Your Plan for 2024

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

Friday, April 19, 2024

April 19 - Acts 8

Key Verse: Acts 8:4
Big Idea: The Church of Jesus has to hit the road.

When Jesus ascended to Heaven, He told His first church to wait in Jerusalem until they received power, then to go into all nations with the good news of the Kingdom of God. But by the time we get to the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7, they have not gone anyway. They are still in Jerusalem. It must not have seemed unreasonable since there was so much work to be done. But there was a whole world waiting, and it was time for the church to go. God let His enemies attack His people, which they must have seen as a great setback, to scatter them throughout the world. When they were scattered by persecution, they were not like the Israelites of old, just trying to hold on until they could get home. Instead, they preached the word everywhere they went. God applied some pressure and His people were squeezed out into the world.

We often perceive difficulties as working against what God is doing in our lives, but actually, God uses those difficulties to position us where he wants us. When things are easy, we get comfortable and we get lazy. In churches, it is easy to let the familiar become an idol, especially in a world where everything seems to be pulling apart at the seams. But God's people are people on the move, until the day that we rest in His Kingdom. A church is not who she ought to be until she is taking the gospel out and bringing the people in.

Discussion idea: Why is "normal" so comfortable for us? What struggles in your life right now could be a kick in the pants from God to get you moving in the right direction?

Prayer focus: Pray for the wisdom to be obedient to God in the little things, so when the push into the big things come, we will be ready.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

April 18 - Acts 7


Key Verse: Acts 7:59
Big Idea: Sometimes the Church of Jesus is victorious in what looks like defeat.

Today's reading marks the first great tragedy of the church at Jerusalem. They had been beaten and rejoiced, they had faced sinners within and overcome, they had dealt with division and emerged stronger. Yet in Acts 7, we read about one of the first deacons who gave a bold testimony for Jesus and did not find himself rescued by an angel. No one stood up and talked the crowd down. After Stephen summarized the whole history of the nation, to show how Jesus and the people's rejection of Him was the culmination of the whole Bible, they grew furious instead of convicted. Stephen was given a special vision: he saw Jesus standing at the right side of the Heavenly Throne, and told the people so. They stuck their hands over their ears and screamed to drown him out. In a mob, they pushed him out of the city, picked up stones and threw that at him until he died. His crime was blasphemy, for suggesting a man who had been crucified could be at God's throne. The witnesses took their outer robes off to participate in the stoning and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul, who we will meet again.

After such a string of victories, was this finally the end of Jesus' assembly's success? No. It was through defeat that they would triumph. Stephen, even in His death, prayed for Jesus to receive Him and to forgive those who killed him. He overcame them, even in death, by refusing to crumble into sin. He overcame them because his prayer would be answered dramatically when the man overseeing his execution would be forgiven and used by God to write more books of the Bible than anyone else. In a powerful imitation of His Lord, Stephen was most powerful when he appeared the weakest.

Discussion idea: How can not defending yourself sometimes accomplish more than defending yourself? How does God make good out of a bad situation?
Prayer focus: Pray about a difficulty in your life, and ask God to use it to advance His Kingdom, no matter what the consequences for you personally.

Older kids might be interested in the way that stoning was legally carried out in Israel (at least by the late second century, the earliest detailed record we have). The first witness was required to push the person off a cliff of about 12 feet. Then the second witness was to drop a large stone on the criminal's chest, and if they survived, the crowd was to throw rocks at them until they died. The idea was that the witnesses were required to fully accept their status as murderers if they lied, and that like a firing squad, no one would know for certain who had delivered the lethal blow, making it an act of the community's justice rather than individual revenge. This is a far cry from the way stonings are carried out in some Muslim countries today, where it is designed as a form of torture.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

April 17 - Acts 6

Key Verse: Acts 6:7
Big Idea: The biggest threat to the Church of Jesus comes from within. 

When persecuted, the body of Christ grew stronger. When some in the body lived in hypocrisy, the sin was removed and the body grew stronger. Is there anything that could stop the tremendous success of this church at Jerusalem? The one enemy that posed a serious threat was far more subtle. As mentioned in Acts 4 and 5, the church at Jerusalem was pooling their resources and living with all things in common. As the church grew, the logistics began to grow more difficult and the Hellenistic widows (culturally Greek) began to complain that the Hebraic Jews were being treated better than they were. The division in the church caused a grumbling that forced the apostles to intervene. What the outside could not do, the bickering within almost did.

They argued that they should not leave their real work - the Word of God - to settle disputed about food. The fundamental job of the apostles, like the job of pastors today, was to pray and apply the Word of God to people's lives. Being caught up in divisions in the church and micromanaging the physical needs would undermine that, so the church selected 7 men to focus on these needs. The forerunners of deacons, their primary job was to maintain the unity of the church, at least partially by making sure the vulnerable in the church were cared for. 

One of them, Stephen, became the first martyr when he was killed for preaching the truth about Jesus. But when he died, he prayed for their forgiveness just as the Lord did. The church was victorious again. The threat from within was handled, and the threat from without was overcome with faith.

Discussion idea: What kinds of division threaten churches today? What kinds of divisions threaten families?
Prayer focus: Pray to be a unifier and a peacemaker, for God's glory. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

April 16 - Acts 5


Key Verse: Acts 5:3
Big Idea: The Church of Jesus can only operate with integrity.

The continuing saga of the church at Jerusalem is interesting: God's people grew stronger when faced with external opposition. As they were rejected by the outside world, they were forced to depend on each other ever more intensely. They sold their property and lived with all things in common, probably because finding work when their Jewish neighbors considered them heretics was more and more difficult. But the greatest test to their fellowship yet was not beatings or mockery, but plain old human greed.

Older kids: What kind of temptation is more challenging for you to resist: direct challenge, or someone acting like a friend? Why?

Ananias and Sapphira were members of the church at Jerusalem, who sold their property, but held part of it back for themselves. They apparently wanted to live out of the community's resources, while still keeping something for their own luxury. It is obvious that if many people did this, the whole community would collapse. Maybe it is less obvious that the risk was much more than financial: a church can only function when she has integrity. Hypocrisy and self-serving attitudes undermine everything Jesus taught, and miss the point that God knows our hearts and wants us to belong to Him completely. Ananias, and then Sapphira, were struck dead for trying to lie to God (a silly claim), and the whole community was awestruck. God removed a bad witness, where their sin was undermining the gospel, and created a good one: God is holy, and cannot be deceived. The church at Jerusalem was protected, and Jesus' ministry continued to spread.

Younger Kids: Have you ever had to leave somewhere because of the way you were acting? Did your family still love you? If God took Ananias and Sapphira home to Heaven because of their actions, did He still love them?

Discussion idea: Why did God act so decisively in response to this sin? What are some similar actions today regarding the church which we might take lightly, but which God does not?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you identify the subtle areas where you are most vulnerable and protect you from those temptations.

Monday, April 15, 2024

April 15 - Acts 4

Key Verse: Acts 4:20
Big Idea: For the Church of Jesus, the greater the heat the greater the expansion.

Acts 4 feels like it could have been a scene from Luke. Jesus performs a miracle, the religious leaders don't like it and their conflict begins to ramp up. The only difference is that this time, Jesus is already seated in Heaven and is performing this miracle through the hands of His people. Peter and John were held overnight and questioned about what had happened. They did not cower to the pressure of the authorities, but used the opportunity to boldly talk about what Jesus had done for them.

When Jesus had been in Jerusalem, the religious authorities were nervous about what to do with Him: they could not leave Him to continue undermining them, but they knew if they struck out publicly, the people would side with Him. They faced the same problem with Peter and John: here was a public miracle, and a peaceful message. What could they do? They called them back in and threatened them. They were getting a warning this time, but if they continued to preach about this Jesus, there would be repercussions. Peter's response was simple: they had to money God instead of people, and they could not help talking about what they had seen. Through their boldness, the church's ministry to the outside world strengthened, and their connection to each other grew deeper. The work Jesus started could not be doused by opposition: persecution only seemed to make His people stronger.

Discussion idea: Why would times of peace be more dangerous than times of persecution?
Prayer focus: Pray for the skill to find gospel opportunities in difficulties, and lift a specific current challenge in your life up to God for His help in using it for His glory.

Friday, April 12, 2024

April 12 - Acts 3

Key Verse: Acts 3:6
Big Idea:  The Church of Jesus has treasure greater than what money can buy.

Outside the temple was a beggar. He had been unable to use his legs from the day he was born, and depended on the kindness of others to survive. His eyes facing the ground in shame, he reached out his hands and asked some men walking by for a little money to help him get something to eat. Instead, they gave him something much greater. The apostle Peter told him that, although they did not have silver or gold, they would give him what they did have, and by the power of Jesus, he healed the lame man. Instantly, the lame man had the strength and skill to walk and leap. But he had not yet received the greatest gift that Peter and John had to offer.

A crowd gathered to see this man's miraculous recovery, and Peter began to preach to them. It was not his own power or holiness that had healed this man, but his faith in the risen Jesus, who they (as a society) had handed over to Pilate to kill. That same Jesus had reached down and healed the lame man, and that same Jesus was ready to forgive them, if they would ask him. Far better than gold or silver and far better than the ability to walk: they offered the gift of eternal life.

Discussion idea: Do you think churches should help people with physical needs? How should that be tied to the priority of the gift of eternal life?
Prayer focus: Who are some people who told you about Jesus or taught you to walk with Him? Pray and thank God for them by name.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

April 11 - Acts 2

Key Verse: Acts 2:47
Big Idea: The Church of Jesus is built by Jesus.

If we were to trace the story of the Church of Jesus, as an institution, we would need to begin with John the Baptist. All of Jesus' first disciples - and Jesus - submitted to John's baptism. From those raw materials, Jesus assembled His first church and promised that He was building an institution against which the Gates of Hell would never prevail. Indeed, His own death could not stop His assembly from being salt and light in a lost and dying world, because He rose again on the third day to be her eternal head. In Acts 1, we saw Jesus ascend up to be enthroned in Heaven, no longer physically in our midst. But the Church he established to be His body persisted, although she waited in Jerusalem until the promise of the Father was fulfilled.

At the beginning of our chapter, the Church that was built by Jesus and began operating during His life was hooked up to her full power supply, when the Holy Spirit came to indwell and empower her to fulfill her Great Commission - taking the gospel and its implications to all nations. They spoke in other languages they had never learned as a sign that God was now building an assembly not of physical ancestry, but of faith. Peter preached a simple sermon about what Jesus did for us and how He fulfilled the promise of the Old Testament, and thousands were pricked in their hearts, coming to Jesus by faith.

But, it was still Jesus building His church, just as surely as when He looked Peter in the eye and said: "Follow me." They did not win people by their powerful oratory (they were fishermen), fancy buildings (they met in homes, no Christian church buildings would exist for centuries) or the promise of popularity and wealth (they had persecution instead). They simply had the evidence of Jesus, both His resurrection and the change He made in their lives. It was enough because building the church was not their job - it was His. It was the Lord who added to them daily those who had been saved, and their baptism was merely God's people, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, publicly proclaiming what He had already done.

Discussion idea: How did Jesus place you in your church? What circumstances or individuals did He use to get you into the local body that He intended for you? [Parents of young kids: tell your salvation testimony and how God connected you with the church]
Prayer focus: Pray for God to keep adding people through our obedience and that we would have the same kind of unity that amazed the people in Jerusalem back in the first century.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

April 10 - Acts 1

Key Verse: Acts 1:1
Big Idea: The church of Jesus continues the ministry of the Son of Man.

Luke opens the book of Acts with a brief introduction to Theophilus, the Greek man he originally wrote the book for. He explains that the first volume, what we call The Gospel According to Luke, was the record of what Jesus began to do and to teach. The book we call The Acts of the Apostles then begins with the ascension of Jesus, and describes the expansion of the early churches throughout the world. This might make the word "began" in Acts 1:1 seem strange, but it is a powerful truth. The work of the churches, Christ's body, is the continuation of His work. He lived a perfect life, doing good and spreading the good news and now He gives us the responsibility of carrying it on.

Our task is simply to be witnesses, at home, in our region and around the world. Because Jesus is our King and is enthroned in Heaven, it is our job to continue the work which He began. This Resurrection weekend, take the time to remember that Easter is not the end of the story, but the beginning.

Discussion idea: What are some of the specific things Jesus did which we carry on?
Prayer focus: Thank God for giving us the privilege of carrying on His work and the strength to do it. Ask for forgiveness for trying to live our lives as if they are our own story, apart from His. Pray for an opportunity to share the gospel.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

April 9 - Luke 24

Key Verse: Luke 24:27
Big Idea: The Son of Man fulfilled the whole Bible when He conquered death.

Christianity, unlike most religions, tells a story. The story has a distinct beginning: God created the world perfect and gave it to humanity to govern and enjoy. It has a crisis: mankind chose to reject God, breaking our relationship with each other and with our Creator and spiraling the world into pain and death. Then there is a climax: the power of sin broken once and for all by the Creator becoming a human, to endure the punishment for our sin and rise from the dead to serve as the bridge back home. Finally, there is the resolution: the risen Savior returns from Heaven to restore the paradise He had always intended.

Like the first time you watch a sophisticated movie, there are undercurrents you do not notice. But when you see them, it becomes clear that the whole story was working together. After Jesus rose on Sunday, He walked with some of the disciples and told them the story, with Himself at the center. Everything in the Old Testament had been building to this moment, and now all that was left was their response. It is true for us too. Our whole lives lead up to and flow out of our relationship with Jesus.

Discussion idea: What is your favorite Bible story? How does it point forward to Jesus?
Prayer focus: Many in our world are grieving the loss of loved ones and trapped by fear of who else might be lost. Pray for the comfort that online Jesus' life can provide. If you know someone grieving, mention them by name, and pray they will see that Jesus is still the climax of the story.

Monday, April 8, 2024

April 8 - Luke 23

Key Verse: Luke 23:43
Big Idea: The Son of Man died among and for sinners.

From the illegal Sanhedrin trial, Jesus was led to Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate found no crime but decided He was Herod's jurisdiction and Herod's problem. Pushed through the night, Jesus stood his third trial. Herod stalled, mocked, but sent him back to Pilate without making a decision. But the people cried out for Him to be crucified, whipped into a mob. Jesus was then led to a hill called "The Skull" to be crucified.

He was not to die alone, but with one criminal on each side. The One who had done no wrong was counted among the wicked and the wicked surrounded the foot of His cross, gambling for His clothes and scoffing at Him. He prayed for them to be forgiven, and although He could have, ignored their challenges to come down off the cross. He was not just between two thieves but voluntarily stayed on the cross for their sakes. Although both of the criminals initially joined in the verbal attacks, something about Jesus must have touched the heart of one of them.

He acknowledged that He was crucified justly and that Jesus was not. He asked Jesus to remember Him when He came into His Kingdom. This crook, on his last day alive, admitted He was a sinner, believed that Jesus was dying for Him and that He would rise again victorious, then He called on Jesus to save Him. As He has untold millions of times, Jesus did save Him. When our heart sees Him on the cross, the response that we need is: that ought to be me. Lord, rescue me! The Son of Man, who was sinless but took the penalty of sin for us, is ready to deliver us from it. When He died on the cross, the veil that separated people from God was torn and He voluntarily gave His life up.

Discussion idea: Why do you think the thief came to faith in Jesus? What about the events of the chapter might have touched His heart? What about it touches yours?
Prayer focus: Pray for the salvation of those far from Jesus, and forgiveness of our own sins.

PS Here is a great song about the thief on the cross:

Friday, April 5, 2024

April 5 - Luke 22

Key Verse: Luke 22:19
Big Idea: The Son of Man gave His life for ours.

On the night before He died, Jesus called His disciples together to celebrate the Passover. Almost the equivalent of Thanksgiving and Christmas combined, Passover was such a dramatic event in Israel's history that the entire calendar was changed to make it the first month (Exodus 12:2).The feast, where each family gathered and ate a lamb, remembered the night that God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and truly made them a nation for the first time. But it also looked forward, to the day that the slavery to sin would be broken by the blood of a new Lamb, who would make a new family, not of genetic ancestry, but of faith. 

Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper, one of two pictures He gave His churches, by refashioning the Passover. The unleavened bread would represent His sinless body, and the wine His blood. When they took the Lord's Supper, they would reflect on how the loss of His life is what gives us the sustenance we need to live. But just as the Passover pointed both forward and backward, the Lord's Supper has another element. It looks forward to the day when the risen Jesus returns and breaks the power of sin once and for all. The basis of our unity with one another is our simple dependence on God and our common hope in His return.

But before this symbol had been digested, one of the apostles, Judas Iscariot, had already betrayed Jesus into the hands of the mob that took Him to an illegal trial before the Sanhedrin. When Jesus waited on them to come and take Him away, He prayed alone. Beaten, mocked and denied by even Peter - Jesus knew it was coming, and proved it by instituting this supper. He could have stopped it, but He chose to give His life for ours.

Discussion idea: Why do you think Jesus gave us symbols like baptism and the Lord's Supper to serve as pictures of our faith?
Prayer focus: Pray for the kind of two-sided perspective the Lord's Supper teaches: one eye on the death and resurrection of Jesus and another on His return. May God give us the ability to have that point of view for our lives.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

April 4 - Luke 21

Key Verse: Luke 21:34
Big Idea: The Son of Man is coming soon.

 Luke 21 is sometimes called the little Revelation. It describes in abbreviated form the events of the end of the age and ends with a call to be ready. Many people are consumed with prophetic charts and timelines, trying to set a date or place a name on every detail. Interestingly, that is not the emphasis that Jesus places at all. In the Texas CDL handbook, one piece of advice stood out to me. It said something like: "The best way to have both hands on the wheel in an emergency is to always have both hands on the wheel." Jesus' warning is that, because He will come suddenly, we should always live the lives we would want to be living if He came today.

He describes two temptations that lull us to sleep and complacency, and they seem almost like opposites. The first is surfeiting (the CSB translates it as the more familiar term "carousing" and one commentator rendered "unbridled indulgence") and drunkenness. Don't get caught up in a partying lifestyle that chases after the momentary pleasures of this life, because they are going to be taken away in an instant, like the snap of a mousetrap. The second temptation is to be overcome by the anxieties of this life. Perhaps this one is more insidious because of course, we must be aware of our need for shelter, food, and clothing. But daily anxiety shows a heart that is too fixed on things of this world. Don't get caught up in the pressures of this life, because they too are going to be taken away in an instant.

What should we do instead? The Son of Man's simple advice is to pray that we will have the strength to stand. We cannot resist these pressures in our own strength, and if we really believe the coming of the Lord is soon, we have no time to fool around with impossible schemes. Be alert and pray - the two hands on the wheel.

Discussion idea: What kind of temptation, negative or positive, is the most distracting to you? Why? How can you pray about that?
Prayer focus: If prayer to have the strength to stand is key, we must pray to have the strength to remember to pray! Ask God to show you your own inadequacy, not that it might cause anxiety, but replace it by removing the illusion you could ever handle your life in the first place.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

April 3 - Luke 20

Key Verse: Luke 20:14
Big Idea: The Son of Man is the heir of all creation, but invites us to share as joint-heirs with Him.

The parable of the tenants in Luke 20:9-18 is essentially a history of the world and of Israel in particular. God is the landowner, who planted a garden for mankind (and put Israel in the land that flowed with milk and honey). Everything we have really belongs to Him, and He sent His servants (Moses, the prophets, the apostles) to ask us for a portion of what was all His. Imagine! God lets us live in His world and experience His blessings, and all He asks in return is that we return a small portion of what is already His. But, the tenants beat the servant and sent him away empty-handed.

Younger kids: 
Take a minute to explain to younger kids that an heir is someone who will receive something when the owner dies. Eventually, they have a right to possess it. With God, things are a little different. Jesus, as the heir of all creation, is the one who has the right to possess it all. But when we are saved, we become God's children and are allowed to share in His blessings like we are His siblings.

So the Master sent others, but they were mistreated too, one after the other. Finally, He decided to send His own Son: if they would listen to anyone, it would be Him. Instead of obeying, they cast Him out and killed Him. If they had accepted the Son, they would have had mercy. But if they reject the Son, there is no later messenger of grace. Time is up. The tenants who destroyed His Son will find themselves destroyed, and find the vineyard given to others instead.

In the immediate sense, because the nation of Israel finally rejected Jesus' plea, God offered the Kingdom to the Gentiles. More generally, the wise and the "righteous" of this world are rejected and those who come to Jesus with simple faith are the ones who inherit the Kingdom. When God comes to us, demanding what is rightfully His, do we respond with gratitude or entitlement?

Discussion idea: 
Compare the way they treated the servants to the way they treated the Son. Who was treated worse? Why?
Prayer focus: Thank God for some specific blessings in your life, and ask Him to show you some ways to give a portion of them back to Him.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

April 2 - Luke 19


Graphic: - Logos Bible Software

Key Verse: Luke 19:10
Big Idea: The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.

In Luke 18, Jesus told us a story about an imaginary tax collector who was accepted by God when the self-righteous Pharisee was not. Today's reading introduces us to a real tax collector - the chief one! Tax collectors were franchise operators for the Roman government, which was occupying the land of Israel. Zacchaeus, the tax collector in our narrative, would likely have collected tariffs on merchandise carried through Jericho, with the aid of other subcontractors he would recruit. He was hated for the strain that taxes put on daily life, for his aid to the oppressive Roman regime and for his own personal immorality - defrauding people of taxes beyond what they actually owed to line his own pockets.

Younger kids: If you lived in Zaccheus' town, what would you think of him? How do you think Jesus thought about Him?Older kids: Who are the "tax collectors" today? In your school? In the eyes of adults you know? How do you treat them? How would Jesus?
If there was anyone to condemn, it was Zaccheus. If there was anyone to walk past without slowing down, it was Zaccheus. But that is not what Jesus did. Luke reminds us time after time that the gospel is for the sin-enslaved and the outcasts. It is good news for those with no other good news. Jesus did not come to condemn these people, but to rescue them by dying in their place. As the rest of the chapter makes clear, this does not last forever. Eventually, the time to repent is up, and we will be judged for whether or not we submitted to Jesus. We must turn to Him now, because now is the hour of salvation.

Some parts of this narrative, although it was very real, seem almost allegorical. The man who was too short physically to see Jesus climbed up in a tree, but spiritually, he still could not reach high enough. The only way to truly go up was to come down the tree to Jesus, like the tax collector in the parable who humbled himself. Ultimately, Zaccheus looked like an unlikely candidate to be a friend of God, but because he answered Jesus' call, he was. Many others who looked more promising would be rejected (Luke 19:42-44) because they did not recognize Jesus' voice when He called them down.  Will we?

Discussion idea: Why did major sinners like Zaccheus seem to have an easier time accepting Jesus than the scribes and Pharisees?
Prayer focus: If Jesus came to seek and save the lost, that must be our same goal. Pray for an opportunity to share the gospel with someone and the courage to take that opportunity.

Monday, April 1, 2024

April 1 - Luke 18

Key Verse: Luke 18:14
Big Idea: We all come to the Son of Man on equal footing.

Why is one person blessed by God, while another struggles? There will always be a mystery to some of these scenarios because God's plans are beyond our comprehension. Sometimes there is no reason that we could ever know. Part of the problem is that our understanding of a blessing is too superficial, and one person may be poor in earthly possessions, but rich with God. Our heavenly Father, and the Son He sent to save us, are primarily concerned with the state of our hearts. It is our heart that ultimately leads to the blessing of fellowship or the curse of separation. To take a simple act of devotion, in Luke 18:9-14, Jesus told a parable of two prayers and the men who prayed them. One was accepted and the other rejected. Why?

The Pharisee, faithful and religious, prayed with bold confidence. He waltzed up to the Temple, lifted up his eyes to Heaven (the normal pattern for prayer in the entire Bible) and thanked God that He was not a sinner like other people - including the tax collector he had walked past - and told God about the good works he did. The tax collector did not approach the Temple and beat his chest as a sign of mourning, simply recognizing his sin and asking for forgiveness. God rejected the Pharisee and accepted the publican because the first trusted in his own hollow righteousness and the second trusted in God's mercy, which we receive by faith in Jesus' sacrifice. If we want intimacy and blessing from God, the only path is to recognize that we could never deserve it.

Pride is a particularly dangerous sin because it is always within arm's reach. Even when we are doing something good, pride is crouching in the shadows, waiting to pounce and consume us. The Pharisee looked at the tax collector and sinned even in his prayer. But let's be careful, lest we read this story and say "I thank You that I'm not like other people - or even like this Pharisee." Self-righteousness is the enemy of self-awareness and pride is the enemy of blessing.

Discussion idea: How can we follow God without being proud? Why is comparison with other people always a losing game, whether we think we are doing well or not?
Prayer focus: Pray for God to break the brokenness in our hearts that leads us to compare ourselves with others, and simply come to Him through the cross.

Friday, March 29, 2024

March 29

In a leap year, there are 3 more weekdays in a year than there are chapters in the New Testament, so we will have three "catch-up" days. As we approach Resurrection Sunday, I wanted to share a great sermon from Alexander MacLaren, a Scottish pastor born 198 years ago, but whose words resonate through the ages. [Source: Alexander MacLaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture: 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians 1–5 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 195–205.]

The Power of the Resurrection

1 Cor. 15:3–4

CHRISTMAS DAY is probably not the true anniversary of the Nativity, but Easter is certainly that of the Resurrection. The season is appropriate. In the climate of Palestine the first fruits of the harvest were ready at the Passover for presentation in the Temple. It was an agricultural as well as a historical festival; and the connection between that aspect of the feast and the Resurrection of our Lord is in the Apostle’s mind when he says, in a subsequent part of this chapter, that Christ is ‘risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept.’
In our colder climate the season is no less appropriate. The ‘life re-orient out of dust’ which shows itself to-day in every bursting leaf-bud and springing flower is Nature’s parable of the spring that awaits man after the winter of death. No doubt, apart from the Resurrection of Jesus, the yearly miracle kindles sad thoughts in mourning hearts, and suggests bitter contrasts to those who sorrow, having no hope, but the grave in the garden has turned every blossom into a smiling prophet of the Resurrection.
And so the season, illuminated by the event, teaches us lessons of hope that ‘we shall not all die.’ Let us turn, then, to the thoughts naturally suggested by the day, and the great fact which it brings to each mind, and confirmed thereafter by the miracle that is being wrought round about us.

I. First, Then, In My Text, I Would Have You Note The Facts Of Paul’s Gospel.

‘First of all, I delivered’ these things. And the ‘first’ not only points to the order of time in the proclamation, but to the order of importance as well. For these initial facts are the fundamental facts, on which all that may follow thereafter is certainly built. Now the first thing that strikes me here is that, whatever else the system unfolded in the New Testament is, it is to begin with a simple record of historical fact. It becomes a philosophy, it becomes a religious system; it is a revelation of God; it is an unveiling of man; it is a body of ethical precepts. It is morals and philosophy and religion all in one; but it is first of all a story of something that took place in the world.
If that be so, there is a lesson for men whose work it is to preach it. Let them never forget that their business is to insist upon the truth of these great, supernatural, all-important, and fundamental facts, the death and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. They must evolve all the deep meanings that lie in them; and the deeper they dig for their meanings the better. They must open out the endless treasures of consolation and enforce the omnipotent motives of action which are wrapped up in the facts; but howsoever far they may carry their evolving and their application of them, they will neither be faithful to their Lord nor true stewards of their message unless, clear above all other aspects of their work, and underlying all other forms of their ministry, there be the unfaltering proclamation—‘first of all,’ midst of all, last of all ‘how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,’ and ‘that He was raised again according to the Scriptures.’
Note, too, how this fundamental and original character of the gospel which Paul preached, as a record of facts, makes short work of a great deal that calls itself ‘liberal Christianity’ in these days. We are told that it is quite possible to be a very good Christian man, and reject the supernatural, and turn away with incredulity from the story of the Resurrection. It may be so, but I confess that it puzzles me to understand how, if the fundamental character of Christian teaching be the proclamation of certain facts, a man who does not believe those facts has the right to call himself a Christian.
Note, further, how there is an element of explanation involved in the proclamation of the facts which turns them into a gospel. Mark how ‘that Christ died,’ not Jesus. It is a great truth, that the man, our Brother, Jesus, passed through the common lot, but that is not what Paul says here, though he often says it. What he says is that ‘Christ died.’ Christ is the name of an office, into which is condensed a whole system of truth, declaring that it is He who is the Apex, the Seal, and ultimate Word of all divine revelation. It was the Christ who died; unless it was so, the death of Jesus is no gospel.
‘He died for our sins.’ Now, if the Apostle had only said ‘He died for us,’ that might conceivably have meant that, in a multitude of different ways of example, appeal to our pity and compassion and the like, His death was of use to mankind. But when he says ‘He died for our sins; I take leave to think that that expression has no meaning, unless it means that He died as the expiation and sacrifice for men’s sins. I ask you, in what intelligible sense could Christ ‘die for our sins’ unless He died as bearing their punishment and as bearing it for us? And then, finally, ‘He died and rose according to the Scriptures,’ and so fulfilled the divine purposes revealed from of old.
To the fact that a man was crucified outside the gates of Jerusalem, ‘and rose again the third day,’ which is the narrative, there are added these three things—the dignity of the Person, the purpose of His death, the fulfilment of the divine intention manifested from of old. And these three things, as I said, turn the narrative into a Gospel.
So, brethren, let us remember that, without all three of them, the death of Jesus Christ is nothing to us, any more than the death of thousands of sweet and saintly men in the past has been, who may have seen a little more of the supreme goodness and greatness than their fellows, and tried in vain to make purblind eyes participate in their vision. Do you think that these twelve fishermen would ever have shaken the world if they had gone out with the story of the Cross, unless they had carried along with it the commentary which is included in the words which I have emphasised? And do you suppose that the type of Christianity which slurs over the explanation, and so does not know what to do with the facts, will ever do much in the world, or will ever touch men? Let us liberalise our Christianity by all means, but do not let us evaporate it; and evaporate it we surely shall if we falter in saying with Paul, ‘I declare, first of all, that which received,’ how that the death and resurrection were the death and resurrection of the Christ, ‘for our sins, according to the Scriptures.’ These are the facts which make Paul’s gospel.

II. Now I Ask You To Look, In The Second Place, At What Establishes The Facts.

We have here, in this chapter, a statement very much older than our existing written gospels. This epistle is one of the four letters of Paul which nobody that I know of—with some quite insignificant exceptions in modern times—has ever ventured to dispute. It is admittedly the writing of the Apostle, written before the gospels, and in all probability within five-and-twenty years of the date of the Crucifixion. And what do we find alleged by it as the state of things at its date? That the belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was the subject of universal Christian teaching, and was accepted by all the Christian communities. Its evidence to that fact is undeniable; because there was in the early Christian Church a very formidable and large body of bitter antagonists of Paul’s, who would have been only too glad to have convicted him, if they could, of any misrepresentation of the usual notions, or divergence from the usual type of teaching. So we may take it as undeniable that the representation of this chapter is historically true; and that within five-and-twenty years of the death of Jesus Christ every Christian community and every Christian teacher believed in and proclaimed the fact of the Resurrection.
But if that be so, we necessarily are carried a great deal nearer the Cross than five-and-twenty years; and, in fact, there is not, between the moment when Paul penned these words and the day of Pentecost, a single chink in the history where you can insert such a tremendous innovation as the full-fledged belief in a resurrection coming in as something new.
I do not need to dwell at all upon this other thought, that, unless the belief that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead originated at the time of His death, there would never have been a Church at all. Why was it that they did not tumble to pieces? Take the nave out of the wheel and what becomes of the spokes? A dead Christ could never have been the basis of a living Church. If He had not risen from the dead, the story of His disciples would have been the same as that which Gamaliel told the Sanhedrim was the story of all former pseudo-Messiahs such as that man Theudas. ‘He was slain, and as many as followed him were dispersed and came to naught.’ Of course! The existence of the Church demands, as a prerequisite, the initial belief in the Resurrection. I think, then, that the contemporaneousness of the evidence is sufficiently established.
What about its good faith? I suppose that nobody, nowadays, doubts the veracity of these witnesses, Anybody that knows an honest man when he sees him, anybody that has the least ear for the tone of sincerity and the accent of conviction, must say that they may have been fanatics, they may have been mistaken, but one thing is clear as sunlight, they were not false witnesses for God.
What, then, about their competency? Their simplicity, their ignorance, their slowness to believe, their stupor of surprise when the fact first dawned upon them, which they tell not with any idea of manufacturing evidence in their own favour, but simply as a piece of history, all tend to make us certain that there was no play of a morbid imagination, no hysterical turning of a wish into a fact, on the part of these men. The sort of things which they say that they saw and experienced are such as to make any such supposition altogether absurd. There are long conversations, appearances appealing to more than one sense, appearances followed by withdrawals, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening, sometimes at a distance, as on the mountain, sometimes close by, as in the chamber, to single souls and to multitudes. Fancy five hundred people all at once smitten with the same mistake, imagining that they saw what they did not see! Miracles may be difficult to believe, they are not half so difficult to believe as absurdities. And this modern explanation of the faith in the Resurrection I venture respectfully to designate as absurd.
But there is one other point to which I would like to turn for a moment; and that is that little clause in my text that ‘He was buried.’ Why does Paul introduce that amongst his facts? Possibly in order to affirm the reality of Christ’s death; but I think for another reason. If it be true that Jesus Christ was laid in that sepulchre, a stone’s throw outside the city gate, do you not see what a difficulty that fact puts in the way of disbelief or denial of His Resurrection? If the grave—and it was not a grave, remember, like ours, but a cave, with a stone at the door of it, that anybody could roll away for entrance—if the grave was there, why, in the name of common-sense, did not the rulers put an end to the pestilent heresy by saying, ‘Let us go and see if the body is there’?
Modern deniers of the Resurrection may fairly be asked to front this thought—If Jesus Christ’s body was in the sepulchre, how was it possible for belief in the Resurrection to have been originated, or maintained? If His body was not in the grave, what had become of it? If His friends stole it away then they were deceivers of the worst type in preaching a resurrection; and we have already seen that that hypothesis is ridiculous. IF His enemies took it away, for which they had no motive, why did they not produce it and say, ‘There is an answer to your nonsense. There is the dead man. Let us hear no more of this absurdity of His having risen from the dead’?
‘He died …, according to the Scriptures, and He was buried.’ And the angels’ word carries the only explanation of the fact which it proclaims, ‘He is not here—He is risen.’
I take leave to say that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is established by evidence which nobody would ever have thought of doubting unless for the theory that miracles were impossible. The reason for disbelief is not the deficiency of the evidence, but the bias of the judge.

III. And Now I Have No Time To Do More Than Touch The Last Thought.

I have tried to show what establishes the facts. Let me remind you, in a sentence or two, what the facts establish.
I by no means desire to suspend the whole of the evidence for Christianity on the testimony of the eyewitnesses to the Resurrection. There are a great many other ways of establishing the truth of the Gospel besides that, upon which I do not need to dwell now. But, taking this one specific ground which my text suggests, what do the facts thus established prove?
Well, the first point to which I would refer, and on which I should like to enlarge, if I had time, is the bearing of Christ’s Resurrection on the acceptance of the miraculous. We hear a great deal about the impossibility of miracle and the like. It upsets the certainty and fixedness of the order of things, and so forth, and so forth. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead; and that opens a door wide enough to admit all the rest of the Gospel miracles. It is of no use paring down the supernatural in Christianity, in order to meet the prejudices of a quasi-scientific scepticism, unless you are prepared to go the whole length, and give up the Resurrection. There is the turning point. The question is, Do you believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, or do you not? If your objections to the supernatural are valid, then Christ is not risen from the dead; and you must face the consequences of that. If He is risen from the dead, then you must cease all your talk about the impossibility of miracle, and be willing to accept a supernatural revelation as God’s way of making Himself known to man.
But, further, let me remind you of the bearing of the Resurrection upon Christ’s work and claims. If He be lying in some forgotten grave, and if all that fair thought of His having burst the bands of death is a blunder, then there was nothing in His death that had the least bearing upon men’s sin, and it is no more to me than the deaths of thousands in the past. But if He is risen from the dead, then the Resurrection casts back a light upon the Cross, and we understand that His death is the life of the world, and that ‘by His stripes we are healed.’
But, further, remember what He said about Himself when He was in the world—how He claimed to be the Son of God; how He demanded absolute obedience, implicit trust, supreme love, how He identified faith in Himself with faith in God, and consider the Resurrection as bearing on the reception or rejection of these tremendous claims. It seems to me that we are brought sharp up to this alternative—Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and was declared by the Resurrection to be the Son of God with power; or Jesus Christ has not risen from the dead—and what then? Then He was either deceiver or deceived, and in either case has no right to my reverence and my love. We may be thankful that men are illogical, and that many who reject the Resurrection retain reverence, genuine and deep, for Jesus Christ. But whether they have any right to do so is another matter. I confess for myself that, if I did not believe that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, I should find it very hard to accept, as an example of conduct, or as religious teacher, a man who had made such great claims as He did, and had asked from me what He asked. It seems to me that He is either a great deal more, or a great deal less, than a beautiful saintly soul. If He rose from the dead He is much more; if He did not, I am afraid to say how much less He is.
And, finally, the bearing of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ upon our own hopes of the future may be suggested. It teaches us that life has nothing to do with organisation, but persists apart from the body. It teaches us that a man may pass from death and he unaltered in the substance of his being; and it teaches us that the earthly house of our tabernacle may he fashioned like unto the glorious house in which He dwells now at the right hand of God. There is no other absolute proof of immortality than the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If we accept with all our hearts and minds Paul’s Gospel in its fundamental facts, we need not fear to die, because He has died, and by dying has been the death of death. We need not doubt that we shall live again, because He was dead and is alive for ever more. This Samson has carried away the gates on His strong shoulders, and death is no more a dungeon but a passage. If we rest ourselves upon Him, then we can take up, for ourselves and for all that are dear to us and have gone before us, the triumphant song, ‘O Death, where is thy sting?’ ‘Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’