CHECK YOUR SOURCE

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)]

columbineBroken people were drawn to Jesus but Mary Magdalene was not as broken as many people think. Magdalene was not her last name; it simply means “from Magdala” and the Gospels’ writers added it to distinguish her from the many others Marys: Jesus’ mother, Martha’s sister, the wife of Clopas, and the mother of James and Joseph.

When we first meet Mary Magdalene in Luke 8, her name is linked both with women “who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases” and those who “were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and the disciples.” Luke then elaborates that Jesus cast seven demons from her. Nowhere does he (or any other gospel writer) say anything about Mary’s immorality. In fact, since she was one of the women helping to financially support Jesus’s ministry, it appears that she was an upstanding, respectable and wealthy woman.

Whether it was because Luke’s first reference to Mary Magdalene follows the story of the nameless sinful woman who anointed Jesus’s feet or that Mary had been cured of seven demons but the idea developed through the centuries that she was immoral and probably a prostitute. Mental illness in 1st century Palestine was attributed to evil spirits and those demons probably were a mental illness of some kind. While we don’t know if her disorder was epilepsy, depression, paranoia, psychosis, or something else, Scripture gives us no reason to question her morals. We must never make the error of confusing mental illness with immorality.

It didn’t help Mary’s reputation when, in 1324, the Roman Catholic Church established a home for “the rescue and maintenance of fallen women” and called it the “Magdalen House.” Her reputation suffered further harm when, in 1591, Pope Gregory I gave a sermon associating her seven demons with the seven vices and then fused her with both the sinful woman and Mary of Bethany (both of whom washed Jesus’s feet). When monks and priests read Gregory’s sermons rather than Scripture, the erroneous story of Mary continued to be told.

It was not until 1969 that the Roman Catholic Church declared that Mary Magdalene was not the fallen woman who washed Jesus’ feet. Unfortunately, people seem to love a juicy story and Mary’s undeserved reputation still lingers. She continues to be portrayed as a repentant prostitute, the nameless woman caught in adultery, or even as Jesus’ lover or wife. There is absolutely no Scriptural basis for any of those assumptions.

Mary Magdalene appears in all four Gospels and is mentioned thirteen times. We are given no reason to think that she was anything other than a once ill woman who helped financially support Jesus and the disciples. In fact, when she’s mentioned with other women, her name usually comes first, implying that she was their respected leader. It is only when she is standing at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ family (His mother and aunt) that her name follows those of others. What we do know from Scripture is that, when others fled, Mary Magdalene was there. She was present at the Crucifixion, sat across from the tomb with the mother of James and Joseph as Christ’s body was laid in the sepulcher, was the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection, and was the first to preach the news of His resurrection.

While I wanted to restore a good woman’s reputation with this devotion, its main purpose is to caution us as to where we get our Biblical knowledge. While it’s tempting (and often easier) to get it second-hand—from sermons, devotions, commentaries, conversations, books, websites, movies and other media—those never should be our sole source of information. God’s word is our spiritual nourishment and, just as a vitamin pill is no substitute for eating real food, there is no substitute for reading Scripture first-hand. After all, to discern between opinion, fact, and fiction, we must know the truth and the gospel truth is found only in the Gospel!

Just because it’s in print doesn’t mean it’s the Gospel. [Michael Jackson]

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. Avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior. [2 Timothy 2:15-16 (NLT)]

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THE RICH YOUNG MAN

The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked. Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:26-27 (NLT)]

great blue heronThe book of Daniel makes reference to the resurrection of both the wicked and righteous, with the destiny of the one being shame and disgrace and the other being everlasting life. By the time of Jesus, many Jews believed in some sort of eternal life and that it would come by obedience to the Law. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell of the rich young man who asked Jesus what good deed he must do to have eternal life. He wanted Jesus to check his resume of good works and, if found lacking, to give him a task that would assure his immortality.

Before answering, Jesus clarified that goodness only comes from God rather than things or actions and then told the man to keep the commandments. As if some were more important than others, the man asked which ones. After listing several commandments dealing with man’s relationship with man, Jesus summarized with the command to love your neighbor as yourself. The man proudly responded that he obeyed them all. Had he been truly honest about himself, he would have admitted his inability to keep the law perfectly and acknowledged that he couldn’t attain eternal life on his own merit. But, sure his ticket to eternity was safe in hand, the man asked what else he should do. When Jesus told him what needed to be done to be “perfect,” He didn’t mean faultless; the Greek word translated as “perfect” means goal or end. So, to achieve or perfect his goal of eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Him. Hearing this, the rich young man departed. In spite of his claims, he clearly didn’t love his neighbor as himself.

At first, it seems odd that Jesus didn’t mention the first four commandments—the ones having to do with man’s relationship to God. But Jesus could see into the man’s heart and knew the man loved his wealth far more than God or his neighbor. So, after he claimed to love his neighbor, Jesus asked him to put his money where his mouth was by giving his wealth to his neighbor!

That Jesus gave the rich man a requirement wasn’t unusual for a rabbi. When prospective students came to study with rabbis, the teachers often gave them a condition as a way of weeding out those students who really weren’t serious. The young man, however, hadn’t come to our Lord to learn; he’d come to be commended for his righteousness!

When people read this story, they often fear that it means Christians must live a life of poverty, but Jesus wasn’t setting financial requirements for salvation. His demand merely revealed what was in that rich man’s heart. He loved himself and his possessions far more than God or his neighbor. Although this encounter demonstrates the implications of discipleship, it never demands that we sell our possessions or live a life of asceticism. Jesus wasn’t teaching salvation through philanthropy; He was demanding that God be first place in our hearts.

Obedience to the commandments does not qualify any of us for eternal life; there is nothing we can do to merit the gift of salvation and eternal life. That only comes by grace through faith. Nevertheless, obedience to the commandments—loving God and loving our neighbor—is evidence of our faith. Is there something more important to you than loving God? What would Jesus ask you to relinquish? Do you love Him enough to do it?

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-39 (NLT)]

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WITH A SMALL “C”

For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all. [Ephesians 4:4-6 (NLT)]

old world wisconsinIt is said that John Wesley (the founder of the Methodist movement) once dreamt of visiting the gates of Hell. Curious, he asked the gatekeeper how many in Hell were Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists. “We have many,” was the gatekeeper’s answer regarding each denomination. Nervously, Wesley then asked if there were any Methodists and was disheartened to learn there were plenty of them there, as well.

Dismayed, Wesley proceeded to the gates of Heaven. The preacher asked how many in Heaven were Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists. To each question, the gatekeeper replied, “Not a one.” After Wesley asked how many Methodists were there, his heart dropped at the gatekeeper’s reply of, “None!” Perplexed, the concerned preacher asked who was in Heaven. The angel at the gate replied, “The only ones here are those who love the Lord and the only name by which they are known is that of Christian!”

From that strange dream, John Wesley is said to have concluded that unity within the Christian church was essential for its mission. Nevertheless, acknowledging that there will be different points of view, he said, “Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may.”

I thought of John Wesley’s dream when my husband told me how, as a boy, he refused to say the word “catholic” when reciting the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds. Not attending a Roman Catholic church, he didn’t know how he could say he believed in it! Of course, he didn’t understand that catholic (with a small c) has never meant a specific denomination.

Etymologically, “catholic” comes from two Greek words, kata or kath (meaning “throughout”) and holos (meaning “whole”). When joined as katholikos, it means, “throughout the whole.” Meaning more than universal, “catholic” captures the dual sense of “throughout all time and in all places” while pointing to the essential unity or wholeness of Christ’s Church. When the creeds state, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” they aren’t referring to any branch of Christianity; they refer to the entirety of the whole Church, not just here and now, but everywhere in the past and future as well. First used in the early 2nd century, the adjective “catholic” didn’t mean a particular denomination; it simply described the universal scope of the Christian Church. It was not until the Reformation that the Roman church used “Catholic” (with a capital C) as a denominational title to distinguish itself from the Protestants.

To avoid confusion, many Protestant churches have replaced “catholic” with “Christian” when saying the creed. Nevertheless, the original word has a beautiful subtext because it refers to the wholeness of the entire church and the unity of all believers in the body of Christ, throughout all time and in all places. The “holy catholic church” simply refers to all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ—people like the ones John Wesley found in heaven! Indeed, we won’t all think alike nor will we worship alike but we all can love alike!

Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. [Ignatius of Antioch]

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. [John 17:20-23 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE FEAST OF EPIPHANY – JANUARY 6

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

magi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RENEW – NEW YEAR’S DAY

But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. … And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins. [Jeremiah 31:33,34b (NLT)]

Come, let us use the grace divine, and all with one accord,
in a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord;
Give up ourselves, thru Jesus’ power, his name to glorify;
and promise, in this sacred hour, for God to live and die. [Charles Wesley]

queen butterflyJohn Wesley had an excellent alternative to making a New Year’s resolution that’s unlikely to be kept. Believing that Christians should reaffirm their covenant with God, in 1755, he introduced a covenant service to the Methodist Societies. By 1775, this service was usually held on New Year’s Eve (and called a Watch Night Service) or New Year’s Day. This was a service of renewal in which believers would gather for self-examination and reflection and then renew their covenant with God by dedicating themselves wholly to Him. The practice of a covenant renewal service held on the Sunday nearest January 1st continues in some Methodist churches today and is a practice that has crossed denominational lines.

A covenant is a promise between two (or more) parties to perform certain actions. The covenant of the New Testament between God and man is that He will restore fellowship with and forgive the sins of those whose hearts are turned to Him; it is a covenant of salvation by grace through faith. Our part of this promise is our faith in Jesus and a giving up of self so that He can fill us with His Spirit; it is the taking of His yoke and a commitment to follow Him. Unlike a resolution to eat healthier or exercise more, it is God’s power, not our good intentions, that keeps this covenant in place.

I don’t know if you’re making any resolutions today, but let us all join together in renewing the covenant of grace—to be God’s people, trusting in His word, empowered by Him to be His hands and feet, seeking to bring His light into this dark world. Our prayer can be as simple as, “O Lord, I dedicate my life to you and will serve you in every way I can!”

Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will. Rank me with whom You will. Let me be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things. Let me have nothing. I freely & heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. Amen. [John Wesley]

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

DEFYING NATURE

ngorongoro crater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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