Friday, May 31, 2019

Ezra 7:13 (ESV)
I make a decree that anyone of the people of Israel or their priests or Levites in my kingdom, who freely offers to go to Jerusalem, may go with you.

There are at least four references in Ezra 7:11-20 to freely going, giving, or serving. Those may go who freely offer to go (vs 13). The king’s counselor’s freely offered to the God of Israel (vs 15). The offerings of the people were freewill offerings (vs 16). Those freewill offerings were vowed willingly (vs 16). These were not coerced offerings, coerced giving, or coerced going. Worship and service can never be coerced.

The truth is, we are pretty good at manipulating people. We are good at guilting people. But true service needs to come from hearts that willingly submit to God’s leading. That doesn’t mean that we don’t ask or even challenge. But we need to be careful not to cross the line from challenge to manipulation or coercion. Worship and service is freewill.

So that raises the question: Are you willingly serving and giving? When worship is about us we give when it is convenient. When service is about us we serve when it makes us feel good. But worship and service is never about us. It is about willingly and freely responding to the call of God on our lives. So, are you willingly serving and giving? If not, why not? If so, are you listening well to the Spirit of God who may be calling you to serve or give in ways that had never occurred to you before. Worship and service comes from a free heart responding freely and willingly to the call of the Almighty. I wonder if we have really learned to worship and serve at all.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Ezra 7:10 - Who then are you teaching?

Ezra 7:10 (ESV)
For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.

Ezra studied and practiced the Law of the LORD. But it didn’t stop there. He also taught God’s Law. He was not only rightly dividing the Scriptures, he was rightly communicating them to the people of God. Doing must come before teaching. In John 13:17 Jesus said, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” Too often we are more ready to tell others what they should be doing than we are to do what is right ourselves. Doing must come before teaching.

But we can’t stop with doing. We need to realize that we, as believers in Jesus Christ, are all teachers. The Great Commission included these words, “. . . teaching them to observe all I commanded you” (Mt 28:20). In Deuteronomy 6:6-7 the people of God were instructed, “You shall teach them [the words that God had commanded his people] diligently to your children.” We are tempted to leave the teaching to those gifted as teachers, or those professional preachers among us. In Acts 18:26 a professional preacher came through town and, “Priscilla and Aquila heard him [Apollos], they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” It doesn’t take professionals to teach the Word of God. It only takes people who know and do the Word. Are you in the Word? Are you doing the Word? Who then are you teaching?

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Ezra 7:10 - Study, Practice, Teach

Ezra 7:10 (ESV)
For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.
God’s scriptures are important. Ezra set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, do it, and teach it. The study of the Word is not just for the professional priest, preacher, or evangelist. 2 Corinthians 5:18 calls all believers “ministers of reconciliation.” It doesn’t matter whether we are bankers, teachers, plumbers, carpenters, the CEO of a multi-national corporation, or unemployed. If we are believers in Jesus Christ then we are his representatives to a broken world. We are ministers of reconciliation. As ministers of reconciliation, we need to be in the Word of God and the Word of God needs to be in us.

 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that all scripture is God breathed. As God-breathed writings, believers are called to be diligent, handling accurately (rightly dividing) the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). The Scriptures are “alive and powerful. [They are] sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. [The Scriptures expose] our innermost thoughts and desires.” Romans 12:2 instructs us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. It is the scriptures that renew our mind. Ephesians 5:26 tells us that God sanctifies and cleanses us, his church, “by the washing of water with the word.” As believers, we ought to learn to handle God’s word accurately.

This is not just for professionals. This is not just for seminary professors and preachers. This is for every believer. The model of Ezra, who studied the Word, practiced the Word, and taught the Word, is a model for every believer. Have you been in the Word today? Is the Word in you?

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Ezra 7 - Qualified Leaders

Ezra 7:5-6 (ESV)
son of Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the chief priest— this Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the LORD, the God of Israel, had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him.

One reason that Ezra stepped into leadership was that he was qualified to do so. He was a descendent of Aaron, the brother of Moses. He was properly qualified for leadership. The truth is, we need church leaders who are properly qualified. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 establish some of the qualifications of leadership in the church. Ultimately the qualification is because these church leaders are related to the right person. They are children of God because of Jesus. That is where leadership qualification begins.

In reality, all believers are all qualified to represent God to the world because we are related to the right person (Jesus). We may or may not be qualified for church leadership, but as a believer in Jesus Christ we are qualified to represent God to the world. 2 Corinthians 5:18 says, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

We may not be called to be leaders in the church. We may never be called to positions of leadership in any way. But as believers we are all called and qualified to represent God to a broken world. That is real leadership. It doesn’t take professionals. We are qualified.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Ezra 7 - A Heritage of Faith

Ezra 7:6 (ESV)
Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the LORD, the God of Israel, had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him.

Three times in Ezra 7 the statement is made that the hand of God or the hand of the LORD was on Ezra. (Ezr 7:6, 9, 28) What does that look like for the hand of the God to be on someone? In verses 11-20 King Artaxerxes decreed that anyone who wanted to had permission to go back to Jerusalem with Ezra. Further, he officially sent Ezra and covered the cost of all worship at the temple. In verses 21-24 Artaxerxes instructed Ezra to be diligent about doing all that the Law of God requires and clarified that he was not only covering the cost of worship, but that none of the temple workers were to be taxed in any way. Finally, in verses 25-26 the king commanded Ezra to teach God’s law to his people and anyone who opposed him was to be punished. The chapter ends with a statement of praise and worship because of God’s blessing and provision through Artaxerxes, the king.

Ezra’s ancestors had names that mean things like wasting, rebellious, and retribution, but his father's name, Seraiah, means Jehovah is ruler. His grandfather's name, Azariah, means Jehovah has helped. His great grandfather's name, Hilkiah, means my portion is Jehovah. Ezra's name means help.
Ezra is going back to Jerusalem to help his people set their hearts toward God. He is apparently the fifth generation of a line of priests who have turned their hearts to God. A man named Shallum, which means retribution, chose to name his son my portion is Jehovah. That started the line of faith that brought Ezra into the picture. No matter what the past holds, today we have the opportunity to begin a heritage of faith and holiness. Today is a good day to start a new line of faith, a new heritage of walking with God. It is never too late to start.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Finding Joy

We too often forget about the provisions and protections God has provided. We too often neglect to step back from time to time and rejoice in the amazing things God has done in and through us. We too often forget to simply rejoice in who God is and worship him. C.S. Lewis in his book Surprised by Joy suggested that we “Shut (our) mouth (and) open your eyes and ears.”

C. S. Lewis said that as he was beginning to believe in God, he could not understand the demands in the Psalms that we praise God. He didn’t see the point in this; besides, it seemed to him to picture God as craving “for our worship like a vain woman who wants compliments.” He goes on to show why he was wrong.

But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. … I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…. The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game….

My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. (Reflections on the Psalms pp. 94-95, cited by Piper, Desiring God, p. 18.)

Looking for joy rarely if ever leads to joy. But we are often surprised by joy when we are not looking for it. We are not experiencing joy because we are too fixated on finding it. We are not experiencing joy because we are too focused on ourselves. We are not experiencing joy because we have too high a view of self and too low a view of God.

The best way to experience joy is to quit looking for it. Instead we need to set our eyes on the providential care of God, the blessing of a finished task by His protection and provision, and the undeserved experience of his presence in our lives. When he fills our vision we find ourselves surprised by joy and God takes pleasure in watching us make that discovery. And that is when we celebrate.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Ezra 6 - The Heart of Worship

Ezra 6:16, 22 (ESV)
And the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy.
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.

Selflessness and service are foundational truths to experiencing God’s joy. True worship of a worthy God is also a source of joy. Corporate worship takes our eyes off ourselves and centers them on God and his greatness. Too often we have defined “good worship” as worship that makes us feel good, but good worship is worship that honors God. Worship means to bow the knee before the Almighty. I means to leave self at the altar and fall on our faces before the unapproachable God, only to be invited to stand and “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb 4:16). Hebrews 10:22 tells invites us to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” But how does one get a true heart? The verse goes on to remind us that by faith our hearts have been “sprinkled clean.” Pure hearts are found in the grace of God. That grace leads believers to worship in grateful joy. That was the experience of the people of God in Ezra 6.

Matt Redman’s hymn The Heart of Worship speaks of this kind of worship. His second verse goes like this:
King of endless worth
No one could express
How much You deserve
Though I'm weak and poor
All I have is Yours
Every single breath

It is in corporate worship that begins with an attitude expressed by Redman’s hymn that we find great joy. Let us get back to the heart of worship, Self-seeking worship will only find disappointment for that is not worship at all. It is in worship from a true heart focused on the grace of God that we find great joy.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Ezra 6-7 - Joy in Service

Ezra 7:13 (ESV)
I make a decree that anyone of the people of Israel or their priests or Levites in my kingdom, who freely offers to go to Jerusalem, may go with you.

Joy is found in the providential provision and protection of God. It is also found in the fulfillment of effective service. God provided his people with the opportunity and ability to serve (Ezra 6:13). He sent his prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, as well as the decree of kings Cyrus and Darius to support the work (Ezra 6:14). In response, the elders built, prospered, and finished the work (Ezra 6:14-15). The chapter ends with a celebration of joy.

In Matthew 25:21, 23 Jesus, in his parable of the talents, has the master say to the servant, “Well done good and faithful servant … enter into the joy of your master.” Reflecting on that truth,  Phil Wickham wrote these words in Heaven Song:

I hear Your voice and I catch my breath
“Well done my child, enter in and rest”
Tears of joy roll down my cheek
It's beautiful beyond my wildest dreams

We often forget about the provisions and protections God has provided. We neglect to step back from time to time and rejoice in the amazing things God has done in and through us. The most amazing truth is that when we get to heaven we will receive rewards for what we have done here. The truth is that it was all done by the grace of God. We need to occasional stop and reflect in what God has done, and then faithfully step into his service. It is in service that we find great joy.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Ezra 6 - Count Your Blessings

Ephesians 1:3
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”

One of the reasons that we fail to experience the joy of God is that we forget the provisions and protections God has provided. We focus on our pain, our loss, the difficulties we face, our failures, and the hurdles we face in life. That leads us to discouragement and a loss of hope. We get overwhelmed with the difficulties of life and neglect to look up and see the providential care and provision of God.

In Ezra 6 the people of God had reason to fear. They had people in power questioning their right to rebuild their temple. They had reason to be discouraged. They had been exiled for seventy years and only a remnant of their people returned to the land. Their city and their temple had been leveled. The prospects before them were discouraging and overwhelming, but for the providence of God.

They needed to remember God providential care. In Ezra 6:1 the pagan king cared enough to make a search of the official records. A memorandum is found in Ecbatana (Cyrus’s summer home– vss 2-4). Even after seventy years the gold and silver vessels for use in the temple had been preserved (Ezra 6:5). King Darius supported Cyrus’s earlier decree to pay for the rebuilding of the temple. Things could have turned out very different but for the providential care of God that led Cyrus to decree the rebuilding of the temple, that led Babylon to preserve the temple vessels, and that caused Darius to take the time to research and support Cyrus’s decree. God providentially cared for his people in the midst of potentially dark days.

They needed to remember not only God’s providential care, but his providential provision as well. In Ezra 6:6-7 permission was given to rebuild the temple. The cost of building and continuing worship was covered by official funds (Ezra 6:7-8). Further, the king asked that the people of God pray for him (Ezra 6:10). In return he guaranteed their protection (Ezra 6:11-12). God provided for the rebuilding and worship from an unusual source. A pagan King protected and provided for all they needed. That was the providential care and provision of God.

When we are overwhelmed with life and discouraged by the challenges we face, we need to change our focus. We need to remember the providential care and provision of God. Instead of counting our difficulties, we need to  count our blessings. Written in the late 1800’s by Johnson Oatman, a lay preacher who penned over 5000 hymns, Count your Blessings became one of the most loved hymns during the Welsh Revival of the early 1900’s. Perhaps we should practice the truth of this song more often.

Count Your Blessings

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!

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.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Naomi, A Woman of Faith

Ruth 1:8 (ESV)

But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” 

In an earlier post I wrote about the selflessness of Naomi. Naomi was not only selfless; she was a woman of faith. Notice Naomi’s words to her daughters-in-law in Ruth 1:8, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” Naomi’s first spoken words in the story are in reference to the LORD (Yahweh/Jehovah). Naomi’s influence on those around her was such that her daughter-in-law Ruth responds, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). In Ruth 2:20, in response to Boaz’s kindness to Ruth, Naomi says, “May he be blessed by the LORD.” The LORD was at the center of Naomi’s thinking. She was not only selfless; she was a woman of faith.

Selflessness and faith go together. One can be selfless because one believes in the sovereignty, faithfulness and love of God. Naomi refers to God as the LORD. That is the English translation of the Hebrew word YHWH. It is the personal Hebrew name for God that emphasizes God’s faithfulness to his word and his covenant. Naomi’s faith is not just wishful thinking, or a positive attitude. In fact, it is pretty evident in the story that Naomi has lived a bitter experience losing her husband and her two sons in a foreign land. Her’s is not an “everything will turn out rosy” kind of faith. It is trust that is deeply rooted in the faithfulness and goodness of God who always keeps his word.

Too often we are so self-focused that we act as though God exists to make us happy. That is hardly the case. Rather, we exist to give glory to God. We can trust his faithfulness and goodness even when everything seems to go wrong. Life is not about us. Selflessness is rooted in faith in a God who works good things out of bad things. It is rooted in faith in a God who is good even when we experience bad. It is rooted in faith in a God whose purpose is higher than our present happiness. Naomi had that kind of faith. It is the kind of faith God is calling each of us to as well. He can be trusted even when things feel totally out of control. He is the sovereign, good God who always keeps his word.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Mother's Day 1

This week I intend to post some blogs that I wrote about four years ago. They are reflections on the book of Ruth in light of Mother's Day. I hope you find them a blessing.

Ruth 1:20 (ESV)
[20] She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.

With Mother’s Day rapidly approaching I have been contemplating the book of Ruth in the Bible. Naomi’s name means pleasant, delightful, or lovely. Yet her life experience was anything but that. She followed her husband away from family and friends to a foreign land because of famine. Her two sons married foreign women. Something that, in Israel’s history, never turned out well. Her husband and her two sons died, leaving her destitute and responsible for two daughters-in-law. Is it any wonder that when she finally went home she told her friends, “Don’t call me delightful. Call me Mara, bitter.

It is not that she was bitter. It is that her life had been bitter. It is a similar word to that used to describe the bitter waters of Marah in the wilderness. Her name was Pleasant, but her life had been far from it. Yet the amazing thing is that Naomi’s primary concern throughout the story was not her own comfort, but Ruth’s. By attending to Ruth’s care Naomi found the blessing of a grandchild that became the grandfather of King David. The story begins with a woman named Pleasant whose life is bitter. It ends with a woman who called herself Bitter enjoying the delightful blessing of a grandchild she called Obed, worshiper.

The incredible truth about motherhood is that the mother’s lives are primarily about others. For nine months a mother carries a child that has no concern for the mother’s comfort or well-being. She cares for her children for years, training them to be concerned for others. Sometimes it feels like an impossible task. She delights in their growth, and agonizes over their pain. She worries about them no matter how old, wise, or mature they become. And once a year, if she is lucky, she gets a card telling her how great she is. Granted, not all mothers are selfless. Truthfully, those who have never been a mother are often just as selfless. But at the heart of motherhood is the idea that someone else is more important that one’s own self.

There is a lesson to be learned there. Paul said it like this in Philippians 2:3-5
[3] Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. [4] Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

That was Jesus heart when he chose to go to the cross in our place. That was God’s heart when he chose to send his son for the salvation of his enemies. Jesus said, in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Yet he laid down his life for his enemies. He calls us to live out that same selfless service. Motherhood emulates God’s love and sets an example of what it means to live selflessly. With Naomi, no matter what bitterness life brings, we are called to live a life of gracious selflessness. That is the greatest reflection of our Lord and Savior. It can only be done by his grace.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Power of God's Word

Earlier this week I posted these words: The work of God in Jerusalem was prompted and supported by the prophet/preacher, who may very well be the most powerful individual on earth. Those proclaiming the Word of the Lord are not powerful because any power resides in them, but because there is power in God’s Word. There is power in God’s Word proclaimed by God’s people. Ephesians 6:17 calls God’s Word the “Sword of the Spirit.” Hebrews 4:12 says, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” There is nothing more powerful than the Word of God.

The prophet/preacher may very well be the most powerful individual on earth because he proclaims the Word of God. But here is the problem: If you attend church ever single Sunday in a year, and listen to every sermon, you will have been exposed to 26 hours of teaching in a year. If you watch a one-hour television show ever day, you will have been exposed to 365 hours of television in a year. Some of us watch more than that, and some watch less. Television is not the issue. The issue is the lack of exposure to God's Word. If you miss every other Sunday you are only exposed to 13 hours of Bible teaching in a year. That is only 15 minutes a week. Imagine you decided to eat only 15 minutes a week. Imagine you decided to spend time with your spouse only 15 minutes a week. Imagine a young family where the parents only spent 15 minutes with their children in a week. We can't live on 15 minutes a week. That is why it is so important to be reading and thinking on God's Word daily. That is why it is such a privilege to have Bibles available to us. Today, go to church, listen to the sermon, take the Word of God seriously, but don't expect that a 30 minute sermon will carry you for a week any more than one meal on Sunday will carry you through the week. 

Psalms 1:1-2

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Ezra 5 - Remembering the Goodness of God

Ezra 5:2 (ESV)
Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them.

Galatians 6:9 warns believers, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” But circumstances change. Doing good gets hard. Opposition arises. We get weary. In Ezra 5 the work on the temple had stopped for some time. Looking at the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah we see that the people had become more interested in building their own houses than in building the house of God. Sometimes we get tired of doing without. Sometimes we get tired of giving, working, serving, and leading, especially when those around us do not seem to have the same commitment. Sometimes the world around us changes and outward opposition to us causes us to wonder whether it is worth it. This is just reality. So then what? Do we just give up? Do we push on, getting more and more weary and bitter? How do we deal with this growing disillusionment?

God’s people are to be about God’s work, but sometimes we get tired. Sometimes we get discouraged. Sometimes we come to the place where we are just ready to quit. That is the point where we need to stop and look back at the faithfulness of God. It is not about us. It is about the faithfulness of God. When we get our eyes on us and others we get weary. We need to remember the power of God’s word. We need to read it through fresh eyes. We need to come to the Word crying out, “God speak to my spirit today.” Too often when we are weary we read simply because we are supposed to read, but God’s Word is powerful. Let it speak to our hearts. We need to remember the strength of God’s blessing and the overwhelming goodness of God’s grace. In our weariness we have become focused on our weariness and others faithlessness. Our eyes are in the wrong place. It is like trying to drive across a bridge with our eyes fixed on the guardrails. Odds are we will hit the rails. But if we keep our eyes on the center of our lane ahead we will stay on the road and cross safely. We need to fix our eyes on the blessing, goodness, and grace of God.

Hebrews 12:1-2
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, [fixing our eyes on Jesus] the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Ezra 5:6-17 - Servants of the God of Heaven and Earth

Ezra 5:10-11 (ESV)
We also asked them their names, for your information, that we might write down the names of their leaders. And this was their reply to us: ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished.

These were God’s people, “servants of the God of heaven and earth” (Ez 5:11). Ezra 5:6-15 reveals certain characteristics of God’s people that we would do well to consider. The people of God were diligent. The governors writing to King Cyrus described the work of the people of God this way, “This work goes on diligently and prospers in their hands” (Ez 5:8). God’s people were diligent. Faithfulness is an aspect of diligence. The work of God was priority for them and they faithfully carried it out. It makes me wonder how diligent I am. How would outsiders describe my commitment to the things of God?

But their diligence was not carried out in a self-sufficient manner. In Ezra 5:11 they describe themselves as “servants of the God of heaven and earth.” They recognized their dependence on God. The people of God were not only diligent, but also dependent. They were not building something to their glory, but to the glory of the God they served. Their diligence was really not because of their faithfulness so much as because of the faithfulness of God who restored them after faithful discipline. They expressed the humility of diligent dependence.

They also expressed the humility of confession and blessing. In Ezra 5:12 they admitted that “Our fathers had angered the God of heaven.” They acknowledged that they were offenders of God’s Law, covenant breakers who deserved God’s discipline. Too often we want to make excuses for our disobedience. There is always a reason why we didn’t do what we knew God wanted. “I couldn’t help myself; I didn’t realize . . .; I knew it was wrong but . . .” There is always an excuse, but people of God own up to their failures. They acknowledge their own personal responsibility, and with that acknowledgement they become recipients of God’s grace. Ezra 5:13-15 describes how the vessels of the temple were restored totally apart from their efforts. God put it in the heart of a pagan king to restore the temple. That is grace. Notice that in this passage the expression of grace is coupled the humble acknowledgment of sin on the part of God’s people. When we try to cover up or excuse sin we reap discipline and brokenness. When we humbly acknowledge sin we receive grace.

The characteristics of God’s people revealed in Ezra 5 are the humility of diligent dependence on God, and the humility of honest confession followed by blessing. Maybe it is time for us to stop trying to do things for God and humbly confess our failures, owning up to them. Maybe it is time for us to diligently get on with the work of God rather than the pursuit of personal peace and affluence, faithfully dependent on the God of heaven and earth. Maybe it is time that life stops being about us.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Ezra 5:3-5 - The Eye of God

Ezra 5:5 (ESV)
But the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until the report should reach Darius and then an answer be returned by letter concerning it.

The eye of their God was on them. What does that mean? In Ps 17:8 the Psalmist cries out, “Keep me as the apple of your eye.” Ps 33:18 says, “Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love.” In 2 Chron 16:9 the king is reminded, “The eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.” For unbelievers, having the eye of the Lord on you could be frightening. We don’t want him to see us. We don’t like the idea of an almighty being who knows my every thought. For the believer walking in disobedience or rebellion the same might be true, yet the scriptures talk about it in the sense of assurance or confidence.

Because the eye of the God was on them, they were able to continue their work. Because the eye of the Lord is on us we can hope in his steadfast love. Because the eye of the Lord sees everything, he is there to give us strong support. The eye of the Lord is on those who are God’s people. The eye of the Lord is on those who cry out to him (Ps 17:8). The eye of the Lord is on those who have fear of God and faith in him (Ps 33:18). The eye of the Lord is on those with a blameless heart (2 Chron 16:9). It is on us for courage and encouragement, for protection and blessing, for assurance and motivation.

We sing about Santa Claus, “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.” The purpose is to scare our kids into good behavior or they won’t get any Christmas presents. That is hardly the purpose behind the scriptures talking about God seeing us. The fact that nothing escapes his view, the fact that he sees me in my circumstances, the fact that he knows exactly what I am facing before I do gives confidence, assurance, and courage to continue serving him no matter what I face. The eye of their God was on them, and for that they were blessed.

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...