Hope of Salvation

When the angels announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds who were watching their flocks at night, they proclaimed, “glad tidings of great joy.” Angels made an actual appearance and they were couldn’t contain their joy as they told the shepherds, “For unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” They explained to the shepherds where they would find the Christ child. He was born in a lowly stable. The shepherds worshiped Jesus when they found him.

Worship, adoration, gratitude—those are the appropriate responses in an encounter with Christ. In fact, this is what naturally overflows from our hearts.

John the Baptist introduced Jesus thirty years later, to a crowd, as, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

Each of us has to reckon with Christ. We can worship him as the Son of God, whom he claimed to be, or we can reject him.

Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man (or woman) hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and sup with him.”

The image is one of intimacy, of enjoyment of fellowship, eating together, sharing life.

Jesus wants to be part of your life. And because he is God, one with God, the Son of God, as he himself proclaimed, he must also be Lord of your life, if you invite him in. Only he knows the purpose for which you were designed. Only he can direct us to live life as we were meant to live.

Jesus came to this earth out of his great love for us. He came to offer us a new way of living. He came to give us a new start. He offered forgiveness of sins of the past and deliverance from evil. He showed his great love to us by enduring death on a cross. He took the punishment for our sins in our place. It is a great mystery, how this was accomplished, but millions have accepted Jesus and experienced the joy of salvation when they opened the door of their heart to him.

Jesus offers us hope in this dark world. All we have to do is invite him in to our hearts and lives, make him a part of everything we do. “Practice the presence of Christ” daily, in every situation, as a Benedictine monk, Brother Lawrence, wrote centuries ago (Practicing the Presence of God). He had discovered the secret of the happy Christian life, which is abiding in Christ, resting in his presence, his goodness, his faithfulness to us. “He who freely gave his Son for us will he not also freely give us all things that pertain to life and godliness?” Of course he will. “There is no fear in love, for fear has torment, but perfect love casts out fear.”

The most cherished possession I own is my Bible. In the New Testament I read about the life of Christ, and about the Christian life. Jesus said that the Old Testament speaks of him, too. He explained to his disciples how the Old Testament related to him and foretold his coming, and his purpose of bringing salvation. At first his disciples did not understand because they thought their Messiah would be a great king, with an earthly kingdom. Even with all their religious training in their synagogues and in the temple, they failed to understand fully what would happen. The message of Jesus challenged them because it was one of humility and faith and service. His kingdom was not of this world. It is a heavenly kingdom. When we invite Christ into our hearts, our outlook changes. We begin to see heaven touching earth.

We pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”

“Jesus, come into my heart. Forgive my sins and make me clean. Help me to live this life as you intended, as you designed for me to live it. Help me to acknowledge you in all my ways and to follow you every day. Thank you for your unspeakably great gift of salvation. Now, fill me with your Holy Spirit, as you promised, so that I will be empowered from on high to live for you. Amen.”

This is the good news. Salvation. In fact it is the best news, ever. It is the power of God, delivering us in every situation from evil. It is the power of righteousness in this world. God sets things right, through his Son, Jesus. He also gives us the hope of eternity with him, so we no longer fear death.

Related Scriptures: Luke 2, John 1:29, John 1, Revelation 3:20, John 3:16, John 10, John 15, John 17:11, Romans 8:32, 1 John 4:18, John 5:39, Luke 24:27, Matthew 5, John 18:36, Revelation 11:15, Matthew 6:33, Romans 14:17, Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4, Luke 24:29, Acts 1:4, Ephesians 1, 2.

River of Life

There are a few things that set Christianity apart from other religions and make it distinctly attractive. One of these is the deep inner joy and peace evident in the lives of those who grasp the essence of the faith. I have been in the presence of Christians whose faces are radiant. Light shines from their eyes. Many have been drawn to Christianity by noting this and wondering about it.

Around the globe there are significant differences in understanding of the Christian faith. Teachers in certain faith groups have been revered on the level of prophets. Traditions have been added over the generations which have no basis in the Bible.

In some Christian circles reading of the Bible is not encouraged for the average person. It is relegated to those in authority in the church who may or may not have theological training.

The benefits of personal Bible study far outweigh the risks of possible misinterpretation. Admittedly, the Bible is a difficult book to understand but the Holy Spirit helps us to grasp its meaning. One of the most fundamental distinctions of Christianity is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit for the one who believes.

Jesus instructed his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit whom he promised to send to them after his ascension. “You shall receive power, after the Holy Ghost is come upon you,” he told them (Acts 1:8). He also told them that the Holy Spirit would comfort them and teach them and bring to their remembrance all the things he had taught them (John 14:26). John the baptist said of Jesus, “I baptize you with water, but there is one who comes after me who will baptize you with the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33). John said he had been told this by the one who sent him to baptize.

Here we have two examples of foreknowledge, or prophesy. John the Baptist knew he would encounter Jesus who would “baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” We read of this event occurring in the book of Acts. A very helpful online resource in the study of the Bible is BibleGateway and I recommend you go there and read the book of Acts. It is a remarkable account of the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers.

Many religions have a Holy Book, but I have not encountered one that has an indwelling Holy Spirit. This is the “river of life” which Jesus promised would flow from our innermost being. I cannot tell how many times I have been led by the Holy Spirit in my daily life and guided and enlightened and comforted in my Bible reading.

In Mark 12:36 we read that David, in the Old Testament, spoke prophetically, “by the Holy Ghost,” concerning Jesus. The Holy Spirit was active before the time of Christ, in prophesy.

The revelation of Scripture by the Holy Spirit, the knowledge of the future through prophesy by the Holy Spirit, and the personal receiving of power by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, for the believer, is what makes Christianity distinctly unique from other religions.

Killed for Gathering Sticks

Numbers 15:17-16:40

It was going to be a test.  A showdown. The children of Israel, we are told, in Numbers 15:32, found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath. They brought him to Moses, because they knew this activity was forbidden in God’s law.

Moses and Aaron secured the man, not yet sure what was to be done. Then the Lord spoke to Moses and told him the man should be stoned to death, by the congregation, outside the camp.

I thought of the possible reasons this man was gathering sticks. Maybe he was bored, or restless. Maybe his wife sent him out to gather sticks for a fire. Maybe he wanted some warmth later in the day.

I was looking at the human element. I imagined the stoning. I visualized people picking up stones and the man turning to his friends and family, imploring them to intervene, to have mercy, to plead his case. The stones thudded against his flesh, again, and again, until he slumped over, and died.

This was the reality. We sometimes don’t let ourselves into what it was like to be there. I, personally, would rather not think about the details of that day. However, it is in the Bible, and I need to grapple with this story.

At first I was angry. It seemed so unjust to me, such an excessive and extreme punishment for a little thing like picking up sticks. I considered rejecting a God who was, to my sensitivities, so harsh, and, seemingly unfair. But, for me, this was not an option. Long ago I decided that indeed His thoughts are above my thoughts, and his ways are above my ways. So I asked for an explanation.

I was reading out of my One Year Bible which has daily portions selected from the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs.

In the past I might have succumbed to a black or white, fundamentalist perspective, believing that I must simply accept what God does and says as good and right and disregard my fears and feelings. However, I now understand that my reaction is significant. It reveals things about me and my relationship with God and his word.

It only took a moment before other thoughts came to me. The first was, this man, undeniably knew that picking up sticks on the Sabbath was forbidden by God. The law had been very clearly presented to the Israelite congregation. Therefore his actions were clearly willful disobedience.

I began to see that if there was no consequence, then either the commandment meant nothing, or God could be defied.

I also saw that this incident was public knowledge and was going to set a precedent.

People were watching. The effectiveness of the law was on trial. How the case was handled would be extremely significant, given that the commandment originated with God.

Essentially, God was on trial, and I’m sure two questions were burning in the hearts of the Israelites, from the beginning, just as they burn in our hearts today. Who is this God? How does he respond to his people, particularly when they rebel?

I noted that if there had not been a command, then a man picking up sticks on the Sabbath would be of no consequence to anyone. But this was the crux of the matter. There was a command. And the command came from God.

One more thing, Moses was the guardian of the law. As the leader of the nation of Israel, he was responsible to enforce the law and mete out consequences for disobedience. It was not an enviable position. In the next chapter we read of a coup attempt.

Levite priests, Korah, Dathan and Abiram, along with two hundred and fifty supporters, “princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown” (Numbers 16:3 King James Version), protested against Moses and Aaron. They claimed that “all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; (why do you lift yourselves) above the congregation of the Lord?” (v. 3). It was an all-out revolt against authority.

Gathering sticks on the Sabbath set in motion a whole series of events. It revealed the hearts of the leaders of Israel. The accusation was not new to Moses. “Who made you a ruler and a judge?” was hurled at him when he tried to break up a fight between two Israelites (Exodus 2:14).

Moses was no different, as a man. But he was anointed by God and this set him apart. God warns,Touch not the Lord’s anointed, and do his prophets no harm” (1 Chronicles 16:22, Psalm 105:15).

It is common to resist any type of authority or restraint. In fact, we might produce the argument that all Christians are anointed and we are all equal.

Who are you to tell me what to do? We don’t like your virtue signaling. You are no different from the rest of us.

I believe this passage bears out that not every anointing is on the same level. Some carry greater responsibility. Some are subject to others. Some can even be abused.

I just want to clarify that Jesus came to fulfill the law and to exchange the heavy burden of the Old Testament law for a lighter, easy yoke. When his disciples were criticized by religious leaders for “threshing” on the Sabbath, as they plucked and ate grain in the field, Jesus declared that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He abolished the tradition of stoning, when a woman was caught in adultery and brought to him. He demanded that those without sin cast the first stone.

The law serves the purpose of revealing the nature of man. We tend to resist authority. Ultimately we need a new nature. Jesus came to give this newness of life to us through faith in him. But Jesus never gave us license to disobey or defy God.

The question, Who made you a judge would be better replaced by, Who gave humans a standard of righteousness? We have a tendency to shoot the messenger when we are really rebelling against the message which originates with God.

By this time there should not have been any doubt in the minds of the people concerning the authority of Moses. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. God gave the law to Moses and revealed to him the pattern for the tabernacle and the rituals of worship. Moses’ face shone with the glory of God when he came from his presence. But the Levites, who served in the tabernacle, and the princes of Israel seemed to have forgotten all of this.

Moses told the people to separate themselves “from the tents of these wicked men” (v. 26). The ground opened and swallowed them and their families and closed again. A fire ignited and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who held censors with incense. God spare the rest of the congregation because of the intercession of Moses and Aaron.

The next portion for the day in my One Year Bible reading, is the story of the crucifixion of Christ. I see a clear parallel in the attitude of the religious leaders who could not accept the authority of Christ and demanded his death. Jesus Christ was crucified. However, he rose from the dead, victorious over the demons of hell. Have no doubt, Satan, the deceiver and destroyer, is behind this rebellion.

I read somewhere, recently, (I apologize for forgetting the source) that Jesus was not crucified because he was good, but because he presented something new. I don’t concur. In fact, I strongly resist this message. It was precisely because he was good, and because he upheld a high standard, and because he claimed to be God, that he was crucified. This message, today, is no longer “new” and it is still being resisted just as strongly.

So, yes, God was just in putting to death those who defied his Godhead. And he forever will be.

Things Won’t Come Easy

I’ve read through the laments in the Psalms and asked why the writers were so often at the edge of despair. There is constant reference to opposition from enemies. Real, or imagined, in my life I definitely experience what can only be explained or understood as attacks and assaults from enemy forces. Things don’t come easy.

I say imagined, because I don’t see physical enemies, so I tend to think I am imagining that I have real adversaries who hinder me, and even attack me. In our enlightened era of science and logic it is easy to dismiss anything supernatural, but travel to an underdeveloped country and people will tell you of indisputable experiences with evil spirits. Just because we do not believe a thing, does not mean it does not exist.

I spoke with a missionary who confessed outright that he did not want to confront demons because of the story of the seven sons of Sheba in the book of Acts who were overcome by the very demons they tried to cast out. Confronting demons is serious business. If we believe in Christ, we cannot deny the existence of demons. In the gospels we read that the major part of Jesus’ ministry involved teaching, healing the sick and casting out demons.

It is easy to be spooked and be fearful of the idea of demons. Maybe this is why we tend to ignore the subject. For me the question is not whether there are demons, but how do we deal with demonic manifestations.

I am reminded of reading the story of Smith Wigglesworth who awoke one night and saw a demon sitting at the end of his bed. “Oh, it’s just you,” was his response, and he turned over and went back to sleep. This is the kind of acceptance that comes from a rounded understanding of the activity of demons. Faith in God dispels demons. It takes away their power. Jesus came to destroy the works of the evil one, Satan, and his demons. He made an open show of them and he triumphed over them. Satan threw everything he could at Jesus. He even killed him. Jesus triumphed over sin and death by his resurrection. If we place our trust in him, we can do likewise. We do not need to be fearful or intimidated.

However, things will not come easily to us. We are going to face trials. We are going to encounter incredible opposition. I have seen people go through unimaginable pain and loss and suffering. And I have seen them come out on the other side.

One thing I tell myself when I am in the middle of a very challenging situation is not do anything that would make it worse. Don’t say anything I will regret later. Don’t indulge in any behavior that would hinder my judgment. Don’t yield to self-pity and be petulant. I may not have much strength to rise to the occasion, but I don’t need to diminish the little I have. I need to use what is available to me. It has always been sufficient and I’ve lived to see another day.

What is available to us in this fight? First of all we must recognize that it is a fight against evil, and we can withstand it. The Bible instructs us to gird ourselves with our spiritual armor. So much attention has been given to the various pieces of armor that we tend to overlook the significance of the components, namely, faith, righteousness, truth, the word of God and the Holy Spirit, the gospel of peace, and prayer.

When Cain killed his brother Abel, he was warned beforehand. Cain’s sacrifice was not as acceptable as Abel’s and Cain began to sulk. Inevitably trials require that we humble ourselves and become contrite in the realization that we do not fully understand what is happening nor do we possess all that we need within ourselves to overcome the temptation to respond in a harmful way. We are dependent on God’s grace. “Sin is crouching at the door, and it desires to have you,” Cain was told. This is the reality we face. There is a choice to be made. Yield and be overcome, or stand up inside and resist and be the overcomer.

Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness and then angels came and ministered to him. I think this is the cycle we experience. Angels minister to us when we choose the high road. It may feel like we are at the end of our road, but faith can always take us one step further.

 

How I Read My Bible

I asked an evangelist once how she read her Bible. I had the privilege of driving her to the airport and I wanted to know about her Bible study habits. I expected her to tell me she read so many chapters a day, or maybe that she studied the Bible for an hour a day. Her response was, “I read until it speaks to me.”

I have met Christians who have a light in their eyes and sometimes even a glow on their faces. It is as though they have a secret “source.” I’ve heard testimonies of people who could tell  before they became Christians which people were Christians. The Bible actually instructs us to identify and “mark” those who stand out as Christian leaders. I compare this to placing a bookmark in a book where there is an important passage I want to return to. I remember them because I have “marked” them.

This evangelist had that light in her eyes and I have met others like her. I think this light comes from seeing God on the page when they read the Bible. They read it in such a way that it speaks to them and feeds them and gives life to their souls.

In the Bible we read accounts of people who understood God in a unique way. I sometimes feel an intimacy with characters like Queen Esther, Ruth, Sarah, Mary, and other women. I have studied them, and I get a thrill of expectation at the thought of meeting them one day. They are almost as real to me as the evangelist whom I drove to the airport.

One of the characters that I have “bookmarked” in my Bible is Job. I sense there is so much to learn from him. In my recent study of Job certain passages leapt out at me with a compelling message. I often have this experience when I read the Bible. It is as though new sections are highlighted each time I read and they speak to me in a specific way.

Job was highly honored in his community before tragedy struck. He lived an outstanding life. People greatly revered him. We can read about his former honor in Job 29. Here Job is reflecting on a time in his past when the people “waited for me as for showers and drank in my words as the spring rain.” He starts the chapter this way,

How I long for the months gone by,

for the days when God watched over me,

when his lamp shone on my head

and by his light I walked through the darkness!

Oh, for the days when I was in my prime,

when God’s intimate friendship blessed my house,

when the Almighty was still with me…

The poetry of this book is a true work of art. Job clearly had a very personal intimacy with God and now he feels he has lost this. It is heartbreaking to read.

The core issue of the book is something I have struggled to understand and accept. Why would God remove his protection from one of his favored servants and allow Satan to torment him?

The understanding in Job’s time was that tragedy was a sign of God having removed his presence from a person or a nation. Even Job has this perception. It was believed that God allowed bad things to happen to cause people to reflect on their path and change their course and then God would once again restore them to a place of favor. The only thing is, Job does not agree that he has transgressed and so he is at a loss to understand why God is punishing him. We find out later that he was right. This was not the reason for what happened to him. It wasn’t punishment.

Job’s friends, who are sincerely trying to make sense of what is happening to Job, insist his trials are a consequence of Job’s sin. This is their limited understanding of the workings of God. However, they are about to receive a broader understanding of God and his ways.

I find this is often the case when I read my Bible. It speaks to me and opens my understanding to things I have not previously seen.

Job’s friends were in the wrong and God forgave them. God actually required that Job pray for his friends so that he would pardon them, after his trials ended. It appears that God was not too pleased with them.

There is much wisdom in the words of Job’s friends but not all they say about Job applies to him. The disrespect his friends show to Job makes it apparent that he is no longer favored as in former days when “old men rose to their feet (and) the chief men refrained from speaking” in his presence. Now even “young men mock me (and) throw off restraint in my presence.”

Job is tormented by his loss of family and possessions and the afflictions in his body, but he is also tormented in his mind by the loss of his former status. We can imagine how we would feel in his place.

I have been baffled to think that God allowed Satan to torment someone, essentially to prove a point. I’ve been tempted to think this was some sort of “sport of the gods.” But I’ve been humbled by a deeper reading of the text to see that it is actually a story about God’s confidence in his servant. It also reveals the sinister intention of the enemy of our souls to “take out” God’s faithful servants and the fact that he has access to us in some cases. Although God allowed the match, he set parameters and kept a watchful eye throughout.

Satan claimed Job only served God because God blessed him. I suppose he was trying to argue that God had an unfair advantage and Job would not honor God for his goodness alone if God removed his blessings. Job proves that his commitment to God is not dependent on blessings. Job makes the striking statement, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” Job 13:5 KJV. In his heart and mind Job believes there is no better alternative than to trust and serve God.

There are many kinds of writings in the Bible and they speak to us in different ways. We find comforting passages, convicting passages, wisdom and guidance passages, inspiring stories, disturbing stories, eternal hope passages, laments, praises, histories and genealogies, laws, theology, prophesies, condemnation passages, salvation passages, and more.

The beauty of the Bible is that it communicates to us in so many different ways. If we approach the Bible with an expectation that God will guide us in our reading, he will speak to us.

Can a Person be Righteous?

I have long been fascinated by the story of Job. When I was in Bible College I was taught that Job was a righteous man and his friends were wrong when they insisted that he must have done some evil to cause this calamity to fall upon him. Through the years I have met Christians who insisted that Job’s friends were right and Job was indeed presumptuous to claim to be righteous. This caused me to dig deeper into the text, and every time I do so I come out believing more firmly that Job was righteous.

Today as I read the book of Job, something leapt out at me.

The story begins, “This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” Job even offered sacrifices for each of his children after they had enjoyed a time of feasting and reveling on their birthdays, just in case they had sinned and “cursed God in their hearts.”

What an interesting thought, cursing God in their hearts. Later, in chapter two, Job’s wife tells him to “curse God and die.” Job said she was speaking as a foolish woman. The text continues, “In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.”

What stood out for me today was Satan’s response to God. When Satan appeared before God with the other angels, God asked him if he had considered his servant Job, “There is no one like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Satan’s reply is, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not…blessed the work of his hands….But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

Job’s wife essentially told Job to give up on God. Why would you serve a God who sends such calamity? What is the point? This is exactly what Satan was saying. Job would no longer serve God if God stopped blessing him. People only serve God for what they can get. The big question is, Will Job still trust God if God removes his hedge of protection from him?

Satan argued that Job’s reverence for God was conditional. It was dependent upon God’s goodness to him. Satan was convinced that if God would strike Job, Job would indeed curse God.

Job’s response to his wife, however, was, “Shall we accept good from God and not evil?”

Throughout the Bible we see a pattern of God blessing his people when they obeyed him and causing evil or harm to come to them when they disobeyed. The Bible literally says it will be well with us if we obey God. The King James Bible version puts it this way:

Ye shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess (Deuteronomy 5:33).

As a result of this scripture and others like it, people have concluded that if something bad happens to us, we are somehow at fault. Presumably we have sinned or not been righteous enough. Job’s friends took the view that the trouble he was experiencing was evidence that he must have some sin he needed to confess.

Jesus challenged the belief that if something bad happens it is because a person has sinned. When he was about to heal a man who was blind from birth, Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus if the man was blind because of his own sin or the sin of his parents. This association of sin with affliction was deeply rooted in their understanding. Jesus responded that neither was true. Rather, this would bring glory to God (John 9).

If we look in the Bible we find stories of people who were not evil and still experienced great trials. Think of the story of Joseph, as an example (Genesis 37-46). The Bible teaches that God will give us the grace and strength to endure trials (2 Corinthians 12:9), that God can cause good to come from harm (Romans 8:28), and that he will not allow us to be  tempted beyond what we can endure (1 Corinthians 10:13). Clearly trials will come.

While the Bible says God will bless us if we are faithful, it does not promise that nothing bad will ever happen to us. After all, it happened to Job.

The Bible also does not say that God will not bless us if we are unfaithful. In fact scriptures like Psalm 73 wrestle with the fact that sometimes the wicked prosper.

We tend to read the story of Job through the grid of our New Testament understanding that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We understand that “…by one man sin entered into the world….” (Romans 5:12), speaking of Adam and Eve in the garden. In light of this it could appear presumptuous for Job to claim that he is righteous.

When Jesus healed the man who was born blind, the leaders of the synagogue questioned the man, wanting to know what had happened to him. His response was “All I know is that once I was blind but now I see” (John 9:25). I propose that Job knew he was righteous because he experienced the difference between being blind, living in darkness, and seeing. He recognized what his friends were trying to pin on him. It may have been his past, but of one thing he was certain. It did not describe his present.

Christians who cannot accept that Job was righteous are in fact aligning themselves with his friends. At the end of the story we read that God was angry with Job’s friends and required a sacrifice of atonement from them. He accused them of not speaking the truth about him. He also instructed Job to pray for them, “My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8).

We see here that the very knowledgeable friends of Job were wrong in their conclusions about Job, and that this, in the sight of God, was a serious offense which required sacrifice and intercession.

Although all that Job valued was taken away and he suffered incredibly, he possessed what his friends did not have. Job possessed righteousness. To say he was not righteous would have been to slander God. The truth Job spoke was about God.

I think today the “Christian” thing to do, if we were in Job’s place, would be to offer a show of humility and say something like “we all sin.” Job’s friends would probably have been satisfied if Job had just conceded that much. But Job refused. Job possessed an incredible understanding of God and righteousness.

Job’s relentless refusal to yield continues to challenge me, personally, especially when I think of how easily we confess to sin. Job’s testimony of righteousness was so powerful that God and Satan engaged in a contest to test its veracity. Wow!

Some people would accuse Job of self-righteousness and pride. This is exactly what his friends did. But God didn’t see it that way. There was a purity to his confession that could not be any further refined in the furnace of affliction. The trials he suffered only proved that what he had was real.

How to guard your heart

I want to talk about something close to my heart. It is the need to guard our hearts. “Guard your heart with all diligence for out of it proceed the issues of life” Proverbs 4:23.
 
What does it mean to guard our heart? Recently I felt like my heart was broken. My heart has been broken many times over in my life. How do I respond to a broken heart? I allow myself to grieve. It’s alright to feel the pain.
 
Sometimes our heart is broken because of injustice, or what we perceive to be injustice. Even injustices in the past that we did not personally experience. Or injustices in other countries. Or injustice that has happened to other people.
 
We are in a dangerous place when our heart is broken. The easy response is to become bitter. There are so many things we can become bitter about in the world.
 
In the Bible we read the story of how Cain became bitter towards his brother Abel. Cain’s heart was broken because the sacrifice he offered was not acceptable to God, while his brother Abel’s sacrifice was received by God. Pain can quickly turn to anger and this is what happened in this story.
 
When we become bitter, we instinctively want to cause pain or even destroy the people who caused the pain. Cain ended up killing his own brother.
 
God warned Cain when he noted that Cain’s “countenance was darkened.” He told Cain, “Sin is crouching at the door and it desires to have you.” Cain ended up yielding to this influence, despite the warning.
 
The Bible instructs us not to let a root of bitterness grow in our hearts. This can apply to any situation that disturbs us, past or present.
 
Guarding our hearts means we don’t allow our hearts to harden towards other people or people groups. We can separate the sin from the sinner. We can still pray for the tyrant leader, or the molester, or the hater.
 
Our pain does not have to cause us to become insensitive and uncaring like the ones who caused the pain. Neither does our pain need to cause us to turn bitter against God when we think he is unjust.
 
God’s response to those who question his justice is found in the book of Job, chapter 38, “Where were you when….” I love Job’s faithful response, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” Job 13:15. He was saying, God you can do whatever you choose to do in my life, I will still serve you. This is ultimate faith.
 
Cain’s real anger was towards God. And if we look deeply inside ourselves we will see we are no different.
 
Let’s guard our hearts from growing cold and loveless towards people and towards God. Instead, embrace a soft heart, a heart that can be broken and continue to love. I have found that this is actually the path to healing.

He is Risen Indeed

I struggled to fully embrace Christianity. I saw the value in living by the Golden Rule, to love your neighbor as yourself. I appreciated the Ten Commandments as laws for a successful society. I even believed in God, the Creator. But could I accept Jesus as more than a man who did good?

In our pluralistic society there used to be an “everyone to his own” attitude back in the sixties and seventies. But that has changed to everyone conforming to a new set of values which essentially oppose some of the very basic tenets of the Christian faith. In other words, we are facing an anti-Christian mindset.

In view of this it is imperative to be convinced of one’s faith. We not only need to know what we believe, but why we believe, or we will be easily shaken.

Recently I have been challenged by those in Christian circles who are taking issue with several basic tenets of the Christian faith, including the atoning death of Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

This brings me back to the time when I chose Christianity above other faiths. Not only was I drawn to the character and life of Christ, I believed in his atoning death and resurrection.

One day during the time when I questioned Christianity it became apparent to me that the validity of the Christian faith rested entirely on whether Christ was indeed resurrected from the dead. I visited a Mosque once where I had a conversation with a Muslim who said, simply, that Jesus never died on the cross. When Jesus prayed for this cup of death to be removed, God answered his prayer.

On another occasion I sat with a Muslim man on a flight and was reading Psalm 32 in my Bible.

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.

We had an interesting conversation and he claimed, rightly, to know more about the Christian faith than I did about the Muslim faith. He told me that Muslims believe in the Old Testament. I still intend to do a deeper study on how the Muslim faith is informed by the Old Testament. What we know, however, is that Muslims are descendants of Abraham, as well as Jews, only through the line of Ishmael, not Isaac.

The Jewish and Muslim faith are closest to Christianity but both reject Christ as the Son of God or Savior. They are the two faiths I have been inclined toward, besides Christianity.

In my search I saw that I had to establish for myself, as satisfactorily as possible, whether or not Jesus died and was resurrected. I pondered the evidence over a period time and finally came to the conclusion that indeed, Christ died and was resurrected. No, his disciples did not steal the body out of the tomb and start a new religion. They went and hid, afraid for their own lives. And the Jewish leaders themselves asked Pilot to set a guard before the tomb to prevent theft, already anticipating this possibility. When the stone was rolled away and the grave was found empty, the soldiers were not punished with death. That was remarkable. The Jews, instead spread the rumor that the body of Christ was stollen.

Well, we could say the writers of the gospels made up this complex story. I don’t think the gospels would have gained much momentum if they were known to be a clear fabrication. What finally cemented my faith was the book of Acts. It was seeing how these timid followers of Christ turned their world upside down preaching the gospel of salvation through the atoning death and resurrection of Christ. They could not all have been willing to give their lives for a lie. No, they were completely convinced, and faced extreme opposition.

This opposition continues to this day. And that is another thing that adds credibility to Christianity. Major world governments consider Christianity to be a threat. The beliefs of Christianity are peace loving, living by the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments. The church, historically, has not always been effective in communicating the essence of the gospel and so we have seen unpardonable atrocities. Even today we see gross misrepresentations. In the words of J. I. Packer (Knowing God), “it is a long time since theology has been so weak and clumsy at its basic task of holding the church to the realities of the gospel.”

The notion that is gaining popularity today is the idea that God would not require atonement. That he would not sacrifice his son. This teaching also casts doubt on the entire Old Testament, reducing it to inspirational stories and myths. The reason behind this is the difficulty people have with reconciling the wrath of God with their view of a God of love. Of course, hell does not fit in either.

For decades now the church has emphasized the love of God in an effort to be seeker friendly and it has largely avoided reference to wrath, judgment and hell. Of course, if none of these are to be considered, then why do we need atonement? They don’t go so far as to say that we don’t need forgiveness, but God can forgive without requiring a human sacrifice, they claim. I happen to agree with them and this may be a surprise to some. I believe God can do as he pleases.

I think God can indeed forgive without a sacrifice. But I believe he chose to sacrifice his son and he had his reasons. For those who don’t believe this, you will have to do your own study, as I did.

The atonement causes the entire Bible to make sense. In fact, for me it causes life to make sense. My faith informs my life and gives it meaning. The atonement means there is justice.

The atonement means there is justice. There is judgement. There is just reward. And there is mercy and grace and forgiveness and newness of life. The old dies and the new is resurrected to life in Christ. Christian baptism is a symbol of this experience.

I don’t claim to fully understand how God became man in the form of his Son. Or how the Son of God could die. How he was able to descend to the depths to preach deliverance to the captives. How he was resurrected. But I know his forgiveness and his power in my life. I have his abiding peace and joy. I experience his indwelling presence. And today I declare, He Is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

 

 

When My Best Isn’t Good Enough

As a Christian I admit I have often struggled with what to do when I sense that my best isn’t good enough. Yesterday I made a few choices and later in the day I felt like they were the wrong ones. I had done my best but it wasn’t good enough. I had even prayed, however, in the end I thought I had let myself down and I had let God down.

I’ll tell you what it was. I put a purchase on a credit card with the intention of paying it off over a period of months. I did not have the cash at the moment to pay it. At the time I thought it was the right thing to do because I found just the item I had been looking for. But when I got home I suddenly second guessed myself. It was not like I committed some great sin, but maybe I got it wrong.

For Christians, Christ is set before us as a standard of perfection. In the Bible we are called to perfection, to holiness. How do we do this? Is this even possible? And if not, do we end up in a state of constant disappointment and even discouragement over our failure?

I have heard Christians get around this one by saying that God’s grace covers all of our sin–past, present and future. Does this mean, then, that I no longer need to concern myself with whether what I am doing is good enough?

In the Old Testament (the first section of the Bible before the record of the life of Jesus begins) we read that God’s chosen nation, the Israelites, were given the “law” by God to instruct them about right and wrong. In the New Testament Jesus said that basically all that was written in the Old Testament could be summed up as, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.”

While this may sound simple, Jesus also taught that no one is good, except God. He told his disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone to enter the kingdom of God. His disciples asked him, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ response was, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Mark 10:27.

Jesus set an example of how we should live. He set an example of true, sacrificial love when he died on the cross. And he came to do the thing that was not possible with man. He came to forgive sins. He actually demonstrated that he had the authority to forgive sins. When Jesus forgave a paralyzed man of his sins, religious leaders challenged his authority to do so, saying that only God can forgive sins. His response was, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” Jesus then healed the paralyzed man and demonstrated that he had the power both to heal and to forgive sins.

Before Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph, an angel appeared to Joseph to tell him that Mary, a virgin, would bear a son and he was to call him Jesus, because he would “save people from their sins.” The angel earlier told Mary that she would give birth to “the Son of God.” Jesus, the Son of God, came to save us from our sins. To forgive us.

It grieves me when I fail to live up to the standard Christ set for me. It seems as though Christians live in a constant state of depravity. Are we not “empowered from on high” by the Holy Spirit who indwells believers and is this not sufficient for us to no longer fail him? Apparently not.

Martin Luther, the great Reformer, struggled so intensely with the issue of sinfulness that he almost had a breakdown. Finally he received a transforming revelation: “The just shall live by faith.” This verse was penned by the apostle Paul in the New Testament and we also find it in the Old Testament, in the book of Habakkuk, chapter two verse four.

I looked up a few different translations of the verse and noted some interesting variations below:

“I, the Lord, refuse to accept anyone who is proud. Only those who live by faith are acceptable to me.”
Some people’s desires are truly audacious; they don’t do the right thing. But the righteous person will live honestly.
Behold, he that is unbelieving, his soul shall not be right in himself: but the just shall live in his faith.
This message cannot help those who refuse to listen to it, but those who are good will live because they believe it.
“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. (Scriptures from Bible Gateway.)

The above verses reveal our tendency to be proud, unbelieving, and dishonest about our condition, rather than humble, faithful and obedient.

The gap between who I am and who I want to be, is a consequence of my humanity. I am not a ‘god.’ I cannot be god-like without help from God. Simply said, it is pretty much arrogant to think I can live rightly on my own. I need to be “instructed in the way of righteousness.”

I find it humbling to have to face my inadequacy every day. But I can draw a little bit of comfort from the above verses which seem to indicate that humility is a necessary posture, one from which I can move forward, by faith.

When I turn my face from my failure to God’s faithfulness and forgiveness I find my heart suddenly filled with hope and joy and gratitude. I feel like a child who is let out of “time out” and is free to run and play again. Until next time.

Why Does Jesus Need to Protect Us?

This question has been on my mind for a few days since I read John 17:12. In this passage Jesus is nearing the end of his ministry and life on earth and is offering a prayer to God for his followers. He prays, “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe….None has been lost except the one [Judas who would betray him].” NIV

Jesus goes on to pray, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” John 17:15-17.

In all my reading it never occurred to me that during his ministry Jesus had an obligation to protect his disciples. But I began to think about what it might have been like for twelve men to follow Jesus for three years as he went from place to place teaching and healing people. Where did they sleep? How often did they go home? They gave up their jobs, it appears, at least that’s what we read about the fishermen. Certain women ministered to them out of their resources. Isn’t that interesting? The women are supporting the men in ministry. I’ve never heard a sermon on that one.

But today as I was reading in Ezra I gained a little more clarity. I love how one part of the Bible can shed light on another.

The exiled Hebrews are rebuilding the temple and encountering some severe opposition. This tends to happen when we do the work of the kingdom of God and it could have something to do with not being “of the world.” Look what happens, “Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They hired counsellors to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia” Ezra 4:4-5.

Notice that in Jesus’ prayer he prayed for protection from the “evil one.” Here we see what the evil one is up to. When we want to do something for God and for the good of others then we encounter forces that try to discourage us and make us afraid. People will even go as far as to hire opposition to work against a good cause and to frustrate it. Have you seen this happen? I have.

We might as well not be ignorant of the fact that we have adversaries who are not exactly supportive of what Jesus and his followers are doing. It is comforting to know that Jesus recognizes this opposition and sees the need to pray for us and protect us.

I want to add one more thing. Part of the reason that the Hebrews succeeded in building the temple is because they knew that what they were doing was what God wanted them to do and they refused to align themselves with the enemy. Earlier their enemies had asked if they could join them in building. (With what intentions, we might ask?) The Hebrews refused their offer. They saw they were not of the same mind and purpose.

I think we have a clue here as to how we overcome our adversary. We recognize that we are different and not of this world. Jesus calls this process sanctification. When he prayed for the protection of his followers, he also prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth.” It is the truth that dispels lies that can cause fear and discouragement. It is the truth that will align us with God’s purposes and enable us to succeed in that which we set out to do, the things to which God has called us.