What Jesus do you See and Hear?

Matthew 11

January 11

Having just sent out the 12 for the job he had trained and empowered them for, Jesus took a beach vacation. No, just kidding, that’s not what Matthew 11:1 says. Jesus hit the road, too, teaching and preaching in the towns of Galilee. He met up with a lot of different people along the way and he had different responses and directives for them based on who he was talking to or talking about. In a humble way he answered the questions the followers of John the Baptist asked about who Jesus was, saying look at the evidence. Consider what you see and hear. We would be wise to also follow this advice when examining who this Jesus was – and is – and will be. Jesus is known as being a man of love who spoke wisdom. And that is so true! Let’s consider what we see and hear from Jesus in this chapter to see what we can learn of him.

Jesus commends John the Baptist. It is obvious he knows John well, and thinks very highly of him and the job he has done, even comparing him to the Old Testament prophets. However, Jesus doesn’t hold John on such a high pedestal that no one else can reach him. In fact, he curiously states that, “He who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)

Jesus points out inconsistencies and short-comings in the understanding and actions of his generation. He pretty much calls them immature (like children). He calls them out for their critical, know-it-all spirit. They don’t like John the Baptist and his ministry. He is doing it wrong and they know better, he must have demons, the people said. Then Jesus comes along and they don’t like Jesus and his ministry, either. He is doing it differently, but still wrong and they know better, he must be, “A glutton, and a drunkard and a friend of tax collectors and sinners”, the people said. (Matthew 11:19) When in fact, it wasn’t the current generation that knew what was going on at all. It was Jesus who saw clearly what they had completely missed, more than once.

Jesus continues with harsh (but righteous) judgment for those cities that saw his miracles and knew of his ministry but did not repent (change, turn from their sins to begin a new life). He said it will be worse for them than it will be for Sodom (which was totally destroyed), because if Sodom would have seen the miracles of Jesus they would have surely repented.

People love the “Come-to-me-I-will-give-you-rest” Jesus. That appeals to many in this tired generation. Today even the loved-the-sinners Jesus is quite popular. Perhaps we are more comfortable with sin now than those in Jesus’ time who couldn’t handle Jesus because he wanted to be with the sinners. Loving the sinners like Jesus loved is the hip modern thing to do, as long as the sinners (including me) aren’t required to actually repent and change, right? Or, perhaps it was Jesus’ love for them that made him want to be around sinners, so they could see and hear him in action, so they would see the need to change, so they would indeed repent, so they would be spared the judgment coming to the unrepentant.

As a whole it seems, we would rather dismiss the woe-to-you-unrepentant-people Jesus as a bit outdated and unpopular. But this Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. He spoke different things to different people based upon their response to him and His Father. The love-the-sinners Jesus is indeed the same as the woe-to-the-unrepentant-cities Jesus. Jesus is love. Jesus is judgment. What will he say to me? That will depend on how I will respond to him?

-Marcia Railton

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What words might Jesus have for your generation? For you? What might he see (and say) clearly that others have not?
  2. Is there an area of your life that is in need of repentance – changing/starting over, giving up the old sins, in exchange for a new life? What’s your motivation? How will you start? Who can help? What would Jesus say?
  3. What are your feelings as you read through this chapter? Any verses you are confused about? What do you think God’s purpose was for including each section in this chapter?

The Opening Act

Matthew 3

January 3

The prophecies foretold in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament continue in chapter 3, but this time in regards to a man known as John the Baptist. Isaiah prophesied that there would be, “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him'” (Matthew 3:3, and original thought in Isaiah 40:3). This John is a relative of Jesus, born to Zechariah the priest and his wife Elizabeth. See Luke 1 for more on his family and the events surrounding his own miraculous birth about 6 months before the birth of Jesus. Even as a pre-born baby in his mother’s previously barren and aging womb John reacted with joy at Mary’s greeting when she came to tell Elizabeth about her encounter with the angel Gabriel and the child she would carry. These young men, Jesus and John, have quite a connection. They go way back – not just to their days in utero, but going back 700 years to Isaiah’s prophecy.

John had a job to do. A job that had been waiting for him for 700 years – prepare the way for the Lord. He was the opening act. His job was to prepare the audience. Pump them up. Get the crowd ready to listen to and appreciate and adore the one who would come after him, the one who is greater than he is, the one who is the main act, the show stopper. He got to introduce the crowd to the one who could be their Savior.

John definitely had a way of getting people’s attention. But not in a flashy way at all. I don’t think he would be found in the mega church today. He was the preacher out in the desert. The one wearing weird, worn and outdated clothing and also known for his curious all-natural diet. He wasn’t about gaining popularity points or fitting in. He knew it wasn’t about him. It was about Jesus. And he had a job to do.

His message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). With Jesus’ earthly ministry now ready to start, it was time to make changes. They were closer to God’s kingdom now than they ever had been before. A kingdom needs a king and they were about to get their first look at the king chosen by God to rule His kingdom. But were they ready? No.

Repent of your sins, turn your life around. Stop using your religion as a show to look better than others. Stop relying on your impressive family tree for salvation. Repent of your sins, turn your life around. Start producing good fruit that shows you have changed. Start preparations for the coming judgment day. It’s closer than you think. Repent of your sins, turn your life around. For the Kingdom of heaven and the judgment day that comes with it is closer than you think. Let me introduce you to God’s chosen king – His Son Jesus!

-Marcia Railton

Questions for reflection and discussion

  1. Repentance is not just feeling sorry or regret for doing wrong, but also a commitment and action for change, turning from your sins to do right. In what ways have you sinned and need to repent? What will it look like to turn in the opposite direction and do right? What good fruit is God wanting to see in your life?
  2. Jesus, even though sinless, was baptized by John to set an example for believers. Baptism is a physical act to show your need for repentance and your acceptance of a Savior. Have you been baptized? If so, what does it mean to you? If not, do you have questions about baptism you would like to discuss with a spiritual mentor or pastor?
  3. What was seen and heard at the end of Jesus’ baptism? What do you think Jesus was feeling or thinking at this moment? What do you think God was feeling or thinking at this moment? How do you feel, what do you think, as you envision this scene?
  4. Who has been a John the Baptist for you – someone who helped point the way and introduce you to Jesus? If you know Jesus now, who will you introduce to Jesus?

God’s Business

Jonah 3-4

Yesterday, we saw Jonah’s reluctance to God’s call for his life. Actually, “active rebellion” against God’s call is more accurate! However, we saw Jonah pray to God during his time in the belly of the great fish. We were left asking the question, “Will Jonah finally answer the call to proclaim God’s message?”

He does. In 3:1, the word of the LORD comes a second time to Jonah. In 3:3, “Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh.” As the story goes, which so many of us learned in our childhood Sunday school, Jonah preaches that Nineveh will be destroyed, and so the Ninevites repented. And our happy ending occurs in 3:10: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” 

But wait. There’s more.

Why was Jonah SO reluctant to preach to Nineveh? Why did he run in the opposite direction to avoid God’s call on his life? Why did it take a great storm, being thrown overboard, and three days in the belly of a fish to learn his lesson? And why did Jonah scoff at the mercy of God in 4:1? 

The truth is, we will never be able to see Nineveh or Assyria in the same way Jonah did. We didn’t grow up witnessing the brutality and evil that Assyria committed with every passing year, and we will never experience the same wars and terrible things that it did to Israel. But Jonah was very close to the evil that Nineveh did. In fact, Jonah had some really good reasons to really, really dislike Nineveh. Jonah didn’t want to see God’s mercy extended to his enemies. He actually wants to see the destruction of a city with 120 thousand people because he dislikes them so much! In fact, he camps out at the edge of the city hoping that their repentance doesn’t last.

And so God decides to teach Jonah a lesson. He grows a plant that gives shade and comfort to Jonah, and then kills it. Jonah reacts with anger once again. And finally God teaches Jonah the lesson he needed all along: Nineveh is like the plant in this story. God grew it and has concern for it (see 4:11). But on the other hand, he scolds Jonah for caring about a plant he never grew in the first place. In other words, just like the plant, Jonah has no right to be angry about a people that are actually God’s business all along.

So what do we learn here? There are a lot of lessons that come out of Jonah: God’s ways are far higher than our ways. His sense of justice and mercy will sometimes be at odds with our understanding of justice and mercy. We are challenged to lay down our prejudice and serve others in the name of God. And when God calls you to Nineveh, don’t run away– just go!

-Levi Salyers

Read or listen to today’s Bible reading passages at BibleGateway.com here – Jonah 3-4 and Revelation 7

My Creator God

Psalm 104 & Jeremiah 13, 14

Our family loves camping and finding new places to hike or kayak through God’s beautiful world. The variety of his creation is truly amazing! Desert, forest, plains, mountain, ocean. We love them all and the chance to explore a new little corner of His world we haven’t seen yet. And, along the way, trying to capture a photo to remind us of the beauty and creativity we had the privilege to see.

Psalm 104 is a beautiful poem of creation. I would love to make a photo book or photo wall with pictures from our family hikes and travels depicting each verse and phrase.

“He wraps himself in light as with a garment” (vs 2) – sunshine blazing in all His glory

“he stretches out the heavens like a tent” (vs 2) – expansive blue sky from horizon to horizon

“He makes the clouds his chariot” (vs 3) – white and multi-shades of gray amazing textured rolling clouds with shafts of sunlight shining through with the brilliant blue sky behind

“He makes springs pour water into the ravines” – hot springs bubbling from the ground and flowing down the mountain side

You get the idea. There would be photos of waterfalls, lightening, mountaintops, ocean waves on the shore, rainstorms, the moon, plants and animals, sunrises, sea creatures, and people. Each one accompanied with God’s text.

I recently taught a unit on creation to the adorable children in children’s church. And it was so much fun spending a week (or more) on each aspect of God’s amazing creation. We brought in shells and rocks and leaves and bird feathers to touch and play with. We matched plant photos to foods we eat and counted plant products in ingredient labels. (Do you know how many plants are in a box of Cheerios or mac’n cheese?) We classified plants and animals and brought in a bird expert. We watched videos and explored books on clouds and planets and sea creatures and the animal kingdom and the incredible human body. And all the things that we take for granted everyday.

Not only is God’s world a beautiful world – but so incredibly functional, too! He thought of EVERYTHING! The more I learn of science and the human body in particular, the more I am amazed at His creation.

I have never made anything nearly as intricate or useful as the smallest, tiniest, most simplistic, most ‘insignificant’ part of God’s creation. But, I do like to create quilts – little scraps of colored fabric (which came from a cotton plant) sewn together in patterns to make a cozy cover to bring comfort and warmth. I can’t imagine how I would feel if I were to meet someone who explained that those quilts just came to be one day – that it grew from nothing and became strings that wove themselves together and the fabrics cut themselves into the perfect shapes and even stitches magically formed just as they were needed to piece the top together and the materials used to create the final layered project appeared at just the right time and space and lined up just so to automatically go through the final steps to create my quilt. Foolishness. It is foolishness that leaves out the thought, intention, desire, creativity, vision, purpose and ability of me, the quilt creator. Or, equally painful – maybe they would give all the credit for the making of the quilt to another.

It makes sense that the Creator of the Heavens and Earth wants us to enjoy and admire His creation – and give Him all the credit He so much deserves. But, what happens when people don’t? What happens when they take away the glory that belongs to God and call it chance instead or give it to another? What happens when they refuse to listen to God’s words – the first recorded words being – “Let there be light”? What happens when they attribute God’s creation to another? We see in the book of Jeremiah. “These wicked people, who refuse to listen to my words, who follow the stubbornness of their hearts and go after other gods to serve and worship them, will be like this belt—completely useless!” Jeremiah goes on in today’s reading to describe the drought, famine and sword that will be used in judgment of those who have stubbornly turned from God. Jeremiah 14 ends with God telling Jeremiah to speak to the people, telling them to acknowledge their guilt and wickedness and sins against Him and ask God to remember His covenant. The final verse of chapter 14 says,

“Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain?
    Do the skies themselves send down showers?
No, it is you, Lord our God.
    Therefore our hope is in you,
    for you are the one who does all this.” (vs 22 NIV)

Not only did Our Great God create this world for us – He made a covenant with us – He has power still today – and He holds out a blessed hope for those who acknowledge and worship Him for all He has done, is doing and will do.

Thank you God for your incredible Creation – help me see and appreciate each amazing part!

Thank you God for the rains today – help me see you at work today!

Thank you God for the hope you set before those who believe and worship you alone – a New Heavens and Earth that will be beyond all we can ever dream or imagine!

You are our hope – for you are the one who does all this!

-Marcia Railton

You can read or listen to today’s Bible reading passages at BibleGateway.com here – Jeremiah 13-14 and Psalm 104

Spiritual Malpractice

Jeremiah 7-8; Psalm 96, 97, 98

            Over 100 years ago Eleanor Porter wrote the children’s novel, Pollyanna.  I like the version Disney did in the 1960’s starring Haley Mills as Pollyanna Whittier, a young girl, the daughter of missionary parents who both died.  She moved to a new town to live with her rich but stern Aunt Polly (Fun Fact, in the Disney Movie Aunt Polly is played by Jane Wyman, an actress who was President Ronald Reagan’s first wife- I have a lot of trivial information in my head, sorry).

Pollyanna’s minister/missionary father had taught Pollyanna to play the “glad game” as a way of coping with life’s challenges.  Essentially, she learned that no matter what happens, you should always look on the bright side.  Essentially, it’s a way of life that is exceedingly optimistic in every situation.  Throughout the story Pollyanna met neighbors in challenging situations and preached her gospel of positivity and as a result changed lives and made her town a much more positive place to live. 

In a particularly memorable scene Pollyanna brought her positivity message to the local pastor who, at her dour Aunt Polly’s behest, had been giving his congregation a steady diet of fire and brimstone, anti-positivity.  Pollyanna encouraged him to notice and begin preaching the “glad texts” of the Bible.  He, listened to her counsel, changed his preaching to become more positive, and everyone in the Church became much happier.  There’s more to the story, but that’s the part that is relevant to our conversation.

During the last 30 years there has been a revolution in psychology.  In the past, psychologists and counselors focused on psychological pathology, all the things that are wrong: anxiety, depression, shame, anger, addiction, poor relationships etc…  From Freud onwards psychiatrists were trained to dig into a person’s past to find the cause of their neurotic thoughts and behaviors. But positive psychology introduced the benefits of focusing on positive thoughts and behaviors like gratitude, hope and other glad things.  This corresponds historically with a more positive oriented approach to preaching.  Many pastors traded in fire and brimstone sermons warning people against sin and judgement for more positive messages. Norman Vincent Peale, founder of Guidepost magazine, wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking.”  Robert Schuller, famous TV preacher of the 70’s-90’s, preached a gospel of positive thinking.  Many preachers began preaching a prosperity gospel.  Joel Osteen is popular today because of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller and others like them. 

So the question at hand is, which is more biblical, the hellfire and brimstone preacher who speaks against sin and calls people to repent, or the positive thinking pastor who focuses on preaching all of the “glad texts” in the Bible and ignores icky verses that talk about sin and judgment?  I think the answer is both, or better yet, neither.

I like the old expression that says that the preacher’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”  Solomon said it pretty well in Ecclesiastes 3- there’s a time and a season for everything.  Sometimes preachers need to say hard things and issue dire warnings to their hearers.  Sometimes preachers need to give words of comfort and encouragement.  Jesus gives examples of this.  Sometimes Jesus got angry and called his listeners, a.k.a. the Pharisees,  a “brood of vipers”.  Another time Jesus told a woman caught in adultery that he did not condemn her, while telling her also to not sin anymore.  Jesus showed that one can be both firm and compassionate as they speak for God.

Today’s reading in Jeremiah 7-8 has a clear absence of the “happy texts” that Pollyanna was so fond of noticing:

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.”

 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.” -Jeremiah 7:3-11.

            God criticized their priests:

“They dress the wound of my people
    as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
    when there is no peace.”- Jeremiah 8:11

            I love Pollyanna and her innocent joyful optimism.  We all need a good dose of Pollyanna to get us through hard times.  But at the same time, we need to balance that with a good dose of reality and hard truth as well.  We need to hear how important it is to be grateful and have hope, we need to hear how forgiving and merciful God is.  And… we need to be reminded that God absolutely hates certain things and is going to bring an end to sinful actions and that those who do not repent and turn away from pursuing a life in rebellion against God will face judgment.  Some of the priests in the time of Jeremiah were giving false assurance to the people.  They were wrongly assuring them that because they were God’s chosen people who worshipped at the right place, the temple, and came from the right family, descendants of Abraham through his son Isaac, that it really didn’t matter how they lived their lives, they were okay with God.  They were giving false hope and false assurance. “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” –Jeremiah 8:11.

            Part of my ministry is in the hospital.  Sometimes people who are in the hospital are sick and will probably get better.  Sometimes people who are in the hospital are sick and will probably NOT get better.  Sometimes the doctor has to tell people hard things like, “if you don’t quit your… smoking, drinking, injecting heroin, allowing your diabetes to go uncontrolled, etc… you will probably die sooner than later.”  Do people like hearing those things?  Nope.  But if the doctor simply said to them- “You’ll be fine, just keep doing what you’re doing” that would be malpractice.  Doctors need to tell people the truth.  So do pastors.  So do all Christians.

            So as you read through your Bible, I hope you will notice all of the “glad texts” like today’s Psalm 97:1 “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad”. 

And also pay attention to the “not so glad texts”  like “So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate.”-Jeremiah 7:32-34

Thank you for reading both the glad and not so glad texts of the Bible with me this week.  I hope that God will use all of it to help you grow as a faithful disciple of Jesus.

Jeff Fletcher

You can read or listen to today’s Bible reading passages at BibleGateway.com here – Jeremiah 7-8 and Psalm 96-98

The Overwhelming Compassions of God

Nehemiah 9-10

Everyone needs compassion. Our gracious God, the ultimate source of love and mercy, readily extends compassion to us when we face the great challenges in our life.  But it doesn’t stop there.  God is not “deservingly” showing compassion to us because we have made sacrifices for his namesake.  He overwhelms us with compassion when we deserve it the least.  When our ears have been deaf to his calling, when our back has been turned, when our eyes are glistening with selfish pride, that is when he is most compassionate.  It is pretty simple:  life is best lived in and by the design of God.  Anything else is to be pitied.  But we do not serve a God of overwhelming pity.  He doesn’t stop at, “man, that stinks, wish you would have made some better choices there, bud.” He picks us up in our filth, gives us the full concentration of his blessings, and turns our feet back on the path that leads to him.  Over and over again. Undeservedly. In today’s reading, we get a quick lesson in the history of compassion of Israel from Abraham to Nehemiah.  Draw some (rather easy) parallels to your own life as your study this account of the rich mercies of God.

“But they, our ancestors, were arrogant;  bullheaded, they wouldn’t obey your commands. They turned a deaf ear, they refused to remember the miracles you had done for them;…And you, a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, Incredibly patient, with tons of love – you didn’t dump them.” – Nehemiah 9:16 MSG

  1. God still has compassion for you, even after you have been arrogant.  You can attempt to go it alone.  God doesn’t give up that easily.  When the miracles no longer come, when the blessing subside, and you decide to turn back, he doesn’t merely say, “told you so.” He says “turn around, I’m still here.”

“Yes, even when they cast a sculpted calf and said, “This is your god Who brought you out of Egypt,” and continued from bad to worse,  You in your amazing compassion didn’t walk off and leave them in the desert.”  – Nehemiah 9:18 MSG

  1. God still has compassion for you, even when you don’t give him credit.  Oh, how we like to take credit. How scorned are we when we don’t get the little credit due to us?  And we haven’t really done anything.  It would be simple enough to say, “Good luck in the desert by yourself,” yet God hears the cries of his people and comes rushing in to, again, fight the battles.

But then they mutinied, rebelled against you, threw out your laws and killed your prophets, the very prophets who tried to get them back on your side— and then things went from bad to worse.  And in keeping with your bottomless compassion you gave them saviors: saviors who saved them from the cruel abuse of their enemies.  – Nehemiah 9:27

  1. God still has compassion for you, even when you stab him in the back.  That’s right, literal stabbing of prophets delivering the word of God.  Maybe you are not guilty of such a crime, but openly denying the word of God delivered to you in your life is an equal abuse of the Word of God.  That’s pretty much what sin is.  But guess what?  Those who openly and defiantly deny the gospel, receive sanctification and redemption through Jesus Christ if they make him the Lord and Savior of their life.  Your confession is never rejected, if done so from the heart.

But as soon as they had it easy again they were right back at it—more evil. So you turned away and left them again to their fate, to the enemies who came right back. They cried out to you again; in your great compassion you heard and helped them again.

This went on over and over and over. They turned their backs on you and didn’t listen. – Nehemiah 9: 28, 29 MSG

  1. God still has compassion for you when you return right back to your sin.  That’s right, we are almost cartoonish in our behavior sometimes.  Do the sin.  Ask for forgiveness. <5 min later> Do the sin.  Ask forgiveness.  Thankfully, we have a God of infinite mercies, BUT as Paul says our goal is not to exhaust the grace of God.  If you haven’t figured it out, somewhere in our sinful nature is the habit to turn back to sin, but we must try to actively stop or flee from it.  God is unfatigued with extending his compassions if we truly seek him through repentance.

You put up with them year after year and warned them by your spirit through your prophets; But when they refused to listen you abandoned them to foreigners. Still, because of your great compassion, you didn’t make a total end to them. You didn’t walk out and leave them for good; yes, you are a God of grace and compassion.  – Nehemiah 9:30,31 MSG

  1. If you’re reading this, God still has compassion for you.  You are not abandoned.  It may feel foreign because you have pitched a tent outside the wall, but there is NOTHING that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Maybe you’re seemingly satisfied to be out there for now.  Man, that’s awful.  You will not receive even the pity of men if this is where you stand.  But God looks compassionately upon you, and leaves the gate open, giving every opportunity to be a part of his grace, love, forgiveness and hope.  There is a time limit though, an end game. Once you stop breathing, it’s over.  There are no guarantees when this will be.  An even more compelling argument than “no guarantees” is every moment you are not living in the presence of God, you walk around heavily burdened with sin, guilt, doubt, and shame because you don’t know His compassion.  He will take it all from you and cast it as far as the east is from the west.  Stop. Turn. Cry. Listen. Let go. It is time to let His compassion overwhelm you.

–Aaron Winner

Today’s Bible reading passages can be read or listened to at Bible Gateway – Nehemiah 9-10 NIV or – from The Message Nehemiah 9-10 and 1 Corinthians 11

“God, I’m sorry if I sinned in some way”

Ezra 9-10 … 1 Corinthians 6

We hear a lot of meaningless apologies. “I’m sorry if you took that the wrong way,” “I apologize if anyone was hurt,” or “Mistakes were made.”  But the reality of sin in light of God’s holiness doesn’t allow for wiggle room with insincere confessions like, “God, I’m sorry if I sinned in some way.”

When we are confronted with the reality of our sinful attitudes and actions, our response should be like Ezra — to throw ourselves before the Lord in repentance and confession. Not because we are worms groveling at the feet of a sadistic monster, but because, like Ezra, we know that our God is gracious.

“Even in our slavery, God has given us new life and light to our eyes. Though we are slaves, our God has not abandoned us in our slavery. He has extended grace to us in the presence of the Persian kings, giving us new life, so that we can rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem.” Ezra 9: 8b-9

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Ezra finds out that the people of Israel, including the priests and Levites, have been intermarrying with the pagan cultures surrounding them. His reaction?

As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled” (9:3)

It seems almost inconceivable that the Israelites of Ezra’s day could have fallen into the sin of intermarrying with the idolatrous peoples around them. God had strictly forbidden inter-marriage with other nations, because He knew that His people’s hearts would be led astray by these unions. This was not an issue of racial purity, by the way, but spiritual purity.

And much like patterns of sin in our own lives, Israel’s pattern of intermarrying with pagan cultures was not new. Solomon married many foreign women who worshipped detestable idols and turned his heart from the Lord.

We might have thought that Israel’s seventy-year captivity in Babylon finally cured God’s people of their infatuation with idol worship. But here were some of the former exiles, including the leaders, disobeying God and inviting His judgment again by taking foreign women as wives for themselves and their sons. No wonder Ezra tore his clothes and even pulled out some of his hair, a sign of extreme anguish.

In my more modern image, I picture Ezra doing a major forehead slap and screaming at them, “Are you KIDDING me?!?!”

If spiritual amnesia comes as easy to us as it did the people of Ezra’s day (and it does), maybe we need to practice our remembering.

Here’s a brief prayer checklist list I found that you can use each day to keep your memory of God’s will sharp in your mind.

1) Give thanks in everything (1 Thess. 5:18)

2) Ask God to search your heart and show you any “offensive way” (Ps. 139:23–24)

3) Don’t be anxious about anything, but bring your requests to God (Phil. 4:6)

4) Ask God to cleanse you from “hidden faults” and keep you from “willful sins” (Ps. 19:12–13)

After sitting appalled, and praying to God himself, Ezra gave the people this advice,

make a confession to Yahweh the God of your fathers and do His will. Separate yourselves “ Ezra 10:11

Being sorry is a necessary step, but doing something about it is what shows sincerity. It also can help to keep us from repeating the same mistake again. 

Maybe we should add a step 5 to that list in honor of Ezra…

5.) Take action in your repentance. Show it. Live a changed life. (Ezra 10:11)

-Susan Landry

Today’s Bible reading can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – Ezra 9-10 and 1 Corinthians 6

A Captive in Sin

2 Chronicles 5-6

As much as I could go on and on repeating exactly what Paul says in Romans 2, I have much more to add and apply from the Chronicles passage, so focus your reading on those chapters. Mostly, I’ll be looking at chapter 6. Solomon has just built the amazing perfect temple that David definitely did not build (even if he prepared all the materials, drew the blueprints, and basically left only the annoying part of building a building to Solomon). And in chapter 6, Solomon is dedicating this temple to God. Take a look at verse 14, the opening of Solomon’s prayer where he addresses God. Notice, there’s almost a lesson in that God’s faithfulness is kept with those who “walk before [Him] with all their heart.” Of course, Deuteronomy 6:5 says more and Jesus even more of how much of you should be dedicated to God on a daily basis (hint: it’s literally all of who and what you are, Mark 12:28-31). But I mostly want to look at verses 36-39.

36 “When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to a land far away or near; 37 and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captivity and say, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong and acted wickedly’; 38 and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their captivity where they were taken, and pray toward the land you gave their ancestors, toward the city you have chosen and toward the temple I have built for your Name; 39 then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their pleas, and uphold their cause. And forgive your people, who have sinned against you.” – 2 Chronicles 6:36-39 – NIV

Reread those verses and think for a second… You may be saying “How does this apply? Isn’t this just an ironic prophecy about Israel’s inevitable collapse and occupation by Babylon?” And, yes, it probably is. But the beauty of the Bible is taking historical accounts and creating life lessons from them, so hear me out. When you’re buried in sin, and truly lost, it almost feels like you’re a captive in enemy land. And, in some spiritual sense, you are. Sin is the land of the world and of Satan, not of God. And you feel far and cut off from everyone, but look at 37. Then 38. Because if you pray to God, he will hear you, and if you truly wish to repent – to turn in your ways – and return to God in all of your heart (and soul, and mind, and strength) then God will forgive you.

“…Now, my God, please, let Your eyes be open and Your ears attentive to the prayer offered in this place…” – 2 Chronicles 6:40

-Liam Johnson

Today’s Bible reading passages can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – 2 Chronicles 5-6 and Romans 2

How to Discipline

Proverbs 19

My last devotional for this week comes out of Proverbs 19:18. It says, “Discipline your son while there is hope, and do not desire his death.” After doing this for a week now, the first portion of this passage made me immediately think about Amon. Remember him? He was that king of Judah that was murdered by his servants after reigning for only 2 years. He did evil in the sight of Yahweh. His father, Manasseh, also did evil in the sight of Yahweh but eventually repented and renewed his status with God. I had commented to myself on paper, thanking God for repentance – as there’s still time for it. What if you don’t have the time like Amon? What if you don’t even know that repentance is an option? This is why we are commissioned! Find those Josiahs and let them know the good news!

Discipline your son while there is hope, and do not desire his death… Why would any good parent desire their child’s death? My studies this week have also led me to some wisdom, I think, regarding the latter portion of this verse in Proverbs. I don’t think I would have understood the latter part if I hadn’t immersed myself in the word for a week. Words mean something. This is a wise, powerful statement that lets us know we DO desire our children’s death if we don’t take action to discipline them. We’ve got a great commission in our own homes if we are parents.

I have been wanting to do a study on child-rearing for a while now. Since I desire that my children live, I started by looking into discipline as it is demonstrated in the word. I found that my idea of discipline was nothing like what discipline actually meant in the bible.

Look at the Old Testament and how God, through Moses, disciplined the children of Israel in comparison to the New Testament and how God, through Jesus disciplined.

Deuteronomy 11:1-13 (NIV)

11 Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands always. Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the Lord your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm; the signs he performed and the things he did in the heart of Egypt, both to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his whole country; what he did to the Egyptian army, to its horses and chariots, how he overwhelmed them with the waters of the Red Sea[a] as they were pursuing you, and how the Lord brought lasting ruin on them. It was not your children who saw what he did for you in the wilderness until you arrived at this place, and what he did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab the Reubenite, when the earth opened its mouth right in the middle of all Israel and swallowed them up with their households, their tents and every living thing that belonged to them. But it was your own eyes that saw all these great things the Lord has done.

Observe therefore all the commands I am giving you today, so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, and so that you may live long in the land the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to them and their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. 11 But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. 12 It is a land the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.

13 So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul—

Let’s go through this passage carefully. Through Moses, God disciplined the 12 tribes of Israel (the children of Israel). He disciplined them by first showing them his majesty, or who he was (Yahweh God!). Who he was could be recognized by the works he did (e.g., signs, miracles, plagues). He rescued them (from Egypt) and defeated their enemies (Egypt in the red sea). Along their journey to the promised land, he performed miracles to sustain them in the wilderness (e.g., manna, water from a rock). He got rid of the people among them who were insolent and tried to usurp Moses (i.e., Dathan and Abiram; Korah).

He then disciplines the children of Israel by telling them to obey the commandments they were given (i.e., obey the law of Moses) so that they would have strength to enter the promised land. He entices them to obey the law of Moses by describing how wonderful their hope is. In it, they will have long life and it will be well with them. In it, they will have good things (flowing with milk and honey). It is a land they won’t have to tend themselves (like they did in Egypt) to receive the good things in it. The good things will be sustained through heaven. To me, the last verse shows God’s heart. He cares so much about that land that he desires to give to his children.

Now let’s look at the New Testament and the discipline of God through Jesus. He pretty much does the same thing but gives greater honor and authority to Jesus since Jesus literally is the one who rescues the people.  

In the New Testament, Jesus disciplined the 12 disciples by showing them who he was (is) (The Son of God! The Messiah – pretty much described throughout the whole book of John). Who he was (the Messiah) could be recognized by the works he did in their presence. There were some pretty distinctive works he did that pointed to himself as the Messiah (i.e., Isaiah 35:5-6a “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy.).

It is Jesus himself who rescued them from their enemy (sin and death) by his death on the cross. Once seated at the right hand of God in heaven, it is Jesus who sustains them along their journey to the Kingdom of God (KOG). Post resurrection, it’s up to them (and us) to do these final things to enter into the KOG through Jesus. Jesus is the bread of life and he is the rock of our salvation who provides living water. He chastens us by pruning us along our journey (e.g., If your right hand offends you, cut it off – get rid of the people and things in your life that try to usurp Jesus as Lord of your life because they’ll prevent you from entering the KOG).

Jesus disciplines us by telling us to obey the Law of Christ (i.e., Love God and love people like Jesus loved). We need to obey these commandments so that we will have strength (through the receiving of the holy spirit) to enter the KOG.

The love of Christ compels us to obey by enticing us with the good things in the KOG, our hope. In the KOG, we will live forever with Jesus (and eventually with God himself). God will wipe away every tear from our eye; sin and death will be no more (the incorruptible crown; the crown of life). In it, we will be rewarded with good things, positional rewards based on how we built upon the foundation that was laid for us (built upon Jesus) (the crown of rejoicing; the crown of righteousness). If you’re an elder in your church, you’ll receive a crown of glory!

Once there, we won’t have to labor like we do now to enjoy the KOG. There will be a river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God and from the lamb. In it will be the tree of life on either side of the street with 12 kinds of fruit. The leaves of the tree will be for the healing of the nations. I realize that this may not all be literal. All I really know is that it will be unimaginably good and that God and my Lord Jesus will be there, so I’d like to be there too.

And then for my correlation of the last verse. I can only imagine the joy Jesus must have when he thinks about the coming KOG. It is his reward. He’ll be ruling the whole world from the new Jerusalem. I think this was God’s plan all along, with Jesus in mind as the king of his kingdom before the foundation of the world, to a people whose desire is for them whom they love.        

Going back to the Old Testament passage, we see that not all of the children of Israel were witnesses to God through Moses. Therefore, he instructs them to discipline their children who were not witnesses. An example of discipling for the children of the children of Israel who were not direct witnesses was laid out for us in Deuteronomy 11.  

Similarly, not many of us were direct witnesses to Jesus’ ministry on earth. Therefore, he instructs his disciples to discipline the rest of us who were not direct witnesses. I believe that through the power of the holy spirit however, we too can be called witnesses of Jesus, and are therefore also commissioned to discipline our children and others (the Josiahs). An example of discipling for us is laid out in the new testament, beginning with the gospels.

Can you say amen?

-Juliet Taylor

Today’s Bible reading passages can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – 1 Chronicles 5-6 and Proverbs 19

What is it that makes a person choose to follow God?

2 Kings 21-22; Proverbs 15

There seems to be a persistent theme when it comes to the kings of God’s people. There were kings who served Yahweh their God and kings who served false gods. In 2 Kings chapters 21-22, we are told a tale of two kings. The first king, Manasseh, king over Judah, did evil in the sight of Yahweh God.

Wait a minute. Didn’t we just read about a similar situation a few chapters ago? Why does history repeat itself so often? Did the people learn nothing about what it meant to follow God (or not) from their forefathers? Did they not just witness their sister kingdom of Israel being starved and then carried away into captivity because they would not listen? Or was that too far in the past to grasp? Even if their memories faded, the people of the kingdom of Judah were living out a miracle of God through the reign of Hezekiah. His consequence to following God brought his people life. Not just any life, but an abundant and prosperous life. Why wouldn’t future generations mirror his ways and follow after his God? There must be more to it than knowledge of a history of consequences.

So what is it that makes a person (or a people) choose to follow God?

Romans 10:17 says that faith comes through hearing, and hearing by the word of God. The kingdoms of God should have known the words of God. They were God’s chosen people who were given the Law of Moses. Many were taught the word of God through people close to them, such as their parents, priests, and sometimes prophets, and through repeated practice of those laws in their daily lives. God supplied them with everything they needed to do right before him. Yet we see kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. Some kings chose to serve God, while others chose to serve other gods.

I consider myself privileged to have been brought up in a household that taught me about my God and his son from as early as I can remember. Others in our faith didn’t have this advantage. They had to hear the word from someone perhaps not as close to them later in life or discover God through his word for themselves. These types of people are my favorite people. To have such a passion for truth that they’d seek God diligently despite their lack of a foundation in the word (or despite their lack of a foundation in the one true God) amazes me. Many of these truth seekers are doing so in the face of great persecution. This is praiseworthy.   

Some “good” kings of Israel or Judah appear to have been brought up in the word of God. I believe this type of upbringing was vital to their success as a God follower, even if at times they stumbled. A good upbringing, however, is not always enough.

King Hezekiah was a God follower, an amazing pray-er, and likely a good teacher of the word of God. Yet his son Manasseh chose not to walk in the ways of his father and instead chose to do evil in the sight of God – a lot of evil. It appears that Manasseh was born during the last few years of Hezekiah’s life (the 15 extra years God miraculously granted him). It is possible that he didn’t gain a firm foundation in the word from his father before his death. After all, he was only about 12 years of age when he began his reign as king. However, we all know another 12-year-old that was always about his father’s business, so I can’t give Manasseh too much slack with a father like Hezekiah.He must have heeded his father’s words in some way, as he knew to eventually repent of his evil ways before his God. If Hezekiah had been alive to see it, I’d imagine he’d be overjoyed to see his son repent and follow after the one true God. Thank God for repentance – as there’s time for it. Manasseh’s predecessor and son, Amon, did evil in the sight of God and reigned for only 2 short years. He was actually murdered by his servants. The word doesn’t give us much indication as to why but perhaps some of the people wanted to continue with Manasseh’s later reformed ways.

Finally we come to another “good” king of Judah, Josiah, Amon’s son. Josiah’s reign began when he was only 8 years old. Based on his father’s and the majority of his grandfather’s, evil behavior, I can’t imagine that he was taught much good. Perhaps the people around him experienced a taste of the good life that came at the end of Manasseh’s reign with his repentance and instilled some good practices in Josiah. But I can’t be certain that anything was taught to Josiah regarding the word of God. The high priest of the time actually found the book of the Law some 18 years into Josiah’s reign. I’m guessing that the last one to read or hear it was Hezekiah, almost a century earlier!

When Josiah heard the word of God for the first time in his life, he tore his clothes and he wept because he knew his fathers and his people had forsaken Yahweh God. He felt guilt and knew what his kingdom deserved. He immediately sought Yahweh on behalf of himself and his people. He found a prophetess, Huldah, who spoke to him concerning God’s judgment. We see that the nation of Judah was guilty but because of Josiah’s response to hearing God’s word, they were shown mercy.

It is Josiah’s response to hearing the word of God that answers my former question. What is it that makes a person (or a people) choose to follow God?

It’s their heart and humility before the LORD.

2 Kings 22:18-20

18 But to the king of Judah who sent you to inquire of the Lord, this is what you shall say to him: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says: ‘Regarding the words which you have heard, 19 since your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they would become an object of horror and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before Me, I have indeed heard you,’ declares the Lord.” 20 Therefore, behold, I am going to gather you to your fathers, and you will be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes will not look at all the devastation that I am going to bring on this place.’” So they brought back word to the king.

Josiah is likened to me as those truth seekers who didn’t have a biblical advantage as part of their upbringing. Josiah goes on to be one of the greatest kings of Judah of all times. It didn’t take him years of study in the ways of God to choose to follow God once he heard his words. All it took was his humble heart.

I am currently discipling my two young boys in an effort to steer their hearts towards God. I want to do everything in my power to raise up children in the ways of the Lord so that when they must choose on their own, they’ll choose him continually, even after a stumble. It can be discouraging to think that despite their advantage, they may still fail. I can’t make them have a heart for God. They have to want him on their own. That the words of our God and his son would be written on their hearts continually is my prayer for them.

It is astounding to me that there are Josiahs out there who’ve never even heard the word of God, but once they do, their hearts will immediately be for him. Oh how I long for a heart like that. Let’s pray for each other’s hearts.

-Juliet Taylor

Today’s Bible reading passages can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – 2 Kings 21-22 and Proverbs 15

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