The Lord is Near!

Christianity, Philippians, Religion

Philippians 4 is, without a doubt, one of Paul’s most famous pieces of writing. Any Christian worth their salt knows Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” by heart. Chapter 4 is also where we find Paul’s exhortation to “rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). Though these verses are sure to be included in any list of Paul’s “greatest hits,” they are not the only pearls of wisdom that can be found in this chapter. 

 Among the more overlooked verses of Philippians 4, we find verses 5 and 6, “Let everyone see your gentleness. The Lord is near!  Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God.” In these two verses, Paul gives some of the most significant theological and practical advice for Christian living. We can break his advice into three parts:

 1-Treat everyone gently.

 2- Don’t be scared, for Christ is with us.

 3- Don’t stop praying.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at each of these.

  1-Treat everyone gently. The word that Paul uses in verse 5 can be translated as “fairness,” “mildness,” or “gentleness.“ When he calls upon the Philippians to let everyone “see their gentleness,” he is calling on them to treat people gently and mildly. Followers of Christ are not to show unfair treatment to others, nor are we to treat anyone in a harsh or unkind manner. We are called, as Paul reminded us, to show meekness, mildness, and gentleness. These characteristics should come naturally to believers because they are the same traits Christ demonstrated to those whom he encountered. As we seek to be more Christlike, we should strive to show more gentleness and fairness to everyone we meet.

 2- Don’t be scared, for Christ is with us. Are there any more comforting words written in all of Scripture? Let’s take a moment and review everything Paul has told us about Christ in this epistle. In Philippians 2, Paul writes of Christ’s humility. He said that Christ’s entire life was a demonstration in humble living. In chapter 3, Paul wrote of Christ’s sovereignty over all everything in heaven and earth. Here in chapter 4, however, Paul quickly reminds us that Christ is not distant from us; He is not far removed from us. Paul tells us that the opposite is true that Christ is close to us! Though He has ascended back up to the Father, Christ is very much still near to us. He is still Immanuel, “God with us.” He is near to us, and He is seeing us through every situation, every trial, every tribulation that we face. When we realize that Christ is with us, we recognize that we have nothing to fear. There is no fear in sickness, no fear in plague, no fear in death. Since Christ is with us, and since He is giving us the strength to endure every trial, we have nothing to fear at all.

 3- Don’t stop praying. Paul called upon the Philippians to continuously take their prayers, petitions, and requests to God with thanksgiving. In every situation, we are to be committed to prayer. God knows all of our needs, and He will meet them. He also wants us to demonstrate that we trust in His provision for our lives through prayer. Praying to God to meet our needs is a demonstration of humility on our part. It shows that we are no longer trying to control things ourselves and that we are trusting in God alone to meet our needs. 

 Paul’s words in chapter 4 are as practical as they are reassuring and beautiful. In the days ahead, take time to reflect upon them. Find your hope and comfort in the fact that Christ is near to us. Whatever might be going on in your life, you are not alone. The Lord Himself is with you. Though things might be tough and painful, He is with you, and He is in control. He is with you just as He was with Noah during the flood. He is with you just as He was with Joseph in prison. He is with you just as He was with Israel in the wilderness. He is with you just as He was with Jonah in the belly of the fish. He is with you just as He was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

He is with you just as He was with Daniel in the lion’s den. He is with you just as He was with Paul in prison. He promised never to leave us nor forsake us. So trust His promise, and do not be afraid.

Artwork, “The Lord is Near,” from “Devotions Sketchbook,” by Aaron Zenz, 2013. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/161988917824843128/

Keep Calm and Carry On.

Christian Living, Christianity, Philippians, Religion, Worship

“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write to you again about this is no trouble for me and is a protection for you.” Philippians 3:1

“…but our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject everything to Himself.” Philippians 3:20-21

In the opening of Philippians 3, we see Paul again call upon the believers of Philippi to rejoice. Paul’s repetition is intentional, and he states this. He is not merely saying the same thing again and again out of laziness; in fact, he tells the Philippians that it was for their benefit, for their safety, that he repeats this call to rejoice. 

Following this call to rejoice in verse 1, Paul gives a stark warning to the Philippian believers. He calls on them to watch out for false teachers who are promoting a false gospel of works. These false teachers were telling believers that salvation was only obtained through circumcision and through keeping the Old Testament Law, not through belief in Christ’s sacrifice and God’s grace. Paul does not mince any words when he aims at these imposter teachers: he calls them “dogs” and “those who mutilate the flesh.” Both of these put-downs are intentional; Paul used them for a reason.  “Dogs” was a common slur used by the Israelites to refer to Gentiles; it was a way for the Israelites to look down upon those who were not like them. Likewise, the phrase “mutilators of the flesh” was used in the Old Testament to refer to the evil prophets of the false gods that the people of Israel so often pursued instead of God. By using these specific phrases, Paul is showing the Philippian believers that these false teachers are not of them. These false teachers are evil and that their teachings should be avoided.

Paul wants the Philippians to avoid these false teachers because their doctrines will rob the Philippian believers of the joy of their salvation. Instead of rejoicing in God’s grace and mercy, these false teachers would have the believers think that salvation could be earned. They taught that salvation was only obtainable if people kept the Law in a manner that was “good enough.” Paul quickly tells the Philippians in verses 4-6 that personal credentials and works mean nothing when it comes to salvation. He offers his resume as proof. Paul lists his credentials and tells us that he was born a Hebrew, from the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the Pharisees, and one who did all he could to persecute those who believed in Christ. Paul tells us that if salvation were based on works and keeping the Law, he would be blameless. He was the most Hebrew of all the Hebrews; he was a man who did everything right. But, as Paul points out, works are meaningless; he even goes on to say that all his works and credentials are as worthless as manure!  What was of real value and importance was knowing Christ and seeking after Him.

It was important for Paul to explain to refute this false teaching. He explained to the Philippians that their salvation was based entirely upon God’s grace and mercy. Christ’s death atoned for the sins of the world, and when a sinner professes faith in Christ, their sins are forgiven and removed from them. The sinner is then “justified,” meaning that, in God’s eyes, they are acquited of any wrongdoing. Christ’s righteousness is then imputed, or given, to the believer, and this enables the believer to pursue a lifestyle of godly living. 

This pursuit of living for God, of living a Christian lifestyle, is called “sanctification,” and Paul refers to it as being “mature” or “perfected.” As a believer grows in faith and grows closer to Christ, they become more capable of living according to His commands. Paul told the Philippians that sanctification was his goal and desire. He hadn’t achieved it yet, but he was striving continually toward it. He said to the believers that the first step in sanctification was “forgetting that which is behind” (verse 13), meaning forgetting and letting go of the past. It does the believer no good to dwell on past sins and failures, for dwelling on the past prohibits the believers from moving forward in their pursuit of Christ. As simple as this advice may be, it is often the hardest part of our Christian journey. Instead of dwelling on the past, the Christian must continually reach for Christ and rely upon Him to enable them to live as He demands.

Chapter 3 concludes with Paul reminding the Philippian believers not to succumb to the false teachings of the false teachers. Instead, the believers are to remember that their citizenship is not of this world, but is of Heaven. As such, they should not look to themselves or to people from the world to save them; they should look to a savior from Heaven to deliver them from the trials of this world. That savior is Christ, and Paul reminds the Philippians that Christ is coming once again. When He comes again, Christ will use His power to transform the believers. He will transform their fallen, sick, and sinful bodies into glorious bodies like that of His own. With this assurance, and with their salvation and the hope of eternal life secure, how could the Philippians–or any believers–not rejoice?

Paul’s advice to the Philippians in chapter 3 can be summarized as “keep calm and carry on.” He encouraged the Philippian believers to not be distracted by false teachers, but to remain resolute in their pursuit of Christ and sanctification. This advice applies to us today. Not only do we have to beware of false teachings, but we also have to contend with any number of distractions and fears that might prevent us from continuing in our pursuit of Christ. It is so easy, at times, to become overwhelmed at what is going on in the world and to lose sight of that our goal of sanctification. In those difficult times, we must remain resolute; we must keep calm and carry on. We must remember that our citizenship is in Heaven and that we serve the risen Savior who reigns over Heaven and earth. We must remember that Christ has defeated death, that He bore our sins and shame to Calvary, and that we carry them no more. We must remember that Christ has given us the hope of life eternal with Him, and because of this, there is nothing to fear in death. Even in the darkest times, we have reason to rejoice and be glad. We can face any trial, any tribulation, any situation, any circumstance with hope and with confidence. Regardless of what we are faced with, we can keep calm and carry on.

Eager to Hear.

Christianity, Nehemiah, Religion, Worship

“All the people were eager to hear the book of the law.” Nehemiah 8:3

“‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping when they heard the words of the law.” Nehemiah 8:9

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of what happens to the people of Judah when they return from the seventy years of captivity in Babylon. This focus puts them entirely out of place in the order of non-Hebrew Bibles, for Ezra and Nehemiah come before the books of the prophets that describe the coming of the exile to Babylon. When reading Ezra and Nehemiah, you see how the story of the exile ends, with the first meager waves of returning arriving back in their homeland. These books tell you the story of a people who had grown up in as exiles, captive in a foreign land, returning home to the ancestral land that they had never known.

The Book of Nehemiah focuses specifically on the story of the book’s namesake, Nehemiah, as he helps lead the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. When arriving back in Jerusalem, the returnees found the once-great city still lay in ruins. Nothing had been rebuilt since the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar had razed the city. The walls–the symbols of the city’s security–were crumbling and useless, and the Temple–the symbol of God’s presence with His people–was but a heap of rubble. Jerusalem was still in disarray, both physically and spiritually. To make matters worse, many of the returning Hebrews were being exploited–by Persian officials and by Hebrews who were complicit with supporting their new Persian overlords. Nehemiah endeavored to bring legal order and justice back to Jerusalem, and he vowed to begin this–and a long list of other reforms–by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s quest to bring law and order back to Jerusalem was paralleled by his associate, Ezra the Scribe, who sought to bring religious and spiritual order back to the city.

Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild the city’s walls has hindered and opposed by his adversaries. Still, he persisted, and he and his followers successfully rebuilt the walls. The completion of the walls coalesced with a sense of revival and renewal for the returned exiles. This highlighted by the celebration that took place when the walls were completed. In chapter 8, we find a celebration of dedication for the walls. At this celebration, the people of Jerusalem asked Ezra to come and read the Torah, the Book of the Law, to them. We are told that all the returnees are assembled there to hear it–men, women, and children who are old enough to understand. We are also told that all the people are eager to listen to the reading. Ezra is on a high platform, built just for this purpose so that all the people might hear him and see him. Throughout this service of worship and dedication, we find four essential characteristics that denote true, sincere worship:

We see the people are eager to worship

Everyone who was able to attend this service was there. It was of the utmost importance that the corporate body of believers was assembled for this moment. This was a family affair–both in the sense of the family of God being together and also in that entire families worshipped together.

The eagerness of the people is highlighted in verse 1, where it says the people requested Ezra read the Book of the Law at this ceremony. The people understood the significance of the moment. They had returned to their ancestral home–the home that their forefathers had forfeited by forsaking the Law. As such, the returnees wanted to recommit themselves to the Law so that they might not repeat the same sins as their fathers.

We see the people are reverent in worship.

When Ezra takes the platform to read, the congregation stands to hear him. They stand out of reverence for God and the importance of the words that Ezra will be reading to them. We are told that Ezra was reading the Book of the Law from dawn until noon, and the whole time, the people were there standing and listening. When Ezra completed reading the Book, the people cried out, “Amen! Amen!” and bowed their faces down to the ground and worshipped the Lord. Again, this sign of prostration is a sign of respect for God. The people realize the majesty of God and their unworthiness to approach Him, and so they bow their heads in somber reverence. 

Ezra also had the foresight to appoint several of the Levites–those who would be working in the Temple–to be out among the crowd, teaching the people as Ezra was reading the Law. Keep in mind that the returnees had grown up in exile in a society that was alien to their native culture. The returnees grew up in Babylon, speaking the language of that land, and their native tongue, Hebrew, was lost. Only those who grew up hearing Hebrew and were taught Hebrew could understand it. These Levites grew up being taught Hebrew, in the off chance that they would be able to go home and return to their positions in the Temple, and their study of the Law. So the Levites in the crowd translated the Law to the people so they could learn and gain insight about what they were hearing. The people were hearing words that they could understand so that they could learn and benefit from it.

We see the people were moved by their worship.

The significance of this ceremony, of this moment, was overwhelming to the people. They were once again in the Promised Land, in the holy city, hearing the words of God read to them in their ancestral language. They had returned home. The long and horrific ordeal of exile had ended, and they were the first ones to come home. It was a moment that moved the assembly to tears. They were weeping because their nightmare had ended, they were weeping because God had been faithful to them and returned them home, they were weeping because they were hearing the Law that their forefathers had forsaken thus bringing the horror of God’s judgment and exile.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites reminded the people numerous times not to weep, not to mourn, for this was a special day. This was a holy day–it was a day of rededication and renewal–and the people should rejoice and celebrate. The past was the past, mourning over it wouldn’t change anything. Instead, the people must rejoice in this day. The people must celebrate this day, rejoice in their return, and commit each and every subsequent day to follow the Lord. This day was not a day for mourning the sins of their fathers; it was a day for celebrating the faithfulness of God.

We see the people are confronted by their worship.

As the people learn more about the Law, they discover that they are already guilty of breaking the Law. We are told this assembly gathered on the first day of the seventh month, and in their reading of the Law, the people find that time is appointed for the celebration of the Festival of Booths. During this festival, the Hebrews were to live in tents for a week to commemorate the forty-years their ancestors wandered in the desert before coming into the Promised Land. So, the people went out and gathered the required items for the celebration, and they observed the Festival of Booths. 

The writer of Nehemiah tells us that this was the first time the festival had been observed since the days of Joshua–and this is a startling revelation. Over nine hundred years had spanned since the death of Joshua and the day in which the returning Hebrews observed the festival. The very generation who entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua–the very generation who vowed to keep all the laws and commandments of God–was guilty of not observing this festival. As soon as they entered the Promised Land, they began to become complacent and neglected to teach the next generation how to honor God and keep His commandments, and within a generation or two, the observance was lost. This might seem like a minor offense, but is a sin nonetheless. The Hebrew word for sin is khata (חָטָא), which simply means to miss the mark. God gives us the standard by which to live, and when we miss the mark–when we khata–it is sin. One miss–one sin–quickly leads to another, and pretty soon, the original target is lost altogether. Such was the case with the Israelites; they missed the mark by neglecting to observe one festival, and subsequent generations strayed farther and farther from the mark. The people of Nehemiah’s day realize this, and they vow not to repeat the same mistakes, not to miss the mark. They committed themselves that day to striving for the target God set and to live for God.

When we read Nehemiah 8, we must reflect very objectively on our own worship. Can we find the same four characteristics in our worship, week in and week out? Are we eager to worship? Do we look forward to going to the Lord’s house each and every Lord’s Day, or is our Sunday morning more routine and mechanical? Are we eager to worship, or are we dragging ourselves to our pew, and merely riding worship out? 

Are we reverent in our worship? Do we realize that we are in the presence of the almighty God, the King of the Universe? Is our view of God such that we understand our insignificance and our unworthiness to approach Him? Do we give Him respect and reverence, or do we come to worship thinking that God should be grateful to us for giving Him one hour of our time? Do we approach worship as the holy time that it is, or do we treat it as though it were yet another social function? Are we more concerned about being seen, shaking hands, and slapping backs than we are about being in the presence of the God who made us and who died for us?

Are we moved by our worship? Does our time in the presence of the Holy God move us to tears? Do we realize how illogical it is that He should want to commune with us? Do we comprehend how faithful He has been to us, despite all of our infidelities against Him? Does His love overwhelm us? Does it bring us joy to know that God has given us salvation, even at the cost of His Son? Or are we cold and rigid and unfeeling? Are we more concerned about getting out of church exactly at noon? Do we even care to feel the Spirit’s presence with us? Do we want to be moved by God, or are we satisfied just to slink into a pew and slink out when the service is over?

Does our worship confront our sin? Are we being told when we missed the mark? Are we forced to feel the Spirit’s conviction? Or is our worship just a pep rally to pump us up for the week ahead? Are we told of the target that God has set for us, are we forced to examine if we are on target or not? When we sin, are we told we must repent and ask forgiveness, or are we told that we are “good people” and given sappy stories to make us feel better about ourselves?

If our worship does not do for us what it did for the people in Nehemiah 8, then it is not worship. God does not want cold, dead, rigid, ritualism. God wants our sincere, genuine, heartfelt worship, both in spirit and in truth. We must examine how we might be missing the mark in our approach to worship. God sent His Son to die for us so that we might be forgiven for all of our many sins. He died so that we might once again be in communion with God. If that doesn’t motivate us to offer Him sincere worship in return, we are missing the mark. Christ died to end our nightmare of spiritual exile, to return us home to God, and we must approach worship with that in mind. How could we offer Him anything less than our most sincere worship? How could we not be moved by that? How could we not desire to be reminded when we miss the mark so that we can get back on target?

Approach worship with eagerness. Give God your most sincere worship, and let Him move in you.

Artwork: “Ezra Reads the Law,” Marc Chagall, 1960

Restore.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

“And, after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:10

Peter’s first epistle is often classified with the ‘general epistles,’ meaning that it contains information that is general, or broad, in scope. The epistles in this category focus on addressing many big-picture themes, such as faith, hope, works, love. They differ somewhat from Paul’s letters that often are directed to a single congregation or individual and often focus on thoroughly explaining a single topic in great detail. Both sets of epistles, the general and those by Paul, provide something of a ‘how-to’ manual for living the Christian life. It is in the epistles that we see the theology and doctrine of the gospels unpacked and explained and applied to everyday life.

While 1 Peter is general in scope, there was still a specific context in which it was written. This letter was addressed to the exiled believers living in Asia Minor. These Gentile followers of Christ were living in their homeland, but Peter addresses them as exiles. This theme is one that is repeated throughout 1 Peter; the Apostle wants his fellow believers to understand that this world is not their home. As followers of Christ, believers are living in this world in a spiritual exile. This “exile” is made real to the believers of Asia Minor in the form of persecution that they experienced because of their faith in Christ.

Throughout the letter, Peter discusses how these believers are to respond to this persecution. He implores them to continue being law-abiding citizens, to look out for one another, to love each other, and to seek to do good to those who are persecuting them. Again and again, Peter calls on the believers to not repay evil for evil, to endure their suffering as Christ endured His, and to remember that they have the hope of a better life to come in God’s kingdom.

Peter focuses on this hope at the close of the letter. In the final lines of the letter, he assures the believers that this suffering is only temporary, that it won’t last forever, that it will be over in a little while. He goes on to provide them with more hope and encouragement by reminding them that when this suffering is over, God Himself will comfort, restore, sure up, repair, and strengthen the believers. Peter’s letter to the persecuted believers of Asia Minor closes with the hope of God Himself comforting and repairing them after the struggle is over.

This hopeful message of restoration reverberates with the echoes of other Scripture. Numerous psalms come to mind. We think of the psalm penned by David in which he pours out his heart and soul upon the page, begging God to comfort him amid his trials. In Peter’s words, we hear echoes of Psalm 23:

He restores my strength.

He leads me down the right paths

for the sake of his reputation.

Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no danger,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff reassure me.

You prepare a feast before me

in plain sight of my enemies. (Psalm 23:3-5)

We hear whispers of Psalm 119, where the psalmist pleads with God for Him to restore the grief-stricken author as God promised to do. “My soul melts away for sorrow;

strengthen me according to your word!” (Psalm 119:28) The psalmist knew that God would nourish and restore him after his trials, and he pleaded for God to keep that promise.

Peter’s words mirror those of his contemporary, Paul, who wrote, “but the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen you and guard you against the evil one,” ( 2 Thessalonians 3:3). In each of these passages and countless others, the believer is continually reassured and reminded that after their suffering is complete, God will restore, repair, strengthen, and nourish them. Whether it be on this side of the grave or the other, God will shepherd the believer in green pastures, will lead them to still waters, and will restore their soul.

Trials and troubles are too many to count in this life. Without the hope we have from Christ, this world is bleak, and its burdens will grind us down. Christ, in His atoning death and defeating the grave through His resurrection, has given us new hope. This hope comes from the prospect of a renewed relationship with God. To those who have faith in Christ, the promise of God’s comfort and restoration never goes void. Place your faith in Christ and allow God’s promise of future restoration to give you strength for the trials ahead.

Artwork, Cover for the Bible, Verve No. 33-34 (Mourlot 117), Marc Chagall

Spiritual Milk.

Christianity, Religion

“You have purified your souls by obeying the truth in order to show sincere mutual love. So love one another earnestly from a pure heart. You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God…So get rid of all evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. And yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up to salvation,” -1 Peter 1:22-23, 2:1-2 New English Translation (NET)

Peter pulls no punches in his letter to the dispersed believers in Asia Minor. Though they were experiencing persecution due to their faith in Christ, Peter encouraged these believers to remain focused on living differently from the world. He urged them to continue living as Christ had called them to live. Throughout this letter, Peter reminds the believers of what Christ suffered in order to bring salvation to them, and as such, they should be ready to suffer for Him when called to do so.

The believers are reminded by Peter that this call to holy living is a required demonstration of their faith. The followers of Christ are commanded to love one another and to show this love, for they have been born anew and given new, pure hearts. This calls to mind the prophetic promises of the Old Testament in which God promised to replace His people’s hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. The giving of a new heart is itself a sign of the Christian’s rebirth; Peter reminds these believers that this rebirth is not from any ordinary seed. This new birth is from the imperishable seed of God’s eternal and enduring word.

A few verses later, Peter gives very straightforward advice about how the believer is to demonstrate both their new heart and holy living. Peter implores the believers to get rid of all “evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” There is to be no room in the believer’s new, pure heart for these worldly traits, regardless of who the recipients of these feelings may be. The believer is not to harbor such feelings for non-believers, and especially not for fellow believers.

The believers are to instead “yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk,” which will aid in their growth as followers of Christ. This call to pursue “spiritual milk” is interesting on a few levels. First, the word that is translated in English as “spiritual” is the Greek work logikos (λογικός), as in “logical.” This word, logikos, is related to a significant Greek word, the word logos (λόγος). Logos is the Greek word for “word.” Despite its seemingly ordinary translation, logos is one of the most important words of the New Testament.  

So, how does this relate to Peter’s call to pursue spiritual milk? Peter made reference to the word (logos) of God in 1:23 when he reminded the believers of their new birth of the imperishable seed of the enduring word of God. He then used a similar and related word, logikos, and uses a little bit of word-play to encourage the believers to yearn for the word of God. It is almost as if he is saying, “yearn for the word of God milk.” This idea fits into the context of the statement: just as a newborn child yearns for milk to grow, the newborn believer is to yearn for the word of God so that they may grow in their faith.

There is, however, a more profound message here. We must remember that the word logos is one of the most important words of the New Testament. Logos is used as a code word for Christ, and it is often used to refer to Christ being the means through which God communicated to humanity. In the same way that humans use words to communicate with each other, God used Jesus to communicate with humanity and to tell the world how it could have a renewed relationship with the Father. Jesus is the literal word of God, and this is best illustrated in the opening verses of John’s gospel account. In John 1:1-4, we read the following, and we know that John is referring to Christ everywhere we used the word “Word”: 

 In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word (logos) was with God, and the Word (logos) was God. He (the logos) was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him (the logos), and without him (the logos) was not any thing made that was made. In him (the logos) was life, and the life was the light of men.

With this in mind, let’s look again at Peter’s call to pursue logikos milk. Considering the connection to logos and Jesus, we see that when Peter is telling us to hunger for and be nourished by the word of God, he doesn’t only mean the written word–the Scriptures. He also means for us to hunger and yearn for the real logos itself– to hunger and yearn for Christ. It is then, when we yearn for Christ, and seek to be nourished by Him, and by the Scriptures, we can put away all the fleshly desires and habits of this world. When these desires and habits are put away, we can live just as He called us to live– as His holy people.

Hunger and thirst for Christ; seek the nourishment and growth that only He can give. Pursue Christ above all else, and let Him work in you to remove all the evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander that infests each of us. Let Him give strength to your new, pure heart. Then use that new heart to exhibit His love to all you encounter.

Artwork: “Milk Bottles,” by Ollie Tuck, https://www.saatchiart.com/print/Painting-Milk-Bottles/1088026/4264596/view

Roll Your Sleeves Up.

Christianity, Religion

“Therefore, with your minds ready for action, be serious and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 1:13

In the days surrounding the New Year, it has become customary to look back over the year that is closing and to review its highs and lows. At the end of a  year, we take stock of that year, and we look forward with hope to a better year to come. With this hopeful anticipation comes another New Year’s custom–that of making resolutions. These resolutions are frequently related to self-improvement–eating healthier, losing weight, reading more–so as to improve the “success” of the upcoming year.

The trouble with New Year’s resolutions is that after the celebratory fervor of the New Year wears off, so too does the commitment to one’s resolutions. Frequently, as January closes out, we often find ourselves sliding into old habits–cheating on those diets, sleeping in when we should exercise, choosing to watch another episode of a show instead of reading that book that’s been living on the nightstand.

Sadly, we often experience such variations and fluctuations of commitment and apathy in our lives as followers of Christ. We may have had an emotional experience that resulted in our making a commitment to Christ, but as time goes on, that initial enthusiasm fades away. If time does not cause our faith to lose its luster, the advent of trials and hardship certainly can. Many people have bought into the lie that believing in Jesus will give them health, wealth, and success. The Bible says nothing to this effect; in fact, it says the opposite. In John 15, just before Jesus was betrayed and arrested, He says, “if the world hates you, you know it has hated me before it hated you. 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, the world hates you. Remember the word I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than its master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:18-20). Following Christ does not mean one will be free from experiencing heartache, grief, and suffering. Following Christ means being buffeted on all sides by the world and by the powers of the world.

Peter understood this firsthand. He endured prison and beatings because of his commitment to Christ. He wrote a letter of encouragement to believers in Asia Minor who were also suffering through trials and persecutions that befell them due to their faith. This letter, 1 Peter, was written roughly 2-3 years before Peter’s own death during the persecutions in Rome under Emperor Nero. In this letter of encouragement, Peter exhorts the Christians to remember that this world is not their home; that they are citizens of a land that is to come. He reminds them that these sufferings are only for a little while, but that God’s promise of salvation to them is eternal.

Peter also gives the suffering Christians a bit of advice: He tells them to be “ready for action and serious-minded.” Peter’s words in Greek literally translated are “gird up again your loins.” This phrase refers to the practice at this time of taking one’s robe and tucking it into a belt, so one could do work unencumbered by the robe. To use the language of our day, Peter told the believers to roll their sleeves up and stay focused on Christ. Peter encouraged these believers to continue in their faith, to stay focused on Christ, and to continue living as He called them to live, despite what it might cost the believers. If they lived, glory to God. If they died, glory to God– for their faith would become sight.

Millions of Christians today live in places where their faith costs them significantly. We must continually lift up these brothers and sisters in prayer, and those of us who are fortunate to live in places where we can freely practice our faith must ask ourselves if we take our faith as seriously as those who are dying because of their faith in Christ.

For those of us who are not persecuted: we must also heed Peter’s exhortation. We cannot let our faith be so weak that we allow setbacks, hardships, heartaches–no matter how minor or severe–diminish our faith. When times are good, we must be serious-minded and set our faith in Christ. When times are bad, we must roll up our sleeves and continue being serious-minded and focused upon Christ.

Resolve this year to being an obedient follower of Christ. Commit each and every day to serve Him and seeking to do His will. No other resolution is of any importance or relevance if you are not first focusing daily upon Christ. So roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Artwork: “Blacksmith’s Boy – Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop),” Norman Rockwell, c. 1940.

Salvation Is His Name.

Christianity, Religion

“And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21

Matthew and Luke both record in their respective gospels the narrative of Jesus’ birth. Each account gives a distinct perspective of how Christ’s birth came to be and took place, and each gospel writer gives unique details about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. For example, in Luke’s account, we are given the familiar story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Caesar Agustus’ census, the birth in the stable in Bethlehem, and the appearance of the heavenly host to the shepherds.

While Luke’s account is focused mainly upon Mary, Matthew gives us a version that deals with Joseph’s side of the story. This focus on Joseph is essential because one of Matthew’s intention is to show how Jesus is the promised messiah, or king, from the line of David. To accomplish this, Matthew lists Jesus’ family tree, from Abraham to King David, all the way to Joseph. We learn from this that Joseph is a direct descendant of David, and as such, Jesus would be adopted into the Davidic line.

After connecting Joseph and Jesus to David, Matthew’s attention shifts to the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, specifically with the issue that Mary has become pregnant in the middle of her engagement to Joseph. Jewish engagements of this era were almost as binding as the marriage itself; to break the engagement, one party would have to receive a bill of divorce. Matthew tells us that Mary had conceived her child by the Holy Spirit, but Joseph still found himself in a precarious situation. For Mary to be pregnant with a child that was not Joseph’s during the engagement could have raised accusations of adultery. With that charge, Mary could be put to death, as was the prescribed penalty under the Law of Moses.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man and that he did not want to disgrace Mary publically. Joseph did not want to do anything that would endanger Mary; he was prudent. He has a man who followed the Law, but he also cared for Mary and did not want her to be hurt. She was going to have enough difficulty ahead being pregnant and unwed, there was no need to add to her burden. So Joseph decided to handle everything secretly and let everyone go their separate ways.

Though Joseph might have thought he was handling everything, this was not God’s plan. God was still going to use Joseph to be the earthly father of His Son, and Joseph was going to provide Mary’s child with the necessary Davidic lineage. He did not know it yet, but Joseph was going to play a vital role in God’s plan to redeem humanity.

So God sent a messenger to Joseph; an angel came to him in a dream. This angel spoke to Joseph and told this very important descendant of David not to be afraid to marry Mary. This was not just any ordinary child that she was carrying, this was a child that was conceived by the Holy Spirit. In the same way that God created everything in Genesis from nothing, He had created a baby in Mary from nothing. The angel continued to tell Joseph that Mary would have a son and that they must name this son Jesus. The angel then gives a critical detail about why this child must be called Jesus: it is because this child will save the people from their sins.

But what does this mean? What is the connection between the name Jesus and saving the people?

The English name “Jesus” comes from the Greek name Iesous (Ἰησοῦς), which is the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ). Yeshua is a shortened version of the Hebrew name Joshua, or Yehoshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ). In essence, Christ’s first name would be Josh. Both Yeshua and Yehoshua have the same meaning: YHWH is Salvation. So, our first step in understanding why Jesus must be named Yeshua is because that very name means “YHWH is salvation.”

There is a relationship between the name Yeshua and Hebrew words relating to salvation; they call come from the same root. For instance, the term “salvation” is yeshu’ah (יְשׁוּעָה) which sounds nearly identical to the name given to Christ. Likewise, the phrase “he will save” in Hebrew is yasha (יָשַׁע), which is an even more compact form of the name Yeshua. This all helps us to understand that salvation is at the very core of the name being given to Mary’s son. The baby must be named “Salvation,” because He is bringing salvation, and He Himself will do the saving.

This also sheds light on the identity of Jesus. His name, Yeshua, means “YHWH is Salvation,” but according to the angel’s explanation, Jesus is the one who will be doing all the saving; Jesus Himself has become the agent of salvation. Therefore, if Jesus’ name means “YHWH is Salvation,” and if Jesus is the one bringing salvation to the people-brining redemption from sin–then Jesus must be YHWH; He must be God. Proving that Jesus is God is why Matthew includes the quote from Isaiah 7:14– since Jesus is God, He is the fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy given by Isaiah. Jesus is Immanuel (God with Us) because Jesus is God, and He has come to be with His people.

God spared no attention to detail in His plan to redeem humanity. He sent the world His Son, and that Son was named Salvation because He would save the people from their sins. That baby, who was both fully human and fully God, grew up to be a man who led a perfectly obedient life to God, and that man died so that salvation could be given to the world. Three days later,  Salvation–who is God with Us– rose from the dead, defeating sin and death once and for all.

Place your trust in the one who is both fully God and fully man. His name is Salvation, and there is no other name that you can call upon to be saved.

Artwork: “The Nativity,” from “Derriere le Miroir” Marc Chagall, 1950

Blessing.

Christianity, Religion

“The Lord said to Abram:

‘Go out from your land,

your relatives,

and your father’s house

to the land that I will show you.

I will make you into a great nation,

I will bless you,

I will make your name great,

and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,

I will curse those who treat you with contempt,

and all the peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.’” Genesis 12:1-3

The calling of Abram (later to be Abraham) is one of the most critical chapters in the Bible. In this scene, we read of God choosing Abraham to be the father of His chosen people, and Abram is told that these people will be a great nation. Abram is seventy-five at this point, and he and his wife, Sarai, are childless. Despite this crucial fact, Abram does not question God. Abram demonstrates faith.

God commanded Abram to leave his family and his land and everything that he knew and to go to the land that God would show him. Abram’s role in God’s plan, aside from being the father of a great nation, was to go into exile. This makes us recall Genesis 3, where God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden, both as a punishment for their sin, but also to protect them from the Tree of Life and God’s holy presence. Here in Genesis 12, we see Abram being commanded to go into exile to help bring about God’s redemptive plan to bring humanity back to Him. In leaving his land and people, Abram would walk with God as did Enoch and Noah, and he would suffer exile to help bring humanity back to God.

Perhaps the most crucial part of God’s promise to Abram was that all the people or nations of the earth would be blessed through him. Again, we think back to Genesis 3 to the Fall in the Garden, and how humanity was cursed toil with the land to eke out an existence, and also cursed with pain in bearing children. God’s promise of blessing to the nations isn’t a blessing of wealth or might, it is a promise of relief–that the curses of the Fall would be broken; that no longer would there be toil or grief or separation from God. The blessing that would come from Abram would be a reversal of the curses. For the curses to be broken, the important prophecy of Genesis 3:15 would have to be fulfilled–the Promised One from the seed of the Woman would have to crush the head of the Serpent. What God has promised to Abram is that one of his innumerable descendants would be that Promised One who defeats the Serpent and makes all things right again.

Abram would not see this fulfilled in his lifetime, but he still followed God.

So often, we get sidetracked and worried about details and things in our lives that are beyond the scope of our control. We worry, and we stress, and we don’t heed God’s call to follow Him because we can’t see how the pieces of His plan all fit together. We think–as the Serpent tricked Eve into thinking–that we can handle managing our lives ourselves, without God’s help. More often than not, when we try to take control of our lives, we only make the situation worse. It is only through submitting to God and His plan, and in doing what He calls upon us to do, that we can have any semblance of peace in this life.

We have to trust that if God has called us to do something that He has ordained to do, then there is nothing that can thwart or foil His plan; His will shall be accomplished. Likewise, we should have no fear of following His will. We know that the Promised One–Jesus Christ– has come, and the Serpent has been defeated. No longer are we banished from God’s presence; instead His Spirit lives within us. What then is there to fear in this world? Death and the grave are defeated, our slavery to sin broken, and our God is alive and lives within us. We have no reason not to have faith in Him and to follow wherever He calls us. Our blessing has come, but there is still work to be done and calls to be obeyed.

Artwork: “Abraham Leaves Haran,” Francisco Bassano the Younger, c.1560-1592.

Seed of Hope.

Christianity, Religion

“I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” Genesis 3:15

The Genesis 3 account of humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden is a story with which many of us are familiar. It is a Bible “story” that we’ve heard time and time again: in Sunday School, in children’s ministry, in Bible school, and in any other place where children learn the Bible. Given how many times many of us have heard this story, it is possible that a degree of “blindness” has come along with familiarity. We’ve become so used to hearing that Genesis 3 is about how humanity ruined things and brought sin into creation, and was then punished by being expelled from Eden. This approach makes sense and helps us to comprehend the nature of the world, but we miss the most crucial part of the narrative if we only focus on how the man and woman failed.

This passage is not about how Adam and Eve failed and received punishment; this account is about so much more than humanity’s failures. This passage is about how God showed mercy, how He didn’t punish them as wholly as He should have. This passage is about how God–right from the very moment of humanity’s first wandering from Him–already had a plan to bring humankind back to Him. 

This passage is about undeserved mercy and the promise of hope of redemption.

Adam and Eve, despite their disobedience, receive an incredible outpouring of God’s mercy. They had both been told by God what the penalty was for eating from the forbidden tree–death. Yet, when God confronted their sin, He did not kill Adam and Eve. He did not destroy creation and begin anew. God punished them justly. Death did come to the scene–something did die for Adam and Eve’s nakedness to be covered–but God did not demand their lives there at that moment as He could have.

God shows even more mercy to Adam and Eve by sending them away from the Garden. Eden was the place where God’s realm and creation overlap; it was the place where God would come and walk among His creation. Adam and Eve, who were now sinful and fallen, could not be in God’s presence; His mere presence would destroy them. God is so perfect and so holy that anything infected with sin cannot survive being near Him. To protect Adam and Eve from being killed, God sent them away from Him. The man and woman were also exiled from Eden to protect them from themselves. Now that they had fallen and become sinful, God did not want Adam or Eve to eat from the Tree of Life, and then live forever in their fallen state. To protect humanity from itself, God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden. We often think of the exile from Eden as punishment; we fail to see that God sent humanity away from Eden to protect them. In exiling Adam and Eve, God had their best interests in mind; He did what was best for them.

We also see in Genesis 3 something which further shows the compassion that God displayed: the promise of hope. While He was levying the curses upon the Serpent, Eve, Adam, and the land, God made this promise to the Serpent, “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel,” (Genesis 3:15). The Serpent, who had orchestrated mankind’s rebellion through his deceit and deception, was told that there would come one who would avenge the woman. This Avenger would be from the woman’s seed–he would be human–and he would deliver a death blow to the Serpent. The Serpent would hurt the Avenger, but He would not succumb to the Serpent. For the rest of his days, the Serpent would crawl on his stomach, eating dust, knowing that the Avenger was coming to destroy him; the Serpent knew his destruction was sure.

When the Avenger came and finally destroyed the Serpent, the curses would be broken. The Avenger, through His injury from the Serpent, would atone for humanity’s rebellion, but He would break the curses through destroying the Serpent. By breaking the curses and atoning for humanity, the Avenger would end humanity’s separation from God and end their exile.

The Avenger would not defeat the Serpent with might or through force, nor would He do it through confrontation; He would defeat the Serpent through the most curious and most unusual means: He would defeat the Serpent by allowing the Serpent to kill Him. 

We see this play out many generations later, when the one from the seed of the woman, when the Avenger– Jesus of Nazareth–came to earth. He was born of woman and lived a life of complete obedience to God. He went willingly and of His own volition to the cross. Though He was perfect and never sinned nor disobeyed God at any point in His life, He allowed the ravenous, bloodthirsty animal of sin and its minion death to consume Him and to kill Him. Death, however,  could not hold Him; the Serpent could only bruise Him. Through this selfless act, through His sacrificial death, Christ stomped on the head of the Serpent with His bruised heel when He rose again walked out of the grave three days later.

Already here, at the very beginning of Scripture, here where humanity has just fallen, where sin and death have just been introduced to the story, Calvary is already on the horizon. The promise of the Avenger–of the Snake Crusher–is the first glimmer of messianic hope to the fallen world. This promise shows us that, from the very beginning, God knew how He would defeat sin and death; from the beginning, God knew how He would redeem humanity and bring them back to Him.

Artwork: “Mary consoles Eve,” Sister Grace Remington, 2003.

Walk the Line.

Christianity, Religion

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ …Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?” Jeremiah 7:1-4, 8-10

In 1956, the late country musician Johnny Cash recorded what would become his first number one hit. Cash wrote the song, “I Walk the Line,” to help alleviate the fears that his wife held about the lures of fame and life on the road might be taking on Johnny and their marriage. The song’s message of faithfulness and commitment were popular with the public; however, the tragic irony is that Cash did not live up to the high bar of fidelity that he presented in the song. The wiles of fortune got the best of Cash and took a toll on both his health and marriage. The song he wrote to help ease the fears of his wife proved to be an empty promise. The song was merely a collection of deceptive words that were uttered to help hide a lifestyle of inappropriate behavior. Cash would later become–during his second marriage–a devoted family man, but it would take the remainder of his life to work to reconcile the mistakes of his past.

In the Book of Jeremiah, we are presented with a similar situation, though one that is infinitely greater in its magnitude and importance.

The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to go to Jerusalem to preach against the sins of the people of Judah, the majority of whom had turned away from God and given wholly into idolatry and pagan worship. Despite the occasional righteous king, Judah had–like the northern kingdom of Israel–become a spiritual wasteland. The majority of the population no longer sought after God; instead, they turned to Baal and other false gods and offered sacrifices, sometimes of their children, to these pagan deities. This wholesale turning away from God was marked by Judah’s failure to live as God commanded. Those who were supposed to be looked after, the widows and orphans and foreigners, were ignored and exploited. Innocent blood was shed, and justice and righteousness were nowhere to be found. The Promised Land and the City of David–the very place where God’s presence dwelt amongst His people–had become overrun with corruption and spiritual pollution.

Despite this lack of regard for God and His commandments, the people of Judah did not think anything was wrong. Though Jeremiah and other prophets would appear and preach about the error of their spiritual philandering, the people of Judah–especially those in Jerusalem–took no heed of these calls to repentance. They would, instead, point to the temple and say, “we have the Temple of the Lord.” The temple served as evidence that judgment would not befall Jerusalem or Judah, because it made no sense for God to punish the very place that housed His temple. The presence of the temple was viewed as an assurance of peace and security. The people of Jerusalem and Judah were trusting in the presence of a physical structure, not in the God whose presence inhabited the building.

Jeremiah pointed out the error in this thinking. He preached against the duplicity of the people of Judah. Jeremiah explained that the people would go to the temple and offer some arbitrary prayer or sacrifice in an attempt to appease God, only to leave and continue sinning. They would say that the temple was Lord’s, but they did not live as though that were true. They failed to understand that having the temple was a call to holy living, not a symbol of security. They trusted in the vain and deceptive words that they muttered to themselves as they slid further and further into sin. “God won’t destroy Jerusalem,” they said, “we have the temple of the Lord,” and so they justified their sins. They thought that, since God had blessed the faith of their ancestors Abraham and David, they could live and do whatever they wanted. The people of Jeremiah’s era failed to realize that each generation must commit themselves to live the life of righteousness and justice that God demands.

God would only be mocked for so long. To show the people how wrong they were, and how misplaced their trust was, Jerusalem was attacked by the Babylonians in 587 BC. When the Babylonians captured the city, the temple was utterly destroyed. The judgment for the people’s sins had come. The building that the people trusted in was leveled before their eyes.

Followers of Christ have the same call to holy living as the Israelites had. It is God’s desire for his people to live differently from the world; to be holy as He is holy. We must be sure that we are heeding this call and that we are radically different from the world around us. We must remember that the salvation Christ gave us–at the expense of His life–is the beginning of the sanctification process. As we grow deeper and stronger in Christ, we are to be increasingly less like the world. Our salvation is not “fire insurance;” nor is it a “get out of jail free” card. Our salvation is not an invitation to test the limits of God’s forgiveness while we continue to sin and live as we wish. This is no different than pointing to the presence of the temple as a sign of God’s favor and protection. To live such a life of contradiction–to profess Christ, while willfully continuing in sin–makes a mockery of the cross. 

Live a life that reflects your professed commitment to Christ. Live a life that bears fruit for Him. Do not mock Him. Do not point to baptism or a walk down the aisle to justify living as you wish. Live a life that strives for sanctification. Don’t merely tell Christ you will walk the line; do it.

Artwork: “Jerusalem was taken by Nebuchadnezzar as was the prophecy of Jeremiah,” Marc Chagall, 1956