[Dec 31]--Our Only Hope

1 Cor. 1:8-9; 1 Thes. 5:23-24; Jude 24-25

I’m a big believer in balance. That’s why I love the “tension” verses and passages so well, the ones which concentrate paradoxical truths in tension for us. And since we just spent the last three weeks focusing on virtues, I wanted to spend a day on a more comforting message.

Before we go any further, I want to reiterate a very important point. If at the end of our last study you felt majorly guilty, then either you misunderstood what I was trying to say, or I communicated very poorly. The point of lessons like these is not to make you feel guilty. The main point of these lessons is not ultimately even to improve your character, although that'll be a result of what we’re looking for. They serve a two-fold purpose: 1) They're meant to encourage you to examine yourself to make sure you’re really saved. If you aren’t showing any signs of becoming like Christ, then you need to question whether or not you belong to him. And 2) they’re meant to spur you on to cultivate your relationship with your Savior.

But no matter how many times I emphasize that point, most of us (including myself) tend to feel guilty when we look at ourselves and compare where we are with where we should be. That’s why I wanted to end the year with these passages.

Please let me remind you that the Corinthian church, to judge by the Pauline epistles, was the most screwed-up church in the 1st century. Paul basically spent 15 chapters ripping these guys for screwing up so badly. But near the beginning of the book, he gave them a word of hope: He will keep you strong to the end, and you will be found blameless on the Day when Christ returns. And this is because. . . who is faithful? The Corinthian believers? Oh, please. No, all the true believers at Corinth would turn out all right because God is faithful.

Then we come to the Thessalonian church. They had their problems too, but they certainly weren’t as bad off as the Corinthians. But no matter what the situation, Paul knew that some things would happen to them eventually. Now, this is a good example of why we need to read Scripture carefully and in context. If all you read was vs. 23, you might think “Yeah, Paul hoped that God would completely set them apart through and through and make them blameless. That doesn’t mean that it would definitely happen.” But see the next verse. Again we see Paul appeal not to the faithfulness of believers, but to the faithfulness of our Lord. He’s faithful, and he will do it. Not hopefully he will do it. He will do it.

And finally we come to the last words of Jude. Can I remind you of something? Jude was a half-brother of Jesus. That means that while his brother was walking around, Jude didn’t believe in him. He'd rejected him as Savior and Messiah. But once the Lord Jesus was resurrected, Jude became a believer and a leader in the church. So he knew about failure. But he also knew about grace. And this was his only hope, and ours. His Savior will keep us from falling and present us before himself without fault and with great joy.

And appropriately enough, right after declaring our security in Christ, Jude makes sure all glory goes to the One who deserves it. We deserve none of the glory or honor or praise. He does. He planned it all out, he executed it (at great cost to himself), and he'll complete it. And what do I refer to as “it”?

Our salvation. We were saved from the penalty of sin, we're presently being saved from the power of sin as he progressively remolds us into his likeness, and one day we'll be saved from the very presence of sin. And our salvation will come full circle. Not because of our faithfulness, but his.

And here's my favorite song by Caedmon's Call: "Only Hope"

Lord Jesus, thank you. What do I want this year? A closer relationship with you. No matter what the cost. Please make me into what I am.

[Dec 30]--Last Command

2 Pet. 3:17-18

I don’t have any more virtues or disciplines to discuss. I’m sure I missed one or two, but for the next couple of days I want to present two addendums to the study we’ve had over the last three weeks.

I guess I’m kind of a freak, but I’m fascinated with the last words of biblical authors. As Samuel Johnson noted, “The gallows doth wonderfully concentrate the mind.” When you know that you only have a short time left, you tend to focus on what’s most important. That’s why I’m particularly moved by such passages as the Lord’s discourse at the Last Supper, or Paul’s last recorded words to Timothy.

These are the last recorded words of Peter. He had lots of ups and downs in his life as an apostle. He made what we call the Great Confession, had worked miracles, and was usually the spokesman of the group of first disciples, both before and after the Cross. He had lots of failures as well, which we’ve rehearsed enough. After the events of the book of Acts, he himself wrote two epistles to add to Scripture.

And here are his last words to us. And I think that they’re a command which a lot of Christians are disobeying.

Grow. Don’t be stagnant. It’s a law of biology: You’re either growing or dying. You’re either improving overall or falling backwards.

Now to be sure, all of us have areas in which we need to improve. As James said, “We all stumble in many ways.” The question is not "Do I have room to improve?" The thing to ask myself is: Am I improving? Am I growing?

And notice that this is a universal command to all the Church. Whether you’re a new believer who got saved last week or a more mature believer who’s known the Lord for 50 years, he wants more for you. Are you satisfied with where you are in your walk with Christ? You shouldn’t be.

And it’s not just growth in any area that Peter wants. He mentions two specific arenas.

First is growth in the grace of our Lord Jesus. This isn’t talking about saving grace: You either are saved or you aren’t, so you can't grow in that. It’s talking about taking advantage of his empowering grace--the resources the Lord has provided, like the four disciplines we talked about. It’s talking about relying on the power of the Spirit to change us from the inside-out into the likeness of Christ. And of course it’s talking about asking for forgiveness when we fall flat on our face.

Second we need to grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus. This means both head-knowledge and relationship-knowledge. You should know more about him than you did a year ago. That means studying his word on a regular basis. And you should know him better as a person than you did a year ago. You should be spending more intimate times with him, listening to what he has to tell you. As you do this, you'll find the virtues we talked about cropping up (pun intended) more and more in your life. You’ll see the Fruit of the Spirit appearing more than it did a year ago. Please remember, these virtues are not ends in themselves for you to strive for. They're the Fruit of the Spirit. They’re visible indications of the status of your relationship with Christ.

And naturally Peter’s last recorded words are not a command but a doxology. Our salvation started with God, and it ends with him. All praise and honor and glory and thanksgiving go to him. Because when we look back on our life on however much progress we've made, we realize it’s all due to him.

Lord Jesus, I love my relationship with you. I love what I have with you. I love the closeness of our walk, the changes you’ve made in my life, and the ways you’ve let me serve you. But I’m not satisfied. I want more of you. This coming year, I want to act more like you. I want to talk more like you. I want to think more like you. Whatever it costs, I want it.

[Dec 29]--Well, Have I Got Some News For You!!!

Matt. 28:18-20; Eph. 4:11-13; Rom. 10:9-15

Now we come to the last of the four disciplines we’re going to discuss, and I’m sure it’s everybody’s favorite: witnessing/evangelism. My favorite book on this subject is one I’m sure you’ve never heard of. It’s Out of the Salt Shaker and Into the World by Rebecca Manley Pippert. She starts out the book with a very arresting point--There’s at least one thing Christians and non-Christians have in common: Both are scared to death of evangelism. Non-Christians and Christians alike have this idea that witnessing has to be in the form of waylaying someone with several verses from the Bible, coming across with a holier-than-thou attitude, and then the Christian walks away from the ambush thinking he’s fulfilled his “witnessing quota” for the time being. As always, I’d like to clear up some misconceptions right off the bat.

First and foremost, we need to understand that witnessing for Christ is for everyone. It’s not an optional thing or something reserved for the elite. Jesus’ last command in Matthew is for every believer. If you're saved, then you have a responsibility to make your contribution to seeing that command carried out.

Second, as Ephesians tells us, there is such a thing as a gift of evangelism, and not everyone has it. I don’t think I do, but my best friend in college did. So did my last pastor. They could witness to a telephone pole, and the telephone pole was very likely to come to faith in Christ. They are very effective in sharing the Good News, and they love to tell lost people about Jesus. However, notice the rest of the passage. The reason for the gift of evangelism is to equip the wider Body of Christ “for works of service.” In other words, they’re here to help us and teach us how to share Christ, not so that most Christians could be spectators and cheer the “real” evangelists on like players at a sporting event.

Does this mean that every believer needs to be able to preach a sermon? Of course not. Does that mean that every believer needs to be able to answer every argument that a skeptic brings up? No.

What it does mean is that every believer needs to be able to articulate what the Good News is and to explain it well enough that the regular person can understand it. It’s not your job to convince anyone!

The Romans passage is pretty familiar to me, since I grew up Southern Baptist, and vss. 9-10 and vs. 13 are part of the “Roman Road to Salvation,” a popular way to explain the Good News from the book of Romans. But what we didn’t usually examine too closely is the latter part of today’s Roman passage. God could send angels to lost people. He could write it in the sky. He could appear with a big audible voice. But he doesn’t, and he won’t. He's chosen you to be his ambassador, his representative to the non-Christians you encounter. If no one tells them, they won’t hear. If they don’t hear, they’ll never believe.

If you’re reading this and thinking “OK, Keith, you've convinced me I need to be a better witness for Christ, but I don’t know how!!!” then don’t worry. On the sidebar is "One-Verse Evangelism" which is my favorite way to summarize and present the Good News, and it's fairly easy to replicate. Of course, there are lots of good ways to share the Good News, so find one that fits for you. And as I think about this, I see a need to make it a topical study next year.

But for now, let’s get over the first hump. The first and most daunting barrier to you being an effective witness for Christ is you deciding to become one. You have to be willing. You have to choose to be obedient.

It all starts with prayer, maybe something like what’s suggested below.

Lord Jesus, I am blown away that you want me to be your representative. I’m not sure how I’m going to tell others about you, but I’m willing to. Please give me opportunities, open doors. Show them to me. Whatever it takes for me to be do things your way, I want it.

[Dec 28]--Come Together

Ps 122:1-2; Heb. 3:13; Ps 141:5; Acts 2:42-47

So now we come to the third Christian discipline on the list, namely Fellowship. You might have heard of the Greek word for this: Koinonia. It’s translated as “fellowship,” but there’s so much more to the Biblical concept. A lot of what I’m about to say you might've already heard, since this is something I harp on so frequently. If so, just consider this a refresher course.

First off, we need to drop some of the baggage of being a modern Westerner concerning our faith. I believe in individual rights before the government, and I understand peoples’ desire not to have the state interfere in their private affairs. This nation started out by saying to the Mother Country “Stay out of our affairs!” But we can easily slip from a concern for the individual into individualism, especially with our relationship with Christ. You were not designed to be a follower of Christ on your own. You are part of the Body of Christ, and that means two things: 1) You need the Body, and 2) The Body needs you.

So what do I mean by fellowship? I see at least four different aspects:

• First and foremost, there’s worship. Yes, you need private worship time, where you read the Bible, pray, and sing on your own or with your family. But worship in Scripture is just as often portrayed as a corporate activity. David expressed his excitement of going to worship with other believers.

• Second there’s encouragement. The Hebrews verse is the classic statement on this. If you see a fellow believer struggling in their faith, then you need to step in. When you feel that urge to wrap your arms around them and whisper in their ear that it’s going to be all right, that’s likely the Spirit speaking to you. He’s telling you “I want you to be my arms and my mouth right now. Will you do that?”

• Third I see a strong element of accountability in this concept. David had the exact right attitude in this Psalm. When someone hits you (either literally, or in this case figuratively), it’s not fun. Your first instinct wouldn't be to thank someone for that “favor.” But when it came to a righteous man “striking” him, David saw it as a blessing. Our sins are like car headlights: The other person's seem much more glaring than your own. All of us have “blind spots” which need someone else to point them out to us. Of course, we always need to be careful to speak the truth in love.

• And finally there’s helping each other. Luke puts a strong emphasis on everyone helping each other whenever someone was in need. Now let’s be clear. Just handing money to someone who’s financially irresponsible is not showing them love; in fact, Paul forbids us from doing that. But it does mean that whatever the needs of the believer in front of us, we try to meet them as best we can.

I don’t think I can overemphasize just how important this is. Quite frankly, I have introverted tendencies that need work. He’s in the process of pulling me out of myself in order to be a full part of the Body. How’s about you?

Lord Jesus, thank you for your Body. It feeds me, and gives me a purpose I can’t find anywhere else. That Body is you in action on earth. Help me to treasure it like you do. 

[Dec 27]--A Love Affair

Psalm 119:9-16

So today we’re going to briefly look at the second discipline of the four, namely reading God’s word. Hopefully by now you’ve grasped that I really love the Bible. But I’ve got nothing on the writer of Psalm 119! This 176 verse chapter (the longest one in the Bible) is one long love-poem to Scripture, since the word of God leads him into the presence of the God of the word.

Before we get to that, let’s address a side-issue. A common question that people ask is “Does God still speak today?” My answer would be “Of course he does, primarily through his word.” But then they follow up with “But what about an audible voice or a voice you actually hear in your head?” I wouldn’t completely rule it out, in the sense of guidance from the Spirit. But usually what the Spirit is telling me is just an application of what he's already told me in the pages. It might be the Spirit, or it might be those leftover tacos from last night. If you want to the Lord to speak to you, the only 100% reliable source is from the Bible. Anything else is questionable at best. And quite frankly, instead of worrying about getting a “fresh” message from the Almighty, how’s about we concentrate on what we know he’s told us already?

One more note before we delve into the passage itself. Keep in mind that when the psalmist wrote this, what was he mainly referring to when he was going on and on about how much he loved the Scriptures? The Torah. The books of Moses. Not just the exciting stories about Noah and Abraham and the Plagues. No, he loved the laws about mold in homes and the rules concerning priests. This was pretty much all he had: No stories about Jesus or the apostles, no epistles by Paul or Peter, not even the prophets. Just wanted to point that out.

So how are we to respond to the Scriptures?

• We're to live according to his word. This is how we keep our lives pure.

• We're to seek the Lord through his word. The writer wasn’t talking about some mystical and mysterious experience on a mountaintop somewhere. He was talking about finding God through diligent study of the Scriptures.

• We're to hide his word in our heart so that we won’t sin against him. Yep, that’s talking about memorization.

• We're to recount his word, both to others and to ourselves. That means sharing his word with others, and it means reminding ourselves of it by speaking it out loud.

• We're to rejoice in it and treasure it. If you had a family heirloom that had been in your family for generations, would you take care of it? Would you value it? If you had a car worth one million dollars, would you value it, or just let it go to pot?

• We're to meditate on it. This is truly a lost art among modern American Christians. Biblical meditation is not emptying your mind, except insofar as it makes room for God’s truth. Tape up a verse in your bathroom mirror. Listen to Scripture readings in your car. Chew on it over and over like a cow chews its cud.

• And finally, delight in it. Celebrate the truths you find there. Incorporate them into your prayers.

On the sidebar of the blog I've got a link for multiple plans for reading the Bible through from cover-to-cover, ranging in one year to three years (which is actually my current favorite). I'd urge you to pick one, or maybe another one from someone else (there are plenty to pick from). Whatever plan you use, I earnestly plead with you to commit yourself to reading the Bible through from cover to cover. If you want God to speak to you, you need to go to the main source, and camp out there.

Father, I confess that I don’t love your word nearly as much as I should. Please place that spirit of that psalmist within me. May his love become mine. Because as I search your word, I’ll find you there.

[Dec 26]--Setting Fire To The Earth

Revelation 8:1-5

OK, we’re done with the Christmas season, so let’s talk about our topic for the last few days of the year. When I was involved in Campus Crusade for Christ, they introduced to me a four-point guideline on how to grow in Christ. Imagine a circle with four points coming out of it like the points on a compass.

The middle of the circle is a cross, representing Christ as the center of everything. The arrow pointing upwards is “Prayer.” The arrows to the left and right are “fellowship” and “witnessing” (with no significance attached to which is which). The arrow pointing downwards is “God’s word.”

These are known as the “Christian disciplines.” Please don’t think of that term the way we normally think of “discipline,” which usually means punishment for a child. Discipline is a teaching tool, whether in a child’s life or in the lives of God’s children. They’re the means God uses to make us more like Christ in this life. You did know that this is his ultimate goal for you, right?

Also I need to make clear that this list of four is by no means exhaustive. There are quite a few listed by others, such as fasting and adversity, which God uses to chip away the parts of us that don’t look like Jesus and refashion us into something which resembles him better. But these are the primary four which every Christian needs to practice, and they’re things which you have to make a decision to do. They take time and effort, but they’re more than worth it.

So today we’re going to have just a few words on prayer. There are so many passages on prayer that it was really hard to pick one. In fact, this will probably be a topical study next year. But today’s reading is one of my favorites, and it gives us insight into the subject.

You see, anytime we practice one of these disciplines or have any other interaction with the spiritual realm, there are two sides to whatever’s happening. Take prayer for example. You see a little girl at her prayers before bedtime. To the human eye, she’s a frail little thing who weighs in at around 70 lbs. Her words are faltering, since she's not very eloquent and has trouble finding the right words to say. Not much of a threat as far as we can see right?

But in the spiritual realm, there’s much more that’s happening. In some mysterious way the Spirit is interceding for her. The Son, acting as her High Priest, brings her petition before the Father, lending it his own authority. The One sitting on the throne of the Universe, the Almighty God before whom angels dare not show their faces, listens. And acts in a way that makes angels’ jaws drop.

Read today’s passage again, slowly. We can debate about whether or not this setting is past, present, or future. But I think the principle is timeless. When prayers go up before Almighty God, Heaven responds, and earth is moved. In this case, it literally set fire to the earth. Earthquakes, thunder, and lightening were the result of these prayers.

Now, do we always see such an immediate and open effect? No. Lots of times people pray and pray and pray, and don’t see results. But I promise you this: If you’re truly praying, then the God of Heaven is listening, and eventually you’ll see an answer that'll bowl you over. It might or might not come in the way you’re expecting, but it will come. It just might be that one last prayer before God says “Enough!!!” and moves in an open and public way.

So don’t give up. Keep praying until God tells you to stop. You never know what might be the result. You might even see some fire upon the earth.

Father God, thank you for listening. You attach such importance to the prayers of your children. Lord Jesus, to think that you attach your authority to anything which comes out of my mouth? Wow. Holy Spirit, please intercede as only you can, because my prayers so often are selfish, short-sighted, and not worth listening to. Before you set fire to the earth, set fire to me.

[Dec 25]--Christmas For The Least of These

Luke 2:8-20

So what’s your favorite Christmas movie or TV special? My wife loves How The Grinch Stole Christmas (the animated one, natch), and up until recently I would've answered that question with a firm It’s A Wonderful Life. But a few years ago I rediscovered The Charlie Brown Christmas Special. It’s got some hilarious moments (Lucy giving Linus “five reasons” to do what she tells him to do), but my absolute tear-producing scene is the one below:

The thing is, I think we’re so used to the story that we might forget a huge irony here. We’ve sentimentalized the part about the shepherds, but we need to keep in mind an important point: Shepherds were not looked upon very highly. It was considered a ritually unclean profession, and probably no child grew up saying “I hope when I get big I get to be a shepherd!” They were exposed to the elements, they faced dangers from wild animals, and the pay certainly wasn’t great.

But these were the people to whom God chose to announce the birth of his Son. He didn’t send the angels to a king or to priests or to the religious leaders. He sent his mighty servants to people in the most humble profession.

Of course, this disdain for shepherds has no backing from God’s word. All the patriarchs were shepherds. The greatest king of Israel—David—was pulled from the fields. But most importantly, the Lord, through his word, repeatedly compared himself to a shepherd and Israel to a wandering flock, like here.

Why did the Lord compare himself so much to a shepherd? Well, the image certainly fits well. If you investigate the job of a shepherd and the nature of sheep, then it’s a great metaphor for our relationship with the Lord.

But I think there’s more to it when we examine the question of why he sent birth-announcement angels to shepherds and no one else. He’s always had a special place in his heart for the least of these: The nobodies, the poor, the ones who aren’t famous and who don’t have the glamorous jobs. He never overlooks the overlooked.

That’s why this story is so important to all of us. It’s an important preview of the ministry of our Lord Jesus, who made his home-base Galilee “of the Gentiles.” And of course during his ministry he commanded all his disciples to follow his example in caring for the ones no one else cares about. And when he returns, we’re in store for more than a few surprises: He will comfort those who mourn and will dry every tear. And more than a few people will be made famous whose names you’ve never heard.

That’s why we need to take a closer look at this story. Familiarity can breed contempt, or at least dull the wonder. The angel/shepherd scene is a great picture of what Christmas is all about: Heaven reaching down to the humblest among us. When the angels came and announced that this “good news of great joy” will be for “for all the people,” that’s you and me. And the lower you are, the better the news it is.

Lord Jesus, thank you for coming for me. You came to rescue me. The announcement of the angels is for me. Let me follow the example of the shepherds, and spread the news.

[Dec 24]--Some Thoughts On Christmas

Luke 2:1-7

Are you like me? Can we be completely honest here? I get burned out on Christmas pretty early on. Hearing the same songs over and over and over and over. Seeing more attention being paid to some fat guy in a red suit than to the Person whose birthday we’re supposed to be celebrating.

And there’s a legitimate case to be made that we put way too much stock in it from a theological sense. I mean, the Bible never tells us to celebrate Christmas, right? The message of Paul is that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again, all according to what God’s word had predicted. He never mentions the details of the birth or attaches much significance to it. What most people don't know is that up until a few centuries ago, the decision to pay any attention to Christ's birth was very controversial. The Puritans in America, for example, most emphatically did not celebrate it.

And sometimes I think that there’s a temptation to focus on his birth to the neglect of aspects of our faith which are less comforting. For example, why he came in the first place. I’m reminded of what some critics said of the movie The Passion of the Christ a few years ago: “Why spend so much time on the gruesome details of his death? Why not give more attention to his teachings on love?” Because that's not why he came. He didn’t come primarily to teach. He came primarily to die a horrible death in our place and take the wrath of the Father upon himself so that we'd never have to experience it. Yes, he was a little baby when he came. But he didn’t stay that way—he became a man. And as long as we can visualize him as a little baby in a manger, we don’t have to face some things about who he is and who we are.

And yet. . .

And yet. . .

The Bible does tell us the story, and there’s a reason why it’s in there. Here are my thoughts on it:

• We always have to maintain a balance in our minds concerning who Jesus is. He’s God in the flesh. He also was--and is--totally human. He’s as just as much human as you and I. And Luke wanted to hammer that point home to us.

• That means he willingly associates with us. In all our sinfulness and rebellion and faults, he completely and permanently links himself with our plight.

• I’ve made this point before, so please forgive me if this is old hat to you. The Bible is history. To Buddhism, it really doesn’t matter whether or not Buddha said and did the things he did—or even existed. But the Bible claims to be set in real-life history. It claims that this stuff literally happened, like the battle at Gettysburg. C.S. Lewis was an expert on pagan myths, and he said that anyone who says that the Gospels are myths is only demonstrating their own ignorance about what myths look like. Luke tells us about a real governor in a real land that we can really date. He gives us times and dates and places.

That means that the Bible is a book for real people with real problems. That means it’s for you. It addresses you, right here and right now. That’s why Luke took the trouble to do his homework and make sure he was presenting an accurate account of what happened.

• Even in these short verses we see a wonderful tension between the world we live in and God intervening, the ultimate humility seamlessly blending with grand and glorious mysteries. What am I talking about? On one hand, you have the invisible hand of sovereign God Almighty manipulating events in order to carry out his eternal plan. A Caesar on the other side of the Empire decides to declare a universal census. Joseph and Mary are then forced to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register, and just at the right moment the time to deliver comes. This all happened at just the right time and in just the right circumstances in order that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem just as Micah predicted. Otherwise he would have been born in Nazareth, which was Joseph’s hometown.

So we see all this glorious outworking of God’s program, and when our Savior comes, he’s laid in a feeding trough. A feeding trough!? That’s the tension we see throughout the Gospels: Grand and awe-inspiring and bottomless mystery wrapped up in dirt-poor humility.

That’s our Savior. And keep in mind, the whole reason for this humiliation. . . is for you.

Lord Jesus, just like Job I think it's best if I just put a hand over my mouth and sit in silence for a little bit.

[Dec 23]--Purity

Eph. 5:3-6

OK, admit it—You thought from the title of today’s blog entry that I was going to talk about sex, right? Well, if you thought that, you’re partially right. When I use the term, I’m talking about more than just that one aspect of our life. Purity includes sexuality, but it’s not limited to it.

Before we get to the rest of it, let’s get sex out of the way. You should have known that when I said we were going to examine the Christian virtues, that this was going to be part of it. It’s not the “centre” of Christian virtue (as C.S. Lewis called it), but it is important, and it can incredibly impact our lives, both this one and the next one.

God’s standard is not that difficult to understand. You can make the case that it’s pretty tough to carry out, but pretty easy to explain. Simply put, God’s standard is that any sexual expression is to be within the context of a marriage between one man and one woman for life. That’s what he expects.

And we’re not done yet. Jesus made it clear that if a man looks at a woman with lust in his heart (yep, that would include porn), then he’s committed adultery with her in that arena.

Now, I’m not an idiot, and God’s word is not na├»ve. I’m fully aware—and of course he's so much more so—that none of us completely have lived up to this standard, especially guys. The Lord is also very aware that our society and popular culture does just about everything it can to make it even more difficult for us. In fact, I would venture that there’s almost no one out there not influenced by the Bible who even makes the effort to be sexually pure according to this standard, or who even recognizes that it's a good standard to have.

But I'd be derelict in my duty if I sugarcoated the truth. He has expectations of me as a teacher.

However, like I said before, the Bible has more to say about purity than just sex and lust. Look again at today’s passage. He puts—in the same warning about sexual immorality—that among believers there shouldn’t be even a hint of greed, obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking.

Now, I can anticipate the questions here, because I’ve asked them myself: “What exactly does Paul mean by obscenity or coarse joking? What’s the line?” The best answer I have for that? If you need to ask yourself where X falls, then you probably should refrain from X.

What I’m really trying to get away from here is this limitation in our minds that “impurity” is talking just about sex. Yes, that’s included. But a lot of other things are under that jurisdiction, like how we speak and how we look at our possessions. A person might never look at a porno site but fall pretty short of his standard.

But I want to move beyond the concept of impurity to purity. That really needs to be our main focus. Yes, we need to avoid impurity, but the main goal is purity. And the way we do that?

Not by just emptying the impure things out of our lives. We have to focus on what’s pure.

Does Paul ever talk about that? Why, yes he does. He told us “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” And what could I think of that would immediately fill all those categories? Christ. His righteousness. His grace. His power.

I think that’s the secret, or at least a huge part of it. Of course I’m not pure when compared to my Savior. But when I notice that a thought doesn’t meet God’s standard, he points it out to me (through his Spirit), I confess and turn away from it, and ask for his help in being more like him. I refocus my thoughts—not on my failure, but on who he is. And what he’s done. And what he’s doing. And what he’s going to do someday.

Now I want to say a word to all those who feel immensely guilty right now. You’ve fallen so far short on this that you think you can’t even see the standard, much less meet it. But that’s why we have grace. That’s why Christ came. My sins are just as nasty in his sight as yours. Just make the decision right here, right now, that (with his enabling power) you’re going to do things God’s way from this point forward, no matter what the cost.

But just like they say at an A.A. meeting, it starts when you admit you have a problem.

Lord Jesus, the problem is that you’re holy and I’m not. You’re righteous and I’m not. You are pure, and I’m not. Please forgive and change me.

[Dec 22]--Forgiving Spirit

Eph. 4:31-32

Several years ago I did some volunteer work at a nursing home, or “retirement community,” as they call it now. I and some others came in once a week, spent some time talking with some residents, and led a worship service with them. I remember distinctly having conversations with two women there, and the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. One lady was as sweet as sugar, always greeting me with a smile and a warm hug, extremely grateful that we were there. Another woman was bitter and I don’t think I ever saw her smile. One time I saw a clue as to her attitude. With absolutely no prompting from me, she complained to me about a so-called “friend” of hers who had gossiped about her--over 50 years ago! She had held onto that grudge for that long, and it had acted like battery acid within her soul, eating her up from the inside-out. Maybe that wasn’t the sum total of the cause of her lousy attitude, but if she was willing to hold onto a grudge that long, then I think that’s a window revealing what type of person she was in general.

I think of her often, and I hope that the Lord broke through to her before she passed on, but nevertheless she performed a valuable service for me. I promised myself and the Lord that I would hold onto grudges like water in my hand.

That’s the virtue we’re going to briefly examine: Forgiveness. Of course, as C.S. Lewis put it, "We all agree that forgiveness is a beautiful idea until we have to practice it." I guess the Lord Jesus thought it pretty important, since he mentioned it so often in his teachings. I count at least five times he brings it up in his Sermon on the Mount alone.

And there’s a distinct pattern you can find as you look at those passages in the Sermon. Each and every time he directly links 1) our relationship with other people with 2) our relationship with the Lord. Specifically he makes it clear that there’s no way for us to have the latter without taking care of the former. If you have an unresolved problem with someone, especially a sibling in Christ, then your relationship with the Lord will suffer. If you refuse to forgive someone, then your Heavenly Father won't forgive you either.

OK, let’s answer some common questions:

1) Does this mean that if I don’t forgive someone, then I lose my salvation? No. Your salvation in Christ is based on who he is and what’s he’s done. It has nothing to do with what you do. But our fellowship with him can be broken, and we’ll be miserable and suffer terrible consequences if we persist in disobedience. I’ve talked about this before.

2) You don’t know what that person did to me. How can I forgive someone who abused me or cheated on me or done X to me? You’re right, I don’t know. But God does. There are two answers to that question, and they need to be handled separately.

On a theological level, you need to realize something: You'll never be asked to forgive someone nearly as much as he's forgiven you. That’s the whole point of Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant. If you’re focusing on the wrongs done to you, then you’ve obviously forgotten the times you've broken your Father's heart.

On a practical level, I fully realize that you’ve been hurt, and I know that it’s extremely tough to forgive someone who’s really wounded you. But do you really want to hold on to that anger? It might be tempting. But I promise you that the anger will do the same thing to you that it did to that lady in the retirement center. She had no joy, no peace, and was wrapped up in her own little private hell—all because of her decision she made a long time ago not to let something go.

If you want to let it go and forgive, then the first step I would suggest is to pray for that person. Never mind if you feel any love towards them or not. As you pray for God to bless them and to do good for them, you’ll find the Lord is changing your heart towards them. Do what you’ve been told to do, and the feelings will follow.

But it all starts with a decision.

Father, I could never ever ever be called to forgive someone nearly as much as you’ve forgiven me. Please change me, please make me more like you: slow to anger, quick to forgive.

[Dec 21]--Compassionate Spirit

Col. 3:12-15

So we’ve looked at the lists of virtues in Galatians and 2 Peter. There are several other lists we could look at, but most of them pretty much repeat what we’ve been over already. I’ve got just three more to examine, then we’re going to spend a couple of days on the Christmas story (duh), then I’ve got a four-day study on another topic to revealed soon. Hope you’ll stick with it.

While we’re on the subject of upcoming plans, here are mine for the coming year. God willing, we’re going to spend about half the year in the prophets. If you’re expecting a complete outline on the “End Times” and a study on who the Anti-Christ is and when the Rapture is going to be, then you’re going to be disappointed. Believe or not, the prophets are extremely practical set of books. Then we’re going to wrap up the TAWG Blog with a very abbreviated overview of the Epistles.

Speaking of which, we’re looking at a two-day study of this passage. He cites several virtues, but compassion and forgiveness are two that we haven’t looked at yet. Today’s compassion, and tomorrow’s forgiveness.

So what is compassion? Well, the Greek is a very ugly-sounding word: splagchnon. Don’t try to pronounce it, you’ll only hurt yourself like I did. It’s the word for the bowels or intestines, and it’s related to the same word we get “spleen” from. The reason for this is that the ancients considered the bowels the center of the stronger emotions like love and anger. So they talked about their intestines being moved when they saw someone in need and felt their pain. Don’t laugh—we refer to the “heart,” as the seat of the emotions, as if that muscle in your chest has to do with anything. It’s the same thing when we say that our “heart” was “moved.”

That’s why different translations render the same word different ways, like the NASB has it as “tender-hearted” in Eph. 4:32. But there’s a good reason to translate it as “compassionate,” and it has to do with the English word.

People use the word “compassionate” rather sloppily, because they don’t know what the word actually means. It comes from two words com (“with”) and pathos. What do we call the sufferings of Christ from his arrest to his death? The Passion. That’s because “passion” comes from pathos which means suffering. So literally when we show true compassion we are suffering with someone.

This means something to me. God did not sit up in Heaven and look down and say “I’m going to do something about those people down there.” He didn’t just send deliverance like he did in the O.T., which certainly would be more than we deserve. He sent his own Son to suffer with us.

He put up with all the little trials we put up: hunger, thirst, tiredness, frustration, etc. He also endured emotional suffering, such his rejection by his own family and hometown (who tried to kill him). One of his closest followers betrayed him, his foremost disciple denied knowing his name, and all his followers fled when he was arrested. He went through several mock trials, and was finally rejected by his nation in place of a violent criminal.

But then came the worst “suffering with” us. Actually instead we ought to call it “suffering for” us. He took the sins of the world--and with it the wrath of the Father--upon his back. You ever felt lonely, like no one cares about you? Have you ever felt like God has abandoned you? Our Savior went through what you’ve endured times infinity on the Cross.

That’s what true compassion is. Yes, it’s a movement of the heart (or “intestines”), but it translates into action. Action that actually costs you something.

Father, in this time of year when we’re celebrating the First and Most Important Christmas Gift, what do you want me to give? How can I follow your example of compassion?

[Dec 20]--Let's Be Honest

Eph. 4:25-28

I’ve been reading a great book recently called In Defense of Faith by David Brog. He’s a practicing Jew who outlines just how much the ethic of love has impacted Western Civilization. In it he presents three examples of who he considers great teachers whose ethical teachings are the foundation of modern Judaism and traditional Christianity. Two are famous rabbis, Hillel (circa 10 A.D.) and Akiva (circa 100 A.D.). They both presented what they considered the essence of their faith thus: Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself. Brog presents these rabbis right next to Jesus, who gave us what’s commonly called “The Golden Rule”: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” In Brog’s mind, these are basically the same command.

I love the book, but do you see the difference between these three? The rabbis he cites give a negative morality: Don’t do X to others if you wouldn’t want X done to you. In contrast, our Lord gives a positive command. Not that the rabbis are totally wrong, but it seems to me a lot easier to avoid doing something bad to someone else as opposed to doing positive good for them. If I see someone in need and don’t do anything for them, I could be following the rabbis’ command to the letter. But Jesus tells me I have to go out of my way to do what I can for them.

Why do I bring this up, and what does it have to do with honesty? Because we tend to think of honesty in terms of negative morality instead of positive responsibilities. If I don’t lie to someone, is that all God requires? Um, no.

Look at today’s passage. We're to “put off falsehood,” in other words stop lying. But we're also supposed to take the next step and “speak truthfully” to our neighbor. That means I don’t leave out something that he needs to know. That means I don’t leave him with a misunderstanding in my favor. That means I don’t “forget” to mention the parts which make me look bad or which undermine the case I’m trying to make.

Before we go further, let me clarify some things. This doesn’t mean that we can’t use tact. We don’t necessarily have to tell everyone everything with no consideration of their feelings. Or if someone tells me something in confidence, then I have to respect that. There also might be hypothetical or extreme cases in which the person asking me something is not deserving of the entire truth, like a Nazi soldier asking me if there are Jews hiding in my house. But in 99.999999999% of the cases, that's not what’s happening. Most of the time I’m leaving something out because it makes me look better to do so.

This virtue of honesty shouldn’t just be in what we say but in how we act. Once again we’re expected to move beyond negative morality to positive action. No, we’re not supposed to steal anymore. Hopefully, it’s just a given that Christians don’t shoplift, or pick pockets, or break into homes and steal peoples’ stuff.

But my Savior wants more from me. It’s not enough that I don’t steal from anyone. I’m supposed to make an honest living in order to help other people.

Quite frankly, I wish sometimes that God’s expectations were lower. It’s hard to go out of my way to help someone else. I don’t usually lie outright, but can I say that I make sure to “speak truthfully”? Hmmmmmm. Something I need to pray about.

Lord Jesus, you are the Truth Incarnate. What do you say? Does my speech and life reflect you? I belong to you. Can everyone see that?

[Dec 19]--Godliness

2 Pet. 1:5-9; 1 Tim. 4:8

Ok, so now we come to the last of the virtues which are listed in today’s passage and aren’t listed in Galatians. We need to know what this is, because we can’t know if we have it if we don’t recognize it. From the Timothy verse we learn that although physical training (or exercise) is useful for some things, this one virtue “has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” It’s has practical value in the here and now and will serve you well in the hereafter.

Believe it or not, I actually have some sources outside the MacArthur study notes! The best resource I’ve ever seen is The Practice of Godliness by Jerry Bridges, one of my favorite authors and one who has several books on my recommendation list on the side. He’s one of the few authors I’ve read about whom I can actually say I agree with every word he’s written, and he revolutionized my thinking on grace, the Law, and the Gospel. A lot of what I’m about to say comes from his book on the subject.

We tend to think of godliness as synonymous with holiness or righteousness, and there’s truth in that. They're similar, but there’s a different emphasis. “Holiness” literally means to be “set apart” or “different,” from what’s common. If most people are doing X (like having sex before marriage), then we do non-X. Righteousness is basically being “right,” having a right relationship with God and others based upon doing what’s right towards them.

Godliness refers to the orientation of our life. It means that everything centers around God. It’s not so much referring to keeping a set of rules but having the Lord as our focus. Yes, we want to please him, and that means we do what he tells us to do. But someone could be following the “rules,” at least on the outside, and not be godly at all. If you’re conscious of Jesus “looking over your shoulder” while you’re doing an activity, then you get the idea. It’s a sense of his presence, plus it’s ordering your life around his priorities and doing everything with him in mind.

You see, we tend to divide up everything into three categories: “Sacred,” “Secular,” and “Sinful.” Sacred activities would include reading my Bible, going to church, etc. Sinful activities are pretty obvious, or at least they should be.

But what about “secular” activities like eating or going to a movie or going for a walk with my dogs or working at a job? Well, as near as I can tell, this middle ground we’ve got between sacred and sinful is something either A) we’ve made up ourselves or B) holdovers from Old Testament type of thinking. Paul said “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” If you can’t do X for the glory of God, then you really need to ask yourself if you ought to be doing it. As Abraham Kuyper put it, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, 'Mine!'"

This is not to say that we can’t have fun. Fun is part of our life in Christ. He’s the author of everything good in our lives, and part of that is the enjoyment and excitement we find in our daily experiences.

Let me illustrate. I love hockey. It’s my favorite sport--quite frankly, it’s the only one I keep up with. When I watch a hockey game on TV, I should be able to do so to God’s glory. I can thank him for the skills he’s given the players. I thank him for the enjoyment and excitement of watching a good game. If I can’t “bring Jesus into” a certain activity, then I shouldn’t be doing it. If I can, then there’s nothing to feel guilty about.

That’s what true godliness is: Placing my Lord at the center and having everything revolve around him. That includes “fun” activities, work, my relationship with my wife, eating, driving, and anything that’s not sin.

At least that’s how I see it.

Father God, everything should revolve around you. Everything in my life falls under the heading of “This belongs to God.” Does it? Are you the center of everything?

[Dec 18]--Suck It Up And Move On!

2 Peter 1:5-9

This was one of the favorite expressions of my drill sergeants in Basic Training. So for lack of a better title, that’s what we’re going to call today’s virtue: perseverance, another virtue found in 2 Peter which isn’t in Galatians.

Once again, MacArthur has a great definition for us: “Patience or endurance in doing what is right, never giving in to temptation or trial. Perseverance is that spiritual staying power that will die before it gives in. It is the virtue which can endure, not simply with resignation, but with a vibrant hope.”

I guess in a way this virtue is essential for all the rest, and it seems to me that in some ways it’s the most important. Some people might say love is the most essential, and there’s an argument for that, but here’s my case. If you have “love” which lacks perseverance--if it folds the first time it’s tested--then your “love” isn’t worth very much. Same goes for any other virtue I can think of: patience, peace, kindness, self-control, etc. I don’t have any deep insights, but here’s what I do have:

• Yes, perseverance is measured by your consistency. But it’s also measured by getting up when you fall down. I don’t believe that we’re going to be sinless in this life. But we can (and should, and must) grow to be more like Christ. Once again, I turn to C.S. Lewis: "Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again." When the Spirit points out that you’ve fallen short of God’s standards, then you ask for forgiveness, commit yourself anew, and then try once more.

• It can also be aided by some practical decisions that you make. We’re weak in and of ourselves. We need help. It’s a sign of the work of the Spirit in your life when you realize that you can’t become like Christ through sheer force of will. There are things you can and should do to make the struggle easier for yourself. For example, if something in your life is causing you to stumble, then get rid of it. We tend to look at sin like an ex-girlfriend that we keep on our speed dial in case we change our mind later, instead like the mortal enemy it is.

• What’s one of the first practical things you can do? I believe that this virtue, more than any other, can be cultivated by being plugged into the Body of Christ. I’ve experienced this before, and if you’ve been a Christian for a while, you have too. Yes, the Spirit gives us supernatural power which we can’t explain by natural means. But most of the time he also works through the Church to help us, and this is especially true regarding perseverance. That’s why the writer of Hebrews tells us to “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”

I don’t know about you, but when my race is done, I hope that I can say along with Paul that “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Do you want that too?

Lord Jesus, I am so weak and you are so strong. Please fill me with yourself. Fill my eyes with the finish line in front of me. When I’m ready to collapse, please hold me up. When I fail you, please help me to get back on my feet and try again. Your grace is the only way that this is going to happen.

[Dec 17]--Faith, Goodness, What Else?

2 Pet. 1:5-9

So we’re continuing in our study of the Christian virtues. The list in Galatians is a great one, but it’s not the end-all and be-all of what type of people we’re supposed to be. There are several such lists in the N.T., such as today’s passage. For the next couple of days we’re going to explore the virtues listed here that Galatians doesn’t mention.

We need to note first of all that this is not a “first, second, third” type of list. It’s not as if the Christian is supposed to master the first one, then move on to the second one, etc. I’m never going to have goodness “down,” so to speak, at least not in this life. But we're supposed to continually examine ourselves to see if these characteristics are increasingly showing up in our life.

So we know what “faith” is (simple belief in Christ), and we already talked about goodness as an aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit. So what’s next on the list?

Knowledge!? I guess that’s just a relational knowledge, like “I know my friends and family,” right?

Um, no, that’s not the sum total of what Peter’s talking about. He’s also talking about knowledge of certain facts and truths.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Yes, we need a relationship-type knowledge of Jesus as a person: I know my wife, I know my friends, I know my family, etc. But that’s not all there is to it.

Because there’s a lot of false information out there about God in general and Jesus in particular, we need to know certain facts about him. There are certain things we can say about God which are true and others which are not true. Cults like the L.D.S. Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses (yes, I’ll use that term) claim to know Jesus as well, but the Jesus they know is not the Jesus of the Bible. Jesus is not the spiritual brother of Satan. Jesus is not a created being like Michael the Archangel. Jesus is much more than a prophet sent by God.

This also applies to the rest of the truth found in Scripture. If you don’t know about the Bad News found in Genesis chapter 3, then the Good News (again, there’s information involved) has little meaning. There’s a reason why he included all the stories in the O.T. about the failures of Israel. The prophets predicted certain facts about the Messiah, facts which Paul used again and again in trying to witness to people who were familiar with these facts.

The very book in which today’s passage is located, 2nd Peter, is specifically written to warn against false teachers. In order to refute these characters and what they’re selling, we need to have more in our arsenal than “The feeling in my spirit is that they’re wrong.”

Is there such a thing as cold orthodoxy, in which we focus on facts about God to the neglect of the relational side of our faith? Absolutely. But every age of the church has its own dangers, and I think to warn excessively against this one would be like warning against polio. It seems that in every age the church sounds the strongest warnings against those dangers which are least imminent.

Is this like the other virtues that the Spirit cultivates it within me? Yes. But it also entails systematic and comprehensive study of God’s word. That means you start on a plan to read it from cover to cover (I have some handy ones on the sidebar of the blog). You place yourself under the Bible teaching of a pastor who cares about the truth found in Scripture. You might even want to start a daily devotional—if you don’t read this one on a regular basis, then find another one.

As you read and study his word, you’ll find the relational side will grow stronger as well. The God found in the Scriptures will become more “real” in your daily life. I can personally testify to it.

Father God, as I read your word, please use it to draw me closer into your Presence. As I examine your word, use it to examine me. Please.

[Dec 16]--Humility

James 4:6-10

The list of virtues in Galatians 5, known collectively as the Fruit of the Spirit, is probably the best-known collection in the Bible. But the list isn't an exhaustive one. There are several other characteristics of a growing Christian which aren’t listed there. Those are the ones we’re going to examine over the next few days.

If you look at the list of recommended books on the bottom of the web page, you might notice Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I was really glad when the Chronicles of Narnia movies came out, since I hope that this will introduce Lewis to a new generation. He’s my favorite author outside the Bible itself, and he offers a lot of insight into our world today. Even though he wrote during the 1940’s through the early 1960’s, if you read his work you’ll be shocked at how relevant his arguments are. Human nature hasn’t changed in either a thousand years or in fifty, and a lot of the “talking points” of non-Christians and atheists that you hear today—which they present as a “new” argument which will bring Christianity crashing down—were answered by Lewis fifty years ago. Read him, and you’ll be thinking more clearly, I promise you.

The reason I bring him up is that he has a lot to say about pride and humility in Mere Christianity, in which he talks about different Christian virtues and their opposite vices. He has a chapter about sexual immorality, and he makes the very interesting point that the “centre” (British spelling) of Christian morality is not here. From the way some Christians talk, you'd think that the main point of the Bible is to tell people not to have sex outside of marriage. That’s important, but it’s not the most important aspect of becoming like Christ.

Then he comes to the chapter on pride/humility, and he makes the sober point (I’m paraphrasing): “You remember when we were talking about sex that I said that the centre of Christian morality was not there? Well, now we’ve come to the centre.”

(still paraphrasing): "Drunkenness, lying, and a lot of other sins we think of as blatant ones, they’re mere 'flea bites' in comparison to this one. Pride is what made the Devil the Devil. It is the ultimate anti-God state of mind. Pride is the root of every sin that’s ever been committed. At the heart of every sin is the thought that 'I know better than God does.'"

That’s why the Bible talks so much about it. Read the book of Proverbs, and see how many warnings there are against pride and admonitions towards humility. In today’s reading (which also quotes Proverbs), we see just how important this is. What do we see about this issue?

• If you’re proud, you’re setting yourself up as God’s enemy. Remember, pride—by very definition—is anti-God. Do you want the Lord Almighty of the universe opposing what you do? Are you nuts?
• By contrast, he gives grace to the humble. By swallowing our pride and confessing our own inadequacies and failures, we find just how gracious (full of grace) our God is. If we confess and repent, he will forgive.
• True humility takes sin a lot more seriously than we tend to do. You can’t claim to be humble and in a right relationship with God if you don’t take sin seriously. This isn't a permanent state of despair, but facing your abject spiritual bankruptcy before you throw yourself on the mercy of his court.
• Then we come to the great reversal in vs. 10. If we humble ourselves—making ourselves “low” before him—then he will lift us up. He'll exalt us in due time.

One last point that Lewis makes about this: Pride is at the same time the most deadliest and most insidious of sins. If you think you don’t have a problem with it, then that shows just how prideful you are.

Lord Jesus, I am so wrapped up in self that I don’t even recognize it most of the time. Deep in the bottom of my soul, please scrape out the rot and fill me with yourself instead of myself.

[Dec 15]--Control Yourself!

1 Cor. 9:25-27

So now we come to the last of the nine aspects of the Fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5, namely self-control.

I'd submit that this is one virtue which is basically lost in our modern American culture. Every aspect of the advertising/marketing culture is geared towards undermining self-control: “You must have this NOW! Not when you can afford it, but NOW! Not when it actually meets a practical purpose in your life, but NOW!” Now, hopefully you know by now that I don’t buy into asceticism. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in having material goods or in trying to improve your standard of living. But there’s a balance that has to be maintained, and I think that the dangers of an ascetic outlook are about as immediate in America as the polio virus.

There’s some value in getting into some Greek in examining this issue. The word in Galatians is egkrateia, which literally is “holding oneself.” Have you ever seen in a movie or TV show a character who’s utterly panicking under stress, and someone else commands the character to “get a hold of yourself!”? That’s the idea.

You were born with a sinful nature that’s essentially selfish. It would gladly step on someone else to get its way. Unfortunately, our rebellious nature gets pleasure from the very sinfulness of sin. But on top of that, we have natural desires which are perfectly fine in themselves, but don’t have a “stop”switch on them. A great example is the desire for food. We need food. Can’t live without it. We get hungry, and we eat. But we need a little breaker switch inside us that says “OK, you’ve had enough,” or maybe “This is not the best time for that. You can wait.” And that switch doesn’t work all the time, or we don't listen to it.

Or take sexual desire. God created it, and it’s wonderful—within the boundaries that he set up for it. It’s like fire: A great servant within its proper boundaries, but absolutely destructive outside them.

That’s where self-control (getting a hold on your instinctual desires) comes in. It means you recognize that your feelings are leading you astray from what God is telling you, and you do what you know is right. For example, there may come a day in which I don’t feel like being faithful to my wife. Or I might not feel like going into work and want to lie around all day. But that’s when I have to understand that my feelings can lie to me, and I have to tell them where to get off.

That’s what today’s passage is talking about. You can’t see it from the NIV, but “strict training” in vs. 25 is the same Greek word for self-control in Galatians. Think of an athlete—His long hours, his self-denial, his careful routine and obedience to his coach, and you get the picture.

And the goal is not just self-control for its own sake. We have a prize in our eyes. We want the approval and applause of our Lord. It’s quite possible to preach to others, but if we aren’t practicing what we preach, then the Lord knows, and we’ll end up regretting it.

I really feel the need right now to reemphasize that this is a result of the Spirit working in my life. This doesn’t come about by putting more effort into it. It’s an aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit. An apple tree doesn’t produce apples by “trying harder.” You plant the tree, you water and weed it, make sure it gets the proper amount of sunshine and nutrients, and eventually you’ll see apples. If we're fully connected to our Lord like we're supposed to be, then the Fruit of the Spirit (along with every other virtue) will be produced naturally in us.

As we spend time in God’s word, spend time in pray with him, fellowship with other believers—in other words, as we cultivate our relationship with Christ, we’ll see more of this virtue in our lives. More specifically, the self-control of Christ himself will shine through us. That’s the idea, anyway.

Lord Jesus, I see myself falling so far short in this area, and it shows that my relationship with you is not where it should be. Please forgive and change me.

[Dec 14]--Gentleness

Matt. 11:28-30; Isaiah 40:10-11

Once again, I couldn’t come up with a better title. So how much are you paying to read these things, anyway? Sometimes you get what you paid for!

This is the eighth aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit. I hate to mix metaphors, but you can consider the visible work of the Spirit in our lives as a multifaceted diamond. It’s all one diamond, but you can view it from multiple angles.

One source of confusion is the fact that we’ve got a little translation issue. When we examined the virtue of kindness, you might have noticed that some of that definition overlaps with what we think of when we hear the word “gentleness.” Of course we can expect some overlap among them; for example, self-control and patience have a lot in common.

But quite frankly, a better word for the eighth virtue listed would be “meekness” instead of “gentleness.” Once again, let’s turn to MacArthur: “It is a humble and gentle attitude that is patiently submissive in every offense, while having no desire for revenge or retribution. In the NT, it is used to describe 3 attitudes: submission to the will of God, teachability, and consideration of others." One of the best definitions I ever heard of meekness is “strength under control.” The classic illustration I heard was that of a horse controlled by a bit. The horse is much stronger and faster than the person riding him, but he’s under control and goes where the rider leads him, running full tilt and then stopping or changing direction when instructed.

That’s why I picked the passages I did. In the first one, Jesus is inviting everyone who's “weary and burdened” to come to him. Why? Because he is “gentle” (same word as in the Galatians “Fruit” verse) and “humble in heart.” When someone is down, he picks them up. When someone feels like they can’t take another step under the heavy load they bear, he either takes the burden from them or carries them as long as needed. When someone is wounded and hurting, he binds up the wound and brings healing. Think of a bull in a China shop, and envision the exact opposite, and you get our Savior.

This extends to the issue of “standing up” for one’s “rights.” Jesus had every right in the world, and he forsook them all. When it came to the honor of his Father’s Name or to the issue of injustice towards the weak (like in the instance of the Temple cleansings), he was a raging lion. When it came to his own rights, he gave them up in a heartbeat when necessary.

The second passage, found in Isaiah, is one of the most beautiful descriptions I’ve ever seen of our Lord. Notice the quality “tension” found here. The “Sovereign Lord” (the Boss of Everything) “comes with power,” and “he rules with a mighty arm.” He is coming to give everyone exactly what they deserve. At the Last Judgment John tells us that “The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.” Boy, talk about your “Angry Face”!!!

But towards us, especially the least among us, he is the gentlest of Shepherds. If someone needs some TLC, he’s right there. He picks up his wounded lambs and “carries them close to his heart.” Any sheep “with young” would be especially vulnerable and weak and unable to keep up the pace with others. These he “gently leads.”

That’s the type of Savior we have. And guess what! That’s the type of people we need to be, especially to the least among us. Yes, we should recognize that there are dangers in overemphasizing this virtue to the exclusion of things like truth and justice. As I mentioned a few days ago, sometimes the kind thing to do is not the loving thing to do.

But as the Spirit leads us, we must imitate our Savior in gently handling wounded people. When it comes to peoples’ needs, our “rights” mean nothing. That’s who our Savior is, and that’s what we should be.

Lord Jesus, I hear you, and some changes need to be made. More specifically, I need you to change me. Change my heart to more resemble yours, please.

[Dec 13]--Semper Fidelis

Romans 3:1-4

If you didn’t recognize the title, then I know at least one thing about you: You've never been in the U.S. Marine Corps, nor anyone in your family. It’s Latin for “always faithful,” and it’s the motto for the U.S.M.C. (often shortened to “Semper Fi”).

Faithfulness is the seventh aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit. MacArthur has a pretty simple definition: “loyalty and trustworthiness.” It’s similar to honesty, but we’re not going to get into that because we’re going to examine that virtue in a few days.

All around us we see the results of the rarity of this. The divorce rate is a measurement of it. Politicians and high officials are caught violating their oath and public trust. As I write this, there’s a PFC in the Army who’s accused (pretty credibly) of passing along thousands of classified documents to an internet provider who made them public, to the very probable harm of personal lives and the efforts of the U.S. government to keep us safe.

Of course none of us can claim real innocence in this. We’ve all broken our word and disappointed someone who intimately trusted us at some time or another.

And of course that’s a great segue to the only One who’s the exception to that almost universal rule. And it leads us to today’s passage.

Paul here was discussing the advantages the Jews had, and their national rejection of the Messiah whom God had sent. We just finished going over all that before, so we’re not doing it now. But we need to know the context of the point he was trying to make.

They had the Scriptures and other advantages over every other group in human history. Yet they rejected Jesus (or Yeshua, as they called him). Does this mean that God’s plan had failed? As the apostle put it, “Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?” And there’s that phrase again which we talked about before: Me genoito. It’s translated as “Not at all!” and that really understates the impact. It’s the strongest possible negative in the Greek, and there’s no simple English word or phrase that captures it. But the closest would be “Not no but heck no!” in the unedited version.

It doesn’t matter what people do or don’t do, because the Lord is always faithful to his word. When he promises something, heaven and earth will collapse in on themselves before one syllable is proven false. The Jews were unfaithful, but that doesn’t mean that God had dropped the ball on what he'd pledged.

I love the next phrase that Paul uses—“Let God be true, and every human being a liar.” It’s not true that “One man and God makes a majority.” It’s much more accurate to say that “God plus no one makes a majority.” He is the majority. If all of humanity—past, present and future—could testify with one voice with the opposite opinion, then that would mean that all humanity was lying or confused.

Why? Because he is Truth. Our Savior is the Truth made flesh. The abstract idea, the principle of truth? It took on human form and has a name. Everything is true or not true inasmuch as it conforms to him. As C.S. Lewis put it, he could no more be wrong and you right than water could flow uphill.

This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with me? Well, there’s a good practical application in the last verse of this passage. One day all of humanity is going to be judged. Every person who stands before this bench will be stripped naked of all pretenses, every excuse, and every mask we’ve worn. They'll be judged by Truth Incarnate, namely Christ.

On that day, if you’re not covered by the blood of Jesus, you’re cooked (literally). His righteousness will be the only thing that can save anyone on that day. Are you covered? If you're not sure, check this out.

The second practical application is pretty comforting compared to the first one. When Jesus says something, we can believe it. For example when he says that if we believe in him we’ll never be condemned, we can rest on that. Any other promise that he makes is much surer than the sun rising tomorrow.

And finally, this is a call for us to examine ourselves. Are we showing ourselves to be followers of the One who is the Truth Incarnate? Is that on display with how we keep our promises? On how faithful we are to our commitments? On how well people can rely on and trust us?

Lord Jesus, I thank you that you do keep your promises. Please make me like you.

[Dec 12]--Oh For Goodness' Sake!

Luke 18:18-25

Now we come to goodness, the sixth aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit. By the way, if you have something against John MacArthur, then you might as well skip this blog for the next couple of days. In his commentary on Gal. 5:22-23 (the passage on the Fruit), he gives a great definition of each of these aspects, and I’m probably going to keep referring to it. Keep in mind that the word in Galatians for “fruit” is singular, not plural: There's only one Fruit of the Spirit, but there are at least nine aspects of it which can be distinguished from each other. So what’s MacArthur’s definition of “goodness”? It’s “moral and spiritual excellence manifested in active kindness.”

I chose today’s passage to jump into a discussion on this subject because it strikes home with a solid point on this virtue. At first it might seem like an odd passage to use, but please bear with me.

If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you probably know the story. A rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked him the question that every evangelist would love to hear: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, if we were reading this story for the first time, we'd probably never expect Jesus to respond the way he did, because we never would. Any evangelist worth his salt would undoubtedly start into a recitation of the Roman Road of salvation or some other formula. Not that I’m knocking formulas necessarily, but that’s not how Jesus responded at all. We might also expect him to provide a pretty simple response, like “You want to know what to do to inherit eternal life? Believe in and follow me.” That certainly would've qualified as a good answer, but that’s not what he said either.

Here’s his response: “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone.” Now there are at least three good theories I’ve heard which explain his pretty mysterious response. First, some interpreters say that Jesus was so concerned about the honor of his Father that he couldn’t bear the term “good” being applied to anyone else. It’s certainly true that zeal for his Father’s name consumed him. The other possibility is that he’s trying to get the young man to think a little harder about who he’s talking to. If you follow Jesus’ line of reasoning (No one can be called ‘good’ except God), and mix it with what the young man called him, it might be that he’s subtly claiming to be more than just a human teacher, that he’s claiming to be divine.

The third theory is that he’s attempting to get the young man to think a little deeper about his own righteousness compared to God’s. This certainly would dovetail nicely to Jesus’ further approach in showing the young man his spiritual bankruptcy.

We won’t go into the rest of the story, since we covered it before.

But why do I bring this up? What’s the point I’m trying to make? Whichever theory you hold regarding Jesus’ opening statement, the fact remains that he did say it. In the final and most meaningful sense of the term, only God is good. He’s the standard for goodness. He’s the yardstick against which everything else is measured. And compared to him, everything and everyone else falls short to some degree or another.

Does this mean that it’s always wrong to say that someone or something is good? No. The very first chapter of the Bible tells us that God proclaimed his creation “good” and “very good.” Does it make sense that the Lord makes absolutely no distinction between a good man and a bad one? I don’t think so.

But again, this is talking about relative goodness, not absolute purity. I can be a better man than X in a relative sense. But when compared to the Lord, it’s really not right that the same term “good” is applied to both the Holy One of Israel and me.

Does this mean I’m off the hook, that I don’t need to be concerned about goodness in my life? Um, no. We are called--we are expected--to constantly strive to be morally excellent. We see our Lord as the ultimate goal line. Even though we’re never going to be perfect in this life, we need to continually put effort into being a better follower of Christ, to let his goodness shine though us and out of us. As we spend time with him, talk to him and let him speak to us, be plugged into his Body, and let his word soak into our heart, we will.

And he'll be good through us.

Lord Jesus, I want to be satisfied and not satisfied. I rest in your goodness, but I want more of it. Whatever I need to do, let’s do it.

[Dec 11]--Kindness

Matt. 12:15-21

Sorry, couldn’t come up with any catchy title—If you’ve read this for a while, you know that titles are my weakest suit. This is one that also needs some explanation, but that’s what I’m here for!

Kindness is the second of the aspects of love which Paul uses in his classic description of the great virtue. That’s because kindness is an essential element of it. Here once again I turn to MacArthur’s definition, since it crystallizes it so well: “Tender concern for others, reflected in a desire to treat others gently, just as the Lord treats all believers.”

I thought about it for a bit, and decided that today’s passage gives the best illustration of what we’re talking about. Matthew was addressing the collision between the Jews’ popular expectations concerning the Messiah and who Jesus actually turned out to be. He knew that if word got out about him prematurely, then that could precipitate a confrontation between him and the religious leaders and/or Rome, and that wasn’t his plan. He wasn’t there to set up a physical kingdom (this time around). Instead, his agenda was to establish a spiritual Kingdom, and part of that was showing kindness to the “least of these” in society.

Verse 19 addresses his aversion to a political agenda, but verse 20 is what I really want to focus on today, because it’s such a beautiful picture of what he came to do, and most of us miss it because we’re not familiar with that time period. You know what reeds are, right? Those tall hollow things that grow in shallow waters. People of that time commonly cut a piece off and used it as a musical instrument, commonly like a flute by shepherds. Over time, it was worn out and useless, and since they were a dime-a-dozen, most people threw them out and promptly replaced them with a new one. A “smoldering wick” was a candle wick in its last stages before it burned out. Of course, the most natural thing in the world is to just snuff it out, since it was on its last legs anyway.

My friend, can you think of any better description of how the world treats its own? Ask the person nearing retirement age who’s replaced by a younger employee because the company is looking for “new blood.” Ask an aging female movie star who used to get male blood pumping and who now doesn’t get any calls from her agent because she’s “over the hill.” Think of the people in nursing homes who are abandoned and forgotten by their families, who are just waiting to die.

That’s how the world treats people, but it’s not what Jesus does. He looks at the ones who are worn-out, considered useless and ready to be thrown out and replaced, and instead of casting them out, he gently picks them up, cleanses them from their past and finds vital use for them in his Kingdom. That’s his kindness in action.

Once again, we need to be careful about how we approach this. Although the world isn’t kind at times, it does sometimes overemphasize this virtue over others like truth. Remember that in Paul’s description of love, he tells us that it “delights in the truth.” Yes, you can make a case that it’s kind to protect someone from unpleasant realities. But that’s not the full picture of love. All of us at times needs some "tough love," right? So sometimes the kind thing is not the loving thing.

However, in spite of how the world overemphasizes this at times, that doesn’t negate the fact that it is an aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit. As we grow closer in our relationship with Christ, sometimes the work he does on us is to “smooth” some of the “rough edges” so that we’re more considerate of others’ feelings. Some people have a more natural gift in this area (like my wife), while others (like me) need Christ to work on us some more.

So how about you? Do you need the Spirit to work on you as well?

Lord Jesus, I praise you because that’s what you do with people. I thank you because that’s what you’ve done with me. Please guide me with your Spirit to be as kind to others as you are with me.

[Dec 10]--A Little Patience

1 Cor. 13:4-5; James 1:19-20; Psalm 86:15

So now we get to patience, the fourth aspect of the nine-sided Fruit of the Spirit. This is one that just about everyone acknowledges that we need, and most of us are missing it when we really need it. I remember this story (who knows if it’s true or not) about a time that a woman in a congregation went up to her pastor and made a pretty big claim. She actually claimed that she was without sin, that she had matured in her faith to the point that she was perfectly like Christ. The pastor considered her for a moment, then spat right in her face. The next words out of her mouth pretty much disproved her claim to be just like Jesus!

Webster’s defines “patient” as “bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint; manifesting forbearance under provocation or strain.” That’s the key: It’s easy to be “patient” when things are going your way, but most of us lose our patience pretty quickly when we’re provoked. Let’s look at what Scripture has to say.

First off, did you notice the connection between love and patience? In Paul’s classic description of love (which we read just a couple of days ago), the first word he uses to link to it is “patient.” If we love someone, we’ll be patient with them. We won’t be easily angered or provoked by them. We won’t count records of wrongs done to us, and we’ll be quick to forgive.

Although the word's not in the verse itself, I think that the James passage is a great description: quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. I don’t know about you, but I get so impatient in conversations, waiting for that other guy to finally shut up because what I have to say is soooooo important. I find myself thinking about how I’m going to respond while the other person is talking. I don’t believe that qualifies under what James is talking about. We’re to be quick to listen to other peoples’ hurts and thoughts and ideas, and not so quick to foist our own upon others. And finally we’re supposed to be slow to become angry, which I think is crucial. Why? Because human anger doesn’t bring about what God wants for our lives. It doesn’t produce righteousness. In fact, human anger produces the exact opposite.

Of course this doesn’t mean that all anger is wrong. Just about 90% of it, by my guesstimate. Notice that he’s careful to call it human anger, as opposed to God’s. If the Holy Spirit produces within us a holy, righteous anger against injustice or sin, then that’s fine. It’s just that most of the time we have a really hard time distinguishing between God's anger and our own selfish version.

But one clue that helps us tell the difference? Is it easily provoked, especially when one’s own honor is concerned? Then that’s not God’s anger. That’s not how God gets angry. The Psalmist (along with several other O.T. writers) tells us that he’s “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” He proved that in the O.T., with the multiple times he was patient with the knuckleheads that he had to shepherd. He demonstrated that in the Person of Christ during his earthly ministry. And he certainly showed that in my life, by giving me enough time to receive Christ before I left this earth.

But we need to be careful in our thinking here about God. His love has no end, and his mercy has no limits. But his patience does. If he doesn’t give someone what they deserve right now, that doesn’t mean that everything is fine. Let me remind you of my favorite quote from Matthew Henry: God’s reprieves are not pardons. If I’m not forgiven, then the punishment for my sin will eventually fall upon either me or upon Christ.

And even as a believer, his patience comes into play every day. I’m still his child, but it seems like some days I’m as deaf as a post to what he’s trying to tell me. But he’s patient with me, not giving me what I deserve: “All right child, let’s go over this one more time.” Aren’t you glad he doesn’t treat us like we treat each other?

Father, you truly are the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. You proved that in Scripture, and you’ve proved that in my life, over and over and over. Please let that Spirit flow out of me into my personal relationships. I will never be called upon to be as patient with anyone else as much as you’ve been with me.

[Dec 09]--All I'm Saying. . .

John 14:27, 16:33; Phil 4:6-7

The word “peace.” Along with “love,” I vote for that word to be the misused term in modern times. People used to sing about it and wear a symbol for it on their shirts, and they claim to be “for peace” and “peace activists.” Of course, whether we wear the symbol or not, most of us aren't against peace, but that's another story. . .

The problem, once again, is that people get their definitions from the world and not the Scriptures. Our Lord actually addressed this in his last intimate talk with his disciples before the Passion. In the two verses from John’s Gospel, he tells us something about the world’s “peace,” and contrasts it with what he offers.

He promises us peace as what he’s leaving us, and he says it’s not “as the world gives.” What type of peace does the world offer? It’s transitory. Countries that used to be as friendly as two nations can be with other are at each other’s throats at a moment’s notice. And it’s often fake even when supposedly we have it. The world calls something “peace” when really it’s just a cease-fire or the absence of all-out conflict. Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of a certain Person.

That’s why one of his titles is the Prince of Peace. When he’s in charge, we have peace. The Hebrew term for peace, Shalom, has a lot of insight for us here. It means that everything is in its proper place. Where’s there’s disorder and chaos, you don’t have true peace.

So what does bring peace? Well, Jesus said that he told us these things so that we’ll have peace. But even when we have his peace, that doesn’t mean there’s no conflict. On the contrary, in this world we will have trouble. But we can take heart, because even though we have trouble in this world, it’s a conquered enemy. Our Lord has overcome it, so there’s nothing to fear.

I think that’s the key. Peace and fear are incompatible with each other. That leads us to the last passage for today. Paul presents a stark contrast for us: Fear and Peace. What’s the difference between the two? How do we move from fear and anxiety into peace? What’s the source of peace? The Presence of our Savior!

When you’re feeling anxious or worried or fearful, take it to your Shepherd. You bring it before his Throne. But there’s another thing to keep in mind which I think really helps us keep perspective. You bring your petitions to him with thanksgiving. Before I ask anything from him, I like to acknowledge his goodness and what he’s done for us so far, along with a glorious truth which he’s revealed to us that relates to the situation. For instance, if I’m praying for someone to recover from sickness, I start with “I thank you Father, because I know that all healing comes from you. You are Yahweh Rapha, the God who heals us.”

And as we submit our requests and thanksgiving to him, his peace will guard us. Specifically it’ll guard our hearts and minds, so that anxieties and worries have no hold on us.

I want this for myself. Do you?

Lord Jesus, you truly are the Prince of Peace. As I submit to you, all fear goes. I repent of all worry and anxiety, and ask you to forgive me. Please help me to trust.