CHUCK AND THOMAS

Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” [John 11:16 (NIV)]

You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” [John 14:4-5 (NIV)]

red-shouldered hawkIn 1976, Chuck Colson founded Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families and acting as an advocate for criminal justice reform. Nevertheless, whenever I come across his name, I don’t think of the 36 years he spent in his ministry. Instead, I remember the ruthless man once considered Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man.” Along with being one of the Watergate Seven, Colson was known as a “dirty tricks artist” who tracked down incriminating photographs and leaked damaging and untrue rumors to discredit and blacken the reputations of political enemies. In 1974, as a new Christian, Colson pled guilty to obstruction of justice on a Watergate-related charge and served seven months in prison. It was after his release that he mobilized the Christian Church to minister to prisoners.

Why do we remember the negative rather than the positive about people? Think of the disciple Thomas. Most of us think of him as the doubter rather than a disciple zealous for Jesus. When the other disciples urged Jesus not to return to Judea because of the danger he faced, it was Thomas who urged the disciples to join Jesus and face death with Him!

The next we read of Thomas is at the last supper when the inquisitive man is probably more honest than the rest of the disciples. Not understanding that Jesus had just described His destination—heaven and eternal life—Thomas acknowledged his ignorance and asked the same question the others probably were silently asking. Thomas wasn’t doubting, the eager man just wanted to understand exactly where he was going and how he was to do it.

Although Thomas heard Jesus say that He was “the way, the truth, and the life,” like the other disciples, the man didn’t know what to believe after the crucifixion. One moment of skepticism and that’s what we remember of him but Thomas wasn’t the only one who doubted. Luke tells us that the disciples didn’t believe their eyes when Jesus first stood before them and thought they were seeing a ghost. [24:37] Even after seeing His pierced hands and feet, Luke says they “stood there in disbelief” and it was watching Jesus eat a piece of fish that finally convinced them. [24:41-42]

Let’s remember, Thomas wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared and it wasn’t Jesus he doubted. He questioned the veracity of the disciples in the same way Mark tells us the disciples doubted Mary Magdalene that Sunday morning [16:11]. He wanted to be sure it actually was Jesus they saw. When Thomas finally sees Jesus, he makes the clearest confession of faith we find in any of the gospels by exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” If anything, Thomas’ willingness to express his doubt led to a greater faith!

Neither Chuck Colson nor the Apostle Thomas should be remembered for their worst moments yet they probably are. Oddly, we don’t immediately think of Peter as the man who denied Jesus three times. Instead, we first think of him as the rock upon which Jesus built His church. May we grant the same amount of grace to the Chuck Colsons and the “doubting” Thomases we meet in life!

No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure—that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation—being sent to prison—was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one thing in which I could not glory for His glory. [Chuck Colson]

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” [John 20:28-29 (NIV)]

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TAKE THE RISK

Be strong and courageous! … Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you. [Deuteronomy 31:6a,8 (NLT)]

Let all who fear the Lord repeat: “His faithful love endures forever.” … The Lord is for me, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me? [Psalm 118:4,6 (NLT)]

great egret
Judge Guido Calabresi regularly asks his Yale law students to imagine receiving an offer of an amazing invention that could improve people’s lives in every imaginable way. In exchange for this invention, however, the lives of at least 1,000 randomly selected young people would be taken every year. When asked if they’d accept the deal, his students inevitably conclude they wouldn’t. Calabresi then asks them the difference between that offer and the automobile. The very thing that allows us to travel, see loved ones, easily move products across the country, and do things that couldn’t be done otherwise, kills even more than that! Over 2,600 teens (16-20) accounted for auto accident fatalities in 2019 and, with over 46,000 car fatalities last year, more than 150 people of every age die each day because of a car. Be that as it may, we’re not about to give up driving!

Calebresi uses his example to illustrate how selective we are in our fears. We underestimate and accept chronic risks like riding in a car while overestimating prominent ones like a terrorist attack or plane crash. In actuality, rather than dying from either of those things, we’re more likely to die by choking on food or slipping in the shower or tub but, preferring bathing, eating, and even driving to the alternatives, we decide they’re worth the risk. On the other hand, after assessing the perils involved in things like free solo climbing, running with the bulls, or base jumping, most of us probably decide they’re not worth the risk.

In contrast, any risk we take in obedience to God always is worth it. Regardless of the danger, we must obediently accept the risks in the challenges and tasks He gives us. Think of what Abraham risked by packing up his family and leaving Haran for an unknown destination. Think of the risks taken by the midwives Shiphrah and Puah when they defied Pharaoh by letting boy babies live or the risk Moses took when he returned to Egypt and confronted Pharaoh. It was a huge risk when Gideon and his 300 men took on an army 400 times their size and when David faced Goliath with just a sling and stones. In spite of the risk, Esther approached the king, Daniel defied the law by praying, and the bleeding woman touched Jesus’ robe. Joseph of Arimathea took a risk when he asked Pilate for Jesus’ body and Peter and John risked imprisonment and worse when they defied the Council by continuing to share the gospel. When we search Scripture, we don’t find people who assessed the risks and played it safe. We find God’s version of bungee jumpers and wing-suit flyers—faith-filled and obedient risk takers.

Every God-sent risk comes with a God-sent promise. He will remain faithful to us and be present in the risk. He will protect and empower us and we’ll never need more than what He supplies. As followers of Jesus, we don’t walk by sight. In spite of the risks, we walk by faith because faith means we’re willing to risk anything for God!

Trust is faith that has become absolute, approved, and accomplished. When all is said and done, there is a sort of risk in faith and its exercise. But trust is firm belief; it is faith in full bloom. Trust is a conscious act, a fact of which we are aware. [E.M. Bounds]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:20 (NLT)]

…For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5-6 (NLT)]

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LETTING GO

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. … Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. [Matthew 16:24-25,19:21-22 (NLT)]

Like any mother, I remember my children’s first steps. After hesitantly pulling themselves up and taking a few tentative steps, they soon realized they could cruise along while holding onto something or someone. Eventually, the tots became bold enough to let go of one piece of furniture and reach toward another to continue their adventures. A fair amount of parental urging, however, was usually needed to get them to finally let go of furniture, walls, or people and walk completely on their own. But, after taking those first solo steps, there was no stopping them. Off they went exploring a new, wonderful, and limitless world while I ended up chasing them and wondering why I’d been in such a rush have them walk.

Like a toddler learning to walk or the rich man in today’s verse, are we reluctant to let go of something that is keeping us from a new, wonderful, and limitless world in Christ? The rich man was unwilling to let go of his wealth—are we afraid to release our grip on possessions that encumber us? Could we value things more than a relationship with God? Is there an unhealthy relationship holding us from a relationship with Jesus or have we become too comfortable in old patterns of behavior or attitudes to face new ones? Are we hanging on to anger or loath to let go of resentment and forgive?

Are we simply afraid of the unknown—of trusting? Are we unwilling to cede control and give charge of our lives to Him? Are we more interested in our own version of happiness than God’s or more interested in following our plan than His? Are we afraid of what He might ask of us? Could we think we’re simply not worthy of His love? Once we release all that is holding us back, the Kingdom of God is waiting for us. It’s there for the asking! We just need to let go and take that first step to experience His unconditional love, forgiveness, hope, joy, and eternal life!

The difference between the toddler and the Christian, however, is that while the toddler learns to walk completely on his own, once a Christian releases all that is holding him back, he is never alone. God’s hand will hold and sustain him and he need never stumble or fall.

19th century evangelist (and publisher) D. L Moody called profit, pleasure, and preferment “the wicked man’s trinity.” What are we willing to release for the Holy Trinity?

I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. [Philippians 3:7-9a (NLT)]

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NICODEMUS AND JOSEPH

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. [2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV)]

station of the cross - 13 - golindrinas NMNot all of the Sadducees and Pharisees were disinterested in the truth. Consider Nicodemus, a man who was both a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Drawn to Jesus because of His miracles, the Pharisee visited Him alone during the night. That his approach seems furtive implies Nicodemus was hesitant to let others know of his visit. Nevertheless, he approached Jesus with respect, an open mind, and honest questions. Although some Pharisees said Jesus got His power from Satan, Nicodemus began by acknowledging that Jesus’ miracles testified He came from God. Recognizing that Jesus came from God, however, was not enough. Jesus’s response was, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Jesus, of course, was speaking of spiritual rebirth but Nicodemus’ response implies he took Jesus’ words literally when he pointed out the impossibility of an old man re-entering his mother’s womb to be born again.

While most of us are familiar with this verse as saying “born again,” the word used was anóthen, meaning “from above,” so Nicodemus could have understood Jesus was speaking figuratively of a spiritual birth. The Pharisee may have wondered how an old man, set in his beliefs, habits, position, and attitude, ever could make such a radical change and start fresh. Being stuffed back into the womb is impossible but spiritual rebirth can seem as unfeasible. Jesus acted surprised that Nicodemus, a respected Jewish teacher, didn’t understand the things about which He spoke. His reference to Moses lifting up a bronze snake on a pole to heal (found in Numbers) and His words about water and the Spirit that echoed words written by Ezekiel [36:25-27] may have prompted the Pharisee to go back and re-study Scripture.

The next we read of Nicodemus is during a meeting of the Sanhedrin when he pointed out the illegality of convicting Jesus without a trial. During the sham trial that followed, however, neither he nor Joseph of Arimathea, another secret follower of Jesus, defended Jesus. Whether they still had doubts, were afraid, or simply thought no harm could come to the Messiah, they remained silent when others condemned Him. It may not have been until Calvary that the two Pharisees finally understood Jesus’ comparison of Moses raising the pole in the wilderness to heal the Israelites to the “Son of Man” being “lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” [John 3:14]

The next time we read of the two men, Jesus has been crucified. At great risk to position and reputation, Joseph asked Pilate for Jesus’ body. Rather than the disciples, it was Joseph and Nicodemus—men who once has been too afraid to speak for Jesus—who prepared His broken body for burial. They anointed the Lord with over 70 pounds of ointment, wrapped Him in sheets of linen, and placed Him in Joseph’s tomb. By doing so, the two men publicly declared their belief in Jesus. They were born anew!

While Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened to Nicodemus and Joseph, we do know what would have happened to any member of the Sanhedrin having done what they did—he’d be kicked off the High Council, lose his position as Pharisee, and probably be banished from his synagogue. There’s little doubt that both men lost their power, wealth, and position but, in return, they gained eternal life! All in all—not a bad trade!

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” [Matthew 16:24-27 (ESV)]

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DOUBT AND UNBELIEF

lilacWe reject all shameful deeds and underhanded methods. We don’t try to trick anyone or distort the word of God. We tell the truth before God, and all who are honest know this. If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. [2 Corinthians 4:2-4 (NLT)]

Yesterday, when writing about John the Baptist, I said that doubt was not the same as unbelief. In John’s question to Jesus, we have the doubts of a godly man but we see trickery and unbelief in most of the questions of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Because the Sadducees interpreted Scripture literally and the Pharisees gave equal significance to their oral tradition, the groups frequently argued with one another over Jewish doctrine. They were, however, united in their hatred of Jesus. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees did not belief in an afterlife or the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, they asked Jesus a question dealing with resurrection. Jewish law said that, if a woman’s husband died without having a son, the husband’s brother had the responsibility of marrying her. Using this law as their starting point, the Sadducees set up a bizarre scenario in which one brother dies without having children and his widow, who never bears a son, ends up marrying and burying brother after brother until she’s married and buried all seven brothers. The Sadducees want Jesus to tell them which of the seven will be her husband in the afterlife.

Since they didn’t believe in any afterlife, theirs was not an honest question and they’re sure Jesus can’t answer without looking foolish, offending people, or being caught in an inconsistency. He’ll appear arbitrary if he picks one brother over another and immoral if He says they all can have her! His other choice (and possibly the one for which they hope) is to admit that resurrection is a preposterous doctrine. Not only would they score a point against the Pharisees but Jesus would look like a fraud since He couldn’t be the “resurrection and the life” if there were no resurrection!

Imagine their consternation when Jesus corrected them by saying they’d misinterpreted Scripture and had underestimated God’s power with their assumption that resurrection meant a continuation of the same kind of bodies we have in this life. Jesus explained that people would be raised into bodies unlike their present ones and marriage and procreation would be unnecessary. When Jesus added that people will have bodies “like the angels in heaven,” He dug the knife deep into their absurd question because Sadducees didn’t believe in angels any more than they did resurrection.

In His final thrust, Jesus asked the Sadducees if they’d read about resurrection in the Scriptures. He then repeated these words from Exodus: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” [3:6] Even though the patriarchs had been dead for more than four centuries, God’s words to Moses were in the present tense which showed that the men remained alive before Him. Jesus could have found scriptural support in words from Isaiah, Daniel, or Job but He chose a verse from part of the Pentateuch, the section the Sadducees found most authoritative. Having been out-argued by the Son of God, I imagine the Sadducees departed with their proverbial tails between their legs. The crowd that heard Jesus, however, was “astounded at his teaching.”

When comparing the questions posed by John’s disciples and the Sadducees, the differences between doubt and unbelief become clear. Where doubt seeks answers, unbelief isn’t interested in them. Doubt seeks enlightenment; unbelief prefers darkness. Doubt is receptive; unbelief is hostile. Doubt is straightforward; unbelief has ulterior motives. Doubt wants the truth; unbelief just wants to win.

There are those who insist that it is a very bad thing to question God. To them, “why?” is a rude question. That depends, I believe, on whether it is an honest search, in faith, for His meaning, or whether it is the challenge of unbelief and rebellion. [Elisabeth Elliot]

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. [Matthew 22:34 (NLT)]

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JOHN THE BAPTIST – Part 2

On the following day, John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, there is the lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world! This is the man I meant when I said, ‘A man comes after me who is always in front of me, for he existed before I was born!’ It is true I have not known him, yet it was to make him known to the people of Israel that I came and baptised people with water.” [John 1:29-31 (PHILLIPS)]

mourning doveWe don’t know if John the Baptist recognized Jesus as his distant cousin when the two men met on the banks of the Jordan. Although they were the same age and their mothers were related in some way, with John in the desert and Jesus in Nazareth, it’s not likely they knew one another. If they did, Jesus probably seemed nothing more than an ordinary person to John at the time.

When Jesus walked toward him that day, however, John knew he was seeing someone who was more than a carpenter from Nazareth. In the same way that Elizabeth knew Mary was “the mother of my Lord” when the unborn John leapt in her womb, John recognized Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God. John seemed to have no doubt about Jesus when he testified to seeing the Spirit descend on Him like a dove and, throughout John’s ministry, he continued to point out Jesus as the “Lamb of God.”

After Jesus’ baptism, the gospel of John tells us that both John and Jesus carried on baptizing ministries. Perhaps out of jealousy, some of John’s disciples complained that more people were going to Jesus than coming to John. Again, John made it clear that he knew their different roles when he compared himself to the best man and Jesus to the bridegroom. “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” [3:30]

More than a year later, what happened to John’s confidence in Jesus’ identity? The man who once had been so sure about Jesus sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” [Mt 11:3] Languishing in Herod’s dungeon, John probably wondered why the conquering king from David’s line hadn’t released him. Why hadn’t Jesus taken the throne from Herod and Rome? Where was the end-time outpouring of the Spirit, the winnowing fork that would separate the chaff from the wheat, and the one who would burn the chaff with “never-ending fire”?

In truth, Jesus wasn’t the Messiah that John and his disciples were expecting; nevertheless, He was the Messiah! John, however, didn’t understand that Jesus had to teach, heal, suffer, die, resurrect, and ascend before returning a second time and executing final judgment. At first, it seems that Jesus ducks John’s question with a summary of his miracles but John understood. The miracles Jesus listed fulfilled the messianic promises in Isaiah; they were proof that He was the Messiah. Jesus’ final message for John is a beatitude that encouraged the Baptizer (and the rest of us) not to stumble in our faith just because Jesus doesn’t fit our expectations.

While we may not be languishing in a dungeon as was John, we may be in languishing in grief, infertility, depression, illness, addiction, chronic pain, money issues, infidelity, or family problems. Just as Jesus didn’t meet John’s expectations, He doesn’t always meet ours. He didn’t free John from Herod’s prison and He may not free us from ours and, like John, we may have doubts. Faith and doubt, however, are not antonyms and doubt and unbelief are not synonyms! We can be people of faith and still have questions; like John, we never should be afraid to ask those questions. John went to Jesus for the answers and, like him, we should look to the words and works of Jesus Christ for our ours. We’ll discover, as did John, that the Lord’s credentials will hold up to the toughest of questions!

Jesus gave them this reply, “Go and tell John what you see and hear—that blind men are recovering their sight, cripples are walking, lepers being healed, the deaf hearing, the dead being brought to life and the good news is being given to those in need. And happy is the man who never loses faith in me.” [Matthew 11:4-6 (PHILLIPS)]

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