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?

Acts 28

Today, read Acts 28.

This is the end of the New Testament’s record of Paul’s ministry. Although it is the end of the record, it seems clear that it was not the end of Paul’s ministry. According to tradition, Paul won his trial in Rome (the first time) and was released. He continued traveling for the gospel until he was later captured again and executed.

We read yesterday of his shipwreck; in the early verses of this chapter, we see how God used that to demonstrate His power to the pagan people of Malta (vv. 1-10). Eventually Paul did reach Rome where he received the welcome he had hoped from the Roman believers (vv. 14-15). He was also able to live privately under house arrest (v. 16) instead of in an actual prison. This gave him the opportunities he wanted to share the gospel, starting as he always did, with the Jewish people (vv. 17-23).

Notice the results of teaching the gospel in verse 24: “Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe.” This is what will happen whenever any of us shares the gospel. Not everyone will respond to the gospel in faith. That’s one reason why we are hesitant to tell others about Christ–because we know many will reject it.

Here’s the thing about witnessing for Christ: many will reject the gospel message but some will believe. This was Paul’s confidence expressed in verse 28: “God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” Don’t let rejection by some in the past to the truth of Christ shut you down from telling others about Jesus. Rejection of the gospel is part of sharing the gospel but if you faithfully deliver it to others, some of them “will listen!” (v. 28b).

Romans 10

Read Romans 10 today.

In this chapter, Paul continued discussing the unbelief of his people Israel. He spoke directly about his desire and prayer for the salvation of his countrymen (v. 1). Then he reflected on his own experience and concluded, “Yes, we Jews are very enthusiastic about God, but not according to knowledge” (v. 2).

And what was the knowledge they lacked?

That righteousness comes from God (v. 3) to “everyone who believes” (v. 4b). Since they did not know this, they “sought to establish their own” righteousness (v. 3b).

Verses 4-13 contrasts the “righteousness for everyone who believes” (v. 4) with the “righteousness that is by the law” (v. 5). The righteousness that comes by the law is given to those who obey the law; as verse 5b put it, “The person who does these things will live by them.” That’s the promise of righteousness by the law–do what the law says and you will live.

Israel’s history–and yours and mine, too–shows that we can’t keep the law. Because we are sinners, as we saw in Romans 7, we can’t keep God’s law even when we want to–and most of the time, we don’t want to.

That’s why Christ came. He is, according to verse 4, “the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” He kept the law we could not keep in order to give us the righteousness we could not earn. The way to righteousness (that is, “to be right with God”) is by faith in Christ (vv. 9-13). This has always been the case as we see from Paul’s quotations of the Old Testament here in Romans 10:

  • v. 8 quotes from Deuteronomy 30:14
  • v. 11 quotes from Isaiah 28:16
  • v. 13 quotes form Joel 2:32

This is why God sends his servants into the world–to spread the message, the good news, of righteousness before God in Jesus Christ (v. 15). As we share the good news, we must remember that people are saved not through our slick presentation or clever arguments; rather, “faith comes from hearing the message,(Y) and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (v. 17). The message itself carries the ability to create faith in those God has chosen.

So, let’s be faithful about carrying the message!

Romans 5

Read Romans 5

Romans 4 told us that people are declared righteous by faith and that righteousness was secured by Jesus Christ. Today in chapter 5, verse 1 told us that the result of being declared righteous by faith is that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The next several verses went on to describe the future (v. 2b, 9-11) and present results of God’s grace to us in Christ (vv. 3-5).

Verses 12-21 describe the “one to many” aspects of sin and salvation.

It was by one man’s sin that many became sinners (vv. 12-14). Likewise, one man’s gift made many righteous (vv. 15-21). Since the gift (vv. 15–2x, 16–2x, 17), that is, the grace (vv. 2, 15–2x, 17, 20, 21), of Jesus has accomplished the salvation of many, grace now reigns in Jesus Christ (v. 21).

The “reign” of that grace specifically is to “to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 21). This is one of the things we mean when we say that we live in the “age of grace.” It is true that there are still billions of sinners on the earth and that physical death still holds power over all sinners. But it is also true that God is saving millions of people around the world through the grace that came through Jesus Christ. The “age of grace” is here; God is saving people through Jesus Christ.

This is something to remind ourselves of as we talk with unbelievers. Instead of avoiding talk of eternity, we should believe the truth that God is saving people through Jesus Christ–and that his grace which saved us is available to save others.

Paul was “not ashamed of the gospel” because “it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.” His confidence in the gospel is what made him an effective witness for Christ–not his experience or his rhetorical abilities. Let’s believe God’s word ourselves that in this age of grace he will use us for the salvation of many and look for ways to share that truth with others.

Romans 2

Today let’s read Romans 2.

At the end of chapter 1 we read, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (v. 32). That verse concluded a lengthy description in chapter 1 about why God’s wrath and judgment is being revealed against human wickedness. Humanity rejected God, therefore God has allowed wickedness to flourish within the human race. Rather than being fearful of God’s judgment, however, people keep on sinning and approve of others who sin.

Here in chapter 2, Paul turned from those who approve of sin and those who practice it to those who condemn and judge sinners (v. 1). Since those who approve of sin and sinners are condemned in chapter 1:32, we might expect that those who condemn sin and sinners would be approved by God.

No, said Paul, “because you who pass judgment do the same things.” There are no points for righteousness awarded to sinners who condemn other sinners. We may comparatively evaluate ourselves to be better than other sinners, but we still deserve God’s judgment because of our own sins (v. 3) and lack of repentance (v. 4). Instead of earning favor with God for judging other sinners, the self-righteous sinner is “storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath” (v. 5). All humanity–Jew or Gentile, self-righteous or self-declared sinner–are headed for judgment before Jesus Christ (v. 16). In verses 17-29, Paul narrowed his focus to his fellow Jewish people. He pointed out that even the most upstanding Jewish person has broken God’s laws (vv. 21-24) and that God wants people who inwardly, genuinely belong to God, not people who have the religious symbols of godliness (vv. 25-29).

As I discussed yesterday, Paul seemed to be laying out his doctrine of the gospel to these Roman believers so that they would receive him and support his ministry when he came to them. This chapter, then, was designed to show how Jewish people are under God’s judgment, too, just like their Gentile counterparts in chapter 1. This passage applies to Jews who reject Jesus in order to live self-righteous lives, but it also applies to anyone who thinks himself to be righteous by comparison to others yet who still sins.

Agreeing with God’s word about what is sinful is not impressive to God; what matters to God is obedience (v. 13) and we all fall short there. Tomorrow we will see the remedy to this in Christ. But even if we’ve received that remedy, we should take to heart the things said about the self-righteous in this passage. If you have any moral character at all, you will be able to find lots of examples of people who fall short of your moral virtue. But, if you have any honesty at all, you will have to admit that you fall short daily of your own standards, not to mention God’s moral standards. Instead of judging others in order to feel good about ourselves, God wants us to acknowledge our own failures to be perfect. Then, just as God showed compassion to us in Christ we should reach out to other fallen people around us with compassion and the hope that is found in the gospel.

Have you ever thought about the people around you not as your spiritual inferiors but as people who need God’s rescue to save them?

When we remember that we are all in the same moral boat as everyone else, speeding relentlessly toward God’s wrath, it gives us a greater humility about ourselves and a greater compassion for those who are bound in their sin and in need of salvation. So check yourself when you find yourself disgusted with others; they are not any different than you and I are, except that we have salvation in Jesus Christ.

Romans 1

Today we begin reading the book of Romans, so read Romans 1 today.

As we’ve read the book of Acts, we have stopped here and there to read Paul’s letters around the points chronologically where scholars think they were written. In other words, Acts 19 described Paul’s two year stay in Ephesus. After reading Acts 19, we stopped to read 1 & 2 Corinthians because there are good reasons to believe that Paul wrote 1 & 2 Corinthians during his time in Ephesus. In Acts 19:21, Paul described his desire to go to Jerusalem but to stop in the regions of Greece (Macedonia & Achaia) on his way. 2 Corinthians described his coming visit. Also in Acts 19:21, Paul described his desire to visit Rome. At the end of Romans (Rom 15:28-29), Paul described his coming trip to Jerusalem and his intention to visit Rome after he went to Jerusalem.

Here in Romans 1:10b-11a we read, “I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong….” So the book of Romans was a letter designed to prepare the believers in for Paul’s intended visit after he went to Jerusalem. That’s why we’re reading Romans now.

Paul had not yet been to Rome as an apostle, so the church that existed there was not one that he founded. In this letter to the Romans, Paul laid out his doctrine of the gospel so that the Roman church would understand their faith better and would receive him and support him as he intended to go further out to Spain (see Rom 15:23-24). He began by summarizing his doctrine of Christianity (vv. 1-4) and his commission to preach the gospel (v. 5). Then he described his prayers for the believers in Rome (vv. 8-10) and his desire to visit them (vv. 11-15).

Starting in verse 16, Paul transitioned to the gospel. He wrote first about the greatness of the gospel in verses 16-17, then about the universal human need for it (vv. 18-32). Humanity’s rejection of God (vv. 18-23) and the deep-rooted sinfulness that results from rejecting God (vv. 24-32) are the source of all human problems. Some human problems–like sickness and death–are not cured by the gospel in this life. Instead, the gospel holds a promise for deliverance from those in the life to come. But every other human problem, the things that take up the first page of every day’s newspaper, are caused by people rejecting God and cured by the gospel. Very often we try to make things more complicated than they really are. We think that typical human issues like materialism, homosexuality, murder, gossip, arrogance, disobedient children, and other problems are caused by insecurity, lack of love, poor parenting, fear, poverty, hopelessness, and other psychological issues. While all of those things may be factors in why people act as they do, they are not the cause. All these things and others are human responses to rejecting God. The cure is Christ–who died for our sins in order to save us from these problems and an eternity apart from God. Paul stated in verse 16 that he was not ashamed of the gospel because it was God’s power to save all who believe its message of deliverance. What the disobedient child (v. 30) needs is salvation in Jesus. The same is true for those eaten alive by envy (v. 29b), those who kill (v. 29b), those who exploit others for financial gain (aka, the greedy, v. 29a), homosexuals (vv. 26-27), and every other sinner. People need forgiveness, rescue, and reconciliation with God more than they need better coping strategies, more powerful drugs, or a happier childhood. That is what the gospel offers.

As you and I live in this world, we meet people who are stuck in these and other problems. We may offer sympathy to those who are suffering, advice to those who are confused, and even prayer but do we offer the gospel? That’s where the power of God to save resides. Don’t be ashamed of the simple message that Christ died for our sins; use it to rescue sinners for the glory of God.

2 Corinthians 6

Read 2 Corinthians 6.

This chapter continues the thread of the past several chapters. Paul commended the ministry of himself and his co-workers to the fickle, loveless (v. 12) Corinthians. Verses 1-2 here in 2 Corinthians 6 wrapped up the discussion from chapter 5 about the importance of the gospel message which Paul and his men preached. Verses 3-10 laid out the reasons why Paul and his associates should be loved and championed by the believers in Corinth. Then, in verses 11-13, Paul directly urged the church in Corinth to give that love and acceptance to him and his coworkers in the gospel.

In verses 14-18 Paul changed the subject to the relationship the church in Corinth should have with unbelievers. This seems like a sudden change in subject, like a driver who unexpectedly made a right hand turn from the left hand turn lane. This is not Paul’s usual style for moving from one topic to another, so it is possible–likely even–that this section is connected to the previous section. Verses 11-12 pleaded for the Corinthians to “open wide your hearts also” to Paul and his associates. Those verses, plus this section, may indicate that Paul feared the church was turning away from his leadership and toward some other kind of spiritual leadership, a leadership that came from “unbelievers.”

Note how verse 16 says, “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.” Given the strong presence of idolatry in Corinth, it might be that the Corinthians had moved from merely eating food offered to idols (as we saw in 1 Corinthians) and had begun mixing Christ with some of the other religious practices in Corinth.

If that is true and the Corinthians were flirting with idolatry in some way, then how would this passage apply to us today?

First of all, the most common application of this passage–don’t marry an unbeliever–would still apply. Verse 14 laid down a command that would apply across many dimensions of a believer’s life.

But, secondly, consider the phrase, “we are the temple of the living God” (v. 16b). The wording of that verse seems to suggest the entire church as God’s temple, not our individual bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe the church in Corinth had begun accepting unbelievers into membership, treating them as if they were Christians even though they were freely mixing Christianity with idolatry.

Maybe they had begun using the idol temples as places for Christian worship and the unsaved population around them was confused.

Maybe they even began consulting with false teachers from the idol temples, borrowing some of their ideas to mix with the scripture.

These days there are churches that perform secular songs in their worship services. There are churches that recommend books and authors who are “spiritual” but not Christians. These would, in my opinion, be violations of this passage. 1 Corinthians 6, then, teaches us to be careful about how we treat those who don’t explicitly claim to follow Jesus.

We may read books by secular authors but we should never treat any book but God’s word as the authority on any subject. To do that would be placing that book on a level similar to scripture.

We certainly should allow unbelievers to attend our church After all, this is a place where they can hear the gospel and see it lived in our lives. But we should not act as if everyone who attends weekly is automatically a believer.

What is your relationship to unbelievers? The Bible certainly calls us to be in contact with them so as to give the gospel message and live out our faith among them. But be careful about giving them acceptance or an audience that is equal to or greater than the acceptance and authority of Christ himself.

2 Corinthians 5

Today, read 2 Corinthians 5.

Yesterday in 2 Corinthians 4, we read that Paul and his companions did not lose heart despite the hardships they faced because they have a ministry that transforms lives by the power of Christ.

Today’s reading continued the theme of serving the Lord despite the costs that come with it. Another reason not to lose heart is eternity–“we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven” (v. 1b).

Believers should long for eternity (vv. 2-8) but live for Christ with the time we have on this earth (vv. 9-10). Living for Christ means reaching out to non-believers with the life-transforming power of the gospel message (vv. 11-21), so this is why Paul and his team kept traveling, kept giving the gospel despite the pain of persecution and the difficulty of dealing with disrespectful churches.

There are so many powerful verses in this chapter!

  • verse 7: “For we live by faith, not by sight.”
  • verse 10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
  • verse 11: “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.”
  • verse 15: “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
  • verse 17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here.”
  • verse 20: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
  • verse 21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

But the one that stands out to me today is verse 9, “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.”

Pleasing God is not the same as trying to earn his love or his salvation. That’s impossible; God loved us unconditionally when we were still sinners and saved us as a gift of his grace alone. But, once saved by God’s grace, we want to become holy like he is and to rescue sinners like he did. God is pleased with these things because they are the evidence of the life of the Holy Spirit within us (v. 5) and because they show that we are “no longer living for” ourselves “but for him who died for” us “and was raised again” (v. 15).

Now that we are God’s children, our goal is to please him with our lives. Is this a goal that we think about daily? Whatever you face today, consider what it would look like to please the Lord in the things you pay attention to, the decisions and choices you make, and what you do with the time in front of you.

1 Corinthians 1

Read 1 Corinthians 1.

Was there ever a more mixed-up group of Christians than the believers in Corinth?

Although they had been blessed by the ministries of several faithful men (v. 12), they could not receive and each man’s teaching. Instead of seeing each man’s ministry as one part of God’s complete instruction to them, they took sides. They claimed to follow one of these men as if they were in opposition to each other instead of co-workers for Christ.

In addition to their divisions, they were confused about what God’s grace meant and about several points of Christian doctrine. We’ll read about all of this in the coming days, but just know or remember that the church in Corinth had a lot of problems.

Yet, Paul began his letter to them by writing, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 2-3).

That greeting gives me great hope. It reminds me that we don’t belong to Christ because we volunteered and worked hard morally to become worthy of being his people.

Instead we are “sanctified in Christ Jesus.” Sanctified means “set apart.” In this context, it refers to our membership in God’s family by faith. It is our association with Christ—being “in Christ Jesus”—that caused us to be set apart to belong to him. It is through the gospel Jesus preached that they and we were “called to be his holy people” (v. 2).

Despite our many differences, we are one in Christ “with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours” (v. 2). Despite differences in where we live on earth, or when we live on earth, or age, or language, or anything else, if we’re in Christ, we are one. We all call on the same Lord and that same Lord is working on us, causing us to grow and become like him.