OK, here's the plan (if God is willing):

1) Every day will be a new devotional. I have enough devotionals for every day for three years

2) Also as I can, I'll be posting on my new political blog (see bottom of page).

Some other housecleaning:

A) If you'd like to just get new postings sent to your email, just submit your address in the box on the left just below. There's just one possible downside, though. Occasionally I'll add a music video at the end that's relevant to the devotional, and you won't get them in the email sent to you. If I add a video though, I'll make sure to mention in the posting, so you'll know to come to the site to see it if you'd like.

B) I actually finished writing new blog posting for the TAWG at the end of 2016. So what I'm doing now is at the beginning of every month, I'll move the earliest month from 3 years ago ahead so that a "new" posting appears every day. That's why you won't find any postings for January 2014, for example.

C) When I started this Blog, I was using the 1984 edition of the NIV, and that’s what I linked to on the Biblegateway site. However, in 2011 Zondervan updated its edition and thus reworded a lot of the NIV translation. Therefore, all the links which went to the 1984 edition now redirect to the 2011 edition, which often has slightly different wording. Thus, part of my editing process has been to update my Scripture quotes in my postings. But I might have missed some, in which case you might see my quote in the posting as a little different from what comes up when you click on my citation link, since that redirects to the 2011 edition on the Biblegateway site. It's a good thing that we realize that the work of translation never ends, but it can be a kind of a pain on a site like this. If you see any difference in verbiage between my quote and what shows up as a link on the Biblegateway site, or if you hover over a link and it has "NIV1984" at the end of it, please notify me and I'll correct it.

D) I can't believe I have to say this, but here goes. At the end of every posting is a suggested short prayer that has to do with what we discussed. This is actually what I've prayed when I finished writing it. In no way am I asking you to pray the exact verbiage of my suggested prayer. It's just a springboard for your own prayer, nothing more. Quite frankly, I've never been a fan of praying rote prayers written by someone else. As with everything else I do here, to the degree it helps, great; to the degree it doesn't, chunk it.

As always, thank you so much for reading, even if it's to read one post. God bless.

[Nov 18]--Before Agrippa, Part One

Acts 26:1-18

Festus had a problem. His prisoner Paul had appealed to Rome. The Jews were demanding Paul be sent to Jerusalem, and it looks like he was well aware of how that would conclude. So he had to send Paul to Rome to face his charges. Undoubtedly he was relieved to have this monkey off his back and to be able to pass the buck onto someone else. If the Jews complained, he could just point out that he was legally obligated by Roman law to do what he did.

But there was just one wrinkle. All of the accusations which the Jews leveled against Paul were in one of two categories: 1) Not credible. Their allegation that he was inciting sedition had no evidence to back it. 2) Not interesting. Rome didn’t really care about religious disputes. As long as the tax money came in and the streets were quiet, they had no interest in questions about theology. He had to give something in his report that could explain why Paul was being sent.

But Festus was lucky in that he could bring in a consultant. King Herod Agrippa (not the same Herod which you’ve read about in Scripture) was nearby, and he was part Jewish. He had some familiarity with Jewish law and tradition and culture, so he could provide some input into Paul’s case and could possibly help Festus in how to word the report.

That’s where we come to chapter 26 where Paul meets King Agrippa. This is not an official trial by any means, just an informal hearing to listen to what Paul had to say for himself. A lot of this we’ve already heard before: Paul’s fanatical devotion to stamping out the sect known as followers of Jesus, his encounter with that same Jesus on the way to Damascus, and his special calling and special mission. I’d like to focus for a little bit on how Paul describes his mission in vss. 17-18. These verses are so packed with truth. Each little point is a sermon in itself:

Who was doing the sending. Not any man nor a group of men. This was the Lord Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God. If any missionary or any pastor or any evangelist has been called by anyone else besides the Lord himself, then that “called” person needs to quit and do something productive. If you aren’t sent by the Lord, you’re not going to end up any place that’s pleasant.

To open their eyes. Every person outside of Christ is utterly blind to spiritual truth. It’s not an issue of ignorance that just needs the proper information. The Holy Spirit—using a human witness—opens spiritual eyes which were just as blind as Paul was on that road.

Turn them from darkness to light. What an image! Every person outside of Christ is bound forever in the Kingdom of Darkness. They don’t know what’s going on, and outside of God’s intervention through his children they never will. But once we come in and share the Good News, they’re carried out of that darkness into his glorious Light!

And from the power of Satan to God. Another way of saying the last phrase, really. All of Adam’s children are under Satan’s power. How sadly ironic that we’re all born in slavery to the one who hates us the most! Most of us spend our entire lives serving the Enemy of our souls! But then the Light of the Good News comes and we switch kingdoms and sides. And we’re now Under New Management.

That they may receive forgiveness of sins. In case you didn’t know it already, that’s the only obstacle to everything else we’ve mentioned. You can’t be transferred from Satan’s Kingdom to God’s until your sins are forgiven. And there’s only place where that can take place.

And a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. Remember what the word “sanctified” means? I actually wish we could just substitute the phrase “set apart,” since that’s a lot clearer to most folks. When you become a believer, you’re set apart not only from the rest of humanity but even from the rest of the Church. There’s a place in the Body which only you can fill. You were made for that place, and that place was made for you. You’re as unique as a snowflake, as unique as a fingerprint.

This was what Paul was called to. Even when he met Jesus and the details concerning salvation were being straightened out, the Lord made it clear to him what this was all about. Hopefully we’re clear about that as well, both in our lives and in our message.

Today, go over each phrase which I pointed out. Take a moment to thank the Lord for the truth contained in that little group of words. Ask him to set that truth on display in your daily life. For example, you might say Thank you Lord for opening my eyes to the truth about you.

[Nov 17]--Paul’s Defense

Acts 25:1-12

Have you ever been in the grip of real hatred? I don’t mean dislike or anger or even rage. No, I’m referring to the type of hatred that’s cold and calculating and is willing to wait as long as it takes. I’m talking about Khan in Star Trek II waiting for sixteen years to get his revenge on Kirk. When one of Khan's underlings points out that they have a starship and weaponry and really don’t have to risk going after his old adversary, his reply still sends chills up my spine:

That's dedication.

That’s the type of hate Paul’s enemies had for him. Paul had been languishing under house arrest for two years. He'd never been credibly accused of any crime, much less found guilty of anything. But because the last governor to handle his case (Felix) wanted to be on good terms with the Jews, he refused to release Paul.

By the way, it didn’t work. The Jews managed to appeal to Rome about his conduct in other areas, and he was recalled in disgrace. His replacement was Festus. We actually don’t have a lot of information about him, but what we do know seems to indicate that he was slightly better and more fair-minded than his predecessor.

So the new governor came to power, and the Jews are waiting for him in order to make an accusation against Paul and demand that he be remanded into their custody. These guys had been waiting for two years. As soon as the new official steps in, Paul’s case is apparently the first thing they bring up. Now that’s hatred.

They urge him to allow Paul to be tried in Jerusalem, but of course this was only a ruse to get him where they could assassinate him.

Festus knew quite well why his predecessor had been replaced, so with the same motivation as Felix (wanting to get on the Jews’ good side), he seemed inclined to grant their request.

Paul wasn’t a fool, so he knew what awaited him in Jerusalem: An assassin’s knife in his gut. He knew he would never get real justice in Caesarea, so he took the only course which looked best suited to keep him alive. He was a Roman citizen, so he officially appealed to Caesar, as was his right. And of course Festus had no choice but to grant his request and send him on to Rome. And thus was taken the first step in keeping God’s promise to Paul. The Lord had promised him that he would testify in Rome, and Heaven and Earth will rip apart at the seams before a promise of God fails.

I’d like to take just a moment to focus today to focus on Paul’s defense before Festus in vs. 8: "I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar." This goes along nicely with his testimony before Felix: “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.” This was his defense. His enemies brought lots of charges and accusations and insinuations and allegations but no evidence. They knew they had no case, Festus knew they had no case, and Paul knew they had no case. The only reason Paul wasn’t a free man was because of gutless Roman governors who were sucking up to Jewish religious leaders who had it in for him.

Now, obviously this doesn’t mean that Paul was sinless. He knew he wasn’t. But he knew that as far as the legal accusations went, he was innocent. He wasn’t instigating sedition against Rome. He wasn’t blaspheming the Temple or turning people away from the Law or the Prophets. He was a godly man who was trying to do what God told him to do.

Now here’s a piercing question for you and me. If someone tried to build a case against me like they did against Paul, could they do it? Would they have to make stuff up? Could they find someone with a legitimate gripe against me? Could I honestly say “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man”? Really?

Lord Jesus, I know I have a long way to go before I can make the claim in 24:16. Please forgive me where I fall short and change me into the likeness of you my Savior.

[Nov 16]--The Deadliest Sin

Acts 24:24-27

I heard a story several years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Of course it’s just an imaginary story to prove a point, but that point is a serious one to make. One day Satan convened a committee in Hell. The subject was what to do about the Gospel. Everyone agreed that it was making too much headway, and they had to do something about the souls lost to it every day. One demon suggested that they try to discount the Resurrection. That was immediately rejected, since there’s too much historical evidence that it happened. Another submitted that they should promote the rise of atheism, so that people would reject a belief in God and the Bible altogether. Of course that was tossed out, since anyone with a half-way open mind can see that all this didn’t all happen by chance. Another one tried to promote false religions. They all agreed that that course was making some progress, but not enough. The Gospel was just too attractive compared to anything they could create.

But then Satan motioned for silence. He said that they could never really fight the Gospel with any of these methods, since the truth was not on their side. So he commanded that they focus on their most tried-and-true method. Whenever someone was in danger of believing in Christ, they'd just whisper in his ear that he could trust in Jesus tomorrow. And that would eventually land the lost soul into the Abyss.

My friend, what’s the deadliest sin? Well, some say it’s murder. But there are murderers in Heaven right now. On earth they had blood on their hands, but before they died they threw themselves on the mercy of God’s court, and found Another’s blood which would cover them forever. Some might say adultery, and that’s pretty serious. But David was guilty of both murder and adultery, and he found forgiveness. And of course pride--being the ultimate anti-God state of mind--is a good contender.

I think a great case can be made that it’s procrastination. I honestly believe that this one character flaw will send more people to Hell than all the atheists’ arguments combined.

That’s the case with Felix. He seemed to have an open mind to listen to what Paul said. It looks like he wasn’t fooled too much by the false accusations from the Jews. Paul, like he always did, turned the subject towards his favorite one, namely that of the Good News about his Savior. It also seems like Felix showed some interest in this “Jesus” whom Paul couldn’t shut up about.

But when Paul started talking about things like “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come,” a cold sweat broke out on the governor and that was the end of the conversation.

Please notice that the governor didn’t end it with “Enough Paul! This is all a bunch of baloney!” He didn’t reject it outright. No, he put off the decision. He told him “When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” “When I find it convenient.” Yeah. Right. In case you didn't figure it out, there's no record of Felix ever becoming a believer. If that's correct, he ended up in the same place as any other lost person who died as a murderer or adulterer.

If you’re not a believer in Christ and you’re reading these words, that might be your response. You know you need to respond to him in faith and obedience. But it’s not convenient right now. Trust me, the only time you’ll ever be able to respond to Christ is now. Please don’t follow Felix's example and end up in the same place he did. If this applies to you, please read this.

If you’re a follower of Christ, then don’t think you’re off the hook here. Yes, you’re saved, but you can make the same sort of mistake. If you know someone who’s not saved, do they know about Jesus? Have you told them? Have you expressed to them the urgency of trusting Christ now? Or are you waiting until it’s more convenient?

Lord Jesus, I’m so sorry about being chained to the word “convenient.” Please forgive and change me.

[Nov 15]--Real Respect Vs. Kissing Up

Acts 24:1-23

A couple of days ago I mentioned the love-hate relationship the Church has historically had with the Jews. But that’s nothing compared to the troubled relationship we’ve had with the State. And as we’ve seen before, humanity is like Luther’s drunk man on a horse, falling off one side, dusting himself off, then falling off the other side when he “corrects” himself. We really have real trouble keeping our balance.

That’s really illustrated here in the stark contrast we see in the Jews’ opening statement versus Paul’s. Do you know the term obsequious? It’s a four-dollar word for a kiss-up. I could use other more colorful terms, but I'll forbear. You know what I’m referring to. And if you look up the word in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of these guys.

In case you’re wondering, Felix was not the greatest governor Rome ever had. They had worse, but he was recalled for misrule after two years. So when they’re starting their speech, they’re being extremely flattering.

Paul, on the other hand, displays a great balance here. He’s respectful for the man’s position. But he’s not a kiss-up, nor is he showing any personal animosity towards either the man or the Roman Government which he represents. Just a simple “I recognize your exalted position over this area” and then he gets to his point quickly.

The rest of this we’re pretty familiar with, so I want to camp out on that for a moment. All too often Christians fall off on one side of this issue or the other. As I’ve said, I listen to political talk radio quite often. If someone criticizes the President, you have people calling immediately to defend him, and quite frankly it almost sounds like those Jewish leaders in today’s reading. He can do no wrong, and any criticism of him has some other agenda besides what’s best for the country.

On the other hand, a lot of talk show hosts which I could name fell off on the other side a few years ago. The President is a secret Muslim or a secret Communist, and is in on a plot to destroy the United States or its economy. And don’t forget the fact that he was really born in Kenya and isn’t even qualified to be President. Uh huh. That’s the reason why I’m very picky about who I listen to.

Look, we can have a discussion on whether or not you agree with the President’s policies (maybe on my other blog). But whether or not you agree with him, you need to keep your discourse civil. Ask yourself how you reacted a couple of years ago when there was a President from another party in power. When the last President did something you heartily disagreed with, how did you talk about him?

What’s the biblical approach here? Again, you must respect the position of authority, even if you disagree with the policies of the person in that position. Even if, as was the case with King Saul, the man in charge is not worthy of that responsibility. That’s not a piece of advice. That’s what the Bible tells us to do.

And here’s a radical concept. Instead of just pining away for the next election when you can get rid of the jerk who’s in office, why not change him right now? There’s one avenue of doing that which most Christians haven’t tried, as far as I can see. If you're so dissatisfied with the man in office, why not try to change his character through prayer?  If he’s a Christian, then he’s your brother. If he’s not, then he’s a soul for whom Christ bled and died. Again, this is not Dear Abby giving you advice. This is a command straight from God through his servant Paul: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

So, do you need to do some repenting?

Father God, please set a guard over my tongue. May it be used only in your service, and never the Enemy’s.

[Nov 14]--Pagan Friends

Acts 23:23-35

I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it needs a little more examination. Yes, I know the Scriptures gives us warning that the default setting for the world towards true followers of Jesus is going to be hostility. We should be pleasantly surprised if a non-Christian doesn’t hate us, I guess. Jesus warned us often enough that the servant isn’t greater than the Master, and thus the former shouldn’t expect any better treatment than the latter.

However, the Lord can and does use in his own purposes even those who don’t claim him as their God. He even uses them to protect us at times: I mentioned before the examples of Joseph’s Pharaoh, Cyrus, and Xerxes. I wish it were different, but it seems that one of my all-time greatest heroes, Winston Churchill, doesn’t seem to have had a relationship with Christ. As we read today, not every single pagan leader and official is an avowed enemy of the church.

So we need to be grateful for this. When God, in an example of common grace, gives us relief or even something approaching friendship, we shouldn’t turn it down. Of course, this comes with some qualifications:

• I shouldn’t have to say it, but I guess I need to. Under no circumstances should we compromise the truth of the Good News for the sake of friendship with anyone. Unfortunately, that’s the pattern of friendship with pagans a lot of times: They see our willingness to acknowledge their friendship to mean we can now negotiate on Truth. Nope. We can’t. If a nonbeliever is waiting for me to nod my head and pretend that because of our friendship he’s actually in a right standing with God and doesn’t need salvation through Christ, then he can keep waiting. I’m glad that Billy Graham was invited to the White House. I’m also extremely glad that (to my knowledge) he never compromised on the exclusivity of salvation through Christ.

• Just because a nonbeliever helps us doesn’t give us an excuse to be na├»ve about human nature. I sin, and I have the Holy Spirit inside of me. He doesn’t. Notice how the commander, even as he’s saving Paul’s life, puts his own account of what happened in a light most favorable to him. No, he didn’t come to rescue Paul because he knew that Paul was a Roman citizen. He saw a riot forming, grabbed Paul out of it, and then had him strapped down for a good interrogational whipping. It was only when Paul spoke up about the illegality of the proceedings that the commander gave a hoot about what was just. I could be wrong, but my reading is that the commander was mostly caring about his own career and livelihood. He might've cared somewhat about Paul, but I really believe that if his interests and Paul’s interests didn’t coincide, he wouldn’t have hesitated to throw Paul to the wolves in self-preservation.

And of course this is a reminder that our Father has limitless resources to carry out his plan to our good. We have friends that we don’t even know about. And as someone once told me, Jesus might or might be the only friend I have, but he’s the only one I need.

Father God, I thank you that you do take care of your children. Even people who don’t acknowledge you still fit into your plan to bring glory to your Name and to do good for those you claim as your own. You really do know what you’re doing, don’t you?

[Nov 13]--Conspiracy Fact

Acts 23:12-22

Yes, I admit it. I’m a Radio Talk Show junkie. I like to listen to political talk radio, since the best of it jump starts my mind and sharpens my logic skills (remember, I said the best of it). I’ve mentioned before Dennis Prager, but my favorite—hands down—is Michael Medved. Most of the time he comments on political issues, but once a month he has my favorite type of show: Conspiracy Day. On the day of the month that has a full moon, he invites callers in to present the best case for their favorite conspiracy theory. Of course he gets the usual “9-11 Was An Inside Job,” “JFK Was Killed By The CIA,” and the old standby “Jews Are Taking Over the World.” He listens attentively, then proceeds to politely ask some probing questions which blow their theories out of the water.

The reason I bring it up is that even Medved recognizes that some conspiracies actually do exist. Just because most conspiracy theories are bunk doesn’t mean that all of them are. For example, Lincoln was actually assassinated as part of a conspiracy to kill him, his VP, and the Secretary of State all in one night. Some Conspiracy Theories turn out to be Conspiracy Facts.

If you’re a Bible-believing Christian, then you have to believe in a global conspiracy that most people in America don’t acknowledge. There’s a Puppet Master who manipulates events and people in order to serve his evil purposes. He has set determined goals, and he mostly works behind the scenes utilizing his minions. He’s been at work since humanity was created, but the good news is that his days of operation are numbered.

Paul himself, as we read today, was almost the victim of a human conspiracy. No doubt the Enemy of our souls desperately wanted him dead or at least silenced. So he inspired some zealous Jews to pledge themselves to not eat or drink until they killed this blasphemer. Literally they “anathematized” themselves, inviting the judgment of God upon themselves if they failed in their supposedly divine task. Once again, our Lord’s words came true: “The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God.” They so hated this one man that killing him was literally more important than eating and breathing. Of course the irony here is that a few years ago Paul would've joined them in the same circumstances.

It’s kind of a pattern, isn’t it? The Adversary makes his plans, puts his servants into action, and ends up providing the catalyst for God’s plans that the Lord had made all along. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: God’s plans do not succeed in spite of the Enemy’s best efforts, but because of them. Paul’s nephew just happened to overhear what was going on, and he went to his uncle to warn him. Paul sent the boy to the Roman commander, who realized that he had to get Paul out of Jerusalem. He'd never even make it to an official trial before the Sanhedrin: He’d end up with a knife in his gut first.

Thus the commander sent the boy off and prepared to move Paul. Thus would begin Paul’s long journey to Rome to stand trial and present his testimony there. Our Lord had promised that Paul would go to Rome to testify. When our Lord promises something, it’s going to happen. The Enemy wanted Paul dead before he could cause any more damage to the Kingdom of Darkness. But the apostle was under the protection of the Almighty. So whether by means of a legion of angels led by Michael himself, or by means of a young boy--whose name we don’t even know--who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, God’s purposes will be fulfilled and his promises will come to pass.

You can bank on it.

Lord Jesus, when you tell me something, do I believe it? Really? Enough to stake my life on it? Please increase my faith.

[Nov 12]--Before The Sanhedrin

Acts 22:30-23:11

So now Paul was taken before the Sanhedrin, the highest official Jewish court in Jerusalem. Here his Lord was condemned and sentenced to death a few years ago, here he'd stood approving of Stephen’s death, and now here he stood with himself on trial.

He started out his appeal by testifying to his basic godliness in his lifestyle. Of course, he wasn’t claiming to be sinless. This was not a theological statement about his eternal standing before God, but a claim that he was innocent of the charges brought against him. He'd never tried to tell Jews to stop being Jews, he never advocated that Jews abandon the heritage of their fathers (notice how often they use that phrase in these chapters), and he never blasphemed the temple or the Law.

The High Priest Ananias, known for his cruelty, corruption, and violence, had Paul struck for his “insolence.” By the way, this was highly illegal under Jewish law. And on a side note, Paul’s condemnation, although made in the heat of anger, proved to be prophetic. Ananias was hated by his own people and was murdered during the Jewish revolt against Rome in the late 60’s A.D. As someone once said, the mill of God’s justice is slow but exceedingly fine.

Was he repentant about cursing the High Priest? Some say he was being sarcastic in vs. 5, but I personally don’t think so. It had been several years since he had been in Jerusalem, so I think he really didn’t recognize the High Priest. The man Ananias was despicable, but Paul believed in respecting people’s positions of authority, even if the man personally didn’t deserve it (just like David with King Saul).

Then things got really exciting. No boring day in the Sanhedrin today! Paul, following his Lord’s admonition to be as shrewd as a snake and as innocent as a dove, drove a wedge and stoked a major division among his enemies. He knew about the theological (and bitter) divide between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and he took full advantage of it.

Now, was he being ethical here? Well, the Resurrection of Christ is an essential part of the Good News. He knew that he really was closer to the theology of the Pharisees than to that of the Sadducees. So he brought in some allies over to his side. And it seemed to work. At least it got him a chance to get a hearing among some of them, something he didn’t have before.

But then comes vs. 11, my favorite part of this whole story. Paul had been unjustly accused, nearly stoned, manhandled, and threatened. And worse was yet to come. But in the midst of all this craziness, his Lord and Shepherd stood by him. When we stand for our Savior, we’ll see him standing with us. He never lets his sheep face the wolves alone. Never!!!!

And not only did the Lord stand by him. He also gave him a wonderful promise. Paul was going to Rome to testify about his Savior. I want you to remember this verse, because this was going to be very important to Paul in the days ahead. Satan had his plans, his Jewish enemies had their plans, and Paul probably had his own plans. But as Proverbs tells us “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”

Aren’t you glad?

Yes, Lord, I’m very glad. If my plans and yours are in conflict, then it’s mine that need to change. And they will.

[Nov 11]--Um, Before You Proceed With The Beating. . .

Acts 22:22-29

The Jewish crowd was listening to Paul and seemed to be willing to consider what he had to say. That is, until he related that God sent him to the Gentiles. When those words came out of his lips, they were ready to kill him on the spot. Notice that Luke says that they were throwing their cloaks on the ground, probably in preparation for stoning him. If you’ll remember, when we’re introduced to Paul in the book of Acts, he’s on the receiving end of those cloaks as they were getting ready to stone Stephen. Quite a change.

The Roman soldiers had to intervene to keep him from being murdered in the street. The commander rescued him, and took him to the barracks. And with irony on top of irony, it looked for a moment like Paul had been pulled out of the frying pan and thrown into the fire. The commander callously ordered him to be flogged with a Roman whip with bits of stone, glass, and bone at the ends. All this just to find out from Paul what had happened!

But then something occurred. As they were stretching Paul out for the flogging, he asked a simple question to which he already knew the answer. It was perfectly legal (and quite common) to interrogate an alien or a slave this way, but Roman citizens were exempt from this type of tortuous treatment. If word got out that the commander ordered the beating of a Roman citizen, the commander could lose his military commission or even his life.

So Paul used his Roman citizenship to get out of an unjust beating and torture session. Let’s take a look at that for a moment.

As I’ve mentioned before, human beings have real trouble finding the proper balance between extremes. There are Christians in the world who actually seem to thrive on persecution, and actually seek out conflict with the world. If anyone in the secular world shows them any type of kindness, their default position is suspicion if not outright hostility. And there’s virtue in that position. Quite frankly, I think the Church in America is waaaaaaaay too comfortable sometimes with the Powers That Be. Maybe we could stand to be little more suspicious and a little less entangled.

But today’s passage reminds us that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way all the time. God has used pagans several times to protect his people: Pharaoh (in Joseph’s time), Cyrus, Xerxes, and others. We never want to be compromise what’s important. But martyrdom is something that God gives someone. It’s not something we should seek out, and there’s nothing wrong with using legal means to avoid it if we can do so without being unfaithful to our Lord.

You see, we’re in our Father’s hands. If he decides in his wisdom and perfect plan to let Satan strike us, then so be it. We’re certainly in the best of company. Our Master does all things well.

But if he decides--again in his wisdom and perfect plan--to give us some relief, then again so be it. He really knows what’s best. And we don’t have to feel guilty about using an “out” that he’s provided.

It all comes down to trusting in his plan. He knows what his children need. And he always provides it. Always.

Lord Jesus, please give me what I need. Please let me as shrewd as a snake and as innocent as a dove. It’s a dangerous world out there, and I desperately need you to guide me every step of the way.

[Nov 10]--Testimony Before The Jews, Part Two

Acts 22:12-22

So let’s continue looking at Paul’s speech before the Jews in Jerusalem. After recounting his encounter with the Messiah, he shifts for a moment to Ananias, the man sent to heal him. Paul is careful to point out that Ananias was also a practicing Jew: He tried to follow the Law and was well-respected as such by the Jewish people around him.

We get some details we didn’t get in chapter nine, but most of it we’re familiar with. But also we hear about his first opposition from his own people. He was in a trance when the Lord appeared to him and warned him to flee the city. Why? Because the Lord knew that the Jewish people in general wouldn’t receive his testimony. Paul’s response to the Savior, which he described before, was that he used to be a persecutor of the Church. Surely these Jews who'd try to hunt him down would understand that what happened on the Road was real. It would take the Lord God himself appearing to Saul of Tarsus to bring him to faith in Yeshua. Nothing else would've done it.

But then he mentions something to them, and that’s the end of the speech. He undoubtedly had lots more to say, but he never got the chance. He made the tactical error of relating how the Lord told him that he (the Lord) would send him (Paul) to the Gentiles.

That’s what set off another riot.

They listened once they realized he was (literally) speaking their language. They were impressed with his study of and adherence to the Law. His spiritual pedigree made an impact on them. They were intrigued how Ananias (another faithful Jew) came to him and healed him. The fact that his own countrymen wanted to kill him maybe shocked them, but this didn’t close them off to the possibility that Paul was speaking the truth.

Until he said that God sent him to the Gentiles.

Should we be surprised? Do you remember when Jesus came back to his hometown? They were also impressed with his message. They were a little skeptical, but they at least had something of an open mind. But when the Savior starting to point out to them that God loves Gentiles and has even dealt with them in the past, they went ballistic, started a lynch mob and tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. It was only miraculous power that saved him from death at the hands of the people he had grown up with.

Why do I bring this motif up once again? Because the Bible does. Repeatedly. Again and again in his word the Lord made it abundantly clear that his ultimate plan has always been to redeem people from all over the world. Peter said it best in his first encounter with Gentiles: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” But the Jews thought that their calling made them special and that all other people were bound for Hell and deserved to go there.

Oh but we’re past that, right? We don’t hate anyone of any particular race. We’re cured of the ethnocentrism that the early Church struggled with. Sure.

So are there any groups of people whom you have written off? Are there any people whom you don’t believe can be saved—and deep deep down inside you’re fine with that? How’s about Muslims? How’s about Chinese Buddhists? Or—and this is really ironic—how about the Jewish people?

If this doesn’t apply to you, if you can honestly say that you’re free of this, then fine. I’m not going to dispute you. And I hope it’s true. But if the Spirit is pricking your heart, you might want to give a listen. Because although the Jews of that time are long dead, I suspect that their spirit is alive and well.

Father God, please search out my heart. Any place where this rot exists, please root it out. And replace it with a Paul-like zeal to see every nation, every tongue, every people group represented before your Throne in worship.

[Nov 09]--Testimony Before The Jews

Acts 21:37-22:11

So Paul attempted to reason with the Jews. He loved his brothers according to the flesh, and always was yearning for any chance of reconciliation.

Always mindful of his audience, Paul specifically started his speech in Aramaic, an off-shoot of Hebrew. It was the most common language of the Holy Land. The NIV text note says it could be translated as Hebrew, but it’s not likely. His audience all spoke Aramaic, and he wanted to establish a connection with them.

And that concern continued as he spoke to them. He really emphasizes his background before he came to know the Messiah. He was born a citizen of Tarsus, but he was raised in Jerusalem, the most holy city for Jews. And even more importantly, he was trained in the Law by Gamaliel. This was name-dropping at its finest, because Gamaliel was considered by conventional wisdom to be one of the greatest rabbis of the 1st century. Notice that he brought up the common heritage he had with his audience of which he wanted to remind them: At the feet of Gamaliel he “was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors.” He was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee.”

And just how devoted was he? Well, when he heard about this new sect called Christians or followers of Jesus, he leaped into action. He started persecuting believers in Jerusalem, and was on his way to Damascus to round up more Christians when he was struck down on the road.

Paul here hammers home again and again just what type of man he was before he encountered Jesus. He did this to make a connection with them. But it also shows the incredible change the Lord had made in his life. Again, Peter was just a humble fisherman minding his own business when Jesus met him. But Paul was an active enemy of the Church and did everything he could to wipe it out. That’s the strongest evidence he presents that this Jesus was real, and his conversion was not a sign of a flaky personality who would change at the shifting of the wind. Something had happened on that road.

The rest of the story we’re pretty familiar with, so for the rest of today, I’d like to make another point with Paul’s character and what happens when the Lord gets a hold of a man.

We see what type of man Paul was before his conversion. He was dedicated, devoted, self-sacrificing, self-disciplined, and zealous for what he considered to be right. When he studied the Law, he would take no teacher less than the greatest, undoubtedly the hardest course he ever took. He was passionate in the extreme. In fact, that’s a great word that summarizes his personality pretty well: Extreme.

And what did Jesus do to him? Did the Lord temper that passion? Did he mitigate Paul's zeal? Did he moderate that extreme personality? Not in the slightest. All that zeal, all that passion, all that self-discipline was just channeled into a new direction.

That’s how the Lord usually works. Yes, there’s a sense in which he changes a man. At the very least, the Lord’ll refine a man and smooth some of the rough edges. But there’s another sense in which he merely changes the direction of the person.

That’s why this is so important for us to know. Perhaps you’re reading about Paul and think “I could never be like that.” Perhaps. But God doesn’t want to change you into a clone of Paul or Billy Graham or Augustine or Rick Warren. He wants you to be like Christ. And Christ is big enough that each of us can reflect him in a unique way.

Be who you are in Christ, not who someone else is in Christ. Make sense?

Lord Jesus, I thank you for the incredible diversity in your Body, in your Bride. I don’t have to be clone of anyone else. I just need to be like you. That’s hard enough. Please let’s get on with it.

[Nov 08]--False Accusations

Acts 21:27-36

It’s such a sure thing that you can usually set your clocks by it. If you’re effective in reaching people with the Good News and in furthering God’s Kingdom, you can expect that the Enemy will give you his attention. And one of his favorite means of working against the Church has always been that of false accusations. During the early years of the Church—after the Apostles’ era—Christians were routinely accused of fomenting sedition against the Roman government, of cannibalism, and of incest. Of course none of these were true. Our foremost author of the New Testament told us to submit to governing authorities. The charge of cannibalism came from the fact that during the Lord’s Supper we recited verses in which we mentioned “eating his body” and “drinking his blood.” And the reason we were suspected of incest is because men and women referred to each other as “brother” and “sister”; even husbands and wives did so.

So when Paul’s enemies were on the lookout for anything with which to accuse him, they finally found something. They saw him with some men, and they'd earlier seen him with a Gentile walking through the city streets. So they accused him of bringing a Gentile into the temple area. But notice the first accusation, the one they hoped would really stir up murderous passions. Supposedly Paul had somehow taught “against” the Jewish people and law and temple. This was the real justification for rioting and murder!

But of course none of this was legitimate. True, Paul had taught that we’re justified by faith in Christ, not by observing the Law. And he taught that Gentiles were accepted before God on the same basis as Jews. But the real unspoken issue--the elephant in the room, so to speak--was the nature of Jesus. Was he a charlatan and a false teacher and a false Messiah? If so, then the religious leadership was perfectly right in rejecting and condemning him. But if he was who he said he was, then that changes things! The issue of contention always was, and always shall be, who Jesus is.

Please keep in this mind. Why was Paul at the temple in the first place? He was there to help some observant Jewish brothers keep to Jewish religious tradition. He himself was a practicing Jew, except in the matter of witnessing to Gentiles. He thoroughly believed in the inspiration of the Torah. He completely accepted the divine authority of the Prophets. His custom was to worship among fellow Jews whenever he could. So this accusation that he was counseling fellow Jews to abandon their heritage was pure nonsense.

Is there anything completely new for us here? Not really. I just thought we all needed a couple of reminders:

• If you’re falsely accused, then don’t be surprised. You might think from some peoples’ reactions that our Lord didn’t forewarn us about this. He did. Repeatedly. Here’s just one sample: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” I mean, they did it to our Savior at his trial, and we certainly can’t expect that a servant is going to be treated better than his master, can we?

• If you’re accused, please let it be a false accusation. Just like in Daniel's case, Paul’s enemies had to make something up against him. When our enemies attack us, I hope that they have to resort to the same tactics. I for one am getting really tired of God’s name being blasphemed among nonbelievers because of something a Christian actually did, aren’t you?

So how about you? If you actually got accused of some gross misconduct, would it be a false accusation, or would they have a legitimate point?

Father God, for all the times that my actual conduct brings shame to your name, I’m so sorry. Please help me to change, and please may everything I do and say point them straight to you.

[Nov 07]--Does God Want Jews To Stop Being Jews?

Acts 21:17-26

For nearly two thousand years, the Church has had a love/hate relationship with the Jewish people. There was a time, to our eternal regret, in which Jews found more tolerance in lands ruled by Muslims rather than by Christians. The main founding father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther—although he had lots of great qualities—succumbed to the poison of antisemitism, especially in his later years. I wish it wasn’t so, but the Nazis used some of his writings to justify their hatred.

We're going to spend some time after the end of Acts in order to delve into this topic a bit more. Obviously antisemitism is utterly condemned by God and his word. And to the degree that any church that claims to be following Jesus flirts with this, I want no part of it. My Savior is Jewish. Get over it.

But let's go ahead and tackle some of the so-called biblical justifications for it:

They’re the ones who are responsible for crucifying the Lord Jesus. Really? I thought it was my sin that put him up there. I thought it was your sin and mine which nailed him to the tree. This is perfectly illustrated in some behind-the-scenes trivia concerning The Passion of the Christ, a movie accused of antisemitism. Did you know that Mel Gibson--the man behind the movie--actually had a cameo appearance in it? You don’t see his face: In one of the scenes where you watch a hammer nailing a spike into Jesus’ wrists, the hand with the hammer is Mr. Gibson’s.

They typically are pictured in the N.T. as the enemies of the Good News. That’s true. But those are the actions of a small number of Jews in the 1st century. In no way should we hold responsible anyone else for their actions. You might as well hold an undying hatred for modern-day Italians. The Jewish man you go to as a doctor is not accountable for any of that. He’s not out to persecute you. He’s not your enemy.

Here are some other points to consider: 1) Our Lord could've picked any racial/national background in which to come to us. He decided to be Jewish. 2) All his apostles were Jewish. 3) All the writers of the N.T. (with one lonely exception) were Jewish. 4) The entire first generation of believers was Jewish. 5) All the writers of the O.T. were Jewish. 6) The Jews were the ones to preserve for us those writings. 7) Even today, while most Jewish people are not believers, there are quite a few exceptions. According to Wikipedia, there are about 150 Messianic houses of worship in the U.S., with almost 400 worldwide. They number about 250,000 in America, and between 6,000 and 15,000 in Israel.

So here’s where the main question lies. Does God want a Jew to stop being a Jew in order to become a Christian? Well, as with most good questions, it depends. If by “Jewish” you mean a rejection of Yeshua as the Messiah, then we have to answer yes. Peter, a practicing Jew, told the Jewish Sanhedrin “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

What about practicing the Law of Moses? If a Jew believes in Yeshua, then does he need to stop keeping Kosher and observing the holidays? Again, it depends. Under no circumstances should anyone feel obligated to keep the Law of Moses in order to be right with God. We're not under the Law but under Grace. We're saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing. And if someone is observing the Law because they think there’s some special merit in that, then they need to drop it. That's the main point of the entire book of Galatians.

But if someone is born and raised in that culture and can use observance of the traditions as a way of symbolizing our relationship with the Lord, then that’s a good thing. From today’s reading we see that Paul --the apostle of freedom in Christ--didn’t have any problem with aiding fellow Jewish believers in keeping with Jewish customs. And when reaching out to his fellow Jews, he became "like a Jew"--probably meaning he observed Jewish laws and customs--in order to build bridges to more easily introduce them to Messiah Yeshua.

You see, just as he is with lost souls, Jesus didn’t come to destroy cultures but to redeem them. Some parts of the traditions and culture have to go. In fact, every part of every culture, just like every individual person, has to submit to Christ and be redeemed, or it has to go. But you'd be surprised at the amount of culture that--as opposed to destroying--he redeems and then channels into his purposes.

How does this apply to us? You and I need to take a long hard look at our own traditions and background. Some of it might need to go. But everything has to be either redeemed or abandoned. No matter what it is.

Lord Jesus, please help me to be utterly ruthless with anything that’s holding me back. But I thank you that you’ve come to redeem, both cultures and people. You’re that type of Savior.

[Nov 06]--The Bride: Come To The Party!

Rev. 19:1-9

Look, I believe in complete honesty. Not just avoiding lying, but putting everything up front for you, just so there’s no misunderstanding. Next year we’re going to be getting into the prophets and the book of Revelation. If you’re expecting that I’m going to be using those books to go into detail about the schedule of the End Times, you’re going to be disappointed. I’m going to stick to my “practical theologian” standard. If I get into a subject, then I do so because it will (or should) affect your daily walk with Christ. If someone can convince me that deciding between Pre-Tribulation or Post-Tribulation or some other interpretation of Revelation can actually affect that, then I’ll do it. Other than that, I plan to keep my End-Times interpretations pretty much off the Blog.

So why am I focusing on this passage today? Because this is one of the the last explicit references to the Church—as the Bride of Christ—found in Scripture. Therefore I thought it would be a good stopping point for our brief study on the Church. What can we learn about this picture of our Destiny?

We will—for the first time ever—be in complete sync with our Lord’s way of looking at things. Notice what they’re praising God for in vss. 2-3: the Lord's final judgment on the evil ones who’ve rebelled against his goodness and justice and mercy. Yes, we'll be applauding this. The only reason we don’t now is because in our sinful state we have more than a little sympathy for the rebels. Our Lord does as well, up to a point. But the time will come when the period of grace and mercy will end, and then it will be time to rejoice that final Justice will be dispensed.

When we get to Glory, the greatest saint who ever lived will not be the Star of the Show. The godliest, most righteous person who ever lived will fall at their feet and joyfully proclaim “Salvation and glory and power belong to our God!" There’s room for only one Center of Attention, and you aren’t it. That title belongs to our Redeemer.

There will be total intimacy. OK, I do remember that this is a PG site, so I’m not going to get into details here. I’m trying to choose my words carefully. But I want you to understand this: The most intimate and joyful time that any man and woman ever had on their wedding night is cold cabbage compared to what we'll experience there. What a first night of a honeymoon is supposed to be is nothing compared to what we'll have in Christ. This is arguing from the lesser to the greater. We'll know our Savior as never before.

It’s a wedding feast presented here, but let’s keep in mind that it’s a feast. What will we be feasting on? The goodness of our God. It’s a time of celebration like no ever in time or eternity. Just when we think it can’t possibly get any better, it will.

• And finally it’s ending on an invitation. Just like the last chapter—almost the last verse—of the Bible, there’s another reason why this event is compared to a wedding party. Because God wants you there! If you’re reading this, you’ve been invited! And believe me, you don’t want to miss it. If you aren’t sure if you have a place card with your name on it, how can you be sure? If you have any questions about it, read here.

Lord Jesus, I know that I don’t deserve to be there. But I will be, by your grace and mercy. You're so good, and you're so faithful. Whom can I invite to this?

[Nov 05]--The Bride: Beautiful, But Not As Much As She Will Be

Eph. 5:25-33

In trying to understand Scripture, what we need to realize that there are two patterns which we see over and over and over. When we see metaphors and similes, they fall into one of two categories. The first type is “arguing from lesser to greater,” and the other is “arguing from greater to lesser.”

Let me give an illustration from the lesser to the greater. When Jesus was encouraging us to come boldly to our Father in prayer, he pointed out how earthly, sin-touched parents act. Basically he reminded them “You fathers, although you’re still sinners (like everyone else), still provide your children with what they need, right? If your child comes to you and asks for a piece of bread, will you give him a rock to eat? So if you, as imperfect as you are, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give his children what they need?” See how Jesus is arguing from the lesser (earthly parents) to the greater (God)?

But in today’s reading we see an argument from the greater to the lesser. See how he goes from describing how Christ treats his Church and uses that as a model for husbands to love their wives and to explain exactly how to love them. The reason I’m bringing this up? Because Paul is a practical theologian. He’s not telling us how Christ treats the Church in order to fill our heads with information. He expects that theological truth to change our behavior. The main point here is not to tell us about Christ and the Church. The main point here is to tell us how husbands should treat their wives.

But having said that, there’s a lot of truth he reveals about Christ and the Church. What does this passage tell us about it?

He gave himself up for her. Obviously this mostly is referring to dying for her on the Cross, but it also entails the little and not so little sacrifices he made up to that point. His death on the Cross was just the final consummation of that self-sacrifice he freely offered.

• Why did he give himself up for her? In order to cleanse her and make her holy (set apart). This cleansing was both once-and-for-all on Calvary, but it’s also a process. He’s in the process of removing sin from his Bride, which won’t be completed until. . .

• . . . he finally presents her to himself, and at that point in eternity she will be--not just on the books but truly and really be—completely cleansed of her filth and wrinkles and blemishes and anything else that would detract from her beauty.

Let’s camp on that for just a moment. I remember the first moment I saw my bride in her wedding dress just before the ceremony. I completely believed she was the most beautiful creature I'd ever seen in all my days. And she’s only grown in beauty since then. On the day when the Church is presented to the Bridegroom, she will only have eyes for him. But here’s a poignant thought: He will only have eyes for her.

• In the meantime, what else is he doing? He’s nourishing and caring for her. Why? Because they're one flesh. Remember from a couple of days ago what we learned from Saul’s encounter? What hurts the Savior hurts his Bride. What hurts the Bride hurts her Savior. How stupid would it be for me to stick a knife in my arm and just blow it off by saying “Oh, it’s just my arm. It’s not like it’s the rest of my body or anything. I can get along without it. I mean, I’ve got two, right?”

So does this tell you anything about Jesus’ view of the Church? We’ll get into the practical lessons for husbands next year when we get into Ephesians. For today, however, I want us to take one main application from this.

I want you to take just a moment and think about how Jesus views you. If you’re saved, then you’re part of this. Wow.

Lord Jesus, that’s really the only word I can use here. Wow. That, and “I’m yours.”

[Nov 04]--The Bride: On Display

Eph. 3:7-12

We’re talking about the Church, and I haven’t really gotten into her true purpose. That’s quite a lacuna on my part, because it’s pretty important and goes against what some of us tend to think about it.

People today, especially since the 1960’s, have gotten into their head the notion that the church is there for me. It’s there to provide for my needs. It’s there to be my support structure.

Now, there’s some truth in that. Part of the purpose of the church is to provide spiritual healing and we certainly try to meet people’s needs. If a church doesn’t care about that, then it’s failing in its mission. I heard growing up that "The Church is not a mausoleum for saints; it's a hospital for sinners," and there's a lot of truth there.

But that’s not the primary purpose of the Church. Did you catch that? It’s not all about you. The Church is not first or foremost there to provide for your needs. And it’s certainly not there to meet your wants and desires.

What's the purpose here? Why was the Church created? Why did Jesus shed his blood for her?

It’s not that hard to guess, especially if you’re read the passage above. Next year we’re going to probably study this passage in greater detail, since it’s so packed with meaning. But here I want to focus particularly on vss. 10-11. Please read them slowly.

My friend, the Church--which you’re a part of if you belong to Christ--is meant to be a sort of living trophy. What’s a trophy? It’s a symbol on display that tells everyone that someone has achieved something of great importance.

What has God achieved by bringing forth and caring for the Church? It puts on display his incredible wisdom. What a plan! Could you have come up with something nearly as good? When angels look to see what the Lord is doing through the Church, they wonder in awe at the “manifold” wisdom of the Almighty. It has many folds. It’s like peeling an eternal onion. You peel off one layer of God’s wisdom as manifested in the plan of salvation. And then you get a deeper level. You peel that off and say “OK, I get it now!” No you don’t. You haven’t scratched the surface. And thousands of years after finding out more and more about our salvation, we’ll only find that this multifaceted diamond has more angles which we’ve never truly seen before. That’s why the angels “long to look into”—delve into and understand more deeply—our salvation.

And although it’s not stated here, the Church is also on display as a showcase for God’s mercy, kindness, and love. It also shows his justice and power.

That’s the purpose of the Church. So what’s the practical application? Well, here’s one for starters. We need to encourage each other, and that includes “attaboys.” There’s nothing wrong with that. But ultimately we have to remember that the Church (and its local manifestations) is not there to glorify any man. Unless you count one Man in particular.

Lord Jesus, so often I think of the Church as a way to glorify myself. I repent of that in dust and ashes. Please forgive, and please change me.

[Nov 03]--The Bride: Not An Option

Heb. 3:13; 10:24-25

I was raised in the church, specifically a traditional Southern Baptist congregation in Dallas. In fact, you could say I attended church for nine months before I was born. I was in Children’s Choir, Royal Ambassadors (the Baptist version of the Boy Scouts), and then the Youth Group. I attended Sunday School every Sunday morning, and most Sunday nights I was there for evening worship. Dress tended to range from business casual to business formal (suits and ties). Then I became a leader in a more nontraditional church. Yes, we shared all the doctrine of the church in which I was raised. But in the interest of becoming “all things to all people,” we specifically reached out to the “unchurched” in our community. We had contemporary music for our band (which used to be totally rockin’), we had a very informal dress code, and we used our website as the “front door” for our evangelism. So I've been in pretty much on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to the church.

So is church attendance really something that God expects for all Christians everywhere at all times? I mean, I can get everything I want from watching worship services on TV Sunday morning, right? What’s the big deal about church attendance, anyway? I mean, that bed’s pretty comfortable on Sunday, and sleeping in sounds really good. . .

First, I need to be completely fair here. There’s no verse in the Bible that says that you specifically have to worship God in a congregation on Sunday morning. My wife and I once visited a Messianic congregation on Saturday morning, and we loved it. There’s some indication that the early church met and worshiped together on Sunday, with good reason. That’s the day that our Lord rose from the dead, after all. But I’d be remiss in telling you that the Bible commands you to worship in a church on Sunday.

But setting aside the specific day for a moment, is there a command for us to worship in a church building one day a week? No, I can’t find anything on that either. So let’s take a look at the verse readings for today, and see what the Bible actually says.

The book of Hebrews seems to be at least partially written to alleged Jewish believers who were tempted to abandon the public expression of their faith. At least in front of other Jews, they were tempted to stop professing Yeshua (as they would've called him) as the Messiah.

So what’s the author’s cure for that? Well, in these verses he lays out some thoughts for us:

• We're supposed to encourage each other daily. Please notice that it says nothing about once a week. We're called to take responsibility for the morale of our siblings in Christ, and it's a daily thing.

• Why? So that none of us might be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. My friend, sin is deceitful. It rarely comes upon you in a blatant attack. No, it tries to sneak in with a disguise. And over time, if you let it take root and make itself at home, it can harden your heart. What once really disturbed you about sin doesn’t do so any longer. So in order to avoid that, you need siblings to keep tabs on you and say “Hey buddy, we need to talk.”

• Looking at the other passage, it gets even more striking. We don’t just point out what’s wrong with each other. We’re supposed to positively encourage each other (I love the image of “spurring one another on”) towards what Christ has called us to be and to do.

• And here the author gets even more specific. We're commanded by God through this author not to give up meeting with our siblings in Christ. We’re supposed to encourage each other, to lift each others’ spirits. Of course, that entails worshiping together and listening to God’s word preached.

Please listen to me very carefully: You cannot get this by watching a service on TV. And quite frankly, if the only times you’re meeting with other believers is on Sunday morning, you’re asking for trouble. That’s why our church has small groups during the week. That’s why we encourage our small group leaders to be in contact with their participants during the week.

But of course the reality is often much worse than Christians thinking they get enough connection just by attending worship on Sunday morning. There's a large portion of believers who supposedly love Jesus but for whatever reason (maybe legitimate, maybe not) have become disillusioned with the church and don't even attend a local gathering of believers (what we refer to as a "church") at all. I've had believers tell me to my face that they just fellowship with Jesus through personal prayer and Bible-reading, and that's enough. They don't need to permanently link up with local "church" in order to grow closer to him.

Can we think this through together for a moment? Your Bible--which you supposedly read--tells you that the Church is the Bride of Christ. Imagine if you said to me "Keith, I really like you a lot. You're wonderful guy, and I love hanging out with you. But your wife, well, not so much. In fact, I can't really stand to be around her, and the less time I spend in her presence, the happier I am. So is there any way I can spend time with you and not with her?" How would you expect me to respond to that? The best case scenario response (the one in which I don't go to prison for assault): "Uh, my wife and I are a package deal. She's the love of my life, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. If I hear one more word out of your mouth that's insulting to her, then that's the end of our conversation. There's absolutely no way on earth you can call me your friend if you have that type of attitude towards my wife."

So how is it that Christians (who supposedly take the Bible seriously) feel it's perfectly fine to claim to value Jesus but disrespect his Bride?

I know that the Church (both local and universal) is imperfect. Our Savior's in the process of cleansing her and making her more beautiful--not just in terms of covering her with his own righteousness, but in terms of making her more righteous in her personal conduct. Just like with me and you and every other individual believer on this side of Glory. I know that my wife has her faults, just like I do. But she's my wife, and we're a package deal. Talk bad about her in my presence, and we're going to have (in the best case scenario) a very unpleasant conversation.

Can I just be brutally frank here? Sorry, I gotta go on a quick rant here: The concept of a Christianity for individuals which is separate from the Body is completely foreign to the Bible. The idea that anyone could read their Bible and take it seriously at all and still come away with the notion that it's OK not to be plugged into the Body is nonsense on stilts. The fact that there are actual Christians walking around who seriously believe that you can have any personal relationship with Jesus and at the same time be detached from his Bride--again, gotta be frank--just boggles my mind.

All right, rant's over. Your Savior God has provided this incredible resource—for you. If you don’t avail yourself of it, then why do you wonder if your spiritual growth is stunted?

Lord Jesus, you've given us your Body, your Bride in order to be a conduit for blessing us. I’m sorry for all the times I’ve taken it for granted and haven’t availed myself of her to the fullest. Let’s change that, shall we?

[Nov 02]--The Bride: Saint Who?

Romans 1:1-7

I’m not really sure of the backgrounds of the people who are reading these entries. Hopefully there’s some diversity. I might even hope this might reach some folks who are “seekers” and not sure what they believe. But quite frankly I expect that most people who read this are coming from an Evangelical Protestant background. If what I’m about to say is something you already know, then I apologize. Maybe you just needed a good reminder of something.

But there’s a good possibility there might be someone reading this who comes from a church background in which the term “saint” is a source of confusion. You were raised to think that “saints” are some especially holy men and women who are/were closer to God than you could ever hope to be. You might've even been encouraged to pray to such people, because they have a special “in” that your paltry prayers could never achieve.

Let me put this just as gently as I can: That’s pure nonsense. Let’s take a look at what Paul himself said about this subject.

The Greek word translated “saint” is the same word from which we get the words “holy” and "sanctfied." It could also be rendered as “set apart” or “other” or “different.” If you see it in different translations, you might see it translated as any of these. In the NIV reading for today, it's rendered as "called to be God's holy people."

That’s literally what a “saint” is. It’s a person who’s set apart from the rest. Nothing more, nothing less.

By the way, that’s a concept related to the Church itself. Remember what the word for church is? It’s ekklesia, literally “called out ones.”

Dear brother or sister in Christ, I’ve got news for you. You’re a saint. You might not act like it all the time—I certainly don’t. But I am. It’s not dependant on what I do or how I perform, but on who I am. Or more precisely, whose I am. When you were called by God and received salvation in Jesus Christ, you became a saint. He pulled you out of the crowd, cleansed you by his blood, and called you to a new purpose.

Want some more proof? Do you have any idea just how screwed up the Corinthian church was? I don’t know how much hair Paul had on his head, but he definitely had less of it after dealing with them. They had problems with blatant sexual immorality, infighting, factions, and even flirtations with heresy. And Paul called them saints ("holy people") at the beginning of his letter to them.

Again, I’m a practical theologian. That means whenever I see some grand concept in theology, I ask “So what?” What does this mean?

First, take comfort. God has called you and set you apart. It’s not dependent on your performance. It’s dependent on Christ, who he is and what he did and what he does. You are holy and righteous in him.

Second, don’t get too comfortable. You were called to be a saint. First and foremost that means you’re called to be different. If you tell the same jokes as everyone else in the office, that’s a problem. If you strike back when someone insults you or stabs you in the back, that’s not being different. If you just want to blend in the background and be just like everyone else, that’s unacceptable.

Become who you really are.

Lord, you have pretty high expectations, don’t you? By your grace and in your power, I want to show who I am, whose I am. In the way I talk, the way I act, and in the way I think. That’s what I want.

[Nov 01]--The Bride: I Am Jesus. . .

Acts 9:1-6

Paul, of course, has always been my favorite hero of the Bible (next to the Savior). He wrote almost half of our New Testament, he was God’s instrument in dashing to pieces the great divide between Jew and Gentile, and he—more than any other human in history—laid out for us the meaning of the Cross. The Gospels tell us what Jesus did, but Paul is our first source for telling us what it meant.

But he didn’t start out there. In a way, that only makes his story more dramatic. Peter was mostly minding his own business (literally) when Jesus met and called him. Matthew was performing a pretty unsavory job when the Savior called him, but he wasn’t actively opposing Jesus’ ministry. Paul was. The modern notion of “You have your beliefs and I have mine”? Not in Paul’s mindset. He wasn’t content with refuting the disciples of this Yeshua. He wasn’t content even with driving them out of Jerusalem. He was following them from town to town, hauling Christians out of homes and throwing them into prison and likely bringing them to an early grave.

Then he met Jesus. He was on the road to Damascus to find more Christians to persecute when the Lord of Heaven appeared to him. And his life was changed forever. God alone knows the eternal impact that one moment will make.

You’re probably familiar with the story. But there one thing here I’d like to camp out on, because it’s pretty meaningful to our understanding of the Church. The bright light came upon Saul (as he was known then), knocking him off his animal. A voice from Heaven asked him “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul asked him who he was, and the Lord told him “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Wait a second. As far as we know, Paul had never met Jesus while the Lord was living on the earth. So why did Jesus tell him—not once, but twice—that Paul was persecuting him?

My friend, what did the Lord God say about Israel? What did he call her? In Deuteronomy God refers to her as “the apple of his eye.” Have you ever thought about what that means? Where did we get that phrase? Literally the Hebrew term means “little man” in the eye, the reflection you see. The NIV translates it as “apple of his eye” because that’s closest equivalent. The “apple” in your eye is the pupil, the most sensitive part of your body. If a piece of sand or dirt gets in there, you’ll spare no expense to get it out. If it gets threatened, you’ll guard that part of your body like it’s the most precious thing on the planet.

That’s the same idea here. When Paul struck the Church, Jesus felt it as unto himself. Each blow was felt as if it was upon him.

We’re the Body of Christ, after all. What do you think that means, anyway? Do you think that it’s just a nice way of saying he feels solidarity with us? No. We are mystically, mysteriously, and permanently joined to him. What happens to us, happens to Jesus. What happens to him, happens to us.

So how does this affect us in our daily life? Well, I can think of three ways off the bat.

First, if you think you’re alone in facing your problems, you’re not. As a believer, you’re part of his Body. Your pains are his. He chose to join himself to you and thus make your pains his own.

Second, when you hear about Christians being persecuted--and I hope you’re putting some effort into finding out about what’s happening to the Church outside your little world—don’t think for a moment that because the Lord isn’t openly acting that he doesn’t care about it. When the Church is struck, he feels it. And someday soon he’s going to do something about it.

And third, please keep this mind. When you strike another believer, you’re striking the Church, and you’re striking your Savior. Before you speak out in malice or anger or carelessness, please stop for a moment to think. Please.

Lord Jesus, please forgive me for the times I’ve struck another believer. I’ve never used fists, but my words can cut worse than any knife. Please forgive, and please change me.

[Oct 31]--The Bride: Go To Your Corners. . .

Matt. 18:15-18

I’m amazed sometimes that people doubt the doctrine of total depravity. I can understand if they differ with me about a literal reading of Genesis. I can even understand if they doubt the miracles recorded in the Scriptures (although I don't think they're taking the Bible seriously). I mean, it’s not like you see a miracle every day, right? But when it comes to the Bible’s declaration that we’re all sinners at heart, I mean come on! G.K. Chesterton once quipped that human sinfulness is the one biblical doctrine that you can prove with a daily newspaper.

The reason I bring that up is the sad fact that even redeemed people still have a sinful nature. I know that some well-meaning people deny that as well, but I think the Bible’s pretty clear about it. Yes, the Spirit’s at work in each of us, and hopefully we can see some improvement. We’re not what we once were, but we’re not what we should be, nor are we all that we will be. But the inconvenient truth is that within every church you can find people who can’t get along and threaten the unity therein. So what do we do about it?

Let me point out some things that Jesus didn't lay out as an option here. First and foremost, he didn't present the possibility that believers can—under any circumstances—bring their dispute into a secular court. Just to make it extra clear, Paul specifically forbade that in his letter to the Corinthians.

Second, nowhere in today’s reading does he say that it’s OK to complain about someone in front of other believers. I can’t believe I have to write this, but it seems like some of my siblings in Christ haven’t gotten the message yet. It's not all right for you to go to another believer and complain about someone else.

So what is the procedure? From the way some people act, you would think that this passage is esoteric and hard to comprehend like a passage in Revelation or Daniel. This isn’t rocket science or brain surgery.

First, you go to that person and try to resolve it between the two of you. You try to work it out between yourselves.

Second, if that doesn’t work, then you bring two or three witnesses to hash it out.

Third, as a last resort, you bring it before the assembled church. If the church determines that someone is in the wrong, then we can go from there.

I’d like to point something out here. He instructs that you treat the offending party (who doesn’t repent) like a tax collector or a nonbeliever. How are we supposed to treat someone like that? Well, how did Jesus treat someone like that? Like the scum of the earth? Like something you scrape off your shoe? By cutting off all contact? Of course not. We’re to treat them with love and compassion, always holding out the hope that they eventually will repent and there’ll be reconciliation. That doesn’t mean they continue to be treated like a member in good standing, naturally. If they're in a position of leadership, they'll need to step down. But hopefully you get the idea.

Let’s spend just a moment on this phrase which has been the source of some misunderstanding: “Whatever you bind on earth. . .” That’s a possible reading of the Greek, but I don’t think it’s the best one. Do we determine what’s bound on earth, and Heaven goes along with it? Really?

No. there’s an equally good way to translate it, and it makes much more sense theologically. As the NIV footnote says, it could be rendered “Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in Heaven.” It’s Heaven (in other words, God) who determines what’s bound and loosed, and we echo that. We—as God’s representatives—determine from God’s word what’s already been bound/loosed and we proclaim that truth to the world and the rest of the church.

There’s a reason why Jesus says this right after submitting his procedure for handling conflict in his church. When we follow his instructions, his Standard Operating Procedure (to use an Army term), we have his authority behind us. We’re not initiating the binding/loosing; we’re merely relaying to others what's already been bound/loosed by our Lord.

Waitaminute, it’s been waaaaaay too long before I reminded you of my favorite aphorism. You knew you were going to hear it again, didn’t you? No one in the history of mankind has ever done things God’s way who regretted it in the end. And the converse is true as well: If you do things your way instead of his, I guarantee that you’ll end up regretting it. Don’t fool yourself.

Lord Jesus, when someone lashes out at me, it’s so tempting to strike back in return. Please stay my hand. We’ll do things your way, by your grace and power.

[Oct 30]--The Bride: First Mention

Matt. 16:13-20

Hopefully you know already that each of the four Gospels have a different set of emphases in their respective portraits of the Savior. To Mark he was the Suffering Servant, to Luke he was the Son of Man sent to save Jews and Gentiles alike. To John he’s the eternal Son of God sent from the Father to fulfill the mission the Father gave him. And to Matthew he’s the Jewish Messiah, the ultimate fulfillment of Moses and the Prophets.

That’s why it’s a little ironic that the first mention of the word “church” is found in Matthew’s Gospel. Of course Israel was the embodiment of God’s people on earth during the O.T. period, and in a broad sense they were the “church.” That's because literally the word means “called out ones” or assembly. The Greek word ekklesia was used of a rough equivalent of a “town hall” meeting when all the citizens of a city were “called out” to discuss issues. So Israel qualifies in that they were “called out” from the rest of the world to be his representatives to the rest of humanity.

So let's get our terms straight here. The word "church" sometimes refers 1) to a local collection of (professing) believers, such as the "the church of the Thessalonians." Quite often, however, the Bible refers to it as 2) the mystical collection of all true believers worldwide and throughout history (for example here). A local body of believers is the local expression of the universal Body of Christ. It is impossible for you to be a true believer--to be saved--and not to be part of the Church in the second sense. It is possible--and unfortunately happens sometimes in real life--for a person to be a believer in Jesus and yet be separated from the Church in sense #1. I'd also submit that it's virtually impossible for you to have a healthy relationship with your Savior and not be plugged into a local expression of his Body, but that's another issue.

And of course, while I understand the need for shorthand in daily usage, strictly speaking the term "church" is never used in Scripture for the building we happen to meet in. There really wasn't such a thing as what we'd call church buildings for about 300 years after the Church was born, so it'd be pretty anachronistic if the Bible ever referred to a building as such.

But really the concept of the “church” as we know it is something that God only revealed with Christ. That’s why Paul called it a “mystery” in Ephesians, because the idea of a universal body of believers—where Jew and Gentile are equal partners—was hinted at but not really fully revealed in the O.T. Jesus mentioned it a couple of times (in today's reading and here), and then it came into full bloom in the book of Acts. But in the Gospel expressly written first to a Jewish audience, it’s a little surprising that we find its first reference here. So what do we know about it from today’s reading?

The Church is built by Christ: “I will build.” Yes, we have a part that God gives us in the endeavor. But ultimately the Church is being constructed by Jesus himself. Any evangelistic projects or outreach events or new ways of presenting the Good News are all well and good. I’m totally in favor of them. But anything that isn’t initiated by, and empowered by, and guided by the Lord Jesus? I want no part of it. I’d just be wasting my time anyway.

The Church is owned by Jesus: “I will build my church.” My friend, you do not own your church. Some folks seem to think that by giving money and investing in the church they somehow have part ownership in it. Or maybe the pastor might call it “my church.” If you mean it in the sense of "the local collection of believers with whom I'm associated," then that's fine. But whether it comes implicitly or explicitly, the notion that the church in any sense is your possession is a lie. She's completely claimed by  Someone Else, and it's not you.

The Church will—in the end—succeed. He said plainly that "the gates of Hades will not overcome it." You can invest in all sorts of things on earth, and none of them are a sure thing. As we've learned over the years, the stock market can implode while you watch. Land, bonds, or titles or any other investment can fail. But if you invest in Kingdom work, you’re investing in something that is sure to pay back a thousand-fold.

Now of course, our Lord is talking here about the Church in the sense of the universal Body of all true believers, not its local expression (like the First Methodist Church of Wherever). I've been a part of a local body of believers which eventually "failed" and had to be folded into another local body of believers. Just like in the individual Churches in the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Revelation, it's entirely possible for a local body of believers to fade away and eventually close down. But the Church universal carries on and will be quite alive and doing quite well when all her enemies are dead and have been roasting for a million years.

Influenced by our popular culture, people tend to think of God (or good) and Satan (or evil) as being in an eternal conflict, and they tend to envision it as a struggle between equal and opposite forces. It’s not. Jesus makes it clear: There are two kingdoms in conflict, but one is constantly gaining ground, and the other’s losing it. Please note: He said the gates of Hades will not prevail against his church. Have you ever been attacked by a gate? Of course not, because a gate is a means of defense. There is a kingdom under siege, and it’s not Jesus’. Every day, when someone gives their heart to the Savior, the Enemy’s kingdom shrinks a little bit more. And one day—hopefully soon—our Lord will say “OK, that’s enough!” and just crash the gates down once and for all.

So does any of this have a particular application to you? I urge you to go back over the three bullet points and ask yourself if you need a change of perspective. Do you?

Lord Jesus, when I look at the world today, pretty often it looks like the Church is losing ground. I know it’s not, but that’s how it looks. Please change my perspective. Let me see a little more of the big picture. I really need it sometimes.

[Oct 29]--The Bride: Bought With Blood

Acts 20:28-31

Whoa whoa whoa! I thought we just read this passage a couple of days ago. Yes, we did. But we’re starting another short topical series on the Church, using today’s passage as a springboard. There’s some confusion about this subject, and we could all use some reminders about it.

The phrase I want to camp out on today is the fact that Paul said that the Lord “bought the church with his own blood.” Yes, every individual believer is bought with the blood of our Savior, but Paul is here focusing on the fact that the church as a whole has been as well. All of us, put together, constitute the Body of Christ.

Back in those days, when a young man wanted to take a wife, he went to her family and negotiated a “bride price.” Depending on how wealthy he was and how much the family thought they could expect, they worked all these details out months if not years prior to the wedding plans. Ostensibly this was so that if the man divorced his wife, she'd have something to live on. But the point is that the value the man placed on his bride could be determined by how much he “paid” for her. I mean, that’s a general rule in life, right? One of the easiest ways to determine how valuable something is to you is by seeing how much you’re willing to pay for it, whether in actual money or in time or in some other sacrifice.

My friend, the Church was not paid for with silver or gold or cash of any sort. She wasn’t purchased with land or titles or any other paltry price. The Lord Jesus left the glories of Heaven, the uninterrupted fellowship of the Trinity, and the worship of angels in order to claim his Bride. He endured the weakness of human flesh, the everyday frustrations and disappointments of life, the rejection of his family and nation, the betrayal of one of his closest followers, and the abandonment of his closest friends—all for his Bride. He went through a show-trial, torture, final rejection and death on a cross for his Beloved. And worst of all, he carried her faults, her transgressions, and the wrath of the Father on his back, all for his Bride. And then he bled out and died for her.

Why am I focusing on this? Yes, the Bible does speak about each person’s individual redemption. It’s not a concept completely foreign to Scripture. But just as frequently, God’s word speaks of our collective responsibility and the fact that he's redeemed (literally “bought back”) the Church.

Why is this important? Because as Americans we're so hung up on individuality. We hold up very highly the paradigm of individual rights before the government. And there’s good in that. But we tend to carry that over into our understanding of the church. We tend to think of Christianity as a bunch of individuals running around who happen to be saved.

Yes, Christ died for you. But there’s a very real sense in which he died for the Church as a Body as well. For the next few days we’re going to focus on that aspect of our Christian life. If Jesus died for the Church, then maybe she needs to be a little higher on our list of priorities. What do you think?

Lord Jesus, you bled and died for your Bride. That’s how much you love her. And I’m a part of that. Thank you. So how can I show that she’s important to me too?

[Oct 28]--Farewell Address, Part Four

Acts 20:32-38

OK, so we’re wrapping up Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders. These brothers were very dear to him, and he thought he'd never see them again this side of Glory. So he wanted to share with them what was on his heart and some last words of encouragement and admonishment before he said goodbye. We don’t tend to do small talk when we’re about to die, and Paul didn’t either. What was on his mind before he left them?

He wanted to point out to them the quality of his ministry. Why would he do this? Was he really that concerned about what people thought of him? Was he that vain? Did his self-esteem need a “pick me up”?

Um, no. He cared very little how he'd be judged in any human court, whether a literal one or in a court of opinion. He answered ultimately to his Lord, the One who called him and equipped him and to whom he would one day give an account. I can think of two very good reasons he would talk like this about his conduct in his ministry.

First and foremost in his mind was the preservation and proclamation of the Good News. Keep in mind that these verses come right after his stern warning about wolves who would come in to steal the flock. False teachers were going to come, and he anticipated their line of attack: The character of Paul. His reputation was permanently linked to the Message of Jesus, and he couldn’t allow the latter to be sullied in any way.

Second, he was holding himself and his associates as an example for others to follow. He wasn’t just doing this so that believers could look at him and say “Wow, that’s impressive!” Inasmuch as he was following Christ, he wanted them to follow him. Hear his words to the Thessalonians: “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.” Unlike a lot of (false) teachers, Paul--and his companions--were honest, hard-working, and self-supporting. He expected that to be the norm for believers. This is not to say that it’s wrong for ministers of the Good News to be supported by that work. But it’s the norm for believers to eat their own bread and pay their own bills.

The second point is related to the first although most don’t normally think in these terms. He wanted Christians to be self-supporting in order to help those are truly in need. To the degree that the Lord has blessed you financially, he's not blessed you primarily just so that you can be blessed, but that so you can bless others.

By the way, as a bit of trivia, this is the only authoritative saying of Jesus from his time on earth which is not recorded in the four Gospels. You won’t find “It’s more blessed to give than to receive” in any of the Gospels. But since Paul said it and the book of Acts is just as much Scripture as the Gospels, we can take it as authoritative.

So there you have it. This is what was essential to Paul: 1) The purity and proclamation of the Good News and the rest of God’s truth, 2) That Paul’s life and ministry would lead people closer to that Truth, 3) Paul’s responsibility before the Lord to proclaim everything in his commission, 4) Passing on that responsibility to the next generation. Nothing else really mattered.

Does any of that apply to me? Can I claim that?

Lord Jesus, I can’t claim that I’m anywhere close to this. But I thank you that although I’m not what I should be, I’m not what I once was and I’m not all that I shall be. Whatever I can do to cooperate, then please show me.