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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Resisting Lies

Yesterday, I wrote about the need to be strong in the Lord, so that we might stand against the devil’s schemes from the first part of Ephesians 6:10-20. You can read that here  What follows are a few thoughts on v. 14-17 on what is known as the defensive part of the armor of God.
Ephesians 6:14–17 (ESV) 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,
One of the primary schemes Satan uses against us is accusation. For instance, early this morning I listened to a podcast from a pastor and leader I respect on handling criticism. From a text of scripture, he explained that criticism often comes when we're already down, when we don't deserve it, and from those who are unqualified to give it. But what I found myself zeroing in on was that second one; that criticism is often undeserved. As I thought back over my life and the times that I've received criticism, it seemed to me that many of those times the criticism was justified. It came because of my own immaturity or lack of courage. Was that true? Partially. Sometimes I've received criticism and I've deserved it, at least to some extent. It's important to listen to criticism and learn from it when we can. But it would not have been right for me to then conclude that I am worthless, that I have nothing to offer, and that I should just give up and hide. And I could sense those thoughts coming on as well. Satan can work his schemes even while listening to a sermon. The text says, to put on the belt of truth. What is true about me is that through no benefit of my own, and in spite of my sin, I am clothed in the righteousness of Christ. I have put on the breastplate of righteousness. This knowledge does not make me want to them disobey, but moves me to want to follow. 

The next part of the armor is, “and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.” The truth that we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ encourages us not to want to disobey, but creates in us a “readiness” to do God’s will. Internalizing the good news of the gospel gives new grace to move back into the world. Shoes for your feet implies being ready to walk back out into the world and to take risks in spite of potential criticism and past mistakes. 

“In all circumstances we are to take up the shield of faith with which we can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.” To  know the truth that we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ makes us ready to obey, but we will need to repeatedly counter Satan’s lies by remembering these truths. We use the shield of faith by trusting what God says rather than believing Satan accusations. We should expect to need this shield often, “in all circumstances.”

Finally, there is the helmet of salvation. That is that we are secure in the knowledge as we enter this battle, that our security comes not from our ability to hold onto God, but on his ability to hold onto us. This also does not encourage a life of running from God’s will. Rather, it grants the confidence to move into the world, knowing that we cannot ultimately be harmed. He will never leave us or forsake us.

In the next couple of days, I hope to share a couple of thoughts about the part of the armor used for offense rather than defense, that is the word of God itself and prayer.

Friday, December 8, 2017

This is Not Hypothetical

Today’s reading contains a familiar passage often taught. I’ll risk putting my toe in the water to share reflections on the text both today and tomorrow.

Ephesians 6:10 begins the passage:  “Finally be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” There would be no reason for Paul to say this if this were not going to be a serious challenge. Strength is a necessity. Discouragements, challenges, difficult decisions and temptations are not hypothetical. But he doesn't just leave the need to “be strong” as a theoretical idea. He doesn't just say, “be strong in the Lord,” and leave us to figure out how. He lays out how. There follows a series of clear instructions. 

So he says, “Put on the whole armor of God.” That means this is armor that comes from God. We do not generate the armor in our own strength. God is all powerful. Nothing is too difficult for him. He does not sleep. He does not need to study. He does not need to spend time reflecting on the best course of action. God possesses all wisdom and all strength. By contrast we are limited and temporary. We need God’s armor so that we may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. I don’t sense that we think enough about the reality that these schemes are real. We don't always expect them in a way that would be healthy. This is not looking for a demon under every bush; the instruction is right here in black and white. Here is how he describes it, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood.” We do wrestle. There will be struggle. There will be criticism and discouragement and temptations, and they will be hard. And that wrestling is not against flesh and blood. We are not just struggling with critics or temptations that come from people or circumstances or commercials. Ultimately, we wrestle against spiritual forces. Specifically against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. I don't remember this enough. I don't keep the truth of this passage specifically in mind to the extent that I need to remember it.

Tomorrow I plan to walk through the specific armor he lists here and give some practical instruction as to how to apply it. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Anything That is Profitable

A few days ago I read an article about theologian Vern Poythress written by his son. It’s well worth a few minutes of your time. His son grew up observing his dad’s quiet pursuit of memorizing God’s word. Later he managed to extract from his father how much of the Bible he had actually memorized. The answer was staggering. It was all of the New Testament and the Psalms, all of the minor prophets, the song of Solomon, the second half of Isaiah and scattered narratives. Perhaps Poythress has a once in a generation mind, but with no guilt, the story stirred up my spirit, not for the first time, to add memorization to my daily reading and prayer. So for the last couple of days I have sought to memorize a few verses in the daily reading. Today, I spent some time with the beginning of Paul’s message to the Ephesian elders recorded in Acts 20. Now I’m further stirred after reading about Poythress, regarding the way that Paul characterized his own ministry. 

The description begins in verse 19, he served “ with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to him through the plots of the Jews." 

It’s hard to directly pursue humility. No one can sensibly say, “I’m going to go out and act humbly” Contrived tears are the worst. And no one should seek out trials. There is a sense in which these things happened to him as a byproduct of his walk with God.

But verse 20 describes activities he could choose. This too though would flow from his walk with God. His ministry was characterized by teaching. He did not shrink from declaring to them anything that would have been profitable to them. For him to say that meant it was a temptation for him to do just that. How he speaks of teaching shows he did not see such opportunities as a burden for which he had to prepare. Rather, because of his walk with the Lord and his immersion in the knowledge of God through his word, he taught them in public and from house to house. His teaching was not relegated to formal teaching times. Rather, it seems that he couldn't turn it off.

This then is another motivation behind why we pursue God in his word regularly. Some of us have a responsibility to overtly teach publicly. But it appears from Colossians 3:16 and other passages that each of us are called to teach and admonish one another. We can’t manipulate humility or tears and we shouldn’t invite trials, nor can we snap our fingers and cause the word of God to naturally flow from us. But we can plead with God to give us an increasing hunger to know him and to encounter him in his word, allowing the word of Christ to dwell in us richly, so that the teaching that each of us is called to do is not seen as a burden but that we would be willing to declare anything profitable to those within our sphere of influence.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Prayer Reflection on Romans 5:9

I spent my prayer time this morning reflecting on one verse contained in my reading for today, Romans 5:9. If my writing is ever polished, this is less so. But I wanted it to share it with you. I did reduce it and edit it some for clarity. 

Since therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall will be saved by him from the wrath of God. My Lord and my God, I plead with you that the shape of your word will transform the shape of my mind. I plead with you to press upon my heart and my soul so that I might think these things, so that I may faithfully memorize them and recall them, but even more than memorizing that these would be the thoughts that would forcefully shape my mind. What I need is more than memorizing. Memorizing could well be a step to this, but Father, I want my mind to be transformed so that this is the pattern of the way that I think, that this be the controlling narrative of my life. Since, therefore we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. Father, please press this into my soul. You are our Father O God. You are just in all your ways. Your justice has been met, has been satisfied within or through the blood of Jesus. Since therefore we your children, those who are able to call on you as our Father, we have now been justified by his blood. So then much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 

The wrath of God is a real danger. This morning I had a twinge of worry after glancing at an article titled Business Is Booming for America’s Survival Food King  It speaks of a doomsday scenario of the need for disaster food; that is pouches of food that could be eaten by simply adding water. Such pouches have a shelf life of years. We may or may not ever have a need for such things. But it of course is possible. Such packets of barely edible food in good times, could taste like a steak dinner in the moment. 

Even if something like that did happen, how would you ever know that you had enough of the survival food to make it. How much would it take to make you feel secure? 

(Don’t stop halfway through the next paragraph) 

But here is a disaster that is certain. We will all encounter the wrath of God for our sin. Period. There are no exceptions. This wrath is far worse than any doomsday scenario that we can possibly imagine or far worse than your worst nightmare. And it is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Unless! Unless we have been justified by the blood of Jesus, and thus much more would be saved by Jesus from the wrath of God. I need to not just be able to recall the facts of this in case someone asks me. I need to know far more than where this text is in the Bible, I even need more than to have this text memorized, I need for the reality of this text to so control my heart and my mind that it is the way that I think, that it controls what goes on in my heart and in my mind. 

Father, I worship you because we have been justified by the blood of Jesus and so because of this we will be much more saved by you from the wrath of God. Jesus, I worship you because we have now been justified by your blood that you painfully shed on the cross. Hallelujah! 

Father, in accomplishing this your glory, your holiness, your justice was in no way diminished. You were wholly true to who you are, because you can do no other, and our salvation is secure. The accomplishment of Jesus death is far more powerful than we can possibly imagine. 

Referring back to the article, we think it would really be something to do be the guy on the other end of the phone for whom the government is asking for 2 million orders. That would make you feel set for life. That is something on the order of Roger Goodell asking for a lifetime salary of $50 million, use of a private plane, and lifetime health insurance for his family. That’s a man trying to buttress his way of life against what ever hazard may come. But it wouldn’t be enough to make him feel secure. What Romans 6:9 refers to is exponentially greater than the deal Goodell asked for or the owner the company that makes disaster food received. 

O God, may the reality of justification be the controlling narrative in our minds. May your kingdom come in the way we think. May your word control the way that we see the world.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Two Simple Reasons I'm Grateful Today (there are many others)

As I do most mornings, after my Bible reading, I choose some portion of that days reading to prompt prayer. When I do this I’m not studying the text carefully to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying through it, rather, I’m allowing what the text talks about to guide my praying. These tasks are not so different but the result is that sometimes my praying will take off in a direction that is only hinted at in the text rather than being its main point. My reading began with 1 Corinthians 16 so today being Thanksgiving, 1 Corinthians 16 prompted prayer in two directions: gratitude for the faithfulness of God’s people in giving and gratitude for insight into how Paul planned and made ministry decisions.

Verses 1-4 describe Paul’s effort to instruct the Corinthians on providing an offering to the believers in Jerusalem. As I wrote and prayed through  these lines I was reminded of the the faithfulness of believers in the various churches that I’ve served for the past 35 years who gave in response to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Because of that I could give my time to the ministry of the word and of prayer. I am deeply grateful to God for their faithfulness and generosity. 

Then in verses 5-9 he relates to them his intentions for visiting them in the near future. This led me to pray and think about how Paul made ministry decisions. He states clearly, “I will visit” and “I intend to pass through Macedonia” Then in v. 8-9 “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost” and then offers clues about why he made this decision “for a wide door for effective work has opened to me and there are many adversaries.” This obviously is not clear let alone comprehensive instruction about planning. But it did prompt me to pray about how I plan and make decisions. These tasks happen daily and it’s not always clear to me how to proceed. For this prompt then and for the goodness of God to me in leading me to pray this today from this text, I am grateful. For though I don’t walk away from the time of prayer with a full proof strategy for planning, I have a sense that I have talked with God about it and because of that I have a new sense of peace and confidence and fresh awareness of the presence of God. And that is truly cause for great gratitude.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Richer Understanding

In my reading today, I was reminded of the importance of using scripture to refresh what it is in my mind when I think about the gospel message. I’m concerned that we condense the gospel in our minds in unhealthy ways that diminish our grasp of the gospel and our wonder in it. I’ve memorized and used a number of gospel presentations over the years and these can be helpful summaries. But it is critical for anyone who wants to grasp he gospel to examine how the apostles themselves preached it. Peter’s message to Cornelius is one of the most complete instances we have a what Peter said when he preached.

If you have not I urge you to read from the beginning of Acts 10 to catch the full story of Cornelius, and of the men he sent to Peter, and of the vision Peter had while waiting on lunch. You don’t want to miss these “delicious” details. Peter traveled to Caesarea to preach Cornelius and his family. This story also reveals the only reason we have hope that people will come to faith in Christ when we share the gospel. That is that God is already at work, drawing people to himself. That is made very clear through the words of Cornelius recorded in Acts 10:30-33.

Acts 10:34-43 records Peter sharing the gospel. What elements would you say that he lists here? I see eight.
  1. God shows no partiality
  2. Jesus lived as a man doing good and healing those oppressed by the devil.
  3. We apostles are eyewitnesses to these realities
  4. Jesus was put to death by being hung on a tree
  5. God raised him from the dead on the third day
  6. He appeared to us who ate and drank with him after the resurrection.
  7. He commanded us to preach that Jesus is the Judge of the Living and the dead.
  8. The prophets bear witness that everyone who believes receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

This is not the only way the gospel is shared in the N.T. Later in Acts 17 is an example of how Paul shared the gospel with a pagan audience that had far less background than Cornelius had. We often will need to start further back as Paul did then with many who we talk to now. But in our hearts and minds, we need this much richer version of the gospel that Peter uses here embedded within us. When asked what is the gospel in a nutshell it is not wrong to say that, “Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins.” But that is a dangerous shortening of the message if it is not richly grounded in the fuller message of the gospel the way the apostles preached it.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Unhealthy Speculation

Near the end of John's Gospel is a fascinating interaction between Jesus and Peter. The conversation recorded in John 21:15-19 is more well-known and well loved, but what happens after that incident is curious and left here for a reason that's not unimportant. After Jesus reinstates Peter poignantly to the ministry; that's what's recorded in verses 15-17; Jesus then predicts what looks like a difficult assignment for Peter and shows him how he would die. Immediately following that, John records this taking place:

John 21:20-23 (ESV)
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

We aren’t told how Peter feels about this, but it doesn't seem like good news. But as Jesus and Peter continue to walk (we know they are walking because of verse 20) Peter looks back and sees the apostle John, the one who's writing this material, following them. So right after Peter hears what's going to happen to him in the future, he asks, “Lord, what about this man?” I understand that question to be loaded so that in reality he was asking something like this,  “Jesus, what about John? What does his future hold? How does his assignment for the future compare to mine?” 

Jesus says to him, “if it is my will that he remained until I come what is that to you, you follow me.  Or again to elaborate further Jesus says to Peter, “I’ve been very clear with you about what I'm calling you to do. I’ve given you more information than most get about their future. You know what I'm calling you to do. What I'm asking John to do and calling him to do is not really your concern.” 

It then appears that Peter took what Jesus said and distorted it. Somehow the rumor began that John was going to remain alive until Jesus returned. John, here in the letter that bears his name, is clearing up that that is obviously not what Jesus said. 

That’s what happens in v. 23.

23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

We face a temptation to compare the difficulties that we face to those of other believers. That comparison can be related to our relative level of busyness, or what appears to be the relative difficulty or ease of a person’s ministry or family life. We might even feel, if not dare express, a bit of jealousy. But we can't know all that another person faces and all than of God is doing in one person's life compared to ours. Of course, this doesn't mean that we are not to be concerned about other peoples lives. But comparing the relative ease or difficulty of our lives to other people is a kind of speculation that Jesus warns us against. God’s call on our life is to follow him in our bodies with our unique set of opportunities and challenges without comparison to others.