Friday, July 31, 2020

Ephesians 2

Key Verse: Ephesians 2:16
Big idea: In Christ, we are reconciled. 

Webster defines reconcile as "to restore to friendship or harmony." It is the kind of positive thing which can only take place after something negative. Our relationship with God was shattered in the fall of man by our choice of sin and that relationship could never be restored by us. We needed to be reconciled. But who could serve as a mediator? Who could absolve our guilt? We needed someone to go between us and God, to bridge the gap between the holy and the sinful. Ephesians tells us that Jesus came to break down the barriers between people, as a new Adam creating a new human race. We are no longer Jew or Gentile (or anything else) if we are in Christ: we are simply His. We are part of his family and fellow citizens of His Kingdom.

When Jesus died on the cross, He killed the hostility of sin. Once He reconciled us to each other through His cross, fulfilling the Law and taking the penalty for sin, He rose again triumphant, to reconcile His people to God. This reconciliation is not just a passive tolerance. We are not just around each other but are being built into a holy Temple, as interconnected as bricks in a wall. Our relationship with God is not just the absence of conflict - it is the active access to the Father to worship Him in Spirit and in truth. Here is real reconciliation, the restoration of a ruined relationship. 

Probably the greatest Christmas hymn is "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Wesley wrote: "Peace on earth and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled!/Hark the herald angels sing/Glory to the newborn King." In Christ, and in Christ alone, we have reconciliation with God. We have a relationship restored and divisions dissolved. We have forgiveness, fellowship, and the privilege to worship. It is already done, we need only to accept it by faith.

Discussion idea: What areas in our society need reconciliation? Is it possible apart from Christ?
Prayer focus: Lord, help us to recognize the reconciliation you have already accomplished by the cross and help us to live worthy of it. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Ephesians 1

Key verse: Ephesians 1:10

Big idea: In Christ, we have peace.

The world is a mess. I am not sure if you noticed. But families are in shambles, political division is near historic levels, and people are depressed, anxious, and isolated. We are a wealthy nation, with a lot of comforts and a lot of power. In fact, the only thing we don’t have is peace. There is no peace between us and God, there is no peace between us and each other and there is no peace within us. Is it any wonder that we have problems? At the root of all of our conflict is our sin. It separates us from God and each other. It puts turmoil into our hearts and puts all of our relationships in peril.

God’s plan is not merely to escort us out of the world and take us to dwell disembodied in Heaven forever. He is going to fix the chaos on a much deeper level than that. When the time is ripe, Jesus will put all of the pieces back together again. By His incarnation, His death and His resurrection, He overcame the barriers which prevent peace. Our sin’s penalty has been paid and the power of sin has been broken in our hearts, so we are no longer enslaved to it. The divisions of age, race, class and nationality are irrelevant when we all come to God through the cross.

But God is not through. Heaven and Earth will be brought together in Christ too, when He comes again. The tabernacle of God – the heavenly Jerusalem – will come down to the earth and we will dwell with Him forever, Heaven and earth collided. Our peace now is just a foretaste of the total peace when Jesus returns and sin is abolished once and for all.

Practically, there is a very important point to be made here. If we are in Christ, we already have peace. It is not something we need to strive for, just to recognize. The secret is to realize that peace is not in ourselves or our efforts, but in Christ. When we look for peace, we will only find more chaos. But when we rest in Christ, we will have peace. Charles Spurgeon put it well: “I looked at Christ, and the dove of peace flew into my heart; I looked at the dove of peace, and it flew away.”

 Discussion idea: What does it mean when it says that Christ came at the “fullness of times”? Is the meaning the same as Galatians 4:4?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to rest in You and find all of my meaning and satisfaction in You. Help me to trust that you are bringing all things together in Your Son and that we can have peace.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Galatians 6

Big idea: In the gospel, we are a new creation.

Key verse: Galatians 6:15

In 2009, the US government launched a $3 billion program called the “Car Allowance Rebate System.” It was better known as “cash for clunkers.” A $3500 or $4500 voucher was given for old, fuel-inefficient cars, to go toward the purchase of a new vehicle. The idea was to stimulate the economy and remove old cars from the roadways; upgrading them would cost more than they were worth. The program was very popular with the public: the initial $1 billion allotment was exhausted in just 6 days.  Sometimes it is better to just scrap the whole thing and start over.

The gospel includes some shocking news: our hearts are clunkers. They do not need a fresh coat of paint or some new tires. We are what your insurance agent would call totaled and it is time for a total replacement. The Law, whether circumcision, a restricted diet or observance of special holidays, cannot repair the wreckage. Going to church, being baptized or reading your Bible every day are all about as effective as a baby’s arm floats on a grown man. The burden is simply too great: we need to start fresh.

Thankfully, that is exactly what God offers us. In the gospel, we are promised that the cross of Christ has crucified us to the world and the world to us. We are made new creatures, transformed by the power of the Risen Jesus. If you have never trusted Christ as your Savior and have been gnawing at the edges, it is time to realize that your life does not need a make-over, but a do-over. If you have been born again, do not fall into the Galatian foolishness of believing that what God started with a radical transformation you are now going to finish by your works.

The whole thing is by God’s grace. As a cost of much greater than $3 billion dollars, He has purchased us to transform us fundamentally. We are new creatures, made fit for the new creation. The works of the old creation, the strength of our willpower or the might of our flesh, are already passing away. Everything that matters is ours by faith in the Risen Son.

Discussion idea: Why do you think people want to believe that their lives can be fixed by behavior modification? What does the need to be born again do to our pride?

Prayer focus: Lord, thank you for making me new. Teach me to live like the new creation that I already am, not so that I can earn your favor, but in love for you because I already have it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Galatians 5

Key verse: Galatians 5:13

Big idea: The freedom of the gospel is the freedom to love.

What does it mean to be free? For many people, freedom is the ability to self-indulge without being stopped. Freedom is no bedtime, no rules and no obligations. You see this worked into our political discourse all the time; I am not free unless I can do whatever I want. But the Bible calls this freedom slavery. Sure, we are not slaves to someone else in this scenario, but we are slaves to a much harsher, crueler master: ourselves. When every craving and lust is satisfied like an itch, we are carried around with the same kind of superficial liberty that an animal has. To look at it another way, if a fish more free in a tank or on a table? In one sense, the fish on the table can go anywhere and do anything, while the fish in the tank has restrictions. But the restrictions are what allow the fish to live and thrive. The appearance of freedom in this case ultimately means the loss of choices.

Paul offers a better way. God has set us free from the Law! We are no longer bound like children to all of the regulations that apply to the outside. But if we think that freedom means that we should now follow our flesh into every temptation, then we have traded a harsh but good master for a lenient but evil one. We are free, but our freedom is a chance to serve, not a chance to sin.

If you parents made your sister share a toy with you, there is some joy in that: you get something that you want. But how much better is it if on the relationship of love, your sister choses to do what she does not have to do? Some marriages are more like business partnerships, with strict divisions of labor by common agreement. But how much better is it to have a marriage where I am free to do what I wish, and I choose to lay my freedom down for the sake of love? Legalism, adding requirements to the Word of God as if they are Scripture, leaves no room for love. Libertinism, saying I can do whatever I want whenever I want, disregards love. Both are failures for the Christian and both are yokes of bondage that forget Christ has set us free.

Freedom means that the way I resist evil is by choosing to walk in the Spirit. Although the flesh may offer me a carrot to entice me to sin and the Law threatens with a stick, the Spirit calls me to choose self-denial voluntarily, not because I must but because I can.

Discussion idea: When was the last time you did something that you got no benefit from, just because of love? What opportunities do you have to do that this week?

Prayer focus: Pray for God to help you avoid temptation by walking in love.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Galatians 4

Key verse: Galatians 4:7
Big idea: The gospel sets us free!

When you were a child, you probably had some precise rules. “Don’t touch that! Don’t go there!” As you grew older, those rules changed. The earlier rules may have seemed reversed, but with hindsight, you can see they always had a particular trajectory. “Stay away from the stove” gradually turned into learning to cook with less and less supervision. It is not that your parents were randomly changing their minds, but that we need more detailed instruction when we are children than when we are mature.

Older kids: What are some rules you used to have which have changed form? How do they follow the same intention?

Today’s text refers to a Roman custom where children were under the care of “tutors and governors” until they reached adulthood. The child did not have freedom but answered to a servant who, in modern English, was something like a nanny. His job was not to explicitly teach the boys but to discipline them and prepare them for adulthood. The child was free, and in some sense, the servant belonged to him, yet he was under the servant’s authority. So sons were treated like servants until they grew up.

Paul explains that the Law was like that. Perhaps the clearest example was when Jesus said that man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for man. There is no Law without humanity, so in some sense, the Law exists to serve us, not the other way around. Yet, for a period,  God’s people were placed under the Law until the time to grow up came. The goal was never to stay under the rule master forever, but to grow up.

Jesus, the very Son of God, became a slave to the Law Her had made so that He could redeem us from the Law. There is no need to act like a child; the full blessings of heirs are ours. A Christian being bound by the requirements of the Law is like an adult chewing on a bottle or climbing into a crib. Jesus has set us free by the gospel, so we should not be entangled again.

Discussion idea: Why would Christians want to place themselves back in bondage? What kind of wrong thinking was leading the Galatians astray?

Prayer focus: Pray for the maturity to follow God, not by Law but by the gratitude of grace.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Galatians 3

Key verse: Galatians 3:13
Big idea: The gospel is that Jesus was cursed so that we could be blessed. 

Have you ever been pulled over by a police officer who wanted to compliment you on your nice turn signal? Gotten a card from the IRS thanking you for your prompt payment and careful accounting? Probably not. The Law has a strongly negative tendency: its purpose is not to create the good but to stop the evil. So Law could never give us a relationship with God, it can only stop one. But God had made a promise to Abraham before He gave the Law. If a human being cannot break a contract by making a new one, then the perfectly True God would certainly not do so. So if God gave Abraham a relationship with Himself apart from the Law, He is certainly not going to add a new requirement for a relationship later. The Law is simply a tutor that shows us that we could never attain a relationship with God by our own merit: when we see that we can never be strong enough to accomplish it on our own, we are left with only grace. 

Older kids: Looking at only the ten commandments as an example, how many of them can you say you have kept perfectly, all the time, your whole life? If even the most basic pillars of the Law can't be kept, how could we ever be good enough to earn our way to God?

Yet, the Law does make moral demands and lay out the penalties for failing to meet those demands. While the promise that whoever does the Law will live by it is belied by the fact that no one ever has, the curse of breaking the Law remains. How is that curse handled, so that salvation can be all of grace? God Himself became a man, born of a woman (and so into the world under the curse of the Garden) and born under the Law, so that He could be placed under a very specific curse. Deuteronomy 21:23 spoke about a particular punishment for notorious criminals, whose bodies would be hung up on stakes after their execution. "He that is hanged [upon a tree]," Deuteronomy says, "is accursed of God." 

Jesus was hung alive on a tree by crucifixion and he was made the object of God's curse. All the wrath for all of the sin of all of the world was poured upon Jesus as He was crucified. The Law's demands were justly satisfied. But with the curse of the Law complete, there is now no obstacle to the promise of Abraham. When we realize that Abraham's relationship was based on with alone, when we see that by the Law we could never be justified, and we accept that Christ has taken the punishment we deserved, we have peace.

Younger kids: Would you ever trade places to be punished for something you did not do?  Why? 

Discussion idea: The truth that Jesus was given the curse we deserved so we could have the blessing He deserves has been called "the great exchange." What else, based on the things we have read already this year, did Jesus exchange with us?

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Galatians 2

Key verse: Galatians 2:20
Big idea: The gospel lets Christ's life shine through us. 

Next to my desk is a lamp. The light bulb in it is, right now, just a dark ball of glass. No amount of scolding or encouraging it will ever entice it to glow. But if I twist the switch, connecting it to power, then an incredible change will take place. What it could not do on its own it can accomplish with the power of wind turbines or natural gas fires flowing through it. The light bulb will never work without a power external to itself flowing through it. This is not a flaw, it is designed to be connected to the outlet! 

A lot of people live their lives in a kind of futile darkness. They have the right makeup to accomplish things of significance but wonder why they never do. Maybe they are religious people and try their best to do good works but find that good works never have the desired power. Maybe they are secular and try to mentally climb their own way to enlightenment (pun copyright me 2020) but can never get above the shadow of their own weakness. Even godly people, like Peter when he quit eating with Gentiles, can be fooled into disconnecting some area of our life from the real power source.

The message of the gospel is presented here plainly, through the Law we die to the Law. Christ came and fulfilled the demands of the Law and died in our place. When we trust Him, our old self dies and the Law's demands on us die too. We have given up on self-illumination and by turning from relying on our internal power to His, we are finally alive. "I am crucified with Christ nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me," Paul famously wrote. It is good theology and it is good practical advice. When we try to rely on ourselves we find only discouragement and frustration. When we turn to Jesus we have more than we could ever ask or think. Self-righteousness, trying to earn our place with God, is never going to be a success because we were designed to be connected to the Power. 

One of the greatest hymns of all time ("And can it be?") says:

           ’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:

Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

The Immortal has died so that we can live. There is no greater source of strength than grace and no source of life except the Author. No human being will ever be justified by our works, but by faith, we can be justified by His. It devastates our pride and replaces it with love. 

Discussion idea:  Peter knew that gospel and would never have claimed to be saved by works. But his behavior did not match with his doctrine and he started pretending ceremonial Jewish observance was important once again. Why? Do you see any similar temptations in your own life? 

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to remember that without You, I can do nothing. The idolatry of legalism which says that I am able to earn my relationship with You downplays both the depths of my sin and the heights of Your love. Drive it out of me! Let the life I live in the flesh be always and only Christ living in me. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Galatians 1

Key verse: Galatians 1:11
Big idea: The gospel is God's gift, not man's invention.

Have you ever had an idea you thought was really great? You were sure you had come up with something creative and effective but then when you tried to execute it, you found out that your idea was not quite as clever as you had expected. Human ideas are almost always like that. Some of our greatest inventions (like penicillin, microwave ovens, and Teflon) were accidents. Even our best ideas rarely go off like we planned. When we imagine something was perfect, it is because we are so used to making constant adjustments that we do not even realize that we are doing so. 

Not so with God. His plans are perfect from eternity past and never require adjustment. That is why the provenance of the gospel is so important. Is this an idea that Paul came up with? If so, it would require constant adjustments and could not meet the rigors of modern life as it was originally crafted. Many liberal scholars claim that Jesus was just an ordinary man and the whole framework of Christianity was developed later. The heretics at Galatia advanced a similar line: Paul's ideas of grace and faith alone went too far. Those things were good and necessary but useless without keeping the Law. If the gospel is Paul's idea and merely an anomaly, it has no authority. But Paul explains that this is not the case. 

There is only one gospel. Jesus entrusted it to the twelve during His earthly ministry and then to Paul. Any other gospel is no gospel at all, no matter how impressive the messenger (Galatians 1:8). Indeed, Paul says that if he preached another gospel, he should be under a curse. It is not his message, which he would have the right to modify as he saw fit. The message is God's and He alone has the right to set its terms. Paul spent 3 years in the desert, receiving a similar mentorship from the risen Jesus that the twelve did during His earthly ministry. The message is united: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. 

Discussion idea: How do people try to discount the source of the gospel today? Why is the doctrine of the Bible's inspiration and inerrancy important?
Prayer focus: Pray that God will hinder the spread of false gospels that lead people astray and take the true gospel to all of the nations of the earth. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

2 Corinthians 13

Key verse: 2 Corinthians 13:5
Big idea: Our salvation is secure, not through our weakness, but Christ's power. 

Throughout this letter, Paul has been defending his apostleship. He has offered two basic arguments for his cause: his own suffering for Christ's sake and the lives of the Corinthians as evidence of his ministry. As he concludes the letter, he announces the third visit to Corinth, where he will be firm to those who doubted his authority because they misunderstood his weakness. Once again, he reminds them of Christ's voluntary weakness on the cross, overcome by the power of His resurrection. Those who are in Christ know how to be weak and how to be strong. With this, he returns to the other argument. Since he had planted their church, doubting his ministry was really doubting themselves.

He challenges them: "Examine yourselves! See whether you are truly in the faith." Clearly, he assumes they are (although there is no guarantee that everyone who claims to know Christ does). But even this argument circles back to the paradox of weakness which has held this entire letter together. If you are in the faith, it is not your power which has kept you there, but the strength of Christ who lives in you. If you look at your heart and your life and see the evidence of salvation, that is not something which you drummed up by good looks and charm. No, it is the gift of God! You have it because Jesus made Himself weak so you could be strong. Look at yourself, Paul chides them. If you see who you are and why then you will recognize there is no room for pride. 

His words carry through directly to us. When we are confronted by the authority of God against sins of commission and omission in our lives, we realize how weak we are. We can never sustain our own walk with God. Rather, our salvation is secure because Christ is in us. That is the message of 2 Corinthians. 

Discussion idea: What do you think Paul means when he tells us to examine whether we are in the faith? Would it be possible to do that if we could not know for sure we are saved?
Prayer focus: Thank you, Lord, for coming to die for me, rising again for me, saving me, and keeping me. Let your power live through me to lead others to You.

Monday, July 20, 2020

2 Corinthians 12

Key verse: 2 Corinthians 12:9
Big idea: Our weakness is a blessing because it invites God to work in us. 

2 Corinthians 12 is undeniably a challenging chapter. Paul refers to himself in the third person and talks about being taken up to the third heaven and admits that even he does not know exactly what happened. Then he explains that God gave him a thorn in the flesh to prevent him from growing proud, and we do not know what that is either. We could get bogged down in chasing the details but I think we will find much more fruit from taking a step back and seeing the big picture. God allowed Paul to suffer, not as punishment for anything he had done, but as a preventative measure. Running may be uncomfortable at times but it strengthens your heart. Suffering is the same kind of exercise spiritually, so God refused to take it away from Paul.

Instead, He assured the apostle that His grace was enough. Paul did not need anything else if He had God. In fact, His weakness opened the door for God to work: "My power is made perfect in weakness." Because Paul's thorn in the flesh brought him low, God was able to use him and raise him up. We have had occasion to note several times in this study that it is better to hurt and be comforted by God than to never hurt at all; the same principle returns here. Paul boasts about his weakness and rejoices in his pain because that is when God shows up.

What about you? If you could choose between the easy life without God and the hard life with Him, what would your heart do? Perhaps, if we are honest, we do not really know until we are put in such a situation. But I think the promise of this chapter applies to that reality, too. When we arrive at a fork in the road which is more than we can bear, God whispers through eternity: "My grace is sufficient for thee." 

Discussion idea: We do not know what Paul's thorn in the flesh was but do you have one? Is there some trial in your life that God has used to keep you dependent on Him? 
Prayer focus: Pray for the grace to rejoice in pain through faith that God is greater. 

Friday, July 17, 2020

2 Corinthians 11

Key verse: 2 Corinthians 11:30
Big idea: Weakness is a badge of honor for the slave of Jesus. 

2 Corinthians 11 must be one of the most sarcastic chapters of the Bible. The apostle Paul critiques the Corinthians with praise: they are willing to put up with false prophets, false gospels, false teaching, and even a false Jesus. But what they would not tolerate was Paul loving them, humbly serving them and working day and night to minister to them for free. It was to their shame that they boasted about all the wrong things and were fooled by appearances, instead of recognizing the heart. But Paul gets down to their level and offers to brag, since that is all they seem to understand. His bragging must not have been what they expected.

He explained that he was a better servant of Christ than the false teachers. Why? Because he had been imprisoned more, beaten more, hungry more and naked more. He was weak and his heart burned when anyone was caused to stumble. He rejected the arrogant attitude that cares only about personal power and is unconcerned with the hearts and feelings of others. Those things do not make a great servant of Jesus. Greatness in the Kingdom is being like the King, who laid His life down for us. 

So if we want to brag, let us brag about our weakness. Let's talk about the sinner that God would still use. Let's praise Him for His ability to draw straight lines with crooked sticks. Let's remember who the power really belongs to.

Discussion idea: What is an area of weakness you can praise God for? How has God used your weaknesses to make you depend on Him?
Prayer focus: Thank God for the things you came up with in the discussion idea, specifically. 

Thursday, July 16, 2020

2 Corinthians 10

Key verse: 2 Corinthians 10:4
Big idea: Our strength is not in the weakness of the flesh but in the power of the Spirit. 

Imagine if George Washington could walk around the US today. Some things might confuse him, some things might impress him and some things might upset him. But eventually, he might want to know about the US military. Imagine: "How many musket men can the federal government assemble?" Before you could finish explaining that we have no muskets at all, he might ask about cavalry. A country of 300 million people with fewer than 200 horses at the Army's disposal would probably not impress the man who established our mounted force in 1776 [source]. If you tried to explain to him that the US military is the most powerful fighting force in the world, his ignorance of nuclear bombs, drones and ICBMs would make it hard for him to understand. Warfare today is fought with tools and on a level that Washington knew nothing about. Crossing the Deleware River would not have worked with night vision binoculars and machine guns on the other side. 

As silly as it would be to try to storm Fort Bragg with muskets, it is far more foolish to try to fight a spiritual battle with physical weapons. Paul argued that his opponents, looking at outward appearances, misunderstood his strength as surely as Washington would ours. The things they thought were weakness (like meekness and gentleness) were profound strength. Our battle is not waged primarily in our bodies, although our bodies certainly reflect the state of the conflict. Rather, our battle is against the idols set up in our hearts and minds, strongholds that must be torn down but are impervious to cannon fodder. The things that seem to be strong in the physical realm give us nothing but pride. If we are going to have any strength to boast in, it must be the Lord's. 

Discussion idea: What strongholds in your mind need to be torn down by the Word of God?
Prayer focus: Lord, help us to put our trust in you and your resources alone, with no confidence in our own power.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

2 Corinthians 9

Key verse: 2 Corinthians 9:6
Big idea: You reap what you sow. 

When I taught High School, kids always asked variations of the same question when it came time for finals. Someone with a competitive GPA wanted to know what they needed to make to get an A. Of course, more of them asked, "What do I need to pass?" The question is always the threshold. How little can I do to stay out of trouble? In some places, this attitude is not harmful. No one wants to go into the car dealership and ask how much they can pay for a car. You want to get out of there with the minimum for what you want. Software engineers talk about the MVP - the Minimum Viable Product. How little will get the job done, so we can make sure we do the core first and the frills later? 

But this attitude is much less apropos for the Christian life. The issue should not be how little we can do or how little we can give to appease God, as if He were the IRS and we were maximizing our refund. No, the Christian life is much more like farming. You could calculate the minimum you need to plant to support your family or you could realize that the more you plant, the more you will harvest. Then the question is not, "How little can I do?" Instead, you begin asking, "How much can I do?" If we believe that God is the source of all we have and He is able to multiply it, we should want to push the limits of what we can share. 

The challenge Paul issues the Corinthians is to realize that while they will sow physical things, the harvest will be much greater. Their generosity will spur others to generosity. their gift will reach the lost and encourage the saved. Most importantly, when they planted money, they would harvest praise for God. Their own praise when they learned that God still provided for their every need and the praise of others reached by their generosity would both resound through eternity. If generosity with time and treasure yields something so precious, could we ever ask, "What must I do?" No, we must always look for opportunities to be the cheerful givers that God loves.

Discussion idea: What is your automatic attitude when giving? How could you improve it?
Prayer focus: Thank God for the person who shared the gospel with you. Were you saved at a church, a camp, by TV, radio, or tract? If your experience was something like that, thank God specifically for the generosity of those who made those ministries possible. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

2 Corinthians 8

Key verse: 2 Corinthians 8:9
Big idea: Jesus took on our weakness so we might share in His power. 

There is probably no more startling summary of the gospel than that found in 2 Corinthians 8:9. Jesus, who was rich in every sense of the word as God who existed from eternity past, became poor. He gave up His home, His comforts and took on pain, wandering and struggle. Beyond that, He gave up His communion with the Father as He became sin who knew no sin. Everything stripped away, the King of Glory was humble and poor. Why? So that we, through the very fact of His poverty, could become rich. He took on weakness and came to our level, so that when we are identified with Him by faith, we are also joined with Him when He returned to His rightful place. 

Jesus was not merely an example of what we could be or even a symbolic victor. His poverty is the key to our riches. The humility required to accept our weakness is one of the things that keeps many people from experiencing the power of life in Christ. He was our substitute, clothed in our sin so that we could be clothed in His righteousness. 

Paul gives this spiritual reality a simple physical application. If Jesus became poor for us, we ought to be generous with our resources as well. The Macedonians gave generously of their possessions but only because they had already given themselves to God. If we have really recognized that we are not our own, how could we think that we possess anything? We should not horde the things which we think we are entitled to, when all that really matters was a free gift. As the recipients of such incredible grace, we should hold our privileges loosely and be quick to open our hands to each other.

Discussion idea: What are some things you are tempted to hold tightly? Why?
Prayer focus: Praise God for giving up everything so He could share it with you. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

2 Corinthians 7

Key verse: 2 Corinthians 7:9
Big idea: Weakness is strength when it brings us to our knees.

In between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote another letter to the Corinthian church which has been lost to us. It was a stern letter and had provoked a strong emotional reaction. Although it broke his heart to grieve them, he wrote that he did not regret it, because it did not make them superficially sorry. The letter brought them to real repentance. They were not sorry they got caught; they were sorry they had sinned. The kind of superficial brokenness which leads only to tears has never been God's desire (Joel 2:13). Rather, God is willing for us to endure temporary heartbreak if it leads to a lasting wholeness.

Younger kids: When your parents correct you for something, it makes you sad. Since they love you, why are they willing to do something that hurts you?

Sometimes the things we perceive as our greatest weaknesses are actually our greatest strengths. They strip away the illusions of strength that make us think we can rely on ourselves and drive us to our knees. When we realize that there is nothing we can do on our own, we turn to the only one who can help us. At the moment that we are no longer too proud to find our strength in the Son of God on a cross, we are stronger than we have ever been.

Is your heart broken? Is your strength gone? Do not let that bring you to the kind of worldly sorrow that results in a tear stained face or a temporary change. Do not pull away from the blade until it has made it to your heart. When Jesus is all that we have we learn that Jesus is all we need.

Discussion idea: When
Prayer focus: Ask God to teach you to

Saturday, July 11, 2020

2 Corinthians 6

Key verse: 2 Corinthians 6:3
Big idea: Whether weakness or strength, we should long for whatever advances the gospel. 

Most Christians would agree that we should be willing to spread the gospel. But how do you feel when I add: at any cost? Many things we hold precious might be a stumbling block to someone else accepting Christ. Are we really willing to give them up to make a straight path to Jesus? Paul said that for he and his companions, there was no tool that was off the table. Being whipped? Praise God for the stripes. Imprisonment? A chance to sing of the God who breaks every chain. Hunger, affliction, and slander are positively precious if the things that bring us comfort keep someone else from coming to Jesus. Indeed, he goes on to explain, appearances can be deceiving. When we seem poor by the world's standards, we are joint-heirs with the King of Kings. Although we may not have much, the gift of the gospel makes many rich beyond all comprehension. 

What would you hesitate to give up for God? Anything that comes before Him is an idol. We were made into the Temple of the Living God. He has promised to dwell within us and walk among us. How could we worship idols, when we have been prepared by blood to offer worship to the King of Kings? We cannot be yoked together with the world because we are not laboring in the same direction. The fads and pressures of the moment have to be abandoned when our eyes are on the prize. God calls us to be separate: to live differently because we are different.

The Day of Salvation is here. If you have never confessed your sin and trusted Christ as your Savior, you are not promised tomorrow. If your friends and family have not heard the message because you have been too distracted or have put too much garbage in the way, it is time to show them the path. What is it that holds us back? That is the idol that must be torn down, but the Father we gain is far greater than the slavemasters we lose.

Discussion idea: Our reading today has been called "hymn-like." It contains 4 lists, striking in their vivid imagery: 9 trials, 8 blessings, 3 seemingly paradoxical circumstances, and 7 contrasts between perception and reality. Carefully note the items in the list. What stands out to you as the most challenging? 
Prayer focus: Pray that God would help you to see obstacles to accepting the gospel or sharing it. Ask Him to help you tear them down and come to Him alone by faith alone.

Friday, July 10, 2020

2 Corinthians 6

I am sorry, I am breaking a 7 month streak of writing every weekday. I am just tapped out. The post that should have been today will be in your inbox tomorrow. Thanks for understanding.
- Justin

Thursday, July 9, 2020

2 Corinthians 5

Key verse: 2 Corinthians 5:4
Big Idea: Even the weakness of our death is swallowed up by the life of Christ.
As I write this (just after midnight, late once again), I know that in just a few hours I will be preaching on this same text. There is a special poignancy in knowing that when we read, "if our earthly house of his tabernacle were dissolved," that is not like writing, "if I win the lottery." Death is certain, unless the Lord returns and puts an end to it, and is closer than it has ever been. Historians estimate (a slightly more respectful alternative to "guess wildly") that there have been 100 billion human deaths up to this point. Supposing for the sake of argument that this is true and that each of them is entitled to a 2.5' by 8' plot on death, and that between each grave is a 2' wide path. Such a cemetery, with no roads, no benches and no sculptures, would be about 80% of the size of the nation of Germany. If it were square, it would be well over 300 miles on a side. Of course, many of the dead of the past have long been lost. They have no home and there is no lasting memory of them. We are sliding down the same path. 

Except, if you have read today's chapter, you know that I have left a key part out. If our earthly house is dissolved, we have a new building to live in, made by God and eternal in the heavens. We are given the promise that if we have trusted Christ, we have been made new within and will one day be made new without. Not disembodied spirits floating on clouds in a neverending haze of bored harp twangs, but given a new body, as much greater than our old body as life and glory are greater than weakness and death. 

If God has given us such a glorious life, how could we do anything less than live it for Him now? Our chapter calls us to do that in a very specific way. We who are reconciled have been trusted with the work of reconciliation. Because we have heard and believed the good news of Jesus, we have an incredible responsibility to tell it to others. The Sinless One has taken on our sin, so we can take on His mission. He came to reconcile sinners, and it is our honor to do the same. 

Discussion idea: Does death or heaven feel more certain to you? Why?
Prayer focus: Pray for the opportunity to be a minister of reconciliation today. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

2 Corinthians 4

Key verse: 2 Corinthians 4:7
Big idea: By God's grace, our weakness is not total.   

God has given us an unimaginable treasure. The Holy Spirit of the Living God lives inside of us and we carry around His presence every day. Yet that treasure is not framed by gold and jewels but in the clay jar of a mortal body. We are beaten up, worn out, and our weakness is exposed at every turn. If you are like me, at this point in the pandemic, you are feeling your frailty constantly. We don't know what to do and if we did there is no assurance that we would be able to carry it out. Like a ceramic coffee cup dropped on the floor, we simply do not have the strength for our situation. 


Paul says that, "We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed." God has chosen our weakness as His vessel and so He has promised that we may go through pain, but it will never overwhelm us. It is a lie to say that God will never give us more than we can handle, but these jars of clay are steel reinforced within: God never gives us more than He can handle. Our outward man is dead while he lives, but the spark of the resurrection of Jesus is renewing us day by day.
Younger kids: Have you ever needed to do something, but you were just too tired to do it? Have you ever been somewhere that your Mom or Dad just had to carry you the rest of the way? When you used strength that was for you but not yours, you got a glimpse of what it is like with God. He carries us.

Older kids: What is a struggle in your life right now? How can the internal strength we have through Jesus help you handle it?

Friend, you may be grieving. You may be overwhelmed. You may be exhausted. You may look around and think: "I just can't do this!" And you are right. You can no more live the life God has called you to than Peter could walk on the water. When we walk in the light of the death of Jesus, turning from sin and walking by faith, the storms of life may batter us but they will not overcome us. If I go to the store and buy something new and bulky, the designer's primary concern is not how it will look in my car. It will just be in my car for a little while, its function will be revealed when it gets to its final home. Our life is exactly like that. The waves are temporary; God has not ultimately made you with them in mind. Those unseen things, grasped only by faith in Jesus, are the eternal things. They are what will last. Never grow so arrogant that you believe you are a golden jar, but never fall into the despair that forgets Who you belong to and what Treasure you hold. 

Discussion idea: When someone is in a crisis, one of the first steps is to identify the resources they have to deal with the problem (family, counseling, rehab, whatever). We do this kind of self check all the time and feel overwhelmed when we think the resources do not match the task. Why do you think we overlook the strength of God within us?
Prayer focus: Praise God for your weakness in some specific way, maybe going around your family and allowing each person a chance to speak, that nothing about the jar would distract from the treasure.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

2 Corinthians 3

Key verse:
2 Corinthians 3:11
Big idea: Our weakness is overruled by the glory of Christ.

Have you ever run a magnet over a paperclip? With a little bit of patience, you can turn the paperclip into a magnet itself. It only lasts a little while, but it makes a neat trick. For a more mundane example, leave a metal spoon in a hot pot for a while and then try to pick it up. Exposure to something hot makes the spoon hot. Exposure to a magnet makes the paperclip magnetic. If things like that are true in the physical world, what should we expect will happen to us when we have been in the presence of the Living God? 2 Corinthians 3 reminds us of an Old Testament story (Exodus 33:34-35) where Moses climbed Mount Sinai and received the Law from God. But when he did so, he was changed. From being in the brightness of God, Moses' face glowed when he returned to the people. It frightened them, so he covered his face with a veil when he spoke to them. 

Paul finds a perfect picture of frailty here. The people could not bear even the reflected glory of God that came on Moses' face when he received a Law destined to pass away. If the ten commandments, that because of human weakness brought only death and were sure to be replaced, were accompanied with such glory, how much more glory would the New Covenant bring? The Old Testament Law was not bad, but human beings could never keep it, so it was fading from the moment it arrived. When we come to Christ, it is by recognizing that we can never keep the Law. Our own weakness and sinfulness is confessed before God, Who heals us.

In Christ, we behold God fully. Not through a veil but made clear. Like Moses, when that happens, we are sure to be changed. Our weakness is made irrelevant. A paper clip is not a very good magnet and a spoon is quick to cool, but as long as it dwells in the source of its power, it remains transformed. When we become Christians, God comes to live inside of us - forever! Our weakness is transcended by His strength. In comparison, a literally glowing face on a physical fiery mountain (2 Corinthians 3:11) has no glory at all. 

How foolish, then, when we try and make our own power. We try through hard work, determination, or reformed thought to make ourselves into what we ought to be. The stronger we try to become the weaker we are. But if you and I could see that we are nothing without Jesus, like a branch cut off the vine to wither, we could rest in Him and let His power be displayed in and through us.  

Discussion idea: Why do you think the Israelites were afraid to look at Moses? Could that have any connection to our own reluctance to dwell in Christ?
Prayer focus: Thank God that you have access to Him, that one day you will see Him fully and ask Him to help you see Him more clearly even now.

Monday, July 6, 2020

2 Corinthians 2

Key verse: 2 Corinthians 2:6
Big idea: Our weakness can be redeemed.

Back in 1 Corinthians, we learned about a man who was engaged in immorality of the highest order. The church was instructed to remove him from their fellowship and to pray that he might repent and be restored (the same process laid out in Matthew 18). Now the same church which had delayed acknowledging the sin was reluctant to forgive. Had it been long enough? Could he really be sorry? The same Paul who had warned them not to sweep sin under the rug now warns them against ignoring his repentance. His weakness had been touched by God and his suffering was not aimless. It was to transform him into the man God wanted him to be. They did not need to leave him in his pain forever, because pain has purpose. Weakness can be redeemed. 

The man's sin was not the issue, ultimately. It was his response to correction. If he had taken the gospel message, that we are sinners but God is ready to forgive, as an offense and a stench, it would have led him to death. If he took it, as he did, a sweet savor of hope and forgiveness, it would lead to life. His suffering was destined to be what he made of it. If he had chosen to see it through the eyes of rebellion and self-justification, he would have driven it even deeper. But because he recognized it as the healing scalpel of the Great Physician, it was driven out. 

What about you? What about me? Do we realize that even out weakness and pain can be redeemed by the grace of God? Nothing in the hand of the Holy One of Israel is irreparably unclean! He cleanses us, He cleanses our circumstances and He cleanses our weakness if we will recognize Him. Do we, by faith, recognize the smell of blood, sweat, and tears as the savor of life? Maybe you are grieving or sick. Maybe you have lost your job or fallen into a moral lapse. These things are serious but far from beyond the loving reach of Jesus. 

Discussion idea: Has God ever used your weakness in a way that was unexpected and beautiful before? Is there anything in your life which seems too far for Him to use it? 
Prayer focus: Pray that God will help you to recognize the sweet scent of grace in some painful part of your life today. 

Friday, July 3, 2020

2 Corinthians 1

Key verse: 2 Corinthians 1:7
Big idea: When we are weak, we can be assured of God's comfort.

Blaise Pascal, a seventeenth century mathematician, physician, theologian and one of the brightest minds in history, wrote: "What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!"[1] He echoed well the theme of 2 Corinthians. It is the book of tensions, that at times seem like contradictions. Human beings are made in the image of God, yet made of dust. We are oh-so-profoundly weak.

Why has God allowed us to be so fragile if we are to be His vessels? Paul was no stranger to it. They had faced the sentence of death and unthinkably immense suffering. Why would God let them get to the brink? Paul says that God brought them to the brink of death, stripped away all of their resources and shattered their self-reliance so that they could learn to trust in the God who raises the dead. In their greatest weakness was the greatest glory.

One of the great mysteries of the Bible is that it is better to be hurt and be comforted by God than to never hurt at all. Our despair is our greatest hope. The pain of a broken heart is the guarantee of the comforting arms of God. But even that is not the sole purpose. God comforts us so that we can comfort others, where His love flows through us and into others. That is the greatest glory of humanity; we are broken vessels, restored by God and then used by God to restore others. Our heartache is the down payment on joining with God in the greatest honor we could ever enjoy. "The pride and refuse of the universe," Pascal wrote so wisely. But what a Savior, who does not just heal us from our weakness. He transforms it into strength.  

Discussion idea: In what ways could it be true that being comforted by God after pain is better than never hurting at all? Why does God use us to comfort others?
Prayer focus: Pray that God would show you how to recognize the ways He has comforted you and pass it to others.

[1] Blaise Pascal, The Provincial Letters; Pensées; Scientific Treatises, ed. Mortimer J. Adler and Robert McHenry, trans. W. F. Trotter, Second Edition, vol. 30, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago; Auckland; London; Madrid; Manila; Paris; Rome; Seoul; Sydney; Tokyo; Toronto: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 249.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

1 Corinthians 16:14

Key verse: 1 Corinthians 16:14
Big idea: The cross shapes our everyday lives.

As Paul concludes 1 Corinthians, we have seen the apostle's response to a deeply divided church. Paul offered them a better way: where they could have unity in diversity, each sacrificing their own interests for the interests of others like Jesus had shown them. Love would be their supreme bond, as modeled in the cross, and their supreme hope would be the resurrection life won for them by their Savior. In his concluding remarks, Paul gives a few more basic instructions for Christian living. He tells them how to receive Timothy, how to handle offerings and other miscellaneous matters. But his most important injunction is sweeping: let everything be done with love. 

What if we took that seriously? Let your driving in traffic be done with love. Let the clothes you wear, the food you eat and the things you drink be chosen with love. Pay your taxes, go to the store and go to school with love. How would our world be different if every Christian faced every situation with the question "What would love do here?" There would be a lot less division and a lot less hypocrisy when our concern is no longer with our own reputation. 

I have very few words today, because the point is simple. Just do it. And whatever it is, do it in love.

Discussion idea: What situations or challenges bring out a lack of love in you?
Prayer focus: Pray that God would keep His love in our minds at all times, so we would be quick to love others. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

1 Corinthians 15

Key verse: 1 Corinthians 15:20
Big idea: The cross is not the end of the story. 

For our honeymoon, my wife and I got to tour Israel. We sat on the steps Jesus climbed into the Temple, rode across the Sea of Galilee and saw the mountain where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount (or at least where someone decided to put the gift shop). Of course, the most incredible place was the Garden Tomb. There we saw a cave, with a slot on the ground where a stone might block the entrance. We walked inside and turned to the right, where there was a bed carved out of the rock. Of course, the one thing we did not see was the most important thing of all: the body of Jesus. 

Although we have been looking at the cross as the primary theme of 1 Corinthians, the cross is not the end of the story, but the beginning. When He died, Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, but on the third day, He rose again. Death could not hold the Author of life, and when He rose again, the new creation began. Just as the first Adam was the beginning of humanity, Jesus as the second Adam is the beginning of the restored humanity. The judgment of our sins is only the beginning of the story, because the life of Jesus gives us hope.

Discussion idea: What does Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 15:19 when he says that if our hope in Christ is in this life only, we should be the most pitied of all people?
Prayer focus: Pray for God to help you to remember that weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.