[Nov 30]—It’s The Thought That Counts(?)

            I know that the above aphorism is really popular, but is it true? Let’s look at it with the cold eye of logic for a moment. What do people usually mean when they say it? Maybe something like "When you receive a gift, it may not be what you wanted or like, but at least the person thought about you enough to actually give you something." I remember several years ago when someone gave me a gift card to a store I never frequent. They did their best, but not knowing my interests, quite frankly their gift didn’t do a lot for me except give me warm thoughts towards them. Intention trumps whether the gift is actually something we need or want. And of course this leads to the ever-present phenomenon known as “re-gifting,” very popular at “White Elephant” Christmas parties.
            But even though people sometimes give less-than-perfect gifts and none of us have perfect motives, there’s one case in which both the gift and the Giver’s motives are perfect. That brings us to today’s passage.
            Before we get to verse 17, which talks about God’s gifts, we should keep in mind verse 16, which connects to the first part of the chapter. James is talking about trials and temptations and how they relate. God might bring bad circumstances into our lives, and if we listen to the Enemy’s lies, he’ll tell us that our Father isn’t really good to us, that he doesn’t really care about us, that he’s holding back something good from us. That’s turning a trial into a temptation.
            He’s lying to us, hence his title as the “Father of Lies.” Verse 16 tells us that when the Devil tries to whisper in our ears about our Father’s supposed lack of goodness to us (which was his lie to our original parents), we have to decide not to be deceived. To say that our Father’s been good to us is a huge understatement.
            “Every good and perfect gift”—what does that mean? Are some of God’s gifts perfect and some of them merely good? I guess that makes sense. His gift of salvation (with all the ancillary gifts such as adoption, making me his heir, the gift of the Holy Spirit, etc.) is perfect. In contrast, if the Lord decided to financially bless someone, that’d be a dangerous gift at best and a hindrance to his salvation at worst. Spurgeon said that apparently the Lord doesn’t really value monetary wealth all that much, since he frequently gives it to those who’re under his wrath. Good health, popularity, money, power, intellect, and plenty of sex all have their downsides at best and can easily become a person’s downfall. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with temporal blessings, but they’re certainly not perfect like the blessings we get via Christ under the umbrella of “salvation.”
            Well, actually, “Every good and perfect gift” might not be the best translation. I checked the NET Bible, and here's what it says: “The first phrase refers to the action of giving and the second to what is given.” That’s why the NET renders it as “All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above.”  
            Either interpretation is fine with me, since they both lead to the same point: Every good thing we have ultimately comes from God. You might think “Well, I for one work hard for my money.” But who gave you the ability to work? Or if I get sick and a doctor treats me? Even if you weren’t healed miraculously, it’s Yahweh Rapha who provided your body with the immune system to heal, and it’s the Source of all Wisdom who gave that doctor what he needed to treat you, not to mention all the doctors and researchers behind that treatment.
            And unlike people who change, he never does. Even the best of people with the best of intentions fail us at times. As Alistair Begg puts it, “The best of men are men at best.” Picture the stereotypical politician who puts his finger in the wind and changes his “heartfelt beliefs” and principles the moment they become inconvenient. That’s the polar opposite of our Father. He doesn’t change like the shifting shadows. He doesn’t change at all. All of his gifts, even the ones which really hurt at first, are good because he is, and he always will be.
            This is proved by the best gift he’s ever given us or anyone else. Through Christ, he chose to give us new birth. That’s what we had to have in order to enter his presence. It’s not mentioned in this verse, but let’s not forget what’s contained in that statement “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth.” What did it take for him to be able to do that? The very blood of his Son.
            And what’s the result of this new birth? The result is that we’re “a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” Think of the term prototype, the first of a new kind. Once again, I’m sure that I could try to say it better than MacArthur, but that’d be a wasted effort. Talking about the word “firstfruits,” he says “Originally an OT expression referring to the first and best harvest crops, which God expected as an offering (cf. Ex 23:19; Lev 23:9-14; Dt 26:1-19). Giving God that initial crop was an act of faith that He would fulfill His promise of a full harvest to come (Pr 3:9,10). In the same way, Christians are the first evidence of God's new creation that is to come (cf. 2Pe 3:10-13) and enjoy presently in their new life a foretaste of future glory (Ro 8:19-23).”
            Christ is the “firstfruits” of the new humanity, the first and the Head of a new “race” so to speak, and by faith we all become part of it. God chose to give that to us, and that’s the definitive, conclusive, and final evidence of his goodness towards us. How dare I not trust him?

Father, I do trust you, or at least I try to. You’ve given me nothing but mercy and grace and love, and my love for you is so cold and fickle by comparison. Fill me with you, so that there’s less room for me. 

[Nov 29]—Eternal Perspective And One Case For Abortion

            Verses 9-12 come back to a theme I’ve hammered again and again and again over the last three years.  They belong under the umbrella of “eternal perspective.” This means I not only say I believe what the Bible says but live in accordance with its truths. Truths such as:

·         The fact that this world is passing away, and everything that isn’t eternal will one day be nothing but dust and ashes.
·         That’d include any earthly wealth you’ve accumulated, such as houses, money, land, and any other material possessions.
·         That means that if you’re a believer who doesn’t have two dimes to rub together, you should still feel like you have Bill Gates’s bank account. You have a “high” position, not because you’re poor but because you’re an heir to the One who literally owns the world.
·         That also means that if you’re wealthy (and most every American is fabulously wealthy compared to most of the world and 99% of the people throughout history), then you should keep in mind that it’s all going to be gone someday like the flowers which are here today and gone tomorrow. It seems that he’s addressing rich believers, not unbelievers, since he was just addressing poor believers in the last verse. If so, then in the context of talking about trials (which rich people also undergo), it’s telling us—per MacArthur—that this “[refers] to the rich believer's being brought low by trials. Such experiences help him rejoice and realize that genuine happiness and contentment depend on the true riches of God's grace, not earthly wealth.”
·         Finally we see James pronouncing a blessing on “the one who perseveres under trial, because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” This again points to the eternal perspective we all need. On the Day when we stand before our Savior and he judges our works which we (supposedly) did for him, there will not be one person there who says “It wasn’t worth it.” Better this crown of life than all the crowns which all the kings in all of history have worn. They’re either dead or dying, and their kingdom either is, or will be, like that of Ozymandias. Any crown I have will last forever.

            Then we come to vss. 13-15. Trials and temptations are not the same concept, although they’re the same word in Greek. Therefore, we have to know from the context as to how to translate it. Trials are horribly bad circumstances in which you either lose something valuable or might lose it. Temptation is an enticing to do wrong. James tells us straight out that God never tempts anyone, in the sense of leading them into evil. He might allow them to follow the course set by their sinful natures, and he might give them over to their desires, but he doesn’t cause anyone to sin. 
             Also please notice that although James talks about Satan later in his book, he doesn’t mention him here. No, it’s all on you. If you sin, there’s ultimately only one person you can blame, and you can see this person every time you look in the mirror. Satan actively uses your sinful nature, and the Lord allows it (which is why we need to pray for him not to allow it btw), but you made the wrong choice.
            Now we come to the only good case for abortion I’ve ever heard of or read. Of course normally I’m completely opposed to abortion. In the immortal words of Horton, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” But there’s one case in which abortion is not only necessary but a good thing. No, it’s a great thing. That’s because this “baby” is our rotten desires, which gestates in our hearts, which eventually “gives birth” to sin. And this “baby” when it’s full grown, will be the literal death of us. Most Pro-Life people I know reluctantly find abortion acceptable if it’s to save the life of the mother (which is an almost nonexistent scenario nowadays). And in this case, if we don’t decisively deal with this “baby” while it’s still in its womb, well, it’s a matter of life and death.
            Note the equation in verse 15: Evil desire leads to sin, which eventually leads to death. This echoes Romans 6:23, where Paul tells us that the “wages of sin is death.” Please let that sear on your mind. Sin leads to death. Always always always. No exceptions. But thank the Lord, although sin always leads to death, it’s not necessarily true that my sin leads to my death.  My sin can lead to someone else’s death. And it did.

Lord Jesus, the longer I walk with you, the more I realize that I don’t take sin seriously enough. It was my sin that led to your death. I have no excuses, no one to blame but myself. My greatest enemy in my spiritual battles is not the Devil, but me. Keep my eyes fixed on the eternal, not this world’s trinkets. Please. 

[Nov 28]—Count WHAT As A Blessing?!

            Today’s reading, especially vss. 2-4, really goes against the flow of American thought, doesn’t it? American Christianity, having imbibed some of the surrounding culture, tends to see hardships in life as an anomaly, not the norm. If there’s a problem, we need to fix it ASAP.
            Please don’t misunderstand me. If someone is in physical hardship and we’ve the means to help them, the default setting is to help them, and that’s a noble motive. Under most circumstances we need to work as the Body of Christ to help those in need. However, this is something I picked up from Oswald Chambers’s classic My Utmost For His Highest: Sometimes we succumb to the temptation to be an “amateur Holy Spirit” in someone’s life. We see someone in need, and without seeking the Spirit’s wisdom, we rush forward to solve their problem without considering that the Lord might be putting them through this for a specific purpose.
            A couple of years ago right after skimming the book of Job I got into the subject of suffering, and I listed no less than eight reasons why bad things might happen to us. When a Christian suffers major loss, we need to keep in mind some key truths: 1) If you define “punishment” as getting what someone deserves, then a Christian’s sufferings are never punishment. There’s no direct correlation between what I deserve from God and what I get from God. Salvation means I’ll never get what I really deserve from God. However, 2) The Lord can and will afflict a Christian who’s indulging in an unrepentant sinful lifestyle as part of his discipline. This can be up to and including physical death. 3) Sometimes when a believer is faithfully following the Lord, God can sometimes bring suffering into his life as part of a refining process. That’s what today’s passage is talking about. But before a Christian starts thinking about #3, he needs to prayerfully eliminate # 2 as a possibility. See here if you’re interested in more on how to do this.  
            What verses 2-4 mean is that I need to consciously change my attitude towards suffering. When I suffer loss, I need to consider it an occasion for celebration. Wow. That’s pretty counterintuitive, isn’t it? But let’s be clear. It’s not the suffering itself that should be cause for joy. It’s the results of it. When I choose to focus on God’s truth and goodness, then his testing of my faith can produce perseverance. It can make me stronger. How so? By making me consciously depend on my Lord. As Spurgeon put it, “Happy storm that wrecks a man on such a rock as this!” As I stop depending on my own puny strength and call upon the Lord Almighty to supply his power and resources for my needs, I learn to trust him, to wait on his timing.
            But I have to make some decisions. None of this is automatic, which is why he’s talking in the imperative mood rather than the declarative mood. You must choose to look at your trials in a certain way. Then you must choose to let what God’s doing finish its work. Don’t be impatient. Don’t try to rush the process. Refining metal in heat does two things: 1) It certifies that the metal is what people say it is, and 2) It purifies the metal so that any dross or impurities can be removed from it. That’s what his refining does to us.
             Does this mean that if you see a way out that you shouldn’t take it? No. If you can legitimately get out from under it, then do so. But seek his wisdom and guidance first.
            That brings us to the rest of today’s passage, one of my favorite promises in the entire Bible. But we need to be careful here. Don’t forget context! I believe that when we ask the Lord for wisdom in any area of life, that’s a great thing. If you’re making any type of major decisions, it’s always a good idea to consult him. But the promise in verse 5 specifically relates to seeking his wisdom while we’re in the midst of our trials. It’s not a blanket promise for any area of life.
            On seeking his wisdom during our trials, here are some notes:

·         Keep in mind that biblical wisdom is practical. It’s not philosophical answers to life’s esoteric mysteries. It doesn’t deal much with theological debates such as theodicy. Biblical wisdom tells us how to handle life’s curve balls in the here and now.  
·         When we come to him, he’s generous in giving to us. He doesn’t dole out what we need by the eyedropper. No, he superabundantly gives us supernatural wisdom to give us the insight and strength we need to make it through the storm we’re in.
·         I love the description of his generosity and grace: He gives us what we need “without finding fault.” Why would he find fault with us when we come to him? Because we tend to come to him last instead of first when we have problems. We go to our friends, Dear Abby, and anyone else under the sun before we seek the face of the only One who can truly help us. When we come to him last instead of first (after discovering the futility of going to anyone else), he’d have every right to chastise us. How stupid of us to go to anyone else first! But no. He’s the “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”
·         When he promises something, we need to ask for it without doubting. How much clearer could James be here? If you half-heartedly ask something from the Lord which he’s already promised, don’t expect to get anything from him. Don’t be like a wave of the sea, carried here and there by the winds of emotion and the zeitgeist of the day. Grab onto the Rock of Ages and don’t let go.

              Now before I go, I have to post a disclaimer. I know that there are undoubtedly a lot of people who read this who’ve gone through a lot tougher time than I have. I’ve had my hardships in life, but I’m sure it wouldn’t take long to find someone who’s suffered a lot more. But my background has nothing to do with the truthfulness of God’s word.
             If you’ll put these principles in practice, it’ll go easier on you. He promises that, not me. And I’d really recommend that if you’re not going through an especially tough time right now, that you make these decisions to focus on God’s truth and seek his wisdom now, not when the storm hits. It’s really hard to make clear decisions when you’ve been hit by a body blow unexpectedly. In this vein I really can't recommend highly enough Jerry Bridges's Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts.  
             Let’s make the decision right now that when we suffer loss, we’re going to go to our Lord about it, seek his face, seek his wisdom, and seek his strength. When we do that, he promises that what we’ll need will be given to us. Count on it.

Lord Jesus, you’re the wisdom of God made flesh. When I’m seeking wisdom, I’m really seeking you. Give me a heart that seeks after you, both in good times and in bad. Please. 

[Nov 27]—Name Dropping

            I guess James’s book will always have a special place in my heart. Several years ago, while I was in the Army, I got involved with a group of fellow believers who were running a Bible study in Temple, TX. I spent a lot of time with them, and I grew spiritually by leaps and bounds via our mutual encouragement and challenge. The first Bible study we did was on the book of James, using the Navigator’s LifeChange series (and I still can’t recommend anything in that series highly enough). For the first time in my life, I did a small-group Bible study with some peers with some depth to it.
            During that time, there was one main conclusion I made about James. There are a lot of mysteries in the Bible, a lot of obscure passages which are hard to understand, passages on which good Christians can differ. I wish James was like that. I wish James was harder to understand at times. Most of it’s not. If I had to sum up James’s writing style in one word, my nomination would be “blunt.” I mean he’s about as subtle as a brick upside your head.
            You can see this almost immediately. Paul starts his epistles with fairly long introductions and greetings. He mentions who he is, the fact that he’s an apostle called by Jesus Christ. You know to whom he’s writing, and he normally starts off with a “Grace and Peace” passage that includes some beautifully flowery-type phrases about the Lord Jesus. If you’d like the ultimate example, see Ephesians 1:3-14.
            Not so with James at all. He introduces himself as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He addresses this “To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” And his flowery phrase? “Greetings.” That bluntness is very characteristic of the man and his letter.
            By the way, who is this guy? It’s not the apostle with that name: That man died early in church history, murdered by Herod as noted in Acts 12. The best identification seems to be the Lord’s half-brother. He didn’t believe in Jesus during the latter’s earthly ministry, but according to Paul in 1 Corinthians, the Lord appeared to James after the Resurrection, and not only did James become a believer, he led and officiated at the first church council in Acts 15.
            That’s what’s amazing in his introduction; sometimes what Scripture doesn’t say is almost as important as what it does say. He could have done the ultimate “name drop” and mentioned that he was the Lord’s brother. He could've also mentioned that he was a leader of the church in Jerusalem, where the Church (with a capital “C”) started. Paul called him a “pillar” of the church. Well, he dropped a name, all right. He dropped off all the names he could’ve claimed, and ended up claiming the only title that meant anything to him: “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
            With a lot of the epistles, it doesn’t matter all that much when they were composed, but here it does. This is a very Jewish book. A lot of material here is very similar to the book of Proverbs (and of course all his focus on “wisdom” helps that impression), and he also has the-- well, I have to say it—bluntness of one of the prophets like Amos. One of the reasons why it’s so Jewish-sounding is because it’s probably one of the earliest books of the N.T., probably written around A.D. 44-49, more likely towards the earlier than the later date. That would jibe with its “Jewishness,” since the earliest years of the Church had the most Jewish believers, with Gentiles taking up more of the population as time went by.
            Another thing that marks the Jewish nature of this book is the emphasis on personal righteousness. He’s called “James the Just” because of his focus on the need for believers to live out their faith. Yes, he believed in salvation by grace through faith just as much as Paul did, but while Paul focused his fight against legalism, James focused on a fight against antinomianism, which is just as much a perversion of the Message of salvation as legalism is.
            Another ironic--yet touching--point to consider is that while he talks about the Lord Jesus in his 1st verse and sprinkled here and there in his letter, he doesn’t really talk about Jesus all that much. But. . .instead of talking about the Master, he talks like him. If you read this book carefully and compare it with the Gospels, you’ll notice a lot of similarities. He quotes and alludes to Jesus’ teachings more than anyone else in the N.T.
            As we go through the book of James over the next couple of weeks, let’s ask the Spirit to use it to change us, to help us to demonstrate what we believe. Shall we?

Lord Jesus, I believe in you. But so often I don’t demonstrate it like I should. With all the titles James could’ve claimed, the only one that he cared about was “servant.” What else should I claim for myself? 

[Nov 26]—On Behalf Of A Slave

            Now we come to the last letter of Paul in the New Testament. It’s not the last letter chronologically: That would be 2 Timothy. But since we’ve gone through much of the material in 2 Timothy in other studies, I wanted to use the limited time we have to spend just one day on this.
            First, let’s have some background. Paul was still in prison (under house arrest), the same place from which he wrote Philippians and Colossians. In fact, it’s highly likely that he sent this short letter along with Tychicus, who was also the courier for the letter to the church at Colossae.  
            This is what we can gather from this letter and from Colossians. Philemon was a wealthy citizen of Colossae, and at some earlier point Paul had met him and had led him to faith in Christ. Philemon had a slave named Onesimus, which means “useful” (a common name for a slave). Onesimus stole some money from his master and ran away to Rome. Through circumstances not recorded in Scripture, he ended up in prison and met Paul.
            Paul had gotten to know him, had become close friends with him, and had led him to Christ as well. Onesimus had been a huge help and comfort to Paul in prison, and Paul’s natural desire was to keep Onesimus with him to continue helping him. But. . . Onesimus had stolen money and had ran away, which was highly illegal, to say the least. So Paul was sending him back to his old master, asking Onesimus to submit himself. This was quite a risk, because the penalties for an escaped slave were incredibly harsh: The common means of punishment was branding the slave’s face, cutting his tendon in order permanently cripple him, or torture him to death. You remember that citizens were exempt from crucifixion as a punishment? It was reserved for the basest of criminals, rebels against Roman authority, and for slaves.
            So Paul sent him back along with this letter.
            The point here was to appeal to Philemon not only to forgive Onesimus but to treat him as a brother in Christ. Ideally, he’d like Philemon to voluntarily send Onesimus back to Paul. Not to detract one iota from the inspiration of the Spirit, but humanly speaking this letter is a masterpiece in persuasion.
            Paul started his letter off with calling himself merely a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Notice that he doesn’t invoke his apostolic authority, like he did with the book of Romans and 1 Corinthians and Galatians. No, this is a personal appeal to a dear friend. He’s not telling him to do anything; he’s gently pleading.
            Notice the pattern in this letter: “You know, I could order you to do this. I’m the one who led you to Christ, so you owe me more than you could ever repay. Also, ‘in Christ’ I could order you as an apostle. I could also order you to love him as your brother, since Christ commanded us to love each other like he loved us. But I don’t want to do that. You’re a dear friend, a brother in Christ, and partner in sharing the Good News. So let’s not talk about obligations at all. Let’s talk about a favor for a friend.”
            But even though he’s appealing to the bonds of friendship, he still just casually mentions some reasons for accountability here. He says in the first verse that this letter is supposed to be read in the church that met in their home, and Tychicus would know that it was supposed to be read to everyone there. On top of that, Paul also casually mentions that he’s planning on visiting Philemon soon, so he'd eventually get to see how Philemon treated Onesimus firsthand. So there was that. One of my favorite verses (hard to pick, obviously) is verse 21: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you. . .” In other words, “I just know that you’re going to do even more than I ask here.” So he’s gently twisting his arm.
            Let’s talk for a moment about slavery. We did a two-day study regarding slavery, so I’m reluctant to spend much time on it here. To summarize what I said there, nowhere in Scripture does God forbid slavery per se. However, he placed such restrictions on it in the Torah so that if someone was really mistreated, they could leave their master at any time. Under God's explicit command, slavery as practiced in the United States could never have existed.
            And it was portions of Scripture like this letter which eventually undermined it from the inside-out. Even under the harsh legal system of slavery in Rome, Paul called for Philemon to see Onesimus not as property, but as a dear brother in Christ. Not only that, but Paul the Apostle completely identified himself with Onesimus: “Welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” How could you own your brother, like a piece of furniture or an animal? If your own brother wanted to leave your presence, would you keep him by force, with whips and chains and threats? And if Paul came for a visit--who personally led you to faith in Christ--how would you treat him?   
            Over time, abolitionists looked at their Bibles and found what was written there to be completely incompatible with slavery, no ifs, ands, or buts. They worked on both peoples’ hearts and the laws, but they realized that any real and lasting reform has to work from the inside-out; just changing the laws would never really change the system until enough people were changed.
            And finally we have a wonderful picture of salvation. Like Onesimus, all of us were on the run from justice. All of us were slaves, belonging to a the harshest, cruelest master who ever was. But we met Someone. He declared us free. And when faced with the Father’s justice, he says “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.”
            Aren’t you glad?

Father God, what right do I have to hold anything against anyone? To not forgive? To answer that with “none at all” would be a massive understatement. Lord Jesus, what Paul said to Philemon, you said to the Father’s justice. Thank you so much. I owe you, well, everything. 

[Nov 25]—Credit and Provision

            Today we’re wrapping up the book of Philippians. Tomorrow my plan (God willing) is to spend a day on Philemon, then that’ll be it for our extremely abbreviated overview of Paul’s letters.
            Before we leave Philippians, however, I’d like to spend just a moment on our attitude towards giving and God’s providence.
            Like I’ve mentioned repeatedly and you can see by just a cursory overview of the letter, Paul had nothing but love and affection towards them. They weren’t a dysfunctional church that needed to be salvaged, but a wonderful group of believers who just needed a nudge to "step it up a notch" in what they were already doing. They loved the Lord and Paul, and they’d shown that love by sending Epaphroditus with their love offering. Today’s passage which finishes up the short book is sort of ‘housecleaning,” but from it we can glean some deep insight.
            First, we need to understand that when we give to true ministries, the Lord “credits” that to our “account.” Now, to be sure, he’s incredibly gracious in doing this. Everything we supposedly own is really on loan from him, and one day we’ll have to give it back to him and also give an accounting for how we used it. But if he demanded we give everything up for him right now, like he did one prospective follower, the only legitimate response would be to immediately do it with a smile on our face. If we gave him full 100% obedience towards him all of our days (which no one does), he still really wouldn’t owe us anything, since we’d only be giving back to him what he gave us first and that which was owed to him in the first place: The right attitude we have towards any “sacrifice” we make for his Kingdom should always be “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” Perfect obedience and perfect willingness to sacrifice anything and everything for him is only what he’s owed. He’s under no obligation to reward us for anything we do or give.
            But he doesn’t treat us like that at all. He delights in showering his blessings on us, and even the faintest sparks and first steps towards obedience he rewards abundantly. Did you read the story I mentioned above from Luke about the nobleman who went to a far country? He came back to his servants, and the one who’d gained him 10 “minas” (a mina was about 3 months average payment), he put in charge of ten cities! In other words, the servant’s reward for faithfulness was way out of proportion to how much he’d actually gained for his Master.
            So when we give to the work of his Kingdom, whether it’s talents, time, or treasure, he “credits” that to our “account.” One day, when everyone gives an accounting for what they’ve done for him, he’ll reward us all out of proportion to what we “gave” him. On that Day, no believer will look at his reward and say “That's all you're giving me? It wasn’t worth it.” Quite the opposite.
            And in the here and now, while we still live in this sin-wrecked world, he still gives us cause to trust him. I have a confession to make. You know how I always harp on “context context context” when studying the Bible, like I get paid every time I use that word or something? Well, several years ago, I was guilty of taking a verse out of context. Yes, me. When I was in college, I used to post a devotional “thought for the week” on my front door, and one time I used verse 19 by itself: “My God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” I used that as a blanket promise to believers, trying to encourage them. Another well-read brother gently pointed out that I’d taken the verse out of context. This was written specifically to believers who’d been faithful—even sacrificial—in their giving. Yes, he’s our Father, and he longs to provide for our needs. We have no need to worry, just to trust him like a little child does towards every good father out there.
            But verse 19—looking at the context—doesn’t appear to be a blanket promise to every believer. When we’re obedient and faithful to sacrificially give towards the work of his Kingdom, he notices. And he promises that even in this world, we won’t do without anything we need. He’ll provide for our needs not in a stingy way, but “according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.”
            What if I took this perspective towards my possessions? What if I understood that it’s all his, that I’ll have to give it back to him someday in an accounting, and that he’ll take care of my needs super-generously according to his riches when I give sacrificially? How would that affect my giving? Would it make a radical change?
            I don’t know. I’m willing to find out what happens when I trust him. How’s about you?

Father God, help me to trust you, and to show it. It all belongs to you anyway, and you promise that you’ll take care of my needs. No one who trusts you, who does things your way, ends up regretting it. I believe that, so help me to live it out. And let that trust show up in my checking account and calendar. 

[Nov 24]—A Secret For Contentment

            For anyone who’s actually been reading this blog for any length of time, much less the last three years, you’ve probably gotten to know me pretty well, or at least I hope you have. If you have, then here’s a pop quiz: What’s the one magic word I’ve brought up again and again and again, the one word which will open the meaning of Scripture to you more than just about anything else? Context. Context, context, context! Read the surrounding verses around it, read the book it’s located in, and see what else the Bible has to say about that topic. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Ideally you should read the entire Bible cover to cover over and over again, which is why I offer two and three-year reading plans.
            But back to context, raise your hand if you’ve heard verse 13 before: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Yep, that’s a lot of hands raised right now.
            This is exhibit A as to why context is so important. Lots of people have pulled verse 13 so hard out of context that their arm sockets are hurting. Let’s look at the passage.
            Remember that the ostensible purpose of the book of Philippians is a thank-you letter. Hearing about Paul’s situation in Rome, the church in Philippi had gathered together a love-offering for him and had sent it all the way to Rome using Epaphroditus as their entrusted courier. Paul was sitting in a rented house under arrest awaiting trial, so although his conditions weren’t nearly as bad as they could be (in a Roman prison), he still had to provide for his own expenses. So this gift came at just the right time to provide for his needs. He wanted to send a letter back thanking them, along with encouraging and challenging them in their faith.
            That brings us to today’s verses. Seeing verse 13 in context, however, means that we need to examine the verses leading up to it. Verse 10 tells us that while he was thankful that they’d sent him the gift, he wanted no misunderstanding regarding his needs. No matter what he had or didn’t have, he was content. He wasn’t disparaging their love or gift in the slightest, but the Lord had committed to providing for his servant one way or another, and they’d been given the opportunity and privilege to be used by the Master to provide for him, to be the Savior's hands and feet.
            Today’s passage was undoubtedly meant to take the pressure off them. Yes, we need to give to those in ministry, but that’s for our sake as much as for the recipient, if not more.
            Why was the pressure off? Because even if they were worried about Paul, he wasn’t worried. He’d learned the secret of contentment. That’s a very important word: learned. This secret of how to be contented wasn’t something he’d just been zapped with when he’d gotten saved. If this secret was included with everyone’s salvation, then every Christian would be content, which is really contra the evidence around us. I wish that every believer was exhibiting the level of contentment that Paul showed, but that’s not the case. We’re the richest nation in the history of mankind, but we’re not content with what we own, and Christians can be as guilty of it as anyone else.
            But we need to be careful here. Is it sinful to be rich? If so, what’s rich? Is it sinful to possess more than what you need for survival?
            Apparently not, since Paul had at times been financially prosperous, at least in comparison with other times. Note that he says that he’s learned to be content when he’s had plenty and when he’s been in need, not knowing where his next meal was coming from. So the problem is not any certain amount of wealth: It’s our attitude towards the wealth we have right now.
That’s the irony here.  We in America tend to think that if we have plenty, we’ve already learned the secret of being content, that being prosperous makes it easier to be content. Um, no. To be content when you’re prosperous can be even more difficult than when you’re barely scraping by. With few exceptions, rich people tend to never think they have enough; they think if they just had a little bit more, they’d be content. And contentment--this peace in the heart--proves to be as elusive as the proverbial carrot held right in front of the donkey’s nose.
If the Lord chooses to make you more prosperous, that should be fine with you. If he chooses to feed you with Ramen Noodles for a while, that should be just as fine with you. Your reaction to any level of prosperity should be the same: “Thank you Lord for what I have. Help me to be generous with what you’ve lent to me. Not one penny of it is mine; it’s yours, to do with as you please.”
            That’s the secret of being content, and that’s the context of verse 13. When Paul was saying he could do all things through him who gave him strength, he wasn’t talking about running a mile in under 5 minutes, and he wasn’t talking about lifting a 5-ton stone over his head, and he wasn’t visualizing throwing lightning bolts from his fingertips. He was talking about a supernatural ability to be content with whatever he had, to not stress about his needs, to trust in the Lord to provide for whatever he needed, and to be thankful and generous with whatever he had.
            I don’t know about you, but I think that’d be more impressive than any physical act of prowess or supernatural ability. The struggle to be content with what I have is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over and over again. I’d like to think I’ve made some progress, but whenever I think that, the Spirit gently shows me that I haven’t learned my lesson nearly as well as I’d thought.
            How’s about you? Have you learned this lesson yet? Are you making progress?

Lord Jesus, really you’re all I ultimately need, but I certainly don’t show that in how I look at “my” possessions sometimes. Please help me see them the way I’m supposed to, help me to be generous and grateful. Help me to be content, no matter what my circumstances. 

[Nov 23]—A Standard For Input

            Actually today’s verse might have fitted into yesterday’s posting, since by following its counsel we’d be a lot better off in experiencing a peaceful heart and mind. However, I thought this one verse merits a posting all by itself, since it has such important ramifications for us in our walk with Christ.
            You’ve heard the old saying “You are what you eat,” right? It’s referring to the fact that what you consume affects your physical health. If you eat junk food all the time, that’ll be reflected later on in your health and lifespan. But your spirit/soul “feeds” all the time as well. What you take in through your senses and what you choose to focus your thoughts on affect you just like your physical diet. In my own field of IT we like to say GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out. The programming output can’t be any better than the programming input.
            Paul tells us to think about certain things, to fill our brain with certain subjects:

·         Whatever is true. Of course, when you hear “true,” your first thought should be God, and your second thought should be his word. Jesus (the Truth incarnate) didn’t just say that the divine word is true; he said it is truth. Everything is true as it relates to him and his word.
·         Whatever is noble. MacArthur says “The Greek term means ‘worthy of respect.’ Believers are to meditate on whatever is worthy of awe and adoration, i.e., the sacred as opposed to the profane.” And of course the # 1 candidate for this is our Lord.
·         Whatever is right. A better word might be “just.” This is referring to what’s conforming to God’s standards.
·         Whatever is pure. The Lord Jesus pronounced blessing on the pure in heart, promising that they will see God. Purity refers to the state of being uncontaminated or undiluted or unalloyed. Of course, once again this applies to our Lord, who is light and who contains absolutely no darkness in him at all.
·         Whatever is lovely. We need to think on that which is attractive to the best parts of us: Not the eye, but the Spirit within us.
·         Whatever is admirable. Once again, MacArthur puts it much better than I can (duh!): “That which is highly regarded or thought well of. It refers to what is generally considered reputable in the world, such as kindness, courtesy, and respect for others.”
·         Anything that’s excellent. Is what you’re contemplating the best of its kind, something that stands out from the rest? Are you settling for mediocrity in anything?
·         Anything that’s praiseworthy. Pretty much doesn’t need much explanation. Again, our Savior certainly fits the bill here.

            As we’ve seen, all of these qualities apply to our Lord and his word. To the degree I’m meditating on him and his word, I can’t go wrong. But let’s move out of the “Duh” categories into a bit more controversy. I’m not a fan of controversy per se, but I think it’s necessary to dig a little deeper into this topic. Let’s try to apply this in practical ways, shall we? We have to live in the real world. I have to think about my job, which while it’s not innately sinful, isn’t lovely all the time. And is it wrong for a Christian to indulge in entertainment? When I go to a hockey game, is that wrong? Am I disobeying this verse when I’m cheering on my team?
            Or how’s about movies and TV? A couple of generations ago, you could easily find preachers and conservative Christians who’d say “Yes, watching anything on TV or movies is sinful. They talk about impure things, and a lot of what you see characters do isn’t admirable. Watching any type of TV/movies is incompatible with following Christ.” Nowadays, I guess you could find Christians like that if you looked hard enough, but I haven’t met any. I’ve had a couple of friends who’ve made a commitment to never see an “R” rated movie of any type. It makes no difference to them what the “R” is for, they’re never going to see it. I really really really respect them so much for their stance, but that’s as close you’ll likely see re: absolutism in viewing media in most Evangelical circles.
            I don’t restrict myself to just reading my Bible and watching depictions of it in the movies and on TV. Paul was certainly familiar with the Greek culture, its poets and philosophers, and used some of their work in reaching out to Pagans.
            I have my own standards in movies, and others have theirs. I think this falls under the disputable things Paul talked about in Romans. My standard is that I’m pretty lax when it comes to violence, but I take a hard line when it comes to nudity and sexuality. My reasoning is simple: I’ve never been really tempted to hurt anyone physically, but I have enough problems maintaining sexual purity in my thoughts, and I don’t need any more hassles in that. The Bible has tons of scenes of graphic violence, but Song of Solomon is the closest you get to graphic depictions of sexuality.
            But I’d like to take this discussion a little deeper than “R” vs. “PG.” Most Christians have no problem seeing a “PG” movie as long as it’s not too graphic. But I thoroughly believe that a “PG” or even “G” movie could be just as dangerous to your spiritual life, and maybe even more so. Let me explain. Just about every movie or TV show has a worldview, an overall philosophy behind it. Most of the time this worldview will not be stated openly. And every worldview is either compatible with God’s word or it’s not. Let’s say, for example, that a movie has no nudity or sex or even bad language, but it presents its main protagonists as sympathetic even when they’re committing adultery. It’s easy for a book or a show to present the idea that sex outside of marriage is fine even if no nudity is shown. Or maybe it glorifies theft or lying.
            That’s even more dangerous because it’s insidious. You watch it and absorb the message without even thinking about it. A story tends to slip past peoples’ guards, so they’ll accept a message from a story which they’d never accept if it was presented to them outright. For example, a popular “romantic” movie of a few years ago presented the following message through its plot and characterization: “Adultery is fine as long as both parties are in a bad marriage and they ‘love’ each other.”
            That’s not true. It’s a beautiful lie, which tends to be the most dangerous kind. It’s attractive, but not to the best parts of me. It’s neither noble nor just. It’s not admirable or excellent or praiseworthy.
            So let’s, you and me, commit ourselves to filling our minds with what’s going to really bring us closer to our Savior, with what’ll help us walk closer with him. Remember GIGO.

Lord Jesus, I really need to focus a lot more on you than I do. I want you to not only fill my spirit, but my brain. Fill my thoughts so that there’s no room for anything the Enemy might want to slip in. Please. 

[Nov 22]—A Recipe For Peace

            For the longest time, people have been longing for peace between nations. Of course, the urgency of this desire stepped up a few notches back in 1945, when we gained the power to disintegrate a city and kill millions with a single bomb, and for the first time in history it was actually feasible for mankind to destroy itself with one fell swoop. But even today, when the nuclear threat is not what it once was during the Cold War, people still don’t like to see people killing each other. No one wants to see that, but it’s like the weather in the old joke: Everybody complains, but nobody does anything about it.
            But, like with every other major issue of our time, the Bible has a radical solution: Peace between nations has to start with peace on the individual level. It all starts with peace in our relationship with God. We have that through Jesus Christ: Through faith in him, we’ve been reconciled with God, and not only are we no longer at war with him, but we’re now his heirs and co-heirs with Christ. Once we overcome that hurdle, he starts to change us from the inside-out so that we can live peacefully with our neighbors.
            That brings us to today’s passage. Normally I don’t advise you to do this, but I’d like you to look at these verses and skip ahead to the end and work your way backwards.  He says “. . . and the peace of God. . . will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” That’s why I had you start here. If you want the peace of God to guard your heart and mind, if you don’t want anxieties and fears to invade your heart and head, then vss. 4-6 give you some instructions on how to get it:
·         Rejoice in the Lord always. Remember, in the original language there wasn’t punctuation as we know it. Therefore, one of the main ways to emphasize something (instead of italics or bold or underlining or with a “!”) was through repetition. And Paul told us twice in one verse to rejoice in our Lord. Guys, this is a command from the apostle. It’s not a feeling that comes upon you like a cold or a meteor. It’s a decision that you make to focus your thoughts on the Lord’s goodness and blessings and character and to praise him and thank him. If you’ve ever read The Four Spiritual Laws, they have a really helpful illustration.
     The engine determines where the train goes, it provides the power, and without the engine the train goes nowhere. The caboose is nice, but the train will run with or without it. If you put your faith in God’s truth and don’t let your feelings be your guide, then eventually the feelings will follow. Just like love, rejoicing in the Lord is a choice that you make rather than a feeling that happens to you.
·         Choose to display a Christ-like gentleness wherever you go. When it comes to God’s truth and eternal issues, we need to fight with all the strength he gives us (using his weapons, of course). But when it comes to our own personal interests and ego and “rights,” we need to follow our Savior’s example.
·         Choose the eternal perspective. “The Lord is near.” His return, no matter how much longer he takes, will set everything right, and whatever strife or trouble we’re undergoing now isn’t even worth comparing to the Glory we have ahead of us.  
·         Choose not to be anxious about anything. Again, you have to choose what your thoughts will focus on and won’t focus on.
·         Instead, take it to your Father’s Throne. In the spiritual realm just like in the physical one, nature abhors a vacuum. You can’t just empty your mind of what’s mentally tormenting you. You have to take your worries, concerns, and fears to him.
·         But start out with thanksgiving. I try to make it a habit to spend time praising my Father and thanking him before I ever get around to asking him for anything. That really gets me in the proper mindset and preps me before I make any type of request. But even while making your request, you can find a reason to thank him.
            Let me make a side-note here. People sometimes like to downplay what we call “petitions” in relation to praise and thanksgiving. Even if they acknowledge that petition has its place, they denigrate petitions for oneself as opposed to for others, as if this is less noble. I understand their sentiments, and I sympathize with them: I certainly feel a lot more comfortable praising and thanking my Savior God and praying for others more than praying for myself. But Paul here tells us to pray for ourselves. If you have a concern or fear or even a desire, present it to the Lord. Of course, any request we make is (or should be) under the canopy of “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.”
            Paul promises that if we do these things, asking for his strength to make the right choices in our thought-life, then “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
            Is that what you want?
Yes, Lord Jesus, that’s what I want. Please fill me with your peace. Fill me with you.

[Nov 21]—A Plea For Unity

            I’d love to have spent more time in the book of Philippians, but—as in the rest of life—time is short.
            As we’ve discussed before and as you’ve undoubtedly noticed if you’ve read the entire book, Philippians is a more positive letter than others he wrote or other books of the Bible. The church in Philippi had some possible threats from Judaizers who were trying to infiltrate them (see chapter 3), but it doesn’t seem that these made as much headway as they had with the Galatian believers (the entire book of Galatians focuses on it, and the alarmed tone there is absent here). Other than that, there don’t seem to be any major problems with the Philippian church which he felt the need to address. When you compare this to 1 Corinthians, it’s like night and day. In chapter one he praises their love and dedication, but expresses a desire to see this “more and more.” In other words, this wasn’t a dysfunctional church that needed to be salvaged: It was a good church with great qualities; he just wanted them to keep what they were doing and “step it up a notch.”
            However, there’s one minor issue which he had to bring up. It was a minor problem, but it could easily turn into a major one if not decisively dealt with. That’s the subject of today’s passage.
            In two verses he mentions two women, Euodia and Syntyche. From these short mentions we can deduce two things: 1) They were undoubtedly prominent people in the church, and 2) For some reason, they couldn’t get along. It was most likely a personality conflict, not a struggle over doctrine or a moral issue. What’s the evidence for this? He doesn’t even bother to give any details over their point of contention. He doesn’t take sides at all. He just earnestly pleads with them to put aside their differences and not just get along with each other but “to be of the same mind in the Lord.”
            They needed to work together. Earlier in this letter he told the entire church he expected all of them to “strive together as one for the faith of the gospel.” You can’t do this if you’re bickering over minor issues, not getting along with each other, and fighting over your “turf.”
            This was a lot more serious than a petty squabble. Jesus specifically told us that the world would know we’re his followers by our love for one another, and he also prayed that we'd be “brought to complete unity” so that the world would know that the Father sent him. I don’t believe that there’s anything in the world which would attract the lost quicker than by looking at us and saying “Oh yeah, Christians, those are the people who love each other and take care of each other.” And when we don’t get along. . . well, the converse is true too.
            There are two particularly sad ironies here. First, there are their names. “Euodia” means “sweet fragrance,” but her part in this conflict wasn’t making the church smell any sweeter. And “Syntyche” means “good fortune,” but her part in the conflict certainly wasn’t a blessing to the church either.
            The second thing is something I think I need to credit Chuck Swindoll for bringing to my attention. The only things we know about these two ladies is what we see here. God’s word is eternal, and this letter is part of it, right? So for all eternity, the only thing their names have been attached to is not any work they’ve done for the cause of Christ. The only things we know about them, and the only thing that’s recorded about them in God’s eternal word is that they had to be called out by name by the apostle for their petty bickering. I don’t know about you, but if my name happened to be recorded in eternal Scripture, I’d want it associated with something positive (maybe like the people listed in Romans 16), not like this.
            Now, I can point my fingers at them, but as the cliché goes, I have three pointed back at me. One of my great laments is that if you ask non-Christians to describe Evangelical Christians with two or three words, they’d probably answer “Against abortion,” or “Against gay marriage,” or “Against sex outside marriage,” or “Probably Republican.” Now, I’m certainly against abortion and in favor of God’s standards. I certainly have my political beliefs which I try to align with my understanding of Scripture, and I don’t believe that any political party has any exclusive claim on Jesus. But in my ideal world, if you asked non-Christians this question, their most common answer would be “Those are the people who love each other and take care of each other.” To any degree that you and I have not contributed to that ideal, we need to—to the best of our ability--correct that impression. As much as depends on us, the world’s impression of us needs to be in accordance with the Lord Jesus’ expressed desires and prayers. Will you join me in this?

Father God, please help me choose very carefully the hills to die on. My ego, my personal desires, my “rights” mean nothing in comparison to your Kingdom and the business of introducing the lost to my Savior. My Lord means everything, I mean nothing. Please help me to know and to show that.