A Lesson From Ancient Israel…

Listen to the audio version here!

Perseverance is a good thing.  It serves you well if it means that you keep working hard to get good grades in school even when things aren’t going well.  Or when you keep trusting in God no matter how difficult things are in your life.

Stubbornness, on the other hand, is negative.  The ancient Israelites were described as stubborn and rebellious (Ps. 78:8; Jer. 5:23; Hos. 4:16).  Just read through the Old Testament if you have any doubt.  God had done amazing things to free them from slavery
in Egypt.  He had performed huge miracles to care for them in the wilderness.  He had done so much to show His love and devotion for them, yet they constantly rebelled against Him, stubbornly refusing to keep His laws.  He warned them of the results of sin.  They even experienced some of them, but still stubbornly held on to their sins, not caring that they were hurting themselves.

For the last few months, I’ve been reading the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  These two prophets lived around the same time, just before the southern half of Israel, the kingdom of Judah, went into captivity to Babylon.  Their calling was to deliver the messages God gave them for Israel.  Most of these messages pointed out the sins of Israel, warned them of the consequences, and called them to repentance.  As I read through their messages to the children of Israel, two things jump out at me:

1.  The children of Israel always seemed to have a problem with idolatry.  And it wasn’t just during the time period before Babylon took over.  All throughout the history of the children of Israel from the time God brought them out Egypt, they kept on going after other gods.  It started with the golden calf.  Later, when they settled in the land of promise, they went through cycles, where for a while they would serve God exclusively, then later they would try to serve Him as well as the gods of the surrounding nations on the side.

And you would think that after experiencing first-hand the power of the true God they would want nothing to do with impotent images made by man’s hands.  But instead they enthusiastically embraced idol worship, even going so far as to sacrifice their children by causing them to pass through the fire in the worship ceremony for the god Moloch (Jer. 32:35; Ez. 16:20, 21).

You would think they’d prefer to serve a God who didn’t claim their dear children as burnt offerings or put them through such torture.  But they stubbornly preferred to bind themselves to gods whose rituals went against everything that was right and true rather than surrendering to the God who delivered them from slavery and obeying His simple commands: don’t kill; don’t bear false witness; don’t steal; honor your parents; don’t have other gods; remember the Sabbath day, etc.  They preferred to serve self, living hedonistic lives instead of serving their Savior by loving Him with all their heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:5), and their neighbor as themselves (Lev. 19:18).

Today, many of us are not in such great danger of turning to images to worship.  But we do make idols out of other things: possessions, people, relationships, money…even ourselves.  This one is huge in our day, with messages of “It’s all about you and making you happy.”  Everything is geared towards making myself the center of attention, putting myself first, doing whatever it takes to make me happy, even if someone else suffers in the process.

We are just as much in danger of idolatry in our day as the ancient Israelites were in theirs.  We must be watchful and take care where our affections lie.

2.  God’s mercy, love, and justice all mixed together in His warnings to His stubborn, rebellious children.  He consistently warns the Israelites that judgment is coming if they don’t turn from their sins.  One may argue that it is their choice if they want to sin or not.  That is true, and God never removes the element of choice from the equation.  But He does warn that if they continue in their sins, He will have to allow the consequences of sin to fall on them.

Sometimes when we read about God calling the Israelites to repentance, we think of them as a nation of kind people who generally obeyed God’s laws, but just slipped up once in a while.  Not so.  When you read through Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, you find that their loyalty was divided.  While they kept God’s sanctioned feasts and holy days and the Sabbath, they also sacrificed to idols and willingly participated in ceremonies and rites to manmade gods.  They oppressed the poor and needy (Ez. 18:12).  They gave no help to the widows and orphans (Ez. 22:7).  They had turned so far from God and obedience to His laws that they no longer resembled His character.

Yet God did not give up on them.  In mercy and love, He warned them of the results of their course of action.  He pleaded with them through His prophets.  He held back the judgments as long as possible to allow as many as were willing to come to repentance.

But so many chose not to listen.  So many chose to go their own way, continuing in their sins, walking in the footsteps of the Enemy.  So God allowed judgment to come upon them.

However, there is a key point that cannot be missed: just before judgment came, God also gave a promise.  He said that although He would allow judgment to fall on the children of Israel and send them into captivity, He would be with them in the place they would go (Jer. 30:11; Ez. 11:16)!  Even after all their rejection of Him, He still didn’t abandon them!

But wait, it gets better: He also promised that He would forgive their sins and, after a time, bring them out of captivity and back to the land of promise (Jer. 29:10; Ez. 11:17-20)!

Now that’s love and mercy mixed with justice right there!  It’s just the way a faithful parent would reach out to a stubborn, erring child: allowing the consequences of wrong actions, while being there for the child through it all and promising a complete restoration to the way things were before, and better.

This is the truth of who God is.

How can we resist such an awesome God?  He is powerful!  His power comes from the fact that He is truth and He is love; He is justice and He is mercy.  He’s unlike anyone we’ve ever known.  Even the best, kindest, most loving, most amazing person we’ve ever met cannot hold a candle to who God is.  He loved us, before we ever cared about Him (1 John 4:19).  He loved us and died for us, even while we hated Him and opposed Him (Rom. 5:6-8).  Such a God is amazing and more than deserves to be revered above everything and everyone else in our lives.  He’s the only one who is never-changing, faithful, compassionate, slow to anger, and full of mercy (Mal. 3:6; 1 Cor. 1:9; Ps. 145:8; Ex. 34:6, 7).

That’s who God is.

And because of who He is, He gives us a simple choice: to serve Him or not to serve Him.  What will you choose?

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A Vibrant Life

What’s the essence of Christianity?  Think about your answer to that question for a moment.  What does it mean for you and me to be Christians?  Think of your answer to that too.  What does Christianity look like lived out?  Really consider that one.

After thinking about it, I’d describe Christianity as belonging to one person: the One who bought us back from death.  Real Christianity is not the result of a series of outward actions: the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, the activities you do, the food you eat, the things you watch, etc.  The Christ-life starts inside, when you give Jesus your heart.  But it doesn’t remain there.  It moves out.  It changes every aspect of your life.  Yes, the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, the activities you do, the food you eat, the things you watch, etc.  And it touches the people around you.

Remember Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed?  He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” (Matt. 13:31, 32, NKJV)

A mustard seed is really tiny.  Yet for starting out too small to provide even a decent bite for a bird, it becomes home to many birds.  This is how our Savior works.  Jesus starts inside our hearts, forgiving us, changing us, transforming us, nurturing us from newborn babies until we’ve grown up into men and women fit for heaven.

Jesus told another parable along the same lines.  “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” (Matt. 13:33)  That little bit of leaven, mixed in with the bread dough can’t be removed.  It permeates the entire loaf.  The same with Jesus once we surrender our lives to Him.  He’s no longer a bystander on the edge of our lives, or a once-a-week visit to a steepled structure.  He’s real, living, present, active in every part of our lives.

This is what the Christian life looks like.  It’s dynamic, not static.

Now consider that in terms of the relationship between faith and works.

Faith is important, nay vital (I couldn’t resist!)  But it doesn’t stand alone.  Jesus intended it to be mixed with works, yet never with the idea that your works are earning you a spot in heaven.  Check out these two contrasting yet complimenting passages:

“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?  Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!  But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?  Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?  Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?  And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”  And he was called the friend of God.  You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.  Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:14-26)

“Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.  Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.  Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.  Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.” (Romans 3:27-31)

“We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.

“But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not!  For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.  For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.  I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” (Galatians 2:15-21)

To make it even more interesting, add love into the mix.  Just reading 1 Corinthians 13 alone makes it clear that even the best works without love are empty.  Yet check out what Jesus said about the connection between love and obedience to His law: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)  And He didn’t stop there; He repeated it again in verses 21 and 23.

Obedience is the outflow of love, not the other way around.  Obedience shows that we know God.  “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.  He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.  But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him.  He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.” (1 John 2:3-6)

These passages are important because they help us understand how to live the Christian life as we prepare for life with our coming King.  Satan doesn’t want us to understand.  He doesn’t want us to be ready.  He wants us to be like the unfaithful servant in Matthew 24:48-51.  But God has made His truth known in His word.  So prayerfully take a look at these verses again and hear what God is saying to you.

My point is simple: by faith, the seed was planted in my heart and began to grow; the leaven was added to the lump of bread dough and mixed in.  The end result is a life of obedience to His will, the lifestyle of the King’s daughter in a foreign land.

True Religion

It’s more than a brand of jeans.  More than a social cause.  It’s a lifestyle.

These days many of us are very familiar with what the Bible says in James 1:27 about the essence of true religion.  It has been the preface to many a sermon, worship talk, or speech to rouse us from our self-absorbed slumber into action for the good of those who are hurting around the globe.

Yet in all the swarm of activity around our social causes, some of us have lost something.  Before I go any further, let me say that social causes are good.  God encourages, even requires us to take care of those who need help.  But there’s something else that’s good.  It is the balancing side to a scale that is growing fearfully unbalanced.

It’s the Mary perspective.

Jesus once visited his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany (Luke 10:38-42).  While Martha was busy doing the good thing of preparing a meal to serve Jesus, Mary was doing the good thing of sitting at His feet, listening to the words of truth.  Both were good things.  But one was commended as better: listening to the words of Jesus.

That practice of taking time to study and learn from Jesus is often neglected in favor of active service projects.  Neither side should be neglected.  Take a closer look at James 1:27:

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

That last part often goes unmentioned.  But God puts the two together: service for others and remaining spiritually pure.  It’s the same thing in the great commandment: love for God first, with everything you are, and then a responsibility to love others as you love yourself.  One can never be separated from the other.  This concept is all throughout the Bible:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice,
 correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” – Isaiah 1:16, 17, ESV.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” – Matthew 25:34-40, NLT.

There it is.  Care for others and love for God, shown in obedience to all His commands.  This is true religion.  It is not an unbalanced thing.  It does not take from one side only and believe that is enough.  It does not cloister itself away in a shack in the mountains, studying the Bible 24/7.  It does not overfill its plate with projects and causes until there’s no time for anything else and burnout sets in.

It balances actively seeking God in His word with serving Him by serving others.  Jesus Himself gave us the example.  He spent time teaching, healing, and preaching, but He also took time out for deep seasons of communion with His Father.  We’re definitely billions of light years from being on the same level as Jesus, so how much more do we need deep seasons of communion with God and time to study His word?

Notice Matthew 7:21-13:

“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’”

My good works cannot save me.  But they will be important.  Through them, my obedience to God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself will be shown.  Similarly, a pure life, washed clean from sin through His blood and kept unspotted by following His words, shows my love for Him above all others.  Both sides working together show whether or not I have truly done the will of my Father.  Love for God with everything in us first, and then love for others as for ourselves.  This is the essence of true religion.

The Basics ~ Adoption: Step 3

Step 3: Live Your Life Following Jesus

Once you receive Jesus into your heart and give Him your all, it’s important that you now walk with Him and the Father.  I know, you must be wondering what it means to walk with Jesus and walk with God.  Well, they both mean the same thing; after all, if you know Jesus, you know God (John 14:9-11).

Walking with Jesus involves getting to know Him more closely every day and obeying Him.  Let’s take a closer look at this obedience thing.

This is extremely important, because Jesus can see the end from the beginning.  He knows the future.  So when He tells you to do something or not to do something, it’s because He sees the future consequences, the end results of your actions, which you cannot see.  He’s not trying to take all the fun out of your life, as the world often leads us to think.  He would never take away anything that is good for you (Psalm 34:10).

As with any good family, there are rules for all those who would live in God’s Heaven, and of course, they can be found in the Word of God.  There are two general rules that cover everything (Matthew 22:37-40).  These are broken down into ten more specific rules (Exodus 20:1-17).  They are referred to as God’s commandments or the Law.  Other terms are sometimes used to describe them, such as the “will of God” or “God’s character”.  It is His will that everyone be saved from sin and know Jesus, the One who saved them (1 Timothy 2:4).  To be saved you must know Jesus and have His character.  This is also known as being like Jesus.  Which brings us to the next step.

The Basics ~ Adoption: Step 6

Step 6:  The Test of Love

My dear friend, when you reach this step, you’re nearly home!  This is the final step before the great Homecoming, but it’s not an easy one.  In all the epic love stories there is always some test of love.  In the same way, your love for Jesus must be tested.

You see, God must know that you want Him because you love Him; not just because He’s rich and you’ll live eternally in a mansion and walk on streets of gold.  Your love for Him is shown in how you keep His commandments (John 14:15, 21; 1 John 5:3; 2 John 6).  Remember I said earlier that obedience is important?  This is why.

God’s law (the commandments) is His character.  Everything it in points to the loving, just, and merciful God that He is.  His law is who He is.  That’s why keeping it is important.

Now, you might be frustrated and wondering, “How can I keep all God’s commandments?  Some are easy enough, but others are so hard for me.  Nobody’s perfect.  No one can keep the whole law.  Why did God make the test so difficult?”

Well, clearly none of us can keep all of God’s commandments on our own.  Our greatest efforts are pitiful and our willpower is weak.  But with Jesus’ help, anyone can keep all of them.  Remember, I told you that God’s law is His character?  And do you also remember that you must develop a character like His?  Well, guess what?  That’s the key!  God wants to write His law on your heart.  God’s law will be in you!  (Jeremiah 31:33.)  It will be your character, a part of who you are, seen in the way you live!

Some people will tell you that this is impossible because they’ve never seen a person who never, ever sinned anymore after coming to God.  Well, check out the book of 1 John.  God’s Word makes it clear that we should live our daily lives in the way that Jesus has revealed to be right.  This is the essence of walking in the light.  It’s all about obedience to His Word, the day-to-day, moment-by-moment choices to follow in your Savior’s footsteps.

So Jesus invites us all to be reborn, to start our lives afresh with Him, walking in His light.  As long as you are walking in that heavenly light, you can’t stumble.  But if somewhere down the road, you walk away from the light and choose to do your own thing, don’t stay in your fallen state and continue living in sin.  Repent!  Run straight back into the arms of the One who loves you and gave His life for you!  He will forgive you, clean you up again, and put you back on the lighted path.

So putting the two concepts together, when you walk in obedience to Jesus, you are developing His character.  His law is being written on your heart.  Your heart is being knit together with His heart, the natural result of love  which is displayed in obedience (John 14:15).  And this is what puts you on the enemy’s radar.

You see, the enemy has created his own counterfeit of God’s law, a false law that reflects his own selfish, cruel, and evil character.  In this test, he will try to persuade you that his counterfeit law is superior to God’s true law.  He’ll come at you with lying arguments and fake miracles, and if all else fails, he’ll resort to force.  He will even go so far as to take your very life if you won’t follow his law.

Yes, your love for Jesus will be tried in the fires of some very hard experiences.  Jesus spoke of those who love Him being arrested, beaten, persecuted, and even killed by those who have chosen to follow the enemy and his laws (Matthew 10:17-22; Matthew 24:9, 10).  Some of the persecutors you face may even be people you once cherished as close friends, or even family (Mark 13:12).  They will hate you because you love Jesus, and you will feel it keenly (Mark 13:13).  Jesus never sugar-coated this bitter reality; but He did include a beautiful promise to all who would be faithful to Him even it means dying for their faith.  “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Revelation 2:10, NKJV.  Jesus won’t leave you to face this alone.  He said, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Matthew 28:20, NIV.  So be strong!  Hold on to your faith and keep trusting your Savior to keep you to the end, because the reward is totally worth it!