FENCES

Stay away from every kind of evil. [1 Thessalonians 5:22 (NLT)]

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. [Misnha (Pirke Avot)]

tigerLast December, after breaching the barrier surrounding the tiger enclosure at our local zoo, a man stuck his hand into the tiger’s cage. A similar incident occurred a few months later at a nearby airboat attraction when a man improperly went through the first enclosure and put his arms into the tiger’s cage. Although both men survived, they suffered serious injuries to their hands and arms. Fences are placed to protect us and keep us from getting too close to danger but you can’t protect people from their own stupidity.

Just as those fences around the tigers’ cages were meant to protect people from the tigers (and the tigers from people), many of the Rabbinic innovations were designed to protect the commandments of the Torah. It is in the Mishnah (the oldest collection of post-biblical Jewish laws) that we find the phrase “make a fence around the Torah.” It is this fence, not the Bible, that explains the hundreds of prohibitions we find in Judaism.

Those Rabbinic rules were supposed to prevent people from being tempted to break the law or unintentionally doing so. For example, items like hammers and scissors that were associated with prohibited work like building or cutting, were not even to be picked up lest handling them led to their use. Although the Sabbath officially begins at sunset Friday, a few minutes were added before its beginning and after its end to make sure no one accidentally worked too late or resumed work too early. Even today, for my Jewish friend, the Shabbat candles are lit and all work has stopped no later than 18 minutes before the sun officially sets. His Sabbath ends when three stars are visible, which can be about 30 minutes after sunset. Rather than additions to the Mosaic law, these fences were seen as a way of helping people remain obedient to the law; they were erected to keep people from giving into temptation or just cutting it too close! Sadly, through the years, the rules became increasingly complicated and, by Jesus’ time, they were the heavy yoke about which He spoke.

Nevertheless, Jesus gave us a New Testament version of building a fence when He equated the emotion of anger with the act of murder and the attitude of lust with adultery. Anger and lust are like stepping too close to the tiger’s cage—they’re dangerous territory! Just as picking up his cell phone on Saturday might lead my Jewish friend to break the Sabbath by using it, lust and anger can lead to something far worse! Sticking your arm in a tiger’s cage or stepping into sin never ends well and, rather than gouging out our eyes or cutting off our hands, we can erect spiritual boundaries to keep us and our loved ones safe. We may restrict our youngsters to G or PG movies or set specific rules about dating for our teens. We might use internet filters to screen out inappropriate content on our computers, abstain from alcohol, or avoid the appearance of inappropriate behavior by following the “Billy Graham rule” of never being alone with a person of the opposite sex except for one’s spouse. We each have our own spiritual fences.

Unless they’re found in Scripture, however, those fences are not doctrine. They are our personal rules and, as such, other people may have different ones, some of which may be closer or further from the tiger’s cage than ours. We are not in a position to judge other people’s spiritual barriers any more than they are to judge ours. Unfortunately, for the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, the fence around the Torah became more important than the law itself. We must never do that. Every fence we erect must comply with God’s simple law that we love Him with our entire being and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

…he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” [Mark 12:28-31 (NLT)]

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KEEP HOLY THE SABBATH DAY

Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. … For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy. [Exodus 20:8-10a,11 (NLT)]

orchidIt’s hard to think of our omnipotent, invincible, and unstoppable God getting tired after a mere six days of work but Scripture tells us He “rested” on the seventh day. The Hebrew word translated as rested, however, is shabath, meaning to stop, cease, or desist. Rather than God resting because He was exhausted; God simply stopped! I suspect it’s because He wanted to enjoy His finished creation. Picture Him sitting in the Almighty’s version of a La-Z-Boy chair, looking out at the magnificence of the universe—breathing in its aromas, tasting its sweetness, hearing its song, and delighting in its beauty.

In Exodus, when God gave the Israelites the Sabbath Day, He was telling His people to do the same thing—to stop and appreciate His blessings. Imagine how strange the fourth commandment seemed to a people who’d been enslaved by the Egyptians and cruelly oppressed by Pharaoh. They hadn’t enjoyed a day free of work in their entire lives and now they were commanded by God to do just that.

While the Bible doesn’t specifically list the kinds of prohibited labor, it alludes to several areas of work and, in the writings of the Talmud (the oral law), we find 39 kinds of work specifically forbidden on the Sabbath. Through the years, however, the rabbis further defined those 39 prohibitions with hundreds of subcategories. For example, no sewing includes no gluing, welding, or stapling; the ban on lighting a fire means that no fuel can be added to an existing fire; and no building includes not pitching a tent. The Sabbath, however, was meant to be a gift rather than a burden. Along with its prohibitions, the Talmud also encourages Sabbath activities such as temple attendance, singing Sabbath songs, reading the Torah, sleeping, hospitality, spending time with family and friends, and even marital relations!

I have a Jewish friend, the head of a large law firm, who works long hours six days a week. Friday afternoons, however, he turn off both phone and computer, stops billing over $600 an hour, and strictly observes the Sabbath. The Talmud’s many restrictions mean he and his family must plan ahead and prepare for their holy day. He has to leave work early enough Friday to be home well before sunset, the Sabbath food is cooked on Friday, the table is pre-set, lights are turned on or set on timers, the refrigerator light bulb is unscrewed, and even toilet paper and paper towels are pre-torn (since tearing is prohibited).

As they follow their Sabbath rules, my friend and his family are reminded of the holiness of the day. For them, the Sabbath isn’t a day of unreasonable restrictions because it’s about more than ceasing from work. It is a special day of rest, relaxation, peace, family, food, fellowship, worship, Scripture, and even a few board games. On a day wholly dedicated to God and peace, anything that could possibly interfere with the restful spirit of the day is avoided. For 24-hours there’s no television, radio, computers, phones, video games, or social media. Moreover, as a day designed to soothe the frayed nerves and exhaustion that come from a week’s work, there’s no talk of things like business, money, COVID, politics, the war in Ukraine, children’s grades, family conflicts, or the high price of gas!

My Jewish friend’s Sabbath is beginning to sound quite pleasant. Rather than a day of prohibitions, he sees it as a day of respite from the world and a way to reconnect with the Lord. Perhaps our Sabbath should be more like his— a day filled with worship, gratitude, retreat, prayer, and rest—a day to mindfully spend time with family, friends, God, and His word.

O what a blessing is Sunday, interposed between the waves of worldly business like the divine path of the Israelites through the sea! There is nothing in which I would advise you to be more strictly conscientious than in keeping the Sabbath day holy. I can truly declare that to me the Sabbath has been invaluable. [William Wilberforce]

Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don’t pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the Lord’s holy day. [Isaiah 58:13a (NLT)]

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PROFILING

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” [1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT)]

We know that four of the disciples were fisherman and one was a despised tax collector but have no idea what careers the others left behind to follow Jesus. If Jesus wasn’t carpentering, the fishermen weren’t fishing, the tax collector wasn’t collecting, and others weren’t doing whatever it was they did, how did these men support themselves? For the most part, they probably depended on the hospitality of strangers or friends like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus but we also know that the disciples were in Sychar purchasing food when Jesus had a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. Like any ministry, the group needed money for everyday expenses and Scripture tells us that people like Joanna, Susanna, and Mary Magdalene provided for them out of their resources.

Accepting money, pooling resources, paying expenses, and giving to the poor necessitated the need for a common purse and someone to act as the group’s treasurer. At first, it would seem that the former publican, Matthew, with his bookkeeping experience, would have been the logical choice to carry the group’s moneybag, but it was Judas who carried the purse. It also was Judas who stole from it and betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver!

We don’t know if it was Jesus or the disciples who gave Judas the position as the group’s banker. I suspect Jesus let the disciples work it out among themselves—it seems the sort of thing He would do. That Jesus allowed a thief like Judas to handle the money appears to be a poor example of stewardship but Jesus’ relationship with Judas may have been an example of another kind. Judas certainly proves Jesus’ point that one can’t serve both God and money. Moreover, in His relationship with Judas, Jesus lived out His words that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us!

Jesus could look into Judas’ heart and see the deceit but the disciples looked at appearances and Judas didn’t come to them with a tarnished reputation as did Matthew. The disciples probably were cautious about a tax collector in their midst and unwilling to give their money to Matthew—a man once considered an unscrupulous thief. They may have been afraid that their supporters would hesitate to place their money in the hands of a man who once collected their taxes. People may not have trusted Matthew but they never suspected Judas. That last night, when Jesus said someone sitting at the table would betray Him, they asked one another who it possibly could be. They never even questioned Judas’ abrupt departure from the upper room because they thought he was leaving to pay for their food or give money to the poor.

The people of Nazareth weren’t much better at assessing people than were the disciples. In spite of Jesus’ wisdom and miracles, His fellow Nazarenes disparaged the man who was just the son of a carpenter and whose family still lived in their obscure little village. Before meeting the Lord, even Nathanael scoffed at Jesus’ hometown and asked Andrew if anything good could come from Nazareth.

One of my Lenten fasts was profiling—the underestimating of people, especially when I might be dismissing people who would be welcomed by Jesus. I can’t help but wonder if I’m as guilty as were Nathanael and the people of Nazareth of dismissing people because of their background, upbringing, or family. Am I as guilty as I suspect the disciples were of holding people’s past mistakes against them? Jesus loved and welcomed flawed people like Matthew, Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, and even Judas. Do I? Will you?

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. … So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. [James 2:8-9, 12-13 (NLT)]

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LOOKING FOR “LOVE”

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. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

cardinalNormally, the Internet would be one of the worst places to search for love but, according to my favorite online Bible resource site, some people went looking for love on line and were successful. Of course, they were looking for it in one of the right places—the Bible. With nearly 3 million searches a day (which, in case you wondered, is more than 2,000 per minute 24/7), “love” was the keyword most commonly searched for by the 160 million visitors to their site in 2021. Appearing 759 times in the NLT Bible, “love” was easily found (even in the King James that only uses it 442 times)!

“Love” tops the keyword search every year and “peace” (appearing 362 times in the NLT) retained its second-place position. As expected, hope, joy, and faith rounded out 2021’s top five most popular word searches. With “hope“ used 190 times, 333 appearances for “joy,” and “faith” mentioned 507 times in the NLT, the Bible was the right place to find them all. Although the number of occurrences depend on the version searched, these favorite words are found in every translation.

The Bible certainly is the place to look for love, peace, hope, joy, and faith but, with nearly 7,000 mentions of “Lord,” almost 5,000 of “God,” and nearly 1,500 of “Jesus” in the NLT, the Bible is a good place to go looking for them, as well! Those names, however, were missing from the most popular searches, as were words like prayer, humility, righteousness, repentance, servanthood, surrender, worship, sanctification, sacrifice, justification, judgment, sin, obedience, and atonement.

2021’s most searched for Bible verse remained John 3:16: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” The perennial runner-up continued to be Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’” As two of the most encouraging and heartening verses in the Bible, it’s easy to see why they are favorites.

Indeed, God’s Word is filled with words of comfort and reassurance, but limiting our Bible knowledge to only positive and uplifting words and verses is a bit like eating the croutons but not the salad beneath them, tasting only the crispy fried onions on top of the green bean casserole, or having dessert while skipping the main course! Some of those unsearched for words may be less tasty, but they are just as important as love, peace, hope, joy, and faith. It seems that many of us come to the Bible more interested in comfort than truth, affirmation than obedience, reassurance rather than correction, and inspiration rather than salvation. When we come to Scripture looking only for words of encouragement, we might miss the bigger message of salvation, redemption, and rebirth found in Jesus Christ. Let’s never settle for Scripture “Lite.”

If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. [Augustine]

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. [Hebrews 4:12 (NLT)]

Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do. [Joshua 1:8 (NLT)]

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KEEP IT ON THE ISLAND

A gossip goes around telling secrets, but those who are trustworthy can keep a confidence. [Proverbs 11:13 (NLT)]

aftermath of fireWhile attending a spiritual retreat, three ministers decided to share their gravest ethical lapses with one another. After a little hesitation, Pastor Jones started the ball rolling and confessed to having an affair with his beautiful (and married) church secretary. After admitting to a gambling problem, Pastor Smith owned up to embezzling thousands of dollars from his church. Pastor Brown, however, was reluctant to share his moral failings. Telling him that “confession is good for the soul,” the other two ministers urged him to speak, especially since his transgression couldn’t be any worse than theirs. Nervously, Pastor Brown answered, “I’m sorry to tell you fellows, but I’m a compulsive gossip!”

Because secrets often get shared in faith-based small groups, the church is a dangerous place when it comes to gossip. When two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, God will hear their prayer. When those same people are gathered together, He also might hear some gossip. When we’re asked to pray for someone, we often learn details about their lives that are intensely private. Through prayer requests, small groups, friendships, and counseling, we often gain knowledge of addicted children, attempted suicides, abusive spouses, abortions, adultery, medical conditions, and more—information that is not ours to share with anyone.

As Christians, however, we’ve found a gossip loophole. Instead of telling others about someone, we can ask them to pray for that person by name and then give the juicy details of their problems. Some people seem to think passing along information about the life of someone not present isn’t gossip if a “Bless her/his heart” is added to the end of the conversation. They’re wrong! When requesting prayers, God already knows all the names and particulars so specifics aren’t necessary. When given a person’s deepest secrets, we should treasure them, lock them in a safe place, and toss away the key.

Right now, New Mexico is experiencing the second largest wildfire in their history. For more than a month, firefighters have tried to tame this ferocious megafire but, as of Saturday, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire stretched across 169,000 acres and was only 20% contained. That fire, however, is only one of six wildfires burning throughout the state. Altogether, over 300,000 acres have burned just this year! More than trees, wildlife, and homes are being destroyed. Not only have those fires claimed lives but they also threaten an Indo-Hispano culture that has endured since long before the United States came into existence. A way of life that has lasted for centuries is being destroyed by those flames.

Whether carelessly or deliberately spoken, the Apostle James likens our words to a spark that can cause another kind of fire. Like New Mexico’s fires, gossip spreads rapidly, is as hard to stop, and can be just as destructive! While buildings will remain, homes may not; trees will survive but reputations probably won’t. People may not die but their lives may be destroyed. Once started, ill-spoken words are as difficult to contain as a megafire and their smoke and ash can darken a life forever.

Years ago, when we vacationed with friends on Grand Cayman, we agreed to keep any personal information we shared “on the island.” We continue to keep things “on the island” whether we’re on an island, in the living room, at small group, praying for someone, or anywhere else. Forgive me for mixing metaphors but it is only by keeping it “on the island” that we can prevent forest fires!

But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire.  And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. [James 3:5-6 (NLT)]

Who may worship in your sanctuary, Lord? Who may enter your presence on your holy hill? … Those who refuse to gossip or harm their neighbors or speak evil of their friends. [Psalm 15:1,3 (NLT)]

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THE OWN GOAL

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

green heronUsed primarily in soccer and hockey, the term “own goal” or “OG” describes the moment a player accidentally (or deliberately) puts the ball or puck into their own net, resulting in the opposing team getting credited with the goal. OGs can arise from a player’s misjudgment or simply bad luck, as might happen when he’s the victim of a wicked deflection or freak incident. An “own goal” is probably one of the lowest moments for a player and the term has now become a metaphor for any action that backfires on a person. When I think of the way Paul’s imprisonment helped rather than hindered the growth of the early church, I can’t help but think that Satan made an own goal with that one and the point went to God’s team, not his.

The enemy scored another “own goal’ some 57 years ago when I was a freshman at Northwestern University. Although I’d been raised in a church-going family and considered myself a Christian, I was a troubled and confused young woman when I entered college. First quarter freshman year, I took a course in Methods of Discussion in which we studied group communication. On our first day, the class was divided into small groups for a major assignment. We were to select a campus organization that had discussions and observe several meetings. Our purpose was not to scrutinize the topic discussed but to analyze and evaluate the way in which it was considered—how decisions were made, conflicts resolved, understanding built, questions answered, and voices heard. Having been on campus for less than a week, we freshmen knew nothing about any campus organizations and when Dave, the group’s lone upper classman, assured us that Campus Crusade for Christ would make for a great term paper, we deferred to his wisdom. The fact they met Sunday nights and served supper when the dorms didn’t was the selling point for most of us.

What we didn’t know until after starting the project was that Dave’s purpose in choosing Campus Crusade had nothing to do with observing discussion methods or eating a free dinner. An angry atheist, his sole reason for choosing the group was to write a paper that denigrated and ridiculed Christians and this group in particular. The rest of us, however, insisted on sticking to the task and focusing on the method of communication rather than the topic discussed. When it became clear that our paper wouldn’t accomplish his purpose, Dave dropped the class.

While I remember getting an A on the paper, I remember nothing about the mode of discussion at the Campus Crusade get-togethers except that it was spirited and friendly. What I do remember is their message of God’s grace and salvation through Jesus Christ. This wasn’t the God of judgment and condemnation with whom I was familiar; this was a God of unconditional love and forgiveness, a God of relationship rather than religion. Jesus became real to me and I learned more about Him in a few Sunday evenings than I had in years of Sunday school and church. Even though I’d been baptized as an infant and confirmed as a young teen, it wasn’t until I knelt in the university chapel and asked Jesus into my life that I truly became His disciple. After our paper was submitted, I continued attending those Sunday meetings (and not just for the dinner) until I left university life.

Our Heavenly Father works in strange and wonderful ways and has no problem allowing evil people to accomplish His purposes. There’s a certain amount of poetic justice when Satan’s plans backfire as they did with the Apostle Paul and as they even did with me! Thank you, Jesus, for the atheist who brought me into your arms!

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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