FELIX

Sending for Paul, they listened as he told them about faith in Christ Jesus. As he reasoned with them about righteousness and self-control and the coming day of judgment, Felix became frightened. “Go away for now,” he replied. “When it is more convenient, I’ll call for you again.” [Acts 24:24b-25 (NLT)]

flame vineFelix was the governor of Judea from 52 to 58/59 AD. A Greek who became a freedman under the reign of Emperor Claudius, he’s described as a cruel, immoral, and corrupt governor by ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus. Tacitus called him “a master of cruelty and lust who exercised the powers of a king in the spirit of a slave.” As Judea’s governor (or Procurator), his job included procuring funds for Rome which Felix accomplished mercilessly while lining his pockets as well. That it took 470 soldiers to safely escort the Apostle Paul from Jerusalem to Caesarea indicates the lawlessness of his time.

In Acts 24, we meet Felix as he conducts an inquiry into the Jews’ charges against Paul. After hearing the accusations of the Roman advocate Tertullus, Paul launched a strong defense against the false allegations. Perhaps uncomfortable with Paul’s reference to the righteous and unrighteous, Felix adjourned the case until the arrival of Lysias, the garrison commander who saved Paul’s life in Jerusalem.

A few days later, Paul again appeared before Felix. Joining the governor was Drusilla, his third wife and the granddaughter of Herod the Great. She’d left her husband, King Aziz of Emesa, for Felix and, like her uncle Herod Antipas (the one who beheaded John the Baptist), her marriage was illegal since she was neither divorced nor widowed. I imagine the shameless couple didn’t take kindly to the Apostle’s words as he spoke of righteousness, self-control, and the coming day of judgment. Frightened by Paul’s message, Felix sent him away, saying he’d call for him again when it was more convenient.

Although the governor frequently called for Paul to talk with him over the next two years, Felix never decided Paul’s guilt or innocence. Scripture tells us the corrupt man was looking for a bribe, but surely it didn’t take Felix two years to realize a payoff was not forthcoming. I suspect the governor was drawn to Paul’s message but, unwilling to repent, he couldn’t commit to the Way. The corrupt and powerful man was caught between two incompatible worlds—if he chose Christ, he would end up relinquishing his position, influence, ill-gotten wealth, and even his wife. Unwilling to do so, Felix thought himself a freedman, when, in fact, he was in bondage to his sinful way of life. Eventually recalled to Rome, Felix never decided about Paul or Jesus simply because it was inconvenient. Let us not make the same mistake!

The two sworn enemies of the soul are “Yesterday” and “Tomorrow.” Yesterday slays its thousands. Past sins plunge many into darkness and despair. … Tomorrow slays its tens of thousands. Vows, promises, resolutions are never fulfilled. “Some other time,” many say, when urged to repent and believe. They fail to realize that now is the acceptable time. [Herbert Lockyer]

Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living. [Romans 6:16-18 (NLT)]

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LOVE CASTS OUT FEAR

dragonflyWhen all the people in the synagogue heard these things, they became very angry. They got up, forced Jesus out of town, and took him to the edge of the cliff on which the town was built. They planned to throw him off the edge, but Jesus walked through the crowd and went on his way. [Luke 4:28-30 (NCV)]

For love to be real, for it to grow deep inside, it must not give in to fear. It is not afraid to give, to risk, to chance, even if it hurts. Love believes. It is faith moving forward. Fear holds us back. It makes us stop or turn and run. [Chris Fabry]

While writing yesterday’s devotion about selfishness being the opposite of love, I found several authors who suggested that fear is the opposite of love. This gave me pause; can something be the opposite of more than one thing?

From day one, when Mary and Joseph fled with Him to Egypt, Jesus had plenty of reasons to be fearful and yet fear never prevented Him from speaking, healing, pointing out hypocrisy and evil, or going to the cross. He didn’t give in to fear when, after speaking of God’s grace to Gentiles, the people of His own hometown tried to force him off a cliff. Angry mobs, religious leaders, and Rome never intimidated Jesus or kept Him from challenging the corrupt political and religious system of His day. He knew a warrant was issued for His arrest and that the cross awaited Him in Jerusalem but fear didn’t stop Jesus from boldly riding into the city while being hailed as a king. He knew Judas would betray Him and yet the Lord shared His last meal with him. Jesus didn’t plead for mercy or justice at his trial and His last words weren’t ones of fear or selfishness; they were words of loving forgiveness. Nothing Jesus said or did speaks of fear but everything He said and did speaks of love.

Afraid of commitment, rejection, manipulation, the opinions of others, insufficiency, injury, ineptitude, failure, or that there won’t be enough left over for us, we don’t love. Afraid of being vulnerable, we protect ourselves by not getting involved, not going all-out, not sharing, and not caring. So, like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan parable, we walk away, keep to ourselves and our interests, pretend we don’t notice, or make excuses.

Fear happens when we look at ourselves rather than trust in God. Perhaps fear and selfishness are two sides of the same coin. When we’re fearful, we become selfish and, when we’re selfish, it’s likely we’re afraid of something or someone. Love, however, is the antidote to both afflictions. God is love and where God’s love is, there is neither selfishness nor fear.

The call of Jesus is a call to take heart, to have courage, to stand tall in the name of love. The daily invitation that the risen Christ extends to us is to be a people who refuse, in love, to step to the tune of fear. [Bishop Robert O’Neill]

Where God’s love is, there is no fear, because God’s perfect love drives out fear. It is punishment that makes a person fear, so love is not made perfect in the person who fears. [1 John 4:18 (NCV)]

God did not give us a spirit that makes us afraid but a spirit of power and love and self-control. [2 Timothy 1:7 (NCV)]

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IN THE FIRE – Polycarp (Part 1)

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. [Isaiah 43:1-2 (ESV)]

athabasca falls - canadaHaving refused to bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego bravely stood before the king. Even when offered a second opportunity to save themselves from incineration in the blazing furnace, the young men were confident the Lord they loved more than life itself would save them. “But, even if he doesn’t,” they added in what are some of the most heroic words in Scripture, “We will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” Furious at their refusal, the king had them tied up and tossed like logs into the fiery furnace—a fire so hot that the soldiers who threw the men into the furnace were killed. The men’s faith was well-founded; in spite of their bindings, they could be seen walking about freely in the flames (with an angel of the Lord) and the three emerged unscathed from the inferno.

Because they wouldn’t worship the emperor, Christians were considered disloyal to Rome. Moreover, Romans feared that the Christians’ refusal to make sacrifices to their various gods would cause disaster to fall upon the nation. Hated by the Romans, Christianity was considered an “illegal superstition” until 313 AD. Polycarp (ca. 69-155 AD), who was said to have been taught by the Apostle John, was appointed by some of the original apostles as bishop of Smyrna. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the bishop was arrested and faced a choice between God and incineration.

Like Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman Proconsul offered his prisoner a second chance and promised to set Polycarp free if he would curse Christ, declare Caesar as Lord, and offer a bit of incense to Caesar’s statue. Even though Polycarp knew his refusal to deny Jesus meant he’d be burned at the stake, he said, “86 years have I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” When the soldiers prepared to nail him to the stake, the old man stopped them by saying, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” Did the bishop think he might escape death as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? If so, he was seriously mistaken. Unlike them, he died a martyr’s death.

In the first story, three men walked out of a furnace untouched by fire and, in the second, an equally righteous man, died at the stake. Nevertheless, both stories illustrate faith—people’s faith in God and God’s faithfulness to His people and both stories are a call for all of God’s people to be faithful witnesses to Him. All four men clearly exhibited their faith in God by refusing to bow down to anything or anyone but God and all four men are examples of being faithful witnesses to God. Obviously, in the case of the fiery furnace, God showed his faith in His people with the men’s supernatural escape from death; even Nebuchadnezzar recognized that God’s angel had rescued the men. But, since no angel saved Polycarp from the flames, how can his story demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his people?

God showed his faith in His people more than a century earlier when He offered His one and only son so that all who believed in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life. Polycarp knew God already had demonstrated His love and faith through Jesus; whether he lived or died, Polycarp knew there was nothing to fear. “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly,” warned the bishop before courageously adding, “Bring on whatever you want.” Could we do the same?

You can kill us, but you cannot harm us. [Justin Martyr]

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

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LOOK FOR IT!

Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked. Hymenaeus and Alexander are two examples. I threw them out and handed them over to Satan so they might learn not to blaspheme God. [1 Timothy 1:19-20 (NLT)]

mimosa1 Timothy doesn’t tell us much about Hymenaeus or Alexander—the men whose faith was shipwrecked. From Paul’s other references to the men, we do know that Hymenaeus denied the doctrine of the resurrection and that Alexander did “much harm” to Paul, but we don’t know the details. Whatever these men said or did, by accusing them of blasphemy and handing them “over to Satan,” Paul seemed to be excommunicating them from the church.

In theological terms, Paul was writing about apostasy, coming from the Greek apostanai meaning “to stand away.” When someone commits apostasy or becomes apostate, they renounce or abandon their faith in Christ. Like Hymenaeus and Alexander, believers can lose their way and even fall. After all, Peter denied Jesus three times and Thomas had his moments of doubt. Every fall, however, doesn’t mean apostasy. Unlike Hymenaeus and Alexander, Peter and Thomas never fell beyond the point of no return. When Peter repented and Thomas’ doubts were assuaged, their relationship with Jesus was fully restored. But, what of those who don’t repent or whose doubt turns to unbelief? Is it possible to lose our faith?

Recently, my husband lost his wedding ring. As soon as he noticed his empty finger, we revisited every place he’d been and searched high and low in every store and parking lot. At home, we sifted through our waste baskets, carefully inspected the car, looked in every nook and cranny in house and garage, and even checked the garbage disposal. There’s not a spot we haven’t examined and more than one prayer was said but, alas, the ring has disappeared. My husband feels awful about the loss but I reminded him that it’s just a piece of metal that can be replaced. Although it symbolized our marriage, he didn’t lose that; we still have what’s important—each other. Be that as it may, I admit searching for it again today!

If we’re willing to turn our house upside down, rifle through the trash can, and drive all over town in search of a ring, I don’t understand the person whose excuse for no longer attending church is that he simply lost his faith. “Go look for it!” is my response. “Where were you when you last had it? Go back there and start looking!” I’d suggest starting in church, the Bible, in prayer with God, and in conversation with mature Christians. Unlike a wedding ring, which is a mere symbol of a relationship (and a replaceable one at that), faith in Jesus is an irreplaceable relationship.

At one time or another, we all will have crises of faith. There will be times we are overwhelmed with troubling questions about things like evil, pain, and suffering; the world of the Old Testament; or the truth of Scripture. There certainly are times we’re disappointed in God and want to know “why?” Like Thomas, it’s only normal to have doubts but doubt is not disbelief. The real issue isn’t doubt, it’s what we do with that doubt. Do we call out to God and seek the answers to our questions or do we simply give up and say we’ve lost our faith?

Scripture seems to make the case that once we’re saved (by God’s grace through our faith), we remain saved—we can’t lose our salvation. When people claim to have lost their faith, I wonder if they ever truly had it—whether they were true believers in the first place. After all, calling oneself a Ford and sitting in the garage doesn’t make you a car any more than calling oneself a Christian and sitting in a pew on Sundays makes you a believer! I can’t know if a person who’s “lost” his faith is an apostate like Hymenaeus and Alexander, is having a crisis of faith, or if he ever truly had faith. I can’t see into a person’s soul and only God truly knows the status of anyone’s salvation. What I do know is that God isn’t playing hide-and-seek; unlike my husband’s ring, He’s right in front of us and waiting to be found! Let us never stop seeking Him!

Faith is not the complete absence of doubts. Faith is trusting even in the presence of doubt – even when I don’t understand. [Chris Goswami]

“If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NLT)]

The Lord says, “I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help. I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me.” [Isaiah 65:1a (NLT)]

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IT’S OKAY

Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. [2 Corinthians 6:10 (NLT)]

lilac breasted rollerToday’s email contained a meme of that lovable loser Charlie Brown with the caption: “The smile on my face doesn’t mean my life is perfect. It means I appreciate what I have and what I have been blessed with. I choose to be happy.” The meme reminded me of words spoken by Jane Marczweski when she appeared on America’s Got Talent last week: “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.” Known as Nightbirde, the 30-year-old vocalist sang an original song called “It’s Okay” and received the “golden buzzer” from judge Simon Cowell. She said she wrote the song as a reminder that, “You can be happy and also be going through something really hard at the same time—you don’t have to pick one or the other.”

The young woman knows what she’s talking about. After being treated for breast cancer in 2017, numerous tumors in her lungs, liver, nymph nodes, ribs, and spine were discovered in December of 2019. The overwhelming diagnosis of terminal cancer came with the prognosis of six months to live and only a 2% chance of survival. But, as she optimistically says, “2% is not zero. 2% is something and I wish people knew how amazing it is.” Although declared “cancer-free” after her second battle with cancer, she recently was diagnosed with this terrible disease a third time. At the time of her audition, she had “some cancer” in her lungs, spine and liver. Although Jane received more treatment after the audition, it is too early to know the results. But, as she so aptly puts it, “2% is not zero!”

As Christians, we shouldn’t need a cartoon character meme or even an amazing young woman’s example to remind us that circumstances need not determine our state of mind. Regardless of what we happen to be going through, as Christians, we know we are blessed every day in every way. Faith is trusting God’s plan, as inexplicable (and unpleasant) it may be. Faith is being able to smile in the midst of pain because we know that, in spite of our anguish, God loves us. Faith is being able to rejoice in the Lord regardless of what He throws at us because we know that we are not alone. As Christians, we know that faith is not about everything turning out okay; faith is about being okay regardless of how things turn out! Faith is being able to echo the words of Job: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.” [1:21]

But here’s one thing I do know: when it comes to pain, God isn’t often in the business of taking it away. Instead, he adds to it. He is more of a giver than a taker. He doesn’t take away my darkness, he adds light. He doesn’t spare me of thirst, he brings water. He doesn’t cure my loneliness, he comes near. … And I guess that means I have all the more reason to say thank you, because God is drawing near to me. [Jane Marczweski (Nightbirde)]

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. … You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. [1 Peter 1:6,8 (NLT)]

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

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HE HAS HIS PURPOSE

“Why doesn’t the Almighty bring the wicked to judgment? Why must the godly wait for him in vain? … Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind: “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? … You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” [Job 24:1,38:1-2,40:2b (NLT)]

Like Job, Richard Wurmbrand suffered unspeakably horrific circumstances and certainly had reason to ponder God’s purpose in his troubles. An evangelical minister in Romania, he endured more than eight years of Communist imprisonment and torture before being released. He immediately returned to his underground church ministry, was re-arrested, and sentenced to another 25 years in prison. After six more years of imprisonment, Wurmbrand was freed under an amnesty program and again returned to his ministry. When the Communist regime accepted a $10,000 ransom for him, Wurmbrand left his homeland and became a voice for persecuted Christians. When testifying before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in 1966, he stripped to the waist to show the 18 deep scars that covered his torso—undeniable evidence of the brutal torture he and others endured at the hands of their Communist captors.

In his 100 Prison Meditations, Wurmbrand, who knew suffering first-hand, tells a story about Moses, who was meditating near a well. When a traveler stopped to drink from the well, the man failed to notice his purse fall onto the ground. After his departure, a second man came along. Spotting the purse, he picked it up, and went on his way. Later, a third wayfarer arrived who, after drinking from the well, took a nap in the shade.

When the first man discovered his purse was missing, he returned to get it at the well. Upon seeing the sleeping man, he woke him and demanded his money. When the third man pled his innocence, the first man became furious and killed him.

Speaking to God, Moses explained that it was times like that, when evil and injustice seemed to reign, that caused men not to believe in the Almighty. “Why,” he asked, “should the first man, who merely lost his purse, become a murderer?  Why should the second man get a purse full of gold without having worked for it? And why should the third completely innocent man be slain?”

God responded that once, and only once, He would give an explanation for all that happened. God explained that the first man was the son of a thief and the purse he lost was filled with gold stolen from the father of the second man. By taking the purse, the second man only took what was rightfully his. The third man, while innocent of stealing the purse, was a murderer who’d gotten away with his crime and had finally received the punishment he deserved. God finished His explanation by saying, “In the future, believe that there is sense and righteousness in what transpires even when you do not understand.”

For those of us who’ve never endured the misfortunes of Job or Wurmbrand, it’s easy to say that all things work for good until, of course, the things that happen are terrible! Nevertheless, Wurmbrand’s story came from a man who suffered in a horrific way because of his faith and knew first-hand how unfair and painful life can be. He also knew that all things are not good—there is nothing good about torture, oppression, slave labor camps or persecution. Nevertheless, Wurmbrand also knew that God, in His own time and own way, can take bad things and mix them together in such a way that they bring about something better—a better that is not dependent upon man’s understanding.

Rather than ask why, as did Job, let us believe in a God who loves us, who is at large and in charge, who has His reasons for all that happens, and who will achieve His purpose. “And what is that purpose?” we ask. Pastor Adrian Rogers answers, “To make us like Jesus. To be conformed to the image of His Son. There is no higher good than to be like the Lord Jesus Christ.”

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)]

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