Sunday, August 7, 2022

Ready for Either!

 


The Moravian Brethren have a rich history. Tracing their origins back to 1457, this Christian denomination still has about a million members worldwide. Their famous logo is a lamb carrying a flag, but they once had a lesser known emblem to represent their missionary arm. This image was that of an ox, standing in between a plow and an altar.

 

On the one hand, the ox can be strapped to the plow and put to work, and on the other hand, he could be led to the altar and be offered as a sacrifice. With these two very drastically different options before him, the caption reads: “Ready for Either!” That ox was prepared to be given as a sacrifice, or to spend his life as a living sacrifice (the concept has been adapted by various denominations over the years).

 

Church history gives us examples of both options. We study people like Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, where he spent fifty-one years ministering to the Chinese people. But we also study people like Jim Elliot, who was savagely murdered by the Auca Indians when he made first contact with their tribe in Ecuador. For Taylor it was the plow, and for Elliot it was the altar, but they were both ready for either. 

 

That serves as a microcosm of the Christian life. We are not all called to serve as overseas missionaries, and few of us will ever die for the Gospel (I hope!), but the same two options are equally before us and that ox on the Moravian Brethren flag. When we give our lives to Jesus, we do not know how He will use us, but we must be ready for either. 

 

But the altar does not have to refer to physical death. Paul famously spoke of the concept of laying our lives down on a metaphorical altar. In Romans 12:1 he would write, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

 

When we present our bodies as a living sacrifice we actually embrace both the plow and the altar. We lay down our rights to our own lives, even our future, and we allow the Lord to harness His plow to us. We surrender our lives to His service, to be used however He sees fit. Some He calls into vocational ministry, like pastors, missionaries, and evangelists; and others He calls to be used in the community, workforce, and schoolhouse, “as we are going.” 

 

To quote Jesus, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Mark 8:34).” The cross was a symbol of death—literally capital punishment—and Jesus encouraged His followers to be prepared for that same fate. But the Christian life isn’t necessarily Christian death; it is simply taking a hands off approach to our lives, submitting to God, and allowing Him to chart our course. Rather than being ready for either, we really need to be ready for both—sacrifice and service.  

Saturday, July 30, 2022

The Birth of Ben Hur

 

 

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ was the best selling book (besides the Bible) of the 19th Century, and is arguably one of the most influential books of all time. But the story behind the book is as good as the story itself. 

 

Lew Wallace was many things: lawyer, inventor, author, journalist, and officer in the Union Army. He received appointments from two US Presidents: Rutherford B. Hayes made him Governor of the New Mexico Territory, and James Garfield made him Minister to the Ottoman Empire. He was many things, but a theologian was not one of them. If someone asked, he would have called himself a Christian, but he was nominal—Christian in name only.

 

On a train ride in 1876, Wallace found himself conversing with Robert Green Ingersoll, a man of great reputation for being an agnostic who loved to debate religion. When Ingersoll pressed Wallace to defend the Scriptures, Wallace was at a loss for words, something that he later admitted embarrassed him greatly. 

 

According to his posthumous autobiography, Wallace described his faith this way: “At that time, speaking candidly, I was not in the least influenced by religious sentiment. I had no convictions about God or Christ. I neither believed nor disbelieved in them.” Someone with an investigative mind like Wallace, who had written both novels and biographies, did the only thing he knew to do: he began to research the life of Jesus for the purpose of writing a novel. The book was more for himself than for any audience. He knew that researching for this book would help him one way or the other to either embrace Jesus or reject Him.

 

His finished product not only helped solidify his faith, it has done the same thousands of other people. 

 

For the remainder of Wallace’s life, he credited that difficult conversation with Ingersoll as being the catalyst that led to his conversion to Christianity. I cannot help but smile when I think about how Ingersoll’s badgering of Wallace backfired. The agnostic thought he was turning Wallace away from God, but he only turned him to God. When the devil thinks he has the upper hand, God can be getting ready to turn it into His own victory.   

 

When writing to the Jews who were about to go into exile, the Lord spokes these words through His prophet in Jeremiah 29:13: “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” That promise is just as true for us as it was for them. When Lew Wallace began to seek the Lord, he found Him. If you are on the fence with your faith, or maybe you have even written off Christianity, I challenge you to do what Wallace did. Seek the Lord while He may still be found. You might not write a bestselling novel, but you will end up with something far greater—a relationship with the God of the universe. 

 

Monday, July 25, 2022

Critics

 

 

When I was a kid I wanted to be a food critic. I like to eat, and I enjoy a wide variety of foods; plus, getting paid to eat sounded like quite the dream job. Food critics go into restaurants, order several courses, and then give an honest review that can make or break the dining  establishment. 

 

Similarly, movie critics will watch a film and then write their opinions in the paper or online. There are professional critics, and then there are people who are just critical. Some people act as if their occupation is to be a Bible critic. They scoff at any reference to the Word of God, pointing out that it was really just written by men. They say the stories are not true; they claim that creation didn’t happen; they insist that much of the content was borrowed from pagan mythology; and their favorite line is that there are a bunch of contradictions in the Bible. 

 

In a wonderful verse about how the Bible judges our own hearts, the writer of Hebrews gave us these words: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).” 

 

There is a lot to unpack in that one verse, and I am not even attempting to do it all justice in this space, but I want to point out one word—discerning. That comes from the Greek word kritikos, and as you may have guessed, gives us the English word critic. According to this passage, the Word of God is a critic. More important than critiquing menus and movies, though, the Bible critiques mankind. The sharp, two-edged sword was not the saber swung from mounted cavalry, but the smaller, more precise dagger. 

 

Like a scalpel in the hand of a skilled surgeon, God’s Word is able to cut exactly where it needs to in order to produce the desired results. The soul and spirit are so carefully intertwined that it is hard to differentiate between them, and yet God’s Word pierces so accurately that it can divide them asunder. The Bible penetrates and pierces with precision. 

 

When we as Christians are out of line, God’s Word pricks at our conscience and we feel the stinging rebuke. It knows what we need better than we do, and we would be wise to heed its instruction. Often the ones who are the loudest critics of the Bible are the ones most pierced in conviction, and they are determined to drown out the voice of conviction. 

 

The late J. Vernon McGee once wrote, “We do not sit in judgment over God’s Word, God’s word sits in judgment over us.” That is not to suggest that we cannot probe and study and ask hard questions, but at the end of the day God’s Word is the authority over our lives, not the other way around. 

 

God said it. That settles its, whether we believe it or not. We can critique food and films, but when it comes to the Bible, lets just trust and obey.   

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Good Grief

 


“Good grief, Charlie Brown!”

Many of us remember Lucy, the snarky character created by Charles Schultz for his Peanuts comic strip. Whether reading the comic in the “funny pages,” or watching the classic holiday cartoons, we commonly see Lucy roll her eyes in exasperation as she repeats her famous catchphrase (she is also fond of calling him a blockhead). Have you ever wondered what the phrase good grief means? More than just an alliterated anecdote, I believe there is such a thing as good grief.

Or as Paul put it, there is a godly grief. In II Corinthians 7:10 he said, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” It is important to understand the context here.

Earlier in this chapter the apostle mentioned a previous letter he sent to the Christians in Corinth, and after he sent the letter, he sat and worried about their reaction. Was he too harsh calling out their sin? Would they get angry and hate him? Or would they take his message to heart and repent of their sins? The waiting was killing him; the mean time was mean to him. So Paul abandoned the rendezvous point in Troas, and began walking to Macedonia in hopes to find Titus even sooner, and there he would learn how they received his letter. When he found Titus, Paul was thrilled to hear that the church took his message to heart and repented of their sins. Paul’s words caused them grief, but it was a good grief—a godly grief. 

The Jewish New Testament translates the phrase godly grief as, “Sorrow in accordance with God’s will.” Sometimes it is God’s will that we suffer, if that suffering is the catalyst that leads to change. We often refer to this as having our toes stepped on. It stings for a minute, but it shows us that we need to move. 

Paul had initial regret when sending the letter, but godly grief produced a salvation that freed him from that regret. Good grief is contrasted with worldly grief; the former leads to salvation while the latter leads to death. We see a perfect illustration of this on the night that Jesus was arrested. Peter felt incredible grief for denying Jesus, not once, but three times. That grief led him to repentance, and soon he would lead the church after Pentecost. Judas Iscariot also felt great grief for betraying Jesus with a kiss. He returned the silver, but he didn’t repent. He took his own life, and it would have been better for him that he was never born (Mark 14:21). 

Peter’s good grief led to salvation, while Judas’ worldly grief led to death. Maybe you need a little good grief today. Christian, have you allowed a sinful habit to creep back into your life? Maybe the guilt you feel right now is in accordance with God’s will, a godly sorrow that can lead to your repentance. Maybe you have never called on the name of Jesus; godly grief can lead to salvation if you will put your trust in Him. Sometimes, like Charlie Brown, we can all use a little good grief. Don’t be a blockhead. Repent of your sins before it is too late.  


Sunday, July 10, 2022

Great Endurance


The Apostle Paul was no stranger to difficulties. In II Corinthians 6 he lists some of the struggles that he faced: “in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger (v.4b-5).” A few chapters later he elaborated: “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure (11:24-27).” 

This was all before he was bitten by a venomous snake! His critics accused him of living in secret sin; like the friends of Job, they reasoned that the Lord must be punishing Paul, but Paul (like Job) maintained his innocence. The suffering he faced was the mark of his ministry, that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (II Timothy 3:12).” 

So how was Paul able to keep going? In every city where he ministered, Paul acquainted himself with the synagogue and soon availed himself of the prison. Where did he find the willpower to press on? He told us in the beginning of the verse mentioned above—“as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way, by great endurance…(6:4a)” 

The Greek word that is translated as great endurance is a rich word, one that has no good English equivalent. We really need a sentence to translate it, not just a synonym. It carries the idea of standing strong in the face of immense hardships, and in literature was often used to speak of being able to endure because of the ability to see the finish line up ahead. 

I have never run a marathon because I’m not crazy (I’m kidding!). But in all seriousness, these runners will push their bodies to go 26.2 miles. This requires great endurance, and it is something that is built up over a period of time, often many years. I can imagine a runner who has gone 26 miles already, and he wants nothing more than to stop. His feet have blisters. His lower back aches. His muscles are cramping. He is nearing dehydration. Just as he is about to convince himself that he cannot take another step, he looks ahead and he sees it: the finish line. He can hear the crowds cheering him on, and he reaches deep within himself and decides that he can go just a little bit more. Two tenths of a mile. Put one foot in front of the other. 

John MacArthur has defined this great endurance as having “joy in anticipation of future glory.” The glory of the runner is crossing the finish line. Even while his body hurts, he has joy in knowing that he is almost there. Now the screaming in his mind is drowned out by joy. He can enjoy the homestretch in anticipation of future glory. 

Isn’t that how life should be? Yes, it is hard. This is a cursed world, after all. We have run 26 miles and feel like there is nothing left in the tank. Everything in us is saying to give up, but we can run our race with great endurance, in anticipation of future glory. Christians understand what lies ahead, our eternal home with the Lord. So don’t give up, look up. Notice the finish line up ahead, and listen as you are cheered on by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before. 

Keep putting one foot in front of the other, and in joy we anticipate crossing the finish line and hearing these words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”   

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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Labor Shortage

 

“Help Wanted”

“Apply Today”

“We’re Hiring!”

We see these signs everywhere. If you are looking for a job, this is a great market. Unfortunately, the market does not feel great for those who are trying to fill these vacancies, and for the patrons who are feeling the effects of the labor shortage. The service industry in particular has been hit hard; your favorite fast food restaurant may or may not be open, depending on whether or not enough people show up to work that day. When they are open, service is slow at many places.

It is taking an unusual amount of time to get things because the labor shortage has impacted the shipping industry. In May our church ordered a new appliance, and we were told it would arrive in June—of next year, thirteen months away!

It is taking an unusual amount of time to get places because the labor shortage has impacted the airline industry. Flights are being cancelled at the last minute because pilots are in short supply. This labor shortage is frustrating, and something needs to change soon. 

If we are bothered by this labor shortage, how do you think God feels about a more important one? Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 9:37, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” The harvest to which Jesus referred is a spiritual harvest, a crop of souls that are in desperate need of attention. 

All farmers desire a plentiful harvest, but not having enough hands on deck to reap the produce is bad business. Today’s restaurateurs want customers, but they also need enough of a crew to accommodate them. We want to see the lost get saved, but we need the manpower to make it happen. 

Yes, there are missionaries around the world evangelizing unreached people groups; there are pastors proclaiming God’s Word from their pulpit each week; there are evangelists traveling from city to city declaring the gospel, but it takes more than that. We need students talking to their classmates. We need employees talking to their coworkers. We need shoppers talking to their cashiers. The harvest truly is plentiful; there are people all around us who are a heartbeat from hell. Will we be willing workers?

We can help in this harvest by rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty, but there is also a spiritual element as well. In the parallel passage we read in Luke 10:2 “Then He said to them, ‘The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.’” 

God is the Lord of the harvest. When we pray for Him to send workers, it starts a chain reaction in heaven’s throne room. We must pray for the conversion of the lost, but at the same time pray for God to send people their way. Pray for God to send people to the uttermost parts of the earth. You might just find that the next worker God will send into the harvest is you.   

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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Ravens’ Beaks

 

Last week I wrote about eagles’ wings and how we need to wait upon the Lord in order to renew our strength. So can we think about a different bird this week? The raven is not a majestic bird that soars in grace like the eagle. It is actually a scavenger bird, eating the carcasses left behind by nature. Thanks to Poe, the raven has taken on an association with the darker side of literature. 

But God has worked through the raven. The fowl served a purpose after the flood, as Noah sent one out that did not return, letting him know it was not yet safe to disembark. But more importantly, God used ravens to help Elijah and to teach him to trust in the Lord. In I Kings 17 the prophet came suddenly onto the scene and told King Ahab that there would be nether rain nor dew for three years. 

This was punishment for the idolatry that had become commonplace in Israel’s northern kingdom, but it was also God’s evidence that He was superior to Baal. Ahab’s wife Jezebel had once served her father as the high priestess of Baal, and she was determined to turn Israel into a Baal-worshipping land. Baal was believed to be responsible for sending the rain, so when the land experienced drought for three years, who do you think the people prayed to? They would call upon their god—a mute idol—and beg him to send the rain they so desperately relied on in their farm culture. 

Elijah’s declaration of drought would make him a marked man, persona non grata throughout Israel. So the Lord instructed him to go to a private place to lay low while He issued judgment on the idolaters. The text tells us, “The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the brook (v.6).”

The brook from which he drank was a wadi, a stream that only held water after the rain, but God supernaturally allowed the brook to supply water for an extended period of time in a drought. And Elijah was taken care of by using the first Door Dash service; his meals were brought right to him from the beaks of ravens. And yes, raven are scavengers, but that doesn’t mean they brought him what they eat. One may have brought him fish while another brought him bread. While the idol worshippers prayed to Baal and starved, Elijah was eating fish sandwiches and drinking water from a wadi. 

Do you think this strengthened Elijah’s trust in God? Twice a day he witnessed a miracle from the beaks of ravens. In the next chapter he would have the famous confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, and I believe his experience with the ravens made him up for the challenge. 

Never doubt that God can supply your needs. Whether it is manna in the wilderness or meat at a wadi, the Lord can provide for us any way He sees fit. We can mount up with eagles wings and have faith through ravens beaks because our God will never let us down.   

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