Acts 7

Today, Acts 7.

At the end of yesterday’s reading in Acts 6, we read about how God was using Stephen and how he was dragged before the Sanhedrin to answer for his message. Here in Acts 7, the story continued as Stephen answered the charge against him and was stoned for his faith, becoming the first Christian martyr.

Stephen responded to the charge against him by summarizing Israel’s history beginning with Abraham. Although the people of his nation prided themselves on being God’s people and receiving God’s promises and blessings, Stephen saw a pattern in Israel’s history of rejecting God’s word. He summarized that pattern in verses 51-52a, “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One.”

Of course the strongest expression of their rejection was in Jesus, “And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it” (v. 52b-53).

Although only Israel had the unique history that Stephen described in this passage, what he said about Israel could be said about any nation or culture on earth: “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised.” (v. 51). Sin so thoroughly marks our nature and character that we impulsively resist God’s word and persecute God’s messengers. Only the grace of Christ through the gospel can penetrate that thick crust of unbelief on us all and bring us back to life spiritually to receive God’s word and desire to obey it.

Still, even after we are believers, we sometimes resist receiving the hard truths of God’s word that convict us. Like the people of Israel, we count ourselves blessed for having God’s word and God’s promises rather than receiving those gifts of grace and using them to bring obedience into our lives. God’s word and his spirit are working on us to relax our “stiff-necks” and make our “hearts and ears” sensitive to and receptive of his word. As James told us, we must “not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (Jas 1:22).

Matthew 7

Read Matthew 7.

In verse 13, Jesus urged his listeners to “Enter through the narrow gate.” That phrase compares the life and destiny of everyone to two very different roads leading to two very different destinations.

One gate is wide and the road beyond it is broad and there are a lot of people on it. However, Jesus said it “leads to destruction” (v. 13).

The alternative gate is small and the road it leads to is “narrow” but it “leads to life” (v. 14). But, Jesus said, “only a few find it” (v. 14).

Eternal life is hard to find and, comparatively speaking, very few people find it. That’s the obvious teaching of Matthew 7:13-14.

But verses 15-23 go into more detail. They tell us the implications of the fact that very few people find the road to eternal life. Jesus called out two implications of the narrow road to eternal life in verses 15-23:

  1. First, believers should beware of false prophets (vv. 15-19).
  2. Second, believers should beware of false professions of faith (vv. 21-23).

Let’s focus on the first of those two implications, namely, that believers should beware of false prophets (vv. 15-19).

We think of “prophets” as people who receive revelation from God to either predict the future or to rebuke people who are in sin. Those are both valid descriptions of what prophets in the Bible did. But prophets, generally speaking, were teachers and appliers of God’s word. They brought messages from God either from direct revelation or from scripture. Second Peter 2:16 equates “false prophets” with “false teachers” and I think that’s what Jesus has in mind here in Matthew 7:15.

The command, then, is for believers in Christ, who are on the narrow road to eternal life, to be cautious about anyone who claims to have a message from God.

Being cautious goes against the instincts of most of us. We’re so accustomed to unbelief and even hostility to our faith in the world that we happily receive anyone and everyone who comes in the name of Christ.

But Jesus told us to watch out. False teachers look like true believers. Jesus said “they come to you in sheep’s clothing” in verse 15b. But, despite how they look, they’re in disguise because they want to eat you alive. Jesus said “inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (v. 15c).

So we should be very cautious about every new professing believer we meet. We shouldn’t immediately accept or reject them. Rather, we should look at the product of their lives. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (v. 16a, 20). This changes the image from sheep and wolves to good and bad trees. Bad trees don’t produce good fruit (v. 16b, 17b) and good trees produce good fruit not bad fruit (v. 17a, 18).

Do professing believers that we meet demonstrate a life that is obedient to Jesus Christ?

  • Are they obedient to his words (vv. 24-27)?
  • Do they hunger for his righteousness (5:6) and for his truth (5:17-20)?
  • Do they strive to treat people right (5:21-22, 7:12) and do everything they can to repair broken relationships when they do treat people wrong (5:21-26)?
  • Do they judge themselves before they try to help others (7:1-6)?
  • Do they go to God to ask for what they need (7:7-12) or do they only apply human effort to get what they want?

And so on…. Do you see Christian growth, Christian desires, and Christian instincts in the lives of people who purport to be Christian leaders and teachers? If not, beware!

Ultimately, you should expect God to expose and remove every false teacher. Verses 19-20 says, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

But the point of this teaching by Jesus is to get you to be more suspicious and more discerning about the supposed “Christian” influencers in your life. The Christian life is a narrow road, found by few (again, vv. 13-14) so there are more false teachers who come in Christ’s name than genuine believers who are also bringing God’s truth.

Because we have media that can broadcast one person’s ministry to millions, it is harder than ever to get a close look at how someone else lives. The less you can see about a person’s life, the more skeptical you should be about that person’s teaching.

Who are the major influences in your Christian life? Do you know anything about how they actually live as a Christian?

Matthew 5

Read Matthew 5.

Who is responsible:

  • to obey God’s word? (vv. 17-20)?
  • to release anger toward others (vv. 21-22)?
  • to go try to fix a relationship with someone who is angry with you (vv. 23-24)?
  • to settle out of court (vv. 25-26)?
  • to have a pure heart toward people of the opposite (and same) sex (vv. 27-30)?
  • to keep a troubled marriage together as long as your spouse hasn’t crossed the line with another person (vv. 31-32)?
  • to be honest–so honest that you keep your word and don’t even need to “swear to God” (vv. 33-37)?
  • to be taken advantage of by others and even love others who treat you poorly (vv. 38-47)?

The answer to this quiz is the same for every question–you are.

Why? Because God created you. He’s perfect so you should be perfect like he is (v. 48).

That’s an impossible standard, I know. Jesus knew it, too. That’s why he began by telling us that happiness and prosperity come from being “poor in spirit” (v. 30), hungry and thirsty for righteousness (v. 6) and so on. We need the grace of God to save us from our many failures to obey the commands in that list above.

And, in Christ, we have that grace. He died to atone for every failure we’ve ever had in living up to God’s perfection.

But, having been saved by Christ’s death for us, we have a new power and a new resolve to do all the hard things on that list. We want to shift the blame to people who sin against us to justify our anger but Jesus commands us to deal with our anger in a Christ like way. The same is true for fixing broken relationships, settling with those who want to sue us, being sexually pure in our thoughts and actions, being committed to our marriages, being honest, and loving our enemies.

Nobody else can walk with God for you and you can’t make anyone else do the right thing. You are responsible before God to do what is right and, because of righteousness and power of Christ, you can do it if you trust him and obey what his word commands.

Is there anything on that list that you need to change your mind (repent) about? What is one action you need to do today based on what Christ taught and commanded in this chapter?

Matthew 3

Read Matthew 3.

I’m always surprised when I meet a Christian who has never been baptized. Years ago, the other elders in my church and I met a woman who had never been baptized because she had a fear of water. With a lot of patience and God’s grace, she did get baptized.

But her case was an unusual one. It is more common that a believer will struggle with a form of stage-fright that keeps them from getting baptized, especially if the church requires those getting baptized to share their testimony first or make some affirmation of faith. Stage-fright and fear of water are personal issues that are not connected to someone’s desire to follow Christ in obedience.

The kind of resistance to baptism that surprises me is when a Christian has no real reason not to be baptized, they just don’t want to do it. Since baptism is symbolic of salvation rather than required for salvation, some believers may think it is optional.

It isn’t optional. It is commanded by Christ.

Here in John 3, even Jesus got baptized! His baptism was John’s baptism which is not precisely the same as Christian baptism. John’s baptism was symbolic of a changed mind about sin, in other words, it symbolized repentance (vv. 6, 11). Jesus had no need to change his mind about sin because he never sinned; therefore, there was no need for him to be baptized with John’s baptism.

Yet, Jesus did get baptized. When John balked at his request to be baptized Jesus told him, “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15). In other words, Jesus told him, “It’s the right thing to do.”

If you haven’t been baptized after becoming a believer in Christ, you need to be baptized. Christ commanded it and the church needs to know that you belong with us by faith. Jesus DIDN’T need to be baptized, but he got baptized anyway.

If Jesus was willing to be baptized even though he didn’t need it, what’s stopping you from being baptized?

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 27-28 and Revelation 16

Read 2 Chronicles 27-28 and Revelation 16 today. This devotional is about 2 Chronicles 27-28

In times of trouble, many people turn to the Lord for help. This is how some people become Christians; it is also how many people believers grow in their faith and become stronger Christians.

In contrast to all of that was Ahaz king of Judah that we read about in 2 Chronicles 28. Although he was the son of Jotham a man who “walked steadfastly before the Lord his God” (27:6), Ahaz “did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (28:1). He practiced idolatry, of course, but also stooped to child sacrifice (v. 3: “sacrificed his children in the fire”).

In response to his disobedient life, God allowed the Arameans to defeat him (v. 5a) and the Northern Kingdom of Israel as well (vv. 5b-8). The Israelites were especially brutal to Judah (vv. 6-8) until God sent a prophet to keep Israel from going too far (vv. 9-15).

But, instead falling before the Lord in humble repentance after these defeats, Ahaz humbled himself before the Assyrians (v. 16) and sought their help defeating the attacking Edomites (vv. 17-21). When the Assyrians made things worse instead of better (v. 20), Ahaz still did not seek the Lord. Instead, “In his time of trouble King Ahaz became even more unfaithful to the Lord. He offered sacrifices to the gods of Damascus, who had defeated him; for he thought, ‘Since the gods of the kings of Aram have helped them, I will sacrifice to them so they will help me.’ But they were his downfall and the downfall of all Israel.”

This is how unbelievers typically respond when the wages of sin catch up with them. Some unbelievers, of course, find Christ in these painful, difficult circumstances but others harden their hearts and choose to sin even more in defiance against God. At times we as believers do the same thing. We sin, God allows consequences for our sin and, to alleviate those consequences, we sin more hoping things will get better.

But they don’t get better! More sin adds up to more pain and consequences in our lives. Let’s learn from Ahaz and turn to the Lord in our times of trouble, trusting him to rescue us when we humble ourselves before him. If you’re struggling with a sin or its consequences and are looking for a way out, turn to the Lord and find your way out through honest repentance and humble obedience to his word.

2 Chronicles 6:12-42, Revelation 5

Read 2 Chronicles 6:12-42 and Revelation 5 today. This devotional is about 2 Chronicles 6:12-42.

Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple here in 2 Chronicles 6 gave great glory to God.

He began by praising God for his uniqueness and his faithfulness to his promises (vv. 14-15), then reminded God of his covenant with David by asking the Lord to complete it (vv. 16-17).

Verses 18-39 described different situations in which Israel could find itself in the future. Solomon described each problem God’s people could face, then asked the Lord to “hear” (vv. 20-21), forgive (v. 21b), act in justice (v. 23), forgive and return them to the land, (vv. 24-25).

When God dealt with sin through famine, Solomon asked God forgive but also to “teach them the right way to live” (v. 27b). When God disciplined his people using famine or plague, Solomon asked God to deal with them according to their hearts “so that they will fear you and walk in obedience to you…” (vv. 30-31).

We talk properly of God’s grace and mercy in forgiveness. As a sinner, I join you in thanking God for those things. But do we realize that God’s commands are also expressions of his grace? They do not restrict our freedom; they “teach us the right way to live.”

May we learn to love God’s word not only for how it reveals God, calls us to faith, and comforts and encourages us; may God also cause us to love it so that I changes our lives, leading us to walk in obedience instead of our natural habits of disobedience. Obedience to God’s word not only pleases God; it protects us from the damage of sin and its painful consequences. Give us grace, Lord, to receive your commands as a precious gift and to walk in obedience to them for your glory and our good.

1 Kings 19, Amos 5, 1 Peter 5

Read 1 Kings 19, Amos 5, and 1 Peter 5 today. This devotional is about Amos 5.

Many religions are built around rituals. Rituals may involve memorizing words and saying them at certain times. They may involve lighting candles or attending gatherings or giving money. Religious rituals can center on what someone eats, what kind of clothing (or underwear) they wear. Most religions have certain expectations that followers of that religion must do or should do or are supposed to do.

Judaism was no different; in fact, Old Testament worship had many, many rituals. It regulated how often and when people gathered, how much they gave, what they wore, what they ate, and on and on. 

Rituals can be meaningful but they can also just become habits. Like most habits, we can perform rituals without thinking or caring very much. This is especially true if someone equates their relationship to God 100% with the performance of the ritual. If someone thinks that God is pleased because he or she performed a religious act or consistently performed a bunch of religious acts, that person needs to look more closely at scripture. 

And, if we do rituals in God’s name while also practicing sinful habits the rest of the time, we are deceiving ourselves.

Here in Amos 5:21-24, God condemned the observance of Jewish religious rituals in the harshest of terms. “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me” he said in verse 21. Forget the sacrifices, too (v. 22) and your worship music, no matter how emotive it is or how skillfully you play it (v. 23). 

Instead, God wanted those who loved him to do what is right: “…let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (v. 24). Christ has fulfilled the sacrifices so that we can be declared righteous and God can be just. But if we name the name of Christ and diligently do what Christians are supposed to do yet we break God’s commands routinely in our daily lives, we are deceiving ourselves about the state of our relationship with God.

How about it? Are you living a life that is right with God in your home, your workplace, and in our community? If someone from one of those contexts found out that you are a Christian, would they be surprised? God wants living sacrifices; our daily choices, ethics, values, how we treat people, and the words that we say reveal far more about our faith than does our church attendance, giving, and Bible reading. Those things–church attendance, etc.–are designed to help us live a more righteous life. They are important for growing and strengthening our faith, not for measuring our compliance with Christian expectations.

God judged his people for many things including religious performance without righteous living. Let’s learn from their painful example and truly walk with God.

1 Samuel 15, Ezekiel 26, Philemon

Read 1 Samuel 15, Ezekiel 26, and Philemon. This devotional is about 1 Samuel 15.

First Samuel 15 describes for us what might be the most famous incident in Saul’s life. God gave Saul direct, explicit commands in verse 3 to (1) attack the Amalakites and (2) kill every living thing.

Saul did attack the Amalakites and he won a great victory for Israel (vv. 4-7) but he saved Agag, the king, and “everything that was good” among the Amalakites’ livestock (vv. 8-9). God was quite unimpressed with Saul’s partial obedience and he let Samuel know (vv. 10-11).

In verses 12-23, Samuel and Saul argued about Saul’s actions. Saul asserted that he had been obedient to the Lord with a few exceptions made for spiritual reasons (vv. 12-15). Samuel responded by delivering the Lord’s word, announcing that Saul’s “exceptions” were acts of disobedience to God’s commands (vv. 16-19). In verses 20-21, Saul attempted to defend himself from the charge of disobedience. He emphasized the ways in which he had obeyed (v. 20) and shifted the blame for the livestock to “the soldiers” (v. 21a), describing their motive for disobedience as a desire to sacrifice to the Lord (v. 21b). Samuel responded by telling Saul that God wants obedience more than religious observance (v. 22). While the animal sacrifices commanded in God’s law were acts of worship and delightful to God’s heart when offered in faith, they were inferior to unreserved obedience to God’s commands.

Remember that the issue here is not offering a sacrifice for sin from a repentant heart; the sacrifices Saul was describing were thank offerings. Maybe it is true that Saul wanted to sacrifice to the Lord; maybe that was an excuse to justify their disobedience; the text does not tell us. But as someone who has made up some excuses for my own sins more than a few times in my life, I’m inclined to think that Saul is making up a good story to cover for his disobedience.

It really doesn’t matter, though, whether Saul’s motives were genuine or not.

The worship God wants is obedience; the way we show our faith in God and our love for him is to be careful to do what he commands (1 Sam. 15:22-23).

In verses 24-25, Saul appeared to repent, but he still had an excuse for his disobedience. Since God is loving and forgiving—even David’s sins, which were worse than Saul’s, were forgiven—we must conclude that God, who knows the heart, saw that Saul’s “repentance” was insincere. The consequence of Saul’s disobedience was a decree that his kingdom would be lost (vv. 27-28).

What a sad declaration about how a once-promising man’s kingdom would end. But I want to focus for a moment on Samuel’s words in verse 23a: “For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.”

How can “rebellion” be like “divination”?

Someone who practices divination is seeking supernatural guidance but they are doing so apart from the Lord. Similarly, a rebellious person against God’s commands is giving more weight to their own human perspective and wisdom than to God’s word.

We may not consider our own thoughts and plans to be the same as “supernatural guidance,” but our willingness to follow our instincts instead of God’s commands shows that we consider ourselves better guides for the future than the word of God.

The next phrase in verse 23 says, “… and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.” This phrase is easier to understand. An arrogant person believes himself to be more knowledgeable and capable and powerful than others. When we disobey God’s word, we are showing that we think we know better than God. We may not think of ourselves as arrogant in the moment of disobedience, but our actions suggest otherwise because we are worshipping ourselves, our own desires, and our own knowledge above the Creator.

Are there areas of disobedience in your life? Do you recognize the rebellion that causes you to follow your own guidance instead of God’s? Do you understand that in the moment of temptation, your heart is telling you that you know better than God does and that your own satisfaction is more important that honoring him as Lord?

1 Samuel 13, Ezekiel 24, Colossians 3

Read 1 Samuel 13, Ezekiel 24, and Colossians 3 today. This devotional is about 1 Samuel 13.

Although Samuel had retired as a judge, he continued his ministry as priest. In today’s passage Saul wanted Samuel to come to Gilgal and perform a priestly function, namely to offer sacrifices on behalf of Israel’s army as they went out to fight the Philistines (vv. 7b-8).

It is important, when reading this passage, to realize that Saul’s men—including his son Jonathan—were already engaged battle with the Philistines at Geba (v. 3). The battle was not going well (vv. 6-7b) and the Philistines had shown up in large numbers and with heavy equipment for the fight (v. 5). But instead of attacking and helping their Israelite brothers who were already battling, Saul was told by Samuel to wait for a full week (8a)! Yet even after the full week had passed, Samuel did not arrive.

Fearing an attack at any moment (v. 12a) and wanting the Lord’s favor on them (v. 12b), Saul decided to take matters into his own hands. He offered the sacrifices himself instead of waiting for Samuel any longer (v. 9).

Samuel arrived almost instantly after the offering was given (v. 10) and he confronted Saul about his disobedience (v. 11a). Saul explained his justification for acting as he did. The situation was dire, he had already waited a week, and the timeframe Samuel gave him had expired (vv. 11b-12).

But Samuel had no time for Saul’s explanation. Saul’s act was an act of disobedience. Twice Samuel told him, “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you” (v. 9, 13b, 14c). Saul’s act was motivated by fear, not faith. Like all disobedience, it was the result of unbelief. Whenever we knowingly do what is wrong, we believe in that moment that we will be better off doing what seems right to us than what God said.

Also, like Saul, we usually have good reasons for what we did. At least, we have reasons that seem good to us in the moment. If Samuel had only shown up on time for the appointment, none of this ever would have happened. If Samuel had decreed a more reasonable timeframe, one that did not leave God’s people so exposed to attack, Saul would not have disobeyed.

If you recall a major sin in your life, I’ll bet you remember thinking that your sin was justified in this one instance.

Adam and Eve had their excuses, too, and so has every one of us who has ever sinned against God.

Saul may have had his reasons, but God had his own response. Samuel told Saul that, as a result of his choice to sin, his kingdom would not endure (vv. 13-14). He reigned in Israel for forty-two years (v. 1)—a nice long tenure, to be sure. But his son Jonathan would never be anointed king after him, nor would any of Jonathan’s children or any of their generations after.

Remember this:

Our justifications for disobedience may help us dampen our guilty conscience or defend ourselves against the questions and allegations of others, but we are only fooling ourselves, not God.

God is gracious to forgive our sins when we turn to him in repentance, but rarely does God choose to stop the chain-reaction of consequences that our disobedience triggers.

When we feel the pull of temptation in our lives, passages like this one encourage us to trust God and obey instead of following our fear, our desire, our rationalizations. God was more than able to deliver Israel if Saul looked to him in faith and obeyed his commands. He is more than able to take care of you and me if we trust and obey his word, too.