RELIGIOUS PRIVILEGES

But it is no shame to suffer for being a Christian. Praise God for the privilege of being called by his name! [1 Peter 4:16 (NLT)]


Before my evening prayers, I often reflect on a prayer from The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers edited by Arthur Bennett. In a recent selection, the prayer’s author asked the Lord to let him know his “need of renovation as well as of forgiveness,” and confessed, “I am often straying, often knowingly opposing thy authority, often abusing thy goodness….” He went on to admit, “Much of my guilt arises from my religious privileges, my low estimation of them, and my failure to use them to my advantage.” His words gave me pause.

Since a privilege is a special right, advantage, benefit, exemption, or legal immunity granted only to a particular person or group, I pondered the “religious privileges” we enjoy as Christians. The obvious is that even though we remain sinners, our belief in Jesus gives us God’s forgiveness; because Jesus paid the price for our sins, we are exempt from an eternity in Hell. That, however, was God who willingly gave up His absolute power and privilege to take on mankind’s limitations and die a criminal’s torturous death for us! Do we truly appreciate what He did or do we take that privilege for granted and fail to do the spiritual renovation necessary to show our appreciation for His sacrifice and blood? Do we thank the Lord each and every day for what He did on the cross?

Aside from a Christian’s destiny of having a home in heaven and sharing in the glory of God, what other religious benefits do we have? As Christ’s followers, we have the advantages of the peace that surpasses all understanding and the ability to find joy in all circumstances. We have the blessings of His continual presence, guidance, and protection from the enemy. We have the privilege of sharing the Gospel message and even that of suffering in His name!

Do we value the privilege of direct access to God and the advantage of two intercessors: the Holy Spirit who intercedes within us and puts our concerns into words along with Jesus Christ who intercedes for us in heaven? The Holy Spirit, however, is more than an intercessor. He corrects, teaches, sanctifies, strengthens, comforts, protects, and enables us to recognize the truth and obey God. He gives us one or more spiritual gifts and produces His fruit in us. Do we fully appreciate and use the many privileges and benefits that only Christ followers can enjoy or do we ignore and possibly abuse them?

A Christian’s “religious privileges” are offered to all but accepted by few. May we never be unappreciative, neglectful, or careless with God’s gifts or favor by disregarding the privilege of being one of His adopted children.

It is our privilege to know that we are saved. [ D.L. Moody]

Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.[Romans 5:2 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

JUDGING THE PUDDING 

sheep goatsAnd the King will say, “I tell you [the sheep] the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” … Then he will answer them [the goats] saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” [Matthew 25:40,45-46 (ESV)]

“The proof is in the pudding” is the shortened version of the original proverb: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In other words, rather than what something claims to be, it must be judged by trying it yourself or seeing it in action. Regardless of its outward appearance or what the label states, the value, authenticity, and quality of something can only be determined by experiencing it or seeing the results!

Jesus probably never tasted the pudding to which the original proverb refers but we know that He frequently told parables illustrating its point. Rather than talking about a seasoned minced meat and grain dish boiled in a bag, He was telling us that the true evidence of our declaration of faith is not found in our words; it is seen in our actions. In His parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, the King separated the sheep from the goats. After doing so, he said to the sheep, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” [25:35] The goats, however, got a vastly different message: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” [25:41]

Since both species are Bovines in the subfamily Caprinae, roughly the same size, have cloven hooves, and chew the cud, the King couldn’t determine their identity with a quick look. Their difference, however, had nothing to do with their appearance: whether they had a groove in their upper lip or wool instead of hair. He wasn’t concerned with the shape of their horns or whether their tails hung down or pointed up.

The King judged the animals’ breed by their actions. While sheep graze and goats browse, their eating habits weren’t what determined their destination because Jesus really wasn’t talking about sheep or goats. He was speaking of the final judgment, specifically of those who claimed to be one of His flock. The parable’s sheep (like true followers of Jesus) fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner—the very people Jesus called “the least of these.” The goats, however, hadn’t. With His parable, the Lord made it abundantly clear that the way we love one another shows the way we love Him and that our actions have eternal significance.

Jesus wasn’t preaching salvation through works; He was telling us that our actions are evidence of the faith we proclaim! It’s not enough to hear or even to profess; we must obey! We can dress up as sheep and claim to be Christians, but, as the old proverb goes: the proof is in the pudding!

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds. You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? [James 2:14-20 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HEARING

For twenty-three years…the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened. You have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear. [Jeremiah 25:3a,4a (ESV)]

green heron

As the language of the Scriptures, Jesus spoke and read Hebrew and, as the language of the Roman Empire, He probably spoke some Greek, as well. His everyday spoken language, however, would have been Aramaic. A Semitic language widespread throughout the Middle East by the 7th century BC, Aramaic was adopted by the Jews during their Babylonian exile. By Jesus’ time, Hebrew (considered the “holy tongue”) was reserved for holy matters such as prayer but Aramaic was used for everyday speech. Jesus may have spoken Hebrew in the Temple but, as the common language of people throughout the Middle East, He spoke Aramaic, the rest of the time.

Even though Jesus spoke Aramaic, the words of the New Testament (probably composed between 50 and 100 AD) were written in Greek, the language of scholarship at the time. Since Jewish scholars had already translated much of what we call the Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek, it made perfect sense for the New Testament’s authors to write in Greek, as well. As a result, when we read the Bible, we are reading English words translated from Greek but originally written or spoken in Hebrew and Aramaic. As happens with even the best translation, sometimes the nuance of a word is lost in translation.

For example, consider the Greek word akouwhich simply means “to hear, to be endowed with the ability to hear, or to hear something” and usually is translated into English as “hear” or “listen.” This meaning is sufficient when Jesus heard the Centurion express his faith, Herod heard the Magi say the Messiah had come, Jesus heard that John was imprisoned, John heard about the deeds of Jesus, and Peter heard the rooster crow. Akouό, however, is not sufficient when both the prophets and Jesus spoke of having ears that hear. The words they used had the root word shema/shama and the words “hear” or “listen” don’t catch its full meaning.

In Greek and English, hearing or listening are mental activities but the Hebrew/Aramaic word shema/shama meant more than that. It was as much a physical activity as an intellectual one. Along with hearing, it meant to take heed, submit, obey, and do what is asked. We may hear the television but we expect our children to shema/shama us when we tell them to do their homework!

As an observant Jew, Jesus would have said what is known as the Shema every morning and evening. It begins with the word shema: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…”  The Shema continues on to tell the Israelites the rewards of obedience and the consequences of disobedience. Shema/shama is the word prophets used when warning Israel and Jesus used when explaining His parables and the consequences of not “hearing” His words. While hearing is passive, shema/shama most definitely is not. The people of Israel failed to shema God’s words and warnings. Will we make the same mistake?

Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. [Matthew 13:40-43 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HAVING FAITH

It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.” Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead. [Hebrews 11:17-19 (NLT)]
lanceleaf arrowhead - duck potato

Since Sunday school days, we’ve read the story of Isaac and Abraham and we know it has a happy ending. Abraham, however, hadn’t read the end of the chapter when he set out for Mt. Moriah. During the fifty-mile journey, the father had three days during which he must have agonized over God’s command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Did Abraham ask God, “Why?” Why would God finally provide the promised child and then take the blessing away? Did he ask God, “How?” How, with his son dead, was he going to have those countless descendants God promised? Did he ask God, “What next?” What would he tell Sarah if he returned home without their dear boy? True faith isn’t blind—it knows exactly what can happen but steps forward anyway and Abraham had seventy-two hours to agonize over the possible consequences of his actions. In his distress, he may even have been tempted to turn back home again.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew what happens to flesh in a fiery furnace, Daniel knew what hungry lions do to fresh meat, and, after the deaths of Stephen and James, the rest of the apostles knew what happened to Christians when they dared to share the gospel message. None knew whether they’d die or miraculously escape their fates and yet all boldly acted in faith. If we’ve peeked ahead and know the story ends well, we’re simply being obedient and cooperative. It’s faith when we know full well what could happen but not what actually will. Faith trusts God’s promises. It knows that stepping out in obedience to Him means the story will end, not as we would write it, but as God wants it written.

Scripture tells us Abraham thought God might bring Isaac back to life again but God made no such promise and this was centuries before another resurrection would occur. Abraham may not have known the outcome but the father knew his God so he faithfully obeyed. Him. With confidence, he told his servants that both father and son would return after worshipping on the hill and, when Isaac asked why they had no lamb for their offering, Abraham assured him that God would provide. Still, Abraham had no way of knowing if his words would prove true. As Abraham and Isaac built an altar and piled wood on it, there must have been tears in the father’s eyes. How anxious he must have been as he tied up his son and laid him on the altar and what anguish he must have felt as he picked up his knife and brought it to Isaac’s neck. Nevertheless, Abraham continued in faith and demonstrated that he loved God more than his own flesh and blood.

Faith takes steps knowing that a loving God has given the command and trusting that whatever the result, it is God’s plan. I’ve never been asked to exercise the kind of faith shown by Abraham and the rest of the Bible’s heroes and I pray I never have to do so. I wonder how my faith would stand up at the door of a fiery furnace, the mouth of a lion’s den, in front of a soldier’s sword, facing an angry mob of unbelievers, or if told to sacrifice one of my children. Would I trust God with the outcome or would my faith crumble? Father, forgive me, but I just don’t know.

Faith is not the belief that God will do what you want. It is the belief that God will do what is right. [Max Lucado]

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

COWARDS NEED NOT APPLY

The Lord replied, “Don’t say, ‘I’m too young,’ for you must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you. And don’t be afraid of the people, for I will be with you and will protect you. I, the Lord, have spoken!” [Jeremiah 1:7-8 (NLT)]

plumbago

One look at the Bible’s heroes makes it clear that obstacles and challenges are an unavoidable part of doing God’s work. While they knew doing God’s work wouldn’t be trouble-free, did they realize it would be so very hard? Consider Moses—he knew it would be challenging when he signed on to lead the Israelites, but he didn’t know that an eleven-day journey to Canaan would turn into a forty-year commitment. God never promised it would be easy but He also never warned Moses about the decades of complaints, rebellion, and continual disobedience of the “stiff-necked people” he’d be leading. Moses certainly wasn’t told that he’d never enter the Promised Land once he got there. If he had known what lay ahead, would Moses have accepted God’s assignment or would he still be arguing with God on Mt. Sinai?

Would David have told Samuel to go find another fellow to anoint if the young shepherd knew he’d spend most of the next fifteen years fleeing for his life before actually becoming king? If he’d been told about the trials, battles, responsibilities, betrayals, and challenges of being king or known of the tears that he’d shed during his life, would he have decided to stick to shepherding?

What about Mary? When she told the angel she was the “servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” she had no idea of the challenges that lay ahead—the finger pointing and whispers regarding her pregnancy, the difficult journey to Bethlehem, giving birth in a stable, and fleeing to Egypt to save her son’s life. Had she anticipated that or the anguish of watching her son’s torment as He died a criminal’s death, would she so willingly have accepted God’s plan? Would Elizabeth have welcomed her pregnancy if she knew her beloved son’s head would be served on a platter to Herodias? Although Paul and the Apostles realized their ministries would be demanding, would they have been as enthusiastic in their evangelism if they’d seen all the struggle, imprisonments, persecution and martyrdom that lay ahead for them? Would Isaiah have said “Send me!” to God if he knew, as tradition has it, that King Manasseh would order him sawn in half? If Jeremiah had known how he’d be despised, abused, beaten, put in stocks, cast into a muddy cistern, and continually preach to a people who refused to hear his words before being stoned to death in Egypt, would he have accepted God’s call?

When describing the lives of the Bible’s heroes and heroines, the book of Hebrews lists the sufferings: being destitute, homeless, afflicted, mistreated, mocked, flogged, tortured, chained, imprisoned, stoned, and being killed with a sword. Some of those heroes (like Moses, Jeremiah, and Gideon) hesitated about their ability to serve God but, once God assured them that they were up to the task, they signed on without knowing exactly what the future held for them. Putting their unknown futures into the hands of a known God, they trusted Him, followed His plan, and boldly did His work.

Like the Bible’s heroes, let us fearlessly go forth wherever God sends us and do whatever He calls us to do. As we faithfully place our unknown future in the hands of God, we can remain secure in the knowledge that He always is with us on our journey. If we trust God, we don’t have to know or understand!

God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:29-31 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

PUTTING OUT THE FLEECE

Then Gideon said to God, “Please don’t be angry with me, but let me make one more request. Let me use the fleece for one more test. This time let the fleece remain dry while the ground around it is wet with dew.” [Judges 6:39 (NLT)]

In Judges 6, we find the people crying out to the Lord after being oppressed by the Midianites for seven years. When we meet Gideon, he is hiding from the marauders in a wine press while threshing wheat. When an angel of the Lord appears, the angel addresses the frightened man as, “Mighty hero.” Instead of kneeling before the Lord’s messenger in awe, Gideon boldly questions him about the nation’s difficulties and protests being handed over to the Midianites. Instead of answering Gideon’s questions, the angel tells him that he is the one who will rescue Israel. Continuing to question the angel, Gideon immediately points out the difficulty of such an insignificant person as he ever gathering an army. After being reassured of both God’s presence and the army’s victory, Gideon asks for proof that he really is speaking with God. When his offering is miraculously consumed by fire at the angel’s touch, the doubtful man realizes he is speaking with the Lord and erects an altar to Him. At the Lord’s command, Gideon then destroys the town’s altar of Baal, cuts down their Asherah pole, and erects another altar dedicated to the Lord.

As the Midianites gathered for battle in Jezreel, the man who was sure that he couldn’t gather an army recruited 32,000 willing warriors. Nevertheless, Gideon’s faith continued to waver. He again doubted the Lord’s promise that he would lead Israel to victory and even had the audacity to demand that God again prove Himself by passing two more tests. In the first, Gideon put out a dry fleece and demanded that in the morning it be wet with dew while the ground remained dry. The next day, unsatisfied with dry fleece and wet ground, Gideon then demanded that the dry fleece remain dry when the ground became wet.

At this point, had I been God, I might have struck Gideon dead and found someone else to lead Israel to victory. Instead, God acceded to Gideon’s demand. That He did so says more about His incredible patience and love for Israel than His approval of Gideon’s impudence. That God didn’t rebuke Gideon, however, doesn’t mean He endorses this practice. In fact, Gideon knew he was treading on dangerous ground with his demands when he asked God not to be angry with him.

Remember, Gideon wasn’t asking God for a sign of what he should do—God had given him clear instructions as to his assignment. Filled with doubt, Gideon wanted a guarantee that the Lord was stronger than the pagan god Baal. God, however, proved His power when Baal couldn’t destroy Gideon for destroying both pagan altar and pole!

Whether Gideon was hoping to reassure himself of divine support or merely hoping the demanded miracles couldn’t occur so he wouldn’t have to go to battle, we’ll never know. Either way, what he did was wrong. Deuteronomy 6:16 tells us we are not to test the Lord—a command Jesus repeated when Satan tempted Him in the wilderness. Moreover, Deuteronomy 18:9-11 warned the Israelites about imitating the customs of the pagans with such things as fortune-telling or interpreting omens and Gideon’s demands did both!

Just because Gideon put out the fleece doesn’t mean we should follow his example when making decisions. After all, Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied Him, Jacob deceived his father, David committed adultery and murder, neither Eli nor Samuel disciplined their boys, Samson broke his vows, and Jonah fled from God. No pastor ever says we should follow their examples! Nevertheless, there are some Christians who, like Gideon, “put out the fleece” by testing God’s will. Having made a decision, they demand a sign from God to confirm it. Be it a phone call, job offer, letter, opening the Bible to a random verse, or something else entirely, that’s putting God to a test and seeking omens! Neither is how we are supposed to determine God’s will.

We don’t need to put out a fleece to give us the answers only God can provide. Instead of looking for signs, we should be looking to the Giver of Signs and His word for our answers and reassurance!

One day some teachers of religious law and Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority.” But Jesus replied, “Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. [Matthew 12 38-39 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.