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?

Colossians 2

Read Colossians 2.

The church at Colossae that received this letter was not started by Paul. Colossians 1:7 plainly states that the people who received this letter from Paul had received the gospel from “… Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf.” As we read yesterday in chapter 1, Paul was thankful and encouraged by the faith of these Colossians.

Now, here in chapter 2, Paul assured them that he was “contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally.” Though they were not churches he had founded, Paul was concerned for their spiritual growth and health (vv. 2-4). Then, in verse 5, he wrote, “I… delight to see how disciplined you are….” That phrase, “how disciplined you are” is kind of unexpected. The rest of the verse, “and how firm your faith in Christ is,” is exactly like something we’d expect Paul to write. But what did he mean by, “how disciplined you are”?

Let’s start with the word “disciplined.” Discipline means training. When you discipline your children, you are not (or shouldn’t be) punishing them for being bad; you should be teaching them that doing wrong is harmful and doing right is better. So, when Paul said, “I… delight to see how disciplined you are” he is referring to the training they had received from Epaphras (again, 1:7). Epaphras not only told them that Christ died for their sins; he taught them what it meant to live in obedience to Christ and he expected them to show obedience to Christ in their daily decisions and lives. That was and is Christ’s goal for every Christian. He commanded his apostles to “Go make disciples” (Matt 28:19) and to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt 28:20). Epaphras not only obeyed the “make disciples” part, he obeyed the “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” part of Matthew 28:19-20. Paul was happy to hear how these believers were growing in that way spiritually.

Still, threats to their faith were lurking around. False ideas about spirituality were gaining a hearing among the believers in Colossae. That’s why in verse 2 he said that he wanted everyone to “know the mystery of God, namely, Christ.” It’s also why he said, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

Everything they and we need spiritually is in Christ. There is no need to look to Judaism or to pagan religions. God has given us everything we need in the church. What we need to put these growth resources to work in our lives is discipline. Discipline is a form of self-control that enables a person to make progress in the Christian life. Discipline is what calls us to form daily spiritual habits–Bible reading and prayer at the least–that will nourish our faith and stimulate our growth.

The fact that you’re reading this devotional probably indicates that you’ve developed the discipline of reading the scripture daily. That’s great! But, also, each believer should discipline him or herself to pray everyday, asking God to keep purifying them even more.

Grace and discipline are not enemies; instead, discipline is an expression of grace and an application of the grace we received in salvation. Without grace, we could never discipline ourselves just to become more godly but, since “all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ” (v. 3) we can use God’s grace to teach us to be more holy and Christlike.

So think about an area of your life where you need to become more holy and Chrislike. What kinds of self-discipline should you use by grace to become a godly man or woman?

Ephesians 2

Read Ephesians 2.

This chapter of scripture lays out clearly and logically what God has done for us in Christ.

First, Paul described our need: we were “dead in [y]our transgressions and sins.” We were under God’s wrath by nature (v. 3b) and because we deserved his wrath for our sinful actions and lives (vv. 2-3a).

Second, he pointed us to God’s amazing nature. Despite our sin, God had “great love for us” and “is rich in mercy” (both in verse 4) despite the fact that we deserved justice for our sins. So, since we were “dead” in sins (v. 1) God “made us alive with Christ” (v. 5a) and “raised us up with Christ” (v. 6a). That’s a reference to the spiritual life God gave to us through the gospel message. More about all this in a second….

Third, God united us with his chosen people Israel (vv. 11-22). We used to be excluded from the spiritual status the Jews (v. 12) had but now, “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). Christ accomplished this reconciliation for us, using one means of salvation–the cross–for both Jews and Gentiles (v. 16b) to make us into one body (v. 16a). As a result, we are God’s children just as much as any Jewish believer is (v. 19) and Christ is building us together into a holy temple (vv. 20-22).

Going back to verses 4-9, we learn there that God has done incredible things for us in Christ.

First, all that he has done for us is by grace (vv. 5, 8a). God’s grace is his favor that we don’t deserve and could never earn. Sinners though we were (and are) and unable to make our own favor with God, God just gave it to us! He gifted us new life in Christ including the faith to trust him for it (v. 8a).

He also will give us an eternity where he lavish us with more gifts of grace than we can possibly imagine (v. 7). But there is a purpose to all of this: God not only gave us this redemption for his own glory, he did it to make something great out of us.

Verse 10 calls us “God’s handiwork.” He wants to make works of holy art out of our sinful lives.

How does he do this?

By “good works” (v. 9). As we become more holy, we live more righteous lives and do unselfish things to serve the Lord, his gospel, and his people.

All of this displays the greatness of God because, on our own, we are incapable of becoming masterworks of holiness. This is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

Let’s shine God’s light through our good works today–by his grace, of course.

Romans 9

Today read Romans 9.

For a letter written to the church at Rome, the book of Romans has a lot of Jewish themes in it. The chapters we’ve already read talked about Jews and Gentiles explicitly, as well as discussing the Law of Moses repeatedly.

Scholars have wondered why there is so much about Judaism and the Jewish people in this letter. Some have speculated that the church at Rome was actually a divided church–a Jewish congregation and a Gentile congregation. Perhaps moving the church toward unity was one of Paul’s goals in writing this letter. Maybe he was laying a foundation for attempting unification when he came to Rome in person.

That’s all speculation. What is clear is that chapters 9 through 11 or Romans will address the unbelief of the nation of Israel as a whole. Today’s reading, obviously, began that discussion; however, Paul came to the discussion about Israel indirectly here in chapter 9. His true intent was to talk about election. Israel, in this chapter at least, was brought up here as an object lesson in election.

In verses 1-5 Paul discussed the many spiritual privileges that Israel as a nation had. Despite those privileges, they did not receive their Christ when he came which gave Paul great sorrow and anguish (vv. 1-2). The problem of Israel’s unbelief, however, was not a failure of God’s word (v. 6). Rather, their unbelief was the result of God’s direct, merciful choice in election (vv. 15-18). In verses 7-13, Paul demonstrated that Israel’s own history showed that God worked through election. Only Isaac was chosen between Abraham’s two sons (vv. 7-9), then only Jacob and not Esau was chosen (vv. 10-13).

From a human perspective, divine election feels unjust. Paul anticipated the objection of injustice in v. 14 and he answered it by telling us that we’re looking at it the wrong way. It is just for God to punish us all; if he chooses to have mercy on some, that is his right as the creator (vv. 15-18). If the President pardons a convicted murderer, he has not been unjust to every other murderer. He’s been merciful to one; the constitution gives him that right and he may exercise it as often or as rarely as he wants by whatever criteria he chooses.

In a much greater way God, the one who created us all and the one against whom all of our sins were committed, has the absolute right to save everybody or nobody or some number of people in between all or none.

The reason we have a problem with election is not because it is unjust. Rather, we have an authority problem (vv. 20-23). The doctrine of election strains our human limits and tempts us think that we know better than God does. But his ways are wiser than ours and his will is beyond our comprehension. Like everything else in the Christian life, we have to humble ourselves and trust God.

One thing that is often overlooked when discussing election is this: without election, nobody would be saved. We think the opposite; we think that, if salvation were available to anyone and everyone, then most people would get saved. But we forget that salvation requires a miraculous spiritual act–the act of opening blind eyes, turning hard hearts, humbling our pride and causing us to come to God in repentance. These are unnatural–impossible, actually–for sinners.

Election exists, in part, so that Christ’s death and resurrection were not in vain. Before Christ came and died, God determined that his death would matter by choosing people and predetermining that Christ’s death would be applied to them. Election shows us that God is more gracious than we realize, making certain to save some according to his mercy.

I hope this causes your heart feel gratitude for his grace in your life and humbled that he chose you, not because of anything you’ve done but just because he chose to love you.

Romans 8

Read Romans 8.

In the previous chapters we were taught much about the Law and its relationship to humanity. On Friday, in chapter 7, we learned that God’s Law is great and holy; our problems with it are not with IT but with ourselves: “…the Law is spiritual but I am unspiritual” Paul wrote, “sold as a slave to sin” (7:14). As Christians, we are torn by our mental and spiritual desires to obey God’s law (7:21-22, 25b) and our sin nature which rebels against God’s holy commands and makes us subject to death (7:16-20, 25c).

What is the remedy for this spiritual dilemma?

Romans 8:1: “ Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We are “in Christ Jesus” therefore the condemnation of the law has been removed from us. That removal took place through the atonement of Christ for our sins (vv. 2-3). The result of his atonement is that you are not guilty before God because God has credited to you the righteous life Jesus lived (his “active obedience”) and the atoning death Christ died (his “passive obedience”). Verse 3b-4 says that in these words, “And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Did you notice that phrase, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us….” If you are in Christ, you’ve kept the law fully. The law has no beef with you because Christ has fulfilled it all on your behalf. He’s met every standard spelled out there and paid every penalty for your failures (and mine).

Many Christians live with a feeling of defeat. We beat ourselves up for our sin struggles and our failures. If that’s you, please take heart today. If you’re in Christ, it’s all good. Jesus has done all that you will ever need to cancel the law’s condemnation over your life and to declare you perfect in the sight of God. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” so stop condemning yourself and live in the freedom of complete forgiveness!

Romans 6

Read Romans 6.

In Romans 5, which we read yesterday, the Scriptures taught that the law produced sin and sin produced death (5:12-14). Sin was, in fact, multiplied by the law (v. 20) but the grace of Jesus also became more abundant where sin increased (vv. 20b-21).

Today in chapter 6, Paul raised the question, “Should we sin more so that there will be more grace?” (v. 1). Verse 2 quickly answered that question with a strong, NO!, then the rest of the chapter went on to explain why. Spiritually, we have been buried with Christ and raised to new life with him (vv. 2-4). Our new life in Christ has freed us from the power of sin (vv. 5-7). On that basis, we should consider ourselves dead to sin but alive to God (vv. 8-11) and, therefore, not allow sin to reign in our bodies (vv. 12-15).

Verse 15 asked a similar question to verse 1. Both the question in verse 1 and the question in verse 15 raised the possibility of us sinning. Verse 1 wondered if we should sin since sin makes grace more abundant. Verse 15 asks if we should sin because we’re not under the law but under grace. The implication of verse 15’s question seems to be, “If grace covers us, shouldn’t we just sin as freely as we want to?”

Paul’s answer again was, “No” because sin enslaves us while righteousness, which God saved us for, frees us (vv. 15-18). In verses 19-23, we were reminded that sin is deeply destructive. We quote Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…” when we give the gospel but this verse comes in the context of teaching us Christians about sin and death, new life and freedom. There’s no problem with quoting Romans 6:23 in evangelism, but we should also quote it to ourselves when we are tempted. Though we still desire sin, the scripture reminds us that there is no “benefit” to us when we sin (v. 21). We are now ashamed of the sins we’ve committed in the past and the consequences of them brought death (vv. 21b, 23). On the other hand, when we choose to do what is righteous as slaves to God, then the “benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (v. 22b).

Sin appeals to us because it lies to us. If offers pleasure without showing us the price tag and the pain that follows it. It is true that Jesus’ grace is sufficient to cover any and all of our sins, but that salvation does not remove the consequences of those sins. The consequences of sin are death and pain and shame while the consequences of a righteous life are all positive–holiness and eternal life. When we understand the truth about sin and the power of Christ’s salvation, we see why making righteous choices in our lives is better in every way than trying to get the pleasures offered to us by sin.

Today you may face moments of temptation to sin. Keep this passage in mind. Christ liberated us from sin not to spoil our fun but to keep us from the death and pain and destruction that sin costs. So trust God’s word and choose to live righteously. You can do it because you have been raised with Christ.

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 4

Read Romans chapter 4.

Romans 3, which we read yesterday, considered the central idea of Christianity–that reconciliation with God comes as a gift from God. It is not earned by those who work for it or deserved by living a righteous life. It is a gift received by faith when a person believes in the good news.

If you’ve received the gift of salvation in Christ, God is just as much your God as he was the God of Abraham, David and others.

Here in Romans 4, Paul goes into more detail about that truth.

Paul demonstrated from the Old Testament scriptures that Abraham was given righteousness by faith (vv. 1-3) and so was David (vv. 6-8). But–wait a minute–both David and Abraham were circumcised. That was a physical, permanent mark that they were under a special covenant with God. We Gentiles don’t have that mark–OK, some Gentile men are circumcised, but not as a religious act. So chapter 4 here anticipates the objection of Jewish people that they have a special relationship with God because they have a special covenant with God symbolized and applied to them by circumcision.

Paul points out in this chapter that Abraham was declared righteous by faith before he was circumcised (vv. 9-12; see Gen 15:6, 17:9-27). Our connection to Abraham spiritually, then, was by faith not by the covenant of circumcision (vv. 16-17). Just as Abraham believed God’s promises at multiple points in his life (vv. 18-22) we must believe God’s promises are applied to us through faith in Jesus (vv. 24-25).

When God declared that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness,” that was said for our benefit as well as his (vv. 22-23), to show us that it was not obedience to some religious or moral code but faith that gave Abraham a righteous standing before God.

What about you?

Are you reading these chapters in scripture and this devotional to try to get some greater recognition from God? If so, you’re missing the point. There is nothing you can do to earn any favor it all with God. That’s true before you become a Christian and after. The death and resurrection of Jesus did everything that was necessary to give you all of God’s favor that you could ever have (vv. 24-25).

Learning and obeying God’s word are how we grow in the grace God has given us, not how we get more grace or deserve his favor. Whatever you are doing as a Christian–learning God’s word, praying, serving God, giving–keep it up, but do it for the right reasons. Don’t do it to earn God’s favor; that’s actually displeasing to him. Do it because you love him and want to grow to be more like him.

Romans 3

Read Romans 3.

On Friday we read in Romans 2 that God is just as angry with self-righteous Jews as he is with the rest of the world (Rom 1). Here in chapter 3, he acknowledged that God used the Jewish race to deliver God’s word (vv. 1-2) and to illustrate God’s faithfulness despite the unfaithfulness of his people (vv. 3-8). The bottom line, however, is that Jewish people have no greater status before God than anyone else (v. 9). Both Jews and Gentiles are sinners deserving the wrath of God (vv. 10-19) and unable to earn God’s favor on their own (v. 20).

Having demonstrated the guilt of humanity and our inability to save ourselves, the passage turned to the good news that is at the core of our faith as Christians. Although (and because!) we could not earn righteousness with God on our own, God gives righteousness to those who believe him for it (v. 21). God does this for any sinner who believes (v. 22a), Jew or Gentile (v. 22b-23a). He is able to do this without compromising his justice because the penalty for every sin was paid for in Jesus Christ (vv. 24-26).

The reason why neither you nor I can take pride in our own morality or our own spirituality is that we have not earned and could not earn any righteous favor with God (v. 27). This puts Gentiles like us on the same level with the Jewish people; God is our God just as he was the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Hezekiah, or whomever else you want to name. Think about the implications of this. Do you think God was more willing to answer David’s prayers than yours because David was a man after God’s heart? Think again; David was guilty as a sinner and needed Christ to atone for his sins just like you and I do. Every advantage that God offers to his people is offered to you if you have faith in Jesus Christ.

The problems you and I have spiritually are not due to insufficient grace from God. They are not due to our lack of effort. Have you ever thought something like this, “If I only spent more time in prayer (or Bible memorization, or whatever), then God would love me more and work more powerfully in my life”? If so, please understand–there is nothing you can do to make God like you or love you more. You don’t get more grace from him by doing more good works. It isn’t like a vending machine where you put in more dollars and are able to buy more bags of chips. Everything you could ever need as a Christian, all the spiritual life and spiritual power you desire is available to you right now in Jesus Christ.

Believe it and live like it is true; that’s what you and I need to change.

2 Thessalonians 1

Read 2 Thessalonians 1.

In yesterday’s reading we read about the end of humanity as we know it. We learned there in 1 Thessalonians 5 that most of the human race will be caught utterly unprepared when the “day of the Lord” comes in judgment. Here in 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul continued that theme.

The passage began with Paul’s usual greeting to the church (vv. 1-4) and a transitional statement saying that all the ways in which the faith of the Thessalonians was growing (vv. 3-4) was evidence that they would be included in God’s kingdom (v. 5).

At the end of verse 5 Paul noted that it is this kingdom, the kingdom of God, “for which you are suffering.” That phrase both indicates the circumstances the Thessalonians were facing and prepares us for the next few verses which tell us what God will do about it.

According to verse 6, “He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well.” Although all of us were once enemies of God and opponents to his kingdom, God in grace saved from the penalty that we deserved for our sins. That salvation made us “worthy of the kingdom of God” (v. 5b) but also put us on the other side of the rest of humanity which is still at war with God and resisting Christ’s kingdom. That is why believers are persecuted–both back then in Thessalonica and around the world today.

Here, though, God promised that suffering would not be the fate of believers forever. Instead, God will execute justice someday in the future. That justice will give relief to his children who are suffering but deliver judgment to those who reject him and oppose him. And when will this judgment happen? Verse 7 says it will happen “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” In other words, the “day of the Lord” which we read about yesterday in 1 Thessalonians 5 will begin when Christ returns as described here in 2 Thessalonians 1:7b-10.

Christians debate about the timing of these events and this is not the place to address that debate. What we should take away from 2 Thessalonians 1 is the promise that God’s judgment is coming when Jesus returns. On that day there will be justice–eternal punishment for those who are not in Christ (v. 9) but salvation for those of us who are in Christ. Our salvation is not based on our goodness but based on the fact that Christ died in our place, taking God’s punishment for sin for us.

But what do we do while we wait for that day of the Lord? Verses 11-12 tell us. Paul prayed for these believers that “God may make you worthy of his calling.” This prayer was for God to form real righteousness in these believers to match the status of righteousness that he declared them to be in Christ. That “real righteousness” was described in verse 11b as God bringing “to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith.”

Like all believers, the Thessalonians wanted to grow in grace. They wanted to serve God and become like him. Paul prayed for them that, until Jesus comes, they would be growing in God’s grace to become godly men and women. The result of that growth was described in verse 12: “that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

What Paul described in this passage is what God is doing and wants to do in the lives of every believer. It is why I teach God’s word, shepherd his people, and write these devotionals. May God continue to change us and grow us until Christ returns to finally save us.

BTW: this is how we should pray for each other, too. Not that we would have health, happiness, and prosperity but that God would keep working in us to make us “worthy of his calling.”