Sunday, July 21, 2019

"Good News that Offends" July 21 Readings: Esther 1-2, Acts 17, Psalm 85:9–13, Proverbs 18:4–5

Today's ReadingsEsther 1-2, Acts 17, Psalm 85:9–13, Proverbs 18:4–5

Devotional - Good News that Offends 

Paul was a brilliant man; in fact, there are some who believe he would have been a known quantity in history even had he not met Jesus on the road to Damascus. When he wandered into Athens and began to debate with the Epicureans and Stoics, he was more than able to hold his own. He was not intimidated or overwhelmed by them or their philosophical intricacies.

But then he came to that moment that every gospel presentation comes to - no matter what. You can be tactful, but there is a moment where tact goes out of the window. You can be intellectual, but there is a moment at which you abandon sight and walk by faith. There is always a moment of offense every time the truth of Jesus' work on the cross is shared.

It came in Athens when Paul mentioned the resurrection of Jesus Christ (17:31). His intelligence might have impressed them to that point, but as soon as he talked about Jesus rising from the dead he lost them. What an idiot! Seriously? You believe this guy Jesus came back from the dead? You have a screw loose!

The gospel is good news (that's what gospel means). It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. It is truth. But it is also an offense. It tells people that they are sinners who cannot save themselves. It tells them that who they are is not good enough. It tells them they cannot just "be themselves" but that they must humble themselves and repent before God. It tells them that God's judgment and eternal hell awaits those who do not trust Christ. It asks people to believe things that reasonable people do not believe - creation, miracles, resurrection, and a long list of other things.

You can try to be tactful as you share the gospel - and you should. There's no reason to stand on the street corner and shout at people that they are going to hell as if you are glad about that! You can be loving and kind and build relationships and build bridges and contextualize and do all those things. But there comes a point where you have to drop the bomb!

An inoffensive gospel is no gospel at all. If you are worried most about what people think of you and whether they like you, you will stay silent as sinners march inexorably toward hell. To honor Christ and proclaim truth you must be willing to speak the unpopular truth and offend sinners with the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
Father, may we be willing to speak the clear and unvarnished truth, even at the risk of offense. 

Think and Pray

Which of the readings spoke most powerfully to you today?
Is the Spirit of God moving you to repent of something you are doing, to begin something new, or to change something about your life as a result of your readings? What?

Do you shy away from speaking truth that will offend?
Do you care more about what people think of you, or whether they are right with God?

Saturday, July 20, 2019

"Revive Us Again" July 20 Readings: Nehemiah 11-13, Acts 16:25–40, Psalm 85:1–8, Proverbs 18:1–3

Today's Readings Nehemiah 11-13, Acts 16:25–40, Psalm 85:1–8, Proverbs 18:1–3

Devotional - Revive Us Again

It is the heart-cry of so many believers today in this land, that God would revive his church and his people and reverse the moral and spiritual trends we observe. Could there be a true follower of Jesus Christ whose heart would not strongly desire such a revival?

Many of the Psalms are calls for God to renew and revive his people, Israel, who had fallen into sin. Of course, we Americans often act like America is the new Israel and Americans are the chosen people of God. It is not true. The church is the chosen people of God today and it is we who must seek the renewal of God. I do not believe it is an insult to say that our church needs revival today. Doesn't yours?

In Psalm 85:4-5, the Psalmist called out to God for forgiveness and restoration.
Return to us, God of our salvation,
and abandon your displeasure with us.
Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger for all generations?
God is a righteous and Holy God who demands obedience and fidelity from his people, the church of Jesus Christ. Too often we have lived in the ways of the world, walked in the flesh and gone our own ways instead of God's. We cannot ask for God's blessings and renewal while we are walking in sin. Any sort of revival begins with repentance that brings us back into contact with God. 

But ultimately, revival rests in the faithful love of God. Whatever we do, we do because of what he did. We love because he first loved us. We return because he holds his arms out to receive us. We do not revive ourselves but are revived by God's grace and love. In verses 6-7, the Psalmist calls out for that faithful love of God to restore the people. 
Will you not revive us again
so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your faithful love, Lord,
and give us your salvation.
That is the cry of our heart today. Lord, revive us again. Return to us and restore us. Bring your church to repentance from all that displeases you. Show us again how great your are, how awesome and glorious. You have saved us once from our sins, now restore the joy of your salvation. Save us from this mess we find ourselves in today, a mess we've created with careless living and the love of this world. Your love and faithfulness, God, are greater than our sin and failure. 

Revive us again, fill each heart with thy love.  
May each soul be rekindled with fire from above. 
Hallelujah, thine the glory. Hallelujah, Amen. 
Hallelujah, thine the glory, Revive us again. 

Think and Pray

Which of the readings spoke most powerfully to you today?
Is the Spirit of God moving you to repent of something you are doing, to begin something new, or to change something about your life as a result of your readings? What?

Paul told Timothy to "fan into flame" the gift within him. Are you in need of having your heart revived - fanned into a new and fervent flame?
This comes when we seek God, submit to him, and he fills us completely.
May the words of the old invitation hymn become a reality in your life - "I surrender all."

Friday, July 19, 2019

"Barnabas-Paul-Timothy" July 19 Readings: Nehemiah 9-10, Acts 16:1–24, Psalm 84:8–12, Proverbs 17:27–28

Today's ReadingsNehemiah 9-10, Acts 16:1–24, Psalm 84:8–12, Proverbs 17:27–28

Devotional - Barnabas-Paul-Timothy

There is an old adage that Christianity is always one generation from extinction. It is, in reality, true, though if we believe the church is founded by Christ for God's eternal purposes, we also believe that hell cannot stand against it and though its success may ebb and flow, it will never be completely stopped. The thought behind the adage is still a good one. If we want the church to continue we must pass it along to younger folks who will continue the work.

Chapter divisions can be unfortunate, causing us to miss the continuation of important ideas. In Acts 16, it may prevent us from seeing an interesting juxtaposition. When Paul was Saul of Tarsus, the enemy of the Cross, and converted on the road to Damascus, one man stood beside him, put his arm around him, and brought him into the fellowship of the church. When young Saul went off by himself to learn the things of God it was Barnabas who went and found him and brought him to Antioch to get him involved in the ministry of that church. Barnabas and Saul headed out into the Galatian region to share Christ and plant churches. Paul became what Paul became because of the discipling and encouragement of Joseph, known as Barnabas, the son of encouragement.

Then, the sad events of the end of chapter 15 took place which separated Paul and Barnabas, at least for a time, and led to two missionary teams instead of one going out. Paul took Silas and headed back to the areas they had gone before and Barnabas told Mark, "Let's go west, young man."

So, as Paul's ministry partnership with Barnabas is being severed, what is the first thing he does? Acts 16:1-3.
Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
Paul, having absented himself from his mentor, found a young man whom he could mentor. This is conjecture, but perhaps Barnabas convinced him of the need to train young men. Paul was unwilling to make Mark that trainee, but in Derbe and Lystra he found Timothy and in him he found a young man into whom he could pour his life, a young man who could carry on the work when he was gone. A wise man is always looking for a younger man he can train to carry on the work when he is gone. Is that a lesson he learned from Barnabas? We'll have to ask him when we see him in glory, I suppose. 

What I do know is that there is truth in the old line:
Every man of God needs a Barnabas and a Timothy! (Women, it's true for you too!)
Actually, like Paul, we should seek several Timothy-types. Read through Acts and note that everywhere Paul went he took someone with him. I'm a ministry-loner. I study by myself. I work by myself. I visit by myself (most of the time). It's a failing in my ministry. Paul did everything in a group. 

Why? There are a number of reasons. It's great for accountability and mutual encouragement. There's less temptation in a group than there is when someone is by himself. When one person is blue, or upset, or discouraged, the others can lift him up. They can pray together and learn from one another. But more than anything, these young men got to watch Paul and learn. He was able not just to pass on some doctrines and teachings, but his very life. 

There is no greater heritage any of us can leave in this world than a small army of well-trained kingdom warriors who will carry on the work when we are gone. I can only fight the good fight for so long. But if I find a Timothy and a Titus, I can keep fighting through them even when I have gone to glory.
Father, may my life count in the lives of others. 

Think and Pray

Which of the readings spoke most powerfully to you today?
Is the Spirit of God moving you to repent of something you are doing, to begin something new, or to change something about your life as a result of your readings? What?

Are you pouring your life into the lives of others who are growing in Christ? Do you have a Timothy whom you are leading and discipling?

Thursday, July 18, 2019

"No Superheroes Needed" July 18 Readings: Nehemiah 7-8, Acts 15:22–41, Psalm 84:1–7, Proverbs 17:24–26

Today's ReadingsNehemiah 7-8, Acts 15:22–41, Psalm 84:1–7, Proverbs 17:24–26

Devotional - No Superheroes Needed

In one sense, the story makes me happy, in another, it makes me very sad. After the conference in Jerusalem that dealt with the conflict over Gentiles coming into the church, and how Jewish the church would be, Paul and Barnabas decided the time was right to head out on another mission trip to visit the churches they had already planted and to extend the gospel even further.

Then, according to Acts 15:36-41, a problem arose, having to do with Mark. Barnabas, always the encourager, wanted to bring him along and give him another chance - let him succeed this time. Paul was having none of it. The momma's boy had cut and run when they needed him and could not be trusted. This was important business they were doing and there was no way that they could trust a man like this again, at least not this soon. And the argument became pretty heated.

36  Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

 It is clear what makes me sad about this story.  Two great men, great friends, great servants of God, came to a parting of the ways because they could not work this issue out. Barnabas was the man who stood by Paul when no one else would and had been Paul's mentor, his discipler. Now, they were on the outs. It is a tragic story.

But what makes me happy? It makes me happy that the Word of God is REAL. It is not fictional make-believe in which people never make mistakes. Ever read a biography of a great Christian? We have a tendency when writing the life stories of great men or women to build them up into spiritual superheroes who could leap tall buildings in a single bound.

The Bible never does that. It tells us the real stories of real people. Jesus was perfect but the people who served him were not. Paul was a man - a man of God but also a sinner who had a temper and got his feelings hurt and struggled to forgive and - well, a man who was messed up just like me. Moses made mistakes. Elijah got discouraged. Abraham's faith failed him a time or two. David, the man after God's own heart, fell into grievous sin.

I love that the Bible is not about spiritual superheroes but people like me who struggle to keep it together, who fail and start over and who do things they wish they hadn't.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Mark eventually became a useful friend and coworker, laboring with Paul in the gospel. We can hope that Barnabas and Saul's friendship survived this and thrived in the days ahead, though they ministered separately. God used even this sad episode to work his grace and to extend the kingdom.

The good news for you and me today is simple - God is not looking for spiritual superheroes to accomplish his kingdom work. He takes people like you and me, and Paul and Barnabas and he uses us - regular, ordinary, flesh and blood, sinful folks! God infuses us with the power of Christ and fills us with his Spirit to accomplish his mighty work through us.

Leave the cape at home. You don't need it to serve our mighty God. 

Father, thank you for your grace. I am weak, but you are strong. Thank you that the only superhero in your kingdom is the One who rose from the grave and who is my Savior and Lord.

Think and Pray

Which of the readings spoke most powerfully to you today?
Is the Spirit of God moving you to repent of something you are doing, to begin something new, or to change something about your life as a result of your readings? What?

Are you a perfectionist, thinking that you are required to be faultless to be useful to God?
It is Christ who is sinless and Christ alone.

Be thankful today that, while sin is never "okay," it is the goodness of Christ and his perfection that matters, not ours.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

"That Sinners Might See" July 17 Readings: Nehemiah 5-6, Acts 15:1–21, Psalm 83:13–18, Proverbs 17:22–23

Today's ReadingsNehemiah 5-6, Acts 15:1–21, Psalm 83:13–18, Proverbs 17:22–23

Devotional - That Sinners Might See

Who hasn't seen the despicable video in which Planned Parenthood treats human life as a commodity, or ISIS videos depicting unspeakable cruelty? What a world we live in. They anger us, disgust us, and fill us with indignation. And, frankly, they make us want to strike back at these people.

The psalmists knew that feeling. The Psalms are full of prayers that pour out anger over the sin of the world - often called imprecatory prayers. Psalm 109 is among the most extreme of these, but Psalm 83 is definitely in the category. In it, Asaph calls on God to destroy the enemies of Israel and invokes previous instances in which that took place.

He asks God to make these enemies like Sisera (83:9), who was killed when Jael drove a tent peg through his skull while he slept. I've had enemies but I've never prayed that God would arrange tent pegs through their skulls. He mentions kings who came against Israel when Gideon was judge and were killed because they butchered Gideon's family. In verses 13 and 14 he calls out for God to make these enemies like whirling dust and chaff, and to rain fire down on them, to "pursue them with (his) tempest and terrify them with (his) storm."  That is harsh.

There are a lot of issues working here but the last verse of this Psalm explains the heart of this strident prayer-song coming from Asaph's lips. The fact was that these people had set themselves against God and against God's people. They were working against what God was doing and they were doing so with impunity. They lived as if there was no God in Israel who would take note of the evil deeds and respond.

So, Asaph prays, in verse 18,
May they know that you alone—
whose name is the Lord—
are the Most High over the whole earth.
The primary motivation of these prayers is the fact that people live in ignorance of the power and glory of God. They act as if they can do as they please, treat God's people any way that benefits them, and live with impunity. These sinful people need a wake-up call, a reminder that there is a God in heaven who sees, who will respond, who will accomplish his purposes, protect his people and to whom each of them must answer.

At its core, Asaph's prayer is that these sinful people will realize that there is a God and that he is sovereign over this world. 

When we pray for sinful, rebellious, destructive, abusive, hurtful people today, we need to pray the heart of this prayer. Jesus told us to love our enemies and one of the best ways to love them is to pray that they will see and understand God, that God alone is Most High over all the earth and that they need to live their lives in obedience and submission to him! We ought never to pray for their destruction, but for their eyes to be opened to the power and glory of the God who created and rules this world and will one day consummate its history in his glory.

That is what solves mankind's problems. Not money, or counseling, or education, or any other human solution. The revelation of the glory of God is what we need. 

Father, may we never be vengeful or destructive toward those who stand against you, against your church and who seek to hurt your people. But I pray that you would reveal yourself in such a way that these people know you are real, you are God, and you are all in all. 

Think and Pray

Which of the readings spoke most powerfully to you today?
Is the Spirit of God moving you to repent of something you are doing, to begin something new, or to change something about your life as a result of your readings? What?

Do you have enemies, people who seek to make your life difficult, unhappy, or stressful?
Do you pray for them, and ask God to reveal his glory to them?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

"Pray Hard, Fight Hard" July 16 Readings: Nehemiah 3-4, Acts 14, Psalm 83:6–12, Proverbs 17:19–21

Today's ReadingsNehemiah 3-4, Acts 14, Psalm 83:6–12, Proverbs 17:19–21

Devotional - Pray Hard, Fight Hard

Nehemiah was operating under the call and blessing of God, who had put it on his heart to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. God had further blessed him by granting him favor with the king who sent him on his way in favor. When he arrived, he was faithful to do the work of God carefully and diligently. The walls were being built.

Of course, that meant that everything went well, everyone cheered him on and supported his work and things fell into place. Amen? There was a man named Sanballat, his friend Tobiah and many others who were opposed to the work Nehemiah was doing. They marshaled their strength to oppose the work that was being done. Sanballat was furious about the progress God's people were making.

The fact is, God's work will always be opposed. Jesus was opposed. Paul was opposed. Every great figure in the Bible experienced great opposition from the enemies of God, even sometimes from within God's people. When you determine to draw near to God, to seek him with all your heart, and to serve him in this world, expect that you will be opposed. Jesus promised that the world that hated him will hate us. Christians who walk in the flesh will oppose those who walk in the fulness of the Spirit. That is just the nature of things in this fallen world.

Nehemiah's approach to dealing with Sanballat and his minions is instructive. In verse 9, it says,
"So we prayed to our God and stationed a guard because of them day and night."
There are a couple of times in God's Word where his people were told to do nothing but stand and watch God work. "Stand still and see the salvation of God." Sometimes, they were told to do acts of obedience to display their faithfulness to God (like march around Jericho). But most of the time, God sent his people out to battle to fight against their enemies. The vast majority of biblical encounters follow this pattern.
Depend on God and fight hard
Nehemiah bathed everything he did in prayer. He asked God's wisdom to know what he should do. He asked God's blessing and protection as he did it. He never operated independently from God or live out his own agenda. He sought God faithfully.

But he also set a guard. The vast majority of the time throughout the Bible, God's people, depending on him, having prayed for his blessings, had to take up arms and fight. In the Old Testament that fighting was often literal. In the New Testament era the weapons are spiritual. But the fact is that we must not only pray for God's direction, wisdom and power, but we must fight the good fight. We must go out in this world and work in God's name. We must face down the enemies of God and stand in Christ's victory.

Father, forgive me for when I have failed to pray and seek your wisdom and power and gone out on my own. Forgive me as well for when I have prayed for your power to be revealed but failed to take up the weapons of warfare you have given me and gone to battle in your name. 

Think and Pray

Which of the readings spoke most powerfully to you today?
Is the Spirit of God moving you to repent of something you are doing, to begin something new, or to change something about your life as a result of your readings? What?

Do you remember to seek God, knowing that everything you do is dependent on him and his mighty power?
Do you ever use prayer as an excuse for laziness or inactivity? "I'll pray about it" does not excuse us from picking up the sword and standing guard.

Monday, July 15, 2019

"When They Don't Applaud" July 15 Readings: Nehemiah 1-2, Acts 13:35–52, Psalm 83:1–5, Proverbs 17:17–18

Today's ReadingsNehemiah 1-2, Acts 13:35–52, Psalm 83:1–5, Proverbs 17:17–18

Devotional - When They Don't Applaud

We all say, "I do all I do for the glory of God," but the test of that comes when people stop applauding you for the things you do. In serving the Lord, criticism is natural. Sometimes people find your faults and justly criticize you. Sometimes, they find a small fault and drive a Mack truck of criticism through it. And sometimes, they simply make it up. How we respond when the hammer of negativity falls determines much of our eternal significance in ministry. I tend to either get angry and strike back (usually with my big fat mouth) or I crumble into a puddle of goo and spend days in a dark mood obsessing over the criticism.

Paul had a different wisdom. He was a human being and I'm sure the rejection and criticism hurt his feelings. But he never let these things destroy him or derail him from the work God gave him. Anyone who wishes to make an impact for the kingdom will have to learn to deal with criticism.

In Acts 13, Paul was in Pisidian Antioch on the first of his missionary journeys and as usual, the reaction was mixed. Some latched on to his message and believed in Jesus Christ. Others, though, rejected what he taught. Usually, they did so because of personal reasons - their personal power and control were threatened.

Paul preached often about unity, about love, about trying to make things right and living in peace, but he did not let his critics control his life. He was not cruel or insensitive, but he continued doing God's work regardless of what others said, how they responded, or how they treated him. His life was about the Kingdom of God, not about himself, so what people thought of him was secondary to obedience to Christ.

In Acts 13:46, when the Jewish leaders rejected the gospel and rejected Paul, he simply turned his attention to the Gentiles and began to proclaim Christ to them. The response was enthusiastic. Many came to faith in Christ.

That did not make his detractors happy and the opposition grew, bursting out in verses 49-50 into full-fledged persecution. What did Paul do then? According to verse 51, he shook the dust off his feet and moved on to Iconium to proclaim Christ there. He did not let criticism or resistance derail him from the purposes of God.

Again, this is no excuse for being calloused toward the feelings of others, but servants of God cannot be enslaved to criticism, opposition, and false accusation. We serve him and must continue to do so whether people like us, whether they speak well of us, whether they support us, or not.

Father, too often I have lived by the opinions of others instead of giving myself fully to your work. Forgive me and strengthen me to live solely for your glory. 

Think and Pray

Which of the readings spoke most powerfully to you today?
Is the Spirit of God moving you to repent of something you are doing, to begin something new, or to change something about your life as a result of your readings? What?

Is perseverance and faithfulness a marker of your service to God?
Is pleasing God your highest priority, even more than pleasing other people?