AN ABOUT FACE

I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law.  I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. [Philippians 3:5-6 (NLT)]

In writing about change yesterday, I couldn’t help but think of the Apostle Paul. He knew firsthand of God’s transforming power. When we first meet Paul, he’s going by his Hebrew name of Saul and looking on as Stephen (the first of Christ’s followers to give his life for the gospel) is stoned to death.

The slaying of Stephen led to a wave of persecution and Saul relentlessly went from house to house in search of Jesus’s followers so he could drag them off to prison. Full of religious zeal and eager to kill those who followed the Way, Saul asked the high priest for permission to go to Damascus so he could arrest Christ’s followers and drag them back to Jerusalem in chains. In short, Saul was brutal and violent and little more than a religious terrorist! It is on the road to Damascus, however, that Saul meets the risen Christ and has his amazing conversion [Acts 9]. Meeting Jesus face-to-face, being struck blind for three days, having Ananias lay hands on him, scales falling from his eyes, and Saul’s baptism make for a powerful story of redemption and truly testify that no person is beyond the saving grace of the Lord.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard and, as I wrote yesterday’s devotion, I wondered if Saul struggled as this once fanatical persecutor of Christians transformed into the great Christian evangelist. As a second-generation Pharisee, he thought of himself as a member of an elite group and anything foreign would have been detested. Wanting to keep himself free of any impurity, the old Saul would never associate with Gentiles or even any Jews who interpreted the law differently. Yet, the man who abhorred anyone different from him preached all over the Roman Empire, stressed unity between Jewish and Gentile believers, and became known as the Apostle to the Gentiles!

As a Pharisee, Saul had been meticulous to the point of obsession about obedience to both the written and oral Law. Yet, in an about face, he maintained that Jewish Christians no longer had to abide by those same regulations and that Gentile converts didn’t have to become Jews before becoming Christians. Understanding that it was the Holy Spirit rather than the Law that empowered holy living, Saul changed from thinking that strict obedience to the Law would make us right with God to knowing that we are only made right by grace through faith in Jesus.

Nevertheless, until meeting Jesus on the way to Damascus, Saul’s life had been wrapped around strict adherence to the Law. Did he have difficulty letting go of Pharisaic traditions like their elaborate hand washing ritual before meals, the conspicuous wearing of phylacteries and tassels, or fasting twice a week? Did the Jew who’d grown up loathing Gentiles cringe when he first sat down to eat with them? Until now, I hadn’t considered how difficult it had to have been for the Pharisee to become the Apostle. The man who wrote that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person” [2 Corinthians 5:17] knew firsthand the truth of his statement. It is in his transformation that we see the power of Jesus to revolutionize a life! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the persecutor of Christians became a preacher for Christ!

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. [Philippians 3:8-9 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

CAN WE CHANGE?

leopardCan an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. [Jeremiah 13:23 (NIV)]

What words of despair from Jeremiah! Yet, why would God send him to the people of Judah with the call to repent if there was no hope of change? Surely, He didn’t send His prophet on a fool’s errand!

We all have issues with sin. While it may not be theft or adultery, chances are it’s something like anger, envy, impatience, bigotry, hostility, selfishness, pessimism, or pettiness. “It’s just the way I’m built,” we say in way of excuse. While we may justify ourselves by saying our faults are simply our nature, they aren’t! Having recently gone through genetic testing, I didn’t see any genes for things like lust, short-temper, worry, nitpicking, intolerance, arrogance, discontent, or stinginess. When we confuse our learned behavior with innate behavior, we excuse the inexcusable. While we can’t change our skin color or blood type, we can change our habits.

The gift of habit is God given; indeed, we’re blessed that we can go through life without having to deliberately think through the details of every action. If we had to consciously consider how to brush our teeth, get dressed, tie our shoes, make coffee, or start the car, we’d never get anywhere in the morning. The gift of habit, however, can also be a curse when our habitual responses are not godly—when they entail things like bigotry, anxiety, deceit, pride, anger, self-centeredness, or jealousy. 19th Century preacher Charles Spurgeon likened the force of habit to a cobweb: at first, it’s easily broken. When it grows into a thread, however, it restrains us a bit and, when the thread changes into a cord, we find ourselves in a net. As the net hardens into iron and the iron into steel, we’re shut up in a cage of our own making with no way of escape.

In discussing Jeremiah’s question, Spurgeon emphatically states that the Ethiopian cannot change his skin but, he adds as emphatically, an Ethiopian’s skin can be changed. He explains that the God who turned “primeval darkness into light” and “changed chaos into order” can do everything and, should He choose to do so, He could easily change skin color and leopard spots. Far more important than changing appearances, however, God can transform human nature! The God who designed our hearts can make them new again. After all, change or re-birth is what Jesus is all about!

Jeremiah called the people to repent; the call to put off our old sinful nature and replace it with the new continues today. Although we can’t do it by ourselves, God doesn’t ask anything of us that we are incapable of doing. When we accept Jesus, the Holy Spirit produces fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  [Galatians 5:22-23] We may have to dig deep to find it but God’s fruit is there! Granted, it’s difficult to put away ingrained habits; change is neither easy nor fast. Nevertheless, though the power of the Holy Spirit, change is possible; we can take off the old and put on the new!

The God who made us also can remake us. [Woodrow Kroll]

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)]

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. [Ephesians 4:22 (NIV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

GETTING IT JUST RIGHT

Pride ends in humiliation, while humility brings honor. [Proverbs 29:23 (NLT)]

brown bear - montana

In the story of The Three Bears, Goldilocks tasted porridge, sat in chairs, and climbed on beds in an attempt to find what was “just right” on the continuum between hot and cold, big and small, and hard and soft. When editing photos I do much the same thing as I adjust the brightness to find the setting where it’s neither too dark nor too light. As parents (and parents-in-law), we often struggle to find the right position between the extremes of meddling and total detachment. As Christians, we must find a proper balance between two other extremes: pride and humility.

Thinking either too much or too little of ourselves is equally wrong. Pride is insidious and can creep into our lives but so can false humility. When we’re prideful, we deprecate the gifts, talents and achievements of others but, when we’re falsely modest, we deprecate our God-given gifts, talents and achievements; both are dishonest. Healthy pride is a feeling of self-respect and confidence that acknowledges God’s gifts and isn’t threatened by the success of others. Healthy humility also acknowledges God’s gifts but with an attitude of genuine modesty and unpretentiousness. Both pride and humility exhibit delight in and gratitude for the blessings God has bestowed both on ourselves and others.

We need to know and recognize both our assets and our deficits. While our gifts vary from person to person, we are neither superior nor inferior to one another; we all are God’s children. It’s not just in the marketplace that God hates dishonest scales and deceit; He expects us to weigh and measure ourselves with honesty. Like Goldilocks, we must find the place that is “just right” between pride and humility: the place where we can both own our strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses. When we’re at that “just right” point, we can honestly give and take both praise and correction. Acknowledging the virtues and gifts of others as well as any with which we’ve been blessed, we can take joy in both our accomplishments and the accomplishments of others.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. [Rick Warren]

Too much humility is pride. [German proverb]

The Lord detests the use of dishonest scales, but he delights in accurate weights. Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. Honesty guides good people; dishonesty destroys treacherous people. [Proverbs 11:1-3 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

BE KIND

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtailLast week, when Brandt Jean chose to offer his forgiveness and embrace the woman who killed his brother, he did it out of Christian love. Judge Tammy Kemp, moved by Brandt’s example, then handed the convicted murderer one of her personal Bibles and encouraged her to forgive herself. When the defendant asked her for a hug, the judge remembered a recent sermon about love and compassion and couldn’t deny her. Nevertheless, many people were outraged and turned their simple acts into political statements. They saw issues of race, civil rights, proselytizing, and something called “post-traumatic slavery syndrome” where there was only love, kindness, and forgiveness. Neither brother nor judge excused or absolved Amber Guyger of her crime; they simply extended compassion and forgiveness. Let us not forget that their actions were also in obedience to Christ!

This week, Ellen DeGeneres received backlash for sitting next to President George Bush at a football game. Responding to the outrage that a “gay Hollywood liberal” would sit beside “a conservative Republican president,” she pointed out that she is a friend to many who don’t have her same beliefs. The comedian added, “I think that we’ve forgotten that it’s okay that we’re all different.” In her own way, the comedian captured the essence of Jesus’s commands with her words, “When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

Last fall, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 80% of our population believes the nation to be either “totally” or “mainly” divided. Apparently, that’s just about the only thing Americans can agree upon except, of course, that most of those polled also believe that this divisiveness is the fault of the other side of whatever their ideology happens to be!

We are becoming a nation that views people through ideological eyes rather than the eyes of God. We see black or white, rich or poor, labor or management, rural or urban, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, friend or foe instead of seeing a human being. In his song Russians, Sting put it this way: “There is no monopoly of common sense on either side of the political fence. We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.” Whether or not we look like them, speak their language, come from the same background, believe the same things, or agree with their lifestyle doesn’t matter. They are people—people just like us, made in God’s image and precious in His sight.

The essence of Christian life is love and that love is active rather than passive. It isn’t just about turning the other cheek and not retaliating; it is about positive acts of kindness. As Christ’s followers, we must never hesitate to reach out in love to everyone (even those with whom we disagree). Moreover, as His followers, we must never be part of the divisive rhetoric that has become part and parcel of this day and age. The rules for conducting our lives were not written by man; they were written by God. The only side we should take on any issue is His!

Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. [2 Timothy 2:23-25 (NLT)]

But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. …If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! [Luke 6:27-28,32-33 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

ONCE AND FOR ALL – YOM KIPPUR

On that day offerings of purification will be made for you, and you will be purified in the Lord’s presence from all your sins. …This is a permanent law for you, to purify the people of Israel from their sins, making them right with the Lord once each year. [Leviticus 16:30,34 (NLT)]

goat

Today is the tenth day of Tishri (the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar) and the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. For our Jewish brothers and sisters, this day, with its themes of atonement and repentance, is the holiest one of the year.

The book of Leviticus describes the rituals the Israelites were to perform on this holy day every year. In ancient Israel, this was the only time the high priest could come into the Holy of Holies (the innermost sacred area of the tabernacle or temple) where the Ark was housed. Before he could come into the presence of God and the Ark to begin the ritual of atonement, he had to ritually cleanse himself from sin by bathing and dressing in spotless plain linen garments. He then atoned for his own sins and those of his family with the sacrifice of a bull.

Two unblemished male goats were taken from the community and lots were cast to determine which goat would be given to the Lord. The first goat was sacrificed and its blood sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Ark. This was the sin offering and made to appease the wrath of God and atone for the sins of the people. Then, having received forgiveness, the second goat was brought before the altar. As a way of transferring the sins of the people to the goat, the priest laid his hands on its head and confessed all of the peoples’ sins and transgressions. This goat, the “scapegoat,” was then sent out into the wilderness to carry those sins into the wasteland.

In this ceremony, the blood of the first goat ritually provided propitiation by appeasing God’s wrath and the second goat provided expiation by atoning for and removing those sins. This atonement ritual was to be repeated year after year. Without a temple in Jerusalem, there no longer are animal sacrifices or scapegoats, but Jews throughout the world continue to observe this day with about 25-hours of fasting, intensive prayer, and repentance.

Unlike the yearly sacrifice of goats, the sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross had to be done only once. Christ was both our sinless high priest and the unblemished sacrifice. When He gave himself up for us, Jesus took God’s wrath upon himself as His blood dripped on the ground beneath Him. When He suffered and died on the cross, Jesus was both the propitiation and expiation of our sins for all time. By dying, this sinless man took on God’s wrath—the wrath we sinners deserved. Rather than take our transgressions into the wilderness, He “removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west” for all time. [Psalm 103:12] Thank you Jesus!

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. [Romans 3:22-24 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

JUST SORRY OR REPENTANT?

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. [Psalm 51:16-17 (NLT)]

The fellow looked at me and apologized: “I’m sorry; I know I can be a real #@!%* at times!” I debated as to my response. While the polite thing would have been, “It’s OK, I understand,” that wouldn’t have been honest. His behavior wasn’t OK. We’re told in Proverbs 27:6 that wounds from a friend are better than an enemy’s kisses and, since he’d left the door wide open, I agreed with him. “I know you are. But you don’t have to be,” I gently added. “It’s your choice!” Apparently preferring an enemy’s kisses to my honest assessment, he shrugged his shoulders and left the room.

Although “sorry” and “repentant” often are used synonymously, they are not the same thing. My friend’s regret may have been heartfelt but repentance requires a change of heart. While sorry, he wasn’t ready to change his heart or his petulant behavior.

In John 8, we read about a woman caught in adultery. Facing a crowd ready to stone her to death, she surely regretted her behavior. After Jesus’s words caused the crowd to disperse, our Lord didn’t condemn her but He didn’t send her back to her paramour either. Clearly expecting repentance, He told her, “Go and sin no more.” [8:11] Whether or not she repented, we don’t know, but Jesus’s actions and words that day make two things clear. First, rather than wanting sinners to die, God wants them to repent and live! Second, forgiveness doesn’t mean tolerance.

Repentance has two requirements: turning from evil and turning to good. When we repent, we turn from sin to obedience, evil to good, selfishness to selflessness, deception to truth, vulgarity to civility, meanness to kindness, animosity to goodwill, dysfunction to function, and childishness to maturity. As Christians, we don’t repent because we’re afraid of fire and brimstone or that God will strike us dead. Out of our love for God, we consciously decide to become better by moving away from anything that offends Him toward something that pleases Him. The power to do that comes from the Holy Spirit.

Let us never confuse an apology, regret or even confession with repentance. It’s not enough to say, “I have sinned;” we must commit to making a change and not sinning again!

To do so no more is the truest repentance. [Martin Luther]

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. [2 Corinthians 7: 10 (NLT)]

Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. [Matthew 3:8 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.