The great mentor

Do not be afraid, Samuel replied. You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart […] As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right. But be sure to fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will perish.

1 Samuel 12:20-25

In my devotions, I’ve been reading through the sad account of Israel rejecting the Lord as their king and demanding a fallible man (Saul) as leader over the country. It has to be a heartbreaking end to Samuel’s life and work as a prophet and judge, but what struck me is that while he is grieved over this, he — as God — remains faithful and loving to the people.

I was reading the above passage and saw how much Samuel offers his services as a mentor to God’s people during this time of transition. Even though he is “old and grey” (v.2), Samuel doesn’t merely retire or give up. He uses his wisdom and faith to guide the younger generation in several ways:

  • He encourages (“Do not be afraid… serve the Lord with all your heart”) — Even though the Israelites have greatly sinned against God in their demand for a human king, he reminds them that God’s wrath will make way for mercy and forgiveness, especially if they re-dedicate their lives to following him.
  • He prays (“by failing to pray for you”) — One of the greatest duties of a shepherd is to pray for his flock, and Samuel publicly commits himself to holding up these people in regular prayer.
  • He instructs (“I will teach you the way”) — Mentors draw upon years of life experience to help the younger not make the mistakes of youth.
  • He reminds (“consider what great things he has done for you”) — Humility, thankfulness, and obedience are drawn from remembering God’s faithfulness in our lives.
  • He warns (“both you and your king will perish”) — There is a choice for the people ans Saul to make here, and if it is made wrong, there will be a consequence. Samuel does not sugar-coat it but gives them ample warning so that they can avoid punishment.

From reading this, I have the feeling that Samuel’s greatest legacy might well be the one he established in his old age as a serving mentor to a nation. We should all be so fortunate to have someone like this in our lives to guide us.

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Considering stars

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

Psalm 8:3-4

I’ve been praying through the Psalms lately and was just awash in emotions from reading through Psalm 8. David, who loves nature and admires it daily, is looking up at the stars, the planets, the universe and is overwhelmed by the scope of God’s creation. It is God’s majesty on display, lovely and gigantic and intricate.

And then David does that relatable thing, which is to look at the stars and then feel incredibly small in comparison. But his approach is a little different — not to feel insignificant, but to realize how small he is in comparison and yet how beloved and elevated by God. He notes that God has made such large, immense works of creation and then set his people as rulers over it, stewards of these places.

David attempts to fathom the mystery of why God should love and care for us so much to do this, that God is mindful of us as imperfect sinners and yet still loves, cares for, and honors us. He may not know why, but he knows that God does, and it is a deeply humbling moment of awe.

A good way to start out a Monday.

Devotions: No one righteous (Romans 3)

bible

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

Romans 3:19-20

In my devotions I’m tracking through Paul’s arguments in Romans. Thick, weighty, impactful stuff to be sure, particularly in the first few chapters. He really hits home about how no person is righteous, and because of that, we are held accountable to God’s judgment and wrath for our sins. We have, in his words, fallen short.

And once again, there are three ways to deal with that: To deny it, to ignore it, or to accept it — and accept the message of forgiveness and righteousness through faith that comes after.

These two verses stuck out at me today because I was once again reminded how important the Old Testament law is and its purpose. Paul says it quite clearly here: The law wasn’t put into place so that the cream of humanity might rise and be declared righteous for following all of God’s commands. That never happened and couldn’t happen; our sinful inclinations always turned us away from obedience and righteousness.

But the law’s purpose — at least one of its purposes — was to make us clearly aware of the sin we perform. It was to remove the excuse of ignorance and to help us enter into a state of humility and repentance. Without the law, we don’t see the danger we are in, the absolute depths of our depravity, and the need for a savior. The more we understand the law, the more we appreciate and rejoice over our salvation from the consequences of breaking it.

I read these verses and thought of a person waking up, finally waking up to the truth about him or herself. Of facing the facts instead of continuing on in darkness.

These verses also remind me that we have no defense for our sins that hold up in God’s court of law. We cannot claim to not know the moral law that is imparted on our heart nor, for those who have read it, the special revelation of his word in holy scripture. We cannot claim to be better than others, righteous in all things. We cannot claim salvation due to our heritage as either Jew or Gentile. Our mouths are shut. We know the verdict. And it is only by the grace of Jesus Christ that the sentence was transferred to him.

Devotions: Help me to listen (Psalm 81)

I removed the burden from their shoulders;
    their hands were set free from the basket.
 In your distress you called and I rescued you,
    I answered you out of a thundercloud;
    I tested you at the waters of Meribah.
 Hear me, my people, and I will warn you—
    if you would only listen to me, Israel!
Psalm 81:6-8

In my morning devotions I skip between several books of the Bible I’m reading through, and every so often there are some powerful connections made between them. This morning had one of them.

I started out by reading through Psalm 81, which starts with this call to worship God in music (and you can almost hear the raucous, wonderful noise in those first few verses), but then transitions to God chastising his people for not listening, not remembering, and not acting upon His commands and past faithfulness. You can hear the frustration in that last phrase: “If you would only listen to me, Israel!”

If only. Your life might not be headed to destruction, but instead to glory. If only. You wouldn’t be in constant predicaments of your own making.

God’s speech here has a lot of action verbs that point to what he has done for his people: He removed burdens, rescued them, answered them, tested them, and now is warning them. This is not a hands-off God, but one intimately involved in the lives of his people.

And then I went over to Isaiah 30 and almost laughed, because here God is expressing much the same sentiment as Israel is trying to appeal to Egypt for assistance instead of their Lord. They are, according to the first verse, stubborn children.

For these are rebellious people, deceitful children,
    children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction. (Isaiah 30:9)

And you read that sentiment again: If only you would listen. In this chapter, the relationship between God and Israel is more defined as a father speaking to a rebellious child who thinks that he or she knows better. And isn’t that us, like all of the time? Yeah yeah, God, you say a lot of great things and they’re probably wise, but we’re going to go ahead and do what we want to anyway.

God acts out of his love and care for us. We — and Israel — act out of our sins, our selfishness, our rebellion. If only we’d listen, right? We need help to listen, which is why the Bible hammers on this point, trying to make inroads into our stubbornness. We need to really hear and then really act on what we’ve heard.

Help me, God. Help me to listen.

Devotions: Ezekiel 20

Therefore say to the Israelites: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Will you defile yourselves the way your ancestors did and lust after their vile images? When you offer your gifts—the sacrifice of your children in the fire—you continue to defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. Am I to let you inquire of me, you Israelites? As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I will not let you inquire of me.'”

~ Ezekiel 20:30-31

Ouch.

I’m reading through the heartbreaking saga of Ezekiel in my devotions, which is a book about Israel being incredibly unfaithful to God and God sending his prophet to entreaty with his people to turn back before it’s too late. Just a couple chapters earlier, God defends his fairness, explains patiently how the sinful people were bringing doom upon their head, and calls them to repent.

Here, it’s almost like God’s at the end of his patience as the elders come to Ezekiel with more questions of God. At first that kind of seems like it makes sense and is honorable — they want to know about God, so why not talk to his prophet? But it’s been a year or so since Ezekiel has been about his mission here and none of the people, including the elders, are listening and responding. They’re still in full-fledged rebellion, and God delivers these strong words to them when they dare to try to question him even as they are doing despicable things such as child sacrifice and worshiping other gods.

It’s arrogant and even a bit blasphemous, and if there’s something I’ve picked up in my reading of Scripture, it’s that God does NOT respond well to arrogant people. It also reminded me a bit of how Job had all of these questions for God in the midst of suffering and God’s answer was to basically state his resume as an all-powerful creator and remind Job that he doesn’t ever have to answer anything to anyone. If he does, that’s his mercy and generosity in action, but at all times does God keep the fullness of his council to himself.

Sermon: The Temptation of Jesus

The Temptation of Jesus

Luke 4:1-13

 

On August 10th, 1989, San Fransisco Giant pitcher Dave Dravecky stepped up to the mound as a sold-out crowd watched what would be one of the most incredible comeback stories of the sport. Dravecky was an all-star who had pitched in the national league championships and the world series, but now he looked a little worse for wear – he was down to only one arm.

 

The year previous, doctors discovered cancer in Dravecky’s pitching arm, requiring surgery to amputate it. Instead of retiring, Dravecky trained on his remaining arm and got back on the field, determined to resume his career. In that first game, he pitched eight innings and helped the Giants to defeat the Reds.

 

Five days later, his remaining arm broke while he was pitching in another game, which led the doctors to discover even more cancer that required a second amputation. The Giants went on to win the national league pennant that year, but after his brief return, Dravecky was done. As a man of strong Christian faith, he went on to share his testimony on the lecture circuit and wrote a series of books including one called “Comeback.”

 

There’s something so inspiring and so awe-striking about a great comeback story. We often feel down and out in our lives, far behind the curve, facing disadvantages at every turn. So to see someone beat the odds gives us inspiration that, yes, we can do it too.

 

Last week we looked at how humanity was on the ropes after Adam and Eve failed the test of temptation in the Garden of Eden. For thousands of years afterward, humanity would repeat that failure, and even God’s own chosen people would again and again fall into sin and rebelliousness. Yet there was always the promise of the Comeback Kid who would snatch victory from the jaws of death and defeat, giving all of us a path to redemption.

 

Today we’re going to see how our Comeback Kid, Jesus, succeeded where Adam failed to give us hope for a better future. Let’s open our Bibles to Luke 4 to read one of the accounts of his temptation.

 

 

Our Comeback Kid started at an extreme disadvantage

 

The temptation of Jesus occurs in the gospels right after his baptism – his ministry ordination. The Messiah has been anointed by God, but now he is led – or driven, in Mark 1:12 – deep into the Judean wilderness by the Spirit for a period of temptation to see how this new Adam would fare. Would he be worthy of the ministry that was to come?

 

When you compare and contrast Jesus’ temptation with Adam’s, you quickly realize one interesting factor: the situation was so much more hostile to Jesus than it was to Adam. Adam and Eve had each other for support, while Jesus was alone. Adam had the lush comforts of the garden, while Jesus had the desolate scorching desert that lacked a crumb of food. Adam had the home turf advantage, while Jesus was in a place in which only wild animals and Satan roamed. The Judean wilderness is a sand-blasted landscape in which very few creatures exist – just wild rabbits, snakes, scorpions, and birds. When you are there, you can’t help but feel incredibly lonely and exposed.

 

Let’s read the first two verses: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.”

 

This long period of wandering and temptation left Jesus weak and starving. Scholars disagree whether this was a literal 40 days or a figurative saying that meant a lengthy period of time, but either way, he was hungry and malnourished. This fasting mirrors how Moses and Elijah sometimes went without food prior in the Old Testament, a clearing of the body and mind for what was to come.

 

So why would Jesus submit to all of this? Hebrews 4:15 explains it to us by saying, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”

 

To know that Jesus suffered as we do, to know that he felt the pull of temptation as we do, and yet to see that even though he started at an extreme disadvantage, he became the Comeback Kid for humanity makes him relatable to our lives. He understands where we are and where we’ve come from. He is not a king unfamiliar with hunger, loneliness, or deprivation. He went into that desert for you, to prove that he was worthy to be your Messiah, to succeed where everyone else had failed.

 

 

Our Comeback Kid faced temptation at every turn

 

The crux of this passage comes when Satan arrives, bombarding Jesus with three temptations that appeal to Jesus’ humanity. Again, looking back at Genesis 3, it’s eerie to see how Satan uses pretty much the same approach that he did with Eve. He starts by questioning God’s word and truth.

 

“If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread,” Satan says in verse 3. Right from the get-go, Satan is once again casting doubt on the words of God. Flip back a chapter to Luke 3:22 where God audibly says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Now we have Satan, who knows full well what God had said, saying “IF.” “IF you are the Son of God,” he says, appealing to Jesus’ ego to prove what God had already established, “If you are, then turn these stones to bread. Eat up. Stop being hungry.”

 

And as Eve initially did in Genesis, Jesus fights Satan’s lies with God’s pure truth. He fires back quotations from Deuteronomy at Satan, showing that God’s words were for all time and are not to be doubted. “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone,’” our Comeback Kid replies in verse 4. You see, as Satan appealed to man’s selfishness and inner desires, Jesus’ focus was solely on submitting to God fully, to being obedient to the letter. Jesus wasn’t thinking about how to fill his belly; he was consumed with remaining in the will of the Father.

 

As in the Garden, Satan doesn’t give up after one rebuff. His temptations get more intense, as he takes Jesus to a high place and shows off his dominion over the world. “I will give you all their authority and splendor,” Satan says here. “It has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

 

Ever since the Fall, the Bible established that the world was and is Satan’s domain. This is a broken, sinful, corrupt place that is not our final destination or our true home. So Satan here is fully within his rights to offer it to Jesus, to give Jesus a shortcut to kingship over the world.

 

When we went to Disney earlier this year, we took advantage of a computerized system called FastPass that allowed us to sign up for rides in advance so that we could bypass the lines during certain hours. I loved it, but let me tell you, going into the FastPass entrance always felt like cheating as I looked over at the crowds waiting in the normal line. I felt like I didn’t really earn it. Not that I was complaining or about to wait!

 

Jesus could have taken this FastPass to the throne, bypassing years of toil, of people turning their backs on him, of betrayal, of pain, and of death. Why should he have to suffer to be the king? He could just bow to Satan and take it.

 

And yet our Comeback Kid rebuffs Satan with another verse: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” Jesus is not going to take a shortcut. He is going to earn and be worthy of that crown.

 

Finally, Satan hauls Jesus up to the top of the temple and tells him to jump, encouraging Jesus to publically display his power by having angels catch him. I mean, can you imagine what the people would say and believe if they saw that? What kind of street cred Jesus would earn here?

 

Satan once again takes God’s words and twists them by quoting Psalm 91 and using it in a way that was never intended.  “If you are the Son of God,” Satan says in verses 9-11, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

 

Satan wants Jesus to test God’s truth here. But can you have trust in someone that you’re constantly testing? We think back to Gideon in the Old Testament, who couldn’t trust the promises of God until he tested God repeatedly with the fleece. Satan wants Jesus to repeat that, to see if God really is there to guard his Son.

 

And here we have the penultimate example of what our mothers have always asked of us: “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” Well, humanity had been forever testing God, testing his words, doubting his faithfulness. The old Adam would have jumped. But the new Adam, our Comeback Kid, looks at Satan with steel in his eyes and sternly says, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

 

Our Comeback Kid emerged victorious

 

With that, Jesus wins the day. Throughout the entire trial, he does not falter once, he does not stop relying on God’s word, and he does not compromise or rationalize to make room for sin. He has proven that he has the qualifications to be the sinless, perfect, holy Messiah.

 

Even as our Comeback Kid emerges victorious, even as in Matthew 4:10 he orders Satan to go away, there is a hint at a much larger trial to come. In verse 13 it says, “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.” That opportune time would be on the cross, where Satan would be redoubling his efforts to break Jesus. But for now, for a time, the battle is postponed while Jesus begins his earthly ministry.

 

And I love how in both Matthew and Mark it’s noted that the second the temptations conclude, God sends his angels to minister to Jesus, proving that Jesus’ trust in God was well-placed. The angels were always there.

 

Our Comeback Kid knows your temptations, and has promised to help you overcome them just as Jesus did here. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

 

We are not assured a temptation-free life. Satan will come calling. But when he does, we should rebuff him with God’s word, or how Ephesians 6:17 calls it, the Sword of the Spirit. We rely on God’s truth and reasoning above our own. And we look to that promised way out so that we will not fall, but will take God’s hand and rise in triumph to stand by our Comeback Kid and share in his victory.

Sermon: The Temptation of Adam

The Temptation of Adam
Genesis 3
Big Idea: Adam couldn’t bear temptation, but God could redeem it

Intro

When I was a kid, we came into possession of a big hardbound book of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. Now these weren’t the sanitized, G-rated stories, but the really depressing and sometimes gruesome old-school tales. Obviously, reading them warped me for life.

One story in particular always stuck in my mind, which was The Garden of Eden. In it, there is a prince who’s desperate to find the Garden and sad that it’s been lost to humanity for so long. At the beginning of the tale he says, “Oh, why did Eve pluck from the Tree of Knowledge? Why did Adam eat of the forbidden fruit? If it had been I, it would not have happened; sin would never have come into the world.”

Well, the prince is finally taken to the Garden of Eden – which is now hidden underground – by the east wind and left to explore its wonders for a hundred years. The fairy that lives in the Garden tells him to enjoy himself, but there’s one condition: he must resist her calls at night to come to the tree of knowledge and kiss her.

When the night falls, the fairy beckons him and the prince follows her, telling himself that he can go along with it because he’s strong enough to resist temptation when the moment comes. Naturally, he ends up kissing her on that first night and is banished from the garden forever, crying out, “What have I done?”

This fairy tale sticks with me because at some point all of us read the account of the Fall in Genesis 3 and think to ourselves, “If it was me, I wouldn’t have eaten that fruit. I would have been stronger. I would have been able to bear temptation.” The point that Andersen aptly makes is that, no, all of us would have fallen. Adam and Eve were the best of humanity without sin in their heart, and yet when temptation beckoned, they failed the test.

As we begin a two-week look at the temptation of the two Adams – the original Adam and the new Adam of Christ – I want to encourage all of us to study Genesis 3 at least once a year lest we forget the roots of our fallen condition and need for salvation. Let’s open our Bible to Genesis 3 right now.

The allure of temptation were more than they could bear

In Genesis 2:15, you see that God gives Adam two jobs as the caretaker of the garden: he’s to work the garden and keep it – or more accurately in the Hebrew language, to guard it. Guard it from what? Well, we see the answer to that in the very first ominous note of chapter 3: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made.” Of course, this not any regular snake, but as Revelation 12:9 puts it, “that ancient serpent called Satan, who leads the whole world astray.”

The sanctuary of the garden is invaded by the God-hating presence of Satan, who is described as crafty, or cunning, or full of guile. Satan almost never prefers to attack God’s people head-on, but to lure them into a false sense of security and then strike from our blind spot. It’s why temptation is so effective: Like the prince in Andersen’s story, we think we will be safe and strong enough to toe the line without falling in. And Satan waits patiently until we’re close enough to nudge into his trap.

It’s an important detail here that Satan targets Eve – not because she’s weaker, somehow, but because it undermines the marital relationship that God established. Remember, Adam and Eve’s marriage is a perfect one up to this point, without any conflict or disagreement. Married people, can you even imagine that? Not one fight, not one snarky comment, not one moment where one rolls their eyes at the other for leaving the toilet seat up.

Note here how Satan lies to Eve with his first question: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Satan’s focus here is tearing down the authority and truth of God, and his method is to take the truth and twist it. To her credit, Eve does stand up for God’s truth in her response: “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

This is how we respond to the lies of Satan and the world: We accurately relay God’s words, knowing that he will be faithful to keep them. Truth isn’t open to personal interpretation or relativity. It is fixed, it is from a holy source, and it is universal.

But Satan presses on and opens the door to temptation in verse 4: ““You will not certainly die. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” There it is. There is the lie with just enough truth to swallow without choking. Satan appeals to our wanting to be like God, to have God’s knowledge, and to live our life as we please, not as God pleases. He outright denies that there will be any negative consequences, calling God a liar.

And that allure of temptation, of autonomy from God, tips Eve over the edge and she eats, then gives to Adam who eats as well. This moment in history is its greatest catastrophe, as the beings created in God’s image rip themselves away from him and invite sin to become the new master of humanity. The world is broken and the relationship is shattered. All because that allure of temptation was more than they could bear.

The consequences of temptation were more than they could bear

Have you ever had that type of horrible moment in your life where you made an extremely bad decision and then instantly realized what you had done and what the consequences would be? That feeling of a sinking sensation in your stomach, the wave of despair that crashes over you, and the hopelessness that arrives?

Having been there, I can empathize with the reaction of Adam and Eve starting in verse 7. Yes, their eyes are opened to some of the knowledge that only God had previously, but it is not a wondrous revelation. It’s an awful realization that they broke the only rule God had given them and that they were now awash in sin. Right away, we see three consequences of temptation that were more than they could bear.

First of all, they become aware of their nakedness and craft some leafy outfits to wear. The language here suggests humiliation and shame, that they needed to cover up. Second, when God comes through the garden, they flee and hide from him instead of running out to embrace their creator. I’ve seen plenty of kids – my own and others – do this when they get into trouble, to run away and try to hole up somewhere to ride out the storm. Maybe there’s a legend of an FBI safehouse where kids can get a new identity so they don’t get grounded. I don’t know.

Third, when God accuses them of eating the fruit, they play the blame game instead of assuming responsibility. Adam points a finger at Eve – “she gave me the fruit!” – and here we see that their marriage, their union has been irrevocably damaged as they turn on each other.

It’s a terrible moment that’s about to get worse. Our God is a God of justice, and he cannot abide sin. God pronounces three curses that show the effect of sin: one on the snake, one on Eve, and one on Adam. To the man and woman, pain and suffering was to come into the picture. Giving birth would be agonizing, marriages would be an eternal struggle, working would be difficult, and death would await them both. Then the two people are banished from the garden, and the job of guarding it is passed off to a cherubim with a flaming sword.

We are still trying to bear the consequences of temptation today. Not one of us has a life untouched by suffering, by damaged relationships, by the ever-presence of sin. One of the biggest lies that I ever hear commonly repeated is that “people are basically good.” Let me ask: If we are basically good, why is sin so universal and so prevalent our lives? As Jesus said in Mark 10:18, “No one is good – except God alone.”

Instead of fleeing from God and the truth, instead of pointing fingers at others for our failure, instead of trying to cover and hide our sins, we need to run, walk, or even crawl to the one who is good, because while we cannot bear these consequences, he can.

The redemption of temptation was what God could bear

Make no mistake: This is one of the darkest, most depressing chapters in the entire Bible. It makes for a tough go on a Sunday morning when you come in here looking for encouragement and validation. When we read Genesis 3, we are faced with a mirror to our own failures, our own sins, our own moments in which we’ve surrendered to temptation. As Adam fell, so did we, with all humanity tethered together, sinking fast.

And yet, there is hope. There is hope in this chapter, even amid the pain and the curses and the broken relationships. You see, the redemption of temptation was something God could bear, and even as he was delivering justice, he was also hard at work on a plan to save these beloved children of his.

The first inkling of hope comes in verse 15, where God says to Satan, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.”

This is the “protoevangelion,” the first gospel, the very first mention of the coming Messiah. God is telling Satan, “You have hurt my people but I will save them. I will send my son to come between you and them, and while you may hurt my son, he will end you.”

Then we see even more hope in how God treats Adam and Eve. In verse 21, God upgrades Adam and Eve’s pathetic fig-leaf fashion to outfits made of fur and leather. This act of clothing them is a mercy and is indicative of God’s nature. For the whole of the Bible, we see that while God dispenses justice, he also freely gives mercy to those he loves. Even as Adam and Eve have turned their backs on him and sinned against him, God still cares for them and looks out for their well-being.

When Napoleon was judging a case in which a man repeated the same offense twice and had to be put to death, the man’s mother came into the court and pleaded mercy for him. “He doesn’t deserve mercy,” Napoleon boomed. The mother looked at him and quietly said, “It would not be mercy if he deserved it.” Napoleon paused, and then let the man go free. Mercy is never deserved or earned, but given.

I would also posit to you that Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden is also – in a weird way – an act of mercy. God says in verse 22, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

Here God isn’t threatened by man somehow becoming a rival, but concerned that a fallen, sinful, cursed man would also attain immortality and remain in his fallen state forever. In the garden, there is no redemption, just an awful ongoing existence of hiding from God and dwelling in sin. Outside there might be death, but there is also the promise of redemption and the end to our suffering and struggles.

It is the most glorious, comforting thought of them all that when people sinned, God did not sentence them to die and be cast away from his presence for all time, but instead he looked for mercy and redemption while upholding his righteous standards.

Adam’s story didn’t end with the fall and neither does ours. We have hope. We have the one who could face temptation and succeed where Adam failed. We have a God of love who beckons us to return to his arms even as we are covered with the filth of our sins. We have a Lord who will wash us clean with his own blood.

Acts 5: The good news can’t be silenced

obeygodIn my devotions lately I’ve been studying through Acts 5 and in particular the account of the apostles being persecuted for sharing their faith.

The persecution comes from the Jewish high priests, who are understandably threatened by this new message, and they lock up the apostles and later have them beaten. Yet the passage makes it clear that the good news of salvation — the gospel of Jesus — cannot be silenced by human opposition. God sends an angel in verse 19 and tells the apostles to get right back out there in the temple and keep on preaching.

The priests — who have long since fallen away from the true faith of God — are furious at this and accuse the apostles of not obeying the religious leaders of the land. Peter puts them in their place with the well-known “We must obey God rather than man!” and then launches into a mini-sermon proclaiming the power of Christ to forgive sins. It’s important to remember that he’s saying this to the same order of priests that had Jesus killed because of his teaching and assertion of divinity. And while Peter is rebuking them, he’s also calling them to a saving grace in Christ.

What I really love about this passage is two-fold:

  1. That a religious teacher of the law, Gamaliel, stands up for the apostles and warns the priests not to get in their way in the case that the apostles’ message is indeed from God (5:34-39) — “You will only find yourselves fighting against God,” he says.
  2. And right after the disciples are beaten and instructed not to preach anymore, their immediate response in verse 41 is to rejoice in suffering and verse 42 to keep on preachin’ non-stop to anyone who would listen.

Good news shouldn’t be bottled up or kept secret for special moments in certain situations. Good news that pertains to all should be shared gladly, freely, and as loudly as possible. Jeremiah said that when he was being persecuted for sharing God’s word and wanted to be quiet, he couldn’t. The word of God was like fire in his bones and he needed to get it out.

The cool epilogue to this account comes in Acts 6. Acts 6:7 mentions that many of the priests in Jerusalem do end up following Jesus, a testament to the efforts of the apostles and the power of God: “A large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

Our culture often is vocal about Christians keeping their faith locked up in their homes and churches, out of sight and out of mind. “Don’t bring that noise out here, don’t be an obnoxious Jesus freak, don’t say anything from the Bible that could possibly offend.” And yet we must, because this is simply too good and too important to hold back. We share because we love — God first and others second.

Trading in the spirit of fear

2timI would wager to say that fear is a major force in all of our lives. We fear so much — death, rejection, poverty, mistakes, pain, humiliation, betrayal, the future — that it locks us down into a pattern of worry, of hesitation, and of a narrow routine. Fear can dominate our life’s headlines, with each tragedy (large or small) confirming what we already know. It’s a broken world, we are broken people, and something bad is always on the way.

I am tired of being afraid. I know that one of my weaknesses is timidity and fear, as I spend too much time scared that I will mess up my life, hurt my family somehow, or die before I raise my kids to adulthood.

What’s amazing to me is that God knows that fear is a potent result of sin, and He goes out of His way to encourage us past this fear and give us real hope to replace it. When Jesus came to Jairus’ house to minister to his daughter who just died, Jesus issues to commands to this grieving, scared father: “Don’t be afraid; only believe.” (Mark 5:36). As he raises the 12-year-old girl from the dead, he illustrates that we can trade in that potent fear for something new: faith in the one greater than anything we might fear.

It’s easy to stop being afraid when you have someone with you who can help you through it and even demolish the thing you’re scared of, right? But what do we do now that Jesus has returned to heaven?

Fortunately, we have something just as good — or someONE just as good — as Jesus at our side. Believers are gifted with the Holy Spirit who is always present and always willing to live up to its name as a Helper.

That’s why I’ve always loved 2 Timothy 1:7, which echoes Mark 5:36 when it tells us that we’re trading in something old, broken, and hurtful (our fear) for something wonderful and victorious (the Spirit).

“For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, of love, and of self-control.”

We get three in exchange for one, I say that’s a good deal!

It’s a good reminder that as the redeemed, we are no longer alone in our life’s journey, but are filled with the Holy Spirit who isn’t there to make us quake and worry. Instead, God highlights three benefits of being Spirit-led: We have the power of God with us, we are conduits of God’s love, and we have the means to gain control over the sinful nature that used to enslave us.

It’s important to note that this verse comes within the context of a passage discussing how we may testify to the world about the gospel. I like how in verse 14, God reminds us to “guard the good deposit in you” — a reminder that He has sealed us in salvation and that we do not have any reason to ever fear being taken away from Him ever again.

In accepting the gift of grace, I’ve traded up from fear to boldness. I just need to remember that more often.

The Lord’s discipline

disciplineThe other night in youth group we were spending quiet time simply reading and studying the Word.  I was flipping through Hebrews when chapter 12 caught my eye — particularly the passage called “God’s discipline.”

The author begins by quoting Proverbs 3, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

And then he follows that by saying that the suffering we experience can indeed be part of our discipline: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? …God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

I’ve got to say that this passage is one of what I internally dub a “profoundly uncomfortable teaching” that we come up against here and there in the Bible.  It’s one that you kind of wish God didn’t convey to us, because it’s challenging, tough, and doesn’t coddle us with happy feelings.  I mean, I don’t want to be punished, I don’t want to be rebuked, and I don’t want to have to endure suffering!  Who does?  And here God is not only saying that his children will be disciplined, but that it’s for a specific purpose.

I’ll admit that my mind immediately took the word “discipline” and paired it with “punishment,” although upon successive readings I don’t think that’s the case.  Some discipline can involve punishment for bad behavior, but not all discipline is punishment.  In fact, the act of discipline is to shape and mold a person to obey and conform to a certain standard.

In other words, discipline makes us disciples.

This passage flies against prosperity gospel teachings and other feel-good notions of the gospel to grasp a fundamental truth of being a Christian: We will suffer, and through that suffering we will understand more what Jesus went through and become better people.  It is part of our training, just how a runner will have to push through the burn and dominate his or her body to perform even better.

And once I got past my immediate reaction of a fear of suffering and pain, I read the encouragement that exists here.  First, it makes a strong and repeated case that discipline means that we belong to God as God’s sons and daughters.  We are not abstract strangers that he is smiting for evil pleasure; we are his children that he is training to be the best that they can possibly be.

As a father, I can understand that.  My children outright resent my discipline, because that correction doesn’t let them continue doing the bad or selfish act they wanted to do.  I see that anger and frustration in their faces when I sit them down to talk, and I hear it when I listen to what they have to say in defense of why one kid pushed another kid into a wall for taking his toy.  But the discipline I perform on them is not out of anger or dislike, but out of love.  I want them to grow up to be wonderful people, full of faith, compassion, love, and selfless giving.  And that attitude is not going to come naturally, but must be trained for constantly.  They may resent me for it now, but one day I pray that they will thank me that I cared enough to do it.

Second, the discipline mentioned in this passage has a very specific purpose for our lives.  We will share in God’s holiness and will produce a harvest of peace and righteousness.  When I think of the type of person that I wish I could be for all of my faults, it would be to be like the men and women of faith that I’ve admired — the ones who do desire holiness, who do project peace, and who do prize doing what is right.

It may be the hardest prayer to pray in saying, “Dear Lord, please discipline me.  Please help me to thank you for the hardships and rebukes that I will encounter.   Please help me not to resent you, but to hold fast to these verses and the hope that lies within.”