Times of Abundance, Times of Famine

James chapter 1
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

 

Conventional Christian teaching tells us that we go through seasons of trials and difficulty for a number of reasons. First, we’re told that times of hardship are times of testing. That’s what God’s word tells us in that passage from the book of James. We’re told to be joyful when God tests us and that is not an easy thing to do. Being joyful is the furthest thing from my mind when times get tough. Hard times do test our faith. We have to keep mind that this is why God allows testing in the first place. Testing produces steadfastness, or in other words, it teaches us patient endurance. This is echoed in Romans chapter five where Paul wrote that “suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope”. And Paul was speaking of the divine hope that we have in God because of the love He has poured into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

Tough times also teach us to lean on God and to trust in Him and only Him. – Let your unfailing love surround us, Lord, for our hope is in you alone. Psalm 33 – Unfortunately, we often turn to God only after all else has failed. Or we don’t lean on God quite as much when everything is going great – as we do when the bottom falls out. The life of Job teaches us that we may enjoy blessings one moment, and then have to endure suffering and loss the next. We all know the story. God permitted Satan to take all that Job had; his children, his possessions, everything. After all was gone, Job simply said, “The Lord gave, and Lord has taken away, Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

 

Job’s story is a riches to rags story. And in the end it was riches to rags and back to riches again. And there’s a lesson there for us. Job was blessed by God most of his life before he suffered the loss of his children and all his possessions. So Job’s story was not the story of man who lost it all and ultimately turned to God because he was already a faithful man of God. It was actually the time of blessing that prepared him for the difficulties that fell on him. The times of abundance prepared Job for his times of famine.

 

We’re good at blessing the name of God when he gives, but not so much when He takes away. The time of blessing prepared Job for the time of loss. And after he lost everything, Job’s life got even worse because God then permitted Satan to destroy Job’s health. It seemed that even his own wife turned against him when she to Job, “Why don’t you just curse God and die?” But he was unshaken. He simply replied, “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?”

 

Job’s faith was not built on the foundation of worldly wealth. As Satan learned, Job was not a man of God because God had blessed him with prosperity. Job was a man of God because he understood where his prosperity came from and most importantly, he understood that God owns it all. It was God’s to give and God’s to take and Job knew that and accepted it.

 

Nearly all of us have, or will enjoy times of abundance followed by times of famine at some point. That is to say, there will be times of blessing, and times of testing. Job understood this though he was never told exactly why God allowed Satan to do what he did. But Job knew that we praise God in good times and bad and in fact, the Bible tells us to use those times of abundance to prepare for times of famine. This is illustrated in the book of Genesis through the life of Joseph.

 

After his trials and after he had risen to become second in command in the land of Egypt, Joseph was told by God that the land would enjoy seven years of fruitful harvests followed by seven years of famine. Joseph did not curse God for bringing the famine. He did not ask “Why would a loving God allow such a severe famine to happen?” He did none of that. He simply obeyed God and used the time of abundance to prepare for the time of famine. God gives and God takes away, and there is no guarantee that God will ever give it back. Job didn’t know God would eventually restore his fortunes. And we’re never given such a guarantee in spite of what the prosperity gospel preachers have to say. In fact, the health and wealth preachers have it backwards. They claim that the famines prepare us for abundance. But as we see in the lives of Job and Joseph, quite the opposite is true. We must use the times of abundance to prepare for the inevitable famines.

 

I mentioned that there is no guarantee that God will ever restore us as He did Job. In this world, and in this life, I believe that to be a true statement. We may very well be left to experience times of famine for the rest of our lives. But as believers in Jesus Christ, we have hope beyond this world and beyond this life. Jesus told the story of a rich man whose name we’re never told and a beggar named Lazarus. We’re all familiar with that account in the gospel of Luke. Lazarus suffered a lifetime of misery but we can conclude that at some point in his life, he had placed his trust and hope in God. After a lifetime of famine, he received his “abundance” by way of eternal life in the presence of the Lord. I can’t promise many things but I can promise this: Eternity in the presence of our Lord will be far greater than all the riches and wealth and abundance this world has to offer. When we’re with Jesus Christ for all eternity, we’ll have all we’ll ever need.

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In My Seat

I had the opportunity to hear this man speak at our church in person a few months ago. It’s an amazing testimony. On this side of eternity, we cannot comprehend the ways of God nor can we fully understand certain things happen the way they do. All we can do is recognize when God has given us a gift, and make the most of it. It’s most unfortunate that there were some very nasty comments directed at this gentleman on his YouTube site. That’s why I moderate all replies and I will simply delete those kinds of comments. I’ve met the man. He is the real deal. He himself does not understand why things unfolded the way they did. But he is making the most of what God gave him. I could stand to make some improvements in that area.

Enjoy!

The Purpose of His Miracles

In chapter 2 of his gospel, John continues the record of the early days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, an account that began in chapter 1 where John the Baptist introduced Jesus and baptized Him, and where Jesus called his first disciples.
At the beginning of John chapter 2, Jesus has called at least five of the twelve disciples, but He has not begun to teach just yet. He has not begun instructing them in the ways of the gospel. They’ve only been with Jesus for about 48 hours by the time we get to the wedding feast at Cana.
Jesus has not yet performed any miracles at this point, at least none that we know of. This would be the first. It should be noted that John never uses the word ‘miracle’. He calls them signs. According to most commentators, John was being careful not to cast a spotlight on the actual miracles – or signs – themselves. Instead, John’s intent was to direct our focus toward their divine purpose.
Before Jesus turned the water to wine, He and His mother Mary had an interesting exchange.When the wine ran out, Mary said to Him, “They have no wine.” And He responded in verse 4, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

It seems that Mary was more than just another guest. This may have been a family member who was getting married. It may have been a close friend who asked her to take care of all the arrangements for this feast. So the request she made of Jesus was not an unreasonable request.There are two schools of thought here. This could have been an instance of a mother asking her oldest son to quietly step out and go procure more wine. It’s also possible (and probable) that she knew Jesus’ abilities and was asking for a miraculous solution to this problem.
The response from Jesus indicates that she probably was asking for some sort of supernatural intervention. The host of this feast was in real trouble. In the Jewish culture of that day, running out of wine during a wedding feast was a very serious social blunder. The host could actually be sued by the guests for not properly providing for them. 
So she called on her son for help, but He gave what seems like a very strange response.  He actually reprimanded her, ever so gently mind you, for calling His attention to this problem.
On the surface, it seems disrespectful for Him to have called his own mother “woman”. But I think it’s safe to say that He did so with the utmost respect, and with a kindness and gentleness that was evident in his voice. When we hear someone address a female as “woman” today, it’s often spoken in a very disrespectful and undignified tone. I don’t believe Jesus was being disrespectful toward his mother at all because that was forbidden under the Mosaic law. And Jesus never sinned, He never broke one single law. Nonetheless, Jesus was asserting His authority. As man, Jesus was the Son David. He was the SON of Mary. But as God, He is Lord over David and Lord over Mary as well. So He gave her a very gentle reprimand which was intended to remind her of His authority. And the reason he gave was, “My hour has not yet come.”

Everything Jesus did, and everything that was done to Him had a fixed time. He was born at a predetermined time. He began His ministry at a predetermined time. He was crucified at a predetermined time. He rose from the grave at a predetermined time. He ascended into Heaven at a predetermined time. He’s coming back at a predetermined time.
In this instance, the time had not yet come for Jesus to begin performing miracles and signs……openly and publicly. That’s what He meant when He said, “My hour has not yet come.”

Mary took the reprimand submissively and did not respond directly to what Jesus said to her. Instead, she turned to the servants and instructed them to do whatever He told them to do.
It might seem that she ignored what Jesus had just said to her but in reality, she did not. She was in fact, placing her full trust in Jesus because she had no idea what He planned to do, or if He planned to do anything. He very well could have said, “Let everyone drink water for the rest of the evening.”
But He instructed the servants to fill the water jars to the brim. And without a word being said, without waving his arms or any physical gesture, He changed the water to wine.
This is from a website called the “Biblical Jesus”:
John’s gospel clues us in to the divine purpose for Jesus’ miracles. After narrating the miracle of the wine at the wedding feast, the apostle adds, “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11). This verse gives us three purposes for the miracles Jesus did: 1) that they are signs; 2) that they “manifested His glory”; and 3) they helped His disciples to believe in Him. They did attract attention to Him, but ultimately, God had deeper, spiritual purposes for them.
The Pharisees often asked Jesus for a sign that would prove to them that He was the Messiah. He never gave them a sign except when He told them, “The only sign this wicked and adulterous generation will be given is the sign of the prophet Jonah.” During His trial the night before He was crucified, Jesus was sent to Herod  who, according to the scripture, wanted to see Him perform some sort of miracle. But never once did Jesus perform miracles for entertainment purposes. His miracles were not meant to be parlor tricks. His signs and miracles were intended for one purpose: To help people believe in order to advance the gospel and bring glory to God. 
Only a handful of people knew what Jesus had done. Though His hour for performing miracles openly and publicly had not yet come, He foresaw how this one very discreet miracle would affirm his identity in the eyes of those who had just begun following Him a couple of days earlier. They may have been second guessing their decision to leave everything and everyone behind at the spur of the moment to follow a man they scarcely knew. That would be a perfectly normal human reaction. But this miracle, this sign that Jesus performed at the wedding feast at Cana accomplished the same purpose his highly visible and more public miracles would accomplish later: It affirmed that Jesus was no ordinary man. It confirmed that He was indeed…..God who came to us in human flesh.
  

 

The Suffering of Jesus

A couple of years ago, a certain individual told me that a Christian should always be happy and joyful, regardless of any difficulty or hardship we’re faced with. That was his interpretation of that passage in Philippians chapter 4 where the Apostle Paul wrote about being content regardless of his circumstances. Yes, of course, we do have reason to be joyful because of our hope in Jesus Christ. We all know that. That’s not in dispute at all. But according to his interpretation, we as Christians are supposed to paint fake, plastic, phony smiles on our faces and never let on that we’re in pain. We’re never to let on that we’re hurting. We’re never to let on that we’re dealing with trials and hardship. It made me wonder if he truly knows our Lord Jesus as well as he claims. 
In His humanity, Jesus suffered many sorrows. Isaiah called Jesus a man of sorrows. When Jesus told His disciples that He must suffer many things, it wasn’t just the cross He was referring to. Jesus suffered grief, anguish, panic, anxiety, frustration, anger, pain. In fact, I believe the range of emotions and pain and suffering Jesus went through were necessary and here is why I believe that. Even though He is God and Jesus completely understands the troubles and sorrows we face in life – God often allows suffering as a means of testing and to strengthen our faith – there is something about having experienced suffering and sorrow personally, while walking the earth in the flesh, that draws us much closer to Him. It makes our relationship with Jesus much more personal. God came down from Heaven in the person of Jesus Christ and endured suffering, not as one watching from a distance, but as one of us. Now in that statement, I’m not talking about His suffering on the cross. That was His and His alone to bear. I’m talking about His life prior to the cross. 
Someone might say, “Jesus was never married, so He never experienced the pain of a cheating spouse, or a divorce.” In the Bible, His church is referred to as the “Bride of Christ”. That’s us. That’s you and me. That’s all believers. So wouldn’t it stand to reason that every time we sin, we’re cheating on Him. In the Old Testament God often compared Israel’s sins to adultery. In the New Testament, it’s called “grieving the Holy Spirit.” So don’t tell me He doesn’t understand the pain of betrayal. He understands it in a spiritual sense every time one of us sins. He understood it the night Judas betrayed Him in the garden. 
Again, someone might try to say, “But Jesus never had to deal with drug addiction or alcoholism.” How tempting do you think it was for Jesus not to indulge in and to partake in everything He created? The Bible says He was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. After 40 days in the desert, Satan tried to tempt Jesus to turn a rock into a piece of bread. Jesus had not eaten in all that time. Do you really think the lure of drugs and alcohol are more powerful than the hunger Jesus must have felt in that moment? 
“Since Jesus never married, He never had children, so He never experience grief over the death of a child.” Every single person who has ever lived, is alive now, and has yet to be born is a child of God. Yet the majority of mankind will reject Jesus and forever be separated from Him, and will spend eternity in Hell. In the book of Ezekiel, the word tells us that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. God will mourn over those who choose to spend eternity apart from His love. He will mourn the loss of the children who rejected Him.  
“How can He know what it’s like to lose everything? How can He know what it’s like to suffer financial ruin? How can He understand the loss of a job or a home?”
The Bible tells that the earth and everything in it belongs to God. All the gold and silver, all the cattle on a thousand hills are His. It’s all His, yet Jesus gave it all up when He became man. He never once tried to lay claim to anything that rightfully belonged to Him while He was on earth. In fact, He pointed out that foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man did not even have a place to lay His head. 
“Does Jesus truly understand our frustrations when we can’t find a decent job, or when it takes forever to recover from an illness or injury? Does He understand our frustration when we have to deal with a  difficult child? Does He even understand what it is to be frustrated?” There were times when it seemed that His disciples could not grasp even the most basic principles of the Gospel. He was trying to prepare them to be world changers and they argued over which of them was the greatest. So yes, I would say it frustrated Him. When He was asleep in a boat in the middle of a storm, his followers woke Him up in a state of panic. What did He say after he calmed the storm? “You of little faith. Why are you so afraid?” When some of His disciples were unable to drive a demon from a young boy and Jesus had to step in do it for them, He said, “You unbelieving and perverse generation. How much longer must I stay with you. How long shall I put up with you?” Frustration is a human emotion, and that was part of His human experience.
“Did Jesus ever experience panic or anxiety?” Luke wrote that on the night He was betrayed, He was in great anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood. Judge for yourselves. 
He experienced anger when He drove out the money changers and those who were selling sheep and cattle in the Temple. He experienced grief when Lazarus died. The Bible does not say specifically that He ever had women approach him with intentions that were – how can I put this – carnal. But again,we’re told He was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. So we can infer from that passage in Hebrews that He was tempted……in that way……at some point in His life. And yet…without sin. 
That same passage in chapter 4 of Hebrews tells us that because Jesus experienced the same life experiences and temptations as us, yet without sin, we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with us. I mentioned earlier that it was necessary for Him to suffer these things, but it wasn’t because God had something He needed to learn through those experiences. There’s nothing God needs to learn. Jesus went through what He went through for our sake, to help us understand that we worship a God who can relate to our troubles in a very personal way. He knows our troubles and sorrows because He is the all knowing God, of course, but we can take comfort in the knowledge that He knows our troubles and sorrows……….because He also lived it. 

The story of Hien Pham, as told by Ravi Zacharias

From a speech by Ravi Zacharias:

During my ministry in Vietnam in 1971, one of my interpreters who traveled with me was Hien Pham, an energetic, devoted young Christian who had worked very closely as a translator with the American military forces, purely as a civilian, with no official or military responsibilities. He just knew English so well that he was able to be of immense help to them in their linguistic struggles.

By virtue of that same strength he also worked with the missionaries. He and I traveled the length of the country and became very close friends before I bade him good-bye when I left Vietnam to return home. We were both very young, and neither of us knew if our paths would cross again. Within four years, Vietnam fell, and Hien’s fate was unknown.

Seventeen years later, in 1988, I received a surprise telephone call than began with, “Brother Ravi?” Immediately I recognized Hien’s voice. We got caught up with our pleasantries, then I asked him how he had managed to get out of Vietnam and come to the United States. I was not prepared for the story I was about to hear.

Shortly after Vietnam fell to the Communists, Hien was arrested. Accused of aiding and abetting the Americans he was in and out of prison for several years. During one long jail term, the sole purpose of his jailers was to indoctrinate him against the West — and especially against democratic ideals and the Christian faith. He was cut off from reading anything in English and restricted to communist propaganda in French or Vietnamese.

This daily overdose of the writings of Marx and Engels began to take its toll on him. One of the books he was given to read pictured the communist man as a bird in the ironclad cage of capitalism, throwing itself against the bars of “capitalist oppression” and bloodying itself in the process. Yet still it continued to struggle in its quest for freedom.

Hien began to buckle under the onslaught. Maybe, he thought, I have been lied to. Maybe God does not exist. Maybe my whole life has been governed by lies. Maybe the West has deceived me. The more he thought, the more he moved toward a decision. Finally, he made up his mind. He determined that when he awakened the next day, he would not pray anymore or ever think of his Christian faith again.

The next morning, he was assigned to clean the latrines of the prison. It was the most dreaded chore, shunned by everyone, and so with much distress he began the awful task. As he cleaned out a tin can filled to overflowing with toilet paper, his eye caught what he thought was English printed on one piece of paper. He hurriedly washed it off and slipped it into his hip pocket, planning to read it at night. Not having seen anything in English for such a long time, he anxiously waited for a free moment.

Under the mosquito net that night after his roommates had fallen asleep, he pulled out a small flashlight and shinning it on the damp piece of paper he read at the top corner, “Romans, Chapter 8.” Literally trembling with shock, he began to read:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose…. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?…

.…Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:28, 31, 32, 35, 37-39)

Hien wept. He knew his Bible, and he had not seen one for so long. Not only that, he knew there was not a more relevant passage of conviction and strength for one on the verge of surrendering to the threat of evil. He cried out to God, asking for forgiveness, for this was to have been the first day in years that he had determined not to pray. Evidently the Lord had other plans.

The next day, Hien asked the camp commander if he could clean the latrine again. He continued with this chore on a regular basis, because he had discovered that some official in the camp was using a Bible as toilet paper. Each day Hien picked up a portion of Scripture and cleaned it off, and added it to his nightly devotional reading. In this way he retrieved a significant portion of the Bible.

The day came when, through an equally providential set of circumstances, Hien was released. He promptly began to make plans to escape from the country. After several unsuccessful attempts he began again to build a boat in secret. About fifty-three other people planned to escape with him, and Hien was taking the lead.

All was going according to plan until a short while before the date of their departure when four Vietcong knocked on Hien’s door. When he opened it, they accosted him and said they had heard he was trying to escape. “Is it true?” they demanded.

Hien immediately denied it and went on to distract them with some concocted story to explain his activities. Apparently convinced, they reluctantly left.

Hien was relieved but very disappointed with himself. “Here I go again, Lord, trying to manipulate my own destiny, too unteachable in my spirit to really believe that You can lead me past any obstacle.” He made a promise to God, fervently hoping that the Lord would not take him up on it. He prayed that if the Vietcong were to come back again, he would tell them the truth.

Resting in the comfort of that impossibility, he was thoroughly shaken when only a few hours before they were to set sail the four men stood at his door once more. “We have our sources, and we know you are trying to escape. Is it true?”

Hien resignedly gave the answer, “Yes, I am with fifty-three others. Are you going to imprison me again?” There was a pronounced pause. And then they leaned forward and whispered, “No. We want to escape with you!”

In an utterly incredible escape plan, all fifty-eight of them found themselves on the high seas, suddenly engulfed by a violent storm. Hien fell with his face in his hands, crying out to God, “Did You bring us here to die?”

As he concluded his story, he said, “Brother Ravi, those four Vietcong were all fishermen who were quite skilled at handling a boat, and if it were not for the sailing ability of those four Vietcong, we would have not made it.”

They arrived safely in Thailand, and years later Hien arrived on American soil where today he is a businessman- forever grateful for America and praying that she would open her heart as a nation to Christ.

Dedicated to the Gospel

Acts 16 verse 40:

 After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them.

Paul and Silas met with the believers and ENCOURAGED them. The reason that passage is noteworthy is because of what happened the day before. Paul and Silas encountered the slave girl who had a “spirit of divination” and made money for her owners by telling fortunes. She began following Paul and those who were with him everywhere they went and continually shouted, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” This went on for several days until Paul became so annoyed that he finally turned to slave girl and commanded the spirit to come out of her… in the name of Jesus Christ.

When her owners realized they had lost this source of income, they seized Paul and Silas, dragged them into the town square and before the local authorities, made false accusations against them, and incited the crowd against them. Then the authorities had them beaten with rods and according to some Bible translations, Acts 16 verse 23 says they were also severely flogged.

Of course we know what flogging entails because of what Jesus endured prior to being crucified. Paul and Silas suffered the same sort of wounds as Jesus. They probably had multiple, deep lacerations on their backs and sides. We’ve all fallen and scraped our knees and elbows and when does it usually hurt the worst? It’s usually worse the day after, when the wounds begin to get irritated and scab over. So there’s no doubt in my mind that these men were in great pain.  On top of that they would have been weakened from the loss of blood. Yet according to the scripture, after their release from the prison, they went to Lydia’s house and offered encouragement to the believers. There’s only one word I can think of to describe something like that: DEDICATION.

As many times as I’ve read the book of Acts, I never noticed that before. I never noticed how Paul and Silas went to Lydia’s house probably less than 24 hours after being beaten and severely flogged, and in spite of their wounds which no doubt were very painful, they preached and taught and shared the gospel of Jesus Christ. So that raises a question. How dedicated to Jesus are we? How dedicated are WE to sharing the gospel? Are we dedicated enough to share the gospel in the midst of enormous pain? I don’t know about you, but if I had been flogged and beaten like that, I’d be looking for some pain killers. I’d be looking for a place to hole up until I had healed and fully recovered. I’d tell myself that I could go back to preaching the gospel……..after taking time off to heal. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But the fact that Paul and Silas didn’t take a few days off to heal before going to Lydia’s house to encourage the other believers speaks to their incredible dedication to Christ.

So again, how dedicated are we when it comes to sharing the gospel? It’s not likely that many of us will ever be made to suffer the sort of cruel pain as Paul and Silas, though the Bible does leave open that possibility. We may or may not have to endure that level of pain but most of us will, at some point, have to suffer through something. It could be the physical pain of an injury or illness. It might be emotional pain or psychological trauma. Pain of any kind can distract us from sharing Jesus Christ. My wife and I have been greatly distressed these past few months as we await the outcome of our custody case involving our granddaughter. I can speak from personal experience when I tell you that it is difficult at times to fight through that emotional pain and share the light of Jesus Christ with other people. When we go through pain, physical or emotional, all you want to do is focus on the source of the pain. And sometimes, we just want to shut down until the pain is gone. I’m sure Paul and Silas were grinding it out. They were fighting through the pain. But as great as their pain must have been, their love for Christ was greater.

So how dedicated are we? We’d do well to remember Paul and Silas’ example. Though their pain had to have been worse than anything we can imagine, they were focused on something far greater than themselves. And that’s our lesson. No matter how small or great our pain may be, God is greater. I repeat, no matter how small or great our pain may be, whether it’s physical or emotional pain, God is greater. And because the Spirit of God lives in all Christians the moment we ask Jesus to come live in our hearts, we can call on God and ask Him to give us the strength we need to help us fight through our pain and stay focused on Him. And once we do that, no one should ever be able to question our dedication.

Reforms We Can Live Without

In 1 John chapter 4, the Word of God tells us:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,  but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

God, the deity of Christ, and the Bible are being attacked, criticized, and challenged like never before. It’s happening here. It’s happening abroad. It’s happening outside the church, and it’s even happening within the walls of the church as well.

There is a very quiet but growing movement being promoted by non-Christians and surprisingly, even by some Christian churches, that calls for the reformation and modernization of Christianity. I read about this recently and here are some of the changes being recommended:

Pastors should stop preaching about heaven and hell.

Stop preaching the Bible as the absolute authoritative word of God.

Stop making the claim that the Bible is inerrant.

Stop preaching Christ as the only way to God.

Stop preaching sermons that make people uncomfortable.

And the lists concludes with this preposterous claim – Christianity must adopt these changes if it hopes to survive. 

Why do I say it’s preposterous? The Christian faith has survived for 2000 years because of its universal relevance, which simply means that the Bible and Christian doctrine are as relevant now as they were in the first century, and that there has never been an age in which they were not relevant. I would challenge anyone to point to a time in human history since Christ’s incarnation and show me a period of time when the Bible wasn’t relevant. And yet these so-called reformists are saying that Christianity must now adapt to modern culture in order to survive. John MacArthur had this to say on the subject: “The Bible does not need to adapt to modern times. Modern man needs to go back to Bible times.”

When I read that list and got to the part that says, “Stop preaching Christ.………..” that was as far as I needed to go. The changes being promoted by these so-called reformers are not from God. To stop preaching Christ is to effectively deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. It denies His deity. It denies the cross and the Resurrection. It denies that Jesus is Lord and it denies the fact that someday, Jesus is coming again. If these proposed changes were some sort of litmus test, they’d fail on that one single point alone. We can never stop preaching Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father.

Someone may ask, “What about Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation? Wasn’t reform needed then?” The answer is yes, reform was needed back then. By the time Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, the church had begun to stray off course. “So what’s the difference between the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century and this modern day call for reform?”  The answer is very clear. Martin Luther and the other reformers turned to the Bible as their point of reference. They went to the Bible and sought out its truths. These modern day reformers are, for all intents and purposes, denouncing the Bible.

In 2 Timothy chapter 4, Paul wrote:  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

It appears that time is near, if it hasn’t already come. I reject with all my heart and soul every single one of those recommendations. Every pastor and every Christian must emphasize heaven and hell, and not water down any part of any sermon concerning the reality and horror of hell. We must stand our ground on the authority of the Bible as the absolute word of God. We must boldly defend Christ, for if we deny Him, He will deny us. If that makes people uncomfortable, then maybe a little discomfort is what they need. We must pray that God will open their eyes to the truth.

Yes, it may cause some discomfort, so we must make every effort to teach and preach the truth of the Gospel in a spirit of love and with genuine concern for those who might be corrupted and lost because of this kind of false teaching. Our nature as men is to bristle and get defensive when challenged. We must avoid that type of response. We want to win people to Christ, not push them further away. Our conduct and speech must be a reflection of Christ. All we do is for His glory. Do people see Christ in us? That’s our litmus test.

Contrary to the notion that Christianity must adopt these changes if it hopes to survive, I say any church that adopts these changes would cease to be a Christian church. Peter warned the church about false teachers in his second letter to the church:

But there were also false prophets in Israel, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will cleverly teach destructive heresies and even deny the Master who bought them. In this way, they will bring sudden destruction on themselves. Many will follow their evil teaching and shameful immorality. And because of these teachers, the way of truth will be slandered. In their greed they will make up clever lies to get hold of your money. But God condemned them long ago, and their destruction will not be delayed.

Beware of false teachers and false doctrines. Know what God’s word says. That’s the only way to defend it. When you make your stand, stand on His truth!

 

The Great Gift

Genesis 22

Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

“God will provide for Himself the lamb.” Basically, Abraham said to Isaac, “God will provide the sacrifice.” We all know the rest of the story. God did indeed provide the sacrifice. After the angel of the Lord stopped Abraham from sacrificing the life of his son Isaac on the altar, Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in some bushes by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and sacrificed it instead. Afterwards, Abraham called that place, “The Lord Will Provide.”

The ram was sacrificed in Isaac’s place and was a foreshadow of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. By providing the sacrifice, God gave Abraham a gift, the gift of life, the life of his son.

Two thousand years ago, God gave all of humanity a great gift. But before a gift can actually be considered a gift, two things must happen. First, someone must give. That’s been taken care of. God gave His son who in turn gave His life for us. God provided the sacrifice. The other thing that has to happen for a gift to become a gift is that it must be received. Until the gift is received, it is only an offer and it’s an offer that’s only good in this lifetime. We can do nothing to earn the gift and that’s good news because we could never do enough to earn it. That’s why we call it grace. And it’s grace that saves us; God’s gift of grace. It is the greatest possible gift we could have ever hoped for and it’s received through faith in Jesus Christ.

Have you ever received a box at Christmas or on your birthday and opened it and discovered not just one gift inside, but several? As we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ this coming Sunday, let’s look closely at how much is packed into this gift of grace. When we open the package, we find not just one gift, but many.

There are the many lessons Jesus taught while He lived on earth. God could have forsaken sinful mankind, but He didn’t. He gave us His son and He gave us the Holy Bible with all its truths and principles to guide us and help us live God honoring lives.

There was Jesus’ willingness to suffer the punishment we deserve, which put his gift of love on display for all to see and was so vividly described by the prophet Isaiah: .

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:5

And of course, there is the gift of salvation and redemption through His death on the cross.

But perhaps the greatest of all the gifts that came packaged with the gift of grace, the reason we celebrate Easter Sunday, is the resurrection. Without the resurrection, there is no Christian faith. There is no hope. But Jesus did defeat death. In the 11th chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus spoke these words of eternal life: I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;  and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. That is our hope. That is God’s great gift of grace!

The Resurrection Story

The Resurrection Story

Beginning with John 20, verses 1 and 2

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

While John mentions that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, he never said or implied that she went alone. There were other women with her as confirmed in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Luke does not mention any of the women’s names until later in the account.

Matthew said there was a violent earthquake and that an angel of the Lord rolled back the stone at the entrance to the tomb. According to Mark, we know when it happened. It happened before the women arrived at the tomb because they found that the stone had already been rolled away, according to John.

Matthew’s account is not completely chronological. And in fact, none of the gospels are a second by second, minute by minute transcript of what took place that morning. Keep in mind too that it only takes us a few minutes to read about the Resurrection and everything that went on. In real time, all these events actually took place over a much longer period of time. There is no mention of Roman soldiers lying in front of the empty tomb pretending to be dead in any of the other gospels. Matthew is the only one who mentions that. As far we can tell, the soldiers apparently picked themselves up off the ground and were long gone when the women got there. Then the angel that had been sitting on the stone frightening the daylights out of the soldiers went inside the tomb, or disappeared, or whatever it is that angels do to keep from being seen.

At the end of the 23rd chapter of Luke, the scripture tells us how the women knew which tomb Jesus had been placed in. Verse 55: The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment. This refutes modern day arguments against the resurrection of Jesus which claim that Jesus was not raised from the dead, but that the women merely went to the wrong tomb. They knew where Jesus was.

And at the beginning of Luke chapter 24, Luke continues: On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

When the women went inside the tomb, they encountered two men in bright white clothing.

As Luke explained: While they (the women) were wondering about this; suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’Then they remembered his words. When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.

Remember the part of that passage that says, “In their fright, they bowed down with their faces to the ground.” We going to come back to that.

The parallel to this in Matthew’s gospel said they ran quickly from the tomb to go find the disciples. Matthew also said Jesus met them along the way and the women worshiped at His feet. But based on what we read from John’s gospel in the first paragraph, it seems that Mary Magdalene left the other women behind and continued on to go look for John and Peter. From Matthew’s account, it seems that the other women must have immediately recognized Jesus. But as we’ll see in a moment, John says later on in chapter 20 that Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener. So it’s most likely that she ran right by Jesus in her rush to go find John and Peter. In those disputed verses in Mark chapter 16 (verses 9 thru 20), verse 9 says that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. There is no indication that she immediately recognized Jesus, however.

When she found John and Peter, she told them about the empty tomb. Continuing with John 20 verse 3: So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He (speaking of John) bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then (verse 6) Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

 Most commentators agree that in verse 8 where it’s written that John saw and believed, it means he believed that the tomb was in fact, empty; NOT that Jesus had risen. The very next verse says they did not yet understand.

But if Mary Magdalene had seen and recognized the risen Lord, if she had seen Jesus and worshiped at His feet with the other women like Matthew described, it makes no sense that she would have told Peter and John that someone took His body. So it’s reasonable to conclude that she did indeed continue on to go look for John and Peter after she and the other women left the tomb.

We can conclude also that Mary returned to the tomb with Peter and John. Or at least, she wasn’t very far behind. In the very next verse, (John 20, verse 11), John said Mary stood outside the tomb crying. We can also conclude that she remained behind after Peter and John left. She is now alone.

John 20, verse 11 continues to tell us: As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

This is not the angelic encounter described by Luke and Matthew. When we look closely at the gospels, we can conclude that this was her second visit to the tomb that morning. The fact that John did not mention the other women here is inconclusive because he didn’t mention them earlier either. John did say Mary saw two angels in white, but notice that he did not give any indication that she was frightened by them. Usually, whenever the Bible says someone saw an angel, the very next words are…..and they were afraid. And in fact, Luke did say the women, in fright, bowed at their feet. But John said nothing like that here, which leads me to believe that this was her second encounter with the two angels. The first time she saw them was when she first arrived at the tomb with the other women, as we’re told in the other gospel accounts.

This passage confirms then, that for whatever reason, when Jesus appeared to the group of women as they ran from the tomb, Mary did not immediately recognize Jesus. If she had recognized Him, why is she now asking about His body? The reason is this: Mary, like John and Peter, did not yet understand that Jesus had risen. Even though Jesus was standing right in front of her, the scripture says she mistook him for the gardener.

(Picking up in John 20 verse 15) Jesus asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

I believe verses 11 through 18 are in chronological order. Some have suggested that verses 11-18 should follow verse 1 to be chronological. That makes no sense. Again, why would she then run to Peter and John and tell them someone took the body, if she had seen Him alive and recognized who He was?

So Mary returned to wherever it was Peter and John and the other disciples were gathered. She went to the disciples with the news I have seen the Lord. The disciples had probably been scattered prior to this time, with no more than two or three of them in the same place. Remember, Jesus predicted they would scatter when He quoted the prophecy from Ezekiel the night before His death. “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But now it appears that they’re all in one place. Luke’s gospel tells us what took place when Mary got there, and he now identifies the women by name.

Again, reading from Luke 24

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.  But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

It seemed like nonsense because, according to John, they still did not understand what had happened. As I said previously, they all appear to have gathered in one place from what we just read in Luke. We know Jesus appeared to a large group of His disciples not long after this, and they were all in one place. It may have taken a while to get everyone together. When the other women went to look for the disciples to tell them this news, they may have had to split up because it’s very likely that the disciples had divided up into smaller groups.

Regardless of how it all came about, they told the Eleven that they had seen and talked to Jesus. This took place after the other women saw Jesus and worshiped at His feet after leaving the tomb, and after Mary finally recognized and spoke with Jesus.

Now we turn out attention to Peter. When the women told everyone they had seen Jesus, that got Peter’s attention. Luke said he got up and ran to the tomb when he heard what the women said. I think this was his second visit to the tomb that morning because Luke made no mention of John going with him. Luke also said nothing about Mary Magdalene running behind him. I don’t believe Luke would have missed those details. He was the only gospel writer to mention the repentance of the second criminal during the crucifixion. Plus, we’re told in John’s gospel that Mary first went to John and Peter which seems to imply that the other disciples were not present when she told them someone had taken Jesus’ body. So based on that and based on the movements of Mary Magdalene that morning, I believe Peter visited the tomb not once, but twice. The first time was when Mary Magdalene told him and John that Jesus’ body was missing, and the second time was when he heard all the women talking about having seen and spoken with Jesus as described by Luke.

It only makes sense that Peter was anxious to see Jesus. What happened three days before this? Peter denied Jesus, not once, but three times. So I think Peter was eager to see if it was really true. Because if it was really true, he needed to get right with Jesus. They didn’t part on good terms the night before Jesus was crucified.

How anxious was Peter to see Jesus again? In John chapter 21 beginning with verse 7 the scripture tells us just how eager he was:

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.

I’d say if Peter was eager enough to see Jesus that he was willing to swim 100 yards to shore, he was eager enough to make two trips to the empty tomb.

In what you’ve just read, I’ve tried my best to take Biblical evidence and come to what I believe are logical conclusions. If I missed anything or made an error, as W.A. Criswell once said, we’ll settle it in Heaven!

The reason I’ve attempted to describe the resurrection in one single account is because – even though there are four gospels – there is only one truth. Jesus came into the world. He walked on the earth as man. He was crucified for our sins, but on the third day He rose from the grave and ascended into Heaven. That’s the truth. God could have easily inspired one writer to document the life of Jesus, but He didn’t. He inspired four, knowing full well that people would come along in ages to come and would claim that the four gospels contradict one another, or that they’re inconsistent, or that they contain errors. And it’s not just non-believers and critics who say this. There are Christians out there today saying the same thing. That does not surprise God any at all. The truth is, the gospels do not contradict each other. They complement one another. We praise God for inspiring four writers to write four accounts of the life of Jesus because it only makes us work that much harder and dig that much deeper into the scripture to find the truth about Jesus Christ!

What’s Holding You Back?

For those who are not familiar with the Texas Motorplex, it’s an NHRA sanctioned 1/4 mile race track in Ennis, Texas, which is a few miles south of Dallas. In the world of professional drag racing, there are two classes of dragsters that can reach speeds close to 300 miles per hour, the Top Fuel dragsters and the Funny Cars, and another, the Pro Stockers, that consistently hit speeds well over 200 miles per hour. You have to be able to bring these cars to a stop in hurry so they don’t run off the end of the track and to do that, they deploy parachutes that are attached to the rear of the cars.

So I was at the Motorplex a few years ago watching the races when during one particular race, one of the cars in the Funny Car class suffered a parachute malfunction right off the starting line. He was probably no more than ten feet off the starting line when before his parachute accidentally dropped out and deployed. Needless to say, he lost the race. It’s kind of hard to win a drag race with your parachute holding you back.

Of course in the Apostle Paul’s day, there were no top fuel dragsters or race cars but Paul often compared our Christian walk to running a foot race. He used that analogy in several of his letters as a way to illustrate his own personal growth as a Christian. In 1 Corinthians chapter 9 for instance, Paul wrote: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

Paul used that same analogy again his when Judaizers tried to convince the Christians at the Galatian church that they were required to keep the Old Covenant Law in addition to their faith in Christ. He asked in his letter to that church, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” They were being hindered in their growth – held back if you will – by false teaching.

It happens to us as well in our own time. There are things we do and things we fail to do that hinder our growth as Christians. There are things that hold us back from being the kind of Christians that God has called us to be. This has been true in my own walk and I know I’m not alone. No one is immune to it.

So just what are some of things that hold us back? The first and most obvious answer is sin. The Bible makes it very clear that sin hinders our fellowship with God and this is is expressed very clearly in the first Epistle of John:

1 John 1

If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

Regardless of whether it’s an unconfessed sin, something that we’d prefer not to think of as sin, or something that we’re trying to keep concealed, sin hinders our growth as Christians by breaking our fellowship with God. And it will hold us back until it’s been acknowledged, confessed, and dealt with in accordance with Biblical teaching.

There are some things that are not as obvious. And there’s one thing in particular. Again, we can look to the first letter of John:

1 John 4

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

Jesus said that we’re to “love the Lord with all our heart, all our souls, and all our minds.” And He also said “we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves.” All too often, we fail to do that. The failure to love as we’re commanded holds us back in our growth as Christians. Yet, love is at the top of the list of attributes that identify a genuine Christian in Galatians chapter 5, what Paul referred to as the “Fruit of the Spirit”. It’s quite possible that a person who professes Jesus Christ as his or her Savior but whose faith is not yielding the kind of love highlighted in scripture might not be saved UNLESS…….it’s something that God is working on in that person’s heart through the conviction of the Holy Spirit. But that’s another matter for another time.

Do we display that type of love all the time? I know I don’t. Sometimes we’re just trying grind our way through a tough day or difficult week, and we all go through seasons when it’s hard to be the loving people of God we’re called to be. We all go through dry spells. What we need to look for in ourselves is the desire to love God and love others as we’re commanded to do in scripture. The Bible says we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (Philippians 2). 

We’re also commanded to examine ourselves to see whether we’re in the faith. And Paul explained the reason for self examination with this question, “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13) So when we examine ourselves, when we’re working out our salvation with fear and trembling, we must ask ourselves, “Is my faith yielding the love that God desires? Or is the lack of Christ-like love holding me back?” And we must ask God to reveal that to us as well. 

It’s not easy. I struggle with this. We all do. After all, how can you love someone who doesn’t have any use for you? How can you love someone who despises you? How can you love someone who treats you as though you don’t exist? How can you love someone who only says they love you but only if you give something in return?

Let me ask those questions another way. How can you love someone who would take a thorny vine and wrap it around your head and grind it into your forehead? How could you love someone who spits on you and beats on you and whips you like an animal? How could you love someone who would nail your hands to a hunk of wood and then taunt you during the final moments of your life? Yet, Jesus did. He even loved those who crucified Him. “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

He could have stopped it at any time but he didn’t. He loved us too much to put a stop to it. Because we so often fail to love others as perfectly as He loves us, He had to become our sacrifice. He had to bear our sins and our failures and our flaws because they hold us back. But at the cross, nothing could hold Jesus back and in turn, He held nothing back from us. He gave His own life for our lives and by doing so, He was the model of perfect love.