Revelation 18

Merry Christmas! Read Revelation 18 today.

The judgment that was prophesied for Babylon in chapter 17 was described here in Revelation 18. Nothing specific is detailed about her demise; instead, it was described by angels then mourned by men on earth. But, before he destroyed Babylon, God warned his people to flee it so that they would be delivered from his judgment (vv. 4-8).

There are unbelievers in our world who object to our message by pointing to what they call the genocide of the God of the Old Testament. What is often missed, however, is that God routinely warns the wicked before he brings judgment on them. He warned the world through Noah before the flood, he warned Lot and his family before Sodom was consumed, he warned Ninevah through Jonah, Nebuchdnezzar in Daniel, and so others. Although God is just when he judges humanity, even his justice is tempered by mercy because he warns people to repent and flee his wrath. Keep this in mind when people object to the gospel, particularly the doctrine of hell. God told us about hell so that we would fear him and receive his grace in Christ to avoid it.

In fact, part of the message of Christmas is that God came down into our world to warn us of his coming judgment and deliver us from that wrath in Christ. As we give thanks for Christ today, let’s remember to look for opportunities to warn others around us and show them how to escape God’s judgment through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Revelation 16

Read Revelation 16.

Have you ever wondered why people who are dying don’t just pray the “sinners prayer?” After all, if God will save everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, then someone could live a completely selfish, sinful life and be saved just before they reach eternity. So, why don’t more people do that?

One answer is that becoming a Christian is not just about praying some words, like a magic incantation. Receiving the gospel starts with changing your mind which is the act we know theologically as “repentance.” That change of mind requires a work of God in someoane’s heart which causes them to want God instead of sin. If you genuinely want God, you’ll turn to him as soon as you realize that you want him, not wait until the very end of your life. Although there are exceptions, the longer people live, the more hardened they usually become in their sin and rejection of Christ. To receive Christ is to renounce your pride, to admit that you’ve been living wrongly your whole life, and to fall on his grace alone because you’re unable to fix yourself or your situation. Apart from the grace of God, human pride keeps us from such repentance.

This is why the people described in today’s chapter “refused to repent and glorify him” (v. 9, and similar wording in verse 11). Instead of calling for God’s mercy, then, people cursed him for his justice (vv. 9, 11, 21). This is the natural response of humanity to the holiness, righteousness, and justice of God.

This is why we must pray for God to open hearts and change minds so that people will turn to God for grace instead of cursing him for his justice.

Revelation 9

Read Revelation 9.

In chapter 8, Jesus opened the seventh seal. Then John told us, “I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them” (v. 2) and “the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them” (v. 6). Four of those angels sounded their trumpets in Revelation 8; today we read about what happened when angels five and six sounded their trumpets.

What happened was painful torture to those not protected by God’s seal (vv. 4-12) and death for 33% of the world’s population (vv. 13-19).

One would expect that this kind of devastation would cause people to cry out to God for mercy. Instead, those who lived through these horrific events “still did not repent” of their false worship and disobedience to God. Their stubbornness demonstrates that sin nature is deeply planted in us all as are the sinful habits that we cultivate. Neither God’s judgment on others nor the threat of it can cause a person’s mind and heart to change. It is only God’s gracious working within any of us that changes our minds and causes us to turn to God in faith.

Thank God, though, that he does this gracious work in the hearts of many, including in our hearts when we came to believe in Jesus.

And this is one reason why we are here to give the gospel to others. Through the gospel message God works in hearts to open them to his gracious gift of salvation. Through that salvation, God delivers them from the coming days of his wrath like those described here in Revelation.

So keep looking for opportunities to share Christ with others. It is the only means of hope for humanity.

John 19

Read John 19.

Pontius Pilate was a Roman. He was assigned a powerful position in the Roman Empire over the area of Judea so he had to keep tabs on potential threats and problems in his region. But there was really no reason for him to fear anyone in Israel. With Roman soldiers at his disposal, any uprising by the Jewish people could be easily squelched. Any political would-be leaders could be dispensed with easily.

It is surprising, then, to read in verse 8 that “Pilate… was even more afraid” when he heard that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. I would expect a man as Roman and as powerful as he was to laugh at such a claim.

Pilate, however, did not laugh.

He seems to have taken the charge very seriously. In verse 9b he asked Jesus where he was from and in verse 10 he scolded Jesus for not answering him. When Jesus finally did answer Pilate, stating that all the power he had was allowed him by God (v. 11), Pilate did not react as one who was insulted. Instead, “From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free” (v. 12). It took some political bullying by the Jewish leaders (v. 12bff) to get Pilate to send Jesus off for crucifixion (vv. 13ff).

What caused Pilate to be so fearful of Jesus? Remember that anything Jesus said was God’s word by definition. Since it was God’s word, it had the power of God behind it. That power, plus the witness of the Spirit, gave Jesus’ words self-authenticating power. Pilate knew that he was hearing the word of God and, on some level, knew that Jesus was the Son of God.

Do you understand the self-authenticating power of God’s word? Unbelievers like Pilate may resist God’s word and evade accountability to it. But, because it is God’s word, they feel the conviction of sin within when they heard God’s word. They know through the convicting work of the Spirit that Jesus is truly God.

John 14

Today’s reading is John 14.

We usually don’t expect a leader’s followers to be more successful than the leader himself. In the NFL, a great coach like Bill Walsh has had a number of his assistant coaches go on to become head coaches. None of them, however, had the kind of sustained success that Walsh had. Not even close.

Bill Parcells was another great football coach whose assistants became head coaches themselves. One of Parcells’s assistants, Bill Belichick is an exception to the principle I’ve been talking about. Belichick has been more successful than his mentor, Bill Parcells, but Belichick’s assistants who became head coaches have been failures. Being tutored by a great coach, then, does not necessarily set one up for success. Athletics is just one example. I think you will find this to be true in music, in business, and in ministry. It is rare that a student surpasses his master.

It is surprising, then, to read Jesus’s statement here in John 14:12b, “…whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these….” Jesus prophesied that his disciples would do greater things than he did, that we would be more successful than he was. What was he saying, exactly?

First of all, the next phrase explains why Jesus said this: “…because I am going to the Father.” Disciples do greater works than the Lord himself because the Lord himself did not remain here physically. That’s one reason, then, why Jesus said his disciples would do greater works than he did. Jesus preached to thousands early in his ministry, but only a handful of disciples remained even after his resurrection (see Acts 1:12-14). By contrast, the disciples of Jesus would reach thousands with the gospel (see Acts 2:41), so the raw numbers of believers were greater.

But verses 13-14 give a greater answer for why the disciples of Jesus did greater works. The answer is not that they were greater than the Lord but that their works were empowered by the Lord. As verse 13 put it, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” We are capable of doing more than Jesus did because he will work through us when we ask him to use us for his work. We have his empowering promise and we need it because he is almighty and we are weak and incapable without him.

Do you live and serve God in light of and based on this promise? Do you expect God to use you in service to him? Do you ask him to use you, in his name, to do great works for God? If something is lacking in our ministry for Christ, maybe it is that we just don’t ask the Lord to use us and keep his promise to do greater works through us. But Jesus said, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

Live by this promise when you share the gospel or open the word or do any kind of ministry. Ask Jesus to do powerful work through you that only he could do. He promised that he would! All we need to do is claim that promise by faith and serve God accordingly.

John 4

Read John 4.

Who knows what was on her mind when she came to the well that day. The Samaritan woman (aka “the woman at the well”) certainly knew that she needed water. What else was she thinking about? We have no idea.

Jesus was thinking about her and in ways that were different from most of the men (v. 17b) she had encountered in her adult life. She came seeking water and what she received was internal, spiritual life that was satisfying to her and life-giving to others (v. 14, 23-26, 29-30).

Notice, though, the attitude Jesus had while he waited for her to return with the people of her town. There was more than enough time for him to eat and strengthen himself physically as the disciples wanted him to do (v. 31). But Jesus was so energized by the spiritual life he was about to give that he had no interest in food at the moment (vv. 32-34a).

He shared this excitement with the disciples and tried to wake them up to the reality of the spiritual harvest around them (vv. 35-38). His words were an invitation to be part of what God was doing, gathering in new believers by his grace. They saw Samaritans–whom they were taught to hate–who had mundane lives with daily needs like water. If they had known about the Samaritan woman’s romantic life, they would have rolled their eyes and thought, “Typical ungodly pagan.” Their inability to focus on the spiritual work going on around them caused them to miss out on the harvest Jesus enjoyed.

Do we find ourselves in the same place as the disciples? We’re busy gathering food and daily provisions and see others doing the same around us, but we’re unaware (and unconcerned?) about the spiritual hunger of those around us that makes them ripe to be reaped for God’s kingdom.

I don’t start spiritual conversations with people because I’m afraid I will say something awkward or won’t know what to say. I also don’t do it because I’m preoccupied with my own life, my own schedule, my own responsibilities, needs, and desires. If that describes you, too, then Jesus wants to open our eyes. People around us need God and God is working on many of them, getting them ready for harvest day. When we wake up to the eternal opportunities in front of us, we’ll be ready to talk to people who need to desperately need some Good News.

1 Timothy 2

Read 1 Timothy 2.

One of the common objections heard against our faith is that it is exclusive. If Jesus is the only way to God, then what about people who worship God through other religions? Will they miss salvation even though they have a desire to know God?

The answer is yes, according to verse 5 of our passage today: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.”

It is common to hear that every religion is worshipping the same God, just by a different name. The Bible, however, calls worship of any other god than the true God idolatry. The reason is that “there is one God.” Verse 5 went on to say that there is “one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” The only way to know the one true God, to worship him, and receive his forgiveness is through Jesus.

Why?

Because he “gave himself as a ransom.”

Only the death of Christ on our behalf made reconciliation with God possible. Any other religion, in addition to saying things about God that contradict the Christian description of God, lacks a solution to the problem of sin.

But notice the next phrase in verse 6: “…for all people.” This truth goes against the idea that our faith is unjustly exclusive.

Our faith is exclusive in the sense that there is only one way–Jesus. He is the exclusive way to God.

But our faith is not exclusive in the sense that it is restricted to only one type of person. The salvation Jesus purchased, and the good news about knowing God he brought us, is for every kind of person on earth–Jew or Gentile, slave or free, wealthy or poor, male or female, Japanese or Lebanese, or any other way that people can be categorized.

This is why Paul began this chapter by urging us to pray “for all people” (v. 1). We should pray for the gospel to go everywhere there are people. In verse 2, Paul specified that we should pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives….” This is a request for the authorities of the world to leave us alone so that the gospel can advance to all the world without interference or persecution.

When you pray today, remember to pray for the world. Specifically, pray that people all over the world will learn about the one true God and the one mediator, the man–our Lord–Christ Jesus. Pray that those who are taking the gospel everywhere will do so without being persecuted or interfered with so that all kinds of people will be “saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (v. 4).

Pray also for our government here in the U.S.–not that Team A or Team B will will win the next election but that whoever wins will leave us alone to spread the gospel message. That is the message of 1 Timothy 2:1-8.

Mark 13

Read Mark 13.

I enjoy architecture and appreciate a well-designed and good-looking building. Don’t get me wrong, I know nothing about architecture; I just like the way places look when they are done right.

At least one disciple of Jesus shared this quality with me. According to verse 1, “As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’” If he’d said that to me, I would have said, “I know! Aren’t they cool! Herod has his problems, but he did build us a nice temple!”

Jesus, however, was not impressed and he told that disciple not to get too attached to that building. In verse 2 he said, “‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’”

Ahem.

Well, at least Jesus called the buildings “great.” Though…, maybe he just meant large.

Peter, James, and John–his closest disciples–asked Jesus privately about this. Peter’s brother Andrew also got in on the discussion, according to verse 3.

What Jesus said in the rest of this chapter is called “The Olivet Discourse” because Jesus spoke these words on the mount of Olives while overlooking the temple. Going into what Jesus taught in this chapter is beyond what I could cover in a devotional, but there is a message here for us just in the first two verses. The magnificent temple that awed at least one disciple was gone within 30 years or so after Jesus said these words. That happened during the lifetime of these men.

Long before the temple was destroyed, though, it stopped mattering to these men. On the day of Pentecost, God’s Spirit moved powerfully and saved thousands of people. And he kept moving and kept saving men, spreading his work throughout the rest of the world in waves that ripple out to us. No longer did they need a great building to have a spiritual experience with God. They had their memories of Jesus and his words, the Holy Spirit’s work, and thousands of disciples to nurture. Buildings are impressive and incredibly useful but if we love the building more than God or the souls of men, we’re doing it wrong.

Suzanne and I were part of a few church plants before we came to Calvary so we know what it is like to use someone else’s building. One thing that does for you is make you thankful for the building you have when you get one. I like our building here at Calvary, but this building will be destroyed someday–hopefully a long time into the future, but someday.

The impressive monuments in Washington and the stately government buildings there will not last forever, either. Someday everything we know will burn up and be replaced by a city made by God where righteousness dwells. We can’t take any buildings with us to that city, but we can take people who hear the gospel message and are rescued from an eternity apart from God.

So, let’s be thankful for the stuff we have–our church building and grounds, our homes, clothes, cars, etc. But don’t fall in love with those things; use them to reach and disciple and love people for Jesus Christ.

Start with your own family and you’ll be on the right track.

Mark 4

Read Mark 4.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not hard to understand.

  • God is holy and hates sin.
  • Humanity–as a group and individually–has rebelled against God and chosen to sin.
  • Christ died for our sins and rose again to give us spiritual life.

That is the Good News in a few basic bullet points. There is depth behind those bullet points to be learned and explored, but the message is not difficult.

So why don’t more people become Christians?

Mark 4:1-25 gives the answer. The answer, in a brief statement, is that most people aren’t prepared spiritually to receive the gospel. Either their hearts are hard and Satan can steal the message from them (v. 15) or their hearts are shallow so, even though they like the message, it never transforms them (vv. 16-17) or they are distracted by common human struggles (vv. 18-19).

More people don’t become Christians because their hearts need to be prepared by the Holy Spirit to receive the message of Christ.

This parable of Christ is emphatic that the problem of unbelief is not a problem with God’s word. God’s word is widely distributed (vv. 3-4, 21-23). It is powerfully productive as well (v. 20).

Yet, too often, Christians want to change the message instead of asking God to change the hearts of those who hear it.

Christians want to de-emphasize the doctrine of God’s eternal justice (aka hell) to make the message easier to hear. Or God’s love is given more emphasis than God’s holiness. Or God’s law–his righteous standards–are denied or re-defined.

Unbelief is not the result of a defective gospel; it is the natural product of sinful, unprepared hearts. The answer, then, is to ask God to prepare and open the hearts of people to receive the Word. That’s what makes some soil “good soil” (vv. 8, 20). It is also what Jesus is getting at when he said, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you” (v. 11). God opened the minds and hearts of the disciples to receive the gospel. That’s why they were saved.

As Christians, who are commanded by God to spread the gospel message, two points are crucial to take from this chapter:

  1. Don’t mess with the message! It produces great results on its own (v. 20) because it is God’s word (v. 14).
  2. Do pray for those you want to reach for Christ. Ask God to prepare their hearts to receive the good message of God’s word.

Mark 2

Read Mark 2.

Who is most deserving of the chance to hear the gospel?

You and I both know the right answer to the question, “Who deserves to be saved?” The right answer is “nobody” because we’re all sinful and guilty before a holy God.

But who among us guilty sinners most deserves to hear the gospel message? If not everyone on earth can receive the gospel witness in his or her lifetime, then who should we evangelize first?

Jesus answered that question here in Mark 2:17 when he said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” This statement of Jesus was in response to the Pharisees’ criticism that Jesus ate with “tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus explained that these sinners received his attention because they needed it the most.

At this point in his ministry, a disinterested observer might argue that Jesus should have spent his time with the Pharisees because they had already demonstrated a clear interest in spiritual things. The sinners he chose to be with, by contrast, had turned away from God’s word. They had heard it in their homes and synagogues growing up but had chosen to live a different kind of life. For these reasons, the Pharisees would appear to have been a more receptive audience to Jesus than the tax collectors and other sinners.

But the key word in that last sentence is “appear.”

The Pharisees were all about appearances and their spiritual interests were about appearing righteous before others, not really becoming righteous. Sinners, by contrast, had the appearance of righteousness ripped from them when they sold out to become tax collectors, or thieves, or prostitutes, or whatever. The benefits they had received at first from their sinful lifestyles were diminishing when Jesus came into their lives and they were now experiencing the heavy costs of a sinful lifestyle. In a society as judgmental and rigid as theirs, it would be impossible to reverse course, stop collecting taxes, and become a respectable man again. These companions of Jesus–these sinners–were ripe for the grace of repentance and faith. That’s why Jesus wanted to be with them.

Who then is most deserving of the chance to hear the gospel? Well…, all sinners need it, of course, so we shouldn’t be picky when opportunity comes along.

When it comes to who we intentionally try to reach, however, we should think like Jesus did. So many churches have started in our area recently. How many of them are seeking to reach the poorest areas of Ypsilanti. How many are attempting to reach the working class family that is out of work or the single mother on welfare? How many of them are reaching out to the many Muslims who have moved into our area? How many have created prison ministries or outreaches to addicts?

How about our church? Literally surrounded by corn, we are a church located where the suburbs and the farms meet. That’s where God put us so we should try to reach those around us.

We have poor people around us, too, that we serve through our food pantry. There are addicts and alcoholics in every place–urban, suburban, and rural–so we have those around, too. Have we done as Jesus did and looked for people who may be ready to hear about true hope in Christ?