No Nicodemus

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“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?” (John 3:10)

Throughout the Scriptures, we can see that one of the principles of living the Christian life is to make measurable progress in reasonable time. In other words, we are to be growing up in our faith, which is exactly what Nicodemus was not doing in the eyes of Jesus. Here was an expert in the Law who did not grasp the true meaning of what he had been studying all his life! As a serious student of the Scriptures, Nicodemus was not making reasonable progress in reasonable time, and Jesus rebuked him for it.

The apostle Paul offered a similar admonishment to the church at Corinth:

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)

Nicodemus seemed to understand the elementary, earthly things of the Old Testament Scriptures, but not their heavenly, spiritual implications. He had probably memorized much of the Hebrew Bible and so knew the letter of the Law. But Nicodemus could not comprehend the spirit of the Law, because he had never looked below the surface. Even a cursory reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount shows us what it means to understand God’s Word at the deepest possible level, a level that raises us far above the letter all the way to the feet of our Lord.

The letter to the Hebrews encourages us to “move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1). This is the goal of every disciple of Jesus; we must move beyond milk to meat and grow up into Christ. When Jesus was teaching about the “yeast” of the Pharisees and Sadducees, He asked His disciples, “Do you still not understand?” Much like Nicodemus, their understanding was rooted in the physical and temporal, not the spiritual and eternal.

To be a Nicodemus is as unacceptable as it is inexcusable. We have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, but we cannot and will not be guided if we do not spend time in the Scriptures. To be sure, the Word of God is living and active, but it serves us not if we do not pick it up and spend time in it daily.

Are you growing up in your understanding of your faith? If you are using the means of grace God has given you (Bible study, prayer, worship, communion of the saints), your answer will be a resounding yes. If it is no, you I hope today’s message will encourage you to change . . . and Jesus has given you everything you need to make that change happen.

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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Conquering Is Not Enough

conqueror

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:37)

When you read these words from Paul, have you ever considered the true meaning of being “more than a conqueror” through Jesus Christ? I want to encourage you today with what I believe Paul was conveying to us.

I think we can all understand what it means to conquer. We think of military victory or battles won on the field of competition. We all know what it is to conquer a bad habit that may have been dragging us down for years. Perhaps you can relate to the conquering of a particular fear or doubt. But what does it mean to be “more than a conqueror”? Once the conquering has occurred and the victory is won, doesn’t that mean the matter is concluded? In other words, once we’ve conquered . . . aren’t we done?

Those who are more than conquerors not only conquer, but go on to fill that now-empty space with Jesus Christ. Here is a wonderful biblical example.

Israel captured [conquered] all the cities of the Amorites and occupied them. (Numbers 21:25)

The people of God conquered the enemies of God, but they knew that conquering alone was not enough. They occupied the land, which shut down any possibility of the Amorites regrouping and mounting a counterattack. What does that mean to us as we face the struggles of daily living? How does the example of the Israelites apply to us as we battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil?

Once we conquer in any particular area of life, we must occupy—that is, fill the void with Christ—if victory is to be maintained. Look at it this way:

  • Anger cannot truly be conquered unless it is replaced with love.
  • Bitterness cannot truly be conquered unless it is replaced with forgiveness.
  • Lust of the flesh cannot truly be conquered unless it is replaced with new affections.
  • Fear cannot truly be conquered unless it is replaced with trust and faithfulness to Christ.

In the early 1800’s, Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers preached his famous sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” Chalmers point was clear: In order to expel [conquer] any particular habit [affection], it must be replaced by another affection [habit]. To merely conquer is to leave a void that will eventually be filled with something undesirable. We must be intentional about refilling that space with a new and better affection. We need to be in the business of both conquering and occupying [filling with Christ]. Only then can we be assured that conquered ground will not be lost to some kind of counterattack.

Jesus taught this very principle to the crowds that followed Him:

When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-26)

Are you more than a conqueror? Let me encourage you to replace your old affections with a renewed focus on Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. That is how we can live out the exhortation given us in Hebrews 12:1, to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and . . . run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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Cross-Training

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Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:8)

As a coach/trainer and pastor, I am still involved in cross training with groups of all ages at our church. “Cross training” is generally defined as a workout program that incorporates a variety of different modes of exercise to develop specific components of an individual’s fitness level.

As the apostle Paul said to Timothy, there is indeed profit to physical training; we do it because we have been commanded to care for our body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. But there is another kind of cross-training that has great value, both now and in the life to come.

How should we define this kind of cross-training, which returns temporal and eternal value? The best definition I have been able to establish is this:

Cross-training is a daily dying to the self and living for the Savior!

Jesus defined what it means to be one of His disciples. He commands us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Him. This is not a one-time event in the life of the Christian, as some mistakenly believe. Taking up the cross of Christ is a continual, daily discipline, and only the committed Christian will engage in it. The “cross” you must bear in your life may very well be one thing today and something else tomorrow. Anything that competes with Jesus for the first priority in your life is the cross you must contend with.

Until we have been perfected and brought into glory, our flesh will crave “First Place” in our lives. We are confronted with a decision—not just daily, but moment by moment: will we choose “my will” or “Thy will” to be done in our lives? Make no mistake, dying to self is a real death and it truly is painful! Our sinful nature does not give up easily; there is a constant battle between the old man and the new creation (Galatians 5:17). The only way we will achieve consistent victory is to fight this battle in the strength of the Almighty, using His weapons of spiritual warfare.

Paul expressed this idea beautifully in his first epistle to the Christians in Corinth:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Clearly, Paul is not speaking here getting out on the track every day to prepare for the 100-metre sprint. He is talking about disciplining himself to live the Christian life—denying worldly desires and seeking to pursue the things of the kingdom of God. This laying down of self does not come naturally; you and I must train ourselves to do it every day!

Here is another example from Scripture, this time from the Hebrews “Hall of Fame of Faith” passage:

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24-27 ESV)

My prayer for you today is that you will be encouraged to follow the example of truly heroic Christian men like Paul and Moses and cross-train daily; as you do, you can be sure that God will return multiple rewards to you!

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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Weaned? or Whining?

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My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.  (Psalm 131:1-2)

The difference between “weaned” and “whining” is like the difference between “faithful” and “fretting” . . . which is as far apart as the east is from the west! If we were to take an inventory of our lives, we would most likely confess that we often behave less like a “weaned child that is content” and far more like a “whining child that is cranky” because things in life did not go as we had planned.

I can speak from personal experience regarding this truth, which rears its ugly head all too often in my own life. The life that Kim and I live today as church planters is most definitely not the life we had planned when we first married. Twenty-four years ago, we were operating our wellness center and moving in the direction that we had carefully mapped out together. Then Jesus showed up . . . and the rest, as they say, is history—or, l should say, HIS-story. Yet along the way, as God was orchestrating His perfect plan for our imperfect lives, I acted much more like a cranky, whining child than the contented, weaned child.

  • When God took away our wellness center . . . I whined.
  • When God called me to be a PE teacher . . . I grumbled.
  • When God called us to downsize our home . . . I complained.
  • When God called me to devote my life to Him . . . I argued!

It has taken me years to grow up into the weaned child who is content with God’s construction plan for my life. And I must confess that there are still times when I move from “weaned” to whining when things don’t go the way I’d expected them to. Then my beloved Kim calmly reminds me that God is in control of all things . . . not me. One of the great truths we have learned over the years is to trust God, especially when we cannot trace or track Him. God has proven Himself abundantly faithful, even during those seasons when I have been busily engaged in fretting, fussing, or fuming.

One of the keys that Kim and I have discovered over the years that unlocks the door leading to the weaned contentment is shifting our focus away from ourselves and putting in on the Savior. It is exchanging self-absorption for Savior-astonishment. Self evaporates when the Savior is elevated in our eyes.

Jesus said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32), pointing to a bloody cross where He would die for our sins. Keeping this truth in view allows us to be like the weaned child who is content. Why? Because we can be completely confident that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). Nothing can snatch us out of His hand (John 10:28). Therefore, while we will frequently be confronted with “circumstances beyond our control,” we can be content; we rest in the knowledge that every one of those circumstances is entirely under the sovereign direction of our loving, heavenly Father.

This is the attitude of the weaned child with its mother. It is your experience with your Master today? I pray that will be so. May our lives echo the lovely words of Horatio Spafford’s great hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul” . . .

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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Trivial Pursuit

Trivial-Pursuit

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts,” declares the Lord.  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

You may remember Trivial Pursuit, the board game that was hugely popular during the 1980s, which challenged players to answer various questions about culture, science, geography, and sports. I happened to come across the game the other day, and it got me thinking about all the “trivial” things—at least, “trivial” from my perspective—that God uses to pursue rebels on the run . . . and that includes you and me.

What seemingly trivial things has God been using to pursue you lately?

  • Summer cold?
  • Nagging injury?
  • Sleepless night?
  • Toothache?
  • Unexpected expense?
  • Unkind boss?
  • Grumpy neighbor?
  • Problems with your car?
  • Traffic ticket?

Take a moment to review just the last week of your life and prayerfully consider all the things that you might regard as insignificant that God sent your way. Is it possible God was trying to get your undivided attention and unwavering affection? Remember, everything God delivers to us, He delivers for our perfection and for His praise. We are being conformed into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), and our God can and will use anything and everything as a means to that end. More often than not, those things might seem trivial or insignificant from our perspective.

As a pastor, it is not uncommon to hear people talk about some major event in their lives—professional, medical, financial, relational—as a time when God intervened in their lives and did a mighty, magnificent, and miraculous work. To be sure, these are some of the ways God works in the lives of His people, but God also works in those small, seemingly trivial ways . . . and I’m sure you would agree that there are far more of those events in our lives. Remember, not a bird falls to the ground apart from His will (Matthew 10:29). As Paul wrote, “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:36).

My prayer is that today’s word of encouragement will remind you to pay close attention to all that God is doing in your life, both through significant events and those seemingly trivial ones. God is using every event in your life in the process of conforming you to the image of his Son; nothing is insignificant. If you will listen closely today, perhaps you will hear His still, small voice in something seemingly trivial . . . which will impact you in a significant way!

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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Cosmic Compassion

Tears-in-a-Bottle

Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll – are they not in your record? (Psalm 56:8)

How do you see God? Sadly, far too many of us see Him as some distant deity, a “blind watchmaker,” disengaged from His creation and uninterested in them individually. Yet this verse makes it crystal clear that nothing could be further from the truth. Several of the best Bible translations render the middle section of Psalm 56:8, “Put my tears in your bottle.” Now, how is that for cosmic compassion?!

How blessed we are to have a God who is not like some cosmic computer that cannot relate to us personally, emotionally, and spiritually. Sure, a cosmic computer could provide us with some incredible information, but it would be completely incapable of connecting with us at a heart level . . . which is the level where we need connection most!

The author of the letter to the Hebrews offers us this wonderful encouragement:

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

David knew this truth. He knew it when he was facing the giant Goliath; he knew it when he was hounded by the ungodly king Saul. David also knew God’s cosmic compassion when he was confronted by the prophet Nathan. To be sure, God sent Nathan to rebuke David for his terrible sin with Bathsheba and against her husband. But that conviction did not come without God’s love; in fact, it was God’s compassion, mercy, and grace that would not leave David in his sin, but sent Nathan to prompt David’s repentance and to deliver him from himself.

There is a brief passage in Matthew’s gospel that we might read through quickly and miss its significance.

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35-36)

Have you ever felt “harassed and helpless,” buffeted by circumstances beyond your control, with no shepherd to guide you? And did you perhaps believe that God took no notice . . . or that He was displeased with you and was standing aloof, allowing you to sink beneath the waves of adversity? Look at Matthew’s account again; he observed that Jesus had compassion on the people. The Greek word that the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to use means far more than that Jesus simply “felt sorry” for them. It describes a deep, visceral feeling of pity and sorrow; quite literally, Jesus was so moved by the plight of humanity that He felt it in the pit of His stomach! An uninterested deity? A blind watchmaker? Hardly!

Think about all of the tears you have shed during your life. God has collected every one of them in His bottle. He is keeping a record of every tear in His scroll, which means your pain is NOT unnoticed and NOT without purpose. Every tear you shed is being used by God in the process of your sanctification—growing you up into Christ. Not a single tear falls to the ground, because your loving heavenly Father is standing by your side, collecting each and every one of them.

Here is what I believe will take place on that great and final day: Jesus will hand you the bottle He collected, filled with all of your tears, and you, like the sinful woman who anointed the feet of Jesus in Luke 7:38, will worship your loving Lord by pouring your bottle of tears out over His nail-scarred feet, knowing that these will be the last tears you will ever see.

Remember, we have been given the promise that Jesus will wipe away every tear, and we will live in a place where there will be no more sorrow, no more pain, and no more death. We will have finally entered into our eternal rest, where Jesus, who is seated on the throne, has made everything new . . . and that includes YOU!

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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When A Stone Is Better Than Bread

stone bread

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9)

Question: When is getting a stone better than getting bread? Answer: When it is our Savior who is giving us the stone! Why? Because it is our gracious and loving Savior who knows exactly what we need . . . and when we need it.

Looking back over my life, I cannot count the times when I was asking God for what I thought was tasty, nourishing “bread,” and instead He gave me what I thought was a “stone.” But each time I eventually realized that what I was asking for was really a lifeless, non-nourishing stone and what God gave me was really life-giving bread!

Every parent knows this truth as it relates to our children. Our kids ask for stuff that they believe is wonderful, delicious “bread” that they can’t live without, when in reality they were begging us for something with no more value than a rock. Even worse, our children often ask us for things that unwise or unhealthy, like asking for a candy bar 15 minutes before dinnertime! And when we said something like, “Let me give you something that is actually good for you,” their faces were downcast, as if we’d just handed them a dirty old stone. To be sure, parents know better than the child what the child needs, just as God knows better than us what His children need.

Often it comes down to our level of spiritual maturity. The less mature we are, the more often we ask for things that are truly not in our best interest. Oh, we think we need it and we plead our case before heaven’s throne. But, more often than not, we are asking for something we want, not something we need; and if we were to get that thing we were begging God for, we would remain in our spiritual infancy, sipping on milk rather than eating solid food.

God’s greatest goal for each one of us is to conform us to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). The “stones” of life that God delivers both shape and sharpen us to grow and mature in our faith. These stones may not deliver us into our perception of “the good life,” but they will certainly pave the way that leads to living the godly life . . . and that is the only life worth living.

So when was the last time God gave you a stone rather than bread? Has enough time passed that you can see His reason for doing so? The only way to understand the stones of this life is to see life from God’s perspective and thus live in the light of eternity. The key that unlocks the door to understanding this truth is seeing our God as a loving Father who knows what is best for us and will never stop short of seeing to it that we get what we need . . . which is frequently  not what we want!

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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