Galatians 2

Read Galatians 2.

In our earlier readings from Acts, we noted the tensions that began when God saved Gentiles and gave them the same spiritual status as the Jewish believers in Jesus had. Here in the book of Galatians, Paul urged the churches he started in this region not to succumb to the teaching of the “Judaizers.” That was a group of people who claimed faith in Jesus but insisted that all Christians conform to Jewish law.

Here in Galatians 2, Paul recounted his own first-hand struggle as a Christian against the idea that Christians must obey the law. Peter recognized Paul as a genuine believer (v. 9b) and Peter and the other apostles also recognized the commission of Christ to Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles (vv. 7, 9c). Yet Peter himself failed, at times, to act “in line with the truth of the gospel.” (v. 14b).

Sometimes Peter acted as if his Jewish background didn’t matter, so he blended right in with the Gentile believers (v. 12a). But when there were Jewish believers around, Peter feared their disapproval and segregated himself from the Gentiles (v. 12b). That was hypocrisy (v. 13a) and Paul spoke to Peter directly about it.

The point of this chapter is to emphasize the implications of the gospel. If Jesus really has fulfilled the law of God and if we are justified simply by believing in him, then it is wrong to add any religious or moral works as requirements for salvation.

But a secondary lesson in this passage has to do with Peter’s hypocrisy. Despite how much Jesus loved Peter, taught him, and entrusted to him as an apostle, Peter was still human. He was still vulnerable to fear the opinions of others and, therefore, still susceptible to hypocrisy.

Yet, despite his status as an apostle, Peter had the humility to receive Paul’s correction. Let none of us, then, think that we are above or beyond the correcting power of truth. We remain sinners until Jesus glorifies us finally, so let’s be ready to accept correction and grow from it when we are corrected with the truth.

Acts 11

Read Acts 11 today.

In Friday’s devotional about Acts 10, I suggested that there would be tensions in the early church as God transitioned her from a group of Jewish believers in Jesus into a trans-national, worldwide group with no ethnic distinctions. Here in Acts 11 we read about that tension.

Despite facing criticism for his fellowship with Gentiles (vv. 1-3), the Jewish believers accepted Peter’s account of how God saved the Gentiles and how they received the same sign of the Holy Spirit as the Jewish believers did in Acts 2 (Acts 11:4-17). They then praised God for his mercy on the Gentiles (v. 18) and a church that had begun gathering Antioch began actively evangelizing Gentiles (vv. 19-21).

Barnabas emerged at the end of today’s chapter. He was sent to Antioch from Jerusalem when the Jerusalem church heard about all that God was doing at Antioch (vv. 22-24). We’ve actually met Barnabas before in Acts 4. His real name is “Joseph” (Acts 4:36) but was nicknamed “Barnabas” because he was always so encouraging. He’s the guy who sold some property and gave all the money to the church which led Ananias and Sapphira to do what they did in Acts 5.

Barnabas also showed up in Acts 9:27 and he persuaded the church to accept Saul after his conversion. Now, here in Acts 11, when he saw how much God was doing in Antioch, he went and found Saul so that Saul could contribute to the growth and strengthening of that church (Acts 11:25-26).

Although Barnabas did not have the same role that God called Saul to occupy, he knew how to connect people together for the growth of God’s work. By no means was Barnabas a man who just served in the background; verse 36 says that he… met with the church and taught great numbers of people.” So he had a strong teaching gift and used that gift publicly to strengthen and grow God’s church.

Nevertheless, Barnabas served in the shadow of Saul because Saul was such a giant in the early days of the church. Yet he never viewed Saul as his rival or was jealous of how God chose to use Saul. He was a man who was all about the work God was doing, not about who was getting the credit for doing it.

Barnabas could have stayed in Antioch and held even greater authority and respect than he had, but he knew that this church would benefit from Saul’s gifting. So, in great humility, Barnabas recruited Saul’s help because it would be best for the church.

That is the attitude that all of us followers of Christ should have. God’s work is never about you or me. It is about doing what is best for the Lord’s church. If that means serving in someone else’s shadow, then let God be glorified.

Have you ever felt jealous of another believer who has gifts or positions or attention that you don’t have? Consider the life of Barnabas. If ministry is all about the minister, God will not be glorified and there will be problems in the growth and godliness of the church. If ministry is all about how best to glorify God, we should all be willing to step out of the way and let the most gifted and godly serve where they will be most effective.

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 18

Luke 18

Verses 1-8 start Luke 18 with a parable about prayer. The point of this story according to Luke was, “to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” The woman in this story badgered the unjust judge and eventually won her case because of her badgering (vv. 4-5). Then Jesus said that God will listen to those who “cry out to him day and night” (v. 7).

So, if this is the case, why don’t we persist in prayer?

One answer is weak faith or a lack of faith. Another answer is just that we’re human and humans struggle with various kinds of weaknesses.

But I think pride is a reason why we don’t pray persistently. Prayer is an acknowledgment that we cannot control something. It is a response to the knowledge among the faithful that we cannot make something happen on our own so, if it is to happen, God will have to do it.

That takes humility!

Our default assumption is that we can handle things. We can:

  • put up with stuff we don’t like or
  • persuade someone to do what we want, or
  • reason with someone who we have a dispute with, or
  • change ourselves if we try hard enough for long enough.

But prayer makes us admit that these things may not be able to handle everything ourselves and that, in reality, only God can make something happen.

We might pray once or twice asking God for something but after that, we give up to look for “more productive” ways to attack the problem we’re praying about. Also, God is sovereign and will do his will, so he may refuse to answer our prayer requests with yes because they are outside of his will.

All of these are blows to our pride.

So, what do you wish God would do for you? If it is within his moral will, will cause him to be glorified, and is truly righteous and just, don’t let your pride keep you from asking God–continually–for it in prayer.

That’s the message of Luke 18:1-7.

Matthew 23

Read Matthew 23.

Today’s reading continued to chronicle the life of Christ during the week of the crucifixion. Yesterday the religious leaders took turns trying to discredit Jesus by stumping him with hard questions. Jesus turned every question back on the questioners and made them look foolish. So, Jesus was on defense and refused to allow his opponents to score any points at all.

Here in Matthew 23, Jesus went on offense, warning his audience about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and teachers of the law and urging his audience not to live like these religious leaders.

Jesus was very specific in his complaints about the hypocrisy of these groups. He criticized them for:

  • not practicing what they preach (vv. 1-4).
  • doing everything for show, not from sincerity (vv. 5-12).
  • being an obstacle to God’s kingdom rather than a guide to it (vv. 13-15).
  • finding loopholes in God’s laws to exploit for their own selfish ends (vv. 16-22).
  • being scrupulous about obedience to the technicalities of the law while completely ignoring the moral and ethical commands of the law (vv. 23-24).
  • appearing squeaky-clean on the outside while being morally degenerate on the inside (vv. 25-28).
  • honoring the prophets that their ancestors killed while persecuting the prophets and teachers Jesus sent and was sending to them (vv. 29-36).

Let’s focus on verses 5-12. Although the religious men of his culture loved the accolades of great honor that were customarily given to them (v. 7), Jesus commanded his followers not to give titles and honor to our leaders (vv. 8-11). He could not have been clearer that Christian leaders are to be servants who serve in humility (vv. 11-12); consequently, he strictly forbid us from putting titles on each other.

Despite what Jesus clearly said, Christian leaders for centuries have demanded certain titles: Bishop Youknowwho, Pope Grande, Cardinal Soandso, Saint Bernard, and even “Father”– the very title Jesus said not to use (v. 9).

Though the elders here at Calvary felt it was important for me to be called “Pastor,” I’ve always been more comfortable just going by the name my parents gave me. Even though I have an earned doctorate, I never tell anyone to call me Dr. Jones and this passage is the reason why. We call Paul “the Apostle Paul” but he never called himself that; instead, his letters began with his first name, “Paul” (Rom 1:1, 1 Cor 1:1, 2 Cor 1:1, etc.)

I think we should be careful about using titles in light of this passage, but the command here is less about whether you call me “Pastor Brian” or just “Brian” and more about whether I serve the Lord in order to get honor and respect from you.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law wanted the social status that came from being a religious leader (vv. 5-7). They did not view themselves as servants to their disciples but as princes who taught but also demanded much from their followers.

We are not immune to this temptation. Some people seek to be elders or deacons or teachers in the church because they want the respect of the people of the church. Jesus called us to remember that spiritual leadership is about service, not about self. May God help all of us to cultivate the servants heart that Jesus commanded and modeled for us, no matter what title people apply to our names or what positions of authority we occupy.

Matthew 18

Read Matthew 18.

Matthew 18 open by telling us that the disciples have asked Jesus a question: “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (v. 1).

There are no dumb questions because only people can be dumb; questions cannot. But this question came close to being a dumb one.

It was so foolish and backward that Christ didn’t even try to answer it. Instead, he reframed the issue.

As the disciples stood there in a circle waiting for his answer, Christ called a child over and put that child in the middle of the circle. Then he told them, you won’t even get IN to the kingdom of heaven unless you lower your estimation of yourself spiritually to the level of a child (vv. 3-4). 

Why was a child a good object lesson for true faith that saves?

A child is completely dependent on his/her parents. Our kids need us to provide them with food and shelter, they need us to tell them when to go to bed and when to get up. They need us to teach them (or put them where they will be taught) about language and math and science but also about how to tie their shoes. Although children can be skeptical and argue with us at times, for the most part they believe that their parents are a trustworthy source of information that is necessary to life. 

Did Peter believe he was the greatest disciple? Andrew? John? Judas?

What a joke; the only one who can be called great in heaven is God. The rest of us depend completely on him for everything, starting with the right to enter heaven in the first place.

And, to advance in the kingdom of heaven, we must maintain a childlike spirit of trust and dependence on God along with a healthy sense of our own weakness and inadequacy before our perfect creator.

2 Chronicles 36 and Revelation 22

Read 2 Chronicles 36 and Revelation 22 today. This devotional is about 2 Chronicles 36.

God’s plan for Israel was to be one nation that worshipped him alone and lived under his sovereign leadership and direction, guided by his laws which both prescribed righteous behavior and described how to receive forgiveness when someone broke one of his laws. If the people kept the covenant they had made with God at Sinai, they would have had military victory, economic prosperity, large healthy families, and happy long lives.

Instead, they consistently disobeyed every aspect of God’s word. The worshipped other gods, refused to claim the land God had commanded them to take, divided into two kingdoms instead of one, and became subject to Assyria and Babylon. Despite all the problems their sins produced, verse 14 of this chapter says, “all the leaders of the priests and the people became more and more unfaithful, following all the detestable practices of the nations and defiling the temple of the Lord, which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.”

Although God’s people deserved immediate punishment, God was patient with them. Verse 15 says, “The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.” There is a human tendency to resist correction and rebuke, no matter how lovingly delivered. God sent rebuke “because he had pity on his people” not because he enjoyed wounding them with words. If God’s people had humbled themselves in repentance, they could have received forgiveness and the blessings of God’s covenant. Instead, they resisted the Lord’s word and persecuted his messengers. 

Don’t make the same mistake. Open your heart and mind to the correcting influence of God’s word. Be quick to repent when it convicts you and to obey when God commands. Most of all, believe the forgiveness of sins that Christ died to give us by grace. It will save you from the wrath of God in eternity and it will keep you walking with God all the days of your life.

If you’ve completed all the readings, you’ve read through the Bible this year. Congratulations; now keep this daily Bible reading habit going in 2020!

2 Chronicles 34, Psalms 148-150

Read 2 Chronicles 34 and Psalms 148-150 today. This devotional is about Psalm 149.

I don’t get too excited when someone does what he or she has agreed to do. When I go to a store that carries an item I need and the item is there for me to buy, I don’t jump for joy all the way to the cash register. Of course they have it; why wouldn’t they? It bothers me when they run out of something I usually buy there, but it doesn’t thrill me when they have what I expect them to have. When someone meets our expectations, we may be thankful but we’re not especially impressed.

All of us have consistently failed to meet God’s expectations. The very best of us morally is far below what God created us to be morally and expects us to be. God in his grace redeemed us from the fall, but that doesn’t make our fallenness irrelevant or acceptable. If God were like us, he would not be impressed when we do what is right; he’d think, “That’s what you’re supposed to do; too bad you’ve failed me so many other times, though.”

Yet, that is not how God is. Psalm 149:4 says, “For the Lord takes delight in his people….” That’s a pretty astounding statement. Despite all the ways in which the people of God, either Israel or us, have failed him, yet God still looks on us with delight.

That delight is, of course, because of the perfect merits of Christ that he applied to us by faith. This is alluded to in verse 4b: “…he crowns the humble with victory.” It is our humility, expressed in repentance and faith, that causes God to delight in us. If you’re in Christ, do you believe that God delights in you? Do you understand that he is not frustrated or angry when you sin; that sin has been paid in full by Christ. And, God isn’t like an emotionally detached father who says, “Impress me;” Instead, he tells looks on us with delight, not because of who we are or what we’ve done but because Christ, his beloved one, did everything that was necessary to give God that delight.

Don’t live today under the burden or weight of guilt; understand that, because of Christ’s perfect life and his sacrifice, God is delighted with you. Your progress in becoming holy may be slow and frustrating to us at times, but nothing can separate you from God’s love and delight. Let this truth fuel you today as you live for him.

2 Chronicles 32 and Revelation 20

Today read 2 Chronicles 32 and Revelation 20. This devotional is about 2 Chronicles 32.

Hezekiah honored the Lord from his heart, led Judah to honor and seek the Lord, and God blessed the nation with spiritual renewal.

That did not mean, however, that Hezekiah had it easy. Here in chapter 32 he had to deal with a significant military threat from Sennacherib king of Assyria. The Assyrians had built a powerful army and were intent on subjugating as many other nations as possible to their control.

In verse 1, Sennacherib picked off some of the smaller fortified cities in Judah, then set his sights on defeating Jerusalem. Remember that David chose Jerusalem to be his capital because it was built on a high hill and surrounded by other mountains which made it difficult to attack successfully. Hezekiah did what he could to prepare Jerusalem for Sennacherib’s attack. He blocked off the springs of water outside the city so it wouldn’t be easy for the Assyrian army to camp there indefinitely (vv. 2-4). He also fixed the broken sections of Jerusalem’s wall and built some towers to improve surveillance around the city (v. 5a-b). He manufactured “large numbers of weapons and shields” (v. 5d) and built an outer wall and “reinforced the terraces of the City of David” (v. 5c).

Hezekiah also prepared his army for the attack (vv. 7-8) and held fast against the propaganda war that Sennacherib waged (vv. 9-19). Most importantly, he prayed. He and Isaiah the great prophet waged war on their knees in this moment of crisis (v. 20) and God honored them by miraculously delivering Judah from Sennacherib (vv. 21-23). Later, when he contracted a fatal illness, God honored his faith and his prayers by healing him (v. 24).

What an amazing life this man led, yet because he was a man he was not immune from sin. He had many victories and much success (vv. 27-29) but he also struggled with pride (vv. 25-26). This temptation follows many people who achieve everything, or most things, they want in life. We forget how much God and others contribute to our success and we start thinking that we have all the answers and deserve everything we’ve gotten.

God hates pride and those who succumb to its temptation usually find themselves humbled in some way before him. The ultimate test of pride is whether one is repentant or not when God deals a blow to their pride. Hezekiah did repent (v. 26) and God was merciful to him to a degree (v. 26b). His story reminds us to be careful about our thoughts when things go well for us. If you’ve had a great year in 2018, I am happy for you and wish you even better things in 2020 but remember to thank and praise God rather than taking too much credit in your heart. God loves humility and rewards the humble but the proud he usually brings to humility.

2 Chronicles 9 and Revelation 6

Today read 2 Chronicles 9 and Revelation 6. This devotional is about 2 Chronicles 9.

This chapter summarizes and wraps up the end of Solomon’s life but the chapter began by telling us about how the queen of Sheba came to visit and meet with Solomon (v. 1).  The location of “Sheba” is debated, but it was not close or convenient to Israel. Jesus said that she came “from the ends of the earth” (Matt 12:42), so this was not an easy trip. 

But it was a rewarding one. Verse 4 said, “she was overwhelmed” (v. 4) by her experience in Jerusalem. Her own testimony was that she “did not believe what they said” when she heard about Solomon until she “came and saw with my own eyes” (v. 6). She went from not believing the reports about Solomon to believing that the reports had been grossly understated.  Verse 6 said, “Indeed, not even half the greatness of your wisdom was told me; you have far exceeded the report I heard.”

Although her journey was difficult and costly (vv. 1, 6) it was financially beneficial (v. 12) and, I think the Bible suggests, administratively and spiritually advantageous as well. Other world leaders followed her lead and visited with Solomon, too, according to verse 23. 

The lesson here is that wisdom and knowledge may be hard to get and costly but they are worth it. One of the best ways to solve a problem in your life or to move to a new level in your life is to find someone else who has excelled in that area, get with that person, and learn everything you can from him or her.

But you have to humble yourself to admit that you need help and that’s hard for most of us to do. If you were afraid to ask a teacher for extra help in school then you may find it hard to seek advice from others. Refusing to look for help from others may preserve your ego but it will also mean that you’ll be stuck at one level for a long time–maybe for the rest of your life.

Could you use a coach or a mentor in your:

  • walk with God?
  • parenting?
  • use of money?
  • physical health or fitness?
  • career?

Then make like the queen and find someone who can help you! There maybe (probably is) someone in our church family who could help you or introduce you to someone who could help you. 

Where do you need help? Who could you ask for help?