Following Christ without Distraction

Today’s reading: Ezra 6-8; John 21

10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.                                                                    Ezra 7:10

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!”                                                                                                      John 21:21-22

When God calls people to serve Him, He calls them to avoid distractions and focus on following Christ through careful study and applying of His Word.

Peter was by nature an impulsive and fickle person. This is obvious from the various stories we read about him in the gospels: his nervous response to the transfiguration of Jesus, his confession of Jesus as the Son of God followed quickly by a rebuke of the Lord for His prophecy about His death and resurrection, his promise to be loyal to Jesus to death, if necessary, followed by multiple denials that he knew Him. Now Jesus speaks to him personally giving him the opportunity to confess three times his love for Christ. Jesus charges Peter three times: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, and feed my sheep.” Jesus then makes a reference to Peter’s future martyrdom and says, “follow me.”

But Peter, true to form, notices another disciple nearby (John) and asks about his future. Jesus gently tells him it’s none of his business and repeats His earlier command, “You follow me.”

Peter needed to take a lesson from Ezra, who “set his heart” to study, do, and teach the Law of God. Ezra focused on what God had given him to do and would not be distracted from it. Peter did indeed learn this lesson as we can tell from accounts of his later life in the New Testament about his service for Christ in the gospel.

How about you? Have you set your heart to study, do, and teach God’s word? Are you single-mindedly following Christ? We can all improve in this. Pray that you will be undistracted in your devotion to the Lord and His word.

Believe and Live

Today’s reading: Ezra 3-5; John 20

12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.               Ezra 3:12-13

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.           John 20:30-31

The presence of God among His people, Israel, in Old Testament times was symbolized by the tabernacle and later the temple. Because of persistent, unrepentant sin, God sent Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army to conquer Judah, capture the king, and destroy the temple. Now, in our reading, God is allowing the returned Jewish exiles to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem under a grant by Cyrus, king of Persia, but their joy is mixed with bitter sorrow when the elders see how small the new temple is going to be.

When Jesus rose from the dead, He fulfilled His prophecy to do so and to do so in three days. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” He told the Jews (John 2:19). He showed Himself again and again to the bewildered disciples and they began to understand and to believe. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” He said to Thomas, the famous doubter. And to all the world John says that he wrote his gospel so that we “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing [we] may have life in his name.”

The temple brought temporary joy mixed with disappointment, but it was never meant to be more than a symbol of God’s dwelling place with us. God took on flesh and dwelt among us in His Son, Jesus (John 1:14). In Him, we have life by faith. It is real life that lasts forever because He finished the work of atoning for the sins of His people. Believe and live! We are nearing home.

God’s Sovereignty in Human History

Today’s reading: Ezra 1-2; John 19:23-42

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: 2 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.        Ezra 1:1,2

36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” 37 And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”                                                                                                    John 19:36-37

God providentially and sovereignly rules over every event of history, whether the participants recognize it or not.

We have two cases in today’s readings where human agents did God’s will. In one case there was conscious participation and in the other there was probably not.

Ezra records God’s sovereign moving by His Spirit in Cyrus the king of Persia to make a decree to send Jewish exiles back to Judah to rebuild the temple. Ezra knows this is the Lord’s doing in the heart of Cyrus, but Cyrus in his written decree shows that he, too, recognizes that it is God who has given him political power and charged him to build the Lord  a “house at Jerusalem.” So Cyrus responds in conscious obedience to God to carry out the order by making his own decree to the exiles to gather resources and go do the work. God further moved in the exiles to want to do this project.   God’s hand is seen at every level here.

The details surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial all reveal that Scripture is being fulfilled while the participants seem to be unconscious of that fact. The soldiers cast lots for His garment. They fore go breaking His legs to hasten His death, but, thrust a spear in His side. All of these actions are related by John to earlier prophecy and are fulfilled precisely. Yet there is no indication that the soldiers have either knowledge of the Scripture or awareness of the importance of their seemingly inconsequential actions.

Are you aware that the events of this day, whether in Washington, DC, or Moscow, Russia, or Moscow, Idaho are all under God’s providence? He does hold the whole world in His hands while we go about often oblivious to this truth. Are we robots? No, we act freely, but God engineers the outcomes and purposes so that His will is perfectly carried out. We may choose to obey Him or not but, in the end, He will be glorified and all that He purposes will come to pass.

Do not fret that the world is out of control and going to hell in a hand basket. God is still on the throne. Be confident in Him and grateful to Him and ,like Cyrus, do what He gives you to do.

Fleeing to Satan

Today’s reading: II Chronicles 34-36; John 19:1-22 19

15 They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16 So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.                                                 John 19:15-16

And they burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem and burned all its palaces with fire and destroyed all its precious vessels. 20 He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, 21 to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.                                                                        II Chronicles 36:19-21

When people attempt to flee from God, they always flee to something else.

The margin notes in the Reformation Study Bible helpfully point out that at Jesus’ trial, the chief priests in their eagerness to rid themselves of Jesus Christ confessed to being loyal to Caesar. In other words, they forsook their professed allegiance to the Lord God as their ruler (Psalm 24; 47). God alone is ruler over all the nations and peoples of the earth. He alone is worthy of worship and praise. But the chief priests, in rejecting Christ, enthroned Caesar in their hearts and minds. Such was the level of their sin.

The people of Judah had also forsaken their God, despite the brief return to some level of faithfulness under the reign of Josiah. In fleeing from God, even by failing to honor one of His laws like the keeping of the Sabbath, they turned to other gods and other laws. God through Jeremiah told them they would pay for their negligence of the Sabbaths. They would have forced Sabbath-keeping during their seventy years of exile. This was the indictment against Judah that resulted in their captivity in Babylon.

Keep your heart with all vigilance (Proverbs 4:23) for those who abandon the Lord do not move to a neutral position spiritually and theologically, but they actually flee into the arms of Satan.

An Eternal, Spiritual Kingdom

Today’s reading: II Chronicles 32-33; John 18:24-40

7 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him, for there are more with us than with him. 8 With him is an arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles.” And the people took confidence from the words of Hezekiah king of Judah.     II Chronicles 32:7-8

36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”                                                                       John 18:36

Our ultimate hope is not in the triumph of an earthly kingdom, but in the coming of the Kingdom of God, a new heavens and earth. Meanwhile, we live in a passing kingdom and are called to glorify and serve God while we await the eternal and spiritual kingdom.

Pilate, the Roman governor, was presented with Jesus to be tried, yet no charges were filed against Him. Rightly, Pilate wanted clarification as to the offenses of the prisoner. It finally came out that Jesus was claiming to be a king although His kingdom was not an earthly one and His followers were not mounting any kind of attack against the powers of Rome. It was a bizarre exchange in which Pilate looks confused and perplexed. He tries to release Jesus but finally succumbs to mob pressure. So much for the so-called rule of law! But since Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world, it could not be defeated by any force in this world, not even the misapplication of law in the Roman Empire.

By contrast, the kingdom of Judah in Old Testament times was a kingdom of this world. Like every aspect of the culture of Israel in those days, the priesthood, the religious ceremonies, the political structure, life in the kingdom revealed the instability of mankind and the need for a greater kingdom with a Perfect King. That King was and is Jesus. Hezekiah had some good days and saw temporary victory over the Assyrians. Manasseh was famously evil during most of his life, but in the end he repented. Amon reverted to the worst days of his father. Stability eluded them. Nothing lasted long.

The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom based on truth and governed by a Perfect Eternal King. We wait for it, but we should not be idle in our waiting. What has God given you to do today to hasten the day when our faith shall be sight? Do it with all your heart. The King is coming and His kingdom is spiritual and eternal.

 

Obedience by Faith

Today’s reading: II Chronicles 29-31; John 18:1-23

10 So the couriers went from city to city through the country of Ephraim and Manasseh, and as far as Zebulun, but they laughed them to scorn and mocked them. 11 However, some men of Asher, of Manasseh, and of Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem. 12 The hand of God was also on Judah to give them one heart to do what the king and the princes commanded by the word of the Lord.          II Chronicles 30:10-12

22 When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?”                                                                                                       John 18:22-23

The price of obedience to God can be extremely high. Obedience must be by faith, because it does not always bring instant positive reinforcement.

Hezekiah set out to turn Judah and Israel back to the Lord. He began immediately and used his authority as king to see that the temple was cleansed, the priests and Levites were properly consecrated for service, and the daily offerings were reinstituted. The next step was to celebrate the long-neglected Passover. Hezekiah sent out couriers to the northern kingdom inviting them to join in the feast, but it seems the typical response was to laugh them to scorn.

There were exceptions, of course, as “some men of Asher, of Manasseh, and of Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem.” What made the difference? We get clear understanding in the next verse which says it was the hand of God which “was also on Judah to give them one heart to do what the king and the princes commanded by the word of the Lord.” (Emphasis mine.) It is God Who works in human hearts to bring about obedience and faith. Otherwise, people mock and scorn the Lord’s messengers as they did the couriers of the king.

Jesus’ obedience was the most costly of anyone in all of human history. In His trial before Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas, He was questioned about matters of public knowledge as if they were looking for some grounds on which to charge Him. Jesus refused to answer showing that they really could not find any offense in Him. He spoke the truth but was struck for it. This was only the beginning of the sufferings, mocking, and abuse He would receive.

When you obey God and suffer for it, are you tempted to second-guess your action or comment? Do you expect to have your obedience to God instantly rewarded in every case? Hezekiah’s couriers got ridicule for their obedience. Jesus suffered death for His. Be ready to follow the steps of your Savior who suffered for you. His reward was not instant, but it was great and it was eternal. Your reward may be delayed, too, but it will come in God’s time.

Making a Bad Thing Worse

Today’s reading: II Chronicles 26-28; John 17

22 In the time of his distress he became yet more faithless to the Lord—this same King Ahaz. 23 For he sacrificed to the gods of Damascus that had defeated him and said, “Because the gods of the kings of Syria helped them, I will sacrifice to them that they may help me.” But they were the ruin of him and of all Israel.           II Chronicles 28:22-23

15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.                                                                        John 17:15-17

The world is a hostile place for God’s people, but He sends us into it, and He preserves us in it by His power and His word.

King Ahaz rebelled against the Lord which led to defeat in battle and distress. Did he learn to turn to God through His failure? No. He took his disobedience to the next level and began worshiping the god of the Syrians. Some of the kings we have studied were corrupted by success. Others were corrupted by failure. In some cases, they turned to God in defeat and were delivered. The circumstances seem to be neutral factors. What is the difference? It is the work of God in the hearts of those kings that either turned them toward Himself or let them go on in apostasy and error.

Jesus knew the kind of world into which He was sending His disciples. He prayed for them and gave them God’s word. They were not perfect, but, in the end, they succeeded in proclaiming the gospel far and wide and laying the foundations for the Church.

What do we need in order to stand firm in the faith in a hostile world? Like the Apostles, we need God’s word and we need God’s power working to keep us in the midst of adversity and spiritual danger. Do we have that? Yes, Jesus is at the right hand of God interceding for us (Hebrews 7:25). He has given us His Spirit (Romans 8). We have the completed revelation of God in the Scriptures to equip us for every work He calls us to do (II Timothy 3:16-17).

Do not fear the world, but do be vigilant of your heart that the distresses of the world not turn you away from the Lord who keeps His own. Do not make a bad thing worse. Trust Him, His Word, and His preserving power.

Forgiveness for the Fickle

Today’s reading: II Chronicles 23-25; John 16:16-33

17 Now after the death of Jehoiada the princes of Judah came and paid homage to the king. Then the king listened to them. 18 And they abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their fathers, and served the Asherim and the idols. And wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this guilt of theirs. 19 Yet he sent prophets among them to bring them back to the Lord. These testified against them, but they would not pay attention.                                                                                   II Chronicles 24:17-19

32 Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. 33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”                   John 16:32-33

We, humans, are fickle creatures, easily swayed from apparently firm convictions by the changing circumstances of the world around us, but Jesus, unlike us, did not waver in the face of enormous opposition. He overcame the world.

King Joash of Judah barely survived the assassinations committed by the wicked Athaliah. At age seven, after being hidden almost his entire life, the priest Jehoiada made an elaborate plan to install the rightful king. Jehoiada was a good and wise counselor to Joash, and Joash held to the priest’s advice. Then Jehoiada died. Joash did an about-face and abandoned the Lord for idolatry. He even killed Jehoiada’s son for attempting to correct his decisions.

Jesus told His disciples that there was trouble ahead. They continued to profess their allegiance, but He warned them that they would fall away, abandon Him. That would not be the end of the story for Jesus would remain steadfast and overcome the world not only for Himself but for all His elect people, flaky disciples and all.

Do you struggle with falling prey to the circumstances of life, either being seduced by the glory of this world, like Joash, or terrified by powerful forces that threaten your life, like the disciples? There is forgiveness for the fickle, struggling believer in Jesus Christ. He overcame the world for you.

The Army that Self-destructed

Today’s reading: II Chronicles 20-22; John 16:1-15

21 And when he had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the Lord and praise him in holy attire, as they went before the army, and say,

“Give thanks to the Lord,
for his steadfast love endures forever.”

22 And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. 23 For the men of Ammon and Moab rose against the inhabitants of Mount Seir, devoting them to destruction, and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they all helped to destroy one another. II Chronicles 20:21-23

“…the ruler of this world is judged.” John 16:11b

God will be glorified and defeat His and our enemies as we maintain our focus on Him, our confidence in Him, and our praise toward Him.

Here we have one of the most bizarre battles in all of history. Three armies are drawn up against Judah and King Jehoshaphat. The king is terrified, but he wisely turns to God for direction and wisdom. Reassured by the Lord, Jehoshaphat appoints a choir and marching band to go ahead of the army praising God. The Lord intervened on their behalf so that the three enemy armies began to kill each other. The praise band played while the opposition forces self-destructed. Jehoshaphat’s army watched. God was glorified.

Jesus spoke solemnly to His disciples on the night before His crucifixion. He told them they would suffer hatred, ejection from the synagogues, and even martyrdom, but He promised them the Holy Spirit. He assured them they would be at an advantage since the Helper would be with them, unlimited by the confines of a human body. The ministry of the Spirit would be to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. The Lord told them “…the ruler of this world is judged.”

Do you believe that what seems like the hopeless situation of the Church of Jesus Christ today is completely under God’s control? Do you trust Him to bring ultimate victory over the forces of the ruler of this world? Can you, like Jehoshaphat’s praise band, give thanks to the Lord, knowing that his steadfast love endures forever? Might we suffer?  Of course, but our hope is in the Lord.

Take heart. The ruler of this world is judged and his armies will self-destruct. Praise God in advance.

The Danger of Ungodly Alliances

Today’s reading: II Chronicles 17-19; John 15

Jehoshaphat the king of Judah returned in safety to his house in Jerusalem. 2 But Jehu the son of Hanani the seer went out to meet him and said to King Jehoshaphat, “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord. II Chronicles 19:1-2

18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. John 15:18-19

There are limits to cooperation with unbelievers, those who hate God.

Jehoshaphat had a great reign going, until he went astray making a marriage alliance with Ahab, king of Israel. Ahab was described as wicked and one who hated the Lord. Why did the king who had taken such care to seek the Lord and walk in His commandments (II Chronicles 17:4) abruptly throw in his lot with the rebellious king Ahab? Maybe he hoped to reunify the nation. Maybe he hoped to move Israel back to faithfulness to God. Neither of those goals was bad in itself. But in allying with Ahab, Jehoshaphat became a participant in that king’s disobedience. He ignored the wise counsel of Micaiah, who stood up to the 400 lying prophets. He entered a battle that God had not sanctioned. He nearly lost his life and was rebuked for his foolishness.

Jesus warned His disciples to expect hatred from the world. They had been chosen out of the world and would receive the same treatment that their master had received, for “a servant is not greater than his master” (vs. 20). One who abides in Christ will be fruitful but will also be persecuted.

How does Jesus define the “world” here? It doesn’t always mean the same thing, so we need to pay attention to context. God loved the “world” (John 3:16), but the “world” hated Jesus. Clearly, “world” has different meanings here. We know the people of the world by their hatred of Jesus and of His disciples. We know them by their allegiance to their father the devil (John 8:44). They may be “religious” people, but they reject the Son of God. They are not necessarily the worst sinners in town or the outcasts as John relates incidents in which the outcasts and notorious sinners were the ones who loved Jesus and received His word (John 4, 8, 9).

When it comes to seeking to make common cause with those who hate God, we need to learn the lesson of Jehoshaphat and flee. Abide in Christ, but don’t be surprised if you get opposition, rejection, and, yes, hatred.