He questioned God. He honestly laid out before the Almighty his questions, fears, and concerns. In his confusion he encountered God. Having reflected on the power and majesty of the Almighty he gave up trying to be strong. In his weakness he came to understand that God had everything under control. He did not have to be strong. “God, the Lord, is my strength” (Hab 3:9). His strength was not in his own ability to screw up courage and stumble on. His strength was in contemplating the immense greatness of God himself. God’s strength was made perfect in Habakkuk’s weakness.

When we are facing things too big for us, too painful, too difficult, too challenging, stop trying to be strong. Turn your eyes to Jesus. Be honest with him about your weakness, fear, uncertainty, and inabilities. Reflect on the greatness of God himself, and let his strength sustain you. With Habakkuk we can say, “Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab 3:18). It is in our weakness that the power of God shows up. Rest in him.

Friday, September 7, 2018

James 1:5 (ESV)
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

In James 1, verses 5-11 talk about wisdom, about humility of the wealthy, and about exaltation of the poor. This is in the context of the brevity of life. Our tendency is to read those passages like we read the Proverbs, as distinct and disconnected concepts. But they are sandwiched between two verses about trials. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (Jas 1:2). “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial” (Jas 1:12a). There must be some connection between the need for wisdom, the importance of humility in the wealthy, the value of exaltation in the poor, and trials in life. In fact, it may be that the poor are experiencing trials at the hands of the wealthy. Additionally, those who were once wealthy may not be so wealthy anymore because of embracing Christianity. To deal with these issues in life requires a wisdom that comes from above.

In James, everything is received from God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17 ESV). Do you need wisdom to deal with life issues? Ask God. Wisdom involves an understanding of self and others. It brings life into perspective. It clarifies who I am in Christ. It equips me to face whatever life throws at me. It takes God’s wisdom to be able to look beyond the pain of the moment to see God’s guiding and protecting hand. Wisdom leads to steadfastness and maturity, but wisdom cannot be manufactured. It is not the same thing as intelligence. Wisdom comes from God.

When we ask for wisdom, we can ask confidently. First, because God gives “generously to all without reproach” (Jas 1:5). Second, we can ask confidently because God instructed us to ask for wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God” (Jas 1:5a). Thirdly, we can ask confidently for wisdom because God told us to ask in faith. “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting” (Jas 1:5a, 6a). Wisdom is not the same thing as intelligence. Wisdom comes from God, and God told us to ask for it.

Are you struggling to understand what is happening in your life? Are you facing pain, betrayal, difficulties, loss, grief, or hurt? God calls these trials. You can’t face them alone. It takes divine wisdom, divine power, and divine provision. Job wanted to understand why he was facing the trials he faced. God never gave him a clear answer to that question. God’s wisdom may never explain why, but it will guide you through the messiness of life to his full provision of grace. . “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (Jas 1:2). “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial” (Jas 1:12a). Sandwiched between those two verses is this incredible promise, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (Jas 1:5).

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Habakkuk 2:2-4 (ESV)
[2] And the LORD answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so he may run who reads it.
[3] For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
[4] “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.

As believers we give lip service to faith, but too often walk by sight. When we can’t see God’s judgment coming against evil and injustice, we begin to doubt. When we can’t see relief coming in our time frame, we wonder if God has abandoned us, forgotten us, or rejected us. Our faith is based on our sight rather than our sight being based on faith. The LORD answered Habakkuk, “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:4).

What does it mean to live by faith? It means to trust God’s word when we don’t see how it is possible. It means to trust God’s presence when we can’t feel him there. It means to walk in God’s ways when we don’t see the benefit. For Habakkuk it meant being assured of God’s judgment coming even when he couldn’t see it and didn’t understand how God could bring it the way he indicated. Walking by faith means that I read the scriptures and listen to the Spirit. It means I see my world through the lens of the Bible and the Spirit, not the other way around.

What does your experience tell you? Does it tell you that the wicked keep getting away with their wickedness. Believe that it will not always be so. Does your experience tell you that the world is getting worse and worse, and that the Enemy is winning. Believe that it will not always be so. Does your experience tell you that there is no value in self-denial or sacrifice? Believe that the reward is coming. With Habakkuk we must learn to live by faith and not by sight. That is why it is so important to be meditating on God’s Word daily. It helps us keep a faith perspective, for the righteous live by faith.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

James 1:2-3, 12 (ESV)
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

I’ve been reading James lately. When we think of James we almost always think of the passage, “Faith without works is dead.” Some see it as a troubling passage, putting emphasis on works instead of grace. Others see it as a corrective passage, bringing balance to Paul’s teaching on grace. Still others see it as contradictory to Paul. Those in this last camp tend to take sides. They assert either that Paul is right, or James is right. Personally, I see it as complementary to Paul. I don’t think they are saying anything different at all. But what has really caught my attention this time is that I’m not sure that is what James is really about at all. James starts and ends talking about suffering. I think James is about living as though there is more to life than this world and our few years on it. I think that James is about living in light of eternity.

How can one possibly “count it all joy” when we face a wide variety of trials and difficulties? I have friends in constant pain. I have family members grieving. I hear of brothers and sisters in Christ being persecuted for their faith. How do we count that all joy? I have a friend who was stoned as a boy for his faith in Christ. He had to get ten stiches in his head from one of the rocks thrown at him. As a young man, he was knifed, and had a knife held to his throat demanding that he denounce Jesus. His church has been burned, burgled, and shot up. His response? “God says to forgive.” But how do you count that all joy?

I think that is what James is ultimately about. How do we live in an unfriendly world and remain faithful? He offers a quick answer to the question of joy in the verses quoted above. He reminds us of two truths. First, trials build steadfastness in the life of the believer. Second, steadfastness leads to ultimate blessing. “When he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (Jas 1:12).

I’ve been told that in wet years, trees grow fast. Rain produces growth in size. But it is the dry years that make the trees strong. If you look at the rings in a tree you will notice that some are very narrow, and some are quite wide. The wide rings developed in years with plenty of moisture. They make the tree big. The narrow rings came in years of drought. They make the tree strong.

We have been too often focused on how to make the church bigger, while God’s concern is with making the church stronger. We may have lots of people attending church, but how many are willing to attend when their church starts getting shot up? How many are willing to attend when they are being threatened because of their faith? How many are willing to attend when it is not convenient, not comfortable, and not entertaining?

I am not criticizing churches. I am re-evaluating my own life. Do I count it all joy when I experience trials? Am I choosing faith or comfort? Am I living as though now is all there is, or am I living in light of eternity? Is Jesus seen more clearly in me when things go wrong, or does the Old Man take over? Do I attend church because I need to be there, or because it is a fairly convenient habit? I hate to say it, but maybe what we really need as 21st century American believers is a little more pain in our lives.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman (Galatians 4:22 ESV).

God’s promises are often not realized in a way that is expected. Israel was looking for a deliverer in Messiah. He came as a middle class teacher who offered deliverance by dying. The surprise, of course, was that he rose from the dead. About 2000 years earlier Abraham received a promise. God told him, “I will make you a great nation” (Gen 12:2). When Abraham began to doubt God’s promise because he had no children, God said, “Your very own son shall be your heir” (Gen 15:4).

Imagine the distress of Abraham and Sarah as year after year they got older, yet they remained childless. Maybe God needed their help. Maybe he meant for them to use alternate means. Finally, Sarah came up with a plan. Culturally, if her handmaid had a child, and if that child was born on Sarah’s lap, then the child would be considered Sarah’s. Maybe that’s how God would fulfill his promise. Sure enough, it worked. Abraham had a son. He slept with a woman; she got pregnant; he had a son. Thirteen years later, when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God visited him again. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham. He changed Sarai’s name to Sarah and said, “I will give you a son by her.…Sarah your wife shall bear you a son” (Gen 17:16-19).

For thirteen years they thought they had helped God. Now, he said that he would do something impossible. At ninety-nine, with a wife at ninety, God said he would give them a child. Four chapters later Isaac was born. God kept his word. Paul uses this story in Galatians to illustrate the Christian life. Often we live as though we need to somehow help God. Rules help. There’s nothing wrong with rules. Accountability helps. There is nothing wrong with accountability. Safeguards help. There is nothing wrong with setting up safeguards in our lives. Yet, ultimately these all amount to self-effort. If we act as though these are the means to holiness, then we are no different than Abraham and Sarah trying to help God by using Hagar. God promised holiness, but self-effort will never produce holiness.

It is the Spirit of God that produces holiness in us, not our self-effort. The promise of holiness from God is fulfilled in us as we believe him, not as we add rules upon rules to guarantee purity. 

Galatians 4:30 (ESV)
But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Gal 4:30-5:1 ESV).

But how does that work? “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:5-6). Holiness works out in our lives “through the Spirit.” What is our part? “By faith.” Law, rules, self-effort, count for nothing. Following Christ is all about the Spirit of God working out the life of Christ in us by his grace, through faith. For Abraham the only thing that counted was the child received by faith, not the child received by human effort. For us the only thing that counts is faith as it works its way out in us through love. All of that is by the promise of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, by means of faith. Why then would we go back to self-effort to try and accomplish what only God can do? It is “for freedom Christ has set us free.” Never move away from that truth.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Habakkuk 1:3-6 (ESV)
[3] Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
[4] So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
[5] “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
[6] For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.

In this first chapter of Habakkuk the prophet struggles with two injustices. First, the people of God are living in sin. They are not living by God’s Law. Habakkuk knows that the Covenant under which they live says that God will judge his people if they do not keep his law, yet he sees no judgment coming. How can God let this go on?

The second injustice comes from God’s response. He will not let this go on. He will send the Chaldeans to judge his people. This throws Habakkuk into further confusion. The Chaldeans are worse than God’s own people. How can he use such evil people to judge his own people?

God has an answer in the next chapter, but for now, suffice it to say that we tend to look at life through a very narrow lens. If we do not see God answering now, we wonder where he is. If ungodly people prosper, we wonder if God really has the control he claims to have. God sees things through an eternal lens. When he says that people will not get away with their sin, you can believe it. God is playing the long game.

We can only see the present and remember the past. God has the future in his hands. What we see as ungodly people getting away with their sin, God sees as giving them just a little more time to repent. They won’t get away with it in the long run. What we see as a tragedy God sees as motivation to turn to him. Habakkuk can’t believe that God would send the Chaldeans to judge his people. That is unbelievable in his world. Yet God had a plan and they would not get away with their violence forever. The truth is they were eventually destroyed by the Persians. The Persians then allowed God’s people to rebuild their land. God knew what he was doing.

In our own world we give lip service to the God of justice, power, majesty, and glory, yet we often live with the fear and consternation of Habakkuk. How can this go on? Well, it won’t. The good news is that God promises, one day “every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God” (Rom 14:11-12). So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” It may look like the world is spinning out of control and the ungodly have the upper hand, but the game is not finished. One day all will be set right. Count on it.

Reflections on Psalms 77-78

Psalms 77:7 (ESV) [7] “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?   The first nine verses of this psalm express abso...