Familiar Words

John 3:16. What does this make you think of? This verse is probably one of the most well-known in the Bible, recognized by believers and non-believers alike. It is certainly quoted more often than many other verses. When I read the words “John 3:16”, a few images pop into my mind. I see a person holding up a large sign toward the camera at a football game. I picture a person in a city, standing on a box at a street corner, calling out the words of this verse to anyone who will listen.

My most vivid memory, though, is from when I was around nine years old. I remember walking in downtown Boston with my parents and my sister. A man handed me a small piece of paper as our family walked by; the only writing on it was this: “John 3:16”. I wonder if he thought I knew the verse? Or maybe he assumed that I would be curious enough to go look it up, to read the words for myself. Having grown up attending church, I did know the verse. But I did not know Christ, and because of this, I did not truly understand this verse. It made no impact on me that day.

It does now.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

Today, I understand those words in a way I did not, could not, 40 years ago. I did not understand what it meant to have a personal relationship with Christ until I was almost 30 years old. So I know from experience how it feels to live life not knowing my Savior – and I know what it means to walk through life now, knowing Him. Since I became a believer, I have seen people I love put their faith in Christ and subsequently change in ways I could not have imagined. I have witnessed miracles.

Today, John 3:16 represents new life to me. Changed life. A saved life. And we need that now, don’t we? Our world needs that. Today, as you read John 3 in its entirety, pause for a moment. Be still. Think about the words you are reading; ponder them in your heart and treasure them as Mary did (Luke 2:19). Give thanks for Christ’s ongoing work in your life and on your behalf, and pray for those you know who do not yet know Him. Finally, rest in this truth: “Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life…” (John 3:33 – 36).

I am praying for each one of you who reads this today.

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!

Acts 14: Not Without Testimony

I have read through Acts 14 several times while preparing to write this devotion, and each time, one verse keeps jumping off the page at me.  A bit of context, first, before I share which verse this is.  Paul is in the middle of his first missionary journey.  He has traveled already to Cyprus, Pisidian Antioch and Iconium, and will soon return to Antioch in Syria.  At the point where we pick up the story, Paul is teaching in Lystra and in Derbe.  Those listening to him want to offer sacrifices to Paul and to his co-worker, Barnabas, in response to Paul’s healing of a crippled man.  Paul and Barnabas immediately correct the people, redirecting their worship back toward the God who created them.  It is at this time that Paul reminds the people that God “has not left himself without testimony.” (Acts 14:17).  This is the verse that keeps jumping off the page at me.

The Message version of verse 17 reads like this:  “He didn’t leave them without a clue.”  The NIV version uses the word, “witness” in place of “clue” or “testimony”.  Clearly, Paul intends to remind us that God “made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.”  (Acts 14:15).  Knowing that we humans are prone to forget Him, prone to wander away, God left us evidence of Himself all around us.

Paul uses relatable examples from the natural world to teach about the evidence of God.  He says, “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons…” (Acts 14: 17).  In Romans 1:20, Paul writes about nature again:  “But the basic reality of God is plain enough.  Open your eyes and there it is!  By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see:  eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being.” (MSG)

When I need to feel God’s presence, His nearness, I always head outside.  I go for a walk, roam around our yard, and I can’t help but notice Him in the budding trees and flowers, in the changing colors of the leaves later in the year, and in the the blanket of snow during the winter.  My favorite place, though, to draw near to God is at the ocean.  There is something about standing on a beach and looking over the vast expanse of the sea that always turns my heart toward my Creator.

Perhaps, like me, the testimony of God’s creation reminds you of Him.  And perhaps something different serves as a reminder – a relationship restored from brokenness, coffee and conversation with a close friend, or an answered prayer.  Paul’s words, though, are a reminder to those of us who are looking at unrestored relationships, strained friendships, and unanswered prayers.  In these times, Paul reminds us to simply look outside, even if only for a moment.  We cannot help but see Him there.  His work began at creation and continues to this day.  Thankfully, “He has not left himself without testimony.”

Tethered

    Today’s reading is from Luke 19.  As I read through this chapter, one phrase jumped out at me.  In the last verse of Luke 19, we are told that “all the people were hanging on his words” (Luke 19:48).  In the past few days, I have come across this idea of “hanging on” to the Word of God on several occasions.  Sometimes the words used were “hold fast”, and other times the word “tether” was used to describe how we are to attach ourselves to Jesus and His teachings.  When the same word or idea pops up several times within a short span of days, I pay attention!

In Jesus’ time, people were only beginning to understand who He was and how His death, burial and resurrection would impact their lives eternally.  Yet they still knew, somehow, that they needed to pay close attention to the words He spoke.  When I imagine people hanging onto Jesus’ every word, I picture a crowd pressed close together, leaning forward and straining to hear the words directly from Jesus’ mouth.  In those times, people had to work hard to hear Jesus’ words.  Hearing Him meant finding out where He would be, making their way on foot to that place, and then positioning themselves close enough to Him so that they could hear His voice.  In many ways, we have it so much easier today, don’t we?  We have relatively easy access to Bibles both in written form and on our electronic devices.  But we also have an incredible number of distractions that can draw us away from pursuing God and His word.

     In a world that is constantly changing, it is critical that we hold fast to God’s unchanging word.  His word is as valuable and relevant today as it was on the day it was written.  It is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) and God promises “it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).  

So, what does it look like on a daily basis to tether ourselves tightly to God’s word?  Here are a few suggestions.

– Spend time reading the Bible daily.  This doesn’t need to happen at a specific time each day.  The reading itself is what is important; when you do it is not.

– If you find yourself thinking you do not have time to read the Bible because you have so much else to do, consider this thought that my wise husband shared with our small group this week.  He suggested approaching spending time with God during the week with the same mindset we approach taking a Sabbath rest.  God asks us to rest once a week, and He asks us to trust that our work will get done throughout the remainder of the week.  Likewise, we can set apart time to spend reading His word daily while trusting that He will enable us to accomplish what He has called us to do that day.

 – Consider using a daily reading plan found in a Bible or online.  There are hundreds to choose from, and the accountability of a daily plan can be helpful.

 – Memorize Scripture verses that have personal meaning to you.  When your Bible or your device isn’t near, the verses you have memorized are easily recalled when you need them.

The time we spend reading our Bible matters because the words we read on the page or on the screen are alive.  His word accomplishes God’s purpose for us and for the world He created.  I encourage you to try one or more of the ideas above as you seek to hang onto every word of Jesus!

Take Root

Matthew 13

Matthew 13 contains 7 parables to help explain faith and the Kingdom of Heaven. We will focus on the parable the sower.

Jesus first tells of seeds which fell along the path and were eaten by birds. He clarifies this is those who hear the message, but don’t understand and accept it. He then tells of seeds that fell on rocky soil. He clarifies that here he is describing those that gladly hear the Good News, but lose faith when trouble and persecution come. The Word did not “sink in” so to speak like the seeds did not sink in the soil. He then tells of seeds that fell among the thorn bushes. These seeds grow up, but are choked out by the worries of this life, the love of riches and the world. Finally, Jesus tells of seeds sown in the good soil which sunk in and bore great grain. This is describing those that hear the message, understand it, and bear fruit by living it out in their everyday lives.

A few years ago I told my wife how thankful I was for the blessings we have received, but that I was also fearful for how I would react when we faced what I perceived as some “real” challenges others have faced. We know that challenges will come because James 1:2 says “when” trials come and not “if.” I had attended church my whole life, but how do we make sure our faith is strong and the seeds are planted deep in the good soil? Is going to church regularly enough? Would that prepare us?

In order for the seeds to be buried deep and take root, we must have a strong relationship with Jesus. In fact, Jesus specifically directs us to do so…

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5 ESV

How do we foster that relationship with Him? Find a church that focuses on the Bible and sees it as the truth and never changing with time, despite what modern day culture tries to tell us. Next, be in the Word daily (finding a daily devotional helps) to provide a constant and consistent message of instruction and direction. Be in prayer throughout the day to be in communication with God and keep our heart in the right place. Join a Bible study/small group to create a community of believers and friends that can help facilitate and hold us accountable to growing our relationship with Him and our faith. There are many other great spiritual habits and disciplines. These are just a few we focused on.

Since that conversation, we have faced some new challenges we had not before, and I believe we were better prepared to face those. Putting on the armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-18) to create a relationship with Jesus allows us to move forward with confidence each day in knowing we are equipped to face trials and tribulations.

So, how do we now make sure we are not like that seeds that grew up among the thorn bushes and are choked out by the love of riches and the world? There is good news. The answer and steps are the same..let the seeds take root deep in the good soil through putting on the armor of God to create a relationship with Jesus!

What is one thing will you focus on in 2017 to strengthen your relationship with Christ?

Contemplating Life As Worship

If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. -1 Peter 4:11

The entirety of our lives is made up of what we think, say and do. Our active and passive response to what we are born into, what happens to us, and our surroundings — situations that unfold.

Whether we see it our not, God is the author of life; of our lives. Each breath we breathe is from God. His plan includes us. Part of that plan is our free will, our ability to uniquely decide how we’ll respond to the world as it presents itself, including interaction with each other.

Through studying the Bible and from insights gleaned from friends and sages, I have come to believe I should glorify God in all things, making my life a constant act of worship. But without some understanding of who God is, this is difficult. Even though God’s revelation is available to us all and His law is written on our hearts, it seems impossible to consistently glorify God.

If I was able to subjugate every thought, and every word, and every deed to God’s power; or to fully understand His purposes and His perfect plan for my life, who would I be then? It’s worth thinking about. A life focused on giving glory and power to God in all things — a perfect life, perfect alignment with God’s perfect will.

My hunch is this would be better than any life I could dream up, construct, or will into existence on my own. It’s crazy to think about this perfect life I am unlikely to attain — yet by my faith in Jesus, and through His grace, God considers me worthy of total righteousness, offering me a different kind of life. One in which I am able to receive God’s love as if I were His perfect child.

Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross offers the best example of God’s perfect love. This is the reason I choose to surrender all, bowing down to the maker of heaven and earth.

Thank you God for giving me freedom in the deliverance from my sin, through my submission to you. Thy will, not mine be done, as it is in heaven and on earth. Amen.

1 Chronicles 23; 1 Peter 4; Micah 2; Luke 11

All You Need Is Love

When Jesus speaks of the perfect life, He is very clear: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” -Luke 10:27. In perfect love, God desires our wellbeing, our fellowship and obedience.

Obedience is a hard word for me to hear, let alone to say or do! But obedience to God’s precepts ultimately make us better, stronger, healthier and happier. God’s law is no longer imposed, but encouraged in love. It’s not offered in oppression, but in freedom from sin through a life of tangible fellowship with the Creator of the Universe. Obedience to a perfect God is to seek the love Jesus speaks of.

Love gets more complicated when we are concerned for our well being, when others threaten our way of life, our freedom or interests. This is when we must chose between our own understanding or trusting God.

I am fascinated by the intensity of the discourse after this very unusual and surprising election. I have had to remind myself that God is eternally sovereign and we are not.

Living out our faith is about love in action, showing love without favoritism, loving the unlovable, practicing grace and gratitude. It is helpful to recognize our hypocrisy and self-righteousness, avoiding demagoguery, so easily embraced.

Personal spiritual transformation is the true source of social change. It is born in Love. God’s Spirit guides us. There is no other way.

God is sovereign and everything, even political power, comes from Him or is allowed by Him.

We have a lifetime of opportunity to live out values like kindness, humility, forgiveness, bravery, sacrifice, integrity, generosity, and compassion. We might easily claim these as our own, and overlook them in others, but love is the champion of justice and truth.

More than anything Jesus is saying to me, “trust God, surrender all to Him and love each other like there is no tomorrow.”

Perhaps John Lennon had it right; “all you need is love!”

1 Chronicles 15; James 2. Secret: Amos 9; Luke 4

Hall of Faith or Hall of Fame?

Hebrews chapter 11 is often referred to as the hall of faith. This is where the legacies of the heroes of Scripture are chronicled. Very different from the halls of fame we encounter in our culture today. 

Walking through a sporting goods store this past week I noticed a very large banner. An athlete up at the break of dawn, with all the ‘essential’ gear, stared into the camera with determination.  The text read simply “I WILL”. Here is another ad from the campaign. 

Under Armour I WILL campaign
Under Armour I WILL campaign

The memory of the familiar “JUST DO IT” slogan immediately came to mind and I thought ‘at least this “I WILL” campaign was a bit more transparent of a rallying cry, God willing we will have an easier time seeing it empty.’ In my estimation, when comparing and contrasting the heroes of Scripture from Hebrews 11 to this campaign, it was their faith that helped them realize they and their will were the furthest thing from true glory.

 

Extra Credit: Self Examination. From conversations with them, some teammates that went on to pursue and reach the professional level struggled with a seemingly constant battle against selfishness. These people were not selfish but their battle was against a lie that said the only way to make it was a completely self absorbed lifestyle, dedicating every moment to their bodies and skills. A constant placing of themselves, and their training, first.

Compare this to your “making it”. Ask yourself what does “making it” look like to you? Is your definition of “making it” of this world? Titles, money, position… What sort of “training” is required to always be first in your life for your definition of “making it”? Know that the world will lie to you about the answer to this question. Praise God that He has given us the truth!

From the hall of faith we get a sense of what making it looks like to our God. It is simple. It is faith. Where the first verse defines faith, the second verse speaks to the stark difference in the bases for congratulation between the ‘people of old’ and today; where faith was this bases in the ‘people of old.’ Their faith was their accomplishments, not victory on this earth, some position, or peer perception of them. It was their faith in God. Here is the big question that we all need to get right. In your life does faith in God = making it?

Suggestions for prayer: Ask the LORD to show you what success looks like. To give you a deep passion for pleasing Him in this way, a steadfastness for pursuing this with a single eye in meekness, humility and faith.

For further study: Memorize and meditate on Hebrews 11:1. Here we find the definition of faith. Such an important factor in following Christ.

Today’s reading: 1 Chronicles 7–8; Hebrews 11; Amos 5; Luke 1:1–38

A New Covenant

But God found fault with the people and said: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.Hebrews 8:8-9

As I read about this New Covenant I wonder: Why did we need one? How does it work?

God once made a covenant with His chosen people. These were the descendants of Noah, and the children of Abraham. He promised to bless them and save them; and to save the world through them. They, in exchange were bound to his law, essentially the Ten Commandments. Law that focused primarily on loving God and each other, putting God above all while striving for purity and relying on ritual sacrifice to receive God’s atonement for sin.

As I read through the book of Kings and 2Kings, it reinforces the tremendous disappointment God experienced in the almost constant rebellion of his people. Though God appeared at crucial times, rescuing His chosen people, offering many signs and wonders, still they turned away — worshiping other gods, sacrificing their children, and leaning on their own understanding.

The New Covenant came despite God’s disappointment, perhaps even because of it. It came as an expression of His constant love for people. This is not His plan “B” but the final reconciliation, through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Considering our tendency to rebel, it’s remarkable God extends salvation to us. When we receive God’s grace, in an instant our sins are washed away and we are made righteous by faith! No longer under the power of the law, we are set free in Christ and given freedom to pursue a relationship with the one true God. A holy God who declares our innocence, though we are guilty. A self-sacrificing God, who takes our place on the cross and dies for our sins so we don’t have to.

The New Covenant is based on an act of love that restores the fullness of God’s intended relationship with us — His created beings. Once set free from sin, we are able to pursue holiness in the power of God’s Holy Spirit and a life in the presence of a living God who offers everything we cannot attain on our own. In this way we are blessed with peace, freedom, power and joy in the truth and security of an eternal, dynamic relationship with the very creator of the universe! This is the New Covenant. Thank you God!

Reading: 1 Chronicles 1–2; Hebrews 8; Amos 2; Psalm 145

Autumn Blessing

What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me? -Psalm 116:12

In the pale light of an October evening, I sat on my patio — under the yellow rain of the locust trees, crows cawing back and forth. The cool air was filled with the smell of distant smoke as I sat wondering: How could I be so blessed?

In this tranquil place I had broken bread with my family and friends, sharing stories of our lives that intertwined like vines in a vineyard, planted and grafted, pruned and picked. Not all bore the best fruit, but the ones that did were special.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.John 15:1-2

Vineyards At Sunset

Why was I so fortunate? Honestly I couldn’t think of anything that I had done to deserve all that I had been given. A strong and healthy family. A beautiful, patient, loyal and loving wife. Three amazing boys, all so different. My businesses had been prosperous in ways that made it hard for me to take the credit.

It had also been a life that revealed the hand of God in the splendor of creation.

Scenery Of High Mountain With Lake And High Peak On A Clear Day

A litany of people offering hope and direction to a scrawny freckled faced boy, and then to an arrogant young man. People investing time in me along the way, wanting nothing in return. Now I worked with trusted partners in collaborations reaching farther than I ever could have imagined. Still, I had this feeling there was more to my life.

The feeling I had on this crisp Autumn day was more than abundant gratitude, recognizing God’s incredible grace. It was a sense of responsibility, but not burdensome — more like the anticipation of greater opportunities around the next bend. Yes I had been given much and there was a reason for this, a reason I wanted to understand.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.John 15:5

Nothing that was given to me was really mine. I had been entrusted with knowledge and treasures beyond my wildest dreams; perhaps even wisdom. I had been the unworthy recipient of unconditional love; this was the greatest gift of all. Yet when I finally realized that I was only the steward of these gifts, now I had to decide how better to use them.

In the brightness of Autumn it became clear, by surrendering all to God, the fulfillment of my purpose was possible. This was now my greatest opportunity.

Today’s reading: 2 Kings 4; 1 Timothy 1; Daniel 8; Psalm 116