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!

Hebrews 11

Read Hebrews 11

Hebrews 10:39, the last verse of Hebrews 10 says, “But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.” That verse was the conclusion of the warning passage in Hebrews 10; here in chapter 11, the author of Hebrews wants to clarify what faith is and how it is essential to following Christ. The reason why we “do not shrink back” from following Jesus is that we “have faith.” It is our confidence in the promises of God and the rewards that God gives for persevering that cause us not to “shrink back.” So it is important for us to understand what faith is (v. 1) and how it has operated throughout human history (v. 2).

That’s why Hebrews 11 exists and why it was written at this point in the book of Hebrews. In addition to being encouraged by these great and famous men and women of God throughout history, it is important for us to understand what it means for us to stand in league with them. All of us are linked by our faith in God’s promises. But, as verse 13 says, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” In our age, there are many promises made on behalf of God from preachers and teachers that pertain to this life. Most of the best known “ministers” of Christianity will tell you that if you follow Jesus you will be happy. They will tell you that if you follow Jesus and give to his (their) work, God will make sure they get that fancy house, that luxury car, or whatever. Materialism drives so much of what is called Christianity these days in the United States. But the people in this chapter died before they got any of the promises God made to them.

The call to follow Jesus, then, is a call to live for eternity, not for your best life now. Like Moses who “chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (v. 25) we may be giving up much in this life in order to walk with God. And Moses didn’t even make it into the promised land! Do you think he felt gypped? I don’t think so because, according to verse 40, “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”

There are, of course, benefits in this life to following Jesus. He gives us relief from guilt and the ability to know and love God. He gives us the power to change and grow to overcome the sins that ultimately hurt us and others. He gives us joy even in the heartaches of life. So it isn’t like being a Christian is all heartache and pain but it is important to realize that there is a price for discipleship in this life but a much greater payoff for it in eternity.

Hebrews 6

Read Hebrews 6.

The Bible clearly teaches that true salvation can never be lost (John 10:27-30). But Hebrews 6 presents a significant challenge because it seems to describe a genuine Christian who somehow became unsaved.

Verses 4-5 describe the person in question in not merely as one who “believes” in Christ. That would be easier to handle because we know that there are different kinds of “belief” (see James 2:19). But our passage, Hebrews 6:4-5 seems to go overboard to describe someone who has received the gift of new life from God. This person has “been enlightened” has “tasted the heavenly gift” has “shared in the Holy Spirit” has “tasted the goodness of the word of God” and even has tasted “the powers of the coming age” (vv. 4-5). The word “tasted,” commentators point out, doesn’t just mean “sampled” like a child might taste, then refuse his vegetables, because the author of Hebrews used the same word in Hebrews 2:9 to tell us that Christ would “taste death for everyone.” So the description here is not of someone who merely professes salvation; this person has deeply experienced Christ in multiple meaningful ways.

Yet, the author of Hebrews said, “It is impossible if someone experiences all this and falls away to be brought back to repentance.” Falling away must mean a departure from the Christian faith in some way because the end of verse 6 says they “are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” In other words, they have joined the ranks of those who rejected and crucified Christ originally. So what do we make of this passage?

Clearly the person described in this passage has been associated with the Christian community that we call the church for some time. He has seen God do things and heard God’s truth. But the passage does not say that he put his faith in Christ. It does imply that he expressed some form of repentance for verse 6 says that his repentance cannot be “brought back.”

There have been many attempts to explain this passage and this devotional is not the best place to weed through them all. What I would say about this passage is the following:

First, “falling away” does not seem to mean a cooling toward Christ or a period of wandering or questioning one’s faith. It seems to be more deliberate and intentional that that because verse 6 says a person like this is “crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” This is a public, explicit denial of Jesus, a Judas-like departure where the person in question joins the ranks of those who consciously chose to put Jesus to death. So someone who has moments of weak faith does not seem to be in the same category. Though Peter denied Christ three times, he did not join those who were crying “crucify him” so this seems to be a meaningful difference.

Second, what else does the passage say about this person? Verses 7-8 use the metaphor of farm land to describe why this person can’t be restored. The reason is that he or she received all of this goodness from God but never produced a crop; instead, all they produced was “thorns and thistles.” This indicates that, although they had all the blessings of the Christian faith showered on them (vv. 4-5), it landed on a hard heart that never produced the evidence of true faith that the Bible says always accompanies salvation. 

Third, speaking of what “accompanies salvation,” the author of Hebrews in verse 9 contrasts his readers with this person who falls away. And, what is the difference between them in verse 9? The readers show lives that evidence “the things that have to do with salvation.” They are productive for Christ; verse 10 specifies how: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”

So this passage is a warning that tells us not to judge anyone’s Christianity based on their association with the church for a long time or even their profession of repentance. Those are necessary for salvation, but they are not proof of salvation because there can be false professions and self-deceived people.

Instead, the Bible always commends a productive, enduring faith. Verse 11 demonstrates the importance of this when it says, “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized.” So, while we do believe in what is called “eternal security,” a better way to describe this aspect of our doctrine is the “perseverance of the saints.” Our eternal security, like every aspect of our salvation, is totally dependent on the grace of God. But the genuine gift of God in salvation is productive—it shows itself in a person’s life by how that person responds to the truth.

When someone receives all of God’s gracious gifts and becomes more like Christ, showing their love for Christ by working for him and helping his people (again, verse 10), that person is demonstrating the things that accompany salvation. When someone receives the gracious gifts of God but continues to produce more “thorns and thistles” of sinful patterns (v. 8) and ultimately rejects Christ and campaigns for his disgrace (v. 6b), that person is hopelessly lost.

So, cultivate your faith! Respond to God’s word and let it produce a holy life, one that is growing in the fruit of the Spirit and the love of God’s people. The one who believes in Jesus and grows in him to the end will be saved—not because you did something to earn salvation but because you have genuinely be born into new life that has changed your life more and more to the glory of God.