Thursday, September 24, 2020

Mark 4

 Key verse: Mark 4:12

Big idea: The Son of God opens our eyes.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus often spoke in parables: small stories that were simple enough for anyone to hear and remember but so profound that their true import often went unnoticed. Like a seed thrown on the ground, it might sit dormant for a period, but under the right conditions it could explode with life. In the case of a seed, the seed waits for the right soil moisture and temperature. In the case of the gospel message, the Word may stay in our hearts until the Son of God sends the Holy Spirit to convict us. When the Spirit convicts us, we are faced with the decision to respond and bear fruit or not, but we cannot get ahead of God's work in our spirits. 

In the parable of the sower, there were three hearts where the seed did not take root. One was the hard heart, where Satan plucked the seed away without any semblance of life. Another was the shallow heart, which seemed to be alive for a moment but died away when the heat came. The third was the crowded heart, where the weeds and thorns of life choked out the seed of the good news. These three enemies of the Christian (the Devil, the flesh, and the world) can keep a believer from bearing the fruit which God calls us to. They are those who see without perceiving, and hear without understanding: their interaction with God's Word is superficial and fleeting. But even a seed in good soil will not bear fruit until the right time. The seeds are planted and watered but only God can make them grow.

Discussion idea: Who is someone you have been waiting on to respond to the gospel? What does it mean that their response is in God's timing? How does that affect our style of evangelism?


Prayer focus: Ask God to draw the specific person from the discussion to Himself. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Mark 3

 Key verse: Mark 3:29

Big idea: The Son of God operates by the Spirit of God. 

Jesus lived a perfect life, free of sin and complete in obedience. How? He was tempted in every way that we are, yet never faltered. Did He, as fully God, access some resources which are beyond our capacity? Amazingly, the biblical picture seems to be that Jesus lived His life in the same power that we have as believers. He resisted sin and walked in righteousness by the power of the Holy Spirit. He had the ability to perform miracles as God Himself but in His humility as a man, He prayed to the Father and was empowered by the Spirit to act. 

So when the enemies of Christ claimed that He was casting out demons by the power of demons, they were challenging the role of the Holy Spirit. Blasphemy against the Father and the Son could be forgiven, Jesus explained, but not the Spirit. Why was this? Because the same Holy Spirit that empowered Jesus to perform His miracles is the Holy Spirit that convicts us of our sin. If we reject the Holy Spirit, there is no plan B for other forgiveness. This is how the Son of God acts in our lives, via His Spirit. If we do not have the Spirit, we do not have the Son. 

Discussion idea; How does the Holy Spirit's role in the life of Jesus motivate us to live like Him?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you live in the power of His Spirit?

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Mark 2

 Key verse: Mark 2:1

Big idea: The Son of God is in the house. 

The beginning of Mark 2 includes one of the most exciting stories in the entire Bible. A man is paralyzed and four of his friends found out that Jesus was in town. How did they know? Everyone was talking about it! "It was noised that he was in the house." They try to bring their friend to Jesus on a stretcher but the crowd is just too heavy to get through. But they knew who was in the house and they were determined to get him there. So they went to the roof and started digging. When the Son of God is in the house, you have to tell! 

The religious leaders were seated inside (they had been on time in their bodies and missed the boat in their hearts) and could not believe what they were hearing when Jesus said that the paralyzed man's sins were forgiven. Who was this Man, who claimed to forgive sins? Only God can do that! They were right of course. So Jesus, reading their thoughts (something else only God can do), gave them a demonstration. He healed the paralyzed man with a word, so that everyone who was willing to see could know that the Son of God was in the house. 

If we really believed that when our church assembles, the Son of God is in the house, how passionately would we work to bring people in? What "holes in the ceiling" would we ignore as irrelevant compared to the prize? Even in our own lives, if God has told us that we are His house when we are saved, do people look at us and say "The Son of God is in that house"? He has shown who He is, the one who forgives sin and changes lives. If we know Him, we should show Him.

Discussion idea: Why do you think we are less faithful to spread the news that the Son of God has come than they were when He was in Capernaum?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to show the world that you are here. Help me to accept any inconvenience or discomfort, as long as I can bring people to You. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Mark 1

 Key verse: Mark 1:38

Big idea: The Son of God came to preach the good news.

In November of 1913, it took about twelve hours to assemble a car. Switching between tasks, finding the right tools, and working on things that you were less effective at all piled on the time it took to finish the vehicle (and therefore the cost). But in December, Henry Ford launched a brilliant new innovation: the assembly line. The process of building a car was broken into 84 different steps and the worker did the same one all day. They became experts at that one task by focus and dedication and the time to produce a car dropped to two and a half hours.[1] Modern cars take much longer because of their complexity and would be basically impossible without modern assembly line methods.[2]

We could say a lot about the pros and cons of workers doing the same repetitive task day in and day out, but there is no denying that it allows them to become skilled and efficient at their work. Focus matters. Jesus knew why He had come and He focused on that goal. When the people were pressing for Him, He said that it was time to go on to the next towns to preach the gospel there too because that is why He had come. He did not stick around where the Kingdom has already been announced, even though it might have been more comfortable. He kept pushing on - He had a mission and He was going to accomplish it. 

Our mission is the same. Whether it is at school, work, home, or church, we need to be laser-focused on why God has deployed us: to preach the gospel. Sometimes it is telling your friend about Jesus. Soemtimes it is listening to your parents read the Bible to you so you can learn the things you can share. Sometimes it is holding your tongue when a comment will be a barrier to a relationship. But remember why we are here.

Discussion idea: What are some ways you can preach the gospel? What are some distractions?

Prayer focus: Ask God for divine tunnel vision, so you only see the things that really matter!

[1] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fords-assembly-line-starts-rolling 

[2] https://www.motortrend.com/news/toyota-chrysler-have-north-americas-most-efficient-plants-1859/ 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Philemon

 Key verse: Philemon 9

Big idea: Love changes everything. 

Philemon is one of the most unique letters in the New Testament. Paul wrote to a slave owner about his runaway slave who had been converted under Paul's ministry and was now returning. The apostle explained that, as an apostle, he had the authority to simply command him to release Onesimus and free him to aid Paul but he preferred to let Philemon choose to do the right thing out of love instead. This is a radical approach and emblematic of the way the New Testament completely undermines the institution of slavery, although it did not call for its immediate total abolition. Rather, it pushed on a basic contradiction between the biblical worldview and the idea of one human being owning another: is he worth more to you as a slave for a lifetime or as a brother for eternity? Paul put his money where his mouth was, offering to pay whatever was necessary to reconcile their relationship. 

Maturity often means that we are not given specific answers to every dilemma we face. While a toddler might have very specific rules for every scenario, an adult is going to operate on broad principles which apply in complex ways in the moment. Voting in an election when neither party is perfectly biblical, choosing a spouse or a college, changing jobs or moving are all complex decisions for which there can be no simple proof-text. But when we combine the boundaries the Bible does place on us with the overarching theme of love, we can find the path God wants us to take. When we love, massive social institutions are transformed, not by rallies or gunfire (although those things have been used in history for good), but by the subtle influence of one relationship at a time. When we love, we no longer steal, kill or cheat. When we love, we do not look to be served. When we love, the thought of owning another person, whether through literal slavery or softer forms of power, is repugnant. There is only the desire to give others a small portion of what Jesus has already done for us. Love changes everything.

Discussion idea: Why did Paul not simply call for the immediate abolition of slavery? It is worth noting that slavery in biblical times was usually for a set time as a debt was paid off (like what we would call indentured servitude) rather than the race based chattel slavery which was not invented until the modern era.

Prayer focus: God, transform my heart to live in love. Remove the barriers that divide me from others and help me to see that if I have genuinely been loved and transformed by a holy God, that nothing between me and another human being could ever compare. 


NOTE: Tomorrow is our second (and final) catch-up day this year. so there will be no devotion Have a great weekend! Next week, we will pick up Mark, then 1-2 PEter, then John, 1-3 John and Revelation to close out the year. We are almost there!


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Titus 3

 Key verse: Titus 3:10

Big idea: Division is the church killer. 

There are a lot of challenges churches have faced through history. Hostile governments, financial crises, plagues and social pressure have all opposed the churches of the Lord. Yet they have never been ale to effectively stop what God was doing. In fact, it seems that greater opposition often motivated Christians to accomplish more so that what was intended for evil was used by god for good. So what really puts a church in danger? As we have seen over and over again, it is the internal problems which threaten the survival of a church. Division, bickering, and factions will do from the inside what no emperor could ever do from the outside. When God has broken the barriers between us and made us into a family, it is profound blasphemy to reform the divisions that the blood of Jesus dissolved. 

Paul warns Timothy about the kinds of factitious people that would enter the church. The King James Version uses the work "heretick" here, but the meaning of heresy has changed since 1611. At the time, the word meant those who caused schism within a body, although now we only use it to refer to those who cause division by false teaching. That idea is certainly included here, but there are many other ways to divide a church and all of them are deadly. Foolish questions for the sake of stirring up conflict and endless studies into genealogies that miss the essence of the faith threaten the effectiveness of the church by robbing her of her focus and fellowship. Those who cause this division show their own wicked hearts and should be removed from the fellowship of the church after two warnings like cancer. 

Division is dangerous. Factions in families or workplaces are almost as harmful as it is in churches, where instead of collaborating together for a common purpose, vanity plays and undermining one another become the priority. God has called us to something better. He has given us a new kind of life through the death of Jesus that makes all of our old divisions and barriers irrelevant. Isn't it high time we acted like it?

Discussion idea: Why are churches so quick to fall into "teams"? 

Prayer focus: Pray that God would help you to be a peacemaker, so you can be called a "son of God."  (Matthew 5:9)

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Titus 2

 Key verse: Titus 2:14

Big idea: God redeemed us to unite us. 

"Hi-Yo Silver, away!"[1] Many Christians seem to want to emulate the Lone Ranger. They find a mission and ride off to face it alone. The problem is that, like the Lone Ranger, an individual Christian rarely sees their situation change from week to week. The status quo is reset and the same basic problems are faced over and over again. God did not intend for our lives to be like that. Although we are saved alone, by our personal faith in Christ, we are not saved to be alone. God intends to purify for Himself a people - a new nation, not defined by ancestry, language, or culture but by zeal for good works. 

We live in a sinful world and are called in that world to live for God, rejecting sin and choosing righteousness. But even as we live in that world, we are not of that world. Our human nation is not our primary allegiance. We are looking forward to the appearance of our Savior, our blessed hope. When He appears, the nation that will matter is the special one (KJV: peculiar) that He purified for His own good works. That new allegiance breaks down all of our old barriers and creates a new humanity, one where we can encourage one another, challenge one another and serve alongside each other.

As lone ranger Christians, we will never make much progress. We will not grow personally without the aid of others and the work God has called us too is far too great for us to accomplish it alone. God has not saved us to be by ourselves, but to be united together as His family and in His churches. 

Discussion idea: Why are we tempted to individualism? How can we do more for God together than alone?
Prayer focus: Pray for a heart that is ready to be joined to others in service. 

[1] I always thought it was "Hi-Ho Silver," but the Smithsonian says it is "Hi-Yo" and they have his mask.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Titus 1

 Key verse: Titus 1:15

Big idea: A divided mind contaminates itself.

If a clean glove touches a contaminated surface, the glove is now contaminated. If that glove now touches your clean phone, now you have a contaminated phone. Touch that dirty phone to your clean face or watch as your toddler kisses the screen? Contamination spreads. In the Old Testament, this was a primary principle. Someone who touched something unclean was then unclean themselves until they could be purified. Lepers and the dead were literally untouchable, and those who did were for a time untouchable themselves. It is an important principle for hygiene and a good model of the pervasiveness of sin. In the New Testament, Christ shows us another angle.

When Jesus touches a leper or a corpse, their filth and death do not spread to Him. Instead, His holiness and His life spread to them. His purity is so intense that it is contagious! That is the principle that comes into play in our salvation. We come into contact with the living Jesus but instead of being contaminated by us we are purified by Him. Yet, the New Testament does not repudiate the old concept entirely. "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump," we are warned. In this letter to Titus, Paul warns about a divided mind. If we do something good, but do it with corrupt, unbelieving motives, then the good works we do are contaminated. All real, lasting contamination comes from the heart. It is not the food that we eat or the things that we touch which are unclean in God's sight, but the things that come from our heart. 

Our text makes it plain. "Unto the pure, all things are pure," so when our hearts are right, our actions will follow God's will and when we do sin, we have forgiveness. He continues, "but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled." No amount of good works can make up for a heart hostile to God. Our good works are contaminated by sinful motivations. But when Jesus in our hearts reigns, everything He touches is transformed.

Discussion idea: James warned that a double-minded person is unstable in all of his ways. How does a divided heart practically undermine our works?

Prayer focus: Pray through Psalm 139:23-24. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

2 Timothy 4

 Key verse: 2 Timothy 4:3

Big idea: False teaching cannot stop Jesus. 

Joseph Goebbels, Nazi director of propoganda, is credited with the expression, "Believe a lie often enough and it becomes the truth." Psychologists call it the "Illusion of Truth." The more times you hear a lie, the more plausible it seems. That is why there are some ridiculous things that "everyone knows." The issue has been in the forefront of people's minds lately, as social media give people the chance to see the same false headlines dozens of times before they can be corrected. If something makes the people we like look good and those we don't look bad, then we believe it without thinking (and often without reading).  Google Ngram shows the frequency of the phrase "fake news" from 1800 to 2019. 


But what is dangerous for secular new is deadly for faith. Everyone knows that God will not give you more than you can handle, that all religions teach the same thing and that the Lord helps those who help themselves. Maybe your favorite Bible verse is the one about "Footprints in the Sand." Of course, none of those things are in the Bible. When something gets repeated over and over again, people begin to believe it, especially if it tickles their ears. If something is repeated and is what we want to hear, then it grows deep roots in our hearts. Throughout history, the truth of God's Word has been challenged by lies. Repeated over and over again, tuned to our preferences and quoted with enthusiasm, they threaten to lead people astray.

Yet truth is stronger still. A lie can be told a thousand times and the truth is not dimmed one whit. Although false teaching has sometimes been official teaching, God's Word has not been stopped. The message of Jesus has carved its way through the ages unbroken and untainted. No amount of false teaching ever changes the truth. What Jesus started is unstoppable. 

Discussion idea:  How does a Christian today best guard against being bombarded by lies of the world?

Prayer focus: Pray for a heart that yearns for God's truth.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

2 Timothy 3

 Key verse: 2 Timothy 3:12

Big idea: Persecution cannot stop Jesus. 

The third chapter of Second Timothy begins with an ominous warning: "In the last days, perilous times shall come." Paul warned that the world's hostility to the gospel would gradually intensify as people turned ever more inward and rejected God more and more. Yet, Paul makes clear that the basic attitude is ancient. Pharoah's magicians stood against Moses over a millennium before Paul was born, and now more than nineteen centuries have passed since Paul himself lost his life to anti-Christian persecution. The terminology that Paul uses is fascinating: he says that God has delivered him from the persecution which he faced. Yet, Paul had been stoned, shipwrecked while under arrest, and was awaiting his execution. So God did not deliver Paul from persecution, but through it. He was able to remain faithful and continue delivering the message of the cross, despite the opposition he faced. 

There has always been opposition to God's people, from the time that Cain killed Abel. Even worse, this is not the fate of a few exceptional Christians! "All that will," in the sense of will to or desire to, "live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution." If you or I even try to live for God in the world that is in rebellion against Him, we will suffer. As Adrian Rogers said: "You are either in collusion with the Devil or in collision with him." But that persecution does not stop the progress of Jesus' work. He brings us through it, even when he does not bring us out of it. Our part is just to continue in what He has started.

Discussion idea: When Paul says that all who desire to live godly will suffer persecution, what forms does that persecution take?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me endure in the face of opposition, continuing what you have begun in my life and in our world.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

2 Timothy 2

 Key verse: 2 Timothy 2:2

Big idea: Generations could not stop Jesus. 

Every three weeks, a group of friends and I spend an hour or so answering people's biblical questions in a live Facebook video. Recently, instead of a question, someone sent us a video clip from an old TV show and asked for our reflections on it. Most of the comments were the kind of claims that all religions basically taught the same thing which was popular at the end of the 20th century (this has fallen out of fashion now and been replaced with the idea that all truth is subjective) but one particular point the video tried to make was very interesting. A young child asked: "If Jesus wanted us all to know about Him, why didn't He wait to come until He could appear on television?" 

This is a novel objection; for most of history, people asked why Jesus appeared so far along in history (that is why we sing in Hark the Herald Angels Sing: "Late in time behold Him come"). But it leads to an even more interesting question, I think. Why only come once? Why not come once early in history, once in the middle and again toward the end? Well, that might not satisfy everyone. So maybe come 6 times? Those in between would still doubt. Maybe come once every generation? A fresh revelation every few decades, so no one has to get it secondhand. God certainly could have done it this way. Although the perfect sacrifice of Jesus needed to be accomplished only once, He could have reissued the Bible every generation with a new slate of miracle wielding prophets or He could have become incarnate, preached and flown up into the heavens again. But He did not. 

Neither did He relegate His love and His care to a single generation. Instead, He came once and for all, but carried the message to all generations. He called on Paul to entrust the Word to Timothy. Then He called on Timothy to entrust the Word to someone else. That person entrusted it to yet another. The baton has been moving from hand to hand ever since. For two thousand years, God has kept His message alive by the steady passage of the truth from generation to generation. No one is saved by the gospel preached by an angel. The ministry of reconciliation is ours and if we neglect it, it is neglected. 

Discussion idea: Why doesn't Jesus appear every few years? What does God teach us by having us pass the same unchanging truth on personally?

Prayer focus: Lord, make me the kind of faithful person that Paul wrote about, who can be trusted with this treasure of the gospel of Christ. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

2 Timothy 1

Key verse: 2 Timothy 1:10

Big idea: Death could not stop Jesus. 

As Paul wrote his second preserved letter to his protege Timothy, he sat in a jail cell, knowing that his life would soon end. His story was nearly over but he is at pains to encourage his friend and fellow-laborer that the gospel story is not. Nothing can overcome the work which Jesus began, not even death. Paul's own death hangs heavy over the whole letter but the death of Jesus Himself takes center stage here. If death was going to stop what God was accomplishing, it would certainly have been when the King Himself died. 

But quite the opposite took place. The death of Jesus brought about the death of death! He "abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." By dying in our place and rising again, Jesus broke the power of death once and for all. Now we can be confident that generations may roll down through the ages and that God's message marches on. We might wonder when some of the great leaders of God's churches die: "Who will fill their shoes?" But God has proven Himself faithful time and time again to raise up a new generation of servants. They may not be carbon copies of those who have come before in temperament or methodology but in every age, faithful men and women continue preaching the same message. God's truth is marching on! 

Older kids: Who is the person you admire the most as a Christian? Will their eventual death stop God's work? 

Discussion idea: How is it humbling that even the apostle Paul could die without hindering God's work? Why are we so quick to fool ourselves into believing we are indispensable?

Prayer focus: Ask God for the perspective to realize that His work has been going long before we were born and that it will continue long after our death, if He tarries. Pray for the humility to rejoice in being a small part of the greater plan. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

1 Timothy 6

 Key verse: 1 Timothy 6:20

Big idea: The ministry carries the treasure of faith through the ages. 

One of our sister churches meets in a remodeled bank building. Early on in their construction process, I got to visit and step inside the vault of the bank. It is an eerie place, with an incredibly thick door and clearly no way to escape. Whatever has been deposited into that vault is very unlikely to leave without the consent of the banker. This is the basic image that Paul's commandment to Timothy should bring to mind. His task was the keep the deposit safe that he has been trusted with, to bring it down through the ages. What an incredible responsibility! 

Paul warns that Timothy could go other ways. Like a sheriff asleep during the jailbreak in an old western, Timothy could become distracted by "profane and vain babblings" or so-called knowledge. But he would not be a very effective guard if he did. His responsibility was to have a singular focus, where his teaching, his lifestyle, and his ministry all dovetailed together to present the precious gospel to a lost and dying world. The good news needed to get from the empty tomb to us and it did so through successive generations guarding it. We know that Jesus promised in Matthew 16 that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His church, but we also know that humanly speaking, the world is never more than a generation from losing the gospel. We must defend it and announce its truth. When we have been given a trust, we dare not fail. 

Discussion idea: Why do you think Paul uses the language of "keep that which is committed to thy trust"? How does responsibility play a part in our service to God?

Prayer focus: Praise God, that He would (in infinite wisdom) trust the greatest treasure to we frail jars of clay. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

1 Timothy 5

 Key verse: 1 Timothy 5:12

Big idea: The faithful minister should be honored.

What do we value as a society? The average professional athlete makes roughly a bajillion dollars a year, politicians tend to retire with substantially more money than their official salary would suggest and the interchangeable pretty faces on the movie screen have four houses and little acting talent.  Who does God say is worthy of "double honor"? The term is, in the context of this chapter, clearly a respect that often takes the form of material support (like our word "honorarium"). The recipients of a double dose are the elders (or pastors) who lead well through preaching and teaching. No sports, secular leaders or entertainment peddle anything more precious than the Word of God and our priorities should be reflected in our gratitude. 

There is another side to this coin: what about when someone entrusted with such a position sins? Paul warns us not to respond to every rumor or innuendo, but when witnesses can verify the failure, the same pastor who was to be publicly honored should be publicly rebuked, so others will not follow him into error. It is the great responsibility that comes with the great honor of leading God's people that the elders are held accountable if they lead their charges astray. For these, there is no room for partiality on the basis of personality or friendship. Whether in honor or reprimand, what matters is faithfulness. 

Discussion idea: What do you think the mega salaries of some professionals reveals about our culture's priorities and values?

Prayer focus: Pray for your pastor, that God would help him live up to his duty to lead well through preaching and teaching and not to be distracted by the army of other false priorities. 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

1 Timothy 4

 Key verse: 1 Timothy 4:6

Big idea: The measure of a minister is faithfulness. 

In college, I had a particular class that seemed like a total waste of time. The work was pointless but extremely time-consuming, a recipe for frustration. But there was one saving grace: because of the way the class was set up, everything was graded very strictly on a rubric. That meant that it was possible to tailor an essay to make a high grade, even if it was not any good. Format the title page correctly, include enough footnotes, hit the word count, make sure that your thesis is clear and suddenly you had an A. There are few areas in life where this kind of approach is a good idea, for obvious reasons. In fact, it is rare that our expectations are so specific, so we cannot ordinarily behave like that, even if we want to. But there is a sense in which we should consider what is expected of us and aim for that target. What will make this project a success? If your parents want you to clean your room and you waste a lot of time dusting the ceiling fan and washing the windows but never pick up your toys or make your bed, you may be tired, but you are probably still in trouble.

Paul gave Timothy a rubric: “If you ____, thou shalt be a good minister [servant] of Jesus Christ.” Simple! Check this box and you are on the right track. So what does God say will make us a good servant? Take a minute to seriously consider what you think. Not the answer you think you are supposed to give but what you instinctively think will please God. The answer may be surprising: remind the people of God’s Word. You are not a good servant if they listen or if you bring them to tears. You are not a good minister if you have a full altar call or a busy new member’s class. You are a good servant if you are faithful. The rubric is to do your job and let God handle the rest.

Discussion idea: Why do we overcomplicate success so much, even if we know better?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to keep your Word in my mouth, faithful to share it with your people.

 


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

1 Timothy 2

 Key verse: 1 Timothy 2:1

Big idea:  The power of a ministry is prayer. 

My parents got our kids a little electric car. Unfortunately, when they wanted to show me how it works, the battery was very nearly dead. So it got slower and slower until it died up the driveway. Of course, they wanted to ride back, which involved Daddy stooped over and pushing. It could not go any farther because it was not connected to a power source. Without me huffing and puffing, it would have been stuck where it was. 

At the end of chapter 1, Paul told Timothy that he expected him to fight a good fight, from which many had been shipwrecked. So how would Timothy endure when others had failed? He needed to stay connected to the power source. How would that happen? Prayer. Prayer for everyone, all the time, because our work is beyond our reach. We need God to change the hearts of leaders. We need God to reach people who are lost and hard-hearted. We need God to strengthen us when we are weary and direct our paths. Without the power of God flowing through us, we are as helpless as the car with a dead battery. But when we are connected to the power source via prayer, we have all the strength of God on our side. 

Discussion idea: Why is the only power source we have often the first thing we neglect? 

Prayer focus: Set aside some time to pray out loud today, experiencing the power of communion with God.

Monday, August 31, 2020

1 Timothy 1

 Note to reader: We are getting toward the end of the year and the maintain this chapter a day writing schedule, I need to plan out pretty far ahead, so I am thinking about 2021. Do you want these devotionals to continue? Would you prefer a selection of the Old Testament (a chapter a day, not covering the whole OT, but hitting the major stories and passages), the whole Old Testament (3 chapters a day, covered at a much more superficial level), a topical devotional (I was thinking maybe "God: A Self-Portrait," looking at a different thing God said every day), something that changes quarterly, readings that reinforce that Sunday's sermon or something else? Is 5 days a week good, or would a different calendar be more beneficial for you and your family? Do you feel like you have a better understanding of the big ideas of the New Testament? I have considered having these printed into a book form, what would you think about that? Send me an email to justin@alvinmbc.com and let me know what you think.  

Key verse: 1 Timothy 1:5

Big idea: The goal of a ministry is love. 

The second habit in Stephen Covey's famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is "begin with the end in mind." If you start out on a project without any specific goal or purpose, it is impossible to set priorities or separate the good from the essential. But it seems like many churches operate this way. Someone likes painting, so they start a painting ministry. Someone loses a loved one, so they launch a grief sharing ministry. A group likes to sing, so the church needs a choir. A new social media platform comes out, so they need a page. There is a tradition of a weekly bulletin, so we spend time and money keeping one up. None of these are bad - indeed, all of them could have a place in a healthy church. But a church cannot do everything and if we do not know why we exist, we have no rubric to distinguish between what we can do and what we should do. 

The same problem can plague individuals and families. We can play three sports and two instruments while taking all AP classes, but saying "yes" to those things means saying "no" to others. We can spend money on a new car, a bigger house or a nice vacation as long as we understand we are choosing not to spend money on other things. None of these are bad, they are just choices. How do we choose? The secret is purpose. 

Paul explains that Timothy is not to get caught up in endless questions or genealogical squabbles. His ministry is to be laser-focused on its purpose: helping people grow in love, through a pure heart and genuine faith. This is not an astroturf love that encourages people to be superficially sweet to one another with hearts that are unchanged. This is the kind of love that comes from understanding the gospel. It comes from knowing our sins have been forgiven and trying to serve God with our lives. It comes from trust that God is going to care for us, so we do not need to serve ourselves. It is the kind of love that believes that the person before us is so precious to God that He gave His only begotten Son for them. So ministries that reach the lost, help the saved live holier lives, and develop love are worthwhile. Things that do not do that (or do it less effectively than other options) are the fat we ought to trim. Maybe in a particular church, the painting group or choir help develop the love between members. Maybe the newest, hottest social media craze lets you lead people to faith. Or maybe they are distractions. If we have a standard, at least we can begin to find out. 

Our goal as individuals and as families is the same. What is going to help me grow in love, faith, and holiness? Those are my priorities. Anything else is optional and should come in second to what really matters. When we have a clear purpose, we can choose what we will do, rather than having our circumstances choose for us. Think of the freedom you could have if you dropped all of the baggage God never intended for you to carry. 

Discussion idea: What are the three things in your life that take up the most time (other than sleep)? How well do those support your purpose? What could you trim to make more time for the things that really matter?

Prayer focus: Pray that God would give us the clarity to focus on those things which help us to grow in love. 

Friday, August 28, 2020

2 Thessalonians 3

 Key verse: 2 Thessalonians 3:12

Big idea: Our reward is coming but requires patience.

The end of this short little letter seems to make a hard swerve. We have been talking about the end of time and the return of Jesus and now we are talking about not being a freeloader? Paul warns them against busybodies, who don't work and spend all-day gossiping, living off the generosity of the rest of the church and encourages them to quietly continue living their lives for God. How did we get from A to B? Does Paul just need another cup of coffee? 

Of course, the principles are intimately related. Things are not how they will be or how they should be. Jesus is coming to separate the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the tares but in the meantime, the world is blended. We should keep our eyes on the return of Jesus so that we have hope that God will reveal Himself and His children. Yet that does not mean we should put our feet up and sit on the porch waiting for him to come. No, we work while we wait! We stay busy about even the most mundane things, because God is the one who is accomplishing His good will through us. We eat our bread and pay our taxes, not because Jesus is not King, but because we want to serve Him until His arrival. 

Faithfulness today and a hope of eternity are not opposites. They are different sides of the same coin. Because our eyes are fixed on the horizon, we work until Jesus comes. Because we are working, we are painfully aware of how badly we need the Master to come and finish the job. So don't give up! Don't get weary! The harvest is coming.

Discussion idea: Why is it so hard for us to delay gratification? How can we work hard for rewards that we cannot see until Jesus returns?

Prayer focus: Lord, give me the balance to live in two worlds at once. Help me to faithfully work for you and yet to keep my heart and mind fixed on the day when all of this shall pass away.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

2 Thessalonians 2

Key verse: 2 Thessalonians 2:11
Big idea: The reward of rebellion is rebellion.

Isaac Newton's first law of motion says: "An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force. An object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force." You knew that already. Something moving will keep moving unless or until something stops or slows it (like friction). An object which is not moving will not start moving unless something acts on it. Behaviorally, as well as physically, we have a tendency to keep doing what we are doing. We often think that we will make a change in our life tomorrow but do not realize that it will never be easier than today. 

Paul warns that those who reject Jesus now will have a last chance to accept him. If they "received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved," the time that they have to repent will not last forever. At a certain time, God sends a strong delusion, to reinforce them in the lies they have chosen, sealing their condemnation. This is no easy doctrine, but it is taught in several places (Romans 1:28, 1 Timothy 4:2, Revelation 17:17). There is a self-reinforcing cycle, where choosing obedience leads us to more obedience and choosing rejection leads us to more rejection. An object in motion will stay in motion, unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force. 

Thankfully, there is an external and unbalanced force which acts on us: the Holy Spirit. He comes and empowers us to respond to the message so that we can change direction. But if we reject that conviction then eventually God quits pushing and leaves us to lie. Do not wait, trust Jesus today. 

Discussion idea: Read 1 Timothy 4:2. What does it mean to have a seared conscience? How does that relate to this passage?

Prayer focus: Pray for a heart sensitive to God's Spirit. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

2 Thessalonians 1

Key verse: 2 Thessalonians 1:11 
Big idea: Our rewardireward for the work which God does through us. 

The verse at the end of 2 Thessalonians really caught my attention. The apostle Paul's prayer is that God would, by his power, grant all of our desires to do good. 

This seems so counterintuitive. Our understanding of good works is usually based in the idea that we are, by our strength, accomplishing something which God is calling us to do. Sometimes people dream of finding the perfect will of God in their lives. But they think that God's will for them comes down to such an extraordinary level of detail that they imagine they are displeasing God if they drive a car which is the wrong color or if they eat the wrong thing for lunch. But here we get a tantalizing vision that perhaps bringing glory to God is much simpler than that. 

Paul says that we (as born-again believers seeking to please the Lord) desire to do good and that God gives us the ability to do the good thing that is in our heart. What a powerful idea! Finding the will of God is not some sort of puzzle where God is testing us to see if we can find the treasure at the end of the map. Rather finding the will of God means submitting to what He has revealed in His Word, looking forward to his coming, desiring to do good, and then acting in his infinite power. 
We  often face decisions for which there is probably not what we would describe as a single right answer. The hurricane barreling toward the coast we have to decide do we stay or do we evacuate? When deciding to get married we have to wonder is this the person that I should spend the rest of my life with. When buying a home we have to choose between different colors or furniture. Is one choice a sin?

Sometimes when we talk about how the whole Bible is inspired by God, people struggle. Because the different authors of the Bible use their own different vocabulary and style. How can it all be breathed out by God if John writes in short simple sentences and Luke writes inflowing strong Greek probes. 

Well, it's because God did not begin the process of writing Luke and John when the Apostles picked up when scratched that. When the authors picked up their pens. No, the author and finisher of the faith had been preparing Luke and John to write those gospels through their whole lives their vocabulary to their education their family of bringing were no accident. 

God shaped their desires so that what they desired to do when their eyes were fixed on him was the very think that he desires. So then they could do it through his power. But ultimately if we desire to do good,G is the wind in our sales pushing us onward. Now, this doesn't mean that God doesn't call people towards specific tasks. It doesn't mean that at certain times God doesn't shut some doors and open others to direct us to where we ought to be. But it does mean that there is a danger to overcomplicating obedience to God. Again, Paul says that the reward that we will receive is the reward that we get for desiring to do good and then God's power accomplishing that good through us. 

Discussion idea: Is it easier or harder to be given wide latitude in serving God?
Prayer focus: With Paul let's simply pray that God will accomplish the good desires of our heart through his might.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

1 Thessalonians 5

 

Key verse: 1st Thessalonians 5:11

Big idea: Our hope takes our eyes off ourselves and turns them to each other.

As the Apostle Paul closes his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, he continues the subject of the end of time. He explains to them that there is no need to obsess about details which are unknowable because the Lord will come like a thief in the night. Rather their posture should be of constant, hopeful expectation: Jesus is coming and God’s ancient verdict will be true once again, it will be “very good.” Of course, it will not be good for everyone. For those who reject God, His return means judgment and condemnation. But for us, it is a source of joy.

Verse 5 is particularly interesting. Paul explains that because we are the children of light, the Lord will not overtake us as a thief in the night. We live in the same world as everyone else but because we have been born again, we are living in the light of day already. Our circumstances may be the same but by the grace of God, we are in a position to already see day breaking over the horizon.  Since we are children of the light, the Apostle says, we should live like it. But how? How should our lives be different? Again, it is not by a detailed knowledge of future events. It is a life that is marked by a change in priorities. It is by a transformed life.

This is where our key verse for today comes in. If we have been transformed by the gospel and have the encouragement of that hope, then we should not sit at home in self-satisfaction. We should comfort others! If the power of death and sin have been broken we should encourage one another and build each other up for God’s glory. My life is no longer my own – it is the Lord’s. Once again, the Bible confronts us with the need for the church. We cannot be who we are intended to be alone but need to be built up our brothers and sisters, even as we build them up. Brother John quoted Ecclesiastes in his sermon on Sunday night and it is a good place to end: “

 

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

 

Discussion idea: Why has God designed us where we need encouragement and building up from other people, instead of just from the Bible and the Holy Spirit alone?

Prayer focus: Pray for the opportunity to encourage someone, specifically, today.

Monday, August 24, 2020

1 Thessalonians 4

Key verse: 1 Thessalonians 4:13

Big idea: Our knowledge of God's Word gives us hope.

A lot of people think about theology as something boring and irrelevant. They see it as a list of abstract facts like mathematics or geography and their eyes glaze over at the thought. Give us something practical, they say, thinking that theology is an old man wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But actually, the truths which are taught to us in the Scripture are infinitely important. The things that we know and the things that we believe shape the way that we can respond to the events of our everyday lives.


This is no more true than in the face of death. In many situations which we face we have experience to go on. Even if we haven't dealt with something personally, we may have friends or family who can tell us how they got through it. There's a certain kind of worldly wisdom which allows us to at least partially face many of the struggles of life. But there's one conflict which everyone must face which we have and can have no experience with. No psychologists or scientists can tell us about the secrets of life beyond life. No friend or loved one can tell us how they were able to conquer death and there is no book of the 5 Habits of Highly Effective Zombies. So in the face of this, the one great equalizer of the human condition, we all are ignorant. And that ignorance can lead to denial or it can lead to despair. But the Bible offers us a better way. 


Paul says that he does not want us to be ignorant. Not because he wants us to pass the great pop quiz in the sky, but he wants us to not be ignorant so that we will not sorrow like those who have no hope. And Paul's solution to keep us from being among the hopeless is theology. The assurance of God's Word is the only thing which matters because Jesus alone has walked through all the horror of death and come again a conqueror. When we sorrow we don't sorrow hopelessly because we have the word of God. 


He tells us, by the authority of the Lord, that as surely as Jesus conquered death so "them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him." That same Jesus who died in our place and ascended up to heaven is coming again and when He comes again, He will bring our saved loved ones with Him. Of course, if God is bringing them with Him, He must have them already. There is no reason to sorrow hopelessly because they are not lost but safe in the arms of God. There is no reason to sorrow hopelessly because our separation from them is not final because we will be reunited.


So Paul's ultimate answer to the pain of ignorance is Scripture. He says in the face of death what we need is not a stiff upper lip or a science experiment, but he tells us, "Comfort one another with these words." It is the Bible! It is theology! When there can be no other knowledge we can hope in the face of the last enemy because God Himself tells us how He has conquered.


Discussion idea: If God's Word is the only source for the ultimate questions, how should we think about the areas where the world and God both offer counsel?

Possible discussion for older kids: How can someone be comforted when their loved one was unsaved?


Prayer focus: Pray that those who grieve would be comforted by the hope in Jesus.


Friday, August 21, 2020

1 Thessalonians 3

 Key verse: 1 Thessalonians 3:8

Big idea: The hope we have in the gospel brings us comfort in pain.

Paul and his companions had faced much tribulation and suffering. They had been threatened with death, imprisonment and undermined at every turn. What gave them endurance? What encouraged them when all hope seemed lost? 1 Thessalonians 3:8 tells us that it was the news that the Thessalonians stood firm. The grammar assumes that the "if" is true in 1 Thessalonians 3:8, so Paul is saying: "For now we live, since you stand fast in the Lord." What a pastor's heart! Paul and his coworkers do not despair of life - they "live" - because the church at Thessalonica is following Jesus. Paul believes their fruit shows that they genuinely belong to Christ and will be made like Him at the end. In comparison to that hope, all of the stresses and pressures of life are almost irrelevant.

Older kids: What is your biggest worry right now? If the worst happened, would it matter to you when you are 80?

Younger kids: Have younger kids hold something close to the maximum weight they can lift. Add a single piece of paper on top of it. Is the paper noticeable, compared to the weight? How do the weights of this life compare to the weight of the promise we have in Jesus?

We face many temptations to despair or doubt but we might wonder how many of them will matter in 50 years, much less 500. Do you think a slight difference in tax policy, a utility repairman arriving late, or an embarrassment will even be remembered in 50 years? Almost certainly not. Most of the things that we fret about are genuinely irrelevant. But forgiveness of sins, eternal life and certain glory for the people we love? That is an unshakable hope. So Paul could be beaten, he could be imprisoned and ultimately even executed, but he had hope and joy because his spiritual children stood firm in Christ. 

Discussion idea: Why do you think Paul uses such strong language, "now we live"? Some pastors take the philosophy that they should not be concerned if people respond or not, as long as they have presented the truth. Does this match what Paul says here?

Prayer focus: Thank God that all of our biggest fears are a grain of sand alongside His goodness and love for us. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

1 Thessalonians 2

Key Verse: 1 Thessalonians 2:9

Big idea: Our hope in the gospel is in each other.

When Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he writes to people who were soaked in the ideology of the world. They assumed that whenever anyone did anything for them that they had an angle. People always have something they are trying to get out of every situation - with most people, most of the time, they would be right. It seems that most people are not looking for how they can serve but how they can be served. 

But, as Paul explains, he came to them as a parent comforting a child. He came to them with love. He came to them, not like their own countrymen who sought to take advantage of them and tear them down, but with the love that comes from God. Jesus himself said: "The son of man came not to serve but to be served and to give his life a ransom for many."

Paul passed on that same kind of selfless love and service to the church at Thessalonica. So as he writes to them and they face various challenges from opposition on the outside and people trying to undermine Paul's authority on the inside, and as they try to live out the balance between the hope that they have in heaven and the desire to follow Christ in this present life, Paul tells them that he is not trying to manipulate them. His goal is not to take advantage of them, but to love them. 

So what is in it for Paul? He tells us at the very end of the chapter: the joy and the crown that he seeks is the Thessalonians themselves. What he wants is not something that they can give him or some benefit he can gain from them. It is simply to have them with him when Jesus returns. The greatest hope that he has is not something material, not something of prestige or influence but simply to have them made complete in Christ and stand with him. 

As parents raise their children, they ought to have the same kind of attitude. John the Apostle wrote: "I have no greater joy than to see that my children walk in the truth." He mean those he had led to Christ but his point is certainly not less true in earthly families. The goal is not the stuff we can get from our family. The goal is the relationship we can have with them, by God's grace. 


In every dimension of our lives today, we have to resist the temptation to take advantage of others. We have to resist the temptation to always ask ,"What can I get?" and instead ask "Who can I serve?" Whoever we have fellowship with is a precious person made in the image of God and bought with the blood of Jesus. Surely that connection is worth more than anything this world could ever offer. 

Older kids: Have you ever done something kind for someone in hopes of getting something in return? Has someone ever done something like that to you? How did that change the way you thought of their kindness? How did that change the way you thought of them?


Discussion idea: Why was Paul concerned the Thessalonians would think that he had his own interests at heart? How is the integrity of the gospel at stake in that situation? 

Prayer focus: Pray that God would help us to have the same kind of selfless love that he has for us and that Paul had for the church. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

1 Thessalonians

 Key verse: 1 Thessalonians 1:10

Big idea: Our hope is that the One who was taken from death will take us from wrath.

What is hope? In modern English, it means that we want something to happen. But the biblical Greek word is defined as: "the looking forward to something with some reason for confidence respecting fulfillment."[1] It is not something that we wish will happen, but something that we expect to happen and are looking forward to with excitement. It is in this sense of the word hope that we hope Jesus will come again and rescue us from our sin and the judgment to come. It is something we can expect, because He is no dead idol, but the one who died in our place and rose again on the third day. That is the kind of hope which is transformational. 

There is always a temptation to extremes. Perhaps we see faithfulness in this life as so important that we give little or no thought to the return of Jesus and our deliverance from this world. But perhaps we are so obsessed with Heaven that we fail to obey Jesus on Earth. But the Thessalonians apparently overcame that trap, at least when Paul wrote this letter to them. They were living out in faith, love, and hope, because they expected that Jesus would come again and rescue them from the wrath of God against unrighteousness. They could endure when they faced struggles because they knew that there was a champion who had conquered death, ascended to Heaven and would return.

As we read through 1 Thessalonians, we will see the power of hope to transform our lives. We do not serve God out of fear, but out of joy that we are His and He is ours! Jesus is coming and our temptations, our tribulations, and even our triumphs are all given meaning by that hope. There is no need to be beat down and discouraged all the time because our Savior is in Heaven and is coming back to Earth on the greatest rescue mission in history. 

Discussion idea: Do you tend to gravitate to the extreme of earthly mindedness or heavenly mindedness? How are they inseparable, when rightly understood?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you to keep one eye on the work and one on the sky as you serve Him today with joy and hope. 

[1] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 319.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Colossians 4

 Key verse: Colossians 4:6

Big idea: Our witness is inseparable from the fullness of our life.

Several years ago, I took the CDL test to drive a church bus. I have forgotten a lot of the rules about air brakes and traffic codes but one question has been burned into my memory. "What is the best way to make sure you have both hands on the wheel in an emergency?" Answer: always have both hands on the wheel. It is the kind of observation which ought to be too simple to make, but is a very helpful reminder. You never know when disaster is going to strike, so the only way to be ready is to always be ready. If you let your guard down because you do not expect a crisis, then you will never be prepared when it comes. 

The spiritual parallel is obvious. We face certain crises in life, but the kind of person who will be prepared for the great test is the one who has been faithful in the small things all along. Jesus said that the one who is faithful in little is also faithful in much and our ordinary experience bears that out. Colossians 4:6 applies this to something even more ordinary than driving: speech. Do you want to be the kind of person who is abe to speak to those who need Jesus in a way that is winsome? Do you want to not lose your temper at the critical moment, when someone's very soul is at stake? Paul has a strategy: "let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt." If you always speak graciously, with the preserving influence that comes from being the salt of the earth, then you will know how "to answer every man."

Older kids: Have you ever tried to cram for a test? What works better, a habit of hard work, or trying to push through at the final moment? 

Younger kids: How are your manners? Do you think about saying 'please' and 'thank you' or is it a good habit? How can doing things all the time help us to do them when it really matters?

Very few people can really be said to have speech that is always with grace and seasoned with salt. Most of our conversation can better be described as "salty" in the modern slang of irritable and sassy, rather than the biblical sense of our speech being set apart as an offering to God. But if we are Christians, everything we say should have the savor of the Lord about it. We cannot say that we will be negative and foul mouthed about our coworkers, our politics or other drivers and yet be gracious in our speech about the gospel. If we are serious about our witness, our mouth must belong to the Lord 24/7. 

Discussion idea: What percentage of the things you say are gracious? Does your family agree with your estimate?

Prayer focus: Pray that the gospel would be so ever-present in our minds that we would see every word we speak as a means to the end of God's glory. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

Colossians 3

 Key verse: Colossians 3:9-10

Big idea: The fullness of the Christian life replaces the emptiness of sin.

Sometimes, you do not really have to make a decision between two things. Peanut butter or chocolate? Why not both? Not every choice is mutually exclusive. But some things are. You cannot go both up and down or east and west at the same moment. Sometimes to get one thing, you must reject another. This is true in the way we spend our time: choosing to spend an hour watching TV means choosing not to spend that hour reading. Staying an hour late at work means choosing not to spent that hour with your family. In Colossians 3, Paul makes clear that this is true about the Christian life. To put on Christ, we have to take off the old self. There is no serving Jesus as Lord while following the inclinations of sin - there must be a transformation.

It should not be hard to trade an empty bag for one loaded with treasure or a dead fly for a faithful dog. But when it comes to turning our back on sin, we seem to struggle. We want to hold onto both, like trying to write new wedding vows that let you be married, but also keep your options open. It is absurd. To the extent that we have our mind fixed on the things of this life which can never satisfy us, we do not have our mind fixed on Jesus who can. It is a game for fools and there are no winners.

Do not miss the order, though. Paul does not say that we should choose to put on Christ and take off Adam over and over again until our score is high enough. He says that if you have been raised with Christ, then you have already undergone this transformation. When you trusted Jesus as your Savior, you were clothed in His righteousness and the old chains of sin were removed. So live like it! 

Discussion idea: Make a chart with two columns: "Put off" and "Put on." Work through the passage and list the things that Paul puts in each category. What are some specific reasons it is impossible to live on both sides of the line?

Prayer focus: Paul does not say that we should put off the old self, but that we already have. Pray for the strength to live out what God has already accomplished.   

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Vacation

 Hi everybody, I would like to apologize that we have not had any devotional this week. I am on vacation with my family and expected to have some time to write in the hotel, but it has not materialized yet. I will try and play catch up when we have time, but there may not be any posts this week. The devotionals on churchanswers.com/devotions are just lightly edited versions of ones already run here (6 months ago), so they are prewritten and still running, if you would like to read those. 

Another recommendation is George Morrison, an 18th century pastor. His devotions are among the best ever written: 

http://devotionals.ochristian.com/george-h-morrison-devotional-sermons-devotional.shtml


Thanks for your patience. 


Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Ephesians 5

Key verse: Ephesians 5:18
Big idea: The gospel gives us access to the Holy Spirit. 

There are no substitutes for presence. Someone can send a card, call you on the phone or give you a gift, but when you love them, there is nothing as good as being together. If we have learned nothing else from the coronavirus pandemic, it is probably that. We need to be together and need the strength that other people provide. So what is the greatest gift God can give us? Himself. He gives us many gifts, but nothing more precious than choosing to live with us and in us. The gospel gives us access to His Spirit, to empower and direct us. 

The people we are around have a profound impact on us. Some people bring out the best in us and others bring out the worst. The intensity of the effects of people vary; some people touch us only superficially and others reshape us. But God is of course more intense than any human. Paul here compares the influence of being filled with the Spirit to drunkenness: like someone drunk has lost control of their lives to alcohol, the influence of the Holy Spirit completely reshapes our decisions and mindset.  But unlike alcohol that smothers our best selves, the Holy Spirit empowers us to be the people we were born to be.

Older kids: Who in your life brings out the best in you? Do you have any friends that undermine your attitude or your good habits? 

Those filled with the Spirit sing in their hearts to the Lord, encourage one another, give thanks to God for everything, and submit to one another. It is a life totally transformed in our relationship with God, other people and our overall attitude. The closer our relationship with God goes the more transformed we are. 

Discussion idea: How does the presence of the Holy Spirit empower you to do more than you could ever do on your own?
Prayer focus: Ask God to help you demonstrate the influence of the Spirit in your life. 

Monday, August 3, 2020

Ephesians 3


Key verse: Ephesians 3:10
Big idea: The unity of the church reveals the glory of the gospel. 

Paul was a Jew, yet he sat in jail because he refused to quit carrying the gospel to Gentiles. Despite the deep cultural prejudices he had been raised under, he sat in jail with their best interests on his mind. It was a mystery. His message that the Jews and Gentiles should be one body and share the inheritance and the promises of God was incredibly strange. But it was a central part of God's plan. Jesus' redemption of the world is pictured by Paul as having three parts. First, He created a new humanity in His death, by becoming the second Adam and breaking down the barriers between us. Then, He rose again from the dead to present this new humanity to God. Finally, He ascended to Heaven to be enthroned and awaits making His enemies His footstool, ending the rebellion in the heavenly places when the new heavens and new earth are formed. 

The united church is a living sermon. It proclaims to the world that the God who is strong enough to overcome social, political and racial barriers is the same God that overcame the barrier between sinful humanity and a holy God. It proclaims to the angelic powers that God is a reconciling God and what He is beginning, He will complete when He puts Satan under His feet. When we are who God intends for us to be, serving one another in love, we proclaim His wisdom and glory by our very existence! So Paul says to these Gentiles, "faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory." The face a Jewish man would suffer for Gentiles was glorious: the wisdom and power of God on display. It is in our love for one another ("with all the saints") that we can begin to understand the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge. Unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen!

Discussion idea: Why do churches so often fail to cross the cultural barriers that the gospel overcomes? 
Prayer focus: Ask God for the opportunity to demonstrate the unity we have in the gospel.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Ephesians 2

Key Verse: Ephesians 2:16
Big idea: In Christ, we are reconciled. 

Webster defines reconcile as "to restore to friendship or harmony." It is the kind of positive thing which can only take place after something negative. Our relationship with God was shattered in the fall of man by our choice of sin and that relationship could never be restored by us. We needed to be reconciled. But who could serve as a mediator? Who could absolve our guilt? We needed someone to go between us and God, to bridge the gap between the holy and the sinful. Ephesians tells us that Jesus came to break down the barriers between people, as a new Adam creating a new human race. We are no longer Jew or Gentile (or anything else) if we are in Christ: we are simply His. We are part of his family and fellow citizens of His Kingdom.

When Jesus died on the cross, He killed the hostility of sin. Once He reconciled us to each other through His cross, fulfilling the Law and taking the penalty for sin, He rose again triumphant, to reconcile His people to God. This reconciliation is not just a passive tolerance. We are not just around each other but are being built into a holy Temple, as interconnected as bricks in a wall. Our relationship with God is not just the absence of conflict - it is the active access to the Father to worship Him in Spirit and in truth. Here is real reconciliation, the restoration of a ruined relationship. 

Probably the greatest Christmas hymn is "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Wesley wrote: "Peace on earth and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled!/Hark the herald angels sing/Glory to the newborn King." In Christ, and in Christ alone, we have reconciliation with God. We have a relationship restored and divisions dissolved. We have forgiveness, fellowship, and the privilege to worship. It is already done, we need only to accept it by faith.

Discussion idea: What areas in our society need reconciliation? Is it possible apart from Christ?
Prayer focus: Lord, help us to recognize the reconciliation you have already accomplished by the cross and help us to live worthy of it. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Ephesians 1




Key verse: Ephesians 1:10

Big idea: In Christ, we have peace.

The world is a mess. I am not sure if you noticed. But families are in shambles, political division is near historic levels, and people are depressed, anxious, and isolated. We are a wealthy nation, with a lot of comforts and a lot of power. In fact, the only thing we don’t have is peace. There is no peace between us and God, there is no peace between us and each other and there is no peace within us. Is it any wonder that we have problems? At the root of all of our conflict is our sin. It separates us from God and each other. It puts turmoil into our hearts and puts all of our relationships in peril.

God’s plan is not merely to escort us out of the world and take us to dwell disembodied in Heaven forever. He is going to fix the chaos on a much deeper level than that. When the time is ripe, Jesus will put all of the pieces back together again. By His incarnation, His death and His resurrection, He overcame the barriers which prevent peace. Our sin’s penalty has been paid and the power of sin has been broken in our hearts, so we are no longer enslaved to it. The divisions of age, race, class and nationality are irrelevant when we all come to God through the cross.

But God is not through. Heaven and Earth will be brought together in Christ too, when He comes again. The tabernacle of God – the heavenly Jerusalem – will come down to the earth and we will dwell with Him forever, Heaven and earth collided. Our peace now is just a foretaste of the total peace when Jesus returns and sin is abolished once and for all.

Practically, there is a very important point to be made here. If we are in Christ, we already have peace. It is not something we need to strive for, just to recognize. The secret is to realize that peace is not in ourselves or our efforts, but in Christ. When we look for peace, we will only find more chaos. But when we rest in Christ, we will have peace. Charles Spurgeon put it well: “I looked at Christ, and the dove of peace flew into my heart; I looked at the dove of peace, and it flew away.”

 Discussion idea: What does it mean when it says that Christ came at the “fullness of times”? Is the meaning the same as Galatians 4:4?

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to rest in You and find all of my meaning and satisfaction in You. Help me to trust that you are bringing all things together in Your Son and that we can have peace.


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Galatians 6

Big idea: In the gospel, we are a new creation.

Key verse: Galatians 6:15

In 2009, the US government launched a $3 billion program called the “Car Allowance Rebate System.” It was better known as “cash for clunkers.” A $3500 or $4500 voucher was given for old, fuel-inefficient cars, to go toward the purchase of a new vehicle. The idea was to stimulate the economy and remove old cars from the roadways; upgrading them would cost more than they were worth. The program was very popular with the public: the initial $1 billion allotment was exhausted in just 6 days.  Sometimes it is better to just scrap the whole thing and start over.

The gospel includes some shocking news: our hearts are clunkers. They do not need a fresh coat of paint or some new tires. We are what your insurance agent would call totaled and it is time for a total replacement. The Law, whether circumcision, a restricted diet or observance of special holidays, cannot repair the wreckage. Going to church, being baptized or reading your Bible every day are all about as effective as a baby’s arm floats on a grown man. The burden is simply too great: we need to start fresh.

Thankfully, that is exactly what God offers us. In the gospel, we are promised that the cross of Christ has crucified us to the world and the world to us. We are made new creatures, transformed by the power of the Risen Jesus. If you have never trusted Christ as your Savior and have been gnawing at the edges, it is time to realize that your life does not need a make-over, but a do-over. If you have been born again, do not fall into the Galatian foolishness of believing that what God started with a radical transformation you are now going to finish by your works.

The whole thing is by God’s grace. As a cost of much greater than $3 billion dollars, He has purchased us to transform us fundamentally. We are new creatures, made fit for the new creation. The works of the old creation, the strength of our willpower or the might of our flesh, are already passing away. Everything that matters is ours by faith in the Risen Son.

Discussion idea: Why do you think people want to believe that their lives can be fixed by behavior modification? What does the need to be born again do to our pride?

Prayer focus: Lord, thank you for making me new. Teach me to live like the new creation that I already am, not so that I can earn your favor, but in love for you because I already have it.


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Galatians 5


Key verse: Galatians 5:13

Big idea: The freedom of the gospel is the freedom to love.

What does it mean to be free? For many people, freedom is the ability to self-indulge without being stopped. Freedom is no bedtime, no rules and no obligations. You see this worked into our political discourse all the time; I am not free unless I can do whatever I want. But the Bible calls this freedom slavery. Sure, we are not slaves to someone else in this scenario, but we are slaves to a much harsher, crueler master: ourselves. When every craving and lust is satisfied like an itch, we are carried around with the same kind of superficial liberty that an animal has. To look at it another way, if a fish more free in a tank or on a table? In one sense, the fish on the table can go anywhere and do anything, while the fish in the tank has restrictions. But the restrictions are what allow the fish to live and thrive. The appearance of freedom in this case ultimately means the loss of choices.

Paul offers a better way. God has set us free from the Law! We are no longer bound like children to all of the regulations that apply to the outside. But if we think that freedom means that we should now follow our flesh into every temptation, then we have traded a harsh but good master for a lenient but evil one. We are free, but our freedom is a chance to serve, not a chance to sin.

If you parents made your sister share a toy with you, there is some joy in that: you get something that you want. But how much better is it if on the relationship of love, your sister choses to do what she does not have to do? Some marriages are more like business partnerships, with strict divisions of labor by common agreement. But how much better is it to have a marriage where I am free to do what I wish, and I choose to lay my freedom down for the sake of love? Legalism, adding requirements to the Word of God as if they are Scripture, leaves no room for love. Libertinism, saying I can do whatever I want whenever I want, disregards love. Both are failures for the Christian and both are yokes of bondage that forget Christ has set us free.

Freedom means that the way I resist evil is by choosing to walk in the Spirit. Although the flesh may offer me a carrot to entice me to sin and the Law threatens with a stick, the Spirit calls me to choose self-denial voluntarily, not because I must but because I can.

Discussion idea: When was the last time you did something that you got no benefit from, just because of love? What opportunities do you have to do that this week?

Prayer focus: Pray for God to help you avoid temptation by walking in love.


Sunday, July 26, 2020

Galatians 4


Key verse: Galatians 4:7
Big idea: The gospel sets us free!

When you were a child, you probably had some precise rules. “Don’t touch that! Don’t go there!” As you grew older, those rules changed. The earlier rules may have seemed reversed, but with hindsight, you can see they always had a particular trajectory. “Stay away from the stove” gradually turned into learning to cook with less and less supervision. It is not that your parents were randomly changing their minds, but that we need more detailed instruction when we are children than when we are mature.

Older kids: What are some rules you used to have which have changed form? How do they follow the same intention?

Today’s text refers to a Roman custom where children were under the care of “tutors and governors” until they reached adulthood. The child did not have freedom but answered to a servant who, in modern English, was something like a nanny. His job was not to explicitly teach the boys but to discipline them and prepare them for adulthood. The child was free, and in some sense, the servant belonged to him, yet he was under the servant’s authority. So sons were treated like servants until they grew up.

Paul explains that the Law was like that. Perhaps the clearest example was when Jesus said that man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for man. There is no Law without humanity, so in some sense, the Law exists to serve us, not the other way around. Yet, for a period,  God’s people were placed under the Law until the time to grow up came. The goal was never to stay under the rule master forever, but to grow up.

Jesus, the very Son of God, became a slave to the Law Her had made so that He could redeem us from the Law. There is no need to act like a child; the full blessings of heirs are ours. A Christian being bound by the requirements of the Law is like an adult chewing on a bottle or climbing into a crib. Jesus has set us free by the gospel, so we should not be entangled again.

Discussion idea: Why would Christians want to place themselves back in bondage? What kind of wrong thinking was leading the Galatians astray?

Prayer focus: Pray for the maturity to follow God, not by Law but by the gratitude of grace.


Friday, July 24, 2020

Galatians 3


Key verse: Galatians 3:13
Big idea: The gospel is that Jesus was cursed so that we could be blessed. 

Have you ever been pulled over by a police officer who wanted to compliment you on your nice turn signal? Gotten a card from the IRS thanking you for your prompt payment and careful accounting? Probably not. The Law has a strongly negative tendency: its purpose is not to create the good but to stop the evil. So Law could never give us a relationship with God, it can only stop one. But God had made a promise to Abraham before He gave the Law. If a human being cannot break a contract by making a new one, then the perfectly True God would certainly not do so. So if God gave Abraham a relationship with Himself apart from the Law, He is certainly not going to add a new requirement for a relationship later. The Law is simply a tutor that shows us that we could never attain a relationship with God by our own merit: when we see that we can never be strong enough to accomplish it on our own, we are left with only grace. 

Older kids: Looking at only the ten commandments as an example, how many of them can you say you have kept perfectly, all the time, your whole life? If even the most basic pillars of the Law can't be kept, how could we ever be good enough to earn our way to God?

Yet, the Law does make moral demands and lay out the penalties for failing to meet those demands. While the promise that whoever does the Law will live by it is belied by the fact that no one ever has, the curse of breaking the Law remains. How is that curse handled, so that salvation can be all of grace? God Himself became a man, born of a woman (and so into the world under the curse of the Garden) and born under the Law, so that He could be placed under a very specific curse. Deuteronomy 21:23 spoke about a particular punishment for notorious criminals, whose bodies would be hung up on stakes after their execution. "He that is hanged [upon a tree]," Deuteronomy says, "is accursed of God." 

Jesus was hung alive on a tree by crucifixion and he was made the object of God's curse. All the wrath for all of the sin of all of the world was poured upon Jesus as He was crucified. The Law's demands were justly satisfied. But with the curse of the Law complete, there is now no obstacle to the promise of Abraham. When we realize that Abraham's relationship was based on with alone, when we see that by the Law we could never be justified, and we accept that Christ has taken the punishment we deserved, we have peace.

Younger kids: Would you ever trade places to be punished for something you did not do?  Why? 

Discussion idea: The truth that Jesus was given the curse we deserved so we could have the blessing He deserves has been called "the great exchange." What else, based on the things we have read already this year, did Jesus exchange with us?

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Galatians 2


Key verse: Galatians 2:20
Big idea: The gospel lets Christ's life shine through us. 

Next to my desk is a lamp. The light bulb in it is, right now, just a dark ball of glass. No amount of scolding or encouraging it will ever entice it to glow. But if I twist the switch, connecting it to power, then an incredible change will take place. What it could not do on its own it can accomplish with the power of wind turbines or natural gas fires flowing through it. The light bulb will never work without a power external to itself flowing through it. This is not a flaw, it is designed to be connected to the outlet! 

A lot of people live their lives in a kind of futile darkness. They have the right makeup to accomplish things of significance but wonder why they never do. Maybe they are religious people and try their best to do good works but find that good works never have the desired power. Maybe they are secular and try to mentally climb their own way to enlightenment (pun copyright me 2020) but can never get above the shadow of their own weakness. Even godly people, like Peter when he quit eating with Gentiles, can be fooled into disconnecting some area of our life from the real power source.

The message of the gospel is presented here plainly, through the Law we die to the Law. Christ came and fulfilled the demands of the Law and died in our place. When we trust Him, our old self dies and the Law's demands on us die too. We have given up on self-illumination and by turning from relying on our internal power to His, we are finally alive. "I am crucified with Christ nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me," Paul famously wrote. It is good theology and it is good practical advice. When we try to rely on ourselves we find only discouragement and frustration. When we turn to Jesus we have more than we could ever ask or think. Self-righteousness, trying to earn our place with God, is never going to be a success because we were designed to be connected to the Power. 

One of the greatest hymns of all time ("And can it be?") says:

           ’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:

Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?


The Immortal has died so that we can live. There is no greater source of strength than grace and no source of life except the Author. No human being will ever be justified by our works, but by faith, we can be justified by His. It devastates our pride and replaces it with love. 

Discussion idea:  Peter knew that gospel and would never have claimed to be saved by works. But his behavior did not match with his doctrine and he started pretending ceremonial Jewish observance was important once again. Why? Do you see any similar temptations in your own life? 

Prayer focus: Lord, help me to remember that without You, I can do nothing. The idolatry of legalism which says that I am able to earn my relationship with You downplays both the depths of my sin and the heights of Your love. Drive it out of me! Let the life I live in the flesh be always and only Christ living in me.