Friday, December 1, 2017

Daily Meditations to Enrich Your Christmas

Christmas is drawing near and many are already occupied with shopping, ordering online, baking, and decorating.  All of these traditions are great fun.   But I believe God delights when we take time to slip away from the Christmas frenzy to meditate on the significance of Christmas—to renew our sense of wonder, adoration, and thanksgiving for God’s Gift of Jesus Christ who came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).

This month, Oikonomia provides a series of “one-a-day, Christmas questions,” each accompanied by a brief meditation supported by a Scripture passage.  I invite you save this web link and visit each day to read and meditate on God’s Christmas promises, their fulfillment, and the future hope available to every believer through the birth, earthly life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

December 1:  Can I Believe What the Bible Says?

Consider:  The hope of Christmas hinges upon our acceptance of the authority of the Bible in matters it addresses about faith and practice.  The Scriptures themselves claim to be God’s inspired Word and are therefore an authoritative revelation of truth from God—truth about our origin, who we are as human beings, the root cause of strife in the world, and how we ought to respond to God’s call to Life and fellowship with Him.  Is your heart (your mind, will, and emotions) submitted to what God is showing you today?
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right (New Living Translation, NLT).
2 Timothy 3: 14-17

December 2:  Why Must I Have Faith to Believe in God?
We’ve all heard people say something like, “I am just not a person who accepts things on faith alone.”  Okay, but doesn’t everyone exercise faith the moment we awaken each day?  For example, we sit in chairs by faith that they will not “let us down.”  We have faith that our eyes will show us what is physically real around us.  We have faith that our car will respond to our hands on the wheel.   Indeed, God created us to exercise such faith in everyday life; and also to trust in the truth claims contained in His Word-- but we must be willing to believe.  What are you trusting in today?
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him (Hebrews 11: 1, 6   New American Standard Bible, NASB).
Reading:  Hebrews 11: 1-6

December 3:   This Christmas, Will We Realize the Only Real Source of Love?
You may remember the lyrics written in 1965 by Hal David and made popular by The Beatles— “What the World Needs Now is Love.”  What was true in the 1960’s is even more obvious now—the World needs love.  And I would add, “God’s love.”  The Bible says in 1 John 4: 16 that “God is love.”  God is the very personification of perfect, unconditional love—love that always seeks the best for another person regardless of what it may cost us.   How is your “love life?”  This Christmas, will you commit to grow in your love for God and for your neighbor, realizing that the only true source of unconditional love (agape love) is from God
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
Reading:  1 John 4: 7, NASB.

December 4:   How Does Christmas Demonstrate the Love of God?
Christmas is the time when we give gifts as a way to express our love to others.  But do we realize the true spiritual roots of Christmas joy and giving?  Our giving ought to be a response to the greatest love gift of all—God’s Gift of His Son, Jesus Christ.  The Scriptures explain how God’s Gift is the greatest gift He could give us.  How do you respond when you read and meditate on what may be the most popular verse of the Bible, John 3: 16?  Have you received the gift of God’s Son and made Him lord of your life? 
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  (John 3: 16-17,  NASB)
Reading:  John 3: 16-17

December 5:   Why Did Jesus Come to Earth?

The Old Testament of the Bible promised the coming of a Savior through many prophetic revelations. The New Testament records how these promises were fulfilled by the birth and ministry of Jesus Christ.  Luke 4 records one dramatic instance in which Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read from the Book of Isaiah—words first written 700 years earlier!   Amazingly, the Savior had come; and, He was reading His own mission statement which had already been written 7 centuries before.  As you read this statement, take time to reflect on how Jesus actually did fulfill this mission.  How will it impact your life this Christmas? 
Reading:  Luke 4: 14-22

December 6:   How Can Observing Advent Prepare Us for Christmas?
This week is the first week of Advent as observed in many families and churches.   Each week, a candle is lit to represent one of four themes.  The emphasis is on Hope this week, followed in future weeks by Peace, Joy, and Love, culminating in the lighting of the Christ candle on Christmas Day.   
The Advent calendar can help us become more disciplined in a spirit of waiting and anticipation of Christmas celebration of Christ’s coming.   This week, we are asked to consider the importance of Hope in our lives.  Hope is like the air we breathe.  It is just as essential to our physical and spiritual lives.  Christ came from heaven to Earth to bring us Hope.  Take time to re-read yesterday’s Scripture from Isaiah.  It was a message of hope to Israel in the midst of political turmoil and despair—a message intended to cause God’s people to wait in hope and anticipation of a long-awaited Savior.  Then, Jesus came to Earth and fulfilled an important phase of His “mission” (Luke 4: 14-22) through His death, resurrection, and promised second coming.  Are you resting in what Christ has done and in His promised return as your source of Hope today?  If so, thank and praise God; and then, ask Him to lead you to a person this week who needs this same Hope.
And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.  (1 Thessalonians 4:  13-14,  NLT)
Reading:   1 Thessalonians 4:  13-18

December 7:  What is “the Gospel?”
“Gospel” means “good news.”  The good news is “good” because it brings Hope as we learned in yesterday’s reading.   The Gospel explains how imperfect people can be reconciled, or purchased from the slave market of sin, by Jesus Christ whose sinless life was given as a perfect sacrifice in our place so that we might have eternal life through faith in His Name.  Consider the following words of the Apostle Paul which summarize the “good news” of the Gospel: 
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…
Is the Gospel “good news” to you?  If you have received its message “by which also you are saved,” then, pause to thank God for your salvation in Christ and ask Him to give you opportunity to share the Gospel message of Hope to someone else this week.
Reading:   1 Corinthians 15: 1-9

December 8:  Why Are We “Blind Captives” without the Gospel?

One of Jesus’ most notable miracles was to heal those who were blind.  In our December 5 reading, we learned that part of Jesus’ mission was to bring RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND. Jesus demonstrated by His miracles that He is God in human form.  When Jesus gave sight to the blind, He was teaching us that God has the supernatural power to open our “spiritual eyes.”  When God heals our spiritual blindness, we can recognize His love, believe His Gospel, and invite His Son Jesus to forgive our sin and take control of our lives.  When we do this, Jesus through His Holy Spirit works in us to make us what He wants us to be.  If you have accepted God’s Gift of salvation from sin, do you realize it was only possible because God’s power is greater than that of the god of this world, Satan?  If so, thank God for His saving work in your life.  If you have not accepted God’s Gift, why not ask Him for it now?
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Reading:  2 Corinthians 4: 3-6
For more information on how you can invite Jesus Christ to be Lord and Savior of your life, see
“Steps to Peace with God.”

December 9:  How Did Satan Make Humans “Blind Captives?”
Yesterday, we noted that all people regardless of ethnic or economic status are spiritually blind until their eyes are opened by saving faith in Jesus who came to Earth on that first Christmas.   Jesus lived a sinless life, died on a Roman cross, and rose victorious over sin and death.  All people are spiritually blind without Christ because the Bible teaches that we are all descendents of Adam and Eve who believed “the lie” of Satan.  “The lie” was and still is we can  reject God’s love without experiencing spiritual blindness and death (separation from fellowship with Him).  What could be a more serious consequence of sin (rebellion against God) than to be separated from His presence forever?  Certainly, this is a good reason to take seriously God’s invitation to salvation and victory over sin, self, and Satan.  Have you sought and found salvation in Christ? 
Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, "Indeed, has God said, 'You shall not eat from any tree of the garden'?"  The serpent said to the woman, "You surely will not die [become separated from God]!”  (Genesis 3: 1, 4  NASB)
Reading:  Genesis 3: 1-13

December 10:  How Does God View Our “Blind Captivity?”
God has made humankind in His image, meaning that He has given us the rational, emotional, and volitional (our will) capacity to enjoy fellowship with Him.  Then, we can express virtues and attributes that reflect the very nature of God—e.g. love, joy, patience, kindness, mercy, etc. (Galatians 5: 22-25).  But the god of this world (Satan) continually appeals to our fallen nature as descendants of Adam through his deception and allurements to reject God’s rightful authority.  That is, Satan has blinded us to the truth that true satisfaction and joy cannot be found apart from God.  On the other hand, God reveals His truth to us through His Word and those who rightly teach us its truth, through the amazing order and qualities of His creation, and through the conscience He has put within each of us.  Are you alert to the spiritual warfare around you as you decide to whom you will listen?   Are you listening to God or to the god of this world?  Christmas is a good time to consider carefully in whose message you are trusting.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.  For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.   Professing to be wise, they became fools…   (Romans 1:  20-22  NASB).
Reading:  Romans 1:  16-22

December 11:  When Did God First Promise to Send Jesus as Savior?
According to Bible scholars, Jesus Christ fulfilled over 300 Old Testament prophecies of a promised deliverer, or Messiah.  Our question for today asks you to identify the earliest Old Testament prophecy of the coming of Messiah (Christ) as Savior?  You will find the answer in today’s Scripture reading:
The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life; and I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel."  (Genesis 3: 14-15, NASB)
Amazingly, this prophecy was spoken from the mouth of God after the first human couple, Adam and Eve, had fallen prey to Satan’s lie.  Even before the first child was born into the first marriage, God had responded to human sin with the news that a child would be born who would bruise the head of Satan.  How can we help but worship and adore a God Whose love for you and me caused Him to begin to “leak” the news of the mystery (God’s unfolding purposes) that would lead to the birth of that Holy Child in Bethlehem?
  Genesis 3: 1-19

December 12:   Could Anyone Else Have Fulfilled the Prophecies Credited to Jesus Christ?
Many consider Jesus Christ to be a great moral teacher; but not God Himself in human form.  Dr. Peter Stoner, author of
Science Speaks, has studied the probability that any one man could have fulfilled even as few as eight of the over 300 Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by Jesus Christ.  Dr. Stoner’s estimate is 1 chance in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.  One of the eight prophecies included in Dr. Stoner’s estimate is the prophecy that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (probability of this prophecy alone is 1 chance in 280,000).   Yet the prophet Micah prophesied in about 700 BC the location of Jesus’ birth (Micah 5: 2  NASB):
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity
Notice that this “Ruler in Israel” was not yet born at the time of Micah’s writing.  Yet He will “go forth from God” as one Whose “goings forth are from…the days of eternity.”  Was there any doubt among the Jewish scholars 700 years later when King Herod asked them where Messiah (Christ) was to be born?  According to Matthew 2: 5, the scholars replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet….”  
I hope this one fulfillment of prophecy alone brings amazement, wonder, and joy to you as you consider God’s eternal plan to send His Son into the world to fulfill His “mission”—to set “blind captives” free!   If you have received your “spiritual sight” and are “set free,” why not pause to worship and thank God?  You may want to use the lyrics of “
O Little Town of Bethlehem” as you consider the wonder of Christ’s coming to Bethlehem on that first Christmas.
Reading:   Micah 5: 2; Matthew 2: 1-6

December 13:   "What Child Is This?"
Christmas is a time to be joyous and hopeful.  But as you may have noticed in this devotional series, there is a dark side to Christmas that we must not ignore.  On that first Christmas, millions of human beings were “blind captives” of Satan.  Likewise, today there are still millions of people who have not received the “Good News” that Christ came to bring RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND.   As the December 8 devotional stated from 2 Corinthians 4: 3-4 , if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world (Satan) has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  Thankfully, we can return to Isaiah for another prophecy that speaks of a Child that would be born to be a Ruler:
The people who walk in darkness
Will see a great light;
Those who live in a dark land,
The light will shine on them. 
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders…
  Isaiah 9: 2, 6a (NASB)
This Christmas, as you see lighted streets and homes in the midst of dark nights, will you ask yourself if your eyes have been “spiritually opened” through faith in God’s “Good News?”  If you have, thank God for sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to pierce the darkness with the light of His truth.   If you are unsure, please take time to revisit our December 8 devotional.
Reading:   Isaiah 9: 1-6;  John 1: 4-5

December 14:   What will the “Ruler”Do?
In yesterday’s Scripture, we read Isaiah’s prophecy that people who walk in darkness will see a great light.  Then, the prophet revealed that this “great light” will come because of a child to be born to us…and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9: 2, 6a  NASB).  Clearly, this Child born in Bethlehem 700 years later was no ordinary child.  The names assigned to Him in the Scripture above are worthy of One no less than God Himself.   As you meditate on these names of the promised Savior, take time to humbly bow down before God and acknowledge His worthiness to be worshiped.  If you know Jesus Christ personally through faith, then He is your Wonderful Counselor to guide you with the decisions of life.  He is Mighty God with power to help you face the demands of your life.  He is Eternal Father to help you, even carry you, through the surprising changes and setbacks of life.  And, He is Prince of Peace to calm you and protect you through the storms of life.  Praise God, we need not face the challenges, uncertainties, setbacks, and storms of our lives alone.
Reading:   Isaiah 9: 1-7;  Matthew 8: 23-27

December 15:  Why is Christ Called “Prince of Peace?”As Christmas draws near, there are many who ask, “If it is true that the “Prince of Peace” has already come into the world 2,000 years ago, then why is there so little peace in the world today?”   The third stanza of Henry W. Longfellow’s 1864 Christmas hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” expresses our sad dilemma:
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
If Christmas sometimes causes you to have doubt and despair, do not lose hope.  Remember how the first week of Advent is intended to stir our Hope as we consider the long-hoped-for coming of Christ?  Now, as a follow-up to Hope, the lighting of the second Advent candle symbolizes Peace.  Just before He went to the Cross, Jesus assured His disciples (and all Christ-followers) with these words, Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me.  In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.  If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also (John 14: 1-3   NASB).
For many, the season of Christmas can certainly bring a sense of hopelessness.  Maybe you have asked, “Where is the sense of peace in my life—or, in my family—or, in our nation and world?”  But, please don’t lose your Hope or your Peace.  Christ promises His peace can be yours and mine—today!  Jesus went on to say, Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful (John 14: 27).  Won’t you take courage, knowing that Christ is our Prince of Peace?  He is coming again to bring complete peace on Earth.  Longfellow’s lyrics boldly echo this truth:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor does He sleep,
For Christ is here; His Spirit near
Brings peace on earth, good will to men.”

Reading:   John 14:  1-3, 25-29

December 16:  In All of Today’s Corruption and Violence, Where is God?
The Old Testament represents about three-fourths of the entire Bible.  In it God reveals how He created all things (Genesis 1-2), how sin corrupted His creation (Genesis 3), and how He plans to redeem mankind and creation from the curse of sin by sending Messiah.  Beginning with the promise of the “seed of the woman” (Genesis 3), the Old Testament gradually uncovers the mystery of a Child who would be a descendant of Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation (Genesis 17).   More specifically, Messiah would be a descendant of King David (2 Samuel 7), He would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7: 14), and His birth would occur in the little town of Bethlehem (Micah 5: 2).  But sadly, the Old Testament ends with the descendents of Abraham and King David living in Palestine in a state of moral laxness.  And this in spite of having just been disciplined by a 70-year captivity in far away Babylon.  The last book of the Old Testament records the preaching of the prophet Malachi to these Jews because of their half-hearted worship, intermarriage with pagan people, and rampant divorce.  Many of them were asking, “Where is God?” because it seemed that He was turning a blind eye toward their corruption.  Here is a portion of God’s message through Malachi:
You have wearied the LORD with your words.
"How have we wearied him?" you ask.
You have wearied him by saying that all who do evil
are good in the LORD's sight, and he is pleased with them.
You have wearied him by asking,
"Where is the God of justice?"--
Malachi 2: 17 (NLT)
As we await the coming of Christmas this year, once again God’s Truth and righteousness are being marginalized and rejected.  In the midst of threats from terror and corruption in government, many are asking, “Where is God?”  But when we are tempted to be discouraged, we must first focus on our own tendency toward doubt and spiritual laxness.   Perhaps you sense God calling you to pause, repent of your sin, and recommit your life to Him—to the One Who sent His Son to rescue us from spiritual laxness and deadness, and to give us Hope and Peace.  Only then can we worship and obey God Who has called us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6: 8 NASB).
Scripture:  Malachi 1: 6; 2: 11, 15-16; 3: 1

December 17:   What Did God Promise Near the End of the Old Testament?
We have learned that God’s covenants to Abraham and to King David during Old Testament history promised the coming of the Savior of mankind.  Yet, the Old Testament ends with Malachi’s woeful message to Abraham’s offspring who were mired in spiritual laxness.  Then came 400 “silent years” between the Old and New Testaments without a prophetic word from God.  But thankfully, just before the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the “silent years,” we read an important announcement from Almighty God, recorded in Malachi 3: 1 (NASB):
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me.  And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming," says the LORD of hosts.
Do you know who “God’s messenger” was to be?  If not, you will learn his name in tomorrow’s devotional.  What is important from today’s Scripture is that God saw the need to answer the Jews who were spiritually floundering and wondering if He had forgotten them.  Through Malachi’s ministry, God challenged the Jews to repent and get their spiritual house in order.  Furthermore, God promised them that a “messenger” would come to “clear the way” for the Lord, whom you seek …the One in whom you delight, behold, He is coming!  Today, as we hustle and bustle to prepare for Christmas, let’s set aside quiet moments like this to read Scripture and prayerfully prepare our hearts to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child?  Thank God that, after so many millennia of waiting for the promised Savior, He came to save us from our sins (Matthew 1: 21).  And, He is coming again! 
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee
.  – Emily Elliott (1864)
Scripture:   Malachi 3: 1-4

December 18:   Who Was the Promised “Messenger” of God?
God’s final prophetic promise in the Bible is given in the last two verses of the Old Testament, at the end of the book of Malachi:
Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.  He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse." -- Malachi 4: 5-6 (NASB)
God’s last words recorded in the Old Testament through Malachi promised that He would send  a “messenger” whom He called “Elijah the prophet” (Malachi 3: 1).  Many of us are familiar with the prophet Elijah who called down fire from heaven (2 Kings 1: 12).  This Elijah served in Israel about 500 years before God made His promise through Malachi to send Elijah.  Was God promising that the prophet Elijah would return to Earth 500 years after God had taken him to heaven with a chariot in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2: 1, 11)?  Or, was this a second Elijah?  Or, was he simply a man like Elijah?  The answer is found in the Gospel of Luke which records the fulfillment of this prophecy (Luke 1: 5-17).  This promised “Elijah” is John the Baptist.   We will discuss John the Baptist in more detail elsewhere, but for today, notice that God’s final prophecy of the Old Testament was completely fulfilled as recorded in three gospels of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, and John.  The Bible has two major parts, but it is the supernatural revelation from the One sovereign God Who brought these historical events into one plan of salvation through Christ.  Today, let us thank God for fulfilling His promise to send John the Baptist, a prophet like Elijah who would prepare the people’s hearts for the ministry of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Lord, prepare my heart.  Help me to make it a place of honor for my Lord Jesus today.
Scripture:   Malachi 4:  5-6; Luke 1: 5-17.

December 19:   Why is John the Baptist Included in the Christmas Story?
The Christmas story actually begins in the Old Testament Book of Genesis when God first promised a Savior (Genesis 3: 14-16).  Several thousand years later, and after 400 “silent years” without any prophetic word from God, the Christmas story exploded into full bloom with Hope and Joy at the promised birth of John the Baptist.  Therefore, in the third week of Advent as many of us light the candle representing Joy, it is fitting that we revisit the joyous account of this prophet’s birth according to Luke 1.  Zacharias, a priest, and his wife, Elizabeth were both advanced in years and considered “righteous in the sight of God” (Luke 1: 6).  Elizabeth had lived all of her married life under the scourge of being a barren woman.  Zacharias had faithfully prayed the God would open his wife’s womb and end her sadness, but to no avail.  Then, lo and behold, while he was presenting the priestly service in the holy place near the altar of incense, the angel Gabriel stood before Zacharias, and fear gripped him.  But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John.  You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth (Luke 1: 13-14  NASB).
What follows is an account of an elderly couple whose faith in God is tested as they wait with a sense of Wonder and Joy for the miracle birth of their son, John.  According to the angel and as promised in the Book of Malachi, It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord"  (Luke 1: 17).
Please take time to read this amazing account that begins with the sadness of a barren couple at a time when there had been no revelation from God for 400 years.  Then allow God’s Word and His Spirit to fill you with Hope and Joy as you read about God’s gracious gift of a child who will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God.  Praise God for His sovereign will and faithfulness as a covenant-keeping God.
Scripture:   Luke 1: 5-25; Malachi 3: 1-2; 4: 5-6

December 20:   What Can We Learn from Mary?
After 400 years without a prophetic word from God, the angel Gabriel had announced that John the Baptist would be born to Zacharias and Elizabeth (Luke 1: 5-17).  Then, after only six months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel visited a relative of Elizabeth, a poor peasant girl named Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph.  Mary was a virgin, and she and Joseph were responsible to refrain from sexual union until their marriage was consummated.  In Luke 1: 28-30, we learn that Gabriel greeted Mary as “favored one” (or “full of grace”).  It was clear that Mary had “found favor with God.”  Upon hearing this unusual greeting, Mary was at first “greatly troubled” (1: 29).  
Gabriel to Mary: "Hail, favored one. The Lord is with you."
  Then, Mary learned that she as an unmarried virgin would become pregnant by God’s Holy Spirit.  Her troubled spirit must have quickly turned to perplexity—“How can this be, since I am a virgin (1: 34)?”  And very likely, Mary was overwhelmed and even fearful at the thought of what would happen when her pregnancy became known to Joseph and to their families.  How would she explain that her natural body was bearing a supernatural being--God’s “holy offspring…called the Son of God” (Luke 1: 35)?  Her explanation would “naturally” be received with disbelief and disdain.  Yet Mary, a young girl with a righteous testimony, was willing to bear God’s Holy Child –and along with Jesus Christ her Lord, bear a stigma of unrighteousness for the rest of her life.  Would you pause right now in prayer while you try to relate to the cascade of events and emotions that must have rolled over Mary’s soul in just a few moments with an angel of God?  Then, ask God to make you more humbly submissive to His will as expressed so wonderfully by Mary in her response to Gabriel:
"Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word."
Scripture:  Luke 1: 26-38

December 21:  How Did God Comfort and Strengthen Mary?
Seven hundred years before  the first Christmas, the prophet Isaiah had written, Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel (meaning “God with us”)(7: 14).  Then, the angel Gabriel announced that Jesus would be born to Mary, a virgin who remained so while she carried the Holy Child (Matthew 1: 25; Luke 1: 30-33).  Apparently quite early in her pregnancy, Mary went to live with her relatives Zacharias and Elizabeth who were expecting the birth of John the Baptist.  Luke 1: 39-56 records this wonderful account of how God’s Spirit used Elizabeth to encourage Mary.  As we learned in yesterday’s devotional, God had placed a great weight of responsibility and cause for derision upon Mary.  But He affirmed her faith immediately when she saw Elizabeth’s beaming smile and heard her exclamation, Blessed among women are you, and blessed is the fruit of you womb!  Likewise, God used the sound of Mary’s greeting to encourage Elizabeth who was “filled with the Holy Spirit” as she felt her baby “leap in her womb for joy” (Luke 1: 39-44).  Then, Mary humbly responded with a beautiful testimony of praise to God for His “regard for the humble state of His bondservant” that He would choose her to be the mother of Jesus, the Redeemer and Savior (Luke 1: 46-55).  As you read and meditate on the Scripture for today, consider how graciously God affirms Elizabeth and Mary, and inspires them to encourage and affirm each other in their respective roles in His plan.  Pray that God will continue to affirm your walk in obedience to His calling.  Then, pray also that He will fill you with His Spirit to express boldly the truth of His Word in actions and in speech.   To conclude your meditation today, you may want to listen to “Breath of Heaven” sung by Amy Grant.
Scripture:  Luke 1: 39-56

December 22:   How Did God Rescue Joseph from His Inner Turmoil?
Mary and Joseph are both described as righteous before God and they were legally engaged to be married (Matthew 1: 18).  But Mary’s pregnancy threatened her godly testimony and presented an equally great dilemma to Joseph (1: 19).  Should he break their engagement and send her away privately without disgrace; or, should he make a public spectacle of her because of her supposed unfaithfulness?  Public exposure of Joseph’s charge could have led to stoning.   Matthew’s account (1: 20) suggests that Joseph had pondered this decision with agony of soul.  Imagine how you would feel if, after mailing all your wedding invitations, you are awaiting the arrival of your wedding dress (or men, your tuxedo) when you receive the news that the person you love very much and are about to marry has been unfaithful; and, a pregnancy has resulted. 

Joseph with Mary and family; From the movie, "The Nativity"
In spite of his agony of soul, the Scripture states, Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.  But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. (Matt. 1:19-20  NASB).   Joseph had decided to extend grace to the one he still loved.  But God, by His grace and compassion, addressed Joseph as a part of King David’s royal line as if to say, “Joseph, I know who you are, and I also remember my covenant with your father, David.”  God went on to say in effect, “Do not be afraid, Joseph, for I have chosen you and Mary to have a Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and whom you should name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins (1: 21)."  This Christmas season, perhaps you or someone you know is facing a great trial that is causing confusion, pain, and anguish.  God will probably not speak audibly or in a dream.  But, I pray that He is speaking to you now through His Word that can assure us that just as He knew “Joseph, son of David,” so He knows you.  In fact, Joseph’s ancient father, King David, wrote Psalm 139: 1, O LORD, You have searched me and known me.  This lovely psalm concludes with David’s prayer that is so appropriate for us whether or not we, like Joseph, have great need of God’s mercy and guidance:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way
Scripture:   Matthew 1: 18-21; Psalm 139

December 23:   What Can We Learn from the Obedience of Joseph?
Christmas pageantry and holiday writings about the Nativity often focus on Mary and the Baby Jesus, and rightly so.  But, the Bible account credits Joseph with being more than just “best supporting actor.”  He is described as “a righteous man” (Matthew 1: 19), a compassionate and merciful husband to Mary (1: 20), a poor man (judging from his offering, Luke 2: 24), and a carpenter (Matthew 13: 55).  Although these descriptions of Joseph are important, to me his actions speaks more loudly about Joseph’s character.  Take a minute to skim Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 to locate recorde words spoken by Joseph.  Keep your findings for later; and, first consider what God asked Joseph to do: 
1) Take Mary, a virgin who is pregnant, as your wife (Mt. 1: 20)
2) Refrain from sexual union until after Mary’s pregnancy (Mt. 1: 25) and purification (Luke 1: 22).
3) Name the baby who is not your son, Jesus (Mt. 1: 21).
And what was Joseph’s response to God’s instructions?  He immediately obeyed.  Matthew 1: 24-25 records, And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and (1) took Mary as his wife, but (2) kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and (3) he called His name Jesus.   Joseph also demonstrated strong leadership and commitment to Mary and to Caesar when he and Mary made the 80-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register and pay his taxes.  After the birth of Jesus, God spoke to Joseph two more times through dreams—First, with clear instructions to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape danger from King Herod (Mt. 2: 13-14); and then, to return to Nazareth following Herod’s death (Mt. 2: 19-21).  In all accounts of his actions, did you locate any words spoken by Joseph?  I found none.  Instead, Joseph’s record shows only responsible obedience to God’s commands, each of which required a growing faith.  Today, thank God for the example of Joseph whose humble, quiet obedience provided a safe and nurturing environment for “God in flesh” who grew into an adult and demonstrated the ultimate obedience to His Father, being made for a little while lower than the angels (Hebrews 2: 9), made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people (2: 17)Praise God, what a plan!  What a God, our Savior!
Scripture:  Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2: 1-7; Hebrews 2: 1-10

December 24:   What Can We Learn from “Busy Bethlehem?”
On the first Christmas, a weary, engaged couple named Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem.  Mary was ready to give birth to a baby they were instructed to name “Jesus” because He was the very embodiment of God’s Promise, “Jehovah will deliver.”  The pregnant virgin was about to fulfill a unique, supernatural prophecy from Isaiah 7: 14 that a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel, “God with us.”  Because of their poverty (Luke 2: 24), Mary had walked, or ridden, most of the 80-mile trip to Bethlehem on an animal owned or borrowed by Joseph.  But, if that were not enough, the Scripture records that Mary laid her newborn baby in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2: 7).  The fact that Jesus was born among the animals in a stable evokes a number of responses.  Some of us may view “busy Bethlehem” with distain because it was only the beginning of how we have seen Christmas being crowded out by commercialism.  But hopefully, many of us will respond more personally with a contrite, heart-felt response—Lord, help ME to open MY heart—and MY life, to make room for Jesus.  Indeed, right now you may want to pause and pray such a prayer.  As you consider doing this, I want to thank you for taking an important step of “making room” by reading and meditating on God’s Word today.  Maybe you have sensed God urging you to make room in other specific areas of your life, family, and community.  Some families make room in their homes during Christmas for a person who lives alone or has recently lost a loved one.  Others make room in their schedules to assist in ministries to needy families at Christmas; and we know that other families have taken in foster children.  Whatever we do, “making room” ought to grow out of spending time in God’s presence—in prayer and in His Word so that His love can be poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5: 5).  In so doing, we may become compelled by the same love that compelled God to send His Son, born of a virgin, and destined to transform our hearts and the whole world.
Scripture:   Luke 2: 1-7

December 25:   What Can We Learn from the Shepherds?

On Christmas Day, many families keep the tradition of reading the account of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2.  What an amazing, joyous account. Yet, I’m always saddened by fact that there was no room for a weary Mary and Joseph to rest for the night, and for Mary to give birth to her Child, the baby Jesus.  But ironically, the overcrowded town and the nearby hillsides witnessed an explosion of the relentless love of God.  Instead of reigning judgment on “busy Bethlehem” for rejecting the Gift of a Savior, God split the darkness with this glorious announcement:
Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger (Luke 2: 10-12).  And who did God choose to receive this announcement?  He gave it to the shepherds who were watching their flocks on a hillside outside Bethlehem—lowly men who were often marginalized from society, being misunderstood, mistrusted, and regarded as inferior.  Instead of bringing judgment on Bethlehem and these shepherds, God comes with loving concern in His first words-- Do not be afraid.  God’s perfect Love overcomes fear (1 John 4: 18).  This is week, many will pause to light the forth Advent candle representing Love, so appropriate because we can see throughout the Bethlehem story the height, and depth, and breadth of God’s Love.  Indeed, we celebrate God’s Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love on this Christmas Day because God came to us, welcome or not.  As we celebrate the birth of Christ today, won’t you pause to marvel at the undaunted faith of Mary and Joseph, the unusual provision of God for these weary travelers, and the unlikely audience for God’s thrilling announcement?  How can we help but exclaim, Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace and good will…?  Yes, even so come into my heart Lord Jesus.  And, help us this Christmas Day to make room in our hearts for your Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love.  Then, may we follow the example of the shepherds and make known to others what has been told about this Child (Luke 2: 17).
Scripture:  Luke 2: 7-20

December 26:   What Can We Learn from the Magi?

By this time, you may have already exchanged gifts as a part of your celebration of Christmas.  It is also likely that you have learned from reading Matthew 2 the account of how men known as magi, or “wise men,” followed a certain star and came to Jerusalem bringing gifts and asking,  Where is He who has been born King of the Jews (Matt. 2: 2)?  The magi had embarked upon their 500 mile trip to Jerusalem based upon their astrological studies of the stars.  But it is also very likely they had read accounts from the Hebrew Scriptures available since the time of Daniel.  Recall that Daniel was one of many Jews who had been taken into captivity in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 52: 27-30).  Now, some 500 years later, pagan astrologers were moved to travel a great distance to find the King of the Jews.  Matthew 2: 10-11 records the excitement of the magi in the final leg of their trip from Jerusalem to the house where baby Jesus and his family were now staying:  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  The magi recognized the infant Jesus as being of a royal line of kings, and they offered him gold.  They also offered frankincense, the dry sap of Boswellia trees (Boswellia sacra and B. carteri ) which symbolized purity.  Finally, the magi offered myrrh, and extract of trees of the genus Commiphora which is in the same plant family as Boswellia.  Myrrh was commonly added during embalming of bodies prior to burial.  The three gifts of the magi honor Jesus as royal king who is also pure and holy, and One who will give up His life for the sins of mankind, be buried, and raise again the third day (1 Corinthians 15: 3-4).  Like the lowly shepherds, the wise and wealthy “wise men” demonstrate for us the response we should all follow.  They show how to seek the Lord while He may be found (Isaiah 55: 6) and then humbly bow down in adoring worship of Jesus as the King of kings, as the pure and holy One Who can redeem us from our sin, and as the One willing to die for our sins.  As you meditate on the story of the magi, come in repentance of your sin and reverent worship of God’s Son, Jesus, Who was born to die in order to set us free from the Law of sin and death (Romans 8: 2).
Scripture:  Matthew 2: 1-12  

NOTE:  Thanks for reading Daily Meditations to Enrich Your Christmas.  This concludes the series.  As stated earlier but with slight modification, “Stay Faithful—Jesus is Coming Soon!”

Friday, November 17, 2017

America’s Open Season: Spiritual Awakening?

During the past few months, America has been engaged in what appears to be an “open season” of accusations and confessions of past indiscretions.  On a national and historic level, men like Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson have been criticized for their racism and bigotry.  Angry reactions have led to the toppling of time-honored statues that have honored these and other American leaders.  

"Search ME O God...see if there be any wicked way in ME."
On the Hollywood scene, disclosure of the sexual improprieties associated with Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and others has exposed a whole culture of immorality with a long history that is strewn with ruined lives.  Then, in recent days, the “open season” has spread to Washington where names Roy Moore, Al Franken, and Bill Clinton are making the news.   It is clear that, not unlike the culture of Hollywood, the “swamp” of Washington has been growing and festering for many years.

On the surface, America’s soul searching appears to be driven by political and ideological motivations, and maneuverings.  However, many Christ-followers are viewing this season as a call to pray that something deeper, more fundamental, and lasting may be possible.  Is it possible that America is beginning to realize the heavy price it has to pay for having rejected God’s moral absolutes?  Will America realize that her foundation has been strong because she has respected the Judeo-Christian moral code that includes loving God above all else and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10: 27)?  These laws were given by a loving God to promote abundant life and blessing, not boredom and pain.  God has been lovingly saying to us through His Word, “thou shall not, because I love you; and if you do, you and others will be hurt!   If you lie, hate, gossip, steal, commit adultery, and covet, it will separate you from my love, and my Life.  I have given you a choice:  life and blessedness, or death and dispair.”

How should Christ-followers respond to the daily news of the “toppling” of statues and the improprieties of personalities representing in many cases people that we held in high esteem?  Many Christ-followers have been praying that God would bring healing of the great political, moral, ethnic, and socioeconomic divisions in America.  Yet this morning, I am struck by the need for the light of God’s truth to be directed into my own heart, first and foremost.  What is being played out in Hollywood, Washington, and in cities across America is not foreign to my own life experience.  I too have sinned.  I sin daily--sometimes in my private thought life, and sometimes outwardly though ill chosen words or actions toward my wife or others.  I am not who I think I am.  I am who God knows me to be.  And, when I open God’s Word, the Bible, I can see as in a mirror the man that I really am.

The Apostle Paul explains in Romans 7: 7, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “Thou shall not covet.”   He goes on to say that, once he realized the Law against coveting, it produced in me coveting of every kind (v. 8).  Paul admits that nothing good dwells in me  because I do the very thing I do not wish to do (Romans 7: 18, 20).”   I can so clearly relate to Paul’s dilemma.  Can’t you? 

We all share the same “flesh” because we are biological and spiritual descendents of fallen Adam (Genesis 3).  But, Romans 8 explains that

Christ came in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8: 3-4).

Based on this truth, it follows that when we “die to the flesh” (i.e. give up on our own attempts to be righteous before God) and accept the offering of Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection, that we can be “born again” to walk in newness of life.  Then, as spiritual reborn individuals, we have the power of God’s Spirit within us to direct us along the morally right path in life and to convict us when we tend to go astray in thought or action (2 Timothy 3: 16).

How should I respond to the apparent “open season” on moral transgressors in America?  I must remember that as far as I am concerned, God’s first love and concern is not about Roy Moore or Kevin Spacey, or even about a spiritual reawakening in America.  Rather, God is concerned about my sensitivity to sin and my willingness to confess and turn from my wicked ways. 

Gordon T. Smith, in The Voice of Jesus, Discernment, Prayer, and the Witness of the Spirit, explains that we must “avoid the temptation to look at others rather than yourself.  We cannot know how God is convicting another; we can only know our own hearts.”  We must first examine our own life.  The Spirit of Christ within us calls us to pray with the psalmist David as he prayed (Psalm 139: 23-24),

Search me of God Search me, O God,
and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way

As we search our hearts in light of God’s Word (Hebrews 4: 12), we realize that, as Smith further notes,

Sin is not merely bad deeds. 

Rather we are wise to be attentive to…how the Spirit might be convicting us with respect to our speech, the attitude of our hearts, our mental propensities as well as what we have actually done [or]…what we have neglected to do…  But the bottom line remains:  “Lord, where are you calling me to turn—not the person next to me in the pew on Sunday, not my colleagues at the office or family members, not anyone else but me?”  We seek the grace to know the convicting ministry of the Spirit that calls us from death to life; that empowers us to embrace the life of God.

Yes, we are in an “open season” of disclosure of the sins of celebrities and political leaders, and of toppling of historical statues.  But, sadly many don’t know the next step.  We can see “the spot” of individual or national sin.  And, like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, we are beginning to cry, “Out, damn spot!”  But we don’t realize that only by turning to God can the spots be removed through repentance and confession of our sin.  It’s not Bill Clinton or Roy Moore, “It’s me first, Lord!  Open season on my heart!  I must open my heart to your loving search for what is not life and peace, but sin and death.  May I humbly confess and turn from that which dishonors you and separates me from walking with You.  With David (Psalm 51: 12-13) I will pray,

Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners will be converted to You.

Me first!  Then, what next?   Maybe God will bring another “Great Awakening.”

Friday, November 10, 2017

Compelled by Christ’s Love for a Cousin

I know a man in Christ who is mourning the loss of his beloved cousin. He was several years younger than her.  They had grown up together on neighboring farms managed jointly by their fathers.  His father tried to lead his family on a Christ-centered foundation; but her father gave little or no effort toward leading his family to faith in Christ.  As they entered adulthood, their communication ceased except for rare conversations at family gatherings.  These brief encounters revealed that the girl he had once known had become hardened, saddened, and without a God-centered source of hope and joy.

Then, three years ago, the two cousins reestablished more frequent communication when he initiated regular phone conversations and sent cards and letters.  This year, during the month of August, she mourned the death of a man with whom she had lived for over 40 years.  During her mourning, she granted her cousin a visit to her home, and she received his sympathy and comfort.  She listened politely as he humbly spoke of God’s unfailing grace and love that is available to all who open their hearts to Him.  He encouraged her to establish a daily routine of rest, good nutrition, and regular reading about God’s love and comfort found in the Bible he had given her.  He remembered emphasizing the theme, “Hope in God because He cares for you.”

She lived barely two months after the loss of her partner.  Aside from occasional contact with her neighbor, it appears that her only close companion was her dog.

All of us experience the loss of loved ones through death.  But, this man that I know in Christ remained deeply concerned about something that was missing in his cousin’s life--something that would likely determine her eternal destiny.  What was it?  And why was he so deeply concerned?  Finally, how could this man be so sure that his cousin would not have gone to heaven when she died?  What follows is my effort to answer these questions based on what I learned from the man that I know in Christ.

What Must We Do to Be Saved?

“Why,” I asked him, “are you so concerned about the eternal destiny of your cousin?”  He reached for his Bible and asked me if I would agree that the Bible is God’s inspired revelation of Truth to mankind.  I nodded “Yes.” Then, he read the Bible’s own self-declaration of its authority:  …All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.  It corrects us when we are wrong and trains us for a life that has God’s approval  (2 Timothy 3: 16, New Living Translation, and God’s Word Translation).

Knowing that we agreed on the authority of Scripture, he then referred me to 2 Corinthians 5:1 which states, …if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  He explained that each of us has a soul, representing our personality which resides within our physical body, or “house.”  According to this verse, when we die, our soul leaves the “house” which then decays (“is torn down”).  With an expression of sadness, he explained that his cousin’s neighbor had found her dead in her home.  Yet, according to Scripture, her “person” had already departed at her death; only her body was found.  According to Hebrews 9: 27, God’s judgment will decide her eternal destiny-- And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.

I responded to his mention of “judgment” with a shiver that he must have sensed.  He reminded me that God does not send anyone to Hell.  People choose this place.  Indeed, God is not willing that any should perish (be separated from God), but that all should come to repentance (turning from our sin and living in agreement with God’s Word) (2 Peter 3: 9).   Then, we read Romans 6: 23:  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  We agreed that each person is responsible to accept God’s gift.  In other words, God desires that we “choose Life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). 

Next, he referred me to Romans 10: 9-10 (emphasis mine) which explains how a person responds through faith to God’s transforming power, resulting in His righteousness (approved standing before God) and salvation from our sin:

 …that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.

The man I know in Christ then explained that if his cousin had confessed that she is a sinner in need of a Savior and accepted the free gift of God provided through Christ, God would see her as one who is clothed in the righteousness of the sinless Christ Who died in her place on the cross.  He smiled as he summarized this Gospel (“God’s good news”) of Christ as if there were a ray of hope that she may have accepted God’s gift.  Then, his sadness returned and I wondered again how he could be so deeply concerned about her eternal destiny?

Compelled by Christ’s Love

In a busy world where so many things compete for our attention, this man I know in Christ seemed almost fanatical to express so much concern about “the hereafter.”  Why was he so compelled to share the Gospel of God’s love with his cousin?  My answer wasn’t long in coming as he opened his Bible to Luke 16: 19-31.  There, Jesus recounts the story of two men, one rich the other poor.  Both men died and their souls were transported to very different places.  The rich man ended up in Hades, not because he was rich but because he had rejected God during his life on Earth.  There Jesus described him as being “in torment… [and] in agony in this place of flame” (v. 23, 24).  The poor man, named Lazarus, a man of faith in God, “died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom” (v. 22).  There, Lazarus was “being comforted” (v. 25).

In this unusual account, Jesus Christ, the God of Eternity, reveals to us a partial view of the reality of life after physical death.  First, we learn that our eternal destiny depends upon how we respond to God’s gift of salvation while on Earth.  Second, we learn that we do not sleep or cease to exist after death.  Instead, the souls of those who have died physically are very much alive and able to experience their surroundings, whether in a place of torment or with God and other people of faith.  When they die, the unrighteous--those who have rejected God’s gift of righteousness--will be separated from the righteous by a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us (Luke 16: 26).

The man I know in Christ was now teaching me about life after death, and he now had my rapt attention. There was one more powerful truth that we can glean from Christ’s revelation.  In Luke 16: 27-31, Jesus reveals that the rich man in torment asks that Lazarus be sent to warn his family of the impending judgment and eternal torment awaiting them if they do not respond to the message of the God’s love and salvation.  According to the words of Abraham, God has made every provision through His revelation in creation and in Scripture so that those who reject His Gift of righteousness while living on Earth are without excuse when they die (see also Romans 1: 16-24).  Yet, according to this account many will reject these revelations of truth and will remain unbelieving even if someone were to die and be resurrected from the dead.  In fact, many remained unbelieving even after watching Jesus raise another man named Lazarus from the dead (John 11); and then, Jesus Himself was resurrected from the dead (Luke 24:6).

I now realized exactly why this man had been so compelled to share the good news of Christ with his cousin and others in the family.  As if to further inoculate me with his sense of urgency about those yet living who have been rejecting God’s call to them, he invited me to read more of the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5.  This time, in verses 10-11, I read,

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.  Therefore, since we know what it means to fear of the Lord, we persuade men…

We continued reading the rest of 2 Corinthians 5, including verse 14-15 which states that …the love of Christ compels us…so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.  Upon hearing this verse, I begin to feel within my own heart the power of Christ’s love lifting me out of my self-centeredness to share this man’s concern for lost souls.  I was especially challenged by the way Paul’s words in verses 20-21 (emphasis mine) placed my sense of urgency into a call to action (emphasis mine):

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

After a period of time to think about these Scriptures, I felt a calm assurance in my conscience that it was my faith in Christ, not my own good works that had made me acceptable in God’s eyes.  But also I experienced reverent fear of God’s power and His perfect justice that decides the fate of every person.  How could I not share in the passion, the compulsion, and the same sense of urgency that this man I know in Christ has shown for others? How could I not help but want my loved ones and friends to know the joy of walking with Christ daily and being assured He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13: 5), even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23: 4).

Not Willing That Anyone Should Perish

I sat with the man I know in Christ for awhile; neither of us spoke.  Then, his face beamed with an expression of hope as he turned and began to share a new insight.  Could it be that his cousin had avoided the place of eternal torment.  Maybe she is now in the presence of Christ.  We both believed that as long as a person responds to God’s invitation for salvation before death comes, they can be saved.  As the Apostle Paul writes, [God] saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit…(Titus 3: 5). 

If we are saved, not by works, but by faith, then a life-long rejecter of God’s love and mercy can be saved if they admit their need of forgiveness even in the final minutes of their life?   While pondering this amazing truth, we each remembered an important conversation among three men who had been crucified by the Romans as common criminals Luke 23: 39-43). 

Jesus Christ and two criminals had been sentenced to death.  According to Luke, each man was nailed to a wooden cross where they suffered horribly.  One of the criminals was rudely mocking Jesus.  But the other criminal rebuked the abuser saying, "Do you not even fear God?”  Then, he reminded him that they both deserved to die for their crimes, but Jesus was innocent.  After saying this, the repentant criminal turned painfully to look at Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!"  And Jesus replied, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."

How amazing is the love and grace of God through Christ that would welcome this criminal in the final minutes of his life to be with Him in paradise for eternity.  Neither criminal had performed any works to merit Eternal Life.  But one of the criminals had looked to the cross of Christ, repented of his sin, and asked Jesus to take him with Him to Paradise.  This conversation between Jesus and a criminal from their crucifixion crosses underscores the biblical claim that God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3: 9).   Truly, God is not willing.  But, before I can be saved I must be willing—willing to (1) agree with God that “I am a sinner,” (2) be willing to repent (turn from a life of sin), (3) believe that the death and resurrection of Christ occurred in order to take away my sin, and (4) invite Christ to come into my life and control my life through His Holy Spirit.

One truth had become very clear to me and to this man I know in Christ:  If his cousin had at some point before her death been willing to accept by faith God’s gift of Eternal Life, then we could be sure she was now with Jesus in Paradise.  The decision had been hers to make. 

But, on the other hand, had the God done His part to make His Good News clear to this dear cousin?  I watched his face become very somber as he related to me how he had explained God’s love to her in spoken word and through his cards and letters.  In one phone conversation, after his cousin’s partner had been diagnosed with cancer, his cousin’s partner asked him, “Where is your God when I need Him?”  This angry plea became an open door for the man I know in Christ to graciously respond that, “Many people in pain like yours have asked this same question.” Rather than speak at length on the phone to this angry man, he excused himself and later wrote a letter to both his cousin and her suffering partner that included the following words:

My answer to “Where is God when you need Him?” is found in God’s Word, the Bible.  Psalm 145, verses 18 and 19 tells us,

The LORD is near to all who call upon Him,
To all who call upon Him in truth.
He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him;
He will also hear their cry and will save them

God is very near and knows all about us.   God’s will is that we “call upon Him in truth.”  God’s first concern for us is not in keeping rules like going to church.  Instead, we develop a relationship with God by spending time with Him (worshipping and learning more about Him from His Scriptures).

But, God will not badger us.  He has revealed Himself through creation, in the Bible, through Jesus, and through the love and concern of other people.  It is up to us to “let him into our lives.”  You must have heard this before, but in Revelation 3: 20 we read Jesus saying,

'Behold, I stand at the door and knock;
if anyone hears My voice and opens the door,
I will come in to him and will dine with him,
and he with Me

God is very near, and His Son, Jesus is knocking at the door of our lives.  One artist painted the scene as he imagined it.   Notice in the painting, there is no knob on the door!  God waits for us to open the door of our lives.  He expects us to think for ourselves.  When we are hurting we can cry out to Him….”Where were you God when I needed you?”  God will not break when we shout at Him.

The man I know in Christ explained that he had closed his letter with a short invitation to his cousin and her partner to talk more about this with him.  He also included a tiny Personal Bible which provides an excellent sequence of Scripture verses on the nature of man, God’s love for man, and man’s sin and need of a Savior. 

The man that I know in Christ had given his cousin and her partner all of the information needed to understand and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Indeed, his zeal and passion to reach the soul of his cousin in a loving way seems to have been driven by nothing less than the power of God, making him an ambassador for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through him as he pleaded to his cousin on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Was his beloved cousin, by an act of believing faith in Christ, set free from the sin and bondage of her troubled life on Earth to find a freedom in Christ she had never known?  Or, did she continue to reject the love and mercy of God all the way to the end of her physical life?  Regardless of the answers to these questions, the man I know in Christ now rest assured on two important truths.  First, he knows that God had used him at least in part to make His loving appeal to this cousin.  And second, he was assured by his faith that God is good and just, and is unwilling that any should perish.

How About You?
You may have read this article and are left with a sense of confusion, uncertainty, and even fear.  If you have never encountered the “Good News” or Gospel, let me help.   The “Good News” is summarized in an outline called “Steps to Peace with God” which explains God’s love, our predicament (sin and separation from God), what Jesus has done to address our predicament, and what you can do by faith to receive God’s righteousness (right standing with a Holy God).  If you have additional questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you.  Just post a “Comment” below or e-mail me at

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Time to Appreciate Our Shepherds

Two October developments have made the news.  I think there is an important connection.  First, October is highlighted as “Pastor Appreciation Month” in many churches across America.  Meanwhile, President Trump has just addressed our nation to outline his multi-front initiative against the opioid crisis.  Can you see a possible connection between honoring the pastors of our churches and the scourge of drugs in America?  Thankfully, President Trump’s proposed approach hints that he has already made the connection.

The Swafford family illustrate a key solution to opioid crisis.
President Trump’s proposed multi-million dollar effort involves multiple federal and local agencies.  But there is much more to his plan.  The president has also challenged American families and communities to participate.  To emphasize the important role of family and community, Mr. Trump recognized Jessie and Cyndi Swafford of Dayton, Ohio.  The Swafford’s are one among many couples who have been providing foster and adoptive care to babies born addicted to drugs.  Mr. Trump noted that

[the Swafford’s] Have provided a loving and stable home to children affected by the opioid crisis.  I am calling on every American to join the ranks of guardian angels…Who help lift up the people of our great nation.

Thankfully, the president realizes that multiple federal agencies and millions of dollars alone will not solve the opiate crisis.  Nor will government programs alone solve the larger crisis of moral decline in America (See Are There Lessons for America from the 1950’s?).  And here is where the connection between a national drug program and “pastor appreciation” becomes more sharply defined.

This month’s invitation to honor our pastors provides a fitting context for an emphasis on the importance of family and community in the battle against drugs.  Why?  Because the biblical account of creation, the fall of humankind, and God’s redemptive plan through faith in Christ is linked throughout by the narrative of God as a Shepherd seeking rebellious mankind who has wandered astray and become lost.  Today, God’s Spirit still guides us into Truth and moral living as sheep within His fold, and He calls to other sheep who are still lost.  His plan remains intact—“to seek and to save the lost” through Christ and to establish local churches as “local flocks” which are each led by one or more elders, or overseers (also called pastors).  Pastoral leadership in local churches is central to God’s Great Commission aimed at transforming the world.  It is God’s plan that His sheep gather regularly as local churches for worship, fellowship, instruction from the Bible, and preparation for Christ-like living in our daily life.  All the while, marriages are formed and strengthened; and, families and communities flourish.

Because our culture is so secularized and drenched in multiculturalism, God’s church needs to awaken afresh to a fundamental truth—there is only One God and human beings are His offspring.  We are created in His image and designed to worship and serve God and live a morally ordered existence.  There is no alternative moral code or mandate by which we may be saved and prosper in a civilized manner on this planet.  The Apostle Paul boldly expressed this truth to the first century Greek scholars in the midst of a pagan culture (emphasis mine):

The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;  for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His children.' – Acts 17: 24-28

God created man and woman and presided over the first marriage (Genesis 2).  God also extended grace when humankind rebelled and sought to elevate human reason above godly wisdom (Genesis 3)…professing to be wise, they became fools and… exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen (Romans 1:  22, 25).

Throughout Scripture, humans are characterized as sheep that wandered astray (Isaiah 53: 6).  As an expression of His redemptive love, God pursues His wayward sheep as a loving Shepherd.  Near the end of his life, Jacob, whom God had named Israel, gives tribute to His God as, The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day… (Genesis 48: 15). 

Godly pastors have a wonderful role model
and the power of His Spirit to guide them.
Throughout Old Testament Bible history the descendants of Jacob, the Jewish nation, understood God’s nature through the metaphor of the shepherd.  Jewish King David, the father of the kingly line that led eventually to the birth of Christ, was a shepherd boy whom God chose to be His king to shepherd Israel.  It was David who wrote Psalm 23 which begins with the claim, “The Lord is my shepherd.”  Israel’s understanding of themselves as the sheep of God’s pasture finds its expression later in the nation’s history in a call to worship:

Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.
For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture
and the sheep of His hand.
Today, if you would hear His voice,
Do not harden your hearts
… - Psalm 95: 6-8a

The Good Shepherd offered Himself as the Sacrificial Lamb
The New Testament Gospel writers introduce Jesus Christ as both “the Good Shepherd” (John 10) and as the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1: 29)!   Jesus, the Messiah, the “Son of David,” declares His rightful claim to deity, saying, I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.  The “sheep” for whom Christ, the Good Shepherd laid down His life includes, in His words, other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd (John  10: 16)Within a few days of making this claim, Jesus gave Himself as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the whole world.  Three days after His crucifixion, Jesus arose from the grave and was observed by hundreds of witnesses included Peter and His disciples.  Jesus commissioned Peter to “Shepherd My sheep (John 21: 17).”

Years later, the Apostle Peter, himself an elder (or “overseer”), gave this exhortation to his fellow shepherds or “pastors” (from the Latin, pascere, "to lead to pasture, set to grazing, cause to eat," with the notion of tending, guarding, and protecting).  Peter wrote (emphasis mine):

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness;  nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.  And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. – 1 Peter 5: 1-4

Notice the character qualities of a Christ-following pastor-shepherd.  He is a loving leader, unselfish, and without impure motives.  He serves eagerly while not “lording his authority over us,” but rather proves himself an example of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ whose return he eagerly awaits.  In 1 Timothy 3: 2-5, we read similar qualifications of a pastor:

[He] must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.  He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity

During our 48 years of marriage, Abby and I have been blessed to worship and serve under a number of excellent pastor-shepherds who demonstrated these qualities:

Rev. Douglas Miller, Christian Missionary Alliance Church, Morgantown, WV
Rev. Gerald Wheatley, Bowie Bible Church, Bowie, MD
Rev. W. Paul Jackson, Grace Baptist Church, Cedarville, Ohio
Rev. David Graham, Grace Baptist Church, Cedarville, Ohio
Rev. Craig Miller, Grace Baptist Church, Cedarville, Ohio

Pastor Dan Wingate and wife, Karen
Currently, we are blessed to be a part of God’s flock at West Hill Baptist Church, in Wooster, Ohio, led by senior pastor Dan Wingate; and co-pastor, Mark Davenport who has provided valuable counsel to us in our transition into retirement.  Pastor Dan Wingate has humbly and wisely led for nearly 43 years as senior pastor of West Hill Baptist Church, a period that spans nearly the entire duration of time we served under the ministries of all our previous pastors listed above.  Currently, we are praying for Pastor Dan and his wife, Karen, as they will soon transition into a new phase of ministry in which Dan is making his time available to preach and teach as God provides opportunities in local churches and on college campuses.

I hope readers can appreciate my connection between the moral climate of our nation and the important role of local churches throughout America.  The moral fortitude of the American family and community has historically depended upon the ministry of godly pastor-shepherds according to God’s plan.  Therefore, it is only fitting that “Pastor Appreciation” become our habit as we, the sheep who need a shepherd obey the Scripture which calls us to

 …appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.  Live in peace with one another (1 Thessalonians 5: 12-13).

I hope you are blessed to be a part of a local flock that is led by one or more pastors who according to the concluding verse (1) work hard among you and (2) give you spiritual guidance consistent in an attitude of godliness.  After all, it is not God’s plan that anyone should …neglect meeting together as is the habit of some (Hebrews 10: 25).  Instead, we are called to meet together so that we may encourage one another and all the more as we see the day [of Christ’s return] drawing near.  Finally, as members of the local flock, may we (1) appreciate those who work hard to lead; and (2) may we esteem them very highly in love because of their work.

Pastor Steve Salyers, Mindy, Caleb, Kiara, and Della Rose
In summary, God’s plan for pastor-shepherds in a morally challenged world is to lead wisely after the example of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, Christ-followers must willingly place themselves under the authority of godly pastor-shepherds, and then serve faithfully alongside them in a spirit of appreciation and high esteem.  Abby and I understand the wisdom of this plan as relates to our individual lives and our marriage.  In addition, after observing for 20 years the blessings and challenges of our son-in-law, Pastor Steve Salyers, his wife Mindy, and family, we can appreciate in a more direct way the vital importance of “pastor appreciation” by the local flock.  Our pastors and their wives not only have the responsibility to teach, admonish, and encourage us as individuals and families, but they have their own similar responsibilities to their families.  May we recommit to “pastor appreciation” and work hard to appreciate and highly esteem our pastors and their families.