NEVER ASKED

monarch butterflyAnd if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. [1 Peter 3:15b-16 (NLT)]

In the epistle we know as 1 Peter (written between 60 and 64 AD), the Apostle offered encouragement to early Christians who were encountering persecution for their unorthodox beliefs. Rather than being intimidated by people or afraid of their hostility, Peter counseled them to acknowledge Jesus as the Lord of their lives and ruler of their hearts. Although that acknowledgement was in their hearts, he warned these believers to be ready with their answer should they could be called upon to explain the source of their hope and faith. The Greek word used was apologia which meant a speech in defense and was the term for making a legal defense in court. As if they were in a court of law, Christ’s followers were to be ready with a well-reasoned reply that adequately addressed the issue at hand while doing it in a humble and respectful way. Throughout his letter, the Apostle also addressed the conduct of Christians regarding their relationship with God, government, business, society, family, and the church. He advised his readers to live their lives in a way that would prove their opponents’ accusations unfounded.

I used to wonder how I would answer someone if they wanted to know the reason for my faith or the source of my hope. Should I keep religious tracts in my purse or a couple of pertinent Bible verses handy? I then remembered an old joke about the little boy who asked his father where he came from. The dad hemmed and hawed as he struggled with a rather long-winded and confusing explanation of the birds and bees. When done, the little boy looked at his father quizzically and said, “I was just wondering since Billy says he’s from Baltimore.” As the father learned, sometimes the simplest answer is the best one. If ever asked, the only explanation I’d need is that my hope comes from Jesus, from trusting in God’s promises, and from my conviction that God’s plans for me are for good and not disaster. Moreover, if and when such a question arises, I’m sure the Holy Spirit will be there to put His words in my mouth.

Thinking about Peter’s words, I realize that nobody has ever asked about the source of my hope or reason for my faith. While I’ve had people compliment the little diamond cross I usually wear, no one has ever asked why I wear it. I’ve had people ask where I purchased an outfit, who cuts my hair, what make of shoes I’m wearing, the kind of camera I use, and even the brand perfume I wear. Although I’ve been a walking advertisement for Tommy Bahama, Mimi’s Salon, Naot Shoes, Canon, and Prada’s Infusion d’Iris, I doubt that my devotion to Jesus is as discernable.

Perhaps, instead of worrying about how I would answer a question about the source of my faith, hope or love, I should be more concerned with why I’ve never been asked such a question. I wonder if it’s because, while my appearance (and even my scent) are evident, my faith in Jesus, my hope in God’s promises of forgiveness and salvation, and my love for God and my neighbor aren’t nearly so obvious in the way I conduct my life. They should be!

Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. [John 13:35 (NLT)]

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.[Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)]

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A GOOD SERMON

Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke and encourage your people with good teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. … Work at telling the Good News and fully carry out the ministry God has given you. [2 Timothy 4:2-4,5b (NLT)]

fish vreek falls - COIn a Dennis the Menace comic strip (drawn by Marcus Hamilton), Dennis is sitting next to his father at church. As their offering envelope is dropped in the plate, he asks his father, “Can we get a refund if the sermon isn’t that good?” For Dennis and many church-goers, a good sermon is one that is pleasant and entertaining. Unlike movies and concerts, however, sermons aren’t meant to be entertainment. The Christian church is neither the “church of what’s happening now” nor the church of “anything goes.” While many messages can make us feel good, feeling good is not the purpose of the Good News.

As much as the Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and others looked forward to hearing from the Apostle Paul, I doubt any of the early churches were entertained by his letters while they were read to the congregation. While he always had words of encouragement for the church, the intense Apostle appears to have had no sense of humor and his words were often ones of conviction and correction. False ideologies were corrected, sins of immorality were confronted, and proper behavior was addressed. Corinthian church members probably squirmed in their seats when Paul’s letters took them to task for infighting, abusing the Lord’s Supper, and their wanton behavior. When Paul told the Galatians they’d perverted the gospel of grace, surely not everyone welcomed his words. He unreservedly admonished the new churches for such things as false beliefs, divisiveness, lax morals, and questionable motives in preaching.

Although Paul’s words in his epistles are knowledgeable, articulate, and passionate, he admitted that he was a poor speaker [2 Cor. 11:6]. Some of the Corinthians even complained about his weak appearance and worthless speeches! [2 Cor. 10:10] Paul wasn’t an eloquent orator or an imposing figure and he probably wouldn’t have won a popularity with his messages. Nevertheless, apart from Jesus Himself, no one influenced the history of the Christian church more than Paul. Because of his words, the early church not only survived but thrived through persecution and troubled times. The 21st Century church faces many of those same problems—internal conflict, hypocrisy, questionable doctrine, arrogance, and a dumbing down instead of raising up. Without some tough love from our pulpits, can we survive and thrive?

Watered-down “feel good” messages that don’t condemn sin or challenge us to grow more like Christ are not the sort of epistles Paul would have written. They certainly aren’t the sort of messages Jesus gave. Yes, He spoke of peace, love and forgiveness, but Jesus also made people uneasy when He spoke of things like sacrifice, hypocrisy, obedience, repentance, taking up one’s cross, future persecution, and God’s judgment. With a sermon like that, Dennis might choose to demand a refund.

Let’s never forget that a good pastor is as zealous as was the Apostle Paul. His job is to shepherd his flock—to warn, correct, educate, rescue, convict, set goals, lead, and protect as well as to comfort, nurture and encourage. His job is not to make us happy; it is to guide us on the path to salvation. His job isn’t to preach only good news; it is to preach the gospel which is the Good News of Christ. It may not always be the news we want to hear; nevertheless, it is the news we need to hear.

It is far better to be plain in speech, yet walking openly and consistently with the gospel, than to be admired by thousands, and be lifted up in pride… [Matthew Henry]

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. [Philippians 4:11-13 (NLT)]

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DRY BONES

Taos NMThen he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to these bones and say, ‘Dry bones, listen to the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look! I am going to put breath into you and make you live again! I will put flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” [Ezekiel 37:4-6 (NLT)]

The Jewish people were in despair. Jerusalem was in ruins and the Temple destroyed. Exiled to Babylon, they were without a king, homeland, or hope. God’s promise of Israel’s restoration is depicted in Ezekiel 37 when the prophet is transported in a vision to a valley filled with desiccated bones. The Lord instructs Ezekiel to speak a prophecy over the dry bones that the Lord will bring them back to life. As the prophet begins to speak God’s words, the bones start rattling and coming together as skeletons. The prophet watches as muscles, tendons, and skin cover the bones until they became fully formed bodies. Although the bodies look alive, they are no more than unbreathing corpses until the Lord instructs Ezekiel to tell the four winds to breathe life into the lifeless beings. As the prophet speaks God’s words, he witnesses the once dead bodies come alive, stand erect, and become a great army. The initial meaning is pretty obvious: the bones coming back together illustrate Israel’s restoration and the wind or breath entering the dead bodies illustrate spiritual renewal or rebirth.

Be that as it may, as a Sunday schooler who didn’t understand the story behind Ezekiel’s somewhat eerie vision, picturing those dry bones rattling and rising up gave me the creeps. Perhaps it was because of the children’s song Dem Dry Bones. Even though we sang it in Sunday school, the song was associated more with Halloween (and its ghosts and goblins) than Biblical prophecy. Sometimes, a second verse was added in which Ezekiel, after connecting those bones, disconnected them—not a pleasant visual for any child! Perhaps I’d simply seen too many Saturday matinees with zombies, mummies, or other creatures of the night. Not understanding the context behind Ezekiel’s prophecy, the whole vision seemed as macabre as does the Body Worlds exhibit that features real skinless corpses preserved in plastic.

Yesterday’s devotion mentioned how I enjoy listening to worship music on my frequent trips to and from my doctor’s appointments. When I first heard Elevation Worship’s Rattle, with its words, “And the bones began to rattle, rattle, rattle, rattle…This is the sound of dry bones rattling,” I initially thought of Ezekiel’s vision. The thought of hearing dry bones rattling immediately brought up the old ghoulish images from childhood. But, as I listened to the rest of their words, those bones weren’t the dry ones in Ezekiel’s vision. As they sang, “Saturday was silent, Surely it was through. … Friday’s disappointment is Sunday’s empty tomb,” I understood they were singing about Jesus rising from the grave and the renewal of life for those who are restored by His power.

Today, I returned to Ezekiel 37 and saw his vision as more than a simple prophecy of the people’s return from their exile in Babylon, the reconstitution of the modern state of Israel, and/or the end times and the second coming of Christ. I saw it as a beautiful story of hope and rebirth. Although the prophecy was for Israel, I see Ezekiel’s vision as an illustration of what God can do for and with us right now—the life-giving power of His word to put back together the pieces of our broken lives and the power of the Spirit’s breath to bring us back to spiritual life! No longer will I cringe at the thought of dry bones rattling and rising. They tell me that no one ever is beyond restoration—no one is ever so spiritually dead that he or she can’t come alive again. The rattle of dry bones will remind me that, without the resurrection power of Jesus and the breath of the Spirit, we are little more than dry bones in a valley.

No difficulties in your case can baffle him, no dwarfing of your growth in years that are past, no apparent dryness of your inward springs of life, no crookedness or deformity in any of your past development, can in the least mar the perfect work that he will accomplish, if you will only put yourselves absolutely into his hands and let him have his own way with you. [ Hannah Whitall Smith]

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. [John 11:25-26 (NLT)]

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FROM THE BEGINNING (Part 3)

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. [1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NLT)]

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.  [Philippians 2:6-7 (NLT)]

oxeye daisyStarting with the Judaizers who believed that Gentiles first had to be circumcised and conform to Mosaic Law in order to be saved, the early church faced controversy within its ranks. Without a creed, they were challenged with distinguishing between true and false doctrines. Although not written by the Apostles, an early version of what we know as the Apostles’ Creed was probably in use by the last half of the second century. Created to instruct converts and prepare them for baptism, because it didn’t clearly state the nature of Jesus’ divinity or define the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, doctrinal controversy continued. Along with Gnosticism’s rejection of the incarnation and Marcion’s redefinition of God, there were the Ebionites’ denial of Christ’s divinity, the Arians’ belief that Jesus was neither divine nor eternal, and the Modalists who collapsed the persons of the Trinity into a single person with three types of activity. Rather than destroy the early church, however, these various isms actually did it a favor by forcing it to solidify Christianity’s doctrines.

In an attempt to unify the Christian church with one doctrine, Roman Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea in 325. Over 900 leaders from throughout the Roman Empire gathered to discuss Arianism and its belief that while Jesus was similar to God, rather than being divine, He was a created being. Although the Creed of Nicea resulted, controversy still reigned and it took a second ecumenical council in 381 before the Church clearly defined the Trinity—that God is three distinct persons in one perfectly unified being. The Nicene Creed, the standard of belief for most Christian churches, was the result of the meeting.

That creed, however, did not come out of thin air. The bishops and delegates spent weeks poring over Scripture. Paul’s epistles, written between 50 and 60 AD, contain several hymns and creeds. Although he wrote in Greek, these hymns and creeds use features of Hebrew poetry and thought and their syntax is decidedly Aramaic which leads scholars to believe they date from as early as 33 to 48 AD. Paul specifically wrote that he was passing along what was passed on to him—most likely from the original Apostles and Jesus Himself. A common theme of these early writings is the death, resurrection, and the deity of Jesus. Contrary to the claim often made by skeptics that the story of Jesus was a legend that arose decades after the man’s death, the belief in a miracle-working, fully divine and fully human Jesus, who died and rose from the dead, was present from the time of His disciples—the very ones who touched, walked, talked, and ate with Him, both before His crucifixion and after His resurrection.

Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say I am?” [Matthew 16:15] With its summary of the Gospel in a few sentences, the Nicene Creed enables us to answer that question both succinctly and accurately.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything. [Colossians 1:15-18 (NLT)]

Without question, this is the great mystery of our faith: Christ was revealed in a human body and vindicated by the Spirit. He was seen by angels and announced to the nations. He was believed in throughout the world and taken to heaven in glory. [1 Timothy 3:16 (NLT)]

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HERESIES – Polycarp (Part 2)

So, then, just as you received King Jesus the Lord, you must continue your journey in him. You must put down healthy roots in him, being built up brick by brick in him, and established strongly in the faith, just as you were taught, with overflowing thankfulness. [Colossians 2:6 (NTE)]

cross in ZermattAlthough many Christian writings refer to Polycarp, only one of his letters remains. Written to the church at Philippi sometime before 150 AD. Polycarp addressed the behavior of a greedy bishop named Valens, explained that true righteousness sprang from true belief, and warned against false teachings. Containing 12 quotes from the Old Testament and 100 quotes or paraphrases from the New, this epistle has been described as a “mosaic of quotations” from the Bible. Using language from what now are known as the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and 1 and 3 John, his letter is testimony both to the existence of these texts by mid-2nd century and that the early church already believed them to be inspired Scripture.

In his letter, Polycarp addressed the heresies of Gnosticism and Marcionism that had found their way into the early church. Probably a greater threat to the early church than persecution, Gnosticism was a combination of religion and philosophy taken from Babylonian beliefs, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and assorted cults, along with the philosophies of Greeks like Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. In a nutshell, early Gnostics believed in dual realities — essence/spirit/light (considered good) and material/body/dark (considered evil) — much like the Chinese yin and yang. They also believed in the secret knowledge or gnosis of salvation. Of course, such a philosophy can’t really be put in a nutshell. Polycarp’s student Irenaeus (who later became bishop of Lyons) said this about Gnostics, “Since their teachings and traditions are different, and the newer ones among them claim to be constantly finding something new, and working out what no one ever thought of before, it is hard to describe their views.” According to Gnosticism, since God is a spirit (which is good) and the world is made of matter (which is evil), the world couldn’t have been created by a good God; rather, it was created by a lesser deity named Demiurge. Believing flesh evil, they rejected the incarnation; rather than Christ coming as flesh, Gnostics believed He took possession of the man Jesus’ body at his baptism and departed his body before the crucifixion. Believing salvation came through secret knowledge to a select few contradicted Christianity’s promise of salvation to all by grace through faith.

Marcion (85-160 AD) was an influential Gnostic who tried to create a “new brand” of Christianity (Marcionism). In a nutshell, Marcionism redefined God. Rejecting Old Testament teachings, Marcion claimed the God of the Old Testament was not the same deity as the God of the New, Jesus was the son only of the New Testament God, and the prophecies of the Old Testament predicted a yet-to-come earthly messiah for the Jews. Marcion discarded the entire Old Testament and, believing the Apostles misunderstood Jesus, cut the New Testament down to heavily edited versions of Luke’s gospel and just ten of Paul’s letters.

In his letter, Polycarp warned the Philippians that “whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning.” May we do the same!

If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. [Augustine]

Watch out that nobody uses philosophy and hollow trickery to take you captive! These are in line with human tradition, and with the ‘elements of the world’ – not the king. In him, you see, all the full measure of divinity has taken up bodily residence. What’s more, you are fulfilled in him, since he’s the head of all rule and authority. [Colossians 2:8-10 (NTE)]

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RICH BEYOND BELIEF

wild geraniumYou know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. [2 Corinthians 8:9 (NLT)]

Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life. [John 10:9-11 (NLT)]

Psst! I’m rich but, please, don’t report me to the IRS. If you tell them, they’ll want their ever-increasing percentage and it’s simply nor theirs to take. The riches I have won’t pay politicians’ salaries, build highways, or purchase helicopters. My true wealth has nothing to do with bank balances, investment strategies, crypto-currency, or real estate holdings. It can’t be held in a bank or brokerage account nor can it be spent at Saks or on Amazon. Better yet, my riches are never-ending; I simply can’t run out of them!

I have a sense of peace that far surpasses anything one gets from having enormous assets at Fidelity or Charles Schwab. I have a joy far greater than one could ever get from being listed as one of Forbes magazine’s richest people. I have a better future than someone possessing a hefty IRA or annuity fund. I am loved better and forgiven more than the richest person could be by his ever-hopeful heirs. Indeed, I am blessed beyond belief.

You see, I’m enjoying the riches that come from a relationship with God. Moreover, I don’t have to concern myself with the Dow Jones average, fret about P/E ratios, read Barron’s or The Economist, or worry about capital gains or volatile markets. All I have to do is realize my need for God, admit my sinfulness, and receive Jesus Christ as my Savior.

My faith isn’t in the dollar, Bitcoin, or yen; my faith is in the Lord. Rather than regularly calling my broker, I keep in touch with God through daily prayer. Instead of poring over The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek, I regularly read God’s word. Rather than listening to and following my financial advisor’s advice, I listen to (and obey) the voice of the Holy Spirit. Instead of having servants, however, I am expected to serve, but it is a small price to pay. If I do all of that, not only will I maintain the riches I already have, but my riches will continue to increase (and all with no tax consequences)!

Want to be rich? Count your blessings! [sign in front of a local church]

It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich or poor according to what he is, not according to what he has. [Henry Ward Beecher]

The blessing of the Lord makes a person rich, and he adds no sorrow with it. [Proverbs 10:22 (NLT)]

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)]

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