[April 30]—Boomerang

Hosea 8:1-7

            Sometimes I think we really have lost quite a bit in our transition from a rural to an urban-based society. Only a tiny minority of people grow up on a farm, at least in America. Since the Bible was written in a mostly agricultural society, sometimes its allusions and metaphors slip past us.
            One thing that we still understand, however, is the concept of sowing and reaping. You plant a seed of an apple tree, water it, weed it, make sure it gets the right nutrients, and eventually you’ll see an apple tree and hopefully you’ll have it produce apples. If I planted an apple tree seed and it sprouted up as a pear tree or a watermelon vine, what would be the reasonable conclusion? Obviously the seeds were mislabeled, or possibly someone switched the seeds after I planted them. Even I—someone raised totally in the suburbs and who's worked a grand total of one-half day on a farm—know that apple seeds don’t produce pear trees.
            That brings us to today’s passage. Obviously Israel was being unfaithful to the Lord, the One who redeemed her out of slavery. He'd rescued her from Egypt, had provided for her in the desert for 40 years, and had brought her into the Promised Land. And aside from brief sparks of obedience, she'd reacted to this kindness and grace in the same way that Gomer had treated Hosea.  
            I don’t think it’s used as commonly now as it once was—owing to our increasing biblical illiteracy—but I have heard this phrase before: “Sowing the wind, reaping the whirlwind.” It’s one of those sayings which people use (or have used) without even knowing it comes from the Bible (like “go the extra mile” or “turn the other cheek”). What does it mean?
            It means they thought they could indulge in sin without any bad consequences. Or if there were bad consequences, they could handle them. They could ignore his decrees and Law which Moses had given them. Not surprisingly, the main sin he indicts them for in this passage—a steady refrain in prophetic literature—is idolatry. Judah (the southern kingdom) was bad, and frequently had bad kings. But Israel (the northern kingdom, which Hosea’s addressing) was never faithful to the Lord, as best as we can determine from the record. All of its kings are listed as one stinker after another. And the God of Israel had just about had enough.
            There are a few verses from the Bible which I call “tattoo verses.” What I mean is that I’m tempted to tattoo them on my forehead because they’re so packed with truth in just a few words. It’s almost comical how much an understatement they are. One of them is “He does not treat us as our sins deserve.” Another is “You were bought at a price.” And here’s one that’s especially relevant, one that we’ve seen fulfilled over and over and over and over: “Be sure that your sin will find you out.”
            You might think that you’ve gotten away with X (whatever X is). No, you haven’t. You haven’t gotten away with squat. Sooner or later, your sin will “find you out.” No matter how you try to hide from it, it will hunt you down and find you.
            Of course, there’s one exception to this, at least in one sense. If you’re a believer, then your sins are covered by the blood of the Savior, and he'll never bring them up again. Never. So in that sense, I'll never get what I really deserve from God.
            But even as a believer, there are consequences in life. If I persist in rebellion, if I ignore the warnings from Scripture, from spiritual leaders and friends, and especially from the inner working of the Holy Spirit, I will face consequences. There’s no One-To-One relationship between what I do and what I get from God, but he does discipline his children; in fact, this discipline is one of the greatest hallmarks of the fact that he loves us. He doesn’t deal with me according to what I deserve, but according to what I need. And sometimes what I need is a swift kick in the seat of my pants. Paul was writing to believers when he told us “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”
            And if this is what he says to believers, think about what his message is to those outside the protection of Christ. If you happen to be reading this and haven’t received Jesus as your Savior and Boss, please don’t put it off. You can read here for more info.       
            We’d laugh at anyone planting apple seeds and expecting pears. But how much more foolish is anyone who thinks they can sow wind and expect anything else besides a whirlwind?
            So what are you expecting?

Father God, thank you for your grace, mercy, patience, and kindness. Truly I can testify with the Psalmist that you haven’t treated me as my sins deserve. When you’re warning me, please also give me listening ears and a soft heart. Please. 

[April 29]—What Do You Want, Anyway?

Hosea 6:1-6

            I’ve brought up this question before, but it bears examination again: Why should New Testament Christians study the Old Testament? Well, there are a few good reasons which most fairly mature believers commonly cite. First and foremost it tells us more about Christ. If all you know about your Savior is found in the New Testament, then your knowledge about him is woefully incomplete. Second, it shows us our desperate need for a Savior. As Paul said, through the Law we have a deeper understanding of how bad sin really is. He also said that the Law was like a tutor (actually, more like a “Nanny”) whose job it was to ultimately lead us to Christ.
            But there’s a third purpose which a lot of Christians miss, and it’s really important to get this. The Old Testament, both the Law and the Prophets, is also there to give us insight into the mind of God. What’s important to him? What are his priorities, and what aren’t? When he tells us not to commit adultery, that says something about the value he places on marriage. Those values, those priorities, do not change, never ever ever. As you might have guessed, if you want more on this specific subject, I’ve talked about this before herehere, here, and here
            That brings us to today’s passage. The first verse makes it sound like Israel was repenting, but the scholars I’ve read seem in agreement that this is a shallow repentance. Their love for him was “like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.” Of course this is saying that their love for him was fickle, here one moment and then gone without a trace the next.
            What does he want from them? Well, here’s where I’m going to have to express a slight disagreement with my favorite translation, the NIV. It renders what God wants in verse 6 as “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” If you recall, one of my favorite words in Hebrew is chesed, which is translated as “love,” “lovingkindness (in older translations),” and “unfailing love.” It can also be translated as “mercy,” which the NIV does here. But in the context of the rest of the chapter, it seems like the best translation, as per the NASB is “loyalty” or, per the NET Bible “faithfulness.” They were being unfaithful to the Lord, and he’s calling them back to faithfulness.
            Why did the NIV translate it as “mercy”? Well, my guess is that they let the N.T. affect how they translated it. You see, this seems to be one of Jesus’ favorite quotes from the O.T. In the book of Matthew, he cites it not once but twice. In Matthew chapter nine he calls the tax collector (who'd eventually write the Gospel which bears his name) from his booth to be a  disciple/apostle. The religious leaders (of course) had a problem with this, and this was where he quoted the verse to them, and it’s rendered thus: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” The Greek is really clear, and Matthew (under the Spirit’s inspiration) used that Greek word (eleos) to translate from Jesus’ Aramaic.
            The other time Jesus uses it is in Matthew chapter 12. The disciples were walking along and picking heads of grain and eating them as they went along, something specifically authorized by the Torah. Again, the religious leaders had a problem with their actions, because they felt that shucking grain was working on the Sabbath. Jesus cited the story of David’s men who ate the bread reserved for the priests, and also the fact that priests themselves “break” the Sabbath by performing circumcisions on that day. Then again he quotes the verse from Hosea.
            How are we to interpret this? Jesus was responding to the very specific charges from the religious leaders that he was breaking the Mosaic Law. They were overlooking the fact that God considers human life and dignity as far more important than strict law-keeping. And of course he—as the Lord of the Sabbath—has the right to interpret the Sabbath any way he pleases.
            But Hosea himself—also under the inspiration of the Spirit, at that time was calling his fellow Israelites back to the Lord. The God of Israel was calling his faithless people back into a right relationship with himself.
            So what does God consider most important? He wants most of all for us to have a right relationship with himself. And one of the main ways we express this right relationship with God is to show mercy in our “horizontal” relationships, to show his priorities in how we treat others. The purpose of any “black and white” rules is for our benefit, not so we can “check off” something on a list.
            Once again, please don’t miss this very important principle: One of the main purposes of God’s word is to show us what’s important to him. If you miss that, you’ve missed something vital.

Father God, what’s important to you? How can my heart beat in time with yours? How can my walk be in lockstep with your Spirit? 

[April 28]—A Call To Heartbreak

Hosea 1

            Ok, now we’re back to the prophets, specifically the book of Hosea. Today’s passage reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Jeff Foxworthy (I’m paraphrasing): “When you just can’t get out of bed one more time to face that stupid boss one more time and just can’t force yourself to spend one more minute in that stupid job, just think to yourself, ‘I could be working with tar for $5 an hour.’”
            The reason I bring it up is that I think of that scenario here. I mean you thought you had a bad job!
            We know a little about this prophet: His father was Beeri, he was called as a prophet during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel, and he operated out of the northern Kingdom of Israel (as opposed to the southern kingdom of Judah). The dominant tribe in the north was Ephraim, which is why Hosea often uses that name to refer to the entire country. Right after Solomon’s reign, all the tribes (except for Judah and Benjamin) rebelled and seceded from the Davidic kingdom. The ten tribes called themselves Israel, and the southern half of the nation (Judah and Benjamin) called itself Judah.
            As far as kings went, Judah had a few really good kings, a few really bad ones, and most of them not too terrible but certainly not as good as David. But Israel. . . well, not so much. Every king of Israel was a real stinker. There’s no mention in Scripture of any of them putting any effort into being faithful and obedient. And as always, sin had consequences. Israel’s time was running out. As Matthew Henry put it, God’s reprieves are not pardons.
            Enter Hosea. God called him as a prophet, and the Lord did something to this man which he didn’t expect of any of his other servants. As far as we know, this guy was never particularly persecuted. There’s no mention of him being jailed or tortured for his faithfulness. But oh, what a cost to this man! The Lord called him to do something which—to a lot of men—would make a whipping seem kind by comparison.
The Lord called upon him to marry a “promiscuous” woman. Please note that although vs. 3 says that Gomer "bore him a son," vs. 6 merely relates that Gomer “conceived again and gave birth to a daughter,” and vs. 8 says that she “had another son.” Most biblical scholars I’ve read see a great significance in that wording: She bore him a son, but the verbiage used about the other two births strongly hints that the parentage of the other children in his home was suspect at best.
            So here’s the unanswered question: Was Gomer promiscuous before she met Hosea or after? Scholars are divided on this question. Did the Lord tell him to marry a woman who was already promiscuous, or was he merely predicting that she would cheat on him, or both? I’m not sure, but it’s ultimately not that important.
            What really grabs my attention is why the Lord would do this to a faithful servant. There’s no mystery on that score: God told Hosea to marry into heartbreak in order to be a living illustration of his relationship with his faithless people. He did it to prove a point.
            But why would God do this? Couldn’t he just tell them what he was feeling? Apparently not. He wanted to hit home--right into the gut—about how he feels--the anger, the sense of betrayal, the heartache--when he sees his people acting faithlessly. We aren’t breaking a set of laws like the posted speed limits. We’re committing adultery against the One who redeemed us, who stooped down and—at incredible cost to himself—pulled us out of the mess we put ourselves in.
            This is a pattern we’ve seen before, but maybe not to this degree. Isaiah was ordered by God to walk around naked for 3 years. Ezekiel was tied up and forced to be mute as a living illustration. Jeremiah was forbidden to marry, attend a funeral, or attend a party/feast. All of this was the Lord’s method of reaching out to his faithless people and warn them.
            That’s the key word here: warning. I once heard a great illustration of what the prophets, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, were doing. Imagine a mother who suddenly looks up and sees her child playing in the street and a truck about to run him over. She’d be screaming, waving her arms, and generally (if you didn't consider the context) acting like a crazy person, all in a desperate move to save her child.
            That’s what the Lord was doing here. He loved his people and didn’t want to see them come to harm. He’d given them the Torah, which should've been all they needed as far as instructions. But they ignored and rejected it. He sent them prophets, who also were ignored or even persecuted. So almost as a last ditch effort, he made his servants do some crazy-seeming things in order to get peoples’ attention.
            So this ringer that he put Hosea through was just so that he could show us A) How much he loves us, B) How reluctant he is to give us what we deserve, and C) What my sin does to his heart.

Father, what can I say? What you asked your prophet to do is nothing compared to what you did. For me. 

[April 27]--The Best News They’ve Never Heard! Part Ten: What next?

I’d like to end this little mini-series with a story, a method, and a quote. I don’t know about the accuracy, but it really illustrates my point:

D.L. Moody, one of the greatest and most effective evangelists of the last century, once got into a discussion with a woman about his style of evangelizing, which some people complained was too pushy or too in-your-face. “I don’t like your methods very much, Mr. Moody,” she told him. “I’m not sure I like them all that much either. Why don’t you tell me your method and maybe we can learn from each other?” “I don’t have a method,” she answered. His reply: "On second thought, I like my method better."

What’s my point with that story? The sorriest method of sharing Christ is better than no method. In that spirit, one method I’ve used over the years is on a link found on the left side of the page. I've heard it called one-verse evangelism. I certainly can’t claim authorship, and I can’t give the original source. If you find it helpful, then great. If you have a better method, then more power to you (literally).

And here’s my quote from Dr. Walter Martin: “As far as Satan is concerned, the next best thing to a damned soul is a silent Christian.”

Lord Jesus, I can talk about anything. I can talk about hockey, the weather, the restaurant I just went to, everything under the sun. Except you, the most important Person in my life, the greatest thing that's ever happened to me. Please forgive me, and unzip my lips.

[April 26]--The Best News They’ve Never Heard! Part Nine: What About Now?

Acts 26: 19-23

            Of course there are three parts to your testimony: 1) What was your life before you met Christ, 2) how did you meet Christ, and 3) what’s your life been like since you met him. So let’s discuss that last aspect, along with final pointers.
            First, let’s talk about what not to say. “Since I got saved, my life has been nothing but candy canes and sweet-smelling flowers.” Naturally you’d never put it that crudely, but you might give that impression, and you have to be careful not to do that. Paul certainly didn’t in today’s passage. He talked about how the Jews rejected his message and tried to kill him. If someone can walk away from your testimony thinking that if they give their life to Christ then all their problems will disappear, you’re guilty of misrepresenting the facts.
            Another thing not to say: “Since then I’ve never had problems with sin or doubt.” Brother, please. Again, you might not put it those exact words, but lots of dramatic testimonies I’ve heard are guilty of this: “I was drug-addicted and the bottle was my only friend. But then I got saved and I’ve never struggled with those things again.” Well, maybe he did rescue you from those addictions once and for all. But do you mean to let people think you don’t have problems with other sins in your life?  Really?
            Have you ever seen a “Whack-A-Mole” game in a carnival? You take a big hammer and as soon as a “mole” pops its head out of a hole, you whack it with a hammer. The wrinkle is that as soon as you whack one, another one comes out of another hole. Sin has been like that with me. Just when I think I’m making serious progress in one area, the Spirit starts pointing out how far short I fall in another one.
            What’s fine is to tell them the general direction of your life, which should be towards becoming more like Christ. If not, there might be a bigger problem. That was what Paul said in today’s passage. Jesus gave him a mission, and he wasn’t disobedient to it. Yes, like all of us, he certainly was a work in progress, but the general direction of his life had been obedience instead of the opposite.
            And it’s certainly fine to talk about the subjective benefits of your relationship with Christ as long as you’re completely honest about it. Don’t give the impression that you’ve never doubted God’s goodness if (like most of us) you have at some point or another. But you can talk about the subjective benefits of his presence, like peace, a sense of security and a purpose in life.
            But there’s two dangers in this. First and foremost, you need to stick to the main issue: Your eternal status and relationship with God was changed forever at the moment of your salvation. My personal sense of peace is really nice, but no subjective benefit is near as important as the objective benefits: My sins are forgiven forever, I’ve been adopted into his family, my eternal destiny is secure, I have complete access to my Father anytime day or night, etc. I think it’d be good to emphasize that more than the other.
            Second, please notice that in his last sentence Paul brought the conversation back to A) Christ, and B) His audience’s need to place their faith in him. Your testimony is not about you. If you overemphasize the subjective benefits, then you can easily fall into that trap.
            Now for a couple of last pointers on this. If you notice, Paul gives his personal testimony another time in Acts, namely chapter 22. In that chapter, he chose to leave in some details and not mention others. Yes, all the facts in both chapters are all true, but the different accounts aren’t identical. Paul tailored his testimony to different audiences. And certainly you can too. As I’ve been advised, I’d recommend you have three “versions”: A five minute one, a ten minute one, and a twenty minute one. Also take into consideration to whom you’re talking. Of course, you’re always going to be perfectly honest in your testimony, both in what you actually say and in the impressions you leave. But feel free to include or exclude details based on your audience.
            And finally, keep in mind the main purpose here: It's to glorify your Lord by leading people into a saving relationship with him. But as in all witnessing, we submit ourselves to the leadership of his Spirit and leave the results up to him. A good idea, ya think?

Lord Jesus, I know I’m not what I should be. But thanks be to you, I’m not what I once was, nor am I all that I will be. Seriously, thank you. 

[April 25]--The Best News They’ve Never Heard! Part Eight: What Happened?

Acts 26:12-18

            Now we come to probably the most important part of your personal testimony: What happened? How did you meet Christ? There are two aspects of this question to consider.
            First, what were the circumstances in which you met him? Did a friend open a Bible with you? Did you hear a sermon? Were you at youth camp? Did you read a tract?
            In Paul’s case, he was on his way to round up more Christians when he was literally bowled over by an encounter with Christ. Yours was undoubtedly less dramatic but no less significant.
            Can I just take a moment to put in one of my little pet peeves here? I know it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, but words are important. It irks me a little whenever I hear someone talking about how they “found Jesus.” My friend, as I heard long ago, it wasn’t Jesus who was lost. And as C. S. Lewis put it in one of my favorite lines ever, talking about “man’s search for God” is like talking about a mouse’s search for a cat. If you were “searching” for something deeper in life and “found him,” it’s only because he was seeking you first. Just like in the beginning with our first parents, if the Lord was waiting for you to seek him, he’d be waiting forever. He took the initiative, not you.
            But there’s a second aspect to this that I want to address which is really important. When I talk about “how” this meeting with my Savior occurred, it'd probably be a good idea to include something about something deeper than just what were the circumstances.
            What I’m referring to is some explanation of how this transaction happened. You might say something like “I realized that I was a sinner before God and needed a Savior. I asked Jesus to forgive me and change me, and he did.” You might go into more detail--depending on the time constraints—into something like “I heard that Jesus died for me, that God took my sin and placed it on him. I heard that he rose again. I received Christ as my Savior and my Boss.” You can go into a short explanation as to how Jesus’ actions on the Cross and his resurrection benefit you. Lord knows I’ve gone into that enough here on the blog, so hopefully you can give some further detail if it’s appropriate. 
            You might be wondering “But Keith, Paul didn’t go into all that in today’s passage.” That’s absolutely true. But he certainly did in Romans. And remember what he considered “of first importance”: "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures."
            And even in today’s passage, he made sure to mention what Jesus told him on the road in their encounter: “I am sending you to [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” Paul’s not adding this tidbit just for flavor. This is as good a short explanation of what Christ came to do as any other I’ve ever read. In this one sentence, Paul just happens to drop in the facts that Jesus’ purpose (through Paul’s ministry) is 1) Open peoples’ eyes, 2) turn them from darkness into light, 3) and from the power of Satan to God, 4) so that peoples’ sins might be forgiven, and 5) they might find a place among those are set apart by faith in him.
            What’s my main point here? Is it that your presentation of your testimony is incomplete unless you go into a full explanation of salvation by grace through faith? Of course not. Paul didn’t go into that here. But it does mean more than simply telling people that you met Jesus like someone might meet another person. It’s more than, say, telling the listener how you met the President one time. It’s more than meeting your guru. This person, Jesus Christ, did something to your eternal standing and changed how you relate to God—forever. That should somehow get a mention, don’t you think?

Lord Jesus, you did more than meet me. You opened my eyes, you turned me from the darkness into your light, from the power of Satan to God. You forgave my sins and gave me a place among those who are set apart by faith in you. Wow. Thank you. May my every word, my every action, my every thought be affected by that. 

[April 24]--The Best News They’ve Never Heard! Part Seven: How Do I Do This?

Acts 26:1-11

            So now we come to one of the hardest aspects of witnessing: How do I do it? “I don’t know the Bible enough! I’m going to get it all wrong! I’m going to flub it all up!”
            First off, let me give a little personal testimony on this score. I’ve preached many sermons both here in America and abroad. I learned something as I preached in Brazil. I was delivering a sermon in which in the middle of it, I prayed, “God, can you please deliver a mercy killing to this sermon?” I felt like the words coming out of my mouth were like lead balloons: My timing was off, my illustrations seemed to fall flat, and I felt like I might as well have been preaching to a brick wall. In my mind, I already calculated how I would vastly improve this sermon the next time (if ever) I preached it. And lo and behold, several people came forward at the invitation to receive Christ. And of course the exact opposite occurred: I delivered a sermon that seemed (to me) like something which would make angels weep and demons flee. And of course I got the proverbial chirping of crickets.
            My point here? God can do a lot with a willing servant who submits to the leadership of his Spirit. He can’t (or won’t) have much or anything to do with a slick presentation that takes confidence in one’s own abilities.
            You might be asking, “So Keith what is the best method of sharing the Good News?” My answer? The one you use. Yes, I believe in improving your skills in this area to the best of your God-given ability. But if you're just willing to speak out when he leads you to speak, you’ve already won. This attitude of submission and willingness to be used by God does not lead to victory. It is victory.
            Now, having said that, I’m going to do a terrible thing to you. I’m going to strip you of your excuse to not share the Good News. You say, “I don’t know the Bible well enough!” Well, I certainly encourage you to read and know your Bible. If you knew it backwards and forwards, that'd be nothing but a good thing. But you don’t have to know a lot about the Bible to share the Message.
            You don’t need to know the Bible all that well at all in order to share your testimony, do you? I mean, you know your own history, don’t you?
            That’s why I picked today’s passage. When Paul was led before Agrippa and was given an opportunity to speak with him, he chose to share his personal testimony. It’s so simple, it’s almost criminal: Like any good story, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
            The beginning was before you met Christ. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. You might not have a dramatic testimony like Paul’s. Who was Paul’s numero uno Right Hand Man? On whom did the apostle depend the most and trust in the most? Timothy. But to our knowledge, Timothy had no dramatic testimony. He was raised in a good Jewish home in which his mother and grandmother taught him the Old Testament Scriptures, and when he met Paul, Paul led him to faith in Christ. There’s no record of Timothy persecuting Christians or being demon-possessed or leading an immoral lifestyle.
            On a personal note, that’s a lot like me. I never was involved in gross heinous sins. I was raised in a Christian home and attended church regularly. But until I received Christ, I was as lost as any murderer on death row. I’m glad that not only did Jesus save me from my sins, but he also—purely according to grace—prevented me from getting involved in some terrible things which I would regret today.
            When you share the Good News with someone, that might perfectly describe both you and the person you’re sharing with. They need to know this truth: The religious and good man needs to be saved from Hell just as much as any person out there. To get me into Heaven cost my Savior his blood just as much as for any murderer or thief or adulterer.
            We’ll continue this tomorrow.

Lord Jesus, I’m forcibly reminded right now of what you saved me from. I was church-going, nice, honest, gentle, and as lost as a golf ball in high weeds. You reached down, pulled me out of my pride, my lust, and my self-righteousness, and cleaned me inside-out as only you can. I hereby repudiate any claim on self-righteousness or goodness or holiness. It all comes from you, and it all belongs to you. Thank you. 

[April 23]--The Best News They’ve Never Heard! Part Six: Who Does What?

            I’m going to deal a little bit with theology here today, but I hope by now you know I’m a practical theologian. If it doesn’t affect my daily walk with my Savior, I don’t talk about it here in the blog. But it’s important, and in the context of evangelism this subject needs to be addressed.
            The question is “Who does what in evangelism?” Or more specifically, “What part does each person play in evangelism?”
            Again, there’s a reason I bring this up. Christians answer this question very differently based on their background. Some Christians, based on their interpretation of the Bible, say that everything is based on God’s decision. He chose before the beginning of the world as to who will be saved and who won’t. If you receive Christ, it’s because the Lord, for whatever reason, chose you. And if you never receive Christ, it’s because the Lord, for whatever reason, didn’t choose you. Therefore, they like to emphasize the fact that the Holy Spirit has to be the One who convicts someone of sin, righteousness and judgment. I can’t do it, a preacher can’t do it, etc. No one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him. They believe everyone is either predestined to be saved, or they're not. 
            Others claim—again, based on their interpretation of Scripture—that’s it’s all based on a person’s decision. God calls everyone to himself, and whether you receive Christ or not is totally based on what you decide. Therefore, they like to emphasize the effort we need to put into sharing the Good News. We need to make our presentation of the Message as appealing as possible. We need to tailor the presentation of the Message--not the core of the message itself--to each audience. Of course Paul did this. When he shared with Jews, his presentation reflected that, along with his lifestyle as he lived with them. The same was true when he shared with Gentiles.
            Let me make this clear as I can: There are verses in the Bible that make it sound like the first group is correct. And there are verses in the Bible which sound like the second group is correct. The Bible doesn’t attempt to fully and logically reconcile this. And to settle this argument is waaaaaaaaay beyond the purview of this blog.
            But I think we can find some common ground. How? By following the example of Paul, and by being theologically practical. Here’s some things which I hope we can all agree on:

1.   Many, if not most, of the verses which can be claimed by the first group are from Paul. I’m not saying their interpretation is completely correct. I’m just saying that a lot of the verses they claim to support them come from Paul.

2.  But this same Paul is the same one who said he would be all things to all people so that by all possible means he might save some. You want a great verse to make you scratch your head? Paul said that he endured “everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.” “Elect” means “chosen ones.” He endured hardship, deprivation, torture, and risk of death so that the ones chosen by God (before the foundation of the world) would receive salvation.

3. Unless the Holy Spirit convicts someone of sin, righteousness and judgment, that person will never come to Christ. No matter how effective the presentation or how much effort the evangelist puts into it, unless the Spirit does his work, we’re wasting our efforts.

            So now we come to my conclusion. Remember my catchphrase: practical theology. Based on that, here’s my advice. I wish I could claim credit for it, or at least credit the person who said it first, but I can’t do either. Here it is: When it comes to witnessing, you talk to that person as if everything depended on that person’s decision. And when you talk to God about that lost person, you talk to him as if everything depends on the work of his Spirit.
            Makes sense to me. How’s about you?

Father God, I just want to see you glorify the Name of your Son by bringing lost people to salvation. Whatever I need to do to see that happen, the answer’s “yes.” 

[April 22]--The Best News They’ve Never Heard! Part Five: How To Open?

John 4:1-26

            Most of us are not natural salesmen and thus not the greatest conversationalists. The very thought of just coming up to someone and starting a conversation about Jesus is one of the most daunting obstacles to being witnesses for Christ. So how do we do it?
            Let me start off my answer to that with a disclaimer. In no way do I propose that what I’ve about to submit is the only way to start a conversation about the Savior. I don’t even necessarily claim that it’s the best way; I’m certainly open to suggestions on how to “break the ice” and move from an insipid dialogue about the weather and football to more eternal issues. Jesus didn’t use this method with every person he met. But it has this going for it: It's a way to do it, and the Master used it at least once.
            Jesus was sitting at the well, it was the heat of the day, and he saw a woman heading towards him. I suspect it was more than mere physical thirst that prompted his opening question: He was there to lead her to faith in himself.
            She responded with the well-known fact that Jews and Samaritans have nothing to do with each other, and then comes the statement I’m actually referring to.
            “If you knew who it was who was talking to you, you’d ask him and he’d give you living water.” This perked up her ears. They were at a well, and he apparently didn’t even have a bucket, much less access to some other well. And what did he mean by “living” water? And what’s this “gift of God” he’s talking about?
            When she points out what was obvious to her eyes and asked him about the “living water,” he tells her something about this water which he offers: In stark contrast with ordinary water, it quenches thirst forever. Once you drink it, you'll never thirst again. Ever.
            Now, Christians have drawn deep theological insight from Jesus’ statement about the water he offers. But let’s not lose the main focus here: Our Lord’s main purpose here is to lead this young woman into a saving knowledge of himself, not provide fodder for theologians. Everything he’s saying is towards that purpose. As is typical of characters in John’s Gospel, she misunderstands a statement about spiritual reality and interprets it physically. But we’ve covered enough for me to make my point.
            Here’s the method as exemplified here. You start a conversation by referring to something right in front of you or something they’re familiar with or in which they’re interested. Then you use that as a segue into an opener to the Message.
            Let me give a personal example. Every year I used to go on Beach Reach down in South Padre. We offered free van rides anywhere on the island, a free pancake breakfast, and free suntan oil on the beach. Also a sand sculptor came out and made massive sand sculptures of something biblical (like Christ on the cross, or the Ten Commandments) and surrounded them with little signs in the sand with provocative verses, such as Romans 3:23 or 6:23 or John 3:16.
            I came up to people on the beach who were standing next to the sculptures, introduced myself, and asked them questions like “So did you know about our free van rides?” “Yeah, I was on one last night. It’s great what you guys are doing.” “And did you hear about our free pancake breakfast?” “Yeah, we’re going to that tomorrow.” “And did you know about the free gift we’re offering?” “What?! A free gift?!” “Absolutely! Let me tell you about it. . .”
            Someone once asked Spurgeon how he came up with sermon ideas. He answered thus: He picked a verse or passage out of the Bible, and went over the country, through the woods, and over rivers to bring it back to Jesus Christ.
            That’s what we do here. You pick something out in front of you, something that interests the person in front of you, and you—with the Spirit’s leading—lead it back to the Good News.
            Again, if you’re already using something that works for you, more power to you. If not, then you have at least one ice-breaker.

Lord Jesus, how often do I talk about everything except the Person who means the most to me? Please forgive me, and help me bring you into more conversations, to the point where your presence is felt every time I open my mouth. 

Behind the Scenes

Yes, I know very well this is Easter. This is my favorite holiday of the year. Yes, I love Christmas and New Year's Day, but quite frankly, I don't really have all that much to say about Easter that I haven't already said. So what I'm going to do is re-post what I said about it last year. Here's what I said about it two years ago, if you're interested.

Isaiah 53:10-12; Rom. 1:1-4; Rev. 1:12-20

So what can I say about the Resurrection that I didn’t say before? Last year we went over what a difference this one event made—and continues to make--in our lives. So this year I thought I might look at it from a different angle. What was going on “behind the scenes”? Scripture only sparingly parts the curtain into the spiritual realm, but it does give us some hints.

First, I noticed this a couple of days ago when we looked at Isaiah 53 concerning the Passion. Look carefully at the first phrase of vs. 11, and ponder that for a moment. Let me open a window into our Savior’s mind as he rose up from the tomb. I don’t know what else was going through his thoughts, but this one thing I know that he was thinking: “It was worth it.” Stepping out of Heaven and away from the worship of angels. Squeezing himself down into a human body. Living in poverty. Having to look upon the suffering and sin around him. Tiredness. Hunger. Thirst. Temptation. Frustration. Arrest. Betrayal. Mockery. Slander. Torture. Agony. Forsaken by the Father. Death. All of it was worth it: “After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied.”

And what else? The Romans passage tells us something else about this event that you might not have considered. According to vs. 4, Jesus “was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” Now obviously he was God’s Son before then. There never was a time in which he wasn’t. But the Resurrection proclaimed who he was. The Father placed the stamp of approval, so to speak, on the Son through this. That’s why when Jesus saw his apostles, he could say that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Even before the Ascension, the proclamation had already been made official in the spiritual realm. To the human eye, nothing had changed. But to the assembled powers in Heaven and in Hell, everything had changed.

And finally we turn to the passage in Revelation. What picture of Jesus do you have in your mind? I grew up with a picture of a “meek and mild” Jesus who was as gentle as a lamb. In fact we had a literal picture of him like this at the church where I grew up, as a mural on the wall. I don’t know exactly what he looked like while he was walking around Galilee. I do know this, however: He certainly doesn’t look like that now. Read again the description of what John saw on the Island of Patmos.

On a side note, this is a great source of comfort to me, believe it or not. Quite frankly, I fear for the future of the church, especially in America. There are so many things that are wrong with her, sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But then I read this, and it reminds me of something. The churches are being held in the hand of the Living One, the One who was dead and who’s now alive. Again, to human eyes, the situation is grim, and nothing has changed. But behind the scenes, everything has changed.

So what’s my main point here? What’s the word that runs through all these different passages? Victory. Over the grave. Over the Enemy of our souls. Over your sin and mine.

And the wonderful corollary to this? His victory is yours and mine. Today in part, and tomorrow in full. Someday--perhaps sooner rather than later--what’s been going on “behind the scenes” will spill out into the world in which we live. And I can’t wait. Can you?

Lord Jesus, all authority in heaven and on earth has been placed under your feet, which is right where it belongs. And that includes me.

[April 21]--The Best News They’ve Never Heard! Part Four: Who’s To Blame?

Ezekiel 3:16-19

            Today I’m going to do two things to you: Place a burden on you and take another one away at the same time.

            What’s the one thing that holds back most Christians from telling others about Jesus? I’d submit one likely candidate: Fear. They’re afraid that what they say will be rejected, and no one likes that.

            I understand that, I really do. I remember one of the best pieces of advice my former pastor said: “If you want to get into ministry, it’d be good for you to get some experience in sales.” He sold copiers for a living, and I sold pest service. I’m not a salesman, nor do I ever intend to make my living that way again, but it taught me a couple of really valuable lessons which are pertinent to today’s passage and the point I’m trying to make.

1)      You're responsible for telling others what they need to hear.
This is the burden the Lord laid on his servants the prophets. They were under the direct command of God to tell people about upcoming judgments and to call them back to faithfulness. And guess what? You’ve joined their ranks. No, you’re not a prophet in the sense that Ezekiel or Amos were. But you are God's "mouth" in a very real sense. He's gifted you with his Message. It’s the infallible message about his Son Jesus: How we all need him, who he is, what he did for us, and what he offers us.

            This might not be too popular. Scratch that—It won’t be popular. No one likes to be told they're wrong, and the Message about Jesus in particular is offensive to our self-righteousness, pride, and love for sin. That’s why Paul talked about the “offense of the cross.” Let me reiterate and clarify: The Message of Jesus, faithfully presented, will offend the nonbeliever. You can present it as best and attractively as you can, but we have to face this truth and prepare ourselves.

            Can I just be brutally frank here? This (understandable) desire to keep people thinking well of us is just something we’re going to have to get over. There’s no nice way to say it. Ezekiel was a messenger sent from the Lord, and was told to tell a sinful people that they were heading for judgment. And the One who sent him also gave the warning recorded in today’s passage: If he (Ezekiel) refused to go and tell the truth, then the Lord would hold him (Ezekiel) accountable for that person’s blood. He would have that person’s blood on his hands. The implication for us is pretty obvious, you think?

            But here comes the removal of another burden, which is the good news here:

2)      You're not responsible for the response of others. 
If you faithfully present the Good News about Jesus as attractively as you can, pray for the Spirit to open their eyes and draw them to the Truth and do your best so that your lifestyle and beliefs are consistent, then you’ve done all you can do. Again, let me reiterate and clarify: You're not responsible for anyone’s response to the Message.

            Christians of different backgrounds can argue over what happens once you share the message with them. Some say it’s all up to God, while others say it’s up to that individual. I think it’s both. But what we’re all agreed on is that once you share the Good News with someone, you’re no longer responsible for that person’s response.

            This should come as a relief for you. It's not your job to convince anyone to receive Christ as Savior. Some of us might be called to “defend” the faith, to be experts in apologetics. But I think that Jesus desires more witnesses than defenders. It’s not the job of a witness in a courtroom to convince anyone of anything. All a witness is there to do is relate—factually and honestly—what he’s experienced.

            Just present the truth as best as you can, led and empowered by his Spirit, and your Father will be plenty pleased with you. See, I told you I’d lighten your load.

Father God, it's so easy to care too much about what people think of me. I give in to fear way too often. I don’t want to offend anyone. But that’s not obedient to you or loving to them. Please, when you’re calling me to speak, give me the courage and wisdom to do it.

[April 20]--The Best News They’ve Never Heard! Part Three: How Tough?

Mark 10:17-24

            If you’ve been a faithful reader of this blog, you might've noticed that I’ve discussed this story back when we were studying the book of Mark. I made some points that will overlap what I’m going to say here, but there’s enough new material that I feel it justifies spending another posting on it in a mini-series on evangelism. I'd recommend that you read it if you haven’t already, since there are some sticky issues with this passage which I address there and not here.
            The problem I want to address with this story is a tendency I see in a lot of evangelism. I don’t have any softer way to put it: We make it too easy for people to come to Christ.
            What?! Keith, are you crazy? I thought that we’re supposed to want as many people to come to Christ as possible!! In fact, I thought that God wants as many people to come to him as possible. Well, there’s a case to be made for that. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you know my litany: He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but rather that they turn from their ways and live. He’s not willing that anyone perish but that all come to repentance. He wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
            All of this is absolutely true. So what do I mean? I mean that in our eagerness to see someone “accept Jesus,” we fly through our explanation and end up leaving them with false assurance.
            We can do this with two ways: Someone might not really understand that they’re a sinner in desperate need of a Savior. I think this was the rich young ruler’s problem in today’s reading. Why did Jesus not start out with the Roman Road of salvation with him or something similar? True, the cross was still in the future, but when the seeker asks him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he didn't tell him “Realize that you’re a sinner and place your faith in me.” He led the young man right back to the Law, to the commandments. If the young man was ready, as Spurgeon quipped, instead of saying “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he should've said “All these I have broken since I was a boy.”
            That would've shown he was ready for the next step: Actually placing his faith in Jesus to save and forgive him. But his self-righteous response showed he didn’t know this. As someone once said, “You have to get someone lost before you get them saved.” If they don’t know and realize that they’re lost and in desperate need of a Savior, there’s little point in telling them about what Jesus did for them.
            The second problem with some evangelism is illustrated by the young man’s second answer. Jesus told him “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man gave an answer to this when he walked away "sad." He was sad, but he walked away, which meant he was telling Jesus “No,” or “Not yet,” (which of course also means “No”).
            This highlights the second aspect that I think is missing from much modern evangelism: A call to repentance. That’s a three dollar word meaning that you resolve to stop doing things your way and to start doing things God’s way (with his help). It’s a change of heart that will express itself in a change of behavior.
            Now, I need to reemphasize something I said in the earlier posting on this: This story is not the end-all and be-all of biblical evangelism. From the rest of the Bible, we know that Jesus doesn't require every prospective follower to sell everything he has and give it to the poor, and the rest of Scripture is crystal clear that we're saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing. This was a requirement that Christ placed on this young man because he (Jesus) saw that the young man wasn’t ready to surrender his life, which was demonstrated by his walking away. He had no self-awareness of his sin, and thus wasn't ready at all to do what it takes to become a follower.
            This is a word of warning to all of us who are sooooo anxious to see someone “walking down the aisle” and signing a card and joining a church and being baptized that we fail to present how much we all need a Savior--and the claims of Christ on a believer--in full.  And if someone did all these things (e.g., walking the aisle) and never is truly saved, I’d submit that they’re probably worse off than before. False assurance is a deadly enemy to the soul, and I think we’re going to be held accountable someday for that.
Father God, I want to please people, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. That’s natural. But the last thing I want to be is responsible for someone not making it into your Kingdom. Please set a guard over my mouth so that I say nothing that doesn’t come straight from you. 

[April 19]--The Best News They’ve Never Heard! Part Two: What?

Well, today's Good Friday. I don't have a posting of original material on Good Friday as such, but today's devotional is sort of relevant, since it talks about what exactly the Good News is. If you'd like a posting that talks about the subject of what we're commemorating today, I have one here.

1 Cor. 15:3-8

            So we talked about why we should the Good News about Jesus with others. But what should we share? What exactly is the Good News?
            Before we get to that, perhaps I should explain some terminology I’ve been using. You’ll notice I don’t use the term gospel in referring to what we tell lost people in order to lead them to Christ, as in "We need to share the gospel of Jesus Christ." There’s a reason for that. The term gospel literally means “good news,” and so I thought it’d be clearer to use “good news” or “message.” When I do use the term “Gospel,” I use it to refer to the four inspired biographies of Jesus which we have: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I use the term “good news” or “message” about Jesus because that’s what it is: good news. It's telling people about a series of events and asking them to take part in it, to appropriate this news for themselves. Is this terminology something I’d fight and die for? Of course not. I just thought you might be wondering why I don’t use the same words that others use.
            So what is the message that we should be proclaiming? I’d submit that today’s passage provides a good start for us. Paul told the Corinthians that the most important thing he proclaimed to them, what he considered “of first importance,” was pretty simple: Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures. He was buried, and he rose again three days later, according to the Scriptures. I think if you don’t have these things down, you’ve missed it.
            Of course, in order for us to appropriate the good news, we have to take in the bad news first. A doctor can’t prescribe a good treatment unless and until he’s come up with a good diagnosis. I’ve talked about this before: Paul spends the 1st three chapters of Romans telling us the bad news. In a nutshell, we’re sinners before a holy and righteous God. All of us. And he must punish sin. And ultimately there’s only one punishment he has available. You can put it in different ways, but we can’t sugarcoat the truth.
            As to the solution, that’s listed in today’s passage, as we noted before. Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again.
            As to how exactly to appropriate this good news, I’ve spoken about that before as well. Simply put, you put your trust in Christ and submit to his leadership in your life.
            Now, what about the fine particulars of theology? Does someone need to believe in, say, the Trinity? Well, John wrote a letter to Christians so that they could test themselves to see if they were truly saved. Among the tests he submitted was whether or not one believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who came in the flesh. Now, does someone need to really know and believe these things in order to be saved? Heck, I don’t fully understand the ins and outs of the Incarnation and the Trinity. So I wouldn’t say that someone necessarily needs to know about those things in order to come to Christ, to come in through “the front door,” so to speak. But over time, a true child of God will come to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the Savior who rescued them, and if they don’t, something’s wrong. John’s point seems to be that especially if someone denies these things, their salvation is suspect at best.
            My overall point here is this. When Paul was talking about what was “of first importance,” he didn’t talk about the End Times or baptism or Gifts of the Spirit. In his mind, the main things were 1) Christ died for our sins, 2) was buried, and 3) rose again.  That’s the main thing. When talking to someone who doesn’t know Christ, it’s best to stick to what’s essential. What will bring them into Heaven, and what will keep them out?

Father God, so often I let myself get distracted by things which are NOT important when it comes to the Good News. When I present the Message of Jesus, let it be simply that, not my opinions or thoughts or anything else. By your grace. 

[April 18]—The Best News They’ve Never Heard! Part One: Why?

Rev. 20:11-14; Matt 28:18-20; Eph. 1:11-14

Yesterday we ended the book of Daniel with a reference to evangelism. Daniel said that those who “lead many to righteousness [will shine] like the stars for ever and ever.” I think that’s a great segue into a subject I’ve been wanting to bring up for some time, namely evangelism. Of course, this isn’t a full course like Evangelism Explosion or anything like that. But I think I’m qualified to teach a short primer on it.

Today we’re going to talk about the need. Now, before you check out and say “Thanks Keith, but I know that people are going to Hell. What I need is to be able to witness to them,” you might be surprised by what I have to say on it.

Before we get to the surprising part, let’s get to the stuff you’re expecting me to say. Yes, there is a Hell. Please read the passage from Revelation again.

It's real. It's eternal. Once you get in, you’re never leaving. Is it literal fire? Here’s my answer to the question: If it isn’t literal fire like we understand fire, it’s worse. God has a tendency to use human terms that we can understand in order to convey spiritual reality that we haven’t experienced.

And everyone who doesn't have faith in Jesus Christ is going there. Any family that you have who’s not a believer. That really nice Jewish doctor who treats your mother. The kind Buddhist who’s polite to you in the grocery checkout line. This is what the Bible unambiguously teaches. You might disbelieve it or dispute it, but that's what it teaches.

Another reason? Please forgive me for stating the obvious, but I think we tend to forget it: Our Lord commanded it. The passage from Matthew is one of the most famous in the Bible, at least for those who take commands from the Lord seriously. The same God who told us “Don’t steal,” “Don’t commit adultery,” and “No other gods besides me,” also told us to go and make disciples of all nations. This is not an option.

The third reason is one you might not have thought before. In a man-centered culture, this escapes a lot of Bible-believing Christians. I heard it from John Piper, but I’m sure he’s not the one who originated it. Here it is: The glory and honor of God. Every person who's not believing in--and submitting to--Christ is depriving the Lord of the rightful glory and honor that belongs to him.

That’s the conclusion I draw from the Ephesian passage. Why were you saved? Was it mainly for your sake? Was it out of compassion for you? Yes, he has compassion for you. Yes, you’re a beneficiary of all this. But you were not saved for your own sake. You were saved in order to bring glory to the One who saved you. See how many times Paul mentions this here: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . .” “for the praise of his glory,” “to the praise of his glory.” This is why you were saved. Not to be too crude about it, but in a sense your purpose of existence and in salvation is to be. . . a living trophy. Forever and forever and forever my every being and action will be to praise and honor and magnify and worship and give credit to my Savior.

And he deserves it. Every bit of it. Every moment of it.

And the flip side of this, obviously, is that every person who’s out there who’s not part of this is depriving God of what belongs to him. That person is a thief.

That’s what I’d like to have as my main motivation, by the way. Compassion for the lost is a wonderful thing. If a believer is fervently witnessing because he doesn’t want anyone to go to Hell, I certainly don’t want to do anything to discourage him. And it is an issue of obedience to Christ’s explicit command. But most importantly, above all, I want my Savior to get what he deserves.

Lord Jesus, you deserve it. Every part of me, and every part of everyone else. You deserve the honor and praise and worship and thanksgiving. What can I do to help that along?