Acts 20

Back to Acts for 1 chapter, then we go to Romans tomorrow, according to the schedule I’m following for these devotions.

Read Acts 20.

As we read 2 Corinthians, we noted that Paul was coming to Corinth both to collect an offering for the believers in Jerusalem who were suffering (2 Cor 8) and to deal with those who were living in sin in the church at Corinth (2 Cor 13).

Here in Acts 20, Luke noted that Paul did in fact go to Corinth as he said he would (vv. 1-3). Paul continued on to Jerusalem stopping in Philippi (vv. 3-6) and Troas (vv. 7-12). He decided to travel by ship to Jerusalem and that ship stopped in several places (vv. 13-15). Paul decided not to go back to Ephesus, where he had spent so much time back in Acts 19, but he called for the elders of the church at Ephesus to meet him (vv. 16-38). His meeting with them was emotional because God had told him that he would suffer in Jerusalem (vv. 22-23) so he expected that he would not see the Ephesians again (vv. 35, 38).

If you had spent several years of fruitful ministry in a city but believed that you would never go back there, what would you say to the people you had discipled and mentored and taught? Paul’s message which Luke recorded in this chapter is summed up in verse 31: “So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” Paul knew that the church would face some difficult problems in the days ahead (v. 29), so he urged the elders to do the work of shepherding to protect themselves and the flock (v. 28).

But what was he getting at when he said, “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears”? That statement is, in essence, “Don’t forget my teaching and my example. When false doctrine comes in, remember what I taught you. Stick to it because it is God’s word; don’t stray from it.”

This is truth worth remembering.

There is a lot of teaching out there, some that claims to be biblical and Christian and some that makes no claim to be Christian but does claim to be true. People sometimes get enamored with new ideas or attracted to big promises to change their lives in some way. If what you are learning is biblical, it will align with what you already know to be true from scripture. If it takes you away from the doctrines you learned when you were saved and discipled, however, it is a trap that will hurt your spiritual life, not help it. So, evaluate everything and don’t ever forget the gospel and the word of God that was taught to you when you first became a believer.

Although Paul was deeply concerned about what the church at Ephesus would face, he did not stay there to try to protect the church himself. Instead, he expressed faith in God’s own oversight of the church and his word: “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (v. 32).

When people we led to Christ move away or our children grow up and go out on their own, we can become concerned about the many threats to their spiritual lives that they will encounter and rightly so. It is good to be concerned, to express your concern, and to urge believers you love to watch themselves just as Paul did in this chapter.

However, it is impossible to control another person so you can only do so much to try to protect their faith and their doctrine. Instead of being fearful, at some point we must release them and trust God to do what we can’t.

Paul ended his time with the Ephesian elders with prayer (v. 36) and we know from his letters how earnestly he prayed for the spiritual life of all the believers and churches. This is the best way to care spiritually for those we cannot be with directly–pray for God’s continued work in their lives, for their protection from sin and from false doctrine, and for God to watch over their spiritual lives.

Are you sending a kid off to college soon? Have a young adult child who is moving to a different area to start a new life? Do you know anyone who is leaving our church or another good church but there is uncertainty about where they will worship? Pray. Warn them and express your love for them, but trust God to watch over them and pray daily for them to walk with him. There’s really nothing better you can do for another person spiritually.

Luke 5

Read Luke 5.

Anyone who watches us closely enough and critically enough will be able to detect at least some of our sins. We don’t spend all our time sinning but the desire to sin never goes away fully and, with the right circumstances and stimulus, our corrupted human nature is ready to pounce like a cat on the red dot of a laser pointer.

Yet, despite how thoroughly sin inhabits us, we live our lives mostly oblivious to our own sins, failures, and weaknesses. If you’ve ever had someone confront you for sinning against them and you didn’t realize or think about what you had done as sinful until they brought it up, you understand what I mean. We are well aware, usually, of the sins of others but often quite blind to our own.

It is interesting, isn’t it, the when Isaiah saw his vision of the Lord and his holiness in Isaiah 6, he became acutely aware of his own sinfulness. The same type of thing happened to Peter here in Luke 5:8. But neither Isaiah nor Peter was confronted directly by God about his sin. Isaiah saw the Lord on a throne highly exalted with angels calling “holy, holy, holy.” Peter saw Jesus miraculously fill his nets with fish. They did not hear a list of God’s moral attributes or a lecture about their own sins; they saw God’s power in action. That was enough to make them aware of their own sinfulness. Peter even begged Jesus to leave him alone (v. 8) because he recognized that the power of God was at work in Jesus (v. 9).

Fortunately for Peter, Jesus already knew how sinful Peter was and loved him anyway. Jesus even called Peter to follow him (v. 10b) and learn how to “fish for people.” Jesus did this not because Peter’s sins weren’t as bad as he said or that he was confident the Peter would grow out of them. Jesus did it because the same divine power that brought the fish to the net would redeem Peter from his sins and change him to become someone who could serve God well.

The same goes for you and me. Jesus came looking for sinners to redeem so that he could transform us into holy men and women of God. So, let’s follow him and let him transform our lives.

Matthew 20

Today’s reading is Matthew 20

There are billions of people living on earth today. Those of us who live in developed countries have millions of signals clamoring for our attention. Phone calls, text messages, emails, social media, billboards, websites, tv shows, radio shows, books, magazines, newspapers, and, of course, other people in real life around us all insist that we stop whatever we’re doing and pay attention to them.

Getting attention is important. You won’t experience love without someone else’s attention, but you also won’t find a job or get promoted or generate new leads for your business or find new friends without getting others to pay attention to you.

And, once you have someone’s attention, the message you convey is, “Choose me! I’m great” or “I’m more helpful” or “I’m better” in some way than the person you have now. This kind of self-selling is essential to moving up in the world.

We might be tempted to think that it is necessary to sell ourselves to God, too.

After all, there are billions of people in the world and many of them are trying to get his attention. Once we’ve trusted Christ, we still may be tempted to promote ourselves within his church either to gain notoriety for ourself or our cause or to try to earn God’s favor. James and John (“the sons of Zebedee” in verse 20, see Mark 10:35) tried this. They even enlisted the help of their mother to get Jesus’ attention. And they came with a big ask: “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

Wow!

“Make us your vice-regents, Jesus. That’s all we’re asking for.”

Talk about self-promotion.

Jesus responded by alluding to the cost of following him, namely to “drink the cup I am going to drink” (v. 22). Without knowing at all what he meant, they affirmed their ability to do the job in verse 23.

Jesus knew that they would indeed suffer just as he would suffer, but he declined to appoint them to the positions they wanted (v. 23).

Their request, however, miffed the other disciples and created a teaching moment for Jesus. He agreed that the way of this world is a way of self-promotion and heavy-handed authority (v. 25) but taught that this approach was inappropriate and backward in his kingdom (v. 26a). Instead of promoting ourselves, Jesus commanded us to humble ourselves. He told us that the way to advance in his kingdom was to take on the role of a slave (v. 27). When we act this way, we mirror the servant’s heart of Christ himself who acted as a slave and sacrificed his life to save us (v. 28).

We are disciples of Jesus, but we have different gifts, different callings, different opportunities and responsibilities. Living like a servant, then, means different things for each one of us.

But Christ’s command to live this way should be the motivation behind what we do and the goal for whatever we do. Think about your life–your family, our church, your workplace, and everything else.

What does it look like to be a servant for the Lord Jesus Christ in your life?

Matthew 16

Read Matthew 16.

Problems–they’re part of life, but nobody wants them.

At the end of Matthew 16 here, Jesus told the disciples that big problems awaited him in Jerusalem. In verse 21 he told the disciples that he would “suffer many things… and… be killed.” He told them that he “must” (2x) do these things. That expression “must” indicates that this is what God had willed for him.

When Peter rebuked Jesus in verse 22, Jesus returned an even more intense rebuke (v. 23), calling him Satan.

Then Jesus went on to say that all disciples “must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (v. 24). This does not mean dying for your own sins but that the followers of Christ will suffer just as Christ himself suffered.

Within the problems you and I face in life are lessons about following Jesus. The main lesson in every problem we face in life is self denial (v. 24, “deny themselves”). The anger or fear or frustration you feel about your problems rises from a sense of entitlement. “This shouldn’t have happened to me,” we think. “It’s not right!”

Jesus could have said that when he went to the cross and he would have been 100% correct. But God’s will compelled him to face these problems for our salvation.

And, like all master-disciple situations, it is our turn to do what the master did–to suffer (even unjustly) but be faithful according to the will of God.

Are you facing any problems today? Will you persevere through them, keeping your faith despite the pain, praising God and looking to him for help?

1 Kings 15, Amos 1, Proverbs 24:1-18

Read 1 Kings 15, Amos 1, and Proverbs 24:1-18 today. This devotional is about 1 Kings 15.

Going forward it is important to remember a couple of things. First, the nation that has been called “Israel” for centuries is now divided. 10 1/2 tribes revolted from Judah when Solomon’s son Rehoboam wouldn’t reduce the burden of the government on the people. The 10 1/2 tribes that revolted continued to be called “Israel” but we also call them the Northern Kingdom. The Bible doesn’t use that term, but it is a helpful one we’ve applied to remember that “Israel” now isn’t what it was under David and Solomon. You will probably see me use that term several times in coming devotionals.

David’s family continued to reign over his tribe of Judah. They were now considered a separate nation. They were called Judah, but we also use the term Southern Kingdom to distinguish them from the Northern Kingdom / Israel.

In addition to Judah, the tribe of Levi continued to serve as priests; however, they had no tribal lands but were scattered by God’s will among all the other tribes of the nation. Since they were responsible for Israel’s worship and the temple was in Judah, many of them were loyal to Judah. That’s why we say that Israel had 10 1/2 tribes.

The Northern Kingdom, Israel, had 19 kings from the time of Jeroboam until the Assyrians defeated them and scattered them from their national land. Of those 19 kings, not one of them is described in the Bible as a righteous or good king. They all did evil in God’s sight.

The Southern Kingdom, Judah, had 20 kings from the time of Rehoboam until the Babylonians took them captive. Of those 20 kings, 8 were described in the Bible as righteous or good kings. We met the first of these good kings, Asa, today here in 1 Kings 15.

Although his father and grandfather were wicked men, “Asa’s heart was fully committed to the Lord all his life” (v. 14). His devotion to the Lord was demonstrated by his commitment to rid the land of idolatry (vv. 12-13). Verse 14a began with the phrase, “Although he did not remove the high places…,” indicating that Asa was not fully able to extinguish idolatry in Judah, but that he did remove it from the public eye.

Idolatry was still practiced in Judah but it was done privately. It became like illegal drug use in our country—against the law and prosecuted when it was known about, but still practiced in widely, in secret. The fact that Asa “did not remove the high places” indicates that he knew idolatry was being practiced there, but did not channel government resources toward removing those high places of false worship.

That did not mean, however that Asa’s commitment to YHWH was weak or questionable or only for public consumption. The rest of verse 14 tells us that “Asa’s heart was fully committed to the Lord all his life.” His commitment was total even if his actions were not perfect.

One incident in Asa’s life demonstrated his commitment to the Lord. Verse 13 told us, “He even deposed his grandmother Maakah from her position as queen mother, because she had made a repulsive image for the worship of Asherah. Asa cut it down and burned it in the Kidron Valley.”

Unlike many powerful people who give exemptions, special favors, and “carve outs” to their own family members and friends who are in violation of the law, Asa’s love for God and his commitment to the Lord outweighed his loyalty and love to his family.

Deposing his own grandmother must have been a difficult choice emotionally—and possibly a costly one relationally—for Asa, but he did it because he loved the Lord and wanted to be faithful to him even if it cost him a relationship he held dear.

Jesus expected a similar commitment from his disciples when he said, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37).

So we must ask ourselves this question: “Do we love God enough to stand for what’s right even when another person we love deeply stands on the other side?” If someone we love sins and is unrepentant or clings to unbelief or false beliefs, will we choose faithfulness to the Lord or the preservation of peace in the relationship?

Asa’s devotion to the Lord was demonstrated by his choice to stand for God even when it hurt and cost him personally. May we never have to make such a choice but, if we do, may the Lord give us grace to do the right thing.

Deuteronomy 32, Jeremiah 24, 2 Corinthians 8

Read Deuteronomy 32, Jeremiah 24, 2 Corinthians 8 today. This devotional is about Jeremiah 24.

When we read the Old Testament prophets, we see passage after passage that condemns the people for their sins and warns of coming judgment. The language that describes their disobedience seems so all-encompassing that we might conclude that there were no faithful people in Israel except for the prophets themselves.

Today’s passage in Jeremiah 24 shows that this is not true. Although most of God’s people were disobedient to his covenant, the basket of figs shows that there were some who loved God and lived obediently to him. The fact that Jeremiah described the good figs as “very good” in verse 3 shows that there were some strong believers scattered among the idol worshippers and other unfaithful people of Judah.

But, due to the unfaithfulness of the majority, even these “good figs” were carried away into exile, experiencing the curse of the covenant for the disobedience of the whole kingdom. That seems terribly unjust, but God did not abandon these faithful believers altogether. Instead, today’s reading offers hope for these believers. God promised in verse 6, “My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them.” So his promises would be kept in his time.

However, in the meantime, God promised to reward these faithful ones with the thing they really needed anyway: a deeper discipleship with him. Verse 7 says, “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.”

Just as even the faithful among God’s people experienced the effects of God’s judgment due to the sins and unbelief of others, so we will have pain and setbacks in our own lives, even if we faithfully follow the Lord. God’s promise to us is not a pain-free life or peaceful, material abundance. God’s promise to us is himself; and that will be more than enough if our hope is truly in him.

Genesis 26, Esther 2, Matthew 19

Today read Genesis 26, Esther 2, and Matthew 19. This devotional is about Matthew 19.

Compared to doing whatever you want to do and whatever the culture around you allows you to do, following Jesus is hard!

If you want to follow Jesus you:

  • shouldn’t get divorced unless your spouse is unfaithful (vv. 1-10).
  • would be better off staying single, but that requires something unusual that isn’t for most people (vv. 11-12).
  • need to be childish in your faith, something that is really difficult to do (vv. 13-15).
  • must follow Jesus absolutely, even if he commands you to give everything you have away (vv. 16-24).
  • have to rely on God because what Jesus requires is impossible apart from his grace (vv. 25-26).

Quite a discouraging list, yes?

But notice the rewards Christ promised to those who trust him and follow him in obedience (vv. 27-30). He promised the Twelve a share of his rule (v. 28e) and that everyone who lost something or someone following him would receive “a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (v. 29).

The kind of submission to Christ described in this chapter may cause you to fall far behind in the rat race of human life.

But human life in this age is over quickly while eternity lasts forever.

Jesus promised more than fair compensation to those who follow him in this life. According to verse 29 you will get eternal life and far more, far better stuff in eternity when you actually have the spiritual capacity to enjoy created things without worshipping them.

Following Jesus in this way might make you feel like a loser in this life but expectations for this life are upside down. As verse 30 put it, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

So, so what Jesus says; it will be more than worth it!

Genesis 18, Nehemiah 7, Matthew 13

Read Genesis 18, Nehemiah 7, and Matthew 13. This devotional is about Matthew 13.

The Parable of the Soils and Christ’s interpretation of it takes up most of this chapter of Matthew, from verse 1 through verse 23. In addition to that parable, we have:

  • The Parable of the Weeds (vv. 24-30, 36-43).
  • The Parable of the Mustard Seed (vv. 31-32).
  • The Parable of the Yeast (v. 33)
  • The Parable of the Buried Treasure (v. 44).
  • The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price (vv. 45-46)
  • The Parable of the Dragnet (vv. 47-50).

The Parable of the Weeds and the Parable of the Dragnet have the same message–many people who look like they belong in Christ’s kingdom and think they belong in it will be excluded from the kingdom at the judgment (vv. 40-43, 49-50).

The Parable of Buried Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price also have the same message and it is the one I want us to consider today.

These parables are straightforward: a man finds something valuable but under-appreciated so he liquidates everything he has–his house, his farm animals and equipment, his wife’s jewelry, the fillings in his teeth if necessary–to buy the valuable treasure or pearl of great price.

And he does it “with joy” (v. 44)!

Wouldn’t it be a pain to get rid of everything you own and be homeless with just the clothes on your back? Yes it would, unless you were going to get something of greater value than all of that stuff.

This is what Jesus said the kingdom of heaven would be like. It is so priceless, such a treasure, that you and I should give up everything to get it. Of course, the cost of the kingdom is not paid to God. God paid the cost for your entry into the kingdom in Christ because you and I could not do it ourselves.

No, the cost Jesus is referring to here is the cost of not going our own way and doing our own thing. If someone gave you an all-expenses paid trip around the world for one year, the trip is a free gift. But to experience that gift you’d have to quit your job. You might have to sell your house because you wouldn’t have any income to pay the mortgage, maintenance, taxes, etc. You would also pay a non-financial cost of missing out on things at home while you are gone.

This is what Christians “pay” for following Christ. When we receive the free gift of salvation, we give up the right to direct our own lives. Jesus is now the boss; he decides what morals we live by and his kingdom dictates the decisions we make with our lives.

His lordship is what leads some people to literally sell everything and move to a different city or a foreign country to start churches. They understand the value of the kingdom and the joy and rewards that await so they are less focused on accumulating some material things in this life and more focused on serving Jesus in this life in order to benefit the coming kingdom of Christ.

Maybe God has put a desire in your heart to serve him in some way but the “cost” of doing so seems high. You know you’ll lose some free time that already seems in short supply. Or, you know that it will cost money or that you won’t advance in your career or whatever.

Christ here calls us to consider what is truly valuable. His kingdom, his work, is so much more valuable than the cheap plastic trinkets that seem so valuable to us now. Let’s take a few moments and re-assess what we’re living for, what is important, what is worth investing in, and what is worth liquidating for the greater value of serving our Lord Jesus Christ.

Judges 2, Jeremiah 15

Today we’re reading Judges 2 and Jeremiah 15.

This devotional is about Jeremiah 15.

One of the themes that keeps recurring in Jeremiah is that God’s decree to punish Judah is set. As verse 1 says, “Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people. Send them away from my presence! Let them go!” The judgment has been passed and the sentence is settled. Pain is on the way: “And if they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ tell them, ‘This is what the Lord says:“‘Those destined for death, to death; those for the sword, to the sword; those for starvation, to starvation; those for captivity, to captivity.’” So there will be more than one way to suffer God’s wrath.

Because God keeps saying it is too late for Judah to avoid his wrath, Jeremiah started to think about his own skin. In verses 15-17a the prophet made his case for why God should protect him from these painful curses. But, in verse 17b-18, he began complaining about the psychological toll that speaking for God and living for God was bringing to him. He had no friends (“I sat alone…”) because everyone else was reveling in sin while he was seething over their ungodly lifestyles. In verse 18, then, he charged God with misleading him: “You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails.” He had accepted God’s word (v. 16) and delighted in it but instead of finding it to be a source of joy and life for him, he was paying this social and emotional price and wanted to know why.

God answered the prophet in verse 19 not by explaining Himself but by calling him to repent. God promised to save him (v. 21) but Jeremiah had to stop whining about his plight and, instead, speak for God unapologetically and alone. People might try to befriend him but he was not to return their affection (v. 19f-g). They would try to defeat him (v. 20) but he simply had to trust in God.

This is a difficult word, yes? Stand alone and I’ll save you but if you don’t, you’ll get all the same punishment as everyone else despite the fact that you did not engage in their many sins against God.

This, then, is similar to Jesus’s call to discipleship. “Hate everyone and follow me” Jesus said “or you can’t be my disciple.” “Take up your cross everyday and follow me” and I will be with you. In God’s grace, we don’t really do discipleship alone as Jeremiah did. We have each other in the church. Our spiritual family may not replace the emotional pain of losing our literal family, but they do provide us with love and encouragement and hope. So, we’re better off than Jeremiah was in that way.

But the call to follow Jesus can be a lonely and costly one. It can tempt us, at times, to question the promises God made to us (v. 18). It is no fun to lose friends or be attacked for speaking the truth, but it is what God calls us to do.

Are you facing any situations where the social cost of discipleship is getting to you? God sustained and protected Jeremiah and he will watch over you, too. So don’t give up the truth to fit in; wait for the Lord and trust in him.

John 21

Today’s reading is John 21.

After his resurrection, Jesus made several appearances. We read about an important one today here in John 21. The purpose of these appearances, of course, was to demonstrate his resurrection. But although he spent extended time with the disciples, he did not resume his previous ministry, nor did he overthrow the Roman government and establish his kingdom as the disciples expected (see Acts 1:6).

This must have been unsettling to the disciples. Jesus was alive and he showed up at times, but he didn’t stay around; instead, he would spend time with them, then disappear. What was the plan going forward? They did not know.

So, Peter being the natural leader that he was, announced his intention to go fishing (v. 3). The other disciples who were with him followed (v. 2, 3b). We do not know if Peter did this to pass the time, to resume something familiar in his life, or if he was dabbling with the idea of returning to his previous occupation.

Regardless of why, he was no good at it anymore. Verse 3b says, “…that night they caught nothing.” Hard to stay in business if that happens to you often. While it probably wasn’t unprecedented for Peter before he became a disciple of Jesus, it was far from normal. After their failure to catch any fish, Jesus revealed himself by giving them a miraculous catch (vv. 4-7).

Although they now had plenty of fish to eat themselves and to sell, Jesus had already made breakfast preparations for them (v. 9). He fed them (v. 13), then turned to the matter of Peter’s restoration.

While it is true that Peter had seen Christ before this, it is also true that the memory of his denial of Jesus was still fresh in his memory. Until Jesus addressed it, Peter’s denial would be a barrier to Peter becoming the leader Jesus had appointed him to be. In this passage, Jesus asked Peter to affirm his love–his commitment–to Christ three times, one that corresponded to each of his denials of Jesus. Each time he affirmed his love for Jesus, Jesus commanded him to care for his followers. The point was made that Peter’s denial was forgiven; now he must do what the Lord commanded by caring for God’s people (v. 15c, 16c, and 17d). The final command to Peter was to be ready to die for Christ (v. 18) but to follow Jesus anyway (v. 19).

Do you have any failures in your past that are impeding your present ability to serve Jesus? Take a lesson from this passage. Jesus was gracious toward Peter; he knew that Peter was repentant for denying Christ but that he felt lingering guilt about doing it. Jesus refocused Peter’s attention, calling him to commit to Christ in the present and stay committed to him in the future, even though it would cost him his life. The issue wasn’t that Peter had failed Jesus and so he had to go back to fishing because he couldn’t be an effective apostle. The issue is that he needed to focus on following Jesus–doing what Christ commanded him to do today.

So it is for any one of us. If you are consumed with regret or sorrow over failures in your life, let this passage be restorative for you. No matter what you’ve done, it isn’t as spectacularly bad as denying you even know Jesus while he was being treated unjustly. If Jesus forgave and restored Peter to useful service, he will do so for you, too. Forget about the failures of the past; focus today on following Jesus and doing what he commands right now. That’s the way forward if you’re his disciple.