Fulfilled Promises

My mom and I are going Christmas shopping together this week. Yes, it is only mid-October – so why Christmas shop a full two months BEFORE Christmas? One word: anticipation. My mom and I look forward to this time together every fall. We anticipate our shopping day, planning out the stores where we will shop, the gifts that we will purchase, and the restaurant where we will eat lunch – and in doing so, we also anticipate celebrating Christmas with our family.
In our text for today, which is Matthew 2, we read one small part of what we traditionally call the “Christmas Story”. Here, we learn of the wise men visiting King Herod, Joseph fleeing with his family from Jerusalem into Egypt, and their subsequent return to Nazareth.
Today, I’d like us to consider the promises kept and prophecies fulfilled that Matthew references in this chapter. In Micah 5:2, this prophet writes that “one will come from you to be ruler over Israel for me.” This prophecy was fulfilled almost 800 years later. Matthew wrote that when King Herod asks his chief priests and scribes where Christ would be born, “They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah are by no means least among the rulers of Judah for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Matthew 2:5) Christ Himself was the fulfillment of this promise.
Let’s look at another example. The Old Testament prophet Hosea explained that God would one day call his Son out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1). In Matthew 2:15, we read that, “He (Joseph) remained there (in Egypt) until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son.’” Over 800 years after Micah’s original prophecy was recorded, it too was fulfilled in Christ.
Thinking about these prophetic words which were fulfilled years after they were originally uttered simply amazes me. I hope you take some time to ponder these words today. Approximately 2000 prophesies in the Bible have been fulfilled – 2000! After you let that sink in for a few minutes, consider this verse, found in Isaiah 53:5 (NIV): “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah wrote these words HUNDREDS of years before Christ sacrificed Himself on the cross as a forgiveness for our sins. Oh, what a Savior!

Luke 13

I am a reader. Those who know me will probably smile when they read those words. In my free time, I am rarely without a book in my hand. When I was younger, I read mostly fiction – especially the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden series. My favorite author, though, was Louisa May Alcott. I read and re-read every book she ever wrote because I loved how she created a story. Even though her books were fiction, I felt as though I were reading a true story – her plot and details were that believable. And I always learned something from her books.

Jesus is the master story-teller. Over and over in the New Testament, we read of our Savior using a story to make a point or to teach a lesson. In doing so, He teaches about complex topics like faith and grace and salvation. We see this over and over in Luke 13, our chapter for today.

Jesus uses the parable of a barren fig tree to teach about how to live a Godly life (Luke 13:6 – 9). He compares the kingdom of God to both a mustard seed and to leaven used in baking bread (Luke 13:18 – 21) He uses the idea of a narrow door to represent the fact that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (Luke 13:24 – 30; John 14:6). The people to whom He was talking would have had as difficult a time as we do now understanding concepts like the kingdom of God, faith, and salvation. Fig trees, mustard seeds, leaven and doors, though? They understood those. They were familiar with these objects, because they used them in their daily lives. By using stories, Jesus made complex topics more easily understood.

As Jesus ends this time of teaching, He laments over the lost in Jerusalem, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34). As I finish writing this devotion, it is Monday morning, and our country is waking to the news of the massacre in Las Vegas. Jesus’ poignant cries over Jerusalem remind me that my Savior also weeps today, along with those who grieve.

Jude

There is only one chapter in the book of Jude, and it is this chapter that we will focus on today. First, though, I have to confess that I don’t think I have ever heard the word “Jude” and not thought of the Beatles song. Ever. Even now, the lyrics are running through my head! So, now that we have that out of the way…and now that most of you are humming along – let’s dig into this book together.

First, you might be wondering – as I was – who Jude was. Interestingly, most scholars believe that Jude was the brother of Jesus. Jude humbly downplays this relationship, however, by simply referring to himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James” (Jude 1:1).

Jude initially intended his letter to focus on salvation. In Jude 1:3, however, we learn that he changed his mind: “I found it necessary to write, appealing to you to contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all.” False teachers had infiltrated the church and the culture. Jude says that these people have “come by in stealth; they are ungodly, turning the grace of our God into sensuality and denying Jesus Christ, our only Master and Lord” (Jude 1:8). Jude then refers to Sodom and Gomorrah, cities known for their sexual immorality, and compares the contemporary false teachers to the immoral citizens of these two cities by saying that their agenda is like “glory dragged in the mud” (Jude 1:8, MSG).

It is no secret that in many parts of the world, Christianity is currently being dragged through the mud. Jude reminds us that the apostles of Christ spoke to this, saying, “…there will be scoffers living according to their own ungodly desires” (Jude 1:18) Not only will there be false teachers, but these people will “cause divisions…” (Jude 1:19).

Jude does not leave us without a solution, however. Instead, he suggests a path forward. He advises us to “build yourselves up in your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God…” (Jude 1:21). He also advises us to “be tender with sinners, but not soft on sin” (Jude 1:23, MSG). We have probably all heard this before: we must love the sinner while not tolerating the sin. This is not easy, and I don’t expect that it ever will be. But in this time of swirling chaos in our culture, we must continue to boldly proclaim the truth of God and His Word.

I love how Jude, the brother of Christ Himself, ends his letter to his readers with a benediction, a blessing. This is my prayer for our reading community today: “Now to him who is able to protect you from stumbling and to make you stand in the presence of his glory, without blemish and with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power and authority before all time, now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)

You Are Not Alone

When I first read through 1 Peter 5, the chapter we are reading together today, Peter’s commands jumped out at me. Shepherd the flock. Be subject to the elders; Clothe yourselves with humility. Humble yourselves. Cast all your anxieties on him. Be sober-minded and watchful and merciful. Resist the devil.

I started to think about selecting a few of these commands to write about. I have always loved the image of a shepherd, so I began to think about how I could apply that idea to our current lives today.

And then I read through the chapter again, and a different theme came into focus: you are not alone. No, these exact words are not in this letter. However, the language Peter chooses to use implies that he is encouraging his readers to remember that they are in community with one another. Although they may feel alone at times, they are members of a community of believers.

I knew that Peter had written this letter, but I did not know his intended audience. I learned that the recipients of this letter were “those chosen, living as exiles” (1 Peter 1:1). These exiles were most likely persecuted Christians. It makes sense, then, that Peter felt led to encourage them to remember that they were not alone in a harsh world.

In verse 9, Peter writes, “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9) Peter is referring to the devil here, and he is exhorting us to resist him. Peter encourages us in our suffering by reminding us that others in the world are suffering in the same ways that we are. This is an encouragement not because we wish for others to suffer – but because it reminds us that there is a community of sufferers. We can encourage each other – and receive encouragement from each other – in our suffering.

My favorite example of Peter reminding us that we are not alone comes at the very beginning of this letter. In verse 2, Peter writes, “…shepherd the flock of God that is among you…being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3). By using the word flock (twice!) Peter reminds us that we are part of a group, a community of believers. We are not alone. More importantly, we are reminded in this verse that we have a shepherd to follow. He is the only shepherd we can completely trust; in fact, Peter refers to him as the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4). Thanks be to God!

By Faith

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Our reading for today, Hebrews 11, opens with this short definition of faith. Although this definition is not long, it is not necessarily simple. The concept of faith – believing in something we cannot see – is complicated, at least for me. The author of Hebrews knows that just giving us a definition won’t make the concept any more real to us. So, he gives us examples of people who have obeyed God by faith alone. The author of Hebrews names Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, the Israelites, and Rahab! As if these were not enough, the author tells us that he doesn’t even have time to tell us of the faith of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets!

Listen to what just a few of these people accomplished through faith: Noah obeyed God and built an ark – even though he had never seen rain. Abraham obeyed God and traveled with his people to an unknown land. The Israelites believed God and crossed the Red Sea – on dry land. The walls of Jericho fell after the people obeyed God’s instructions and faithfully marched around it seven times. “Through faith [they] conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight…received back their dead by resurrection.” (Hebrews 11:33-35)

What have you done in your life that you could not have done without your faith in God? In 1998, our family moved from upstate New York to Central Illinois – far away from our family and friends. We did not know a single person here in Bloomington / Normal when we arrived. Yet we knew that God was leading us here, and so we moved in faith. A few years later, in the summer of 2000, my husband and I decided to homeschool our children. At the time, we knew only two families who homeschooled; yet we knew that God was asking us to teach our kids at home. And so we obeyed, in faith.

Opposition often accompanies obedience. We read in Hebrews 11 that many “were tortured…suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment…were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword…went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated…wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves…” (Hebrews 11:35-38). In both of the situations I described above, we encountered opposition from friends and family who disagreed with our decisions (although certainly not to the magnitude that the author of Hebrews details!) I can only imagine the opposition that Noah faced when he began building a boat before the world had ever experienced rain. Yet Scripture tells us that Noah worked on that ark in “reverent fear” (Hebrews 11:7) God saved Noah and his family from the flood. When we moved our family to Bloomington, God brought people into our lives who taught us about Jesus. The blessings of obeying God and following Him in faith far outweigh any opposition we encounter.

What could you do, what dream could you accomplish, because you have faith in God? Today, listen to the stirrings in your heart. Begin to dream big. And remember that God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think! (Ephesians 3:20).

Remind The People

A few days ago, our Bible Journal community began reading the book of Titus together. This is a short book, so we are actually finishing it up today! Paul begins the last part of his letter with the words, “Remind them” (Titus 3:1). In the NIV version, it reads, “Remind the people.” He then lists several things that he wants Titus to be sure to tell the people in the churches he is overseeing: “…to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people (Titus 3:1).

All of these admonishments are as relevant today as they were when Paul first penned these words. Each relates to living in community with others – and living in community is hard work! Paul understood that it was necessary to encourage people to pursue behaviors that lead to a healthy community and society.

There is one section of this verse that Paul returns to twice more before he ends this letter. In verse 1, Paul writes, “…be ready for every good work…” (Titus 3:1). Later, in verse 8, he writes, “…so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to good work.” (Titus 3:8). Finally, in verse 14, Paul states, “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works.” (Titus 3:14) Clearly, doing what is good is important to Paul.

In our lives today, what does this look like, to “devote ourselves to good work”? It can be any number of things. Good work can be working at the job God has called us to to the best of our ability and with integrity. It can be something practical, like blessing a friend with a meal. It can be anything, really, that reveals Christ to someone else.

And what is the benefit to our doing good work? Is it for our own salvation? No. Paul states this clearly: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us rightly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7, emphasis mine). That verse is a long one, but the part I want us to focus on today is this: devoting ourselves to good works does not save us. Only Christ in his mercy does this. However, doing good works might draw others to us, giving us the opportunity to share the “the reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Today, let’s consider how we can do something for the benefit of someone else, and let’s always be ready to share the reason for our hope: Jesus.

Fight the Good Fight

Today, we begin reading the first chapter of 1 Timothy together. Paul wrote this letter to his young friend, Timothy, who Paul calls his son in the faith. This letter was written just prior to Paul’s final imprisonment in Rome, which explains the urgency that permeates it. Paul had a message to impart to Timothy and to the world, and he was eager to do so, quickly.
I was curious about what Paul would choose to lead off with in this letter, knowing the urgency behind it. I learned that He begins with truth and love. We see in verse 3 that Paul is still concerned about people teaching false doctrines in places like Ephesus: “…remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine…” (1 Timothy 1:3). Furthermore, Paul states that “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). We are to speak truth, and we are to love well.
Next, Paul shares his testimony. As we have seen throughout the New Testament, Paul never hesitates to do this! He knows full well how he was changed after his encounter with Christ and he wants to world to know Him for this reason. Paul says, “This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1: 15). Paul’s statement is bold, strong and simple. And in the next sentence, we again glimpse Paul’s deep humility. He explains that, “…I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16). Paul, a former persecutor of Christians, calls himself the foremost, the worst of sinners. I believe he does this to give us hope. Our family is currently praying for six people who we love to come to know Christ; some of these we have been praying for for years. Many years. And in this passage, Paul’s words encourage me to not despair, and to keep hoping and praying for the salvation of those I love.
At the end of this chapter, Paul reminds Timothy that the road he will travel will not be an easy one. Instead, it will be fraught with frustration and even danger. Paul exhorts Timothy to, “…fight the good fight, holding on to faith…” (1 Timothy 1:19, NIV). The imagery Paul uses would have been relatable to Timothy and his contemporaries; they were all too familiar with the concept of fighting, from the gladiator fights held in the arenas of Rome to war with neighboring countries. Likewise, we too can relate. So let us push forward, persevere, and fight for our faith. And then let us join Paul in praising our Lord: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:17)

Colossians 2

Last night, I was cleaning out some old books and journals, and I came across a prayer journal that I had purchased but never really used. I had thought it would “work” for me – I even filled out a few pages – but it just didn’t. Nonetheless, I saved it, thinking that of course I would use it “someday”. Well, someday came and went, and I haven’t used it. But as I flipped through the pages last evening, I noticed a section I had missed before. For each month, the author had put together a list of daily prayer points. And for one month, the list was based on the book of Colossians. The list is titled “Seeing the Lord: Personal Prayers From Colossians”.* Several of the prayers are based on Colossians 2, our text for today.

I read through those prayers quietly, and I remembered all over again why Colossians is one of my favorite books in the Bible. I love how the Lord led me to hose prayers last night, as He knew that I would be writing this devotion today. The prayer that resonated with me the most on this list is based on Colossians 2:7. The prayer reads, “Cause me to be firmly established in You, with a heart of gratitude.” This seems to be a central verse in this chapter. Paul begins by stating that he desperately desires that the followers of Christ would be strengthened in their faith. He says “I want you to know how much I am struggling for you…” (Colossians 2:1). Paul continues, explaining why he wants their faith to be strong. He knows that when our faith is strong, our “hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love” with the “full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.” (Colossians 2:2-3) With the strengthening of faith comes encouragement, love, understanding and knowledge. What an amazing gift!

Paul also knows that our strengthened faith enables us to stand firm when we are faced with the temptations of the world. Clearly, worldly temptations existed when Paul lived, just as they do today, and Paul knew how difficult it can be to discern truth from falsehood. Paul says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition…and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8) When our faith is rooted firmly in Christ, we can discern God’s voice from among the other voices clamoring for our attention. When we are strong in our faith, we can stand strong in our world. We will stand firm for what Christ stands for.

My prayer for us this week is this: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7)

May we be both rooted and thankful today.

* “Personal Prayers From Colossians” by Terry Gooding

Introduction to Ephesians

Tomorrow, our Bible-reading community will begin reading the book of Ephesians together. I’d like to offer an introduction to this book today, a brief overview that will provide some historical and cultural context before we start.

Like many of the books in the New Testament, the book of Ephesians was written by Paul. Paul wrote this book in approximately A.D. 60 while he was imprisoned in Rome.

Stop and think about that last fact for a minute. Paul did not let his circumstances – his imprisonment – hinder him from sharing the gospel. Let that be an encouragement to us today!

Paul wrote many of his letters to individual churches, and this one is no exception. His intended audience for this book was the church at Ephesus. God knew, though, that the themes and topics in this book would eventually be spread from Ephesus throughout the world, so in that sense we are also the intended recipients of Paul’s words.

Ephesians is a short book consisting of only six chapters, but each is packed full of wisdom and encouragement. Although several of Paul’s letters were written to warn individual churches against specific behaviors, the letter to the Ephesians is different. This letter is a nurturing one. The church at Ephesus was a young church at this time, and Paul writes to its congregation to encourage it to continue to grow and flourish. He also reminds them of what the Church should look like, and he challenges them to live as Christ-followers in a fallen world. This encouragement and these reminders are just as relevant to us today as they were to the Ephesians in the early days of Christianity.

My favorite verse in the entire New Testament is Ephesians 3: 20-21: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” This is the verse I will be praying for our Bible Journal community as we read this book together this week!

Refreshed

“Make room for us in your hearts” (2 Corinthians 7:2). Paul writes this toward the beginning of Chapter 7 of 2 Corinthians, and I just love it. First, a bit of context. It would never have occurred to me that some may not have welcomed Paul upon his arrival in Macedonia, where the Corinthian church was located. But many did not! In fact, Paul tells us, “Even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn – fighting without and fear within” (2 Corinthians 7:5). Paul and his companions were tired and troubled. Can you relate? I know I can.

It’s interesting to note how Paul responds when he is exhausted and stressed. First, he knows the source of his comfort: God. Next, Paul explains the means by which God comforted him: “(God) comforted us by the arrival of Titus”. Knowing Paul was stretched thin personally and professionally, God sent a brother in the faith to encourage him. Take a minute to think about when God has sent someone to you at a time when you really needed encouragement. I remember when I was going through a difficult time, my college roommate arrived on my doorstep – uninvited, after driving for an hour in the middle of a New England winter! And this was before cell phones – so she wasn’t even sure I’d be home! But she showed up. She listened. She encouraged me. She made me laugh. And when she left for work the next morning, I felt comforted. God sent her to me, knowing I needed encouragement.

Did you think of someone who encouraged you? Perhaps you might call or send them a quick text thanking them for comforting you.

Paul also notes that Titus himself was encouraged by the Corinthian people. The very people who Paul was ministering to encouraged the person sent to comfort Paul! Listen to what Paul writes: “And besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all.” (2 Corinthians 7:13) Could my friend possibly have been encouraged by me as well, as Titus was by the Corinthians? I’m not sure – I certainly was more focused on receiving than giving comfort at that time in my life. But maybe I did encourage her in some way, and maybe someone who encouraged you also received comfort from you, or those around you, at the same time.

Finally, Paul notes that he himself was encouraged when the Corinthian people encouraged Titus. Paul writes, “But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you…so that I rejoiced still more.” (2 Corinthians 7:6-7) What a full-circle idea! Paul is troubled and tired. God sends Titus to encourage Paul. The Corinthians encourage Titus, and this fact also encourages Paul. Amazing!

How can we apply this to our own lives? First, we must look for ways that God wants to use us to comfort and encourage others. And when He calls us to do so, we must respond. Second – and this is perhaps even more difficult – we must be open to receiving comfort and encouragement. So many of us – me included – have a difficult time asking for help, or receiving it when it is offered. Perhaps if we consider the help a divine intervention from God, we will be more ready and willing to accept it, and allow ourselves to be refreshed.