Thursday, December 31, 2020

January 1 - Genesis 1/Matthew 1

-- Happy New Year! For 2021, we will be taking a sampling of the Old Testament. One chapter a day will expose us to all of the major narratives in the Old Testament, most of the major passages important for understanding the New Testament, and at least one chapter from each book. If you missed the New Testament study last year, or would just like to do one chapter from each (maybe doing one as a family and one privately, or one in the morning and one in the evening), I am including the New Testament devotionals each day as well. They are not substantially different than what we did last year. May God bless you as you spend time in His Word. --

Key Verse: Genesis 1:31

Big Idea: In the beginning, it was good.

How would you describe our world? I wonder how many adjectives you would work through before you got to "very good." You would be right, of course. The world is full of sin and suffering, far from how its Creator designed it. But we should not fall into the trap of Greek philosophers, who convinced themselves that the physical world is bad and that our goal is to escape it. That is not the hope of the Bible! God created the world to be a showcase of His glory, where His people could walk with Him, serve as His representatives, and worship Him. Sin has added some intermediate steps to that plan but has not destroyed it irreparably.

When Jesus conquered death, He rose again in a physical body. That was no accident! His body is the beginning of a new physical creation. All of the consequences of sin, whether the direct consequences of people's actions (like murder and theft) or what is called natural evil (like plagues and earthquakes) are dealt with in the person of Jesus. He has paved the way to bring things back to a state of "very good," when He returns and accomplishes the "restoration of all things."

This is good news! Ultimately, of course, it is good news that all things will be fixed. But the fact that physical is not another word for "bad" is good news too. It means you can look at a sunset and truly worship the God who created beauty. You can taste a piece of chocolate and praise God for it. Your body is not a prison for your soul, it is a part of who you are, by God's grace. Although sin has tarnished the silver, so it must be cleaned to be fully appreciated, God made it very good.

Discussion idea: Our desires are clear examples of good things that sin has warped. What is something good in this world which can be made bad by excess or misplaced priorities?

Prayer focus:  Ask God to help you recognize the beauty and glory of creation, despite the pain of sin.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

John 18

Key verse: John 18:36

Big idea: The Son of God's Kingdom is not of this world. 

Today's reading centers on the trial of Jesus. Pilate is trying to determine if Jesus is a threat to his own power (about the only thing Pilate cares about) and is inquiring about the charge that He is the King of the Jews. Jesus does not answer His question directly, because Pilate would not understand it. Instead, He explains that His Kingdom is not of this world. It is a different kind of kingdom, with a different origin, a different scope, and a different methodology. If Jesus were a King like Caesar, His followers would have taken up arms to fight. But His followers stood back at His request, as He was led like a sheep to the slaughter. His Kingdom is not a Kingdom that grows by killing but by dying. The kingdoms of this world are all about what they can take, but our King is looking to give. 

He is a threat to Pilate. Just not in the way that the prefect imagines. Jesus is undermining the whole system of greed and violence on which Pilate has built His life. The Son of God is establishing a Kingdom which shall not pass away. On the tail end of another election, this should stop us in our tracks. Jesus is not ever going to be represented in the US or even there modern state of Israel. In this era, He is building a different kind of Kingdom, with people of every tribe, tongue, and nation. If His kingdom were of this world, we might try to create a nation that would enforce church attendance, ban blasphemy, and collect offerings by taxation. But His Kingdom is not of this world! If it were His servants would fight instead of praying and coerce instead of testifying. Buy we are called to serve Him in His way, for His glory. 

Discussion idea: From relatively early in history, Christians have regularly tried to fuse church and state. Why is this temptation so powerful? Why does it misunderstand what Jesus is doing?

Prayer focus: Identify some areas in your life -specifically - where you are operating in a worldly way instead of following the pattern Jesus has laid out. Pray for God to change your point of view and help you to live for His kingdom not of this world. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

John 17

 Key verse: John 17:23

Big idea: We share in the unity of the Son of God.

Thanksgiving is coming up, and maybe your spouse is already telling you how to keep the peace. No one needs to be upset over pie, so certain subjects are off-limits. Stick to how fast the weather changes and hating the Yankees so everyone can get along. Is that what Jesus meant when He prayed that His people would be one in John 17? Perhaps we should just ignore our differences, focus on what we can agree on, and all live happily ever after. Hardly. 

The prayer itself shows something deeper. Verse 21 is startling: "May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you." Somehow, believers are supposed to be one as the Father and the Son are one? But the Father and the Son really are one. There is one God, who is three persons, and so they are united in their very being. If that is the kind of unity Jesus was praying for, it is not something as simple as wallpapering over our differences. No, our unity must be in the very person of the God of holiness and truth. When we are saved, because Jesus died for us and rose again, we share in His glory. He lives within us, and we are "in Christ." If I am in Christ and Christ is in me, and you are in Christ and Christ is in you, we are brought together in a supernatural way that we simply cannot pretend to understand. Our unity is not an external convention, but a spiritual reality which we need to live out.

When we do live it out, not by meeting in the middle but by all drawing closer to the Son, it is the most powerful defense of the gospel (called an apologetic) that there can possibly be. If I tell someone that they can be reconciled to God while my life shows that I am reconciled to God's other children, then "the world may know [the Father has] sent [the Son] and [has] loved [us] as [He] has loved [Jesus]." God's love for us is revealed in our love for each other, because we have been invited to partake of the blessed harmony of God Himself. What a blessing! What a responsibility!

Discussion idea: How can we put our unifying love into action?

Prayer focus: Lord, make me what I already am. Help me to realize that since I am in You and am loved by You, that the others you love are worthy of my love as well. Help me to unify people around Your truth. Make us one, so others will see and join this sweet fellowship.

Monday, November 9, 2020

John 12

 Key verse: John 12:43

Big idea: The sign of a hard heart is loving people's praise.

People-pleasing is the kind of vice that sounds like a virtue. Wouldn't it be a good thing to want to make people happy? No one wants to disappoint people. But the issue is one of priority. If our prime directive is to avoid upsetting people, we are likely to frequently disappoint God. That is what happened to the people in this chapter, who believed Jesus' claims but refused to confess Him because they were worried about how the religious leaders would react. The threat of being shamefully excommunicated from the synagogue and polite society was more than they were willing to risk, so they smothered the truth (Romans 1:18). 

The reason it is so easy to become a people-pleaser is that we are so sensitive to the attitudes people have toward us. A little bit of praise or an angry complaint touches our hearts sharply and push us in one direction or the other. But our hearts are much harder when it comes to God. We do not notice His conviction when we are doing the wrong thing or His encouragement when we do the right. So the praise of people, which is really worth little, seems to be worth a lot. And the praise of God, which is worth everything, becomes neglected and ultimately ignored. These people, for fear of being rejected by people in life, risked being rejected by God in death. What about you?

Discussion idea: Are you a people-pleaser? What are some areas where you are tempted to be 'nice' rather than holy? Is it possible to satisfy people for long?

Prayer focus: Ask God to soften your heart so you are led by His priorities, not those of people. 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

John 10

 Key verse: John 10:4

Big idea: The sign of a sheep is recognizing the voice of the Shepherd. 

When our first child was born, I was fascinated with the fact that my daughter seemed to recognize my voice. For months, I had sung to her and talked to her, and now without being insulated by the womb, she still seemed to pick my voice out above that of strangers. She knew, in some sense, who her Daddy was. She knew my voice, and she knew Colleen's. Eventually, she would learn the voices of many other people and fall in love with them too (one of the first people to come see us in the hospital, Brother Paul Cleveland, is someone she talks about often and then clams up whenever he is actually around). But immediately, she knew our voices and not the voice of a stranger.

Now, when Jesus says "my sheep know my voice," He obviously does not mean it in a literal sense. The "voice" is no more literal than the "sheep." But the idea is clear: when He calls, His sheep can discern His voice. False teachers may claim to be prophets or even the true Messiah, but those who know Him are not fooled. This is a startling claim of Christian exclusivism. Others may claim to be God's people, but if they do not recognize the voice of Jesus, they do not know the Father. If they accept some substitute, they do not know the Father. Responding to Jesus as our shepherd is the sign that we are one of His sheep.

Discussion idea: What are some ways we experience the "voice" of Jesus?

Prayer focus: Thank God that, although we could not ever earn our way to Him, He came to us to call us out.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

John 8

Key verse: John 8:34

Big idea: The sign of slavery is sin. 

Today is election day (join me on or from 6-6:30 PM Central for a special time of prayer for our nation). People around the country are using their freedom to make choices, from who they support for President down to the local school board. The candidates generally claim to offer freedom, although what they mean by that can radically differ. Even more, their definitions differ substantially from the biblical idea of freedom. When Jesus spoke to a Jewish crowd, He told them that if the Son made them free, they would be truly free. They were outraged: who was He to claim that He could make them free? They were freeborn sons of Abraham! They were not anyone's slaves! It sounds similar to how modern Americans might react. "I am free already! No one is the boss of me." 

But the biblical understanding of freedom entails much more. We are slaves to whatever we serve. If we say that we are free but have no control over our appetites, then we are truly slaves to the tyrant Sin. We might have the ability on paper to choose what we want to do, but truly be slaves. It might be sobering to look at your life and see how free you really are. Maybe we look at our sin and tell the addict's lie: "I can quit whenever I want." Maybe we do things that look good, but know that we are slaves to reputation and pride. The chains are invisible but they are heavy.

Jesus offers something better. A slave in ancient Israel was not a permanent resident of the household: they would serve their term of service to pay off their debt and then be freed. But a child remained part of the family forever. So the one set free by the Son - to become a child in the family - is truly free! Free not to rip the wallpaper and stain the carpet, but free to live with the responsibilities and privileges of the family. Jesus offers us freedom from the pettiest tyrant of all: ourselves.

Discussion idea: What is a sin that threatens to enslave you? How does committing that isn once deepen its hold on you?

Prayer focus: Lord, thank you for setting me free by the cross, so that I never must sin. Help me to live in that freedom and to offer my life for You.

Monday, November 2, 2020

John 7

 Key verse:  John 7:38

Big idea: The sign of new life is the Holy Spirit flowing within us.

We recently got some new branded church cups. They are both very nice and quite large, so I can put them in my Keurig and hit the travel mug size and "strong" to get a decent quantity of coffee. Yet, if I live through tomorrow, I have not yet had my last cup of coffee. No matter how much I drink, I will never be set for life; I just get thirsty again. This is really the way that everything is in this life. It entices, we partake, but we are never really satisfied no matter how much we get. But Jesus offers a something greater.

He stands in the streets at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles, like Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, and tells anyone who is thirsty to come and drink. But those who bring their parches souls to Jesus do not find they need more tomorrow. Instead, they have the water of life bubbling up inside them, satisfying them and leaving them with an abundance to share with others. John explains that this "water" is the Holy Spirit within us, giving us life and both the ability and urgency to share it with others. 

One of the clearest signs of a true believer is a heart for evangelism. Do we want to share the satisfaction Jesus has given to us with others? Do we recognize that everything we have is free, and that we can never exhaust the supply of grace we have been given? There is no need to ration it! We can take freely and share freely. 

Discussion idea: Why is thirst a good metaphor for a spiritual need? What other metaphors capture different aspects of salvation?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to be a well where others can find your Spirit readily available to satiate their thirsty hearts.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

John 5

 Key verse: John 5:21

Big idea: The new birth is a sign of the resurrection to come.

John 5 is all about authority. Who is Jesus? How does He dare to redefine the Sabbath and even claim equality with God? The Lord explains that His authority is not something He has usurped, but is rightfully His own. John the Baptist has testified of His significance, and His miraculous works further demonstrate that He is no ordinary man. But the most substantial thing which Jesus did was something which was uniquely the prerogative of God. At the last day, God is the One who will raise the dead and give them new life. Yet Jesus claims to be giving people life too. 

He gives life to broken bodies and will go on to raise the dead, but the specific form of life which Jesus was giving now was spiritual. The spiritually lost and condemned are forgiven by Jesus, on the merit of His coming sacrifice. They are given new life in their hearts, where the death of sin is broken and replaced by the vibrant energy of the Living God. Bringing life where there was none is the unique role of God alone, and by doing so, Jesus demonstrated who He is. We can live with the assurance that what the Son begins will not go unfinished. If we are given new life in our hearts, God will raise our bodies also. The day is coming when all those in the tombs will hear His voice and be summoned back to life again. The same authority which can transform our hearts can break the power of death itself. 

The transformation of our hearts gives us some hint of what our final resurrection will be like. After being saved, I am still me. I have certain likes and dislikes, certain strengths and weakness, and a general personality. When I am saved, those things are not all wiped away. But there is a sense in which I am also a new creation. I am the same and different. When Jesus calls us up from death, we will be ourselves, yet glorified. Our bodies are both our old ones raised up and yet new. What Jesus' power and authority can do for us by faith will one day be finished by sight. 

Discussion idea: How does the doctrine of a future resurrection cause us to live differently than a purely spiritual health?

Prayer focus: Lord, thank You for always finishing what You start. Thank you for redeeming my soul and for the certain knowledge that you will heal my body too. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

John 4

Key verse: John 4:23

Big idea: The sacrifices were the sign of the spiritual worship to come.

It is always interesting to me to see the way that children process through play. If our daughter gets in trouble, her baby doll is likely to be punished in the next few days for doing something similar. Our son speaks in high pitched "baby" voices to little things, even when he is not saying any actual words. Both of my kids love their little play kitchen. One of them will stand in their playhouse and "cook" while the other swings and places an "order." These are all shadows of adult things, and will eventually be replaced by the real thing. In a sense, the whole Old Testament sacrificial system was a toy copy of the real worship that would come. 

When Jesus sat by a well with a Samaritan woman, He told her that the day was coming - and was now here - when worship would not be centered on a Temple or a mountain, but be in Spirit and in truth. The sacrifice of animals pointed forward to the perfect sacrifice of Jesus. All of the ritual washings and restrictions pointed toward the holiness of God. The dietary and clothing restrictions showed the separation of God's people. Most importantly, approaching the center of the Temple prefigured the day when we would be able to approach God Himself. Everything pointed forward to the reality which we get to experience in truth.

Discussion idea: Why did God give pictures of the ultimate worship before revealing the whole thing?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you focus on the reality and not be distracted by forms or methods. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

John 3

 Key verse: John 3:14

Big idea: The sign of God's salvation is the cross. 

John 3 is one of the most famous chapters in the Bible, and with good reason. Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Senate (the Sanhedrin), came to Jesus under the cover of darkness and Jesus told Him what it took to enter the Kingdom of God. You must, Jesus explained, be born again. There is no substitute for becoming a new creation, where we are a part of God's family and citizens of His realm. Birth is an interesting metaphor because it is so passive. We did not work our way up to being born or do anything to deserve it, we were simply brought into the world. No single analogy captures ever facet of salvation, but this metaphor is uniquely powerful in showing how salvation is a fresh start, inexplicable in its timing and irrevocable in its results. 

Jesus does not explain much about how salvation works. It is a mystery, like the changing currents of the wind. The only explanation He gives of the mechanism is that salvation comes when we believe and is like when Moses lifted up a bronze serpent in the wilderness, and those who looked on it were healed of their snake bites. In the same way, those who look on Jesus when He is lifted up will be born again into His Kingdom, healed of the serpent's sting. The sign of God's salvation, the place we look for our redemption, is the cross where Jesus was lifted up. His death brings us life and His suffering brings us peace. There is no greater sign of love.

Discussion idea: During Hezekiah's reign, the serpent was destroyed because people had begun using it as an idol. How can we mistake the things which should point us to Jesus with Jesus?

Prayer focus: Lord, thank You for the gift of Your Son and the simple promise that if I look I will live. Help me to keep Him before me all the time, and trust Him alone. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

John 2

Key verse: John 2:19
Big idea: The ultimate sign is the resurrection. 

I once had a conversation with someone where I asked what evidence they would need to believe in God. They told me that if God personally sent them a message, then they would believe. Personally, I was skeptical and told him so. "If you heard a voice, you would assume it was a hallucination." He admitted I was right. I do not remember the specifics of how the conversation went after that (except that it was unfruitful), but I wonder if he might have suggested that other people also needed to see God at the same time he did, or perhaps hear the message. Where do we draw the line of sufficient evidence? 

Jesus did not say that the evidence of who He was would be the turning of water into wine or the healing of a blind man. Instead, He told them, "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up again." They did not understand, or they would have killed Him on the spot. Any blasphemy they might have thought He was committing by saying He could build the Temple so quickly was nothing compared what He was really claiming: to be the place where Heaven and Earth met, the place that people could find peace with God, and the place of true worship. What evidence did He offer for such a claim? That when they destroyed that Temple, He would build it again in three days. They could kill Him, but they could never stop Him.

Discussion idea: Why is the resurrection a better sign than any other? Here is a debate about the evidence for the resurrection which may be interesting:

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to trust you. Not simply blindly, but recognizing that You have already given the ultimate proof. If you conquered death, no problem I face can compare. If you gave your life, nothing could be beyond your love.

Friday, October 23, 2020

John 1

(I am grateful to Bro John Raines for picking today and yesterday up so Colleen and I could take a 3 day “weekend”)

Key Verse: John 1:14

Big Idea: The sign of God’s character is His Son.

Have you ever noticed how your view of something changes perspective once you have been able to experience it up close? Many people have seen Niagara Falls on television or in the movies. You may have even read about the dare devils who attempted to “ride” the falls in a barrel, only to lose their life. However, there is no way to truly experience the reality of the sound and the power of Niagara except in person. But, up close and in person you can feel the power of the roar of the falls and are overcome by the magnitude and power of the water falling over the falls every second.

When I read verse 14 about the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among the disciples, the beholding of the glory and that He was full of grace and truth, it helps me to realize that short of God becoming flesh, temporarily experiencing the limited finiteness of His creation, that we (His creation) may have never truly understood the character of God in regard to His grace. It is through Christ, God in the flesh, that we can see the embodiment of God’s grace. The ultimate sacrifice given for us on our account, due to our sin, on the cruel cross of Calvary. 

God in the flesh, Christ, demonstrating the character of God toward us in a visible, tangible example of grace and truth through His sacrifice. This demonstration of grace should help us to fully appreciate the price paid, not only for our sin, but for the sin of the world.

Discussion idea: What are some things you have experienced up close that changed the perception you had from a distance? What are some other examples from scripture that demonstrate the character of God through Christ?

Prayer focus: God help me to desire to draw closer to You in order to experience the reality of Your character demonstrated through Christ.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

2 Peter 3

 Key Verse: 2 Peter 3:9

Big Idea: Jesus’ promise to return is true, even if it seems delayed.

When I was a little boy, my dad delivered propane (Bro. John here). This meant many early mornings and late nights, especially during the winter since most homes depended on propane for heating and cooking. In addition, there were many Christmas morning when my dad would have to leave early in the morning because folks would call our home needing a delivery of propane. As a child, I struggled with trying to wait for my dad to get home for us to open our Christmas presents. He desperately wanted to be there with us, so my mom would do her best to have us wait, but it always seemed like it took forever for him to get home.

What I failed to completely grasp as an inpatient little boy, that although it seemed like an unnecessary delay, my dad was doing what was necessary to take care of people in need. My concept of time was limited to my own desires because I was unable to see the needs of others. In many respects, the same is true of believers today. We look at all the things happening in our world and wonder why Jesus delays His return. In our limited view, we believe the time is right, but we fail to see things from our Heavenly Father’s view. People are in need; there are many lost that our Father is trying to reach. He does not desire for any to perish but wants all to come to repentance.

So, while we may think that the return of Christ is delayed, the truth is Christ will return when the time is right. If we can only see the need that God sees, our perspective of delay may just be altered to see the lost in need of salvation. 

Discussion idea: Do you feel that our limited view affects our thoughts on the physical world? How about the spiritual world? What ways can we seek to see the world through God’s eyes, instead of being limited to our own wants and desires?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help us see the need of Salvation for the lost in respect to the return of Christ.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

2 Peter 2

 Key verse:  2 Peter 2:19

Big idea: The difference in true and false teachers is seen in their fruit. 

This spring, I lost track of some of the seeds in my garden. I did not know what kind of plants the various seedlings were, and was left with only one option: wait. When some plants started bearing okra, some tomatoes and some cucumbers, I found out what kind of plants I had. A plant’s nature is inevitably revealed by its fruit. This is not always true in our ordinary life; some of the best coaches in any sport were mediocre players. Or someone might be a good professor of medicine and a poor doctor. It is possible to know about something and not be able to do it well. 

But biblical knowledge is different. Head knowledge and obedience are not neatly separable things, because the proclamation of the Christian message is not just about information but transformation. That transformation requires the blessing of God and the presence of His Holy Spirit, so a true teacher will be marked by the lives which they live. Someone who claims to bring some new insight, yet who is in bondage to sin in their own lives, reveals their nature. Indeed, Peter warns us that these false prophets offer freedom to their audience - freedom to do what they want, when they want, how they want - while the liar's own life shows that they are just peddling another kind of slavery. Like a dog returning to its vomit or a washed pig to the mud, these false teacher's superficial change reveals that they were never transformed in the first place.

We should be cautious in today's world of internet, TV, and radio pastors of buying into whoever has the slickest presentation or who says what we most want to hear. The personal life of a Christian authenticates and verifies their message, which is why the local church is so important. 

Discussion idea: What are some messages that offer freedom and deliver slavery? 

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to live worthy of the calling you have given me, to proclaim your message with word and works alike.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

2 Peter 1

 Key verse: 2 Peter 1:10

Big idea: A truly changed heart produces a changed life.

Imagine that you are walking through Walmart and a slightly crazed man walks up to you. "Hello, friend. I am Dr. Zerubbabel Locoman. I have developed a transformation ray, capable of turning a person into a bird!" He pulls out what looks eerily like a water gun and squirts you with something that feels suspiciously like water. You are slightly worried at his wild laughter and cries of "Fly, my little friend, fly!" Yet, when you reach around and touch your shoulders, you do not find any wings. You still have skin of your usual shade instead of feathers, and the thought of eating worms is still several ranks below a slice of cheesecake. What conclusion would you draw? Probably that you have not been changed into a bird, and are the same person you were before you made Dr. Locoman's acquaintance. You, brilliant scientist that you are, have discerned that something that has truly been changed will be different. 

There is a clear analog in spiritual life: If we have truly been changed by placing our faith in Jesus, that faith will grow and bear fruit. Peter describes it as a process of adding new graces to those we already have, showing that our transformation is not immediate, but is gradual. If we suppress our natural growth, we will lose sight of where we have been and what God has done in our lives, robbing us of assurance and joy. But if we diligently work out the salvation which God had begun within us, we will walk forward with confidence. When we have been truly changed on the inside, it is only natural that we will be changed on the outside.

Discussion idea: What are some dangers of expecting everyone to grow on the same schedule? How does a late bloomer differ from someone who never has any fruit at all?

Prayer focus: Go through the list at the beginning of the chapter. Where are you weak? What comes immediately before that? Ask God to help you see opportunities to strengthen in that area, and to give you the assurance that your weakness does not nullify His faithfulness. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

1 Peter 5

 Key verse: 1 Peter 5:10

Big idea: Our exile is temporary.

Driving to Laneville to church camp, you can usually make it from Alvin to Pearland before the first kid asks: "Are we there yet?" Maybe the first one is joking, but there always seem to be a few kids who think of 610 as the edge of the known universe. It is hard to explain to an 8 or 9-year-old kid how long four hours is. Is it 8 episodes of their favorite TV show? The length from breakfast to lunch? 64 times through "Let It Go"? You might put it a number of different ways to try and help them connect the time to something they understand. However you go about it, the point is simply to convince them that they will not be strapped into a vehicle watching cows go by forever. There will be an end, and the week at camp will be worth the relatively brief trip. 

Right now, we live in a world of exile. We are in hostile territory, and we have to be alert! But being vigilant is exhausting. Are we destined to live in a constant struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil forever? Peter says no, this trip is short compared to the time we will spend at the destination. We, like all of God's family, suffer for "a while" "in the world." But that suffering is replaced by "eternal glory," where He receives "glory and dominion for ever and ever." In comparison to eternity, our suffering is just a bus ride. So buckle up.

Discussion idea: One of the challenges for talking to kids about lengths of time is finding a comparable reference frame. Does that connect with our struggles in comparing our temporary suffering with the eternal hope before us?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you to stand firm for a little while, knowing that His rest is ahead.

Friday, October 16, 2020

1 Peter 4

Key verse: 1 Peter 4:1
Big idea: Suffering reminds us of our exile.

As a mother eagle knows that her eaglets are growing closer to the time where they will need to live on their own, he gradually begins to make the nest less comfortable for them. Removing some feathers here, making things a little rougher there. Slowly, her child becomes less and less at home in the place which they will not be able to stay. She allows them to go through discomfort not because she does not love them, but because she does. This mother eagle does not design for her babies to remain children forever, but for them to grow, fly, and do the things for which they were designed.

Similarly. In our Christian lives sometimes if things go too easily (if we experience too much material comfort or if things are consistently going our way), we get complacent. When get comfortable in the warm cozy nest of our life and we forget to look outside! We lose sight of where God has called us to go. And so like an eagle, ee are made uncomfortable by God. First Peter 4 describes this by explaining that the one who has suffered in the flesh is through with sin. Once we have seen the outcome of the sins of the flesh, that bait loses its appeal for us. 

When we have truly known that all sin can lead to is death, the bait loses its charm. When we see that our death has already been overcome by the suffering of Christ, we have discovered the power for a new kind of life. Sometimes, though, the suffering which God allows us to endure is often not corrective, as if he is punishing us for something that we've done wrong already. Instead, some suffering is formative, where God uses the discipline in our life to make us into the people he would have us to be. It may be that there is no way for a free human to be conformed to the image of Christ without suffering. Certainly, Jesus Himself did not complete his course without much suffering; we should be surprised if we are treated differently than our master.
Discussion idea: A fairly new song asks what if "the aching of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy?" Do you think that has been true in your own life?
Prayer focus: Ask God to teach you to rejoice in suffering because it points to Him.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

1 Peter 3

Key verse: 1 Peter 3:14

Big idea: Our exile may mean temporary suffering but eternal reward. 

Sometimes I get ads for various stock tip websites. They called Netflix or Amazon when they were cheap and now, for a low monthly fee, they will give you their next big tip. The obvious question is if they are so good at picking stocks, why do they need to make money selling their picks? Shouldn't they have all the money they could possibly want from their expert trading? But after you push past that question, you can't help but notice the disclaimer: "Past results are no guarantee of future performance." That is a good life principle. How many one-hit wonders, washed up actors, and has-been politicians have never returned to their old heights? How many people are stuck reliving their glory days? Past success does not predict the future. 

The Bible frequently features reversals, where someone's beginning and end do not align. Lazarus and the rich man is a well known one, where comfort in life becomes suffering in death, and suffering in death becomes the seat of honor beside Abraham in death. It is not the only one by far. Jesus made it a general principle that whoever seeks to save his life will lose it while whoever loses his life for His sake will find it. In that sense, we should not be surprised if living in this world, as exiles waiting for the return of the King, we suffer. Inevitably, sometimes the new life God has given us in the old wineskin of the world system causes leaks. 

We should not bring about our suffering for sin - we are not looking for trouble. But if we suffer for doing the right thing, and suffer with integrity, then our suffering can point people to Jesus. Then our suffering now leads to rewards for eternity. Our past pain is no guarantee of future pleasure. Indeed, it is a hint that we are not made for this world, but a better one where our hearts will be satisfied in the satisfier. 

Discussion idea: Have you ever known someone whose pain pointed people to Jesus? How? What can you learn from them?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you see your suffering in light of eternity.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

1 Peter 2

 Key verse: 1 Peter 2:11

Big idea: We live in the world, but not for the world. 

If you invite me over to your house for chicken fried steak, fried okra, mashed potatoes, and hot cornbread (with butter, no sugar), then I will be a good guest in your house. I will not throw trash on the floor or punch holes in the sheetrock. But please do not expect me to dust the baseboards or repaint the spare bedroom. When we are somewhere that is not our home, we want to be good guests, but want to remember that it is someone else's home, not ours. 

As Christians, the world is like that. We are exiles, so we should not fix our hearts on the things that distract us from eternity. "I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles," Peter wrote, reminding us of the tension that we live with. On one hand, we are strangers and pilgrims, so we should not be enticed by fleshly lusts. But on the other, we should keep our lifestyle pure before the world, so that we can serve as a witness. We must live well in the world, fulfilling our civic duties, showing honor and respect, and setting an example for the people around us. These are not things we do to try and make the world a better place; ultimately only the return of Jesus will do that in a way that matters. Instead, these are things we do as strangers to not make a mess while we are here, and to win an audience with those around us to point them to Christ. 

Discussion idea: How might a Christian who is too concerned with this life behave? What about one who is not concerned enough?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to see my life as a tool for your glory, not my comfort. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

1 Peter 1

 Key verse: 1 Peter 1:1

Big idea: We live as exiles in the world. 

Home is a small word for a big idea. You may go on a trip and sleep in nicer beds than the one that is in your bedroom, but there is still something better about coming home and being in your bed. Home is where we are at peace and can rest in belonging. It is the place where we are safe from the conflicts and pains of life. Home is where we want to get back to when we are away. We have expressions like, "Don't get too at home," that warns us about getting attached somewhere we will not be able to stay. I think that is something of what Peter means when he addresses his readers as "strangers," as the King James puts it. The word means "foreigner," or "exile." It refers to someone living in a country that is not his or her own. 

Peter's audience live in various places: Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. But they are not at home there. The problem is worse than that! They are not Jewish exiles in Pontus or some lost Frenchman who wandered into Asia minor. They are citizens of a new world, born into the Kingdom of God, living in this old world only for a season. We who are God's children are exiles, living in a place where we do not belong for a little while, until our King mounts His great rescue mission. So don't get too at home.

Discussion idea: What are some concrete signs that a Christian is becoming "at home" in the world? What are some things that an exile mentality does?

Prayer focus: Ask God to remind you who you are and not to lost sight of that ultimate significance.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Mark 16

 Key verse: Mark 16:7

Big idea: The Son of God is faithful to His Word, even when we do not understand.

Mark 16, the triumphant conclusion to the gospel, begins with the women going to the tomb, expecting a corpse and finding an angel. This heavenly messenger told them not to be afraid because, "he is risen, he is not here!" But it is a part of the next verse that stands out the most to me. They are to carry a message to the apostles, and Peter in particular. Go to Galilee and "there ye shall see him as he said unto you." There seems to be a gentle rebuke implied by this. If they had heard what He said in Mark 14:28, they would have been at the tomb with bated breath, waiting for death to be broken. They would have already called the La Quinta in Galilee and made arrangements for their reunion with their Master! But they did not hear. Peter in particular is singled out because He was too busy claiming he would never deny Jesus to find out what would come next. 

Yet God was still faithful to His Word. He did what He said He would do even if no one believed Him or even understood Him. What an encouraging truth! God's faithfulness does not depend on my faith. The outcome is not determined by my intellect. He is solid although I am shifting. The same Jesus who could be trusted to keep His word even if death intervened is that same Jesus that overwhelms our weakness. When we are weak, He is strong. 

Discussion idea: Why did Jesus tell them that He would go before them into Galilee even though He knew they would not believe? Have you ever had a similar experience, where you learned something you would only apply later?

Prayer focus: Praise God for His faithfulness, despite our weakness. 

Friday, October 9, 2020

Mark 15

 Key verse: Mark 15:35

Big idea: The Son of God laid down His life willingly. 

Mark 15 is a painful chapter to read if we slow down enough to experience it frame by frame. Jesus handed over, His life traded for that of a murderer by corrupt leaders on an ego trip. A governor without scruples, willing to do the right thing until it was hard. The Son of God and Lord of Lords mocked, 'worshipped' in derision, and nailed to a cross to slowly suffer and die. Yet, not that slowly. In fact, Jesus died quickly enough that Pilate was surprised that he was already dead when His body was requested for burial. Jesus did not cling to life until the bitter end. He finished the work which He came for and then voluntarily gave up His life. 

Jesus could have stopped the whole horrible affair at any moment. He could have called down an army of angels. At His word, the whole universe could have been dissolved. Each of those who mistreated Him could have been turned to salt like Lot's wife, consumed with fire like those who tried to capture Elijah, or swallowed up in the ground like the enemies of Moses. The same God who did all of those things was now the one bleeding and scorned. But He let it continue. When the final moment came, the eternal immortal God, who did not need to ever die by nature or justice, chose to give His life up. He laid it down willingly so that we could live. 

I do not have any practical application, discussion idea or prayer focus for you today. Just a challenge to read through Mark 15 out loud, slowly, and to thank God for the cross.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Mark 14

 Key verse: Mark 14:3

Big idea: Humility and sacrifice are the offerings fit for the Son of God. 

It is hard to buy gifts for my Dad. He does not want much, and what he does, he already has. What do you get someone like that? We probably all have that kind of person in our lives. You want to show love and appreciation but cannot find the vessel to do it. It was even sillier when I was a kid, and my Mom would take us to the store to pick out something to get for Dad with the money he made. If that can be true of people, how much more is it true of God? Everything we have, He gave us. He needs nothing and has everything already. If there were something He did not have, He could simply speak and it would come into being. You cannot buy a nice Swiss watch for the one who aligned the orbit of the planets in perfect harmony with the word of his power!

So what does the Son of God want from us? Only everything. A woman (we know it was Mary from John 12:3) took a precious bottle of perfume, worth a year's wages, and poured it over Jesus. Some scolded her, saying that this was a tremendous waste. Jesus loved the poor; surely this gift could have been better employed by being sold and given to them. But Jesus took a different point of view. She did a good work for Him out of love, which would not be forgotten. Although she did not understand it all, she was setting His body apart for burial, something they would not have time to do later that week. The point was not the value of the perfume that she poured - that is nothing to God. It was her humility to decide that Jesus was worthy of the best and her lavish sacrifice to pour it all out for Him.

We cannot give God anything He needs but there is one thing He wants: our hearts. If we resolve to give Him our best, no matter the cost, He will delight in that gift. When we give Him things, we give Him what is already His. When we give Him ourselves, we recognize that even though it is not enough, He deserves nothing less.

Discussion idea: What are some modern equivalents to saying the perfume should have been sold and given to the poor? 

Prayer focus: Pray for a heart like Mary's, that gives Jesus all that we have and all that we are with total abandon.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Mark 13

 Key verse: Mark 13:25

Big idea: Every eye will see the Son of God. 

Sometimes, in a conversation about faith, someone will say something like: "That's good for you, but no one can really ever know for sure. It is just about what you choose to believe." They believe that Christianity is subjective and might work for you but not for someone else. But Mark 13, describing Christ's return (theologians call it parousia - the Greek word for "appearing"), does not talk about a private emotional experience. It talks about the day when faith ends and gives way to sight. On that day, there will be no more wondering about what is true. There will be no more room for debate. Every eye will see Him as He comes in the clouds with power and glory. 

This is an important philosophical point, I think. If Christianity is true, it is not a private thing that can be true for me only. If it is true only personally, then it is false! Christianity claims that there will be a final, public declaration as the final event of history as we know it, after which everything will be radically different. Either that will really happen or not. Of course, when that moment comes, it will be too late for those who have joined the rebellion against the Lord!

But this is not the first time that Christianity is made public. The first time that Jesus came, the world was also faced with a brute historical fact. Either Jesus' tomb was empty on the third day or it was not. If there is a body of Jesus somewhere in the world, then Christianity is false. But if Jesus rose again, it validates everything He claimed. Although His resurrection was not seen by the whole world, it was witnessed by hundreds. There is sufficient evidence for people now to trust if the will, but there is coming a day where God will remove all doubt. We will all see Him but what will He see when He looks at us? Will He find faith?

Discussion idea: Why does Jesus regularly emphasize the public nature of His second coming? 

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you live your faith publicly today.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Mark 12

 Key verse: Mark 12:24

Big idea: The Son of God goes beyond all of our expectations. 

If you could teach a dog to speak and asked it what it thought a perfect heaven would be like, it would probably talk about soft grass for its feet, big bones for its teeth, and hair that never gets a burr. Or imagine a baby's idea of paradise: being swaddled all the time, carried from place to place, with a never ending supply of 98 degree milk. Our ideas of Heaven, without being corrected by the Bible, are usually "like now, but better." We assume that our current life is the best God could come up with and that eternity will be Extreme Makeover: Universe Edition. The same studs and foundation with new paint and more modern furniture.

This assumption is not a modern problem. The Sadducees tried to set Jesus up by asking Him a question about who a woman that had been married seven times would be married to in the Resurrection. They did not believe in an afterlife and were trying to prove that the idea was absurd. But Jesus cut them straight to the heart (paraphrased): "Isn't the reason that you are so wrong? You do not know the Bible or the power of God!" The point of this stinging rebuke was that they assumed that resurrected life in the new heavens and new earth would be basically life like now: marriage, work, and play. But God is so much more powerful than that. His plan is to give us something beyond what we could ever dream of! 

If this is true of eternity, it is also true now. We err when we pray and ask God to modify the edges of our situation. Sometimes we want God to tame our temptations a little bit or slightly edge us toward more comfort. But what if God wants you to follow in Abraham's footsteps and leave behind everything you have ever known for a place He will show you? What if He does not want to slightly improve your involvement in some sin but to fundamentally free you from it? What if we stopped assuming that God peaked sometime yesteryear and believed that we have not yet seen a glimpse of what He can do? We would pray more boldly, work with more fervor and expectation, and live in the constant expectation of worship.

Discussion idea: What is an area where you have limited what you think God can or will do by your past experience? How can a bolder faith challenge those assumptions?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you see beyond what has been and trust Him to go beyond anything you could ask or think. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Mark 11

 Key verse: Mark 11:10

Big idea: The Son of God is the Son of David. 

Fittingly, this week we begin with the triumphal entry to Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) and will end on Friday with the crucifixion. We will not be experiencing the final week of Christ's life in "real-time" because even though the gospel devotes a massive portion of its contents to a single week, even these 5 chapters are biased toward the last 24 hours. This final trip to Jerusalem is why Mark is writing and why Jesus came. There are no accidents in God's universe, certainly not here in the final days before history's climax. Jesus needs to go into Jerusalem, even though He knows that this will lead to His death. He has arranged every detail, down to the owner of the colt that knows He is coming for the animal. 

But this is no ordinary animal for riding like you and I might choose between two cars at an airport. This is an announcement. If George Washington had put on a crown and taken a scepter at his inauguration, it would not have been any more clear (or audacious) than what Jesus was doing. Zechariah 9:9 says: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; Should, O daughter of Jerusalem: Behold thy King cometh unto thee: He is just, and having salvation; Lowly, and riding upon an ass, And upon a colt the foal of an ass." No one road into Jerusalem on a colt by accident, least of all a Man from the tribe of Judah! Jesus was announcing that He was King. But He knew that they would reject Him and that claiming to be King would guarantee that He would be the ultimate Sacrifice.

In the Old Testament, we continually feel a tension between the idea that God intends for David's descendants to reign over Israel and that they have no king but God. But in Jesus, this mystery is finally solved. The Son of God has become the Son of David. This is how David called His own descendant Lord (Matthew 22:43-45). God Himself does rule and David's heir rules because God became a man from the line of David. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem and the people cried out "hosanna," it is because they wanted a Savior-King, who would rescue them from their enemies. But their King did not come to win victory for them by killing; He came to do it by dying. The two hopes of the Old Testament, the coming of the Lord and of David's Son, come together in the perfect love and power of the Cross.

Discussion idea: Sometimes people talk about someone who is assertive and loud as "strong." Who is stronger, Jesus riding humbly on a donkey to His death or Herod, crushing his enemies? Why?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to see that everything I could ever hope for is found in you.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Mark 10

Key verse: Mark 10:29

Big idea: True wealth comes from the Son of God.

If your house was on fire and you could only take one thing out, what would it be? Think for a minute about it before you move forward. One of the clearest ways to find out what we value is to see what we would fear losing. It will set our priorities because we will act in ways to protect the things we fear losing and will invest less time and energy in the things that are 'acceptable losses.' Unfortunately, our instincts about what is most valuable break down sometimes. We are tempted to be more concerned with losing the things that we must lose - money, health, influence - than we are with losing the things that are truly precious. 

Peter told Jesus that they had left behind everything to follow Him. In Peter's case, this was basically literal. He left his nets still full of fish and turned his back on the family business to fish for men with Jesus. Jesus' response was that by leaving things behind for Him, they had not really left anything behind at all. They would be rewarded with far more than they lost and the things they would gain, whether they ever saw a return on their investment in this life, would be repaid by God Himself.

Those who seem to have much may really have nothing, while those who seem to have lost it all may really have everything. The first will be last and the last will be first. If we know that this is true, we ought to realize that the material things which we prioritize are really worthless and that the only things which really matter come from Jesus.

Discussion idea: Jim Elliot famously wrote "He is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." What does that mean? What things in your life could you give up which you could not keep anyway?

Prayer focus: Ask God to realign your priorities. 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Mark 9

 Key verse: Mark 9:24

Big idea: Our faith is nurtured by the Son of God.

Imagine the father Jesus meets in this chapter. He had been so excited to find out his wife had become pregnant. Thrilled to hold his infant boy. But how many dreams seemed ruined when the boy, as a child, became possessed by a demon? The monster threw him into flame and water to try and kill him and so many hopes seemed lost. He must have tried many doctors and priests, looking for deliverance in vain. What hope could he have left? Then he about a Man who was unlike any other, that was doing things no one else had ever done. When he went to bring his son to this Man, he was not even there. Another disappointment. But His disciples had performed many miracles and cast out many demons too! Yet, they could not help his boy. With his window of hope getting thinner and thinner, he waited a little longer until Jesus came down the mountain and when this desperate father's child was brought to Him, the demon took control. Once again, things seemed to get worse, not better. Finally, as he cried out to Jesus for help, he gave one of the most memorable sentences in the whole Bible: "I believe, help thou mine unbelief." 

It sounds like a contradiction. Can belief and unbelief really exist in the same heart? Clearly what is hard for our brains to understand is obvious to our hearts. We can have an ember of faith and find out that it is enough. God takes the spark of belief that we have and gives it fuel. How did Jesus answer this man's cry? The child came to Him and Jesus commanded the demon to leave him. Jesus had the power to make the demon leave instantly without a reaction, but instead He allowed the demon to send the boy to the ground as if he were dead on its way out. One more heart-wrenching moment for a father who had been through so much. Why? He was answering the father's prayer. He took the little bit of faith and helped the unbelief. 

Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we can really learn to trust. As long as there is some slice of our hearts that thinks we can rely on ourselves, we will never fully experience trust in God. So "help my unbelief" can be a painful prayer. Are we really willing to have God take us to the school of faith, where we learn to trust Him alone? I wonder how many of us are really prepared to let God break our hearts if it means He will put them back together again. 

Discussion idea: Does faith always need to be tested to grow? Why or why not?

Prayer focus: I believe, help thou mine unbelief.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Mark 8

 Key verse: Mark 8:34

Big idea: The Son of God demands our all.

Have you ever halfway done something? Sometimes you can get by with it and perhaps sometimes you even should. If every time you clean your house you run a Q-tip over every corner, you will probably find that the place you began is already dirty again. If you are reading a mediocre book or a poorly researched new article, it might not need or deserve your full focus. Yet there are some things that should not be done halfway. You would not find a groom texting as his bride walks down the aisle! If you did, he would not be a groom for long. 

Jesus spoke in the most extreme terms about the cost of being His disciple: "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." All three parts of His call are tough pills to swallow. First, self-denial is probably the only sin that our culture still recognizes. The sermons we hear during commercial breaks and read on our Twitter feeds all say to indulge ourselves because we're worth it. The idea of wanting something, being able to take it, and choosing not to is anathema to the modern mind. Why would you even consider such a thing? But Jesus knows that our lives are finite. Every time we say "yes" to one thing, we are necessarily saying "no" to something else. If we are going to make room for Christ and His work, we will have to clear some space by denying ourselves. 

But if self-denial in the abstract was not bad enough, Jesus tells us that we must take up our cross! The cross was designed by the Romans because the old methods of execution were not painful enough. They wanted something which would frighten people into submission and by all accounts, they found a very successful tool. The criminal was stripped naked and nailed to the cross where their feet were just above the ground, so people could read the charges above their head, and mock them as they passed. Two millennia of thinking of a cross as a decoration or piece of jewelry have desensitized us to what Jesus is saying here. If we are going to follow Him, we must walk the same path He walks. It is a path of pain, shame, and ultimately death. If we are going to be Jesus' disciple, that is where He is leading us. 

The final one may be the most painful of all: "follow me." If we are a disciple of Christ, our life is no longer our own to go where we want when we want. We go where He goes. As obvious as it seems, the cost of being a disciple is that we have to be disciples. But the joy is that if we go where He has been we will join Him at the destination and "so shall we ever be with the Lord."

Discussion idea: Throughout much of history, self-denial was considered an important part of maturity. Do you think that is still true in most people's minds today? Why or why not?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you to keep your eyes on Him, despite the distractions that try to keep us from following Him.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Mark 7

 Key verse: Mark 7:20

Big idea: The Son of God cleanses within. 

We have talked about this illustration that Jesus used before, back when we studied Matthew in January. But I think it is worth returning to, even in a speedy study like this one. The Pharisees challenged Jesus because His disciples were not performing the ritual handwashing that was expected of them. In the minds of these teachers, eating without first purifying would defile the disciples as they ate. Jesus had a different view. He explained that whatever you ate went into your stomach and then into the sewer. It never went to the place that really matters: your heart. Whatever we eat or drink does not change who we are. Nothing we do to our bodies can either contmainate or cleanse our spirits and trying to is the equivalent of washing the outside of a cup while leaving the inside dirty. Maybe someone looking at you from across the table thinks that you are alright but with every drink you know that you are not. 

When Colleen and I got married, one of the gifts we got were some small glass milk bottles. They came with a brush that was the right shape to slide in through the mouth of the bottle and scrub the inside. Without that brush, it would be all but impossible to ever get the interior of the bottle really clean because you could not get at the nooks and crannies within. Similarly, the problem with our lives is that we could never really clean where we need to clean! We do not have the right tools. 

But Jesus does. His blood cleanses every crevice within us and makes us white as snow from the inside out. He changes our hearts and removes our hidden filth. The Pharisees were concerned with rituals that could never get to the heart of the problem one way or the other but had the distinct advantage of being under their control. Salvation requires surrender and recognition that we cannot handle our problem. But we know who can.

Discussion idea: Why do we seem to prefer an inadequate solution that we can control to a complete one that we cannot?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you not to judge others by their outward appearance and not to let that same outward illusion make you overly impressed with yourself. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Mark 6

Key verse: Mark 6:34

Big idea: The Son of God lived with compassion. 

Compassion is a big word. The Greek word is even bigger: σπλαγχνίζομαι (splanchnizomai). If we look at its parts com/con (with) and passion (feeling) it becomes apparent that compassion is when my heart is moved by your situation. This is not our normal mode of operation. Generally, we are not moved by things at a distance, but that only those things which affect us directly. In fact, the more pressure we experience personally, the less we even notice the suffering of other people. But this is not the world of Mark 6. Here, Jesus had been serving for an extended period of time, His cousin John the Baptist had just been killed, and He was just looking for a brief reprieve. The Scripture tells us they had not even had a moment to eat, so they got onto the boat to get away from the crowds.

But they followed Him to the other side. When He saw the people, scattered like sheep without a shepherd, and His heart moved for them. What did He give them? He did not crush the Roman forces. He did not heal all of their sick. He taught them. What they needed for their chaos and confusion was a Word from God and that is what He gave them first. 

We ought to be people of compassion but we cannot fall into the world's definition of the term. Compassion is not saying, "I'm okay and you're okay." Compassion is not loving a person's actions because you love them. It is loving them enough to apply the Word of God to their sorest places and deepest wounds. It is love enough to tell them the truth, that sin kills and Jesus saves. When our heart breaks with them, because Jesus' does, then we can give them Jesus to mend it.

Discussion idea: Some Christians take black and white issues and make them gray, while others take gray areas and make them black and white. How does the model of Jesus' Word-centered compassion repudiate both of these errors?

Prayer focus: Lord, make my heart like Yours. Like King David, may I weep over the things that make you weep and shout over the things that bring you joy. May the suffering of people cut me to the core and may Your perfect answers be always on my lips. 

Friday, September 25, 2020

Mark 5

 Key verse: Mark 5:35

Big idea: The Son of God's timing is perfect.

Mark 5 looks like a disaster in timing. Jesus is called by the father of a young girl who is dying. On His way to her, a woman who has been suffering for twelve years with a bleeding disorder that made her suffer physically and be isolated socially. It seems like Jesus' timing is bad for her since she had been suffering so long but it is nothing compared to the timing for the man's daughter. While Jesus is healing the woman, the girl died. Although this probably took place around AD 30, it sure seems like a 2020 series of events. We often talk about divine appointments, where God works the timing out perfectly for a synergistic opportunity. But this seems like a divine delay, where God keeps a woman sick for twelve years so she can be healed at the same moment that a twelve-year-old girl dies. What a meaningless mess that must have seemed like to the people who were living through in real time what we read in seconds. 

But God's timing is always perfect and His priorities are not our priorities. It is clearly no coincidence that the sickness had taken place for as long as the girl had been alive; it was a divine wink to the carefully orchestrated harmony of events. How were God's delays really a blessing? This woman's suffering drug on for a long time, but it put her in a position, both literally and emotionally, where she was ready to turn to Jesus when He came. The family of the little girl experienced heart wrenching fear and grief, but got to experience the unspeakable joy of resurrection. 

In the moment, we may feel like God has delayed things beyond all sense. It may seem like everything is falling in pieces when everything is actually falling into place. God's timing is perfect, although we cannot see all of the components that are involved and so we cannot understand. 

Discussion idea: What is an example in your life where a divine delay has worked out to be perfect timing?

Prayer focus: Ask God to give you the kind of faith that provides patience.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Mark 4

 Key verse: Mark 4:12

Big idea: The Son of God opens our eyes.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus often spoke in parables: small stories that were simple enough for anyone to hear and remember but so profound that their true import often went unnoticed. Like a seed thrown on the ground, it might sit dormant for a period, but under the right conditions it could explode with life. In the case of a seed, the seed waits for the right soil moisture and temperature. In the case of the gospel message, the Word may stay in our hearts until the Son of God sends the Holy Spirit to convict us. When the Spirit convicts us, we are faced with the decision to respond and bear fruit or not, but we cannot get ahead of God's work in our spirits. 

In the parable of the sower, there were three hearts where the seed did not take root. One was the hard heart, where Satan plucked the seed away without any semblance of life. Another was the shallow heart, which seemed to be alive for a moment but died away when the heat came. The third was the crowded heart, where the weeds and thorns of life choked out the seed of the good news. These three enemies of the Christian (the Devil, the flesh, and the world) can keep a believer from bearing the fruit which God calls us to. They are those who see without perceiving, and hear without understanding: their interaction with God's Word is superficial and fleeting. But even a seed in good soil will not bear fruit until the right time. The seeds are planted and watered but only God can make them grow.

Discussion idea: Who is someone you have been waiting on to respond to the gospel? What does it mean that their response is in God's timing? How does that affect our style of evangelism?

Prayer focus: Ask God to draw the specific person from the discussion to Himself. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Mark 3

 Key verse: Mark 3:29

Big idea: The Son of God operates by the Spirit of God. 

Jesus lived a perfect life, free of sin and complete in obedience. How? He was tempted in every way that we are, yet never faltered. Did He, as fully God, access some resources which are beyond our capacity? Amazingly, the biblical picture seems to be that Jesus lived His life in the same power that we have as believers. He resisted sin and walked in righteousness by the power of the Holy Spirit. He had the ability to perform miracles as God Himself but in His humility as a man, He prayed to the Father and was empowered by the Spirit to act. 

So when the enemies of Christ claimed that He was casting out demons by the power of demons, they were challenging the role of the Holy Spirit. Blasphemy against the Father and the Son could be forgiven, Jesus explained, but not the Spirit. Why was this? Because the same Holy Spirit that empowered Jesus to perform His miracles is the Holy Spirit that convicts us of our sin. If we reject the Holy Spirit, there is no plan B for other forgiveness. This is how the Son of God acts in our lives, via His Spirit. If we do not have the Spirit, we do not have the Son. 

Discussion idea; How does the Holy Spirit's role in the life of Jesus motivate us to live like Him?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you live in the power of His Spirit?

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Mark 2

 Key verse: Mark 2:1

Big idea: The Son of God is in the house. 

The beginning of Mark 2 includes one of the most exciting stories in the entire Bible. A man is paralyzed and four of his friends found out that Jesus was in town. How did they know? Everyone was talking about it! "It was noised that he was in the house." They try to bring their friend to Jesus on a stretcher but the crowd is just too heavy to get through. But they knew who was in the house and they were determined to get him there. So they went to the roof and started digging. When the Son of God is in the house, you have to tell! 

The religious leaders were seated inside (they had been on time in their bodies and missed the boat in their hearts) and could not believe what they were hearing when Jesus said that the paralyzed man's sins were forgiven. Who was this Man, who claimed to forgive sins? Only God can do that! They were right of course. So Jesus, reading their thoughts (something else only God can do), gave them a demonstration. He healed the paralyzed man with a word, so that everyone who was willing to see could know that the Son of God was in the house. 

If we really believed that when our church assembles, the Son of God is in the house, how passionately would we work to bring people in? What "holes in the ceiling" would we ignore as irrelevant compared to the prize? Even in our own lives, if God has told us that we are His house when we are saved, do people look at us and say "The Son of God is in that house"? He has shown who He is, the one who forgives sin and changes lives. If we know Him, we should show Him.

Discussion idea: Why do you think we are less faithful to spread the news that the Son of God has come than they were when He was in Capernaum?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to show the world that you are here. Help me to accept any inconvenience or discomfort, as long as I can bring people to You. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Mark 1

 Key verse: Mark 1:38

Big idea: The Son of God came to preach the good news.

In November of 1913, it took about twelve hours to assemble a car. Switching between tasks, finding the right tools, and working on things that you were less effective at all piled on the time it took to finish the vehicle (and therefore the cost). But in December, Henry Ford launched a brilliant new innovation: the assembly line. The process of building a car was broken into 84 different steps and the worker did the same one all day. They became experts at that one task by focus and dedication and the time to produce a car dropped to two and a half hours.[1] Modern cars take much longer because of their complexity and would be basically impossible without modern assembly line methods.[2]

We could say a lot about the pros and cons of workers doing the same repetitive task day in and day out, but there is no denying that it allows them to become skilled and efficient at their work. Focus matters. Jesus knew why He had come and He focused on that goal. When the people were pressing for Him, He said that it was time to go on to the next towns to preach the gospel there too because that is why He had come. He did not stick around where the Kingdom has already been announced, even though it might have been more comfortable. He kept pushing on - He had a mission and He was going to accomplish it. 

Our mission is the same. Whether it is at school, work, home, or church, we need to be laser-focused on why God has deployed us: to preach the gospel. Sometimes it is telling your friend about Jesus. Soemtimes it is listening to your parents read the Bible to you so you can learn the things you can share. Sometimes it is holding your tongue when a comment will be a barrier to a relationship. But remember why we are here.

Discussion idea: What are some ways you can preach the gospel? What are some distractions?

Prayer focus: Ask God for divine tunnel vision, so you only see the things that really matter!



Thursday, September 17, 2020


 Key verse: Philemon 9

Big idea: Love changes everything. 

Philemon is one of the most unique letters in the New Testament. Paul wrote to a slave owner about his runaway slave who had been converted under Paul's ministry and was now returning. The apostle explained that, as an apostle, he had the authority to simply command him to release Onesimus and free him to aid Paul but he preferred to let Philemon choose to do the right thing out of love instead. This is a radical approach and emblematic of the way the New Testament completely undermines the institution of slavery, although it did not call for its immediate total abolition. Rather, it pushed on a basic contradiction between the biblical worldview and the idea of one human being owning another: is he worth more to you as a slave for a lifetime or as a brother for eternity? Paul put his money where his mouth was, offering to pay whatever was necessary to reconcile their relationship. 

Maturity often means that we are not given specific answers to every dilemma we face. While a toddler might have very specific rules for every scenario, an adult is going to operate on broad principles which apply in complex ways in the moment. Voting in an election when neither party is perfectly biblical, choosing a spouse or a college, changing jobs or moving are all complex decisions for which there can be no simple proof-text. But when we combine the boundaries the Bible does place on us with the overarching theme of love, we can find the path God wants us to take. When we love, massive social institutions are transformed, not by rallies or gunfire (although those things have been used in history for good), but by the subtle influence of one relationship at a time. When we love, we no longer steal, kill or cheat. When we love, we do not look to be served. When we love, the thought of owning another person, whether through literal slavery or softer forms of power, is repugnant. There is only the desire to give others a small portion of what Jesus has already done for us. Love changes everything.

Discussion idea: Why did Paul not simply call for the immediate abolition of slavery? It is worth noting that slavery in biblical times was usually for a set time as a debt was paid off (like what we would call indentured servitude) rather than the race based chattel slavery which was not invented until the modern era.

Prayer focus: God, transform my heart to live in love. Remove the barriers that divide me from others and help me to see that if I have genuinely been loved and transformed by a holy God, that nothing between me and another human being could ever compare. 

NOTE: Tomorrow is our second (and final) catch-up day this year. so there will be no devotion Have a great weekend! Next week, we will pick up Mark, then 1-2 PEter, then John, 1-3 John and Revelation to close out the year. We are almost there!

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Titus 3

 Key verse: Titus 3:10

Big idea: Division is the church killer. 

There are a lot of challenges churches have faced through history. Hostile governments, financial crises, plagues and social pressure have all opposed the churches of the Lord. Yet they have never been ale to effectively stop what God was doing. In fact, it seems that greater opposition often motivated Christians to accomplish more so that what was intended for evil was used by god for good. So what really puts a church in danger? As we have seen over and over again, it is the internal problems which threaten the survival of a church. Division, bickering, and factions will do from the inside what no emperor could ever do from the outside. When God has broken the barriers between us and made us into a family, it is profound blasphemy to reform the divisions that the blood of Jesus dissolved. 

Paul warns Timothy about the kinds of factitious people that would enter the church. The King James Version uses the work "heretick" here, but the meaning of heresy has changed since 1611. At the time, the word meant those who caused schism within a body, although now we only use it to refer to those who cause division by false teaching. That idea is certainly included here, but there are many other ways to divide a church and all of them are deadly. Foolish questions for the sake of stirring up conflict and endless studies into genealogies that miss the essence of the faith threaten the effectiveness of the church by robbing her of her focus and fellowship. Those who cause this division show their own wicked hearts and should be removed from the fellowship of the church after two warnings like cancer. 

Division is dangerous. Factions in families or workplaces are almost as harmful as it is in churches, where instead of collaborating together for a common purpose, vanity plays and undermining one another become the priority. God has called us to something better. He has given us a new kind of life through the death of Jesus that makes all of our old divisions and barriers irrelevant. Isn't it high time we acted like it?

Discussion idea: Why are churches so quick to fall into "teams"? 

Prayer focus: Pray that God would help you to be a peacemaker, so you can be called a "son of God."  (Matthew 5:9)

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Titus 2

 Key verse: Titus 2:14

Big idea: God redeemed us to unite us. 

"Hi-Yo Silver, away!"[1] Many Christians seem to want to emulate the Lone Ranger. They find a mission and ride off to face it alone. The problem is that, like the Lone Ranger, an individual Christian rarely sees their situation change from week to week. The status quo is reset and the same basic problems are faced over and over again. God did not intend for our lives to be like that. Although we are saved alone, by our personal faith in Christ, we are not saved to be alone. God intends to purify for Himself a people - a new nation, not defined by ancestry, language, or culture but by zeal for good works. 

We live in a sinful world and are called in that world to live for God, rejecting sin and choosing righteousness. But even as we live in that world, we are not of that world. Our human nation is not our primary allegiance. We are looking forward to the appearance of our Savior, our blessed hope. When He appears, the nation that will matter is the special one (KJV: peculiar) that He purified for His own good works. That new allegiance breaks down all of our old barriers and creates a new humanity, one where we can encourage one another, challenge one another and serve alongside each other.

As lone ranger Christians, we will never make much progress. We will not grow personally without the aid of others and the work God has called us too is far too great for us to accomplish it alone. God has not saved us to be by ourselves, but to be united together as His family and in His churches. 

Discussion idea: Why are we tempted to individualism? How can we do more for God together than alone?
Prayer focus: Pray for a heart that is ready to be joined to others in service. 

[1] I always thought it was "Hi-Ho Silver," but the Smithsonian says it is "Hi-Yo" and they have his mask.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Titus 1

 Key verse: Titus 1:15

Big idea: A divided mind contaminates itself.

If a clean glove touches a contaminated surface, the glove is now contaminated. If that glove now touches your clean phone, now you have a contaminated phone. Touch that dirty phone to your clean face or watch as your toddler kisses the screen? Contamination spreads. In the Old Testament, this was a primary principle. Someone who touched something unclean was then unclean themselves until they could be purified. Lepers and the dead were literally untouchable, and those who did were for a time untouchable themselves. It is an important principle for hygiene and a good model of the pervasiveness of sin. In the New Testament, Christ shows us another angle.

When Jesus touches a leper or a corpse, their filth and death do not spread to Him. Instead, His holiness and His life spread to them. His purity is so intense that it is contagious! That is the principle that comes into play in our salvation. We come into contact with the living Jesus but instead of being contaminated by us we are purified by Him. Yet, the New Testament does not repudiate the old concept entirely. "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump," we are warned. In this letter to Titus, Paul warns about a divided mind. If we do something good, but do it with corrupt, unbelieving motives, then the good works we do are contaminated. All real, lasting contamination comes from the heart. It is not the food that we eat or the things that we touch which are unclean in God's sight, but the things that come from our heart. 

Our text makes it plain. "Unto the pure, all things are pure," so when our hearts are right, our actions will follow God's will and when we do sin, we have forgiveness. He continues, "but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled." No amount of good works can make up for a heart hostile to God. Our good works are contaminated by sinful motivations. But when Jesus in our hearts reigns, everything He touches is transformed.

Discussion idea: James warned that a double-minded person is unstable in all of his ways. How does a divided heart practically undermine our works?

Prayer focus: Pray through Psalm 139:23-24. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

2 Timothy 4

 Key verse: 2 Timothy 4:3

Big idea: False teaching cannot stop Jesus. 

Joseph Goebbels, Nazi director of propoganda, is credited with the expression, "Believe a lie often enough and it becomes the truth." Psychologists call it the "Illusion of Truth." The more times you hear a lie, the more plausible it seems. That is why there are some ridiculous things that "everyone knows." The issue has been in the forefront of people's minds lately, as social media give people the chance to see the same false headlines dozens of times before they can be corrected. If something makes the people we like look good and those we don't look bad, then we believe it without thinking (and often without reading).  Google Ngram shows the frequency of the phrase "fake news" from 1800 to 2019. 

But what is dangerous for secular new is deadly for faith. Everyone knows that God will not give you more than you can handle, that all religions teach the same thing and that the Lord helps those who help themselves. Maybe your favorite Bible verse is the one about "Footprints in the Sand." Of course, none of those things are in the Bible. When something gets repeated over and over again, people begin to believe it, especially if it tickles their ears. If something is repeated and is what we want to hear, then it grows deep roots in our hearts. Throughout history, the truth of God's Word has been challenged by lies. Repeated over and over again, tuned to our preferences and quoted with enthusiasm, they threaten to lead people astray.

Yet truth is stronger still. A lie can be told a thousand times and the truth is not dimmed one whit. Although false teaching has sometimes been official teaching, God's Word has not been stopped. The message of Jesus has carved its way through the ages unbroken and untainted. No amount of false teaching ever changes the truth. What Jesus started is unstoppable. 

Discussion idea:  How does a Christian today best guard against being bombarded by lies of the world?

Prayer focus: Pray for a heart that yearns for God's truth.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

2 Timothy 3

 Key verse: 2 Timothy 3:12

Big idea: Persecution cannot stop Jesus. 

The third chapter of Second Timothy begins with an ominous warning: "In the last days, perilous times shall come." Paul warned that the world's hostility to the gospel would gradually intensify as people turned ever more inward and rejected God more and more. Yet, Paul makes clear that the basic attitude is ancient. Pharoah's magicians stood against Moses over a millennium before Paul was born, and now more than nineteen centuries have passed since Paul himself lost his life to anti-Christian persecution. The terminology that Paul uses is fascinating: he says that God has delivered him from the persecution which he faced. Yet, Paul had been stoned, shipwrecked while under arrest, and was awaiting his execution. So God did not deliver Paul from persecution, but through it. He was able to remain faithful and continue delivering the message of the cross, despite the opposition he faced. 

There has always been opposition to God's people, from the time that Cain killed Abel. Even worse, this is not the fate of a few exceptional Christians! "All that will," in the sense of will to or desire to, "live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution." If you or I even try to live for God in the world that is in rebellion against Him, we will suffer. As Adrian Rogers said: "You are either in collusion with the Devil or in collision with him." But that persecution does not stop the progress of Jesus' work. He brings us through it, even when he does not bring us out of it. Our part is just to continue in what He has started.

Discussion idea: When Paul says that all who desire to live godly will suffer persecution, what forms does that persecution take?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me endure in the face of opposition, continuing what you have begun in my life and in our world.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

2 Timothy 2

 Key verse: 2 Timothy 2:2

Big idea: Generations could not stop Jesus. 

Every three weeks, a group of friends and I spend an hour or so answering people's biblical questions in a live Facebook video. Recently, instead of a question, someone sent us a video clip from an old TV show and asked for our reflections on it. Most of the comments were the kind of claims that all religions basically taught the same thing which was popular at the end of the 20th century (this has fallen out of fashion now and been replaced with the idea that all truth is subjective) but one particular point the video tried to make was very interesting. A young child asked: "If Jesus wanted us all to know about Him, why didn't He wait to come until He could appear on television?" 

This is a novel objection; for most of history, people asked why Jesus appeared so far along in history (that is why we sing in Hark the Herald Angels Sing: "Late in time behold Him come"). But it leads to an even more interesting question, I think. Why only come once? Why not come once early in history, once in the middle and again toward the end? Well, that might not satisfy everyone. So maybe come 6 times? Those in between would still doubt. Maybe come once every generation? A fresh revelation every few decades, so no one has to get it secondhand. God certainly could have done it this way. Although the perfect sacrifice of Jesus needed to be accomplished only once, He could have reissued the Bible every generation with a new slate of miracle wielding prophets or He could have become incarnate, preached and flown up into the heavens again. But He did not. 

Neither did He relegate His love and His care to a single generation. Instead, He came once and for all, but carried the message to all generations. He called on Paul to entrust the Word to Timothy. Then He called on Timothy to entrust the Word to someone else. That person entrusted it to yet another. The baton has been moving from hand to hand ever since. For two thousand years, God has kept His message alive by the steady passage of the truth from generation to generation. No one is saved by the gospel preached by an angel. The ministry of reconciliation is ours and if we neglect it, it is neglected. 

Discussion idea: Why doesn't Jesus appear every few years? What does God teach us by having us pass the same unchanging truth on personally?

Prayer focus: Lord, make me the kind of faithful person that Paul wrote about, who can be trusted with this treasure of the gospel of Christ. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

2 Timothy 1

Key verse: 2 Timothy 1:10

Big idea: Death could not stop Jesus. 

As Paul wrote his second preserved letter to his protege Timothy, he sat in a jail cell, knowing that his life would soon end. His story was nearly over but he is at pains to encourage his friend and fellow-laborer that the gospel story is not. Nothing can overcome the work which Jesus began, not even death. Paul's own death hangs heavy over the whole letter but the death of Jesus Himself takes center stage here. If death was going to stop what God was accomplishing, it would certainly have been when the King Himself died. 

But quite the opposite took place. The death of Jesus brought about the death of death! He "abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." By dying in our place and rising again, Jesus broke the power of death once and for all. Now we can be confident that generations may roll down through the ages and that God's message marches on. We might wonder when some of the great leaders of God's churches die: "Who will fill their shoes?" But God has proven Himself faithful time and time again to raise up a new generation of servants. They may not be carbon copies of those who have come before in temperament or methodology but in every age, faithful men and women continue preaching the same message. God's truth is marching on! 

Older kids: Who is the person you admire the most as a Christian? Will their eventual death stop God's work? 

Discussion idea: How is it humbling that even the apostle Paul could die without hindering God's work? Why are we so quick to fool ourselves into believing we are indispensable?

Prayer focus: Ask God for the perspective to realize that His work has been going long before we were born and that it will continue long after our death, if He tarries. Pray for the humility to rejoice in being a small part of the greater plan.