The Best Encouragers

A friend who knows how to encourage is always a wonderful thing.  But do you know what kind of person makes the best encourager?

Today’s reading

Psalms 22-24; Acts 20:1-16

Selected Verses

 I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
 For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him. Psalm 22:22-24

After the uproar ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia.  When he had gone through those regions and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece. Acts 20:1-2

Reflections

Sufferers make the best encouragers because they are more in touch with the realities of both earth and heaven than others whose lives are more comfortable and secure.

The writer of Psalm 22 expresses great agony and great trust in the Lord through all of his sufferings. He never loses sight of either his pain or his God but shows that godly perspective which sees the here and now and the “there and then.” The words of this Psalm were on Jesus’ lips on the cross and, no doubt, comforted Him as He suffered and died.

Paul was certainly a suffering encourager. He had just endured jail time in Philippi,  ridicule in Athens, and the riot in Ephesus. The Jews were working on a plot to assassinate him (Acts 20:3), yet he went about encouraging the believers. What could stop the progress of the gospel ministry through Asia and Europe? Not riots; nor assassination plots; nor beatings and imprisonments. Nothing. Paul was in a unique position, as the lightning rod for the gospel, to reassure the saints that the preaching of the gospel could not be stopped. Adverse circumstances would not change the truth of the gospel nor the mandate of Jesus to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19,20).

Think about it

If you would be an encourager, learn God’s word and be ready to suffer. God is able to strengthen you for that ministry which is always in great demand.

The Danger of Forsaking the Fear of the Almighty

When people lose their reverent fear of God, they are capable of all manner of atrocities toward other human beings made in His image.

Today’s Reading

Job 4-6; Acts 7:20-43

Selected Verses

He who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty.  Job 6:14

This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.”  Acts 7:37

Reflections

Job’s friends sat quietly with him. They listened when he finally broke his silence. Then Eliphaz spoke. He lectured about God’s discipline of His children assuming that Job deserved to be corrected. He missed the truth and failed to comfort his suffering friend. Job responded with continued lament for his condition but then complained about the lack of support from his friends. He considered that Eliphaz had withheld kindness from a friend.

How can anyone cold-heartedly turn his back on a loved one in his moment of extreme anguish? Why wouldn’t common decency make a person feel sympathy towards even a complete stranger in dire straits? Job says these attitudes are proof of having forsaken the fear of the Almighty. It takes extreme arrogance to think that the Omnipotent God of Creation and Providence could never bring him to the same condition. One has to be overly self-assured and proud to feel immune from God’s powerful hand.

The authorities that examined Stephen in Acts 7 seem to have a similar problem. They accuse him falsely and demand an explanation, but they are about to get more than they bargained for. Stephen is giving them a summary of the history of Israel, tracing the theme of their rebellion against Moses, God’s chosen leader.  Moses, whom they accuse Stephen of blaspheming, foretold that a prophet like himself would be sent to them. But these leaders continue the policies of their forefathers, rejecting the ones whom God sends to deliver them. They, like Eliphaz, have forsaken the fear of God.

Think about it

What part does the fear of God play in your life? Does fear of God drive you to confession of sin, of eager obedience, and of love for others? Fear of God is not an outdated, Old Testament concept, but is part of the mindset that has been renewed by God. Peter wrote, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:16-17).  Practice those things and never forsake the fear of the Almighty.

Generosity and Contentment: How we know we’re saved

Faith alone saves but since it is invisible how do we know we are saved? Here are two concrete evidences.

Today’s Reading

Nehemiah 4-6; Acts 2:14-47

Selected Verses

Then they said, “We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.” And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised.  I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.  Nehemiah 5:12-13

And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. Acts 2:44-45

Reflections

The Reformation restored focus on justification by faith alone—faith that expresses itself in good works and good attitudes. In today’s reading we have examples from Nehemiah’s day and from the times of the early Church.

The Jews had suffered greatly through the captivity. When the exiles returned to Judah, some were destitute. Others had managed to accumulate some wealth. The poor had to sell their children into slavery to other Jews just to pay their taxes.

When Nehemiah learned about this he was furious. He called the people together and immediately rebuked those who had engaged in this abusive practice. The response was good because the loan sharks recognized that they had violated God’s law and they stood in fear of Him. Nehemiah’s bold and swift leadership averted the crisis. The wall building resumed amidst joy and unity.

In the early Church, members differed widely in their material wealth. Yet the power of the gospel and presence of the Holy Spirit so moved them that they voluntarily looked out for one another. There seemed to be no need to exhort them to share with one another, at least not at this point.

Think about it

John Calvin wrote that we are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone, i.e. it is accompanied by good works like generosity and good attitudes, like contentment.  Does your use of material resources reflect trust in God and love for others? Are you generous with what you have? If you have less than others, do you resent your lack or are you content with food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:6-10)? Flee from the love of money. Be as generous as you are able. Learn contentment. Saving faith bears fruit in generosity and contentment.

A Humble King

Fools seek power that is not theirs through conspiracy and murder, but there is a humble king who did not grasp the power that was rightfully His.

Today’s reading

Second Kings 15-17; John 6:1-21

 Selected Verses

Shallum the son of Jabesh conspired against him and struck him down at Ibleam and put him to death and reigned in his place. 2 Kings 15:10

 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. John 6:14-15

Reflections

Shallum held one in a line of short-lived reigns on the throne of Israel. He came to the throne through conspiracy and the assassination of Zechariah. But his reign lasted only a month before he, too, was assassinated. The prophet Hosea would later indict Israel for their failure to seek God’s direction for their kingdom which contributed to all that instability (Hosea 8:4).

What a contrast to Jesus! He relinquished the glories of His heavenly status and came to earth. He began announcing the kingdom of God, healing the sick, and feeding the hungry. The fickle crowds wanted to make Him king, but they had the wrong reasons and the wrong methods.  So Jesus disappeared to avoid that happening. He knew their hearts. They were only responding to the signs He did and wanted a king who could take care of their health and their hunger (John 2:23-25; 6:2). They thought of an earthly kingdom, but His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36).

Although Jesus was the rightful king of all Creation, His goal was not to be merely a king in this world. He would redeem  His people and be established as the Lord of lords and King of kings at the right hand of God the Father in His eternal kingdom (Philippians 2:5-11; Revelation 19:16).

Think about it

See how glorious and worthy is our King, the Lord Jesus Christ whose every action and decision showed love, grace, humility, and justice! Give Him, the humble King, the praise He deserves and love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength today.

The Cost of Loving Your Neighbor

It’s easy to say, “I will love my neighbor as myself,” but it is quite another thing to do that. Read on to meet two contrasting examples.

Today’s reading

Judges 18-19; Luke 10:25-42

Selected Verses

But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. Judges 19:25

Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” Luke 10:36-37

Reflections

The value of human life is emphasized throughout the Bible.  When asked about how to obtain eternal life, Jesus showed that loving God and loving our neighbor are the two key elements of a righteous life.  The first two chapters of the Bible show that humanity was specially created by God, male and female, in His image and according to His likeness and given life by His Spirit.

The fall soon introduced alienation from God and between the first humans.  Their son was the first murderer, his victim being his own brother (Genesis 3,4).

God in the Bible holds all people responsible for how they treat one another.  The command is simple, but it is not easy.  Alas!  Loving your neighbor as yourself can mean standing up against some serious opposition in society.

The old man in Judges 19 tried to protect the traveler in his village from the abusive men, but his neighbors stormed his house.  He foolishly tried to placate their evil desires by offering them his daughter and the visitor’s concubine.  In the end, it cost a woman’s life and started a civil war in Israel.  The Samaritan in Jesus’ parable reached across a huge racial divide to care for a wounded man.  It’s fairly easy in theory to say, “We should all love our neighbors as ourselves,” but it is quite another thing to actually act consistently with that concept.

Think about it

Those who read the Bible and profess belief in it should be among the most caring of all people, willing and ready to pay a price, if necessary, to preserve and value life.

Look for opportunities to show mercy and kindness toward others today, but know that you may not be appreciated for it.  It could even cost you more than you thought.

To Love God and Enemies

Believers are commanded to love their enemies.  But does that include marrying the enemies of our God?  The Scriptures are clear on this.

Today’s reading

Joshua 23-24; Luke 6:27-49

Selected Verses

Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God.  Joshua 23:11

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  Luke 6:35,36

Reflections

Joshua urged the Israelites to love the Lord their God and to flee marriage entanglements with their enemies, the pagan natives of Canaan. He knew that, if they intermarried with pagans, they would be drawn away from faithful and sincere service to God. At the same time, there were notable examples of Gentiles coming into the covenant people of God. Rahab and her family were protected from destruction in Jericho and admitted into the lineage of Judah and Jesus (Matthew 1:5). So the intention of Joshua’s command was not to deprive Gentiles of blessing and salvation but to protect the Israelites from apostasy.

Jesus taught His disciples to love their enemies, demonstrating godliness reflective of the Father who is merciful and kind even to the ungrateful and evil. Jesus was not teaching a relativistic view of morality in which everything that is good to you is good. He specifically showed that there is good and evil and that these are not the same. Good and evil fruits come from good and evil trees. But Jesus sent His disciples to show mercy to their enemies, the ungrateful and the evil.

Think about it

Why does God patiently pour out blessings on those who rebel against Him? Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). In due time, the evil will face the judgment of God, but meanwhile, we who believe in Jesus show our faith by an obedient, godly life including loving our enemies.

The prohibition of believers marrying unbelievers continues (2 Corinthians 6:14). Marriage is not one of the ways believers show love to unbelievers. This may be misunderstood by them, but that is the risk we must take to live a life of obedience. Of course, unbelievers are not prohibited from marrying one another.  In fact, they should marry if so inclined.

Love God. Love your enemies, but love them as God does by doing them good and telling them of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Death at Church

Does God care how we worship Him? Two priests once believed He does not.  The result was death.  Death at church.  Find out more in today’s post.

Today’s reading

Leviticus 10-12; Matthew 26:1-19

Selected Verses

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them.  And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.  Leviticus 10:1-3

In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial.  Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.  Matthew 26:12-13

Reflections

Here we have a dramatic contrast between people who sought to make offerings to God.  In the Leviticus reading the two sons of Aaron offer unauthorized fire before the Lord.  In Matthew a woman pours expensive ointment on Jesus.  God punished the former with death; but Jesus honored the latter and made her an icon of faithfulness.

What made the difference here? Why did God accept the actions of one and not the actions of the others?  God is not capricious.  He has made His will clear in His word.  The sons of Aaron were careless and, maybe, arrogant in their presumption.  They exceeded their authority as priests before God, doing what was not commanded in God’s law.  God showed that worship and the offerings to Him were serious business.  Above all, God was to be sanctified, set apart from the common and ordinary. No one may worship Him casually or according to their personal preferences and whims.

Jesus was the Messiah whom God promised to Israel.  One’s response to Him, whether in disbelief or in faith, was and is crucial.  In anointing Jesus with ointment, the woman showed faith which emanated from her love for Him.  As a result the Lord lavishly commended her action toward Him.

Think about it

What makes the difference between an acceptable and unacceptable offering to God?  The unnamed woman glorified Christ.  Aaron’s sons exalted themselves.  If you hold a position of authority in the church, such as a preacher or teacher, remember the warning of the Apostle James: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” James 3:1.  Will you glorify God today?  Seek to lift Him up before the watching world.

Forgiveness: Pay It Forward

Today’s reading

Exodus 11-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Selected verses

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you.  Exodus 12:1-2

And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’  And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.  So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:33-35

Reflections

God created time.  He also instructed His people to observe certain periodic days to remember important events and the theological truths connected with those events.  The Passover was one of those events.  God commanded that it be observed annually and that it coincide with the New Year.

The Passover definitively set apart the Israelites from the Egyptians.  The blood of unblemished lambs marked the homes of those who believed and distinguished them from those who did not.  The blood protected the inhabitants of those homes from death. The lamb paid the price and the people were saved.

Christ, too, paid the price as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, our Passover lamb (John 1:29; I Corinthians 5:7).  Just as the ancient Israelites celebrated their deliverance from slavery by an annual Passover celebration, we as God’s people today celebrate corporately, by the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or Communion.  We are remembering the fulfillment of a greater Lamb whose offering made a once-for-all atonement for sin.

Think about it

Imagine being in an Israelite home in Egypt on the night of the Passover.  You have placed the blood of a lamb on the doorposts.  You wait inside trusting that the blood will protect your firstborn son from the angel of death.  What relief when the angel passes over your house and you are safe.  That is a graphic picture of what God has done for us who trust in the Lamb of God to take away our sins and deliver us from deserved death. Will we not forgive as we have been forgiven?   Paul admonished  the Christians in Ephesus:  “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”  Ephesians 4:32

The deliverance and forgiveness which Jesus Christ obtained for us ought to be manifested in lives of forgiveness towards others.  Be vigilant to show grace and mercy toward those who owe you, not as the unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable.

Enduring Love

In our reading today (Ecclesiastes 11-Song of Solomon 8), we conclude the poetic books of the Old Testament.  Tomorrow we begin the Prophets, seventeen books in all.

In our English Bibles, the poetic books are arranged so that they end on the note of romance with the Song.  In my book I focused on a verse in the final chapter:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
    as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
    jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
    the very flame of the Lord.

Many waters cannot quench love,
    neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
    all the wealth of his house,
    he would be utterly despised.  Song of Solomon 8:6,7 (ESV)

How strong is human love?  Some find it powerful enough to last till the grave.  But not all do.  Jesus said there would be no human marriage in heaven, but the Church, called His body and His bride, will be married to Him (Luke 20:34-36; Ephesians 5:22-33; Revelation 19:6-10).  Human love at its best is a faint picture of the eternal marriage of Christ and His bride.

It is of little consequence that you have not found lifelong love here on earth, as long as you have by grace through faith become part of Christ’s Church.  You will be part of His bride in a love stronger than death.  If you have this hope, rejoice in the coming marriage of the Lamb.

A Warning against Stereotyping

Why is it so tempting to engage in stereotyping?  With a little reflection on today’s reading (Proverbs 28-30) we can see that there are exceptions to the profiles we tend to develop.   For example,

Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity
    than a rich man who is crooked in his ways. Proverbs 28:6 (ESV)

Rich people may be honest or deceptive.  Poor people may be lazy or diligent.  Although society tends to honor material success, God holds up the honest, hard-working poor as better than a wealthy swindler.

We stereotype because we resist thinking deeply about truth and reality.  In the present atmosphere of my country, deep divisions and animosity rock us.  These are often based on this dangerous practice of painting with a broad brush various categories of people based on ethnicity, political views, gender, religion,  or socioeconomic status.

What can we do?

Christians are commanded to pray. Paul wrote:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,  for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior,  who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 2 Timothy 2:1-4 (ESV)

Pray for our national and local leaders. Pray that we will not fall prey to a simplistic way of seeing everything.  Pray that God’s people will model wisdom and speak the truth in love.

[For more reflections on this passage, see the corresponding reading in my book Cover to Cover: Through the Bible in 365 days].