FROM START TO FINISH

Together they will go to war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will defeat them because he is Lord of all lords and King of all kings. And his called and chosen and faithful ones will be with him. [Revelation 17:14 (NLT)]

Christ the KingSeeing the rise of secularization, communism, fascism, and atheism following World War I, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925. He wanted to remind Christians who their only King was and that it was Christ (and Christ alone) who should reign in our hearts! Originally celebrated the last Sunday in October, the feast day was moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year in 1969. In spite of being created by the Roman Catholic Church, many Protestants including Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians celebrate the day.

This year, Christ the King Sunday was yesterday. Celebrating Christ’s second coming, His messianic kingship, and His sovereign rule over all creation, it marked the end of the church year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, begins the new liturgical year. Advent means “the arrival or coming of something” and, for Christians, Advent is a time of preparing to celebrate Christ’s first arrival (his incarnation) and also a time of anticipating His second coming “when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed.” [Titus 2:13].

While our children or grands might have candy filled Advent calendars to help them count down to Christmas, many adults observe this season of anticipation with a spiritual discipline, such as memorizing Scripture or Bible reading. Although no Christmas Eve service would seem complete without hearing the account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2,  there are twenty-three other chapters in Luke’s gospel! If you started December 1 by reading one chapter in Luke and read another chapter every day until the 24th, you’d wake up Christmas morning having read the entire gospel. As we busy ourselves in preparation for the holidays, reading Christ’s story and words might keep our minds on the reason for Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.

The last week before Christmas, when life gets busier and it’s harder to keep centered on Jesus, Luke’s narration can keep us grounded in Christ as we see God’s plan fulfilled. On the 18th, Jesus will predict His death for the third time. In the next day’s reading, before taking His triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus will tell His followers what is expected of them between His departure and second coming. We’ll read of His conflict with the religious leaders on the 20th. On the 21st, Jesus warns the disciples about the future: the persecution, the tribulation, and second coming. It will be Judas’ betrayal, the last supper, and Peter’s denial on the 22nd and Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, death and burial on the 23rd. Finally, on the 24th, we’ll read of His resurrection and ascension. Hopefully, as Luke’ words take us from annunciation to ascension, Christmas morning will be a more meaningful to us all.

May we always remember that Jesus is the only reason for the season!

The immense step from the Babe at Bethlehem to the living, reigning triumphant Lord Jesus, returning to earth for his own people–that is the glorious truth proclaimed throughout Scripture. As the bells ring out the joys of Christmas, may we also be alert for the final trumpet that will announce his return, when we shall always be with him. [Alan Redpath]

I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! [Luke 2:10b-11 (NLT)]

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REFORMATION

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas. [Hebrews 13:8-9a (NLT)]

Trapp family chapelTwo weeks ago, in recognition of Reformation Day (commemorating Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517), the minister at our liturgical church spoke about needed reforms in today’s church. By definition, reformation is changing or improving something by correcting its faults, removing inconsistencies and abuses, and imposing modern methods and values. While I firmly believe in correcting errors, removing contradictions and misuses, and even using modern methods, I would suggest caution about adopting modern values.

If a pilot is off course by even one degree, he will miss his landing area by 92 feet for every mile flown or one mile for every sixty miles. Just one degree off course when flying from JFK to LAX would land us in the Pacific Ocean rather than on a runway! It’s as important for the church to stay on course as it is for a pilot. If we think of God and His Word as true north, we want to set our spiritual course in His direction. Church reform is necessary whenever we find ourselves veering off course, and reforms in the church are always justified when they bring us back to true north and Christ.

Since few people in Martin Luther’s day had read the Bible, they depended on the church to tell them what it said and meant. Luther, however, believed that Scripture, not papal decree or tradition, had the final word. When using the Bible’s words as the sole reliable source of instruction, he found that many church practices didn’t match Christ’s teachings. He felt the church had gotten off course by selling indulgences to reduce a sinner’s (or his loved one’s) time in Purgatory (a sort of way station before getting to heaven). His reading of Romans led him to understand that salvation was by grace through faith alone (in opposition to the church’s view that good works had a part in salvation). When posting those theses, Martin Luther wasn’t trying to start a new religion; he was trying to reform the old one. Rather than taking a new route, he was trying to get the church back on the correct one. When the church didn’t change direction, Luther did, leading to the Protestant Reformation.

I certainly support modern reforms that make the church more effective such as contemporary music and services, online giving, apps, streaming, e-blasts and newsletters, video studies, and strategic partnerships in giving, service projects, and missions. I’m far more cautious about reforms that modernize the church to bring it into the 21st century’s mindset! While course correction is necessary when the church veers off track, we must be wary of changing course just to head where everyone else is going. We must never dumb down the Gospel, disregard the parts we find troubling, jettison teachings that seem old-fashioned, or preach what people want to hear as opposed to what God wants said!

While researching Jesus’s feeding of the multitude, I came upon a sermon given by a pastor at a mainline Protestant church. Reframing this miracle to make it more believable, he claimed that everyone shared the little food they had that day. While getting 5,000 men and another 10,000 women and children to share their food probably qualifies as a miracle, that’s not what the gospels say happened. All four accounts are specific about the amount of food available: five loaves and two fish! Nevertheless, this pastor made a true but unbelievable story more palatable for those who had difficulty swallowing it. That’s the sort of church reform of which we must be cautious! After all, if we can’t believe Jesus could feed a multitude with a boy’s lunch, how can we believe He brought Lazarus back to life, rose from the dead, or ascended into heaven?

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote that “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church,” and defined it as, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession…. grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” What Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, A.W. Tozer called the difference between “the old cross and the new.” The way of Christ does not parallel the world but intersects it, wrote Tozer. The gospel message does not change with the times; right and wrong, righteousness and sin, are not determined by what society finds acceptable but by God and His Word.

Christians are not supposed to look and act like everyone else; we’re supposed to march to a different drummer: Jesus Christ. While we are called to live at peace with everybody, we are not supposed to behave like them or compromise our beliefs and morals. We have been called to bring Christ into the world as His disciples, not as his press agents. Our job is to make Jesus known rather than make Him more acceptable to the 21st century. We aren’t supposed to reform the church to look like the world; our task is to reform the world to look more like Christ!

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

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CIRCLING THE AIRPORT

airplaneYour word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. … Give discernment to me, your servant; then I will understand your laws. [Psalm 119:105,125 (NLT)]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

I’d been struggling over a devotion for days. The Bible verses were selected, several paragraphs written, and it even had a title. Nevertheless, I just couldn’t finish it. It was like taking off in an airplane, heading toward Chicago, circling O’Hare airport, but never landing. Every few days, I’d return to my partially finished work only to circle some more; I couldn’t tie up the loose ends and come to my conclusion. Eventually, I prayed about it; having felt God’s guidance when I started out, why couldn’t I land the plane? I was doing his work, why wouldn’t he help me finish the job?

I remembered the Apostle Paul. He was doing God’s work and yet his plans didn’t always work out. In spite of his desire to visit Rome, God prevented him from doing that for several years because He wanted Paul to preach elsewhere. That wasn’t the first time God had thwarted Paul’s plans. In Acts 16, we learn that the Holy Spirit prevented Paul and Silas from going to Asia (probably to Ephesus) so they went to Phrygia and Galatia. Then, when they headed north to Bithynia, the Spirit intervened again and sent them through Mysia to Troas. While in Troas, Paul had a clear vision of a man calling him to Macedonia and so Paul went. Although Paul’s destination had been Asia, his plan hadn’t been God’s; Europe before Asia was God’s itinerary. In God’s time, Paul eventually visited Ephesus, Bithynia, and Rome but he only got there because that was God’s destination.

Like Paul, sometimes we decide our destination and, unless it also is God’s destination, we won’t get there. I thought back to that unfinished devotion. Since I’d drawn my conclusion before completing the work, I was trying to make the Scripture fit the conclusion rather than drawing a conclusion from the Scripture. Having taken off without looking at the flight plan, I was circling O’Hare when I belonged at Newark! Once I revisited the Bible story about which I’d been writing, I asked God what He was saying in it and finished my work quickly.

Sometimes, instead of drawing conclusions, we jump to them. Instead of looking at all of the evidence, we cherry pick to reach the conclusion we want. When we do that in Bible study, we are guilty of what is called eisegesis (which is reading meaning into the text) as opposed to exegesis  (which is reading the meaning out of the text). In eisegesis, we inject our own ideas into the verses, allowing us to make them mean whatever we want them to mean. In exegesis, careful objective analysis leads to the explanation of the text. One (exegesis) does justice to the text while the other (eisegesis) mishandles it.

I’d had an idea and wanted Scripture to support it instead of looking at the Scripture and discovering what it said, meant, how it related to the rest of the Bible, and how it applied to our lives. Whether it’s drawing conclusions or planning a trip, where we want to go often is not where God wants us to be. When that happens, we’ll probably encounter difficulty getting there.  Before taking off, it’s wise to consult Him about the flight plan!

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness Is like a villain with a smiling cheek, A goodly apple rotten at the heart. [Williams Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice”]

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15  (NLT)]

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DID THEY KNOW?

Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:5 (NLT)]

Twenty-one of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are letters (epistles) written by Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude. While the gospels tell us about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the epistles are letters of instruction, clarification, encouragement and, sometimes, caution to the new Christian community. I can’t help but wonder if those early letter writers realized the scope of their writing. Did they have any idea how fast and wide Christianity would spread? Did they envision how many people would come to know both their names and words? While they expected their messages to be read aloud to the members of the 1st century church, did they even dare hope that 2,000 years later their letters still would be read aloud regularly in many churches, that some of their words would even be used in Christian liturgy, or that people around the world would gather together to study their messages?

The God-inspired words of those men live today and still apply to us. While the issues we face are different than those in the 1st century, the underlying problems and concerns remain the same: false doctrine, dissension, immorality, and even persecution. We are still called to be godly, avoid foolish disputes, love one another, preach Christ to the world, and walk in a manner worthy of Jesus. We never will outgrow the need to understand doctrine and its application to our lives.

The story is told of a frail old man planting seeds in a garden. A passerby stopped to chat and the old gardener offered him a mango from one of his trees. When asked what he was planting, the aged man replied more mango trees. “But why bother?” asked the man. “It will be fifteen years before they produce a full crop and you’ll not live to see that day.” Pausing from his work, the gardener replied that the mango he gave the stranger was from a tree his grandfather had planted more than fifty years earlier. He was now planting trees for his grandchildren to enjoy long after his death.

Although they saw the church expand, the epistles’ writers never lived long enough to see the magnitude of their work. They did, however, know the promises of God: if they abided in Him, their work would bear fruit and His church would be built. The seeds they planted with their letters continue to bear fruit today.

Let us remember that, like the writers of the epistles (and the old man in the story), we should be committed to planting the seeds of faith, even though we may not see them bear fruit. It’s been said that, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Indeed, it is.

This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God’s wonderful grace. [Colossians 1:6 (NLT)]

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NAMES 

Saul, also known as Paul, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he looked the sorcerer in the eye. … Paul and his companions then left Paphos by ship for Pamphylia, landing at the port town of Perga. [Acts 13:9,13 (NLT)]

great blue heronIt’s a common misconception that Saul became known as Paul when Jesus transformed the Christian hater into a Christ follower on the road to Damascus. Saul, however, was always named Paul. As a Roman citizen, he would have had a three part Roman name. While we don’t know the first two parts, the third (the cognomen) and commonly used name was Paullus (which becomes Paul in English). As devout Jews, however, his parents also would have given him a Hebrew name. They named him Saul, a good name for a boy from the tribe of Benjamin (King Saul’s tribe). Understandably, when among Jews, Saul would have used his Hebrew name and Luke, the writer of Acts, refers to him as Saul until Acts 13, about fifteen years after his conversion. Saul (and Luke) started using his Roman/Gentile name of Paul around the time he moved further into the Roman Empire on his first missionary journey. As he moved into Gentile territory, Paul’s Roman name was more appropriate. The Apostle was not alone in having both a Roman and Hebrew name. One of the candidates to replace Judas had two Jewish names, Joseph and Barsabbas, along with the Roman one of Justus.

Although Paul’s name was given to him by his parents, sometimes a new name was forced upon someone. When Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of the land, he gave his new second-in-command an Egyptian wife and the Egyptian name of Zaphenath-paneah. In honor of Babylonian gods, King Nebuchadnezzar gave Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah the names of Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Sometimes, it was circumstances that changed a person’s name. When the widowed Naomi returned to Bethlehem, the grief-stricken woman called herself called Mara, meaning “bitter.” After destroying the altar of Baal and cutting down the Asherah pole next to it, Gideon became known as Jerub-baal, which meant “Let Baal defend himself.”

In some cases, it was God who did the name changing. These name changes often described someone’s character or calling. In Genesis, Abram (“exalted father”) became Abraham (“father of a multitude”) and Jacob, the “heel-catcher” or “deceiver,” became Israel, “God’s fighter.”  Jesus changed Simon’s name (meaning “he has heard”) to Cephas, the Aramaic word for “rock.” Since the New Testament was written in Greek, we know Cephas by the name of Peter, also meaning “rock.” Although Peter wasn’t rock solid during Jesus’s life, following the resurrection, he fulfilled the promise of his name by becoming the rock upon which the new church was built.

In actuality, most of us go by more than one name. My personal favorite is the one my grands use for me: “Nonnie.” Some people say they don’t care what they’re called, as long as they’re called for dinner. As for me, I don’t care what you call me as long as God has my name written in His Book of Life!

All who are victorious will be clothed in white. I will never erase their names from the Book of Life, but I will announce before my Father and his angels that they are mine. … And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire. [Revelation 3:5,20:15 (NLT)]

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TWO IN ONE

For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. [Colossians 2:9 (NLT)]

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

white ibisThe early church encountered difficulty in trying to reconcile the humanity and divinity of Jesus. In the 5th century, one group, from Alexandria, referred to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God, while the group from Antioch insisted that she was merely Anthropotokos, the one who gave birth to the human nature. Trying to bring about a compromise but pleasing no one, the bishop Nestorius suggested that the term Christotokos, the one who gave birth to Christ. The controversy, however, wasn’t about Mary; it was about the nature of Jesus. Did Mary give birth to a man who also was God or did Mary give birth to a man who later became God? The debate continued until 451 when the Chalcedonian Creed was adopted which confirmed the two natures of Christ (human and divine) in one person.

Creed or not, two natures in one being is a difficult concept to grasp. Infinite, God always has been and always will be, but the man Jesus had a beginning in Bethlehem and an end in Jerusalem. God is omnipresent but, when the boy Jesus was at the Temple, He couldn’t also be with his family on the way back to Nazareth, let alone everywhere at once. God is omnipotent but Jesus wasn’t all-powerful. He grew tired, thirsty and hungry, had to walk from village to village, and was cruelly crucified. God is immutable, meaning He never changes, but Jesus started as an embryo and matured into a grown man. He went from babbling to talking and from crawling to walking. His features changed as He lost his baby teeth and got molars and His voice deepened during adolescence. Self-sufficient, God has no needs but we know that baby Jesus needed to be fed, bathed, rocked and dressed. God never sleeps but we know Jesus did. God is omniscient; He sees and knows all but Jesus didn’t know the date of the End Times and, when the woman with the blood disorder touched his robe, He had to ask who touched him. Surely, as a little boy He asked Mary, “Why?”

Nevertheless, Jesus wasn’t two people; from the moment of His conception, He had two distinct natures perfectly united into one being. Inseparable, neither nature was diluted by the other. Jesus was fully man and, at the same time, fully God. Because our thinking is limited by the rules of this world as we know them, we can’t truly comprehend how He could be neither one nor the other but fully both in one body. How can finite man ever understand an infinite God? Nevertheless, we’re called to believe what we can neither imagine nor comprehend.

Can you conceive of anything more awesome than a God who chose to become man, who combined His divinity with our humanity, who connected with man by becoming one of us and yet remained God, who loved us so much that He took on our nature and died for our salvation? Thank you, Jesus!

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. [Philippians 2:6-8 (NLT)]

We all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood;… [Chalcedonian Creed]

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