SHEEP, SNAKES, AND DOVES

rat snakeLook, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. [Matthew 10:16 (NLT)]

Matthew tells of Jesus calling the disciples together, giving them the authority to cast our evil spirits and heal all kinds of illness, and then sending them out to announce that the Kingdom of God was near. Preparing them for persecution, Jesus said they would be as sheep to the wolves. Helpless against predators like wolves, sheep also were used in religious sacrifice.  Jesus made sure the disciples understood they would encounter opposition, danger, trials and floggings by likening them to these vulnerable sacrificial animals.

Nevertheless, not wanting them so naïve that they became perpetual victims or so timid they couldn’t accomplish their mission, Jesus then told the disciples to be as shrewd as snakes. We rarely think of these reptiles as canny or perceptive but, when we consider the snake Eve met in Genesis, the simile makes more sense. That cunning serpent certainly had a way with words as he convinced Eve to sin. Imagine what he could have accomplished if, instead of deception, he’d used his skill with words for good rather than evil! Jesus wasn’t telling the disciples to deceive but it would appear that He was telling them to use their wits.

There are other parallels between snakes and the disciples’ instructions. Snakes, being cold-blooded, adjust their body temperature by moving out in and out of the sun and shade to find a safe and comfortable resting place. While Jesus wasn’t suggesting hiding under a rock, He did tell the disciples to find a hospitable place to stay and, if a place wasn’t welcoming, to go elsewhere (as a snake does when the temperatures gets inhospitable). Unless attacked, most snakes are not aggressive; they prefer slithering away to a confrontation. Just as snakes know how to evade trouble, the disciples were told to do the same. Nevertheless, like a snake, they were to stand their ground and defend themselves when threatened. Rather than using venom, however, they were to defend themselves with the words of the Spirit.

Immediately after telling the disciples to be like snakes, Jesus told them to be as harmless as doves. Like sheep, doves were vulnerable and sacrificial animals but, even in 1st century Palestine, they were a symbol of peace and love. The story of the dove returning to Noah’s ark caused the Jews to associate the dove with peace. Because of Greek and Roman mythology, it also symbolized love and devotion and, because the Spirit of God descended like a dove at Jesus’s baptism,  it also signified the Holy Spirit to His early followers. As Jesus’s representatives, the disciples were to find a balance between prudence and self-preservation on the one hand and compassion, peace and love on the other.

In the free world today, we don’t face floggings; the wolves are far more subtle. I think of a friend who would never demean the ethnicity, culture or sexual preferences of her co-workers yet she frequently finds herself the object of their ridicule for her Christian beliefs. She has to be both a snake and a dove in her response to them as do the few conservative Jewish and Christian students in my grands’ California high school. Their free-thinking anything-goes classmates have disparaged their belief in God, purity, right and wrong, sin, and the Bible’s truth. While we don’t risk imprisonment, as Christians, we may still find ourselves targets with our beliefs mocked, challenged, or threatened in subtle ways. Jesus did not send us out as sheep to the slaughter but as ministers of His word. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can avoid confrontation while fearlessly and skillfully standing our ground with love and peace.

You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. [Matthew 10:18-20 (NLT)]

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HEIRLOOMS

Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. [Matthew 6:20-21 (NLT)]

CamillaWe’re selling our northern home and, with limited space in Florida, I must winnow out our 52 years of accumulated possessions. “How can I give them away?” I wondered while looking at the beautiful hand-painted Bavarian dinner and dessert plates that belonged to my mother and her mother before that. My fondness for the plates, however, has less to do with their beauty than with their provenance.

When my mother died, I was only fifteen. I remember sitting with my older brother and sister as my father read her hand-written note to us. He tried to hold back his tears as he spoke her words of farewell that passed along various family heirlooms to each of us children. Mentioning her joy at never having broken a plate in the 23 years she’d used them, my mother gave her mother’s china to me. When I look at what is little more than clay, bone ash, flint, feldspar, glaze, paint, and gold gilding, I don’t see plates—I see my mother’s exquisitely set table, the two of us setting it, our family gathering together for a holiday dinner, and my father reading her farewell words to me.

Later, when sorting through books, I came to some that had been my mother’s. Inside the front covers, she’d carefully written her name and home address. “How can I give away these books that meant so much to her?” I thought. Many of them were written by C.S. Lewis and I suspect my affinity for the author comes from her. She belonged to a women’s guild at our church—sort of the 1950’s version of a small group. The women gathered twice a month for fellowship and service and often met at our house. They would sit around the dining room table and sew something called “cancer pads.” My mother couldn’t even thread a needle and her poor eyesight and clumsiness with a needle probably made her more of a hazard than a help in the women’s work. What she excelled at, however, was reading aloud, analyzing the written word and leading discussions. When the women realized that busy hands didn’t keep their mouths from minding other people’s business, my mother suggested that she read to them while they worked.

As I ran my finger over her name, I decided to save just one of her books. The rest of them will go to the church’s library so they can bring someone else pleasure and knowledge. Then, realizing that I don’t need the china to remember the beautiful woman who gave me life, I decided to keep just one of the dessert plates and give away the rest. Rather than hold onto things, I will hold on to my memory of a woman who, recognizing her limitations, wisely used the gifts God gave her.

While the Old Testament speaks of material inheritance and even gives guidelines to ensure the financial welfare of the family, the New Testament speaks of a spiritual inheritance. Rather than worrying about amassing things here on earth, Jesus told us to store up treasures in heaven. Granted, we want our families cared for once we’re gone but more crucial than passing along possessions is the passing along of good character, love, and faith in God.

The important thing is not to hold on to material possessions but to remember the people we associate with them, the love they offered, and the lessons they taught us. I think of the words of Morrie Schwartz (in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie) who said we continue to live on in the hearts of everyone we’ve touched and nurtured while we were here. “Death ends a life, not a relationship,” said the wise old professor. My children don’t need old china or books to know my mother; they know her through me!

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. [1 Peter 1:3-4 (NLT)]

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DON’T ADD OR SUBTRACT

Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you. [Deuteronomy 4:2 (NLT)]

tri-colored heron - snowy egretIt’s easy to have misconceptions about Scripture. If you were to ask someone the identity of the forbidden fruit, chances are the answer would be an apple. Scripture, however, never names the fruit. The Hebrew word used was peri which is a generic term for “produce,” “results,” or “reward.” We probably got the idea that it was an apple from later translations of Scripture into Latin since the Latin word “evil” is mălum, a word quite similar to the Latin word for “apple,” which is mālum. Renaissance painters continued to perpetuate the myth with their depiction of an apple at the temptation. Scripture, however, never identifies the fruit because its identity is not important; the evil wasn’t in the fruit but rather in Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

The three kings were neither three nor kings. Rather than kings, they were magi or wise men, perhaps philosophers, astronomers, or counselors of kings. Familiar with Hebrew Scripture, they knew and understood the various Messianic prophecies. It is merely tradition that their names were Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. While we know there were at least three gifts, we don’t know how many magi there were.

If asked about Mary Magdalene, most people would say she was a repentant prostitute and probably the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’s feet but there is no evidence to support this. All four gospels do mention this Jewish woman from Magdala who helped support Jesus and the disciples, witnessed the crucifixion and Jesus’s burial, and saw the risen Christ at the empty tomb. Although Luke tells us tells us that Jesus healed her of seven demons, we have absolutely no reason to think of this once mentally ill woman as immoral or wanton; she was no more a sinner than were any of the disciples.

If you were to ask most Protestants about the “Immaculate Conception,” they would probably say it refers the conception of Jesus in a virgin’s womb, but it doesn’t. While Jesus was, indeed, born without sin, this Roman Catholic doctrine refers to the conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and states that, unlike the rest of mankind, Mary had no original sin and remained sinless throughout her life. Scripture, however, never describes Mary as anything but an ordinary, although godly, woman: a woman who needed a savior as much as the rest of us.

We often quote scripture that isn’t Scripture. Money isn’t the root of all evil; in fact, it can do all sorts of wonderful things. The Apostle Paul, however, warns us that it’s the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil, which is not quite the same. While “it came to pass” occurs about 400 times in the King James Version of the Bible, “This too shall pass,” never does. God does work in mysterious ways but that sentiment comes from a 1774 hymn by William Cowper. “God helps those who help themselves,” is nowhere in the Bible and probably came from one of Aesop’s fables and, while the Old Testament has lots of rules about cleanliness, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” is not one of them. In fact, Jesus tells us to worry more about the sin in our hearts than the dirt on our hands!

The Bible is the written testimony of God’s word. When we quote the Bible, we want to be sure that what we’re quoting actually is in the Bible and, when we’re telling Bible stories, we want to tell the story correctly. God told the Israelites to neither add nor subtract from His commands; neither should we. We are to seek what Scripture actually means, not what we’d like it to mean. “I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you,” said the Psalmist. [119:11] Let’s make sure the words we’ve put in our hearts actually are God’s!

Oh, how I love your instructions! I think about them all day long. Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are my constant guide. … Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. … The very essence of your words is truth; all your just regulations will stand forever. [Psalm 119:97-98,105, 160 (NLT)]

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SHARING

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? [Romans 10:13-14 (ESV)]

tulips - keukenhof gardens -netherlandsThe king of Aram was at war with Israel, Samaria was under siege, and there was a great famine in the city. Even food that wouldn’t normally be eaten was prized. For example, the head of a donkey, considered an unclean animal, sold for about two pounds of silver. The situation was so dire that some people had even resorted to cannibalism. Without the intervention of God, there was no hope in sight.

Unwelcome in the city, four lepers, the outcasts of society, sat outside the city gate. The men were desperate; either they would die of starvation where they sat or violently at the hands of the enemy. Having nothing to lose, and on the off chance they might even be spared, they decided to surrender to the Arameans.

That evening, the lepers entered the enemy camp only to discover that it had been abandoned. As the prophet Elisha predicted, God had intervened; the Aramean soldiers, thinking they heard the sounds of a great army approaching, had fled the camp in panic. Although the camp was deserted, food, tents, clothing, livestock, silver and gold remained. The men went from tent to tent, enjoying the spoils as they ate and drank their fill and gathered up riches. The four then realized they had to let the townspeople know that the enemy had fled. These pariahs may well have been the last to receive any food had it become available. Nevertheless, fearful that something bad might happen to them if they didn’t share the good news and bounty of the deserted camp, they returned to the people who had shunned them as the “unclean.” The men told the city’s gatekeepers the good news that the siege was over and abundance lay just outside their gate.

We’re unlikely to be under siege and facing starvation in a walled city or to be considered “unclean” lepers and forced to sit outside the city gates, yet I wonder if this story might apply to 21st Christians. The lepers knew they were obligated to share the good news and that it was wrong not to share God’s blessings with the people of Samaria. If they hadn’t, the city could have starved while blessings lay just outside their gates. Their story teaches us about forgiveness and not bearing a grudge and is a reminder to share our blessings. Could this also be a lesson about evangelism? Do we have good news that should be shared? Do we know anything about the living water and bread of life that can feed a starving people and give them eternal life? Could those four lepers also be showing us the importance of sharing the good news of the gospel?

For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! [1 Corinthians 9:16 (ESV)]

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WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GREAT COMMISSION?

And then he told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone. Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned. [Mark 16:15-16 (NLT)]

Masai - TanzaniaYesterday’s devotion made me do some hard thinking about my commitment to Christian missions. Unfortunately, there are large segments of the world’s population that have never heard of Jesus. According to the Joshua Project (an organization that gathers, integrates and shares information to facilitate the implementation of the Great Commission), 41.6 % of the world’s population is considered “unreached,” meaning they have little or no history of Christianity and the number of native Christians and available resources are so minimal that outside assistance is necessary if the Gospel is going to be heard.

Most of the people untouched by the Gospel live in what’s called the “10/40 Window:” an area of land stretching across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia that is approximately between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude. Two-thirds of the world’s people live here; 61% of them are “unreached” and 90% are considered “unevangelized,” defined as having minimal knowledge of the gospel with no valid opportunity to respond to it.

When I looked at some of the figures, I began to wonder how committed we are to saving souls. In 2015, out of the $700 billion given to Christian causes (which is about what we Americans spend on Christmas), only $45 billion (6.4%) of that went to missions! That’s less than what we spend on gym memberships and weight-loss programs. Most of that money went to churches and missions in Christian nations. Only a little over $2.5 billion (less than .4%) of those funds went to serve the unevangelized and unreached peoples of the world.

In March of 2018, the Barna Group (a research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture) released a rather shocking finding. When asked if they’d ever heard of “the Great Commission,” 51% of church-goers were completely unfamiliar with the term. Sadly, the other 49% weren’t much better! 6% weren’t sure if they’d heard the term and 25% said that, while it “rang a bell,” they didn’t know what it was. Only 17% actually knew what it said! Sadly, even knowing what the Great Commission is doesn’t necessarily equate with a commitment to it.

We all don’t have to pack up and go on a mission trip but I don’t think we can continue to do as little as we are doing. Because of government restrictions, open evangelism from the US and Europe is difficult in many 10/40 Window countries. Christian missionaries from South American and Africa, however, often are welcome in those nations. There are other ways to reach these people, as well. We can minister to refugees as a young woman from our church will do this fall. She is going to Germany to serve the 3.2 million unreached Arab, Kurd, Turk, Assyrian and other refugees from the Syrian civil war. Like most other missionaries, she is expected to raise 100% of her expenses. With one million international students coming to the US every year (64% of whom are from the 10/40 Window and will be returning to their homelands), campus ministries are another way to spread God’s word to the unreached. At least 1.5 million people are without a full Bible in their first language, one-third of the world can’t read the language they speak, and another third learn best through non-written methods.

Yes, we support missionaries with our prayers but now is the time to look closely at how we support them with our finances. We must start supporting mission ministries that reach out to the unreached and unevangelized and support Bible translation and oral learning Bible projects.  Moreover, since 85% of those living in the 10/40 Window are among the poorest of the world’s poor, we must also support efforts to provide health care, safe water, food, and clothing to them.

Rather than expressing concern over the exclusive claims to salvation found in Christianity, perhaps we could better use our energy and resources to reach those who are unreached! We have been called to care for the poor, strengthen other believers, and save the lost. I’m not sure Christians in the free world have done a very good job of any of those tasks. When we come face to face with God, the onus for so many people never hearing about Jesus will fall on us: the people who failed to live out the Great Commission.

Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out; yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good; and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now. [Teresa of Avila]

Don’t fail to do something because you can’t do everything. [Bob Pierce (World Vision founder)]

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)]

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LIKE IT OR NOT

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. [John 3:16-18 (NLT)]

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. [John 14:6 (NLT)]

monarch butterflyLast week, in That Was God, I wrote these words: “For those who do not believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior, death means punishment and eternal separation from God,” but reminded readers that the exclusive truths of Christianity don’t mean that we are exclusive in our love; everyone is our neighbor and a person to be loved! Finding the devotion thought provoking, a friend forwarded it to the members of his small group. One man found the message contradictory and responded this way: “In other words, if you weren’t lucky enough to be born a Christian, you’re screwed. But, we still love you, neighbor!”

In actuality, none of us are born Christian; it is when we accept Christ that we are reborn as Christians. Salvation is not a birthright. Moreover, all are welcome in Christ’s Church. After all, the early church was made up entirely of converts!

Granted, it’s far easier to be a Christian in the US than in nations like North Korea, Sudan, or India. Nevertheless, in spite of facing great persecution, there are Christian converts in all of those countries. Jesus never promised His way would be easy; in fact, He said it would be difficult! Open Doors reports that eleven Christians lose their lives every day because of their faith. With John being the only Apostle not martyred, it wasn’t easy for the early Christians either; yet, look at how rapidly the Church grew!

I have no doubt that God loves all of His children. Jesus told us that God so “loved the world…” and continued with the promise that “everyone who believes” would have eternal life. He didn’t say God only loved some of the world or just the Jews, Romans or Greeks. God’s gift of His son was for everyone and for all time. As the Holy Spirit moves throughout the world drawing people to Christ, God has revealed Himself to people in ways we can’t understand.

In Matthew 7:7, we are told, “Ask and it will be given…seek and you will find…” Mark Mittleberg points out that anyone who genuinely seeks God will be led to Him. When people sincerely seek the truth, they will find it only in Christ. In his book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi sought the truth about Mohammed; instead, he found Jesus! When skeptics Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, and David Limbaugh went looking for the truth, they also found it in Jesus. God will reveal Himself to those who want to find Him.

“What about those who didn’t have the opportunity to hear about Jesus?” is one of those questions no Christian wants to be asked. Admittedly, not everyone has equal access to the gospel. Luke 12:48 tells us that from the one given much, much will be demanded. The inverse must also be true: from the one given little, little will be asked. We each are responsible for following whatever light God has given us.

When I think of infants like my nephew who never lived long enough to know his mother (let alone Jesus) or those people completely unreached by the Gospel, I am as disturbed as the man who didn’t like my words. Nevertheless, Jesus didn’t leave much in the way of wiggle room when He said He was “the way” rather than “one of the ways” to the Father. While contrary beliefs are possible, contrary truths are not and there seem to be some undeniably exclusive truths in Scripture as to salvation and eternal life. Like them or not, we are neither to add nor subtract from God’s Word. It’s not a buffet where we can pick and choose only the things we like nor is it a potluck where we get to bring in concepts that make it more palatable. At some point, everyone will answer to God and He will separate the sheep from the goats. Scripture doesn’t elaborate on how that will happen but I’m sure our loving and merciful God has it worked out in a way that only He can understand.

And a servant who knows what the master wants, but isn’t prepared and doesn’t carry out those instructions, will be severely punished. But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required. [Luke 12:47-48 (NLT)]

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