Thursday, April 29, 2021

April 29 - Judges 19, Acts 13

 Key verse: Judges 19:12

Big idea: Cycles of decline end in a crash.

Judges 19 is a horrible story, and in that sense a fitting end to the book of Judges. Over and over again, the moral decay of the nation has spiraled deeper and deeper until now, there is nothing but death. Even the most basic family relationships are broken down, and so there cannot be anything but disaster. The scene opens with another Levite, which would not be so ominous if we had not read about the wicked Levite in the previous chapters who served as a hired pagan priest. It is hard to escape the parallel: this chapter also begins by reminding us that there was no King in Israel. The Levite's wife is not mentioned, but he has a concubine who has left him and returned to her father in Bethlehem. He goes to her, intending to speak sweetly to her and convince her to come home. Apparently, he is successful because she is going to go back with him, but her father delays. For several days, he continues to drag out the limits of hospitality to prevent them from leaving. Finally, the Levite decides to leave, but foolishly late in the day.

As sunset hastens, he is close to the city of Jebus, a Jebusite city which remained unconquered, although it would eventually be taken and renamed Jerusalem. It is ironic that this somber tale begins in Bethlehem, where King David and Jesus would both be born, and passes by Jerusalem, where God's presence would be revealed in Temple and Cross. The Levite does not stop in Jebus, fearing the way he will be treated by pagans. Instead, he decides to go on to the Benjamite city of Gibeah, which would be the hometown of King Saul. But when he gets to Gibeah, he finds that the Israelites act like pagans. He is left to sleep in the city square, until an old man from the same region where he lives who is staying in Gibeah temporarily welcomes him into his house. 

Have we finally found a hero in this story? Alas, what follows is nearly a beat for beat recapitulation of the story of Sodom. The climax is when the host offers his daughter and his host's concubine to the mob, and tell them to (literally) do what is right in their eyes. This host gives into the spirit of the age, where there is no king and every man did what was right in his own eyes. Our text gets more somber still. The concubine is abused all night, stumbles to the porch and died. Her husband wakes up in the morning and goes out to callously tell her it is time to leave, only to find her dead already. Sodom is now within Israel, the tribes are set up for an inevitable conflict, and all of the things that God had been doing through His people seemed to be in jeopardy. Of course, it won't be. There will be much sorrow because sin leads to disaster, but God's grace goes farther still.

Discussion idea: Why is it so hard to reverse the decay of sin? What areas in your life have things seemed to spiral out of control? How does God resolve this runaway train?

Prayer focus: Thank God for the provision of Bethlehem and Jerusalem - that our sin does not continue unbound forever but had been dealt with once and for all!

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

April 28 - Judges , Acts 12

Key verse: Judges 18:31

Big Idea: Cycles of idolatry are hard to break. 

"In those days there was no king in Israel" is an expression that can be read in two ways. In one sense, this was the period of the judges, when there was no centralized king who had united the nation. This was important: when God made his covenant with David, he was given a special role in guiding the people as God's representative. But there is another way of reading it too. When the people first clamored for a king, God said that it was because they were rejecting Him as their King (1 Samuel 8:7). To say that there was no king in Israel might be a way of saying that the people had rejected God as their king, so everyone did what was right in their own eyes instead of what God  decreed. It sounds much like our society, I think. Our rejection of all authority is very much a symptom of our rejection of God's authority. There is no King and so everyone does what is right in their own eyes.

Where does that lead? In the case of our chapter today, it led to a priest who had abandoned the duties of his people at the tabernacle to become the private priest of one man, who led the worship of his private idols. Then, when the tribe of Dan (who had failed to conquer the territory assigned to them) came to this have-altar-will-travel priest and offered him more money and more prestige, he followed them instead. The nation was deep in a cycle of idolatry, and getting deeper all the time. The tribe of Dan, with the strength of their idols and their hired priest, found an isolated town and murdered everyone there. When would it stop?

Tragically, the Bible tells us that they kept their idolatrous altar in their stolen town throughout the period of the Judges. Their false priest was a descendant of Moses himself. We might look at this story and wonder why God allowed them to be victorious in their invasion. Shouldn't they have been defeated? Shouldn't their be repercussions? Perhaps that is the most horrible element of this story. They were so far gone that God did not stop them. He let them sow their seeds, let the fruit of their sin grow, and would let them bear the harvest. They were deep in cycles of idolatry, and it would only be in the days of Samuel, who would anoint a king for the people, that things would change.

Discussion idea: What do you think it means that there was no king in Israel, so everyone did what was right in their own eyes? How do you respond to authority in your life?

Prayer focus: Ask God to expose your idols, and break their hold on your heart.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

April 27 - Judges 16, Acts 11

 Key verse: Judges 16:30

Big idea: There is no cycle so deep that God cannot reach us.

One of Jesus' best-loved parables is the story of the prodigal son. Who can hear it without being moved? A son tells his father, "I can't wait for you to die. I want my portion of the inheritance now!" And his father liquidates assets to send the son on his way. Jewish custom was to hold a funeral for such a child, who had dishonored his family and treated his parents as nothing more than a too-slow ATM. There was no taking back such a radical step, the relationship was forever severed. This son went and wasted a lifetime worth of earnings in a short period of time, and when he was forced to take up a job tending for pigs, he was so hungry that he stared longingly at their slop. It was in that state that he came to his senses, and decided to return home. He knew that he could never be a son again, but his father's servants were treated better than he was. When he got home, his father saw him from a long way off, and ran to him (an act considered extremely undignified in first-century Israel). This son was forgiven and restored. He had gone a long way from home and had done something incredible, but he had still not gone too far to be restored by God.

No wonder this story sticks out in our minds! How reassuring to know that we are never beyond the reach of God; while there is life, there is hope (Ecclesiastes 9:4). Samson is a great example of this truth. He had made a lot of mistakes (or rather, he had made the same couple of mistakes over and over again). But in his final hour, when his eyes had been gouged out and he was bound in Philistine chains, his hair began to grow back. It was cut because of his sin, glorying in the wrong things brought shame as it always does, but he was not finally rejected because of God's grace. His final act, bringing the building full of Philistine rulers down on them (even though he knew it would also end his life) killed more of Israel's enemies than he had killed in his life. He had gone far, but when he cried out to God one last time, God still heard him.

Since Samson is included as an example of godly faith in Hebrews 11, I think it is hard to escape the conclusion that when he left this life, the Father received him with as much gusto as the father of the prodigal. "For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found" (Luke 15:24). The same is true for you! While it is much more pleasant to stay in the father's house and enjoy the blessings of fellowship and peace all the time, you have never gone too far to turn back to him, if you just will. 

Discussion idea: How is Samson's life both an encouraging and a cautionary tale? Do you tend to err on the extreme of writing yourself off because of your mistakes, or of being too tolerant of sin?

Prayer focus: Lord, teach me to obey You, but also to have the faith to know that I stand by grace alone, and that nothing I do can ever change your love for me. Thank you for the assurance that no sin is too great to be covered by the blood of Jesus, except rejecting his forgiveness.

Monday, April 26, 2021

April 26 - Judges 15, Acts 10

 Key verse: Judges 15:20

Big idea: Be sure that the cycles of your character can bear the weight of your blessings.

Samson was a truly impressive man. We usually remember him only for his moral weaknesses, but it would be unfair to forget that he was one of the examples of faith in Hebrews 11:32. This man defeated the Philistines and judged Israel for two decades! God blessed him in an incredible way, with privileges, opportunities, and supernatural strength. But ultimately, we remember Samson because his life came tumbling down. From the time he was young, he expected to have every impulse satisfied, and his parents did so (Judges 14:3). 

He decided that a Philistine woman was so beautiful that he had to marry her, despite their different faiths. After she betrayed him in chapter 14, he finally returned to her and found that she had already married the best man from his wedding. In a fit of rage, he burned the Philistine crops, and when they responded by having some fellow Israelites capture him, he killed 1000 men. Yet, he prayed afterwards for water, and God cared for him. God blessed him and used him, but character takes time to develop. When we are faced with small temptations and challenges, we develop the mental muscles that we will need for the big ones.

Sometimes children feel like their parents are picking on small details in their lives. Is a white lie or unfinished homework really that big of a deal? But the character traits we learn in the small details will determine our behavior in the big moments. Samson's character failings meant that all of the blessings God gave him were ultimately more than he could handle. What about you?

Discussion idea: Why did God choose someone as flawed as Samson to deliver the Israelites in that time period? How could Samson be a man of faith and still a man of sin?

Prayer focus: Lord, make me a person of integrity: wholly devoted to You. Teach me the skills I need to obey, and purge me of the double-mindedness that so easily entangles us.

Monday, April 19, 2021

April 19 - Judges 7, Acts 5

Key verse: Judges 7:2

Big idea: It is God’s power that breaks our cycles.

Have you ever asked a child who taught them something? Many times, they will say, "I taught myself," or "I just knew." Of course, that is rarely true. Someone spent time and energy with them, showing them how to read, how to do a puzzle, how to write their name, or whatever it may be. But they forgot! They only remember that they have the skill, and they are proud of it. Their memories are short and so the person who put in the work doesn't get much credit.

Unfortunately, we are like that with God. We turn to God in a moment of crisis and pray, "I can't make it anymore, Lord, I need you to rescue me!" God does, graciously, and then in a few weeks or months we look back and think, "Wow, I really handled that well." Whenever we can take the credit, we do! We forget about God's help, the way He ordered our circumstances, put the right people in our paths, and encouraged our hearts when we did not have the strength to go on any further. Pride drives out worship.

God knows this, obviously. He is not surprised by this weakness in our hearts and sometimes He takes surprising steps to mitigate against it. That was certainly the case with Gideon. This "mighty man of valor" that we met last week was going to conquer the Midianites but God knew that it would be easy for him to take the credit. So the Lord made it painfully obvious that it was not Gideon's power that did it. He had the commander send home soldier in waves, telling him that there were too many of them. Imagine any military commander, pastor, business person, or teacher saying, "The problem here is that we have too much help and too much money." It's absurd! But because God's primary interest was not in rescuing the Israelites from Midian but from sin, He needed fewer people to prevent them from taking the credit. 19,700 troops were sent home. 300 were used by God to deliver the nation. It was a powerful picture.

In fact, He could have done it with 299. Or even 0! When He defeated the army of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, no Israelite had to raise up a sword. The point was to make it clear that it is not our strength, but God's that does the real heavy lifting. Our own cycles of sin and pride will only take us in the same downward direction that they always have. The only way out is for a hand up. God reached down into our death and helplessness if we are willing to admit that it is helplessness, and saves us when we could never save ourselves. We only need the faith and the humility to ask.

Discussion idea: What is something God has done for you which you have let slip from your mind? We are we so "prone to wander," as the old hymn says?

Prayer focus: Lord, I cannot do anything on my own. You are the vine, and I am the branch, all that I have comes from You and without You I can do nothing. Take away the things that give the delusion of self-sufficiency and teach me to trust and to worship.

Friday, April 16, 2021

April 16 - Judges 6, Acts 4

 Key verse: Judges 6:12

Big idea: We are who God says we are, not who our cycles say we are.

Sometimes God gets our attention easily. Our hearts are sensitive and a little bump in the road shakes away the sleep from our eyes and brings us back to where we belong. Other times, we need to be grabbed by the shoulders and shaken. In the days of Gideon, who we will meet today and look at again next week, Israel needed someone to scream, shake, and pour ice water on them. The Midianites came in judgment, so the Israelites had to hide in caves, could not reap from their fields, and were plunged into poverty. After six years of this, they cried out to God for mercy, and He raised up a judge.

This judge was no hero or warrior. He was hiding like everyone else, throwing wheat into the air in a pit. But the Angel of the Lord (an Old Testament appearance of Jesus) appeared to him and said: "The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valor." No one looking at Gideon would have called him valiant. He was not a warrior. For six years, he could have tried to stand up to the Midianites (and probably died in the process), but he was just hiding. Yet his past did not determine his identity or his future. God saw what Gideon could be and would be and so that is who he was.

God is a transformer. He promised Israel that he would give the nation a new name (Isaiah 62:4-6), no longer desolate and deserted but married and beloved. In the same way, He promises us individually a new name (Revelation 2:17). We, like Gideon, are not who we have been but who God has declared us to be. Gideon's weakness, sin, and failings were not the end of his story! And yours and mine are not ours. 

Discussion idea: What sin or weakness are you tempted to let define you? What does God call you in the gospel instead?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to bring my sin and shame to You to be forgiven, and to trust Your word about who You have called me to be. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

April 15 - Judges 4, Acts 3

 Special guest post: Bro Chris Meek

 Key Verse: Judges 4:21

Big Idea: God breaks our cycles in unexpected ways

Have you ever been right… even though you were wrong? If you’ve ever had to take a multiple choice, you know what I’m talking about: you don’t have a clue what the answer is, but you guess correctly; the teacher forgets to put the correct answer on the test, so everyone gets it right; or maybe your teacher marks yours right by accident! You didn’t know the answer, but you get credit for it anyway. You didn’t expect it, and yet, it happened. You didn’t earn it, and yet, you got it anyway. Who saw that coming?

When we meet Barak in Judges 4, Israel is caught in a cycle of sin, oppressed by Jabin, his commander Sisera, and his 900 iron chariots. Deborah reminds him: God has called him to take 10,000 men against Sisera, whom God has promised to deliver into his hands. Instead of obeying, Barak offers Deborah a deal: I’ll go, but only if you go, too. Deborah agrees, but warns him that if he does it his way, the honor will not be his: “...for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman” (vs.9). The outcome is still the same: Sisera is still defeated. But Barak doesn’t get to play the hero. If you thought it was Deborah, you’d be wrong. Instead, that honor goes to Jael, who in a final twist of irony, kills Siserah with a tent stake (working with tents was considered Women’s work at the time). Who saw that coming?

We can take comfort in the fact that God is in the business of doing the unexpected. When Sisera came to Jael, he didn’t expect his end. When the thief is on the cross, he doesn’t expect to be in paradise. When we sin, we don’t expect the forgiveness of God. And we don’t expect the King to trade His robes for torn garments, His crown for thorns, or His throne for a cross. We don’t expect God to trade His place for ours, but God does the unexpected.

We may remember another time God uses a woman to do the unexpected. When Jesus came to live among men, He did not come as a fully grown man, but as a newborn child born through Mary. Although Jesus, the Lion of Judah, could command legions of angels, He came into the world in the weakness of a child, the Lamb that would take away the sins of the world. If you are someone who often feels weak, know that His strength is made perfect in our weakness. Find your strength in Jesus!

Discussion Idea: One of the major themes in this passage is the irony of a woman killing a man with an instrument primarily used for women’s work. Sometimes we fail to see what God is doing because of societal and cultural expectations. What are some legitimate ways that God might use us, which might go against our own culture?

Prayer Focus: Lord, help me to see life through your eyes, and not my own. Give me Your strength to be obedient to the unexpected things You are doing.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

April 14 - Judges 2, Acts 2

 Key verse: Judges 2:10

Big idea: Cycles of sin begin with neglect.

The book of Judges picks up around 1375 BC, roughly the same time as the reign of Tutankhamen in Egypt. It feels like a remarkable step backward: after wandering in the wilderness for forty years, the Israelites finally moved forward to victory and settled the land. But now, in the period of the Judges, the Israelites were stuck again.  For the next 200 years, they lived in the same basic cycle described in this chapter. The people sinned, God sent an enemy to judge them, the people cried out, God raised up a deliverer to rescue them, and the people sinned again but worse than their fathers. It was a slowly descending spiral, falling further and further from God's blessing. 

How did it start? Judges 2:10 is horrifying. The generation that knew Joshua died, and the next generation "knew not the LORD, not yet the world which he had done for Israel." They did not know God (personally) and did not know what He had done (intellectually and in faith). Their parents had neglected to carry out the instruction of Deuteronomy 6:4-7 of diligently teaching their children about who God was and what He had done, and so in a single generation the truth was lost and wicked behavior followed. God has no grandchildren, so each generation needed to come to trust Him anew personally, and they did not. 

There are probably almost no Christian parents who deliberately teach their children to live lives far from God. Instead, they neglect. They talk about sports and politics more than the Bible. They skip church for sporting events, show greater pride in grades than spiritual maturity, and make a career the supreme goal of life. Maybe they are too proud to admit their own failings and how God has helped them. And so they raise a generation that does not know the Lord. Should we be surprised when that generation lives in rebellion? Even in our own lives, no one sets out the wander (what people used to call backsliding). Instead, we neglect the truth, forget God's works, forget God, and then fall into sin. 

Discussion idea: What areas of your walk with God are you neglecting? How can you remind yourself of who He is and what He has done?

Prayer focus: Lord, start a cycle in my heart that will lead to growth and holiness: knowing You more deeply, obeying You, and coming to know You better.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

April 13 - Joshua 24, Acts 1

 Key verse: Joshua 24:15

Big idea: Victory is rooted in a choice.

About thirty years before our chapter Moses had given his farewell address to the nation. He had reiterated the covenant that God had made with them at Sinai, and had told them that he was setting before them life and death, calling on them to choose life. Now, Joshua was ready to be gathered to his fathers and to Moses, and it was time to give his own farewell speech. Israel was in a drastically different situation: rather than being nomads east of Jordan, they were now settled in the land which God had promised them. The great battles of their early history were behind them, and they had finally learned what it meant to experience victory. But in another sense, they were in the same position they had been all of those years before. Every generation chooses between life and death, victory and defeat. Indeed, every individual is faced with the same challenge that Moses and Joshua presented: God has shown Himself to be faithful, how will you respond?

Joshua made it clear that the people before him were faced with a choice. Who would they serve? Would they go to the gods of the pagan nations they had displaced? Would they follow the gods that Abram's family had worshipped before God called him out? They might do those things, but he and his family would not. They would serve the LORD, who had rescued them, blessed them, and would continue to do so. 

Like Moses before him, Joshua pled that the people would choose life. In 1 Kings 18:21, Elijah would confront another generation with the same challenge. Matthew 7:24-27 revealed that a life is either built on the foundation of obedience to Jesus or is built on sand and destined to collapse. It is a choice: life or death, faith or rebellion, victory or defeat.

Discussion idea: Why does God arrange the Old Testament so that Moses and Joshua's farewells were so similar? How does this same element of choice apply to our lives? Is the command to "choose this day whom you will serve" a one time choice or a repeated one?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to choose You. Help me to not be pulled to all of the temptations that compete for my loyalty but give my heart to you alone.

Monday, April 12, 2021

April 12 - Joshua 22, Luke 24

 Key verse: Joshua 22

Key verse: There is victory in unity. 

You have probably never heard a sermon on today's chapter. It is a little bit bizarre. It involves a misunderstanding, an altar that was never used, and a nation on the brink of Civil War. Recall that when Israel came into his land, they conquered the territory east of the Jordan River first. It was given to two and a half tribes, while the other nine and a half would inherit the land on the west side. The warriors of the  eastern tribes did not get to enjoy their territory until the work of conquering the remaining land was finished. But as we look at chapter 22, Joshua will soon die and the work is nearly complete. Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manassah were released to go home. There was joy and camraderie: they had worked together as a unified nation and were now resting in the land God had given them.

Surely, they were tired. Surely, they had no more appetite for war. Surely, they had made friends across tribal lines and did not want to see each other hurt. But when the western tribes saw that the eastern tribes had built a large altar, they were ready to go to war. They loved their brothers in arms and they loved peace, but they loved God more. There would be no idolatry in their land, and they were willing to go to war if that is what was needed to tear the altar down. 

But before acting rashly, they sent a delegation to talk. It is a model of biblical relationship: they were ready to have an uncomfortable confrontation and they were also willing to listen and be proven wrong. And they were! The eastern tribes explained that the altar they built was not for sacrifice: it was just a replica of the true altar, where God was worshipped as the tabernacle, to serve as a memorial to their kinship with the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan. They took the question with humility, and everyone went home in a unified peace. Victory without war: victory from a united desire to serve God together. 

Discussion idea: Why were the people of the OT so quick to build memorials, such as this replica altar or the pile of stones at the Jordan River? What part should reminders of our past play in our lives?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to be willing to confront sin, willing to listen, and most of all: willing to be corrected. Give me a teachable heart, ever being made more like Yours. 

Friday, April 9, 2021

April 9 - Joshua , Luke 23

 Key verse: Joshua 14:12

Big idea: Victory is not about who we are but who God is.

It has been some time now since we read about the spies going into Canaan before the Israelites crossed the Jordan River. Perhaps you remember that there were 12 spies, 10 of whom convinced the Israelites that the land was too dangerous and thereby condemning that whole generation to die in the wilderness. The two faithful spies were the only ones over the age of forty who were allowed to enter the Promised Land. One of those spies, Joshua, has been a key figure in the narrative so far. The other has faded into the background (he is mentioned only a dozen or so places in the whole Bible) but comes back to the top here. Caleb, now eighty-five years old, comes to Joshua to request a specific city as his inheritance. Hebron, where the giants lived that had scared the nation away before, remained unconquered.

Caleb was either the eldest or second-eldest Israelite (depending on how old Joshua was). He was at an age where, even today, many people have hung up their work boots and decided that they have done their share and it is someone else's turn. Not Caleb! He told Joshua that God had maintained his strength all these long years so that he could do something. He said "Now, therefore, give me this mountain."

It is simple enough, isn't it? If God has kept the strength to breathe in your lungs and the strength to beat in your heart, it is not because He is ready for you to quit. We may be tired sometimes, we may be discouraged sometimes, we may think that others are not doing their share. But God has given us our strength as a stewardship. It does not belong to us, but has been entrusted to us for investment. Let's do it.

Discussion idea: Caleb refused to say that he couldn't serve God because he was too old, and 45 years earlier, he had refused to say he couldn't stand up for what was right because he was too young. What excuses do we give for not serving God? What should we say instead?

Prayer focus: Lord, remove my excuses. Strip away the pride that makes me think I can do things on my own or uses my condition as an excuse for why I can't. Use me for Your glory. Give me that mountain.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

April 8 - Joshua 7, Luke 22

 Key verse: Joshua 7:13

Big idea: To receive God's victory, we must follow God's Word.

The victory at Jericho was not untarnished. Although no Israelites died in the assault on the fortress, they were defeated in their very next assault on the small village of Ai (pronounced "aye" or like the letters A. I.). 36 people died and the army was chased away and forced to retreat for a staggering 16 miles.  The people's hearts "melted like water," and Joshua fell down in mourning. What had happened? How could victory turn to destruction so quickly? Remember that the conquest of Jericho was a sacred event. God had set apart all of Jericho as holy - it was exclusively His property and was to be destroyed in sacrifice. Nothing was to be taken for their own personal gain, it all belonged to God. 

One Israelite, Achan, had violated this commandment by taking a cloak, some silver, and some gold. He hid them beneath his tent (where his family surely would have known what he was doing) and thought that he had succeeded in robbing God. The parallels to the Fall in Genesis 3 are stunning: he saw, he desired, he took, and brought death on the whole community. Israel had taken the things devoted to destruction and become devoted to destruction themselves (much like those who worship useless idols would become useless themselves, as described by the later prophets). Only when Achan was found and punished would God give the Israelites victory over their enemies once again.

Unfortunately, we often want God to bless one part of our life and stay out of the others. Help me with my job or my schoolwork, Lord, but stay away from my temper. I am so stressed out God, give me some peace while letting me keep all of the relationships and behaviors that stress me. Give us victory over Ai while we cherish the things You have called to be destroyed from Jericho. Maybe the greatest tragedy is that God allowed the people to keep the spoils of Ai (Joshua 8:27), but it was too late for Achan. God will give us greater blessings than we could want in His time, but our rebellion will rob us of our blessings.

Discussion idea: Read James 1:14-15 and compare it to the cycle that Achan and Eve fell into (see - covet - take - die). What do you notice? How should this principle affect our lives?

Prayer focus: Ask God for forgiveness for any sin you are holding onto and for His strrength to serve Him.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

April 7 - Joshua 6, Luke 21

Key verse: Joshua 6:2

Big idea: Victory comes from the Lord.

The conquest of Jericho is a story that many of us learned in Sunday School, but let me try and give it to you in some detail. You can see from the map that I have uploaded below that the Israelites had come up from Egypt, wandered in the desert for 40 years and were finally entering into the land God had promised. They had crossed the Jordan River (marked in yellow, connecting the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea), and the first major city they faced was the fortress of Jericho. It was called the "city of palm trees" because of a spring providing water and fertility and has been settled for all of recorded history. The old city was built on a hill 400 yards long and 200 yards wide (about 16 acres), and 70 yards high (about the height of a 20 story building). Around this was a thick wall (at least at some point in Jericho's history, they were 12 feet thick), punctuated with guard towers. 

If the Israelites could conquer this city, it would result in a huge psychological victory over the other inhabitants of the land. If they walked by it unconquered, the Canaanites would have a constant stronghold to resist them. The battle must begin at Jericho. But how could the Israelites conquer?

They would not be able to do it in their own strength, but God did not expect them to. He turned the conquest of Jericho into a religious ceremony and even decreed Jericho as a holy place. The priests led the "assault." Six days of silence, walking around the city once a day for each day. Not doing anything themselves, but waiting on God. On the seventh day, the seventh time around, the priests blew their sacred trumpets and shouted in triumph, then the walls collapsed. The residents of Jericho were confused, weakened, and the Israelites needed only to march in and overcome them. The victory was not theirs, but God's! I wonder how different our lives would be if we saw conflict and challenges as worship. We are being given a chance to put God's grace and glory on display, if we will let Him. 

Map source: Faithlife Corporation. “Biblical World — The Conquest.” Logos Bible Software, Computer software. Logos Bible Software Atlas. Bellingham, WA: Faithlife Corporation, April 7, 2021. 

Discussion idea: What is a modern equivalent of the priests leading out in a conflict in your life? How can you let your spiritual priorities take the lead, instead of the backseat?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you turn to Him first, not last.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

April 6 - Joshua 5, Luke 20

 Key verse: Joshua 5:14

Big idea: God determines what victory means. 

In our hyper-divided age, it seems that we cannot have an opinion without finding out whose side someone is on. If we hear a political speech, we need to know if the person has an R or a D next to their name to decide if we agree with them or not. When watching a baseball game, our opinion of the umpire's calls has a lot to do with which team is affected. When someone does not fit neatly into our categories, we are suspicious: are they on our side, or the enemy's? We often try to put God into the same kind of box, as if He would be neatly on the side of our culture, our nation, and our preferences, and against those who disagree with us. But it is a deep error.

Before entering Jericho, Joshua saw a man with a drawn sword and started to interrogate him. "Are you on our side or our enemies' side?" The man answered: "No." He rejected the whole setup, and announced instead that He was the captain of God's angel army. He was neither an Israelite not a Canaanite, but was above their conflicts: the King of all the Earth. "Take off your shoes," He told Joshua as He had told Moses almost a century earlier. The same God was with him, and would protect and defend him, but should never be mistaken for Joshua's employee. God is His own master, and we should not be concerned about getting Him on our side but about getting on His. Victory is not our team winning, but God's triumph.

Discussion idea: Why do you think Jesus appeared to Joshua in this way before they conquered Jericho? How does God reassure of us His constancy and presence?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to see that you transcend my categories and conflicts. Help me to find Your plans and Your ways to walk in them, not to try and have you bless my own ingenuity. Bring me on Your side, where I will find Your victory.

Monday, April 5, 2021

April 5 - Joshua 4, Luke 19

 Key verse: Joshua 4:23

Big idea: The same God gives us the victory in the mountains and the valleys.

The ancients believed that there were many gods, who each had narrowly specified domains. There might be a sea god, a sky god, a harvest god, and so on. The authority of the god might be tied to a specific city or place, and outside of that realm they were impotent. God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt, but was His power tied to that place? Was it tied to Moses, now dead and buried? Or could He still lead the Israelites into the future? 

At the Jordan River, the boundary of the Promised Land, the Living God revealed that no Canaanite idols could keep His people out. The same God who had parted the Red Sea under the time of Moses went before His people with the Ark of the Covenant, and stopped the Jordan River. Their parents had walked on dry ground out of their old home, and now they walked on dry ground into their new one. The same God was Lord of all the Earth, and was with them. 

Yesterday, we celebrated Easter. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead works powerfully in your life and mine, so that we can live for Him. You may be a long way from Egypt and Jericho but God is still in control wherever and whenever you are. He proved Himself to be faithful, and capable of delivering His people over and over again, and He can do the same for us.

Discussion idea: Where/when have you felt God the most clearly? Where/when have you felt Him the least? What does it mean that God was equally present in both?

Prayer focus: Lord, help restore my wonder at your infinity. Teach me to worship You as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who reigns over every place and every moment.

Friday, April 2, 2021

April 2 - Remembering the Cross

Today, the reading is very long and is going to break our program up. It is a full-length sermon I wrote to condense into an outline for an ebook of sermon resources for pastors. I hope that you will take the time to read it today. 

Adrian Rogers once told a captivating story. A spider walked into a cave one day and found a lion asleep. Like all of the creatures of the savannah, the spider feared the lion, although she was more concerned with his heavy steps than his jaws. She decided that with the lion asleep, she could finally capture him. All night long, she spun her web around him, running threads over his back, paws, and tail, until finally, he glistened to her eyes in a powerful net of silver. Sunrise came, and the lion stirred. He yawned with a roar, stepped up, and walked out of the cave. He did not rustle his mane to shake the web off but simply went on about his day, unweighted and unaware that he had ever been bound at all. All the spider’s skill and strength were nothing compared to the might of the lion. Those webs that could easily trap a fly could never hurt the king of the jungle.

We find ourselves bound by many things. Some of you might know someone who has been bound by addiction, or been bound by it yourself. Some of us have been bound by fear or pride. Sometimes, we are bound by things because of their strength. Sometimes, like an exhausted Gulliver being tied down by an army of Lilliputians, we are captured because of a moment of weakness. Sometimes, we can break free on our own, eventually. But some things that ensnare us are inescapable, on our own or with the help of friends and family. One example stands out above all others: when someone lies cold in a casket, no amount of willpower and no pep talk could ever rouse them again. The chains of death are more than our strength could ever overcome.

But today we are gathered to remember a death that was shaken off. We are here to worship a Man who could not be held by the things that we could never escape. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah shook off the pains of death like a spiderweb, and with His roar breaks their grip on us. What makes this Friday a good one is that the cross was not the end of Jesus’ story. It was impossible for death to hold Him.

Our text comes from Acts 2:14-40, Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. As the apostle reflected on the events of Good Friday and Easter, he gave us one of the most thought provoking lines in the Bible: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” It was not possible for Jesus to be held by the pangs of death! As we think about His death today, we’ll see three reasons why. It was impossible for death to hold Jesus, because the penalty was fulfilled. It was impossible for death to hold Jesus because death could not restrain what God had promised to free. And it was impossible for death to hold Jesus because death could never hold the Life.

Let’s begin in verse 14, and see Peter’s sermon about the indomitable Jesus.

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “ ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’


The crowd had gathered because of the miracle of tongues on the day of Pentecost, and the reactions ran from one extreme to another. Some saw drunken rambling, some who were closer to the mark saw an incredible miracle, but Peter saw something much more dramatic. Prophecies, visions, and wonders would precede the day of the Lord’s coming, the sun would be turned to darkness (like it was when Jesus was on the cross) and the moon would be turned to blood. Something new and exciting was beginning, and the day of Pentecost was part of that. Yet it was not only something new, it was the fulfillment of this ancient prophecy from Joel 2:28-32 that he quotes from vv 17-21. “The time is here!,” Peter was clearly saying, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Why did they need to be saved? What did they need to be saved from? Remember that Joel wrote during the Exile, when the Temple lay in ruins. Their access to God had been broken. They were scattered from their home. Their salvation would mean their communion with God and their return to their homes restored. It was a microcosm of the human condition since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden: our sin has separated us from God and left us wanderers without a permanent place here. But now, that was all changing.

The presence of God had returned! His Spirit that had led the Israelites out of Egypt as a pillar of fire and that made the Temple too bright to enter on its dedication day had now returned, and sanctified the Church as a new Temple. For this to happen, the cause of the exile – our sin – must have been dealt with. The wages of sin is death (Romans 3:23), but the sinless Jesus did not deserve it. He took on our death willingly, and because its penalty was paid in full, death could no longer hold him. Death could not hold Him when its penalty was fulfilled. As Hebrews 9:12-14 tell us, “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing us an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” His death was the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that, like the old hymn says, “paid it all.”

The Boston Globe ran a horrifying story about a man named Rommel Jones, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Through a horrific clerical mix-up and the lack of an advocate, he spent four additional years in prison. He told people his prison sentence was up, “When my sentence is over, they can’t hold me no more. They’ve got to let me go,” he said. Mr. Jones was right.[1] Whatever crime he committed, when the penalty was paid, the prison system no longer had any right to hold him. It was a miscarriage of justice, probably only explicable from a mixture of wickedness and incompetence. There is no such risk with God. When the penalty was paid, the pangs of death could not hold Jesus anymore.

But what about us? We are freed in Christ! If you have been saved by placing your faith in the Jesus who died for you, this is a Good Friday because the penalty of your sin has been paid in full.  Paul put it this way in Romans 8:2-4: “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” There is a lot going on in those verses, but I want you to see how it related to the claim Peter and Joel made: whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. You can be saved from the penalty of your sin and I can be saved from the penalty of my sin because it has been completely dealt with. It has no more rightful jurisdiction over you than the Massachusetts Department of Corrections had over Rommel Jones. You are free, and God makes no mistakes.

Jesus did not only deal with the penalty of sin. He broke its power in us, allowing us to become new creatures. “For freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1)”! Whatever sin you have been entangled with, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah has shaken it off without strain. When we try and deal with our struggles in our own strength, they are like a child’s finger traps, our pride making the pinch tighter. But when we go to Christ through prayer, corporate worship, confession to our brothers and sisters, and time in the Bible, God gives us new strength. What we mustn’t do is give up. The greatest enemy is death, and if death could not hold Him because sin was overcome, what could?

But that is not the only reason that Death’s power was stopped. It was not just the absence of Death’s authority, but the presence of a higher Authority. Death could not hold what God had promised to free. Look in verses 22-31:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, “ ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.”


The crucifixion was no accident, where God’s plan had gone out of control and His chosen Redeemer was defeated by His enemies. This was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” It was God’s plan that the Jews handing the Messiah promised in the Law to Gentiles who had no conception of the Law – crucifying and killing Him by the hands of lawless men. It would be bad news if this were where everything had gone off the rails. But it is a Good Friday because this was God’s promise and His plan. The same God who planned His death also planned His resurrection, and neither one would fail.


David wrote in Psalm 16 that “my flesh will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades or let your Holy One see corruption.” King David is long dead, and His body returned to the dust decades ago. On our honeymoon, my wife and I stood at the place that is marked as his tomb.  David could not have been speaking about Himself. But David knew that God had made a covenant with him that, although David would not build God a house in the form of a Temple, that God would build David a house in the sense of a family. His descendants would rule on the throne. But here, tantalizingly, God apparently revealed to David that one of his descendants would rule forever. We know this is Jesus Himself! The one who was part of David’s house, as his descendant, but also God’s House – God Himself come down as a Man,  a living Temple. On Pentecost, His body became a Temple in the same way, filled with His Spirit. God kept His Word! He kept it when He gave Jesus as a sacrifice, He kept it when He rescued Him from the grave, and He kept it when He sent His people power to be witnesses. He could not have done otherwise. It was not possible for Jesus to stay held by Death when God had promised that He would be freed.


His word is no less certain today. “Every word of God proves true, he is a shield to those who take refuge in him,” Psalm 30:5 promises. We can stand on God’s promises today too. Hebrews 13:5 tells us that we do not need to worry about our material possessions because God will “never leave [us] nor forsake [us].” Imagine the load that could be lifted when you realize that the concerns of this world cannot hold you because the Maker of the world is your provider. Maybe you are dealing with a struggle in your life and don’t know which way to go? Try on James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” You need food? God will never forsake you. You need wisdom? Ask in faith and He gives generously.


In John 6:37, Jesus promises: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” If you have come to Christ, you do not need to worry about Him rejecting you or turning His back on you. Maybe you have sinned, maybe you have doubted. But you are not the one strong enough that the chains of death are helpless before you. He is. Your salvation is not based in your strength but in His.


Because He will not cast us out, we can take the promise of John 14:3 seriously: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Even death cannot hold us! Jesus has prepared a place for us to dwell with Him, the presence of God and the end of exile. The work that was pictured on Pentecost and paid for on Calvary will be fully realized because God is faithful. If death could not keep Him from fulfilling His promises, what could?

Death could never hold Jesus because the penalty was paid and the promise was sure. Death could not hold Jesus because of what He did. But I think that there is at least one more reason, even more fundamental. Death could not hold Jesus because of who He is. Death could not hold the life.

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” ’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”


This Jesus, David’s Son who David called ‘Lord,’ is exalted at the right hand of God. He received the promised Spirit and passed that Spirit onto His Church. He sits enthroned: Lord and Christ. Redemption is not something that just anyone could have accomplished, and it happens to have been Jesus of Nazareth. Redemption was tied to His nature as fully Man and fully God. This God-Man was so fully human that He could die in the place of His brothers, and so fully God that Death could not hold Him and He could take His life up again. “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men,” 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “the man Christ Jesus.”


It was this Jesus, who they crucified, that was made Lord. The same One – fully God and fully Man. In John 6:48, Jesus had said: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Although it made the crowds turn away from Him, Jesus announced that He was the source of their spiritual life as surely as bread was the source of their physical life. He was even more explicit in John 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Or John 14:6, in all of its glorious abstraction: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

That is as simple as it could possibly be. Jesus is Life Himself. Death could not conquer life. The message Peter preached was not about an abstract idea. His good news was not “Death could not hold it.” It was “Death could not hold Him.” Here is a real person, who invited you into a relationship with Himself, in His name. A relationship that will change everything. We can only find real Life in Him, because He is the life. 1 John 5:12: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Death could not hold the One who is the Life, and it cannot hold those who have Him, and who He has as His own. Not physical death, which will be broken in our resurrection like His. Not spiritual death, because the penalty of our sin and its power have been canceled. We can count on His promise and know that no thing and no one could ever stop Him. Death could not hold Him.

In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis wrote: “God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended—civilisations are built up—excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down. They are trying to run it on the wrong juice. That is what Satan has done to us humans.”

Is that you? Are you trying to run your life on the fuel of good intentions, education, material wealth, popularity, church attendance, or some other secular or religious rite? It won’t work. You can only find the strength to overcome the gravitational pull of Sin and Death by trusting in the one who conquered it. The One whose promises are sure. The One who is truly the Life.

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”

If that unstoppable life has cut you to your heart, there is no better way to make this a very Good Friday for you than to repent of your sin (which is defeated and has no power anyway) and come to know Him today.



Thursday, April 1, 2021

April 1 - Joshua 1, Luke 18

Key verse: Joshua1:8

Big idea: Victory comes from the word of God.

Have you ever been overwhelmed? I know that I have. Too many tasks, too little time. Unending decisions and responsibilities weigh on your mind and leave you sick to your stomach and no closer to your goals. Imagine how Joshua must have felt! Moses, the leader who talked to God face to face and led the people for forty years was dead, and it was now Joshua's job to bring the people into the land to conquer. There were many tasks ahead, great and small. Cities would need to be conquered, land would need to be divided, and ordinary disputes would need to be settled. What did Joshua need for victory? 

God told him directly. Joshua needed to be strong and very courageous, and the key was the Bible. Joshua only had the first five books of the Old Testament (the Law), but it would be the core. "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success." If Joshua kept the Word of God in his mouth, in his heart, and in his actions, he would have victory. 

What do we need to succeed in life? The Bible! We need to read it, share it, memorize it, and obey it. Then, we will have the path we need for success in God's sight.

Discussion idea: How can you meditate on the Bible this week? When was the last time you memorized a verse of Scripture?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to hide Your word in my heart that I might not sin against You.