1 Peter 4

Read 1 Peter 4.

Suffering is a key theme in this book and in this chapter. The suffering that caused Peter to write was persecution (vv. 12-16). Peter knew, however, that what he taught about suffering applied to any kind of suffering caused by doing good, not just persecution (v. 4).

People who are doing good suffer and are persecuted for one reason–to silence them. Whenever we witness for Christ, we point out to unbelievers that they are sinners and accountable to God for their sins. Unless the Spirit moves to create repentance, that message of the gospel will be offensive to unbelievers.

It is not just our words of witness that cause conviction, guilt, and retaliation in unbelievers, however. The godly choices we make to live a sober, disciplined life are offensive to unbelievers as well. Verse 3 here in 1 Peter described how pagans live, “in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.” Those who live this way due to unbelief “are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you” (v. 4). That last phrase, “they heap abuse on you,” shows how convicting a godly life is to the unsaved-ungodly. The “heap abuse” to try to silence us, to get us to conform to the undisciplined norm.

Peter discussed persecution at the beginning of this chapter (vv. 1-6) and at the end (vv. 12-18). In between those two paragraphs, he commanded us to serve each other within the church in various ways, reminding us that our service to each other is ultimately done by God through us, for God and for his glory (vv. 7-11). This section on service is not a digression, however. It is important to the teaching on suffering and persecution because the point of persecution (and any suffering brought on by Satan) is to shut down your witness for Christ and your service for him. If God’s enemies can discourage you, they can stop you from witnessing and from serving the body of Christ.

So what do you do if you feel discouraged by how people treat you as a Christian?

Two things: First, remember that God’s enemies will be held accountable (vv. 5, 17-18). Second, have faith in God. As verse 19 put it, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” That last part, “continue to do good” is so important. Don’t let the insults and discouragements of others stop you from serving the Lord! Part living life by faith is to continue to do what is right even when you don’t want to. What kind of faith would you need if you only served and obeyed God when you felt like it? But if you commit yourself to him and keep serving him when you are discouraged, then you will be living by faith.

Are you feeling some sort of affliction? Let this passage encourage you not to give up–don’t give up trusting Christ, don’t give up serving him, don’t give up living a godly life, and don’t give up testifying of his grace. He is with you in this and whatever you are suffering is happening “according to God’s will” (v. 19). He allowed it and will use it to strengthen and grow you, so don’t give up!

Mark 11

Read Mark 11.

In verse 23, did Jesus really mean that you could order a mountain into the sea if you prayed with enough faith?

The short answer is yes, he really meant it.

But…

It is important to keep some things in mind here when we look at this text, or one like it.

First, Mark 11 is a strong kingdom text. It began with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a colt, fulfilling the Messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9b, “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” See Matthew 21:5 also. This entire week–the passion week before Christ was crucified–was designed by God to show Israel that the true Messiah was here.

So Jesus did some very unusual things (even for him) to demonstrate his identity as Messiah. For instance, Jesus’ “triumphal entry” (vv. 1-11) was not the way he normally entered Jerusalem… or any other town for that matter. Also, the way he unilaterally cleared the temple (vv. 15-17) was unusual, too, though he probably did it once before.

The way Jesus cursed the fig tree was also unusual; not that he used his divine authority as Lord to do a miracle but that he cursed something rather than blessing it. Furthermore, the fig tree miracle had no other function than to demonstrate his Lordship to the disciples (vv. 12-14, 20-21). Jesus could have ordered the fig tree to immediately make figs and that would have happened. Instead, he cursed the tree for not making figs so that his disciples would see–again–that he had authority over everything, including nature.

That curse on the fig tree set up Jesus’ teaching on faith and prayer here in verses 22-25. Preparing the disciples for that teaching was the point of the curse but the entire of this chapter was to show us Jesus acting in a more overtly king-like, Messianic way. Jesus was about to be rejected and crucified–all according to God’s plan–but not before he gave everyone a look at what an authoritative king he would be. This text on faith was for the disciples to show them that his kingdom power would continue to work as they acted according to his will for the promotion of his kingdom. If moving a mountain was necessary for the promotion of his kingdom, the disciples would have been able to do it by faith in God’s power. But if they just wanted to re-arrange someone’s backyard by getting rid of that pesky mountain, well… there’s no good kingdom reason for that.

A second consideration for interpreting verse 23 is that Jesus often spoke using a literary device called “hyperbole.” Hyperbole means wildly overstating something for a powerful communication effect. We do this, too, when we say that we called someone “a million times” when we really just called twice. Jesus spoke in hyperbole often, such as when he told us to cut off a hand that causes us to sin. I’m not saying that Jesus was insincere about the power of “mountain moving faith” but I am saying he chose that image to show us how much power God would place at our disposal if we believed him and used it in service to him, not so that we could rearrange the world’s topography on a whim.

So, did Jesus really mean that you can order a mountain into the sea if you have enough faith? Yes, he meant it. But, the people who needed that power most were the original disciples, not us. If this miraculous power is for us, not only do you need faith without a doubt, you also need a good kingdom reason for it.

If a mountain stands between you and a mission God gives to you, I think you can use Jesus’ authority to move that mountain. But, let’s face it, a lot of our prayer requests aren’t kingdom or mission focused. They are for our comfort more than for God’s glory. God does not tire of hearing people ask him to help them through routine surgery, but I wonder if he is saddened that we never ask him for anything else.

If you want to live for God in this world, you will need God’s power for spiritual things such as:

  • forgiving someone who has sinned against you
  • overcoming an addiction
  • praying for an opportunity to witness to someone for Christ
  • asking God to help someone else who is stuck in sin
  • receiving grace to accept something you wish he would change (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

If we believed God in these areas and asked him to move those metaphoric mountains for us, can you believe that we would see him working more powerfully in our lives and in our church?

Mark 6

Read Mark 6.

If you live long enough, at some point someone whose birth and childhood you remember becomes someone important–a judge, a doctor, a professor, your governor, maybe even your pastor. Some people have a hard time respecting the accomplishments of someone they knew as a younger person. It might be hard to let someone take out your appendix if you remember changing that kid’s diapers.

Jesus faced this kind of credibility crisis here in Mark 6 when he returned to his hometown of Nazareth.

On one hand, the wisdom Jesus had was undeniable. As they said in verse 2, “What’s this wisdom that has been given him?” They never saw him apprentice with a rabbi, so how could they trust the things that he said? Likewise, his miracles were impressive. Again, verse 2 recorded the question, “What are these remarkable miracles he is performing?” Some of these people might have remembered that time he got lost in Jerusalem. How was that kid now capable of restoring people’s limbs and returning sight to their blind eyes? He was just a simple carpenter and they knew his whole family (v. 3), so it was difficult to accept that God’s power was on him so clearly. Verse 3 ended by saying, “…they took offense at him.”

Of course, this is all an expression of unbelief. To believe that Jesus was the Messiah or even a great spiritual leader would require some humility. It’s a lot easier to retain your pride and cast doubt on Jesus’ legitimacy than it is to humbly accept that little Jesus, now grown, was really being used by God.

The result of their faithlessness was, according to verse 5 that “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” The people who should have been most proud of him were his biggest skeptics. Their skepticism–aka their unbelief–meant that God’s power in their village was restrained. When verse 5 says that “He could not do any miracles there” it isn’t saying that it was impossible for him to do miracles. Jesus had the same power that he always had. The point is that he couldn’t do miracles because people who needed healing would not come to him for it. They would rather keep their dignity in place than admit they needed Mary’s kid for anything. Verse 6 says, “He was amazed at their lack of faith.”

Faith, of course, is a response to God’s word, a positive reception of God’s promises and revelation. Although Christ is not physically here to do miracles for us, he has made many promises to us. I wonder how many times our unbelief keeps us from asking God to save someone we love, or to turn a wayward friend to repentance.

I wonder what God would do in our church if we came to him more often for help and asked him to work in our lives or the lives of others. I wonder how much our Lord wants to do for us and in us and through us if we would just show our faith and ask him.

What do you want to ask him for today?

Acts 27

Read Acts 27.

What is there to say about this chapter of scripture?

  • It faithfully described what happened to Paul as he voyaged to Rome to stand trial.
  • It described how God communicated with Paul and through Paul to save the lives of everyone onboard the ship that was wrecked.
  • It described how Paul publicly and unashamedly gave thanks to God for the food that he and his fellow travelers ate (v. 35: “he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all”).

In terms of spiritual growth, however there is very little to be had from reading this chapter, at least on the surface.

But think a bit deeper about this. God is sovereign over all things. He called Paul to salvation and commissioned him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul faithfully did that, experiencing persecutions and hardships along the way as well as problems within the churches he started.

Out of compassion for his Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ who were suffering hunger and need in Jerusalem, he led the Gentile churches to collect an offering. As he attempted to deliver that offering, he was told by prophesy again and again that he would face legal problems in Jerusalem, but he went anyway compelled by the Holy Spirit.

Once he got to Jerusalem, the prophesies were fulfilled and he was arrested. To save his life from an ambush, he was taken to Caesarea. While in Caesarea, he was not given the trial he deserved so he used his rights as a Roman citizen to get a free trip to Rome so he could stand trial there.

Now, here in Acts 27, as if being a prisoner and facing legal risk were not bad enough, Paul could not even get safe transportation to Rome. Instead, God allowed him to be transported by a ship that crashed and was destroyed by the sea (v. 40c).

How would you feel about your life and ministry if all of this happened to you? Would you feel that God was mistreating you? Would you worry that his favor was not on your work even though you were doing it in response to his commands and for his glory?

Problems and hardships are part of life. They are the result of a sin-cursed world, not a personal vendetta against you from the Almighty.

God uses these trials to test and grow our faith in him, not to hurt us or push us away. Paul was realistic about the dangers around him (v. 31, 34a) but he believed God’s promises to him (vv. 23-25) and counted on those rather than the circumstances around him.

Whatever you are facing in your life, it probably isn’t as terrifying or as potentially tragic as the shipwreck Paul endured but even if it is, God allowed it into your life, has a purpose for it, and will get you through it if you trust him.

2 Corinthians 9

Read 2 Corinthians 9.

Though they had many spiritual problems, the Corinthian church apparently had some level of generosity for the Lord’s work, for Paul wrote in verses 1-2a: “There is no need for me to write to you about this service to the Lord’s people. For I know your eagerness to help….”

Nevertheless, Paul did teach in this chapter some principles about giving to the Lord’s work. Perhaps he was nervous that the Corinthians might not be as generous in reality as they claimed they would be (vv. 3-5). With that preface out of the way, Paul reminded them of an important life principle: You only get out in proportion to what you put in (v. 6).

If you have a bag full of seeds but only plant one of them in your garden, don’t be surprised if one plant or fewer grows out of the ground. That’s how farming works; you reap in proportion to what you have sown. Having said that, Paul urged the Corinthians to give freely, from their hearts, not because it was the “right thing to do” at the time but because they loved the Lord and his work (v. 7).

Interestingly, Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians that God would bless them according to their giving (vv. 8-11). This blessing must have a financial component to it because verse 11 says, “You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion.” That statement is not teaching “The Prosperity Gospel” which claims that you will get rich if you give enough of your money. But, if your heart is right in giving (v. 2), the passage says in verse 10, “Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.”

In other words, if you give happily, in faith, God will not only see to it that your needs are met in this life, but he will reward you in eternity.

If true, why do so few Christians give more than 10% of their income to the Lord’s work? The answer is a lack of faith. It comes from fear that, if I give too much money to God’s work, I won’t have enough money for my life.

That’s similar to a farmer saying, “If I plant all these seeds, I won’t have any left to eat.” But, to borrow a phrase from our world, you are “eating your seed corn” instead of planting it to produce a lot more corn in the future.

You have to have faith that (a) God will make a harvest out of the seed money you give to his work today and (b) that he will provide for your needs in the meantime.

Do you believe that? Does your giving to God’s work show that you believe it?

The harvest may not arrive for you until eternity. But, be certain of this, the Lord of the harvest will reward you if you plant financial generosity for his work in this world.

1 Thessalonians 3

Read 1 Thessalonians 3.

When someone asks me to pray for someone I don’t know, I usually ask if the person I’m praying for is a Christian.

It is disturbing to me how often the answer I get back is, “I don’t know.” But I’ll leave that for another day.

Often, the answer I get back is something like this: “Oh, I’m not sure. I mean, he says he is, but… I’m not sure.” In that answer, the person asking me to pray is telling me that they don’t see much, if any, fruit of Christianity in the life of the person they’ve asked me to pray for.

A similar situation happens when someone dies and I don’t know the person but I’m asked to do the funeral–which I’m happy to do, by the way. I always ask if the person who died knew the Lord.

Sometimes the answer is, “Yes. He told me he got saved when he was little.” But when I talk with family and friends, there is often no more mention of faith in Christ. The people who knew that person best never remarked on his love for Christ, or his service in the church, or anything that comes naturally to a follower of Christ.

A person becomes a Christian by faith alone. But, that faith is the first evidence of a new birth and, like a newborn baby, new Christians show signs of life. New Christians grow. New Christians eventually show signs of Christian maturity. If there are no signs of spiritual life in a person, that person is unsaved.

If that person showed signs of life for a while, but then they went away never to return, that person is not a Christian.

That’s what Paul was worried about here in 1 Thessalonians 3. Earlier in the book, Paul wrote about how powerfully the gospel had saved and changed the Thessalonians (1:4-5, 8-10, 2:13-14). But, after the initial signs of spiritual life, Paul worried about how they were doing spiritually in his absence. So he sent Timothy (3:2) “to find out about your faith” (v. 5). And what was Paul’s concern? Verse 5 continues by saying, “I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.” The word “vain” means empty. In other words, Paul was afraid that their faith might not have been genuine. He worried that the church might have fallen apart because everyone walked away from Christ.

With the arrival of Timothy came “…good news about your faith and love” (v. 6). So, Paul wrote, “…now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord” (v. 8).

We say, “Once saved, always saved” and that’s true. You can’t lose your salvation, praise God.

But the Bible says that there are many people who seem to receive Christ but they don’t continue to follow him. They lack “perseverance” which is the theological word we use to describe how every Christian continues in the faith. The Bible talks about this kind of “believer” and tells us that such a person is not a Christian.

You don’t follow Christ to get saved; you follow Christ because you’ve been saved. If you’re not following Christ, then either you were not saved or God’s discipline will come into your life.

We should look differently at and think differently about those people around us who say they are saved but live disobediently to Christ. We should warn them and urge them to consider whether they really know Christ or not. We should pray for them to genuinely come to Christ.

We should also not get complacent about our own faith in Christ. There should be evidence of your walk with Christ somewhere. How much is there? How good is the quality of that evidence?

Luke 22

Read Luke 22.

This lengthy chapter in Luke’s gospel detailed Jesus’s betrayal, last supper, and his religious trial by “the chief priests and the teachers of the law” (v. 66).

In between his last supper and his arrest, the disciples argued (again) about who was the greatest (vv. 23-30). Jesus assured them that they all would be great in his kingdom when he said, “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (vv. 29-30).

Then he turned and spoke to Simon Peter in verse 31. He told Simon that just as Satan had requested permission to strike Job, he had also “asked to sift all of you as wheat” (v. 31b). This is a visual reference to separating the edible part of wheat from the inedible chaff that covers wheat. Satan was asking to put all the disciples through trials in order to try to separate them from their faith.

This should have been a chilling thing to hear, so Christ quickly added that he had prayed for Simon specifically “that your faith may not fail” (v. 32). But then he said, “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” These two phrases suggest that Peter would be the first to face the trial of his faith in God and, having withstood the test with his faith in tact, he should help the other disciples as they faced tests of their faith.

But notice the phrase, “And when you have turned back” In verse 32b. This phrase indicates that Peter would struggle with the test of his faith. The specifics of that struggle were explained by Christ in verse 34 when he told Peter that he would deny Christ three times.

Peter did face the test of his faith in verses 54-62 and, as Jesus predicted, he struggled with the test. In three separate incidents, Jesus denied knowing Jesus (v. 57), being a follower of Jesus (v. 58), and even understanding what was going on with Jesus (v. 60).

So here we have one of the most vocal of Jesus’ apostles, a natural leader who was part of Jesus’ inner circle of three people, a man who had proclaimed himself ready to die with Jesus just a few hours before (v. 33) who evaded association with Jesus altogether when the pressure was on.

And yet apparently his faith did “not fail” (v. 32). It sure looks like failure, so how to we reconcile all of this?

First, we need to understand that there is a difference between a failure of faith and a failure to admit to faith in Jesus. Peter’s denial of Christ was a failure to admit to being a disciple, not a complete renunciation of Jesus. The fact that he “wept bitterly” (v. 62) after it happened shows that his faith was genuine. The problem was that his faith was also weak. In that moment, his fear of being punished with Christ outweighed his belief that God would protect him or allow him to endure the trial with Jesus. It did not mean that he no longer believed in Jesus.

Second, we need to understand that “denying Jesus” or renouncing your faith is more about a complete break with the Christian community than it is about a particular incident in someone’s life. Judas rejected Jesus; he conspired with the religious leaders to betray Jesus (vv. 4-5) which meant finding “an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present” (v. 6). That was a complete rejection of Jesus and all that he claimed to be.

Judas’s break with Christ and Christianity was premeditated and based in greed. Peter’s denial of Jesus was not premeditated and it was based in fear, not greed. What Peter did was lie about his faith in Jesus out of fear of persecution; what Judas did was completely reject Christ personally in such a way that Jesus would also be eliminated publicly.

Finally, Peter’s faith was strengthened by this trial, which is why God allows us to go through trials of faith. Later in life, tradition tells us, Peter did pay the ultimate price for following Jesus.

So what about us? There are times, aren’t there, when we are put on the spot and fail to speak up for Christ. Does that mean we are “ashamed of Jesus” and that he’ll be “ashamed of us” when he returns (Luke 9:26)?

No–or at least, not usually. Maybe someone, when put on the spot, might blurt out for the first time that he doesn’t really believe in Jesus after he had already decided that in his heart. But Peter shows that genuine Christians sometimes have weak faith; that faith may cause them to waver from publicly claiming Christ. It might even, at times, cause them to question God as we see in some of the Psalms. A true believer may have doubts and denials at times caused by weakness in faith but if you are a true believer, God will strengthen your faith over time so that you will stand for Christ later on in your life.

So, be encouraged! If Simon Peter could deny Jesus three times–after all the miracles and teachings he experienced first and–and still become a great apostle for Christ then people like us who are weak a times may fail in our walk with Christ at times. But know that God’s grace is powerful! He will strengthen you when you fail and teach you how to walk with him and stand for him when it is scary and potentially costly to be a Christian.

Luke 9

Read Luke 9.

This chapter began with Jesus sending out the Twelve to give the gospel and to do miraculous works to authenticate their message (vv. 1-2). Jesus told them to take nothing so that they would learn to rely on God’s provision for everything (vv. 3-6).

God did provide for them and he used them powerfully to serve Jesus (v. 10). But they did not completely learn the lesson. When food was needed for a large crowd, the Apostles wanted Jesus to send the crowds away (v. 12). Jesus challenged their thinking and commanded them to feed the crowds themselves which they protested (vv. 13-14). Christ showed them once again that he had the power to meet every need they had in ministry. But the implication is that, if they’d had trusted him, they could have fed the crowd themselves through his power (vv. 16-17).

When we’re serving God, we can trust him to meet every need we have. He has more than enough power–infinite power, in fact–to meet every need we have and then some. The question is whether or not we look to him in faith to provide for our needs or if we conclude in unbelief that it cannot be done with the present resources.

Ministries and churches–including us–are being tested on this right now. As the precautions against the spread of COVID-19 do damage to our economy, we have the opportunity either to trust God to provide or to freak out about what this will mean.

Will you believe God with me for our church about this? Will you pray and ask God to keep providing money to pay our staff, fund our missionaries, provide for those who have benevolence needs, and continue to pay for our building and other expenses?

Will you trust God to provide for you and your family and keep giving to his work? We have a unique opportunity to see God work and provide. Will you trust him in faith or give up in fear?

Luke 1

Read Luke 1.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were quite a couple. Verse 6 told us that they “were righteous in the sight of God.” In other words, they were both people who did right, who loved what was right. The next phrase in verse 6 modified the description of their righteousness when it said, “observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” Their religion was not for show; it came from careful, diligent hearts.

If you were the Lord, these are the kinds of people you’d want to be parents in Israel. Since they were righteous themselves and kept the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly, they would certainly instruct their children in God’s word and show them what it looked like to live a righteous life.

Yet verse 7 says, “But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” They never had the opportunity to be parents and their advanced age meant they’d given up on the dream of having children long before (see 18). I wonder how often each of them prayed, asking God for a child and wondering why he would give children to all their neighbors and extended family members, but not to them.

The answer is that God DID want them to have a child–one very important, unique child: John the Baptist.

His conception and birth were precious gifts of God to this couple. But God’s purpose was not just for them to have the joy of becoming parents. In addition to that, Elizabeth’s conception was a precious gift to all of God’s people for the work that he would do for the Lord (vv. 16-17).

Zechariah and Elizabeth may have wanted many children but the one and only son they did get was exactly the kind of child they would have wanted. Their faith and their patience was ultimately rewarded by God.

How often do we give up praying and asking God for good, righteous things because we don’t believe God will give them to us?

Even if what we want and pray for is not God’s will for us ultimately, isn’t it glorifying to him that we want and pray for the salvation of someone we love?

Isn’t it honoring to God when we pray for any request from godly motives, even if God does not seem to want to grant it?

God’s ways often make very little sense to us but they make perfect sense to him, especially when viewed from his eternal and perfect perspective.

So trust him, even when you pray for years with no change. God is doing something so trust him to use you and your life in the appropriate place at his appropriate time.

James 1

Read James 1.

James says so much in such a few verses. He moves swiftly from one topic to another and it is sometimes difficult to see whether the topics are supposed to be related in some way or not.

His opening words in verse 1, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,” are provocative. Most people do not get joy from different kinds of trials. We do not perceive it as a reason to rejoice nor do we rejoice instinctively when life gets hard.

That’s why James commands us to “consider it pure joy.” It is an act of deliberate mental choice; instead of instinctively getting sad or angry when we face trials, James tells us to consciously choose to consider our trials something to rejoice over.

Why?

Verse 2 says “because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” Since verse 1 called these “trials of many kinds,” we know that he is not only speaking of persecution but, in addition to persecution, he means any problem in life that offers a choice between faith and unbelief. It might be spiritual, physical, financial, relational, intellectual, or whatever; if it is something that would usually make someone question God and why they trust in him, it is a trial like the one James is discussing.

And why should we consider the trials of our faith to be “pure joy?” Because, verse 3b says that “the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” In other words, things that do not wreck our faith only make it stronger.

When we face trials, then, we should rejoice because God is growing us. He is strengthening our faith so that we learn to trust and love Christ more and become better equipped to serve him on the other side of the trial. The end of all this perseverance through trials is “that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (v. 4b). God places us through trials to compete us spiritually and morally.

In those moments where faith is called for, God is building us, refining us, making us more like Christ and more effective for him. Whatever trial you find yourself in today, learn to thank God for it. When it comes to mind, thank God for what he is teaching you. When you are looking for the easy way out, thank God for how he is completing you as a Christian. When your faith in God’s character is shaking, thank God for the trial and don’t give up your faith!