Your Plan for 2024

Commit to read the New Testament in 2024. Just one chapter every weekday, accompanied by a short devotional here.

Friday, March 1, 2024

March 1 - James 4

Key Verse: 
James 4:6
Big Idea: A heart that is wise will also be humble.

Why do we have conflicts with other people? James says that it is ultimately because of conflict within ourselves. The greed and lust in our own hearts makes us discontent with what God has given us, and we take it out on other people. Why do we not have those things? James says it is because we do not humble ourselves enough to simply ask God - or when we do ask God, it is with impure motives, desiring a holy God to support our lives of sin. As long as we want to lift ourselves up, whether with a thin veneer of spirituality or not, we will find God resisting our efforts, trying to give us the wake up call that we need. When we humble ourselves, God gives us more than we deserve, and draws us closer to Himself.

It is one of the big paradoxes of the Christian life that the tighter we hold onto ourselves, the quicker we lose ourselves, and as soon as we give ourselves away, we find that God gives us more than we ever could have imagined. This means that being wise sometimes goes against "common sense." During the black plague, it meant that Christians cared for their infected neighbors when their own families turned them out on the streets to die. When believers give their lives for their testimony, it meant knowing that their blood spoke louder than their mouths. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the hero of the story stopped to help someone laying on the side of the road, knowing that on that street, people often pretended to be hurt while gangs of thieves hid, ready to ambush. True wisdom is a life in tune with God, and the desire to humbly let Him show us the way.

To live a wise life is to realize that our pleasure is too small a thing to live for. Tomorrow is not promised, and all boasting about what we will accomplish is simply evil. The wise life is a life not lived for itself, but for God and others. When we are not trying to secure blessings for ourselves, we are certain to find them.

Discussion Idea: What does humility mean to you? How is it different than low self-esteem? How does humility prepare us for God's use?
Prayer focus: Pray that God would help us to see how desperately we need Him.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

February 29 - James 3

Key Verse: James 3:2
Big Idea: Wisdom begins with our words.

Words are powerful things. We can build someone up or tear them down. We can strengthen a relationship or destroy one. Words are also uniquely easy to employ. We do not need anything special to speak, because our mouths are with us all the time. Various forms of technology give us the ability to speak easily and without immediate consequence, emboldening us even more. In modern society, our marriages, our child rearing, our friendships and our politics are all in chaos, largely because of untamed tongues. That tongue, James says, is a fire. Fire has three characteristics I think are relevant here: it only needs a little bit to start, once is starts spreading is is very difficult to stop and it leaves destruction behind it. Our words are the same way, and a life of wisdom must weigh each one carefully.

Younger kids: What is something you say when you are upset that you might not mean? How can this cause problems?

But James also explains that a tongue is like a horse's bridle or a ship's rudder; although it is small, it sets the course for everything else. Our words can set a course for our actions, where we set off a chain reaction with an ill advised remark that takes us farther than we want to go. Even in our own emotions, choosing to complain can set us deeper into a feeling of irritation and discontent. If your words are the rudder of your life, are they pointing you in the direction you really want to go?

God made the world with His words, spoke His Word to us and called Himself the Word when He became a human being. Speech is no casual thing, but a central part of what it means to be an image bearer of God, a special gift of humanity. Then how blasphemous is it for us to take that gift and use it to speak against people who are also made in the image of God? No one would burn a picture of someone they loved, yet people claim to love God while slandering the people made after His likeness. James tells us that this is as insane as one plant bearing two kinds of fruit. Our words reveal our hearts, and when we control our language with love, the whole body will follow in wisdom.

Discussion idea: When someone says 'I just speak my mind,' what are they really saying? Should we be concerned when a date, a politician, a friend or a church leader cannot control their words? What does that say about their wisdom and the state of their hearts? Read Proverbs 18:6-7 and compare it to what James is saying here.

Prayer focus: No one can totally tame the tongue except the One who made it. Pray for God's help to think of Him before you speak and to only say the words which glorify Him.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

February 28 - James 2

Key Verse: James 2:11
Big Idea: A life of wisdom cannot be taken in bits and pieces.

Imagine a long, strong iron chain. It can lift tremendous weights and remain as strong as it has always been. Imagine now that someone has come with a file and weakened the chain. How many links must be broken until the chain is broken? Obviously just one. James teaches us that God's Law is the same way. We can rightly say that murder is worse than lying and that in the chain of a moral life, murder is a larger, heavier link. But when either is broken, the whole Law is broken. Disobedience in one area of life is not an isolated problem, but one aspect of the basic sin of rebellion. The same God gave every command, and to disobey one is less about disobeying the command than it is about disobeying God.  God is not a respecter of persons: one person who rebels in something scandalous and dramatic is not any less redeemable by  God than the one who sinned by gossip and envy. Indeed, even the one who shows favoritism to the rich, the powerful or the socially acceptable sinners has by their partiality shattered the whole law. We cannot follow God in one area of life when we are willfully disobedient in another.

If all sin is an expression of disobedience, then all righteousness can also be understood as diverse aspects of one thing: love (Galatians 5:14). Love is the distinguishing mark of a person who has been truly saved. Even the demons recognize God mentally, but to recognize Him in our hearts is to be changed. The kind of faith that led Abraham to offer up Isaac, trusting that God would provide Himself a lamb was the same kind of faith that led Rahab to show hospitality to the spies, and trust that God would use His people to show hospitality to her. The kind of faith that is alive shows itself in loving kindness and love cannot be fragmented. To live a real life of wisdom, we must let love for God and our neighbor shine through in every area of life.

Discussion idea: Where are you tempted to show favoritism instead of godly love? How can you love someone that might seem unlovable in the next week?
Prayer focus: Pray for the single-mindedness to love God with your whole heart.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

February 27 - James 1

Key VerseJames 1:5
Big Idea: Wisdom comes from God.

James is a short letter, written by the half-brother of Jesus (the son of Mary and presumably Joseph, rather than Mary and God), but is extremely rich. In many ways, it is a kind of loose commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, taking and applying many of the things that Jesus taught during His earthly ministry. Going back much further, it reflects some of the content of Proverbs in the Old Testament, and could be described as where the rubber meets the road in the Christian life. Living for Jesus is not just a matter of theological learning, but of wisdom - the skill of living well.

It is easy to live well when things are going smoothly, but life is full of bumps that threaten to throw us off course. James 1 warns us that when these trials come, we have to patiently endure, and let the challenges of life mature and grow us. The only what that this can happen is to have the wisdom to know how we ought to respond to difficult situations. But where do we get that wisdom? Do we need to go to a special school? Does it require a certain amount of failure in life to learn the lessons to succeed? The answer that James gives is surprising in its simplicity: just ask. Ask, and like when Solomon asked, God will give generously without finding fault (1 Kings 3:1-14). We must not ask in a double-minded way, where we look for God's guidance, but still intend to keep our own counsel. Instead, we must ask with the kind of humility that shows that rich and poor, young and old and everything in between are all just as fragile before God.

Older kids: At a certain age, most people enter a "know it all" phase. Some people are blessed enough to leave it! Why do you think that when we gain a little bit of confidence, we go too far and assume we do not need anyone else's advice? Why is it so tempting to get set in our ways?

In our own hearts, we find only the soil that is fertile for the growth of our darkest temptations. But every good gift, including the wisdom to use those gifts well, comes from God and God alone. The secret to living life well is to simply ask God, in faith, to show us what to do, and then humbly do it. If we trust and obey, we can live the life God intends for us.

Discussion idea: Why might we be reluctant to ask God for the wisdom to deal with a situation? How might our own desires keep us from asking in faith?

Prayer focus: What is the most challenging decision facing you right now? Pray for God to give you the wisdom to know what to do and the courage to do it.

Monday, February 26, 2024

February 26 - Hebrews 13

Key VerseHebrews 13:13
Big Idea: Following the Son of God is to be at home with God and exiled from the world.

In the final chapter of the book of Hebrews, the supremacy of Jesus is applied to real life. If we have  a better word from God, better promises and a better priest, we ought to live in a better way. Some of the ways this works out are mundane: show hospitality to foreigners or follow the pastors of your church. Others are extreme, describing how we should grieve with fellow Christians in prison unjustly.  But they all point out that as Christians, we live in this world but are not of this world. We are pilgrims, only living here for a little while, but our true citizenship is not of Texas, the United States or even the Earth. The cities of this world are passing away, but our eyes must be fixed on the New Jerusalem coming down from Heaven, where our citizenship lies.

Older kids: Hebrews 13:4 talks about the marriage bed being undefiled. Why do you think that sexual morality is included in a chapter like this, in between being arrested for your faith and greed? Does adhering to a biblical morality in this area cause people to be outcasts?

Younger kids: Hebrews 13:16 says that when we do good and share (the King James Version says "communicate"), that is a sacrifice God is pleased with. Why is sharing hard? How is sharing with someone else a sacrifice that pleases God?

Jesus was crucified just outside the gates of Jerusalem, like the sacrifices of old were taken outside of the camp. They were removed from the community because they were defiled by the sins of the people and Jesus, in the same way, was rejected by the people before He carried away their guilt. As Christians, we must be ready to follow Him there. We must go where the Son of God is, even if it is a place of stigma and shame. We must go where the Son of God is, even if following Him means that we stand out from the crowd. We must go where the Son of God is, because He gives us a real home, that we can never lose. The God of peace will give us peace, even when we are being rejected.

Discussion idea: Why is the idea of being rejected so painful for us? When does following Jesus make us lower in the eyes of other people?
Prayer focus: Think of an area in your life where you are tempted to worry about what people think instead of what God thinks. Pray for the wisdom to follow Jesus, wherever He leads.

Friday, February 23, 2024

February 23 - Hebrews 12

Key Verse: Hebrews 12:2
Big Idea: Our faith’s trailblazer and completer is the Son of God.

Many advances are started by one person and finished by another. Much of what we know about planetary motion was discovered by Johannes Kepler, but he built on years of observations by his mentor Tycho Brahe. Edward Jenner invented vaccines when he discovered that infecting someone with cowpox would keep them from getting smallpox, but Jonas Salk changed the world by applying the principles to polio. Even in our families, we often see things unfulfilled and picked up by others. We might read the Hall of Faith in the last chapter and think that Christianity is like that: Moses had some, David added a little more, the prophets added to that and Jesus finished it off. But today’s verse reminds us that this is not the case: Jesus is the author and the finisher of faith - the beginning and the end.

Younger kids: Do you have an easier time learning to do something if someone shows you or tells you? Why do you think that is?

This is what gives chapter 12’s call to endurance its bite. We have been given the perfect example of where to go and how to get there, because Jesus came to the beginning of the path when He was born in Bethlehem and followed it all the way through the cross to return to Heaven again. The example of Jesus is not a rosy picture. It involves pain, rejection and separation from the temptations for the world. If we stray from that path, God disciplines us to bring us right to the path.

Older kids: How do you react to different kinds of discipline? Why does one person respond to correction by improving, while another gets harder hearted?

But we do not do it because it is easy. We should hold fast to our faith, no matter the cost, for at least two reasons. First, the trail has already been blazed by the Son of God. Second, the path leads straight into the presence of our Heavenly Father. Jesus has showed us the path, and His presence empowers us to take it.

Discussion idea: If Jesus were just a perfect human, we could admire the life He lived. How does the fact that He was also God allow us to follow His footsteps?
Prayer focus: Is there some area in your life that you have given up and decided that some sin or act of obedience is unattainable? Pray for forgiveness and confidence that Jesus had taken the path before us.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

February 22 - Hebrews 11


Key Verse: Hebrews 11:26
Big Idea: The Son of God lets us see the unseen.

Hebrews 11 is one of the most famous chapters in the Bible, often called something like the "Hall of Faith." It begins with the definition of faith - the substance of what we hope for and the assurance or conviction of what is still unseen. Faith lets us hold onto what God has promised, but that has not yet occurred. The chapter then proceeds to give the stories of major exemplars of faith throughout the ages, from Abel down through the ages. While some of these are quite short, the description of Moses is lengthy, beginning with the faith of his parents, and moving through the Exodus.

This mini-biography of Moses is the story of how Moses, who was raised as a prince of Egypt, turned his back on the pleasures that he saw in the moment to throw in his lot with the Israelites instead, confident that they would go to the land God had promised. He saw that his unseen reward was greater than the visible things that he gave up. Moses traded the treasures of Egypt for what ended up being 40 years wandering in the desert and never lived to enter the Promised Land. Still, he trusted that it was better to suffer with Jesus than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of this world and he trusted that even death itself could not keep God from fulfilling His promises. Moses knew that one day, Jesus would come again and raise him from the dead to dwell in the land with Him.

Throughout the letter, Hebrews has been explaining to us that Jesus is better. He is better than the Law, better than sacrifices, better than the priesthood and better than the Temple. But Moses' example shows us that even the pain of the Christian life is better than the pleasure of the world. Faith is our confidence that God's Word is worth more than we can see. When we walk by faith, we realize that we may face suffering and heartache in this life, but trust that when we cannot see what God is doing, we can still trust who He is. In Jesus, we see the unseen.

Discussion idea: When have you ever traded short term pleasure for the longer term?
Prayer focus: Pray for the ability to see and trust God with the bigger picture.