Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Developing a solid foundation for what you believe

Acts 17:11  "Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true."

The situation described above was somewhat of a rarity for Paul.  He usually encountered angry mobs who had been stirred up by jealous religious leaders.  In fact, immediately before coming to Berea, he and Silas had been run out of Thessalonica by a mob that had been formed by jealous Jews.

The act of examining someone's words and claims for yourself, conducting your own investigation to validate and verify what you have heard, is a lost art.  We live in a world of short soundbites and endless TV channels with opinionated "experts" proclaiming truth.  Rarely, I sense, do people verify the claims of the so-called experts with their own investigation. I know I am guilty of this.

Many reasons may underlie this lack of investigation.  A lack of time to spend investigating claims, a desire to align with one side or another for various perception reasons, relying on your instincts to discern right from wrong, etc.  One barrier may be confusion over what sources of information are reliable and authoritative.  Often it seems our research only uncovers conflicting opinions, not facts.  We may find sources that fit more with our natural inclinations, and those become our trusted sources.  Just ask someone whether they are a Fox News fan or a CNN fan, and you'll see what I mean.  You'll hear that one is biased to the right and the other is biased to the left.  Depending on their natural inclination toward liberal or conservative, most people align themselves with one or the other.  Rest assured, if something is produced by a human being, it has built-in bias.  This is an inescapable fact of human psychology.  There is no absence of bias- there are simply biases that match our own, and those that do not. 

So where can we turn for truth that is undeniable and trustworthy?  The same place the Bereans turned to- the Scriptures.  God's Word is the benchmark and litmus test we should compare all thoughts, ideas and opinions to.  Take the time and effort to investigate what you hear and are tempted to believe.  If it is the truth, your investigation will only strengthen your position and conviction.  If what you have heard is false, God will replace it with truth.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Now THAT is humility!

Philippians 2:8  "And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death- even death on a cross!"

There is humility, and then there is real humility.  Just like there are different classes and levels in baseball, there are the "minor leagues" of humility and there are the "major leagues" of humility.  The levels of humility often can't be placed properly on a scale unless compared side by side with one another.  God coming to earth to live and dwell among us as a fully-human man could rightfully be deemed as "major league" humility until you compare it to His other acts of humility.  Not only did He come to live among us, but He humbled Himself to go through human, physical death.

It is important to remember that God has dominion over everything.  He is not naturally subject to the physical and natural laws of earth and physical life.  He didn't have to die, He chose to die.  We, on the other hand, have no option.  We will experience physical death whether that is our choice or not.  God had the choice, and chose to endure the same death we will one day endure.

But He didn't stop there.  The means of death He chose to endure showed "major league" humility.  There was no more painful and humiliating way to die than to be crucified on a cross.  This type of death was reserved for common criminals and the dregs of society.  Wouldn't it have been easy for the Creator of the Universe and of life itself to say, "OK, I'll die a physical death, but I'm not going down like that!" 

But He did.  And if there was a way of heaping more suffering and disrespect on Himself as part of His physical death, He probably would have done that, too.  If you really consider this fact and absorb its true depth, how can anything we are asked to do in humility seem like too much?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Remaining faithful when God seems to contradict Himself

Acts 16:7  "When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to."

Paul and Silas had set out on the second missionary journey, in which they traveled eastward to spread the Gospel.  The purpose of the journey was to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Jesus had instructed His disciples to carry this message to all peoples and to the ends of the earth.  Yet on this journey, when they came to certain areas, the Spirit stopped them and told them not to enter.

This message could have been very confusing to Paul and Silas.  The Great Commission didn't say to carry the message to the ends of the earth, "except, here, here and here."  The message could have been ignored or disregarded, since it seemed to contradict another message from God.  They had already received an instruction from God, so they could have shut their ears and hearts off to God at that point.  They could have taken it upon themselves to carry out God's instructions in their way and by their own plan.

There is an important lesson here.  God doesn't send instructions one time and one time only.  He doesn't solely deal in the high-level, strategic areas, leaving the tactical details solely to us.  We need to remain sensitive and open to His continual instruction and direction.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The source of life

Galatians 3:2  "I would like to learn just one thing from you!  Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?"

Paul is speaking here to the new believers in Galatia who are being swayed by "Judaizers" who taught that obedience to the law, not faith, was the foundation of Christianity.  Paul asks a rather simple question, but one that should bring the debate into clear focus for believers.  He contends that life comes from faith in, and acceptance of, Jesus' sacrifice for us.  The Holy Spirit was given to us to do good works in us and through us.  What life has ever been given by adhering to a set of laws?

I can think back on my own walk and see that my times of obedience are not the times I have felt closest to God.  In fact, the times I have felt closest to God have nothing to do with anything I have done.  The closest times with God have come when I have seen Him at work around me.  The times I have observed Him transforming my life and the lives of those around me are the times I have been given life by the Spirit. 

Anytime we find ourselves more concerned with following a set of rules than in letting the Spirit work in us, we should ask ourselves Paul's question.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Trusting God's instructions

Acts 9:13-14  " 'Lord,' Ananias answered, 'I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem.  And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on Your name.' "

Ananias is responding to God's instruction that he find Saul (Paul) and place his hands on him to restore his sight.  I find Ananias' explanation of who Saul is to be humorous, in a way.  He tells God about who Saul is and what he has come to town to do (continue his hunting and persecution of Christians).  What does he expect God to say to this?  "Oh, you're right, Ananias.  What was I thinking?  Thank you for filling me in on this guy- I had no idea."

We often act as if we have special knowledge to impart God that He didn’t previously have and will change His thinking and plans.  But we can rest assured, God knows everything and He is caught off-guard by nothing.  When He gives us a command, it has surely been well thought-through and all of the consequences have been considered.

What God asks us to do might not make sense to us at the time, but that doesn't mean God is wrong.  God can handle our questions.  Ask for understanding and insight, but do so from a position of confidence in God's infinite wisdom.  Then obey without question.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Waiting for God's resolution

Acts 5:38-39  " 'Therefore, in the present case I advise you: leave these men alone!  Let them go!  For if their purpose and activity is of human origin, it will fail.  But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.' "

These verses are from the debate that occurred among members of the Sanhedrin, the council of elders of Israel, regarding whether or not to put the apostles to death for teaching the Gospel.  Gamaliel, a well-respected member of the Sanhedrin, made the argument that stopping this movement was not solely up to them.  He recognized how powerful the teaching was and how much zeal and energy the apostles had.  He knew that if they were acting only in their own human power, the effort was unsustainable.  They would eventually run out of energy and passion and the problem facing the Sanhedrin would correct itself.  If this movement did happen to be from God, however, they didn't want to fight a battle that could not be won.  Time would tell, one way or the other.

Having patience while God sorts out what is temporary (i.e. of human origin) and what is permanent (i.e. from God) is a virtue that is much easier talked about than practiced.  The time spent waiting for the true result is difficult.  But maybe the ultimate result we are waiting for is not the point, but rather the key is what we learn while we wait.  If you are waiting for God to resolve an issue, pay attention to what He has to teach you in the interim.  Resolution will come, but He may not bring about resolution until He has taught you all He wants you to know. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tigers DO change their stripes

Acts 2:14  "Then Peter stood up with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: 'Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.' "

Peter is speaking to an international crowd at Pentecost.  The crowd was puzzled because, although each was speaking in their native tongue, they could all understand each other.  Peter boldly stands up and gives a powerful sermon on the Gospel, Christ's resurrection and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. 

To say that Peter did something bold should not really surprise us, given what we know about him from other accounts in the Bible.  He has become somewhat known as a disciple with a penchant for sticking his foot in his mouth.  He is also known for drawing his sword in anger and cutting off the ear of one who had come to seize Jesus.  He may be best known for denying Jesus three times, just as Jesus predicted he would.

Now, we are saying that he boldly proclaims Jesus and ignites the start of the church through his powerful and eloquent sermon?  Is this the same guy?  Yes and no.  Yes, Peter is physically the same man throughout.  But God did a mighty work in him and transformed him into arguably the most important catalyst in the early spread of Christianity.

God does the same thing with each of us who have accepted His gracious gift of the Holy Spirit.  I'm not the same person I was 10 years ago, although I might physically look the same (OK, maybe a few more gray hairs, but you get the point!)  If someone who knew me then and had not seen me since were to run into me now, the natural assumption would be that I am the same person now that I was then.  That would be a mistaken assumption, just as it would be with Peter.

Give others you know the same benefit of the doubt.  Don't fall for the trap of believing "a tiger doesn't change their stripes."  Haven't yours changed?  God isn't finished with any of us yet, so allow Him to do His work in you and accept that He is also working in others.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Our preoccupation with knowing the plans of God

Acts 1:7  "He said to them: 'It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority.' "

Before His ascension into Heaven, Jesus explained to His disciples that He would be leaving (temporarily) and the Holy Spirit would be coming to them.  As had been the case previously, the disciples desperately wanted to know when the kingdom of Israel would be re-established.  Jesus tells them it is not for them to know the plans of God.

Why is this so hard for us to accept?  Why do we struggle so to make sense of God and to know in advance what His plans are?  Maybe it is part of our "God complex".  We often elevate ourselves to the same level as God, and believe that we should share in the knowledge and power that He has.  We share in His power through grace, but we shouldn't ever confuse this with being God's equal. 

We can also blame the oddly-named "Enlightenment Period" in history.  We became much more brain-centric and fell in love with knowledge during this period.  We believed that all of the mysteries of the world and of life could be solved by using our brains. 

We can never lose sight of the fact that our brains are finite, and we are not God.  In fact, if we think we have figured out a mystery of God (such as the exact date of His return), we can be fairly confident that our answer is wrong.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Are you frightened or comforted when God executes His sovereign plans?

Luke 24:5  "In their fright, the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, 'Why do you look for the living among the dead?' "

The angels spoke here to Mary and the other women who had come to Jesus' tomb, only to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.  What should have brought them immense comfort and joy (the risen savior fulfilling what He had told them would happen) instead brought them panic, fear and bewilderment.

What would have been comforting to them in that moment would have been to see what they were expecting to see- Jesus' dead human body lying in the tomb exactly where it had been left.  What would be comforting about that, other than fulfilling their expectation?  What was at the moment deeply troubling and frightening was in fact Jesus' fulfillment of Scripture and the foundational event upon which Christianity is built.

Where else in our lives do we look for the living among the dead?  What idols do we have that we think will bring us a better life, but in the end are dead?  In what other ways should we be asking God to not simply be a dead body lying in a tomb when we go looking for Him, but to bewilder and amaze us with His plan that is imminently better than anything we can conceive?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Doubting out loud

John 20:27  "Then He said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here; see My hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into My side.  Stop doubting and believe.' "

The story of "doubting Thomas" shows us much about how God wants to deal with our doubts.  Jesus could have had a much different reaction here.  After all of the time, effort, teaching and love He had poured out to the disciples during His time on earth, after the excruciating pain and agony He had just endured on the cross, after He is standing before them as the resurrected Christ, and Thomas says he needs more in order to believe?  Jesus could have gone ballistic and given up on Thomas. 

Instead, He shows his infinite patience, grace and mercy once again.  He knows what it will take to convince Thomas, and He lovingly gives it to him.  Thomas can be commended here because he openly shared his doubts with Jesus.  He could have easily hidden his feelings, out of shame for having those feelings and/or out of fear of how Jesus might react. 

But unexpressed doubts tend to stay doubts, having never been expressed as questions that God is given an opportunity to answer.  He already knows what is in our heart without us having to verbalize it.  But taking the step to ask questions that reflect your doubts shows that you have at least some level of interest in getting answers that will either confirm or deny your doubts.  When doubts remain buried and unexposed, it tells God that we are okay living in that state of being.  He probably will not reward someone who doesn't openly and honestly seek Him. 

Let us all follow the example of Thomas.  As my study Bible says in the character profile of Thomas, "better to doubt out loud than to disbelieve in silence."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Word always has something new to reveal to us

Matthew 28:2  "There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from Heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it."

The study Bible note for this verse makes an interesting and important point about this verse and, more generally, about the rolling back of the stone from the entrance to Jesus' tomb on the morning of the third day.  The note says the following:

"The stone was not rolled back so Jesus could get out, but so others could get in and see that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, just as He had promised."

I must admit I have always thought the stone was rolled away so that the risen Christ could get out of the tomb.  It seems a bit silly now when I think about it- that the Creator of the universe would need assistance in coming out of a tomb.  How appropriate that yet again, He does something like this to help our unbelief.  To be able to look in and see for ourselves that He is risen would be a powerful and convincing sight for many who had become discouraged by Jesus' physical death.

There are no doubt countless other things in the Bible that I have read numerous times and think I know the story.  But the beautiful thing about God's Word is that it holds new and different meanings and insights every time we are in it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fulfilling the mission to the fullest

Mark 15:23  "Then they offered Him wine mixed with myrrh, but He did not take it."

Immediately before being crucified, Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh (or, as stated in other Gospels, gall).  I have always assumed this mixture was another form of mocking or torture by the guards who had been beating and flogging Him.  It turns out that the mixture was actually a mild form of anesthesia, and was offered to those about to be crucified in order to dull the pain.

He refused this.  It strikes me that although He was already enduring great pain and torture, He didn't want anything to cloud or dull the experience.  Nothing about His situation or what He was doing for mankind would have changed had he taken the mixture offered to Him.  He was still to be crucified and He was still to fulfill the prophecy of being the perfect sacrifice for the world's sin.  He could have eased His final hours ever so slightly and not avoided the mission He came to earth to fulfill. 

He chose not only to fulfill the mission, but to do it to the fullest.  This was His Father's will, and Jesus wanted nothing more than to fulfill it to the fullest.  May we all remember this when we face trials.  Instead of focusing on the end of the trial and getting through it as painlessly as possible, maybe the appropriate question to ask ourselves is "How else can I fully experience what God has for me so that I may grow as He wants me to and His will may be done?"