GOATS AND SHEEP

Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other. [John 13:34-35 (MSG)]

goatsIn Matthew 25, Jesus uses a long simile to describe the final judgment. As for whether this occurs at the beginning or the end of Christ’s millennial kingdom, is unclear; that it will occur, is not! When it happens, God will separate people the way a shepherd does his goats and sheep.

Sheep are known to be docile, quiet, gentle and easily handled by the shepherd. Throughout Scripture, we find them representing God’s people: the righteous. While sheep will follow the shepherd, goats are far more independent and tend to wander off. With a tendency to be unruly, aggressive, and poor followers, they represent those who are not true disciples of Christ. During the day, both kinds of animals intermingled in the pasture, as do believers and unbelievers (and pretenders) in the world. At night, the shepherd separated his flock. Less tolerant of the cool night air and having a tendency to stray and butt heads, goats were herded tightly behind a secure fence. Sheep, with their heavy coats of wool, welcomed chilly nights and, less belligerent than their horned relatives, weren’t crowded into their sheepfold. Like the shepherd, God will separate his flock—the righteous from the unrighteous—at Judgment.

The shepherd easily separates his herd by looking at their tails: a sheep’s tail hangs down and a goat’s points up. The King uses a different criteria; he looks at our tales: how we have treated our neighbors! The people to His right, the sheep, are those who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited prisoners. The people on His left, the goats, did none of that! The King informs them that by doing (or failing to do) any of those things for those who suffered, they had done (or failed to do) those same things for Him! Those who did for the least will inherit the Kingdom and those who refused will face eternal punishment.

At first reading, this begins to sound like salvation through works rather than by grace through faith. A closer look, however, tells us otherwise. The righteous weren’t surprised by the King’s reward but rather by His reason. Their behavior hadn’t been motivated by ulterior motives as a way to buy their way into the Kingdom; their behavior was the natural result of their love for the King. Works aren’t necessary for salvation and won’t earn the keys to the Kingdom; works, however, are evidence of that salvation and confirmation that the person holds the key!

Rather than looking at our tails, God looks at our works—not because they produce righteousness, but because they are proof of that righteousness. We can’t love our neighbor if we don’t love God and, if we truly love God, loving our neighbor naturally follows! How we treat others reveals whether our tails humbly hang down or self-righteously point up!

With an estimated 2.5 billion people who claim to be Christians [Fact & Trends], I wonder why the world isn’t a kinder gentler place. Perhaps it’s because there are way too many goats who think they are sheep!

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.” Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove. [James 2:18 (MSG)]

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ADMIT IT

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” [Luke 18:11-13 (NIV)]

The man who is seriously convinced that he deserves to go to hell is not likely to go there, while the man who believes that he is worthy of heaven will certainly never enter that blessed place. [A.W. Tozer]

snowy egretA.W. Tozer’s words remind me of Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and tax collector who prayed in the Temple. Acting as if God should feel grateful to receive his prayers, the Pharisee didn’t understand that he should be grateful that God listens! Rather than express thanks for God’s righteousness, power and majesty, the proud Pharisee thanked God for his own righteousness and then listed his virtues! Although it wasn’t required, he fasted twice weekly and was so fastidious about tithing that he tithed not just what was earned but also anything he acquired. If he were unsure that a farmer had tithed his produce, the Pharisee would tithe it again! Standing before God and proclaiming both his good works and his contempt for others (like the tax collector), the Pharisee is a perfect illustration of a man “who believes that he is worthy of heaven.” How wrong he was! Perhaps the Pharisee’s refusal to recognize his own self-righteousness was his biggest sin of all.

On the other hand, we have the tax collector. Standing apart, beating his breast in repentance, and feeling so contemptible that he couldn’t even look up, we find a man who clearly knew he was a sinner. Recognizing exactly who and what he was, the tax collector humbly came before God and, with a repentant heart, admitted his sin and begged for mercy.

When Jesus told this parable, He must have shocked his listeners. The Pharisee was considered the epitome of pious living and the tax collector of sinfulness. Jesus turned that comparison upside down when He said that it was the humble tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home with his sins forgiven.

It’s only when we’re sick that we see the need for a physician and only when we see our sinfulness that we see the need for a Savior. We must approach God as did the tax collector: by understanding our wickedness and the need for His mercy. The Pharisee didn’t understand that nobody deserves salvation and it can’t be secured by fasting, tithing or other good deeds. It is out of God’s love for his children that He generously saves those who repent of their sins. It is only when we know we’re sinners, deserving of hell and undeserving of God’s grace, that we are likely to find our way to heaven.

Don’t say that a loving God is going to send you to hell – He’s not. The thing that’s going to send you to hell is that you’re a sinner and you don’t want to admit it. [J. Vernon McGee]

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. [Luke 18:14 (NIV)]

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THE FEAST OF EPIPHANY – JANUARY 6

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” [Matthew 2:1-2 (NLT)]

magi

Assuming you don’t worship in the Orthodox Church, today is known as the Feast of Three Kings or Epiphany. Since the church year for Orthodox Christians follows the Julian calendar, tonight is their Christmas Eve and Epiphany won’t be until January 19th. For those of us using the Gregorian calendar, however, today often is the day the Christmas tree is taken down, the nativity sets boxed up, and the holiday decorations are tucked away until next December.

Epiphany, however, isn’t about decorations or eating the last of the Christmas cookies. The word “epiphany” means to show, make known, or reveal. Those “ah-ha” moments when we have a flash of insight or understanding are often called epiphanies. (I frequently prayed for epiphanies when studying algebra and geometry.) When the travelers to Emmaus (in the gospel of John) suddenly recognized the resurrected Jesus, they had an epiphany as did Saul when Jesus revealed Himself on the road to Damascus. Today’s Epiphany celebration is about the coming of the wise men with gifts to visit the Christ child. Their visit revealed Jesus to the world as Lord and King, not just to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles.

When the long awaited Messiah was born, angels sent the birth announcement to lowly shepherds rather than religious leaders. The king was born, not in a palace, but in a stable. The newspaper didn’t list His birth but a star led the way. The baby gifts were brought not by Jews but by Gentiles: pagans who traveled from Persia, Arabia or India for several months to find this newborn king. They didn’t present the family with typical baby gifts and their offerings certainly weren’t what a poor carpenter’s family would expect to receive. Their offerings, however, were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world. Gold, the metal of royalty, symbolized His kingship and acknowledged His right to rule. Frankincense, used in worship and the anointing of priests, symbolized the role Jesus would take as our High Priest. Myrrh, a spice used for embalming, was an odd gift for a child but the magi were familiar with the prophecies that told of the Messiah’s suffering. This was the perfect offering for the One who would be a sacrifice. Perhaps the greatest gift the magi brought was the one that didn’t come in a box: their worship!

As we put away the last of the holiday decorations, let’s not put away the message of Christmas. May the living Christ remain in our hearts: our King, God, and Savior—the One who lived and died so that we might die and live.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never Over us all to reign. …
Frankincense to offer have I. Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising, Worship Him, God on high. …
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
[“We Three Kings” by John Henry Hopkins, Jr.]

They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. [Matthew 2:11 (NLT)]

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PRAY, SEND, GO

The Lord now chose seventy-two other disciples and sent them ahead in pairs to all the towns and places he planned to visit. These were his instructions to them: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields. Now go.” [Luke 10:1-3a (NLT)]

daisyThe story is told of a minister who made this announcement just before passing out the offering plates: “The good news is that God has all of the funds necessary to fund His church’s ministry.” As the congregation started to return their checks and cash to their wallets, the pastor added, “But the bad news is that it’s still in our pockets!”

Having been called by the Holy Spirit to serve, a young woman in our church shared her plans to become a missionary. Just as being a teacher, nurse, plumber or electrician is a career choice, so is being a missionary. Unlike those other careers, however, as a missionary, she has to provide the funds for her paycheck! Like everyone else, missionaries need a salary and insurance along with money for travel, ministry tools, professional support, and even retirement. A love for Jesus and a desire to obey His call won’t put food on the table or pay rent!

When Jesus told his disciples to count the cost of discipleship, He reminded them that builders don’t start construction without calculating the cost and being sure they have enough money to finish the project. This woman is doing that by working with an evangelical Christian mission organization to determine her funding needs. This charitable agency requires her to have a full year’s salary raised or pledged before she goes abroad. Technically, she will be their employee, but the monthly checks she receives from them will come from the funds that she has raised, and she is actively seeking financial partners for her ministry. Perhaps a missionary’s biggest obstacle is raising the funds needed to go out and share God’s word.

We rarely think about the business side of ministry and certainly not of Jesus and money. Nevertheless, in their three years together, Jesus and His disciples had financial needs. After all, they’d quit their jobs to follow the Lord. I suppose, miracle worker that He was, Jesus easily could have multiplied their few provisions or had Peter catch fish with gold coins in their mouths every morning, but that’s not how He did things. Scripture tells us they all shared a common purse and that Judas was in charge of it. From where did that money come? Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and “many others” provided for them out of their financial resources. When Jesus sent seventy-two of his followers out into the countryside, He told them to take nothing with them. They were to live on the kindheartedness of those they visited. Even Jesus depended on the generosity of others; he rode a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem and was buried in a donated tomb. Generosity fueled by the faith of His followers is how Jesus started His ministry and how we must continue it.

When Jesus sent out those seventy-two, He used three verbs: go, pray, and send. While all of us are called to share the gospel message, not all of us are called to go out and do missions work as a career. All of us, however, can pray both for more workers and for their funding. Some of us (perhaps many) also are capable of sending those workers to the harvest. The good news is that we have the funds to further spread Jesus’s message by financing those who do go. The bad news, however, is that the funds probably are still in our pockets!

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? [Romans 10:13-15a (NLT)]

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EXPLORATORY SURGERY – NEW YEAR’S EVE

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

spiderwortThe tradition of New Year’s resolutions goes back 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians. During their 12-day celebration of the new year (held in mid-March), they either crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the old one. They also promised to return anything borrowed and pledged the repayment of all their debts. While returning borrowed items and paying our debts are good goals for the coming year, our resolutions usually have something to do with exercise, diet, getting better organized, learning a new skill, spending less money, or reading the entire Bible in a year.

Perhaps, before resolving to floss or eat more vegetables, we should pray and ask God what it is that He would like to see us change. “Search me, O God,” is what could be called a dangerous prayer; when we ask Him to look, we’d better be ready for what He finds. Chances are that it will have nothing to do with developing better dental or nutrition habits. Asking God to examine our innermost being is asking Him to perform exploratory surgery in search of sin. While a surgeon may not find a tumor, God is sure to find plenty of areas in our hearts and minds in need of improvement! If a surgeon does find cancer, we expect him to remove it but, when God finds something offensive in us, He expects us to repent and turn away from it.

Our spiritual goals can fail as readily as the non-spiritual ones and, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, less than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions are successful at keeping them. Perhaps we’d do better if we understood that we can’t change by ourselves. Maybe will-power alone can keep us away from Dunkin’ Donuts or get us to a 6 AM aerobics class but it isn’t enough when we’re combating spiritual enemies. Fortunately, we are powered by the Holy Spirit and, through Him, all things are possible.

Let us remember that Jesus is in the business of transformation. It was at a wedding party in Cana that He transformed water into wine. He then transformed the blind into the sighted, the lame into the strong, and the diseased into the healthy. He changed the churning sea into calm water, a few morsels of food into a feast, and the dead into the living. Jesus’s miracles of transformation continue today. He turns darkness into light, anger into peace, fear into hope, animosity into love, selfishness into generosity, mourning into joy, shame into honor, and sinners into saints.

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul. [G. K. Chesterton]

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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DEFYING NATURE

ngorongoro crater

At the blast of your breath, the waters piled up! The surging waters stood straight like a wall; in the heart of the sea the deep waters became hard. … The finest of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea. The deep waters gushed over them; they sank to the bottom like a stone. [Exodus 15:8,4-5 (NLT)]

Skeptics love questioning the miracle of the Red Sea. Either they provide a natural explanation or deny it ever happened. Unfortunately, sometimes we even find believers doing the same thing. A miracle is usually defined as something that violates the laws of nature, but God wrote those laws! “Miracles are not contrary to nature,” said Augustine, “but only contrary to what we know about nature.” As Christians, we base our faith on a miracle—the resurrection of Jesus—so a belief in God’s powerful ability to defy nature’s laws is essential to our faith.

How can the waters part for the Israelites and then come surging down on the pursuing Egyptians? For decades, scientists have tried to find a natural explanation using various computer models. In spite of Moses giving a good description of where their crossing occurred, land and water are not static and the topography of the area has shifted over 3,500 years. Not knowing exactly where it happened, many suggest that, instead of it being the Red Sea, the crossing actually took place further north in a shallow lake called the Reed Sea. They explain that a wind temporarily drained this shallow marshy area just enough to allow the Israelites to safely cross. The Hebrew word used to describe the seabed was yahbashah which means dry land, not the muck or mud of a damp marsh. Moreover, while the Egyptians with their heavy chariots might have gotten bogged down in the mire, that can’t explain how an entire army was drowned in a few feet of water.

Other skeptics have argued that a volcano or earthquake north of Egypt produced a tidal wave or tsunami that parted the Red Sea. A tidal wave happens suddenly which hardly supports Moses’ description of the gradual retreat of the waters during the night or the fortuitous return of the waters in time to drown the Egyptians.

Scientists also have estimated that a steady 63 mph wind from the east could have swept the water back to the western shore to create a land bridge. Winds of just 45 mph make driving hazardous and can knock down a person weighing 100 pounds. A wind of 63 mph would make the crossing nearly impossible. Moreover, Moses described two walls of water, one on each side. I’m not a scientist but two opposing walls of water would seem to imply winds blowing in opposite directions and I can’t see how anyone could get anywhere in that kind of crosswind! When considering the width of the path required for about two million Israelites (along with sheep, goats, and cattle) to cross a seabed in just part of one night, it needed to be at least one mile wide. It’s hard to believe that any natural wind could do that.

Even if some of these explanations are partially or totally correct, there is no explanation for what would seem to be the most amazing coincidence in all of history: that the Israelites arrived at some body of water at the exact moment a tsunami or gale force winds occurred that caused the waters to recede, that the land remained dry just long enough for them to cross, and that the waters gushed back at precisely the moment the Egyptians were in the seabed! That so-called coincidence would require the miraculous power of Almighty God!

Scientists admit they can’t explain everything but even a valid scientific or medical explanation doesn’t negate a belief in the hand of God. While her doctors might say that Pearl’s recovery from metastasized cancer is a result of oncology advances, they originally thought she’d not live a year. While John’s doctors could say his ability to walk after having his pelvis crushed is the result of their skills as orthopedic surgeons, they initially thought he wouldn’t live, let alone walk! I know how thoroughly Pearl’s body was attacked by cancer and I’ve seen John’s x-rays; I have no doubt that without our prayers and God’s intervention, modern medicine would have failed them both. In spite of a medical explanation for their recoveries, they are nothing short of miraculous.

Skeptics and atheists have trouble believing in miracles because a belief in miracles necessitates believing in the hand of someone or something that can cause them: God. I’ve seen His wonderful work firsthand; our God is a God of miracles and that’s explanation enough for me!

I will meditate on your majestic, glorious splendor and your wonderful miracles. [Psalm 145:5 (NLT)]

He does great things too marvelous to understand. He performs countless miracles. [Job 9:10 (NLT)]

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