At least once a year I try to read a book on parenting. It deepens my understanding of the task to which God has called me. It also reminds me of truths I may have started to take for granted. One such truth, for example, is that I cannot give what I do not have.
In Deut. 6:5-7 Moses instructed the Israelites: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
The basic idea is that parents should teach their children God’s Word, and that they should use every opportunity to do so. Sounds simple enough, but did you notice how Moses introduced the command to teach? Before he deals with a parent’s ministry, he deals with a parent’s heart. The first command of the passage is that we should “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (v. 4).
Jesus called this “the great and first commandment” (Matt. 22:38). Here we have the first key to an authentic and enthusiastic witness: a genuine love for the Lord. We all have things that we are passionate about. I had a high school teacher who was passionate about cricket. It was a passion that we exploited if we didn’t want to have class. “Sir, what do you think of the Proteas’ chances at the world cup?” We’d sit back and listen as he waxed lyrical about his favourite players. He was positively effervescent in his enthusiasm for the game.
It is the love of God which compels us to share his gospel with others (2 Cor. 5:14). Sadly, we often find that Christians share their faith reluctantly. You’d be forgiven for thinking that they were ashamed of the gospel, as though it wasn’t “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). If we don’t love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and might, we won’t be motivated to share his Word with others. You cannot give what you do not have.
How can I grow in my love for the Lord? That is where the second command of the passage comes in: “these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” (v. 6). Our love for the Lord is deepened by our knowledge of him. Our love is a response to his love revealed in the Word and in his Son (1 John 4:19). For example, in Psalm 1:2 we are told of the blessedness of those whose “delight is in the law of the LORD” and meditates on it day and night. Similarly, David wrote: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Ps. 119:11).
Have you ever joined a conversation only to realize that we have no idea what they are talking about? We stand there quietly, politely nodding our heads, but we’re just looking for an opportunity to leave. If we want to participate joyfully in Christian fellowship or share our faith effectively with family and friends, we must know what we are talking about. We cannot give what we do not have.
These are the fundamental requirements for an authentic, enthusiastic, and effective witness. We must love the Lord our God and his Word must be on our hearts. Only then are we equipped to share it with others.
Because of Christ,
As I parked my car outside a friend’s house, he walked up to me and remarked: “Do you know your front right wheel is flat?” I hadn’t noticed and awkwardly tried to turn the exchange into a joke. He stopped me and said: “That isn’t safe, man; not for you and not for your family.” I had it checked later that day.
We live in a materialistic world. This is not new. Proverbs 11:28 warns us: “Whoever trusts in his riches will fall”. These words were penned by one of the richest men in the Old Testament: Solomon. Yet even Solomon understood that wealth has its limits and that it is a flimsy foundation for confidence. As Jesus explained: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matt. 6:19-20).
Christians would do well to heed these warnings. Our confidence should not be in the abundance of our possessions. We must be careful that the things we own don’t own us. Jesus added: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21).
Psalm 24:1 says: “The earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein”. We don’t actually “own” anything; God has entrusted some of his abundance to us. How we manage this blessing will say a great deal about our priorities, desires, and spiritual maturity.
At this point you probably expect a lecture on generosity and benevolence. These are important Christian disciplines that defined the early church and should shape us as well. However (you knew this was coming), this is not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on how you take care of the things God has entrusted to you. They were given to take care of your family (or, if you are alone, yourself).
Look at Proverbs 27:23-27: “Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds, for riches do not last forever; and does a crown endure to all generations? When the grass is gone and the new growth appears and the vegetation of the mountains is gathered, the lambs will provide your clothing, and the goats the price of a field. There will be enough goats' milk for your food, for the food of your household and maintenance for your girls.”
This proverb teaches a lesson drawn from rural life. There are flocks and herds, grass and vegetation, fields and milk. These imagines may be strange those of us who grew up in the city, but they are the stuff of life out on the farm. Tending to your livestock is important because they will provide wool (v. 26), milk (v. 27), food (v. 27), and yes, money (v. 26). Tending to your field is also important because it produces food for the livestock (v. 25).
We understand the concept. This is the “circle of life” stuff our childhood cartoons sang about, but there is more to it than that. Look at how the passage ends: “food for your household and maintenance for your girls” (v. 27). If you are a breadwinner or homemaker there are people who depend on you. Your family (“your household”) depends on you. There may even be people that you employ: “your girls”. This is most likely a reference to servants, which the NIV makes explicit when it translates it “servant girls”.
In both cases there are people who rely on you for “wool… milk… food”. You may not have fields or flocks, but you have a car that gets you to work, a home that keeps your family warm and dry, and other tools that enable you to ply your trade. You, and the gifts that God has blessed you with, are the means by which God takes care of your family or employees. How you manage your fields and flocks impacts them. In other words, you must take care of the things that take care of your family. The wise stewardship of the means that God has provided for you, is a blessing to your family. If you squander what God has given, or if you aren’t attentive to it, your family and your employees will suffer.
Can God provide for your family without you? Absolutely. God takes care of those who have no one else to take care of them. Just look at Psalm 68:5: “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” Trust that the Lord will take care of them when you can’t. But this does not mean that we can be unwise stewards of what he has entrusted to us.
Heed God’s wisdom and learn to take care of the things that take care of your family.
Because of Christ,
Part 3: A few things to remember
Sharing our Christian testimony is one of the simplest ways to share the gospel. We are essentially telling the story of how Jesus Christ saved us. This is exciting stuff, because each conversion story is a THTHTHT to the grace of God and the power of the gospel. It is an account of how light triumphed over darkness, grace over sin, and Christ over Satan. If our testimony is boring, it is not because God didn’t do something amazing, but because we don’t realize what an amazing thing God has done.
How should I tell my story? We have three accounts of Paul’s conversion in the book of Acts. The first is found in Acts 9. Here Luke, the human author writing under the inspiration of the Spirit, narrates the events of Paul’s conversion as it happens. The second is found in Acts 22, where the apostle Paul shares his own testimony of conversion when the Jews level false accusations against him. The third is found in Acts 26. Again, the apostle Paul shares his testimony, only this time he shares it with a much smaller group and in a very different setting.
If you read all three accounts, you will find that there are subtle differences between them. For example, in Acts 22:8 Jesus identifies himself as “Jesus the Nazarene” (which does not happen in the first account). In Acts 9 we read about how the Lord prepared Ananias to minister to Paul, but Paul’s account in Acts 22 doesn’t mention it. In Acts 26 some details are left out, while more details of his call and his message are given. How do we make sense of these differences?
Some believe that these discrepancies prove that Paul made it all up and that his testimony was a fabrication. The opposite is true. In law, if a story remains totally unchanged when told at different times or to different people, it is more likely to be considered false. All of the details in Paul’s different testimonies are true, but weren’t included in each account. Why not?
Each of these testimonies emphasized different aspects of Paul’s conversion depending on his hearers. For example, when Paul was speaking to his fellow Jews, he emphasized his Jewishness and faithfulness to the Law. He also referred to God as “the God of our fathers”. He was trying to reach his fellow Jews with the message of the Messiah. He naturally changed his emphasis when he shared his testimony with Gentiles (see Acts 26).
This means that you, too, can shift the emphasis when you share your conversion story with different people. You don’t invent a new story, but you highlight different things. For example, the way that I share my testimony with teens or young adults differs slightly from how I would share it with someone older. I use different words (a different vocabulary), or I’ll highlight things that my listeners can relate to.
An effective testimony does not embellish or exaggerate. It recognizes that the salvation of a soul is a miracle of God’s grace. You don’t have to repeat the same rehearsed story every time; you can tailor the story to the situation while staying true to the facts. We want others to see how the gospel has changed our lives and how it can change theirs as well.
Because of Christ,
The apostle Paul has a pretty unique conversion story. It is first recorded in Acts 9, where the author gives us a spectator’s perspective of what happened. Later, in Acts 22, Paul shares his own testimony with the Jews as they were trying to arrest him. After his arrest, Paul had an opportunity to plead his case before King Agrippa (Acts 26). While the circumstances of each testimony is different, the essential elements of the story stay the same. We’ll look at Paul’s testimony before Agrippa as an example of how you can tell your conversion story.
What does a Christian testimony look like?
1. Introduce yourself (v. 4-8):
Paul’s introduction fits the occasion: he is standing before a ruler after being accused by his own countrymen. That is why he details his connection with the Jews, his strict adherence to their Law, and constantly shows deference or respect to the king.
In his introduction he sets the stage. He links his own story with the bigger story of Israel, one that the king would have been familiar with. He also introduces the theme around which he builds his story. It is in verse 8: “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” The resurrection becomes a central theme in how he shares his conversion story.
There are other gospel themes, like forgiveness, eternal life, or reconciliation around which you can tell your story. A theme helps you to decide what to include and what to leave out. It also gives your story focus. What grabbed your attention when you first heard the gospel? Was it the love of God revealed in Jesus? Was it the offer of forgiveness? Were you looking for life in all the wrong places, only to find eternal life in Christ?
2. Describe your life before Christ (v. 9-11):
In verse 9-11 Paul describes the consequences of his self-righteousness and how it motivated him to persecute the church. He describes his fallenness; he tells the king what his sin looked like. Note, however, that Paul does not glorify his sin. This is not the most exciting part of his story. He does not go into the gory detail, but he shares enough to help his listeners understand that he needed salvation.
When we talk about our lives before faith in Christ, we must be careful that we don’t glamourize sin. Don’t share details that may entice or tempt others to sin, rather than pointing them to Christ. This is a confession, not a boast, and should be done with the appropriate humility (see 1 Tim. 1:15).
3. Describe your conversion (v. 12-18):
Paul’s account of his first encounter with Christ differs slightly from the first account in Acts 9. For example, he includes the words: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (v. 14). It was a common proverbial statement that meant that we cannot ultimately prevail against God’s will. Agrippa would have known what Paul meant: the Lord is in control, not Paul and not the king. In this version of his testimony he shares a lot of detail on his commission (v. 16-18). This links his story with the king’s story; the king is one of the Gentiles to whom the Lord has sent Paul!
What is most important, however, is that Christ takes centre stage. We must understand that our testimony isn’t ultimately our story, but God’s. It is about how he saved us, how he intervened in our lives. This should be the most exciting part of your testimony. This is the part where someone who was dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) and lost in darkness (Col. 1:13), is brought to life and delivered into light by Jesus Christ.
How did you hear the gospel? Who shared it with you? What was your first response? When did you cry out to Jesus? What did you experience when you repented of your sin and trusted in the Saviour?
4. Describe your life after coming to Christ (v. 19-22):
Paul’s description of his life after coming to Christ is brief, but he wants to show that the gospel has made a difference. He wants to show how Christ has changed him: before he persecuted the church, but now he planted churches all over the Roman empire!
One of the elements we often neglect when we tell our conversion story, is how Christ has changed us. We are not who we used to be, and it will show (2 Cor. 5:17). Share how the gospel has made a difference in your live. What is different about you? How have your desires and plans changed? Where has God used you? What have you learned?
5. Conclusion (v. 23):
Paul concludes with an invitation: he restates the gospel clearly and simply: Christ suffered, died, and rose from the dead so that light can be proclaimed to both Jew and Gentile. He brings his story full circle by pointing Agrippa back to the resurrection.
His story demanded a response, and our should as well. Not everyone will respond positively to your testimony (they didn’t always respond positively to Paul’s), but that is not our job. We cannot change hearts, only Christ by his Holy Spirit can. Our job is to testify to the grace of our Lord in our lives. If you know enough to be saved, you know enough to share.
Because of Christ,
Part 1: What is a testimony and why should I share it?
What is a testimony? Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the dictionary definition. I would, however, like to give you a Christian definition. A Christian testimony is a story. It is a story in which you testify about God’s character. It is your eyewitness account of how God rescued you from sin and death through Christ, and changed your life as a result.
In Acts 4 the disciples were being persecuted for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. After their release, they prayed, and God filled them afresh with his Holy Spirit. What was the result? Acts 4:31 tells us: “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” Then, in verse 33, we read: “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” The disciples were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, or as the NASB translates it, they “were giving witness to the resurrection”.
In a similar way, when a Christian shares his or her testimony they are giving an account of what the Lord has done in their lives. Sometimes this means sharing the story of how the Lord answered prayer or delivered from a particular danger. In most cases, however, testifying means that we share how the Lord has changed our lives through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now that we know what a Christian testimony is, we must consider why we should share our testimony with others. The apostle Peter instructed believers to: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,” speaking here of those who persecuted them because of their faith, “but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:14-16).
If we love the Lord Jesus Christ and devote our lives to honoring him, it will elicit a response from those around us. Sometimes people respond with curiosity, not understanding why we are different or how we’ve changed. At other times they respond with animosity (enmity, opposition, or even persecution – which is what Peter highlighted in his letter). Even if people reject us, Christians are people with a profound hope. This hope changes how we endure suffering for the sake of Jesus. We should be ready to explain why we have such hope, even in suffering.
One of the best ways to do so, is to share your testimony. It is a way in which you can honor Jesus Christ, share the gospel, answer your opponents, and encourage other believers. Do you want to know the best part? Everyone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ has a testimony. True, your testimony may not be as exciting as the apostle Paul’s, which will look at next week, but you can share your unique story of how the Lord changed your life by grace through faith in the Saviour.
God can use your story to lead others into the glories of the gospel. If you know enough to be saved, you know enough to share the gospel with others.
Because of Christ,
Yesterday we saw that the apostle Paul admonished the Ephesian believers to “walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time” (Eph. 5:15-16). Time is precious. We have a wonderful illustration of this in antiquity. Kairos was the Greek god “of the fleeting moment”. There was a well-known bronze statue of Kairos by a Greek sculptor named Lysippos. It depicted Kairos with wings on his feet, a bushy lock of hair on his forehead and a bald spot on the back of his head. The epigram on this famous statue explained its meaning: “Who are you? Time and opportunity… why do you have a pair of wings on your feet? I fly with the wind… why does your hair hang over your face? For him who meets me to take me by the forelock… why is the back of your head bald? Because none whom I have once raced by on my winged feet will now… take hold of me from behind.” Some opportunities come by only once in a lifetime; we should, in the words of the apostle Paul, make “the best use of the time”.
This brings us back to Ephesians 5:15-20. How should we redeem the time that we have been given? We have already seen that wisdom will “understand what the will of the Lord is” (v. 17). This calls for time in God’s Word. We have also seen that wisdom will “not get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (v. 18-19). This calls for worship. The final component that Paul points out, is gratitude.
Verse 20 explains that a Spirit-filled life will not only worship, but also give “thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ”. Dr. Paul Hartwig highlights three essential elements of Christian gratitude found in this passage: it is perpetual, universal, and evangelical. Let us look at each of these in turn.
Verse 20 says that we should be “giving thanks always”. Gratitude should be our constant, consistent, and continuous response to the providence of God. Giving thanks to God should not be an event, but a lifestyle. 1 Thess. 5:18 puts it beautifully: “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Verse 20 continues by explaining that such perpetual gratitude is only possible if we understand that God should be thanked “for everything”. Some might object and say that God should be thanked in everything, but not for everything. The text, however, is clear: God should be thanked for everything. Nothing is excluded, good or bad, desirable or undesirable. How can we thank God for everything? Consider this: if God is in control, and if God is good, whatever God ordains will be for our blessing and his glory. Romans 8:28 says: “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This does not mean that I understand all of God’s purposes, nor does it mean that I immediately experience the blessing. Giving thanks for everything means that I trust my sovereign heavenly Father, even when I don’t understand his ways.
This is what makes our gratitude uniquely Christian: “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 20). The cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, the gospel, gives us the perspective and the basis for such gratitude. It is because we know that God used the tragedy of the cross to bring hope to sinful men, that we can be grateful for everything. God took Jesus to Calvary and he, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). Moreover, we bring our gratitude to God the Father in the “name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. We cannot do this on our own. Our thoughts need to be shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our prayers need to rest on the grace of Jesus Christ. Our gratitude needs to be empowered by the glory of Jesus Christ.
This is how Christians respond in adversity. The apostle Paul instructed the believers in Ephesus to do this while he was imprisoned in Rome. He wasn’t a fair-weather Christian, but a believer who knew how to walk in wisdom, making the best use of the time, worshiping and thanking God in the power of the Spirit and in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
What will you do with this opportunity?
Because of Christ,
When the president announced a 21 day national lockdown starting on the 26th of March 2020, many people panicked. Stores were swarmed with anxious buyers and travellers hurried to get home as the country prepared to effectively shut down. Immediately people began counting the days, myself included. The initial lockdown would have ended on Friday, the 17th of April 2020, but on the eve of Good Friday the president announced that the lockdown would be extended to the end of April.
How should Christians respond? I’d like to take you to Ephesians 5:15-20. For the next two days we’ll look at this passage together. It won’t answer all our questions, but it will help us make wise decisions and to respond in a God-honouring way.
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
The apostle Paul began Ephesians 5 with a simple, but profound call: “be imitators of God” (v. 1). How could we possibly imitate God? In most respects we can’t, but Paul does mention three things in this chapter that we can imitate. The first is love – God’s love being made visible in the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 1-7). The second is holiness – God’s holiness being made visible in a life of light (v. 8-14). The third is wisdom. Verse 15 says: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise”.
Wisdom, God’s wisdom, is not something that comes naturally to man, because we are born separated from God and our hearts are naturally inclined against him (Eph. 2:3). We are born fools. In chapter 4:17-18 Paul describes the unconverted as walking in “the futility of their minds” and says that they are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God”. Outside of God’s redeeming grace in Jesus Christ humanity is foolish.
So where do we get the wisdom we so desperately need? Wisdom is found in the Lord, who is himself the Author of wisdom. To gain such wisdom, and to grow in it, we must fear the Lord (Proverbs 9:10), study his Word (Psalm 119:99) and pray (James 1:5). And we now have the time to do it.
Note what Paul says in verse 16: “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Wisdom understands that time is precious and that we only have a finite amount of it. In Psalm 90:12 Moses prays: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Let’s do that. We have 168 hours in our seven-day week. Roughly a third of those 168 hours should be devoted to rest and sleep – around 8 hours a day. That leaves us with 112 hours. With many of us either working from home or not working at all, balancing those 112 hours becomes very difficult. By now many of us may have run out of projects that needed to be done around the house. You can only Spring clean your house so many times. What should we do with the remaining hours?
If we are to be imitators of God (v. 1) and if we should “walk… as wise” (v. 15), our priorities will be shaped by the Lord and his Word. Verse 17 says: “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” To know what the will of the Lord is, we need to spend time in the Word. One of the complaints I hear often is that people don’t have the time to really study God’s Word. They squeeze it in here and there, but they don’t have time to really read and meditate through God’s Word. But we do now.
Another priority that you’ll pick up is worship. Verse 18-19 contrasts the drunken revelry of the world with the Spirit-filled worship of the church: “addressing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”. When we spend time in God’s Word, where God speaks to us, it moves us to respond. When the Word convicts us of sin, we respond with prayerful contrition and repentance. When the Word reveals the glories of God, we respond with praise and adoration. The Psalms are a wonderful refuge in this time, as are those songs and hymns that have stood the test of time. Let them be the “background music” of your lockdown.
Tomorrow we’ll look at the last part of this passage. For now, remember to “walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time”.
Because of Christ,
On the 19th of February 1948 Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand was arrested on his way to church. His only crime was shepherding his flock and witnessing to others about his faith. He would spend 14 years in jail. His sole comfort, when all contact with family and friends was cut off, was the Word. Night after night he would console himself with verses stored away in his memory – something his communist captors could not take from him.
Stories like these illustrate the importance of memorizing Scripture. Here are five reasons every believer should memorize Scripture:
You may not live under the threat of persecution, but that does not diminish your need for God’s Word. Dallas Willard wrote: “As a pastor, teacher, and counsellor I have repeatedly seen the transformation of inner and outer life that comes simply from memorization and meditation upon Scripture.” So, which passage will you memorize first?
Because of Christ,
Hear me out. What makes you get up early on a Sunday morning, get dressed, and drive to church? You may enjoy the music, the atmosphere or the coffee. Maybe you come for the youth program. Your friends may be at this church. You might even enjoy the preaching. These aren’t bad motivations, but on their own they aren’t enough.
What happens when you don’t have friends at church, the youth program isn’t running, and the coffee is bad? Do you stay in bed? There should be more to our church commitment than preferences and personalities. What should bring us to church?
Love for Christ: Jesus said that if we love him, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). His Word commands us not to neglect meeting together (Heb. 10:25). His Word also reminds us that if we love him, we will love his people (see 1 John 4:20). You can’t love Christ by avoiding his people.
Love for his Word: When the church gathers it does so in obedience to the Word and to be instructed in the Word. The early church devoted themselves to “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Paul sought to instruct the church in the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). He also commanded Timothy to “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). If you believe that the Bible is the sword that the Spirit uses to cut away sin and cultivate godliness (Heb. 4:12), you will want to be where it is preached.
Love for the glory of God: There is a reason why we call our it a worship service. The focus of our gathering is the glory of God. We praise God for his character and works (Ps. 103:1-5). We pray for God’s Name to be “hallowed”, his kingdom to come and his will to be done (Matt. 6:9-10). We preach so that his church can grow in their understanding of his glories (1 Cor. 1:23). We proclaim that the world may see his glory (2 Cor. 4:5-6). Sundays help us refocus on what really matters: God’s glory.
Love for the body: Because of Christ’s love for us, we love his people (Eph. 4:32). This love is more than mere sentiment; it reveals itself in service. It is not enough to live in passive tolerance of God’s people; Christ calls us to serve them. Gal. 5:23 commands: “through love serve one another.” You’ve received gifts to “serve one another” (1 Pet. 4:10). The members should all “have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25). Care given and care received – it starts on Sunday.
These are just a few biblical motivations; there are others. The question you must answer, is: what brings you to church?
Because of Christ,
How would you like 2020 to be remembered? “Begin with the end in mind,” as Stephen Covey so famously put it. We often make the mistake of rushing off in a direction without really knowing where we are going. Or we leave our goals so vague and our dreams so nebulous that it is hard to judge whether we’ve even achieved them. As believers we often neglect to set goals for ourselves, and those that we do set often fall short of any biblical standard.
What should we aim for in 2020? The apostle Paul encourages us to aim high, really high: “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Col. 3:1-2). Being heavenly minded means that we have set our minds and our affections on the Lord Jesus Christ and his kingdom. It changes how we view the world and our place in it.
This has a negative and a positive component. Negatively it means that we must “put to death” sinful acts, thoughts and attitudes: “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry”, to name a few (v. 5, 8). Positively it means that we “put on” godly acts, thoughts and attitudes: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (v. 12). The fountain from which such change flows, is setting our minds on Christ and his kingdom.
I suspect that we’ve been aiming to low. So instead of hoping that 2020 would be the year that you finish your first 5K race, stick to a diet or learn to waltz, aim higher. Aim for Christ-like character. May 2020 be remembered as the year you got to know Jesus better, more intimately, and in doing so, became more like him. Alan Redpath once wrote: “The conversion of a soul is the miracle of a moment; the manufacture of a saint is the task of a lifetime.” No time to start like the present.
Because of Christ,
After the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC the longsuffering prophet Jeremiah chose to stay in Judea. There he dwelled in safety under the watchful eye of Gedaliah, the governor that Nebuchadnezzar had appointed to rule over the region. Finally, God’s beleaguered prophet had some rest… at least for a while.
A rebel group infiltrated Judea and murdered Gedaliah. How would Babylon respond to the assassination of their governor? The remaining leaders of Judea struck back at the rebels and chased them out of the territory. Would this appease the wrath of Babylon? Probably not, so the people come to Jeremiah for guidance: “pray to the Lord your God for us… that the Lord your God should show us the way that we should go and the thing that we should do.” (Jer. 42:2-3).
Here was an earnest and urgent request; God’s people asking after God’s will. Everything about their situation called for haste. Their enemies could return at any moment. How would God answer?
God didn’t answer… not for ten days: “At the end of ten days the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.” (Jer. 42:7). God made them wait. What an agonizing ten days it must have been! The passage doesn’t tell us why God made them wait. It might be that God was testing them, sanctifying them or preparing them for the answer. Whatever God’s reason, He was clearly not as panicked as they were. He would answer – in his time, not theirs.
David wrestled with God’s apparent silence: “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Ps. 27:14). Waiting is hard, especially in our instant-everything culture. Sometimes God makes us wait for an answer or an outcome, and we don’t always know why. But this we do know: that God is in control and that he is good.
How then should we wait? Wait trusting God’s unfailing love (Rom. 8:28). As one commentator explains: “God tests our faith by delaying the answer to our prayer. The time is not lost. It is profitably spent in the trial and culture of our own souls."
Because of Christ,
Our love is often little more than a sentiment. When the Beatles sang “All you need is love” in 1967 they captured our fascination with and our ignorance of love perfectly. The song does not reflect on the meaning of love, nor does it explain what love does. It highlights the priority of love, but it cannot explain why love should enjoy such prominence. If we want to understand true love we have to turn somewhere else and there is no better place than 1 Corinthians 13.
Love, as we find it in 1 Corinthians 13, gives meaning to our service and sacrifice (v. 1-3). It is not simply a feeling, but fuels action. Love gives birth to virtue (v. 4-7). Without love the patience, kindness, humility and compassion that believers are called to would be impossible. Clearly, love is vital to the Christian life.
As we reach the end of the passage Paul highlights another aspect of love: the permanence of love. In verse 8-12 Paul mentions many things that will “pass away” or “cease”. Surprisingly, he says that knowledge and the gifts of tongues and prophesy (which the Corinthian church coveted) have a short shelf-life. There will be a time when they will no longer be necessary. This does not mean that they are bad, but simply that they serve a purpose and that once that purpose has been served (which Paul compares to growing up or seeing with greater clarity, v. 11-12) they are no longer necessary. Right now, they are important, but some day (when we see “face to face”) they won’t be. Love, then, should govern even these gifts.
Paul closes the chapter with a reminder of what will “abide”: faith, hope and love (v. 13). Yet even here he elevates love to prominence. Why? According to Heb. 11:1 faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. Also, we are saved in hope, but “hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24). One day, when we meet our Lord in glory, we will see “face to face”. Our faith will be realized, our hope will be fulfilled, but love...? Love will be perfect, but it will not be replaced.
God is love (1 John 4:8). The closer we are to our Lord, the more his love will be revealed through us. How are you growing in love?
Because of Christ,
In his ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul makes it clear that our sacrifice and service mean nothing without love. This is not simply a feeling, but fuels action: it is a choice, a commitment that governs and guides everything we do. It seeks the good of others. That is how God loves us: for our eternal good and his glory. But what does Christian love look like? Verse 4-7 tells us.
First, “Love is patient and kind”. Patience is the opposite of being short tempered and is often used to describe God’s attitude towards us (for example 2 Pet. 3:9). Then add kindness, which tells you what that patience looks like while it puts up with other people.
Second, “love does not envy or boast”. These are two sides of the same coin. Pride is antithetical to love. Pride envies; it wants the good of others for itself. But love is not displeased with the success of others. Pride boasts; it flaunts its good in the face of others. But love rejoices in others, not in self.
Third, “it is not arrogant or rude.” Again pride is portrayed as the opposite of love. The Corinthians were prone to pride and it manifested in an arrogant, dismissive, party spirit (that is how the term is used in chapter 4). If you think so highly of yourself and so little of others, it is no wonder that you become “rude” (act disgracefully). True Love would rather be disgraced than disgrace another.
Fourth, “It does not insist on its own way”. This is in keeping with the previous statement. “My way or the high way” is not love. Loving others means we value their opinions and input.
Fifth, “it is not irritable or resentful”. Do we have a short fuse? That is the opposite of love. This often goes with a “resentful” spirit. It means that you keep a record of wrongs committed against you. Love, however, is eager to forgive (see Ephesians 4:32).
Sixth, “it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” Love rejoices in what is true. Wrongdoing here not only points to the evil done to us, but to others. We do not delight in another’s pain. Love is not indifferent, but committed to truth.
To sum it up: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (v. 7). Do we practice love?
Because of Christ,
What is true Christian love? In his ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul used a unique word to describe love: agape. This was the most appropriate word to describe how God relates to his children, because this is not a romantic or temporary love. As Leon Morris explained, it is “a love for the utterly unworthy, a love that proceeds from a God who is love.” This, because of our union with God in Christ, is how believers should love one another.
To drive this point home Paul uses hyperbole in the opening three verses. A quick glance at 1 Cor. 13:1-3 reveals a life of supreme gifting and sacrifice… that amounts to nothing. Why?
Take the first example. In verse 1 he mentions the gift of tongues. This gift is discussed in great detail in the following chapter, because it was clearly a gift that the Corinthians valued. Paul takes that appreciation for the gift of tongues and turns it on its head: even if he had the most exalted form of tongues (the tongues of angels), without love it would simply be noise. What would the point of such a gift be without love?
His second example, prophesy, follows the same pattern. This, too, is discussed in chapter 14 and again it is clear that this gift was valued by the apostle Paul and the Corinthians. But even if they had such “prophetic powers” to understand all God’s mysteries and comprehend all knowledge, it would be meaningless without love. It would probably boost our egos and build our reputations, but it would not bless God’s church.
Paul also mentions faith that can move mountains (v. 2) and selfless sacrifice (v. 3). Somehow these get lost in the excitement surrounding the aforementioned gifts, but they are just as good and commendable. Yet, if they aren’t infused with and motivated by love, it profits nothing.
What is Paul saying? Whatever else we may believe about ourselves and our efforts, if they are not motivated and permeated by love, they mean nothing. And by nothing, we mean nothing. They will serve no spiritual good, will not benefit anyone, will not glorify God, and will not edify the body of Christ. Love has to be the priority.
Because of Christ,
First Corinthians 13 is one of the most striking passages in the New Testament. Adolf Harnack called it “the greatest, strongest, deepest thing Paul ever wrote”. If you’ve taken any time to study the chapter, you’d probably agree.
The main theme of the passage is love, but not the love between a husband and wife, or between a parent and child. The main focus of the passage is on the commitment to love within the local church. The context makes this clear. In the preceding chapter Paul addresses the varied gifts within the body of Christ, the church: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:4). These gifts, if they function well, serve to build the body. However, when these gifts are used for self, rather than service, they harm the body. That is what happened in Corinth.
While some looked down on the gifts and service of others, they exalted their own. This focus on self, rather than service, weakened the body and prevented the church from doing what God had called it to do. How do we ensure that the variety within the body builds rather than breaks? There is a “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31), and that way is love.
What is love? We know the Greek word that Paul used very well: agape. The word is used a total of 116 times in the New Testament. This was the most appropriate word to describe how God relates to his children, and how God’s children should relate to each other. This love is not romantic or temporary. It is seen most clearly in the cross of Christ, which God set forth as the supreme manifestation of his love for his children. It is, in the words of Leon Morris, “a love for the utterly unworthy, a love that proceeds from a God who is love. It is a love lavished on others without a thought whether they are worthy or not.”
That is agape love. In experiencing this love we are transformed. That transformation becomes clear in how we begin to love what God loves: his children. This is the challenge: have you experienced God’s love revealed on the cross of Christ? If so, do you love what He loves?
Because of Christ,
Life is hard. That may not sound very encouraging, but it is true. It is universally true. Jesus and his disciples weren’t spared the difficulties of life. Christ’s perfection did not shield him from trials. The disciples’ proximity to Jesus didn’t protect them from persecution. Did they despair? No, quite the opposite: they rejoiced!
How? We know that Jesus, for the joy set before him, endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). The disciples had a similar perspective. In 1 Peter 1:6 the apostle Peter writes of believers who “rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials”. Where does this joy come from?
Part of it is found in their identity. In verse 1 Peter calls them “elect exiles”. God’s Old Testament people, Israel, were also called exiles or sojourners. This shaped their identity: they weren’t like the other nations around them; they weren’t at home among them; they were heading for a better home. Similarly, the church is God’s chosen people and that means that we shouldn’t be at home here. We are waiting for another home.
Joy is also found in their inheritance. Verse 3-5 details the promise of the gospel. They have been “born again to a living hope” and to “an inheritance”. Regeneration, also called being born again, makes us new. It changes us from the inside out: a new heart, renewed mind and the indwelling Holy Spirit are all part of this wonderful act of grace. With this new nature we are then also given an inheritance. Peter describes it as “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (v. 4). Amazingly, not only does God guard the inheritance, but he guards his children as well: “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith” (v. 5).
So when we read about their joy in verse 6 we understand that it was rooted in the gospel, not in their circumstances. We understand that believers can rejoice because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Yes, life is hard, but God’s children confess: “Though we have not seen him, we love him. Though we do not now see him, we believe in him and rejoice with you that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (adapted from 1 Peter 1:8).
Because of Christ,
There are things that are simply too great for me. They are too great for me to comprehend or control. The plans and purposes of God are mysterious – I simply cannot wrap my head around them. Things happen in the providence of God – I cannot change them. I may wish to understand or strive to control, but ultimately I have to confess that I am just too small. Thankfully, I am not alone.
David had a similar struggle. There were many things that David did not understand and could not control. So what did David do? He relaxed, or more accurately: he rested in the Lord. Note what he says in Psalm 131: “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forevermore.”
The Psalm starts with David humbling himself before the Lord. Lifting up your heart or raising your eyes signified pride (v. 1). Instead of overestimating his own abilities, David did “not occupy myself with things to great and too marvelous for me.” This does not mean that David did not wrestle with the Lord or that he was indifferent. David thought great thoughts about God and he did great things for God. But David knew his limits. He understood that some things were just beyond him: beyond his understanding and abilities.
In those moments David did not become restless, anxious or frustrated. He “calmed and quieted” his soul (v. 2). How do we do that? He tells us in the final verse: “hope in the LORD” (v. 3). In those moments he rested in God, “like a weaned child with its mother” (v. 2). You don’t understand it all, but God does. You can’t do it all, but God can.
What will you do when you are faced with “things too great for me”? Take David’s advice: “hope in the Lord”.
Because of Christ,
Congratulations. If you started the Read Scripture plan on the first of January, you’ve already read through Genesis and you are almost midway through Exodus. You’ve also read about a fifth of the Psalms. This might not seem like much, but you are well on your way to reading the Bible through from beginning to end.
But what if you’ve lost some ground? What if you’ve struggled to keep up with the reading plan? You are not alone. I started the reading plan on the first of January, but this last week I’ve struggled to finish the assigned reading for each day. I made a point of reading each day, but I struggled to finish every chapter for each day. After two days I was behind. So what do you do?
Give up or catch up?
You could abandon the plan altogether. To give up or catch up, that is the question. I’d like to encourage you to catch up. There are a few ways you could do that. The first would be to set aside some time on Sunday to complete the chapters you’ve missed. This is one of the best uses for a Sunday afternoon. A cup of coffee, a comfortable chair and the Word of God... turn it into an event, instead of a chore.
Catching up does not necessarily mean that you have to read it all a single day. Another way to catch up is to increase the amount of chapters you read for a few days. Read two Psalms instead of one. Another way to do this would be to read in the morning and in the evening: take the first day’s reading in the morning and the second reading at night. Before you know it, you are back on track.
A third suggestion would be to use your “idle” moments. Standing in line at the bank, waiting for the car to be washed or for your doctor’s appointment... use these moments to read God’s Word instead of grabbing the nearest magazine or newspaper. Obviously this is not ideal: you don’t have a quiet, uninterrupted time in God’s Word. This cannot replace our dedicated time with God. But when we’ve fallen behind and we don’t want to lose touch with our reading plan entirely, these moments can be used to claw our way back.
When my plan becomes a tyrant
Doesn’t this make me a slave to a reading plan? Your reading plan can feel like a tyrant sometimes. There are days when discipline feels like duty or drudgery. However, discipline turns duty into delight – just give it time.
In 1 Cor. 9:27 the apostle Paul said: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control” (ESV). The term Paul used usually meant “to strike under the eye”. This is not gentle language. The NIV translates it as “I beat my body” and the NASB as “I buffet my body”. Paul wasn’t advocating violence against our bodies (that would contradict the rest of Scripture), but he was serious about keeping his body under control. Discipline is not always enjoyable, but it is necessary. Paul concludes the verse with these words: “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Discipline can feel tyrannical, but its purpose is not to torment. Like a dedicated trainer, discipline wants you to achieve your goals. What is the goal of our reading plan? We want to get to know God better.
From duty to delight
In 1960 Maxwell Maltz published a book in which he explained that habits take about 21 days to form.Every self-help book written since have focussed on this supposed magical number: 21 days. To be fair, Maltz did say that it took at least 21 days to form a new habit. There is no magical number. The reality is a little more complex than that.
Subsequent studies have found that forming new habits differs from person to person, and sometimes from habit to habit. On average a person takes about 66 days or two months to form a new habit. In a study by Phillippa Lally of the University College London it was discovered that some people can form new habits in as little as 18 days, but most took much longer. Some took up to 254 days to form the new habit.
What does this mean for our new habit of reading through the Bible? It means that Genesis and Exodus will be hard, Numbers and Leviticus may be a little harder, but somewhere between Deuteronomy and 1 Kings you’re discipline will start to pay off. Your new habit will have taken root. That new habit will not just benefit you for the rest of this year, but for the rest of your life as you seek to walk with God. 1 Timothy 4:7-8: “Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
Because of Christ,
A new year has dawned and with it an opportunity for growth. Most of us commit to making some kind of change to our lifestyles and priorities. These often take the form New Year’s resolutions. However, most of these lofty ideals are quickly forgotten. But what would happen if we kept our resolutions? And what might happen if those resolutions focused on God instead of self?
In 1722 a young Jonathan Edwards needed direction. He was 18 at the time and was a long way from becoming the pastor and theologian we read about today. He decided to set down his goals in a series of ‘resolutions’. This is how he prefaced his resolutions: “Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.” This reliance upon God and denial of self became the foundation for his resolutions and for his life.
What were his resolutions? Here is his first: “Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory and to my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how ever so many and how ever so great.”
The apostle Paul had similar resolutions. In Romans 15:20 he wrote: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel”. Or in 2 Corinthians 5:9: “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” Making and keeping these kinds of resolutions are what make men and women of God.
What will your resolutions for 2019 be?
Because of Christ,
A lot has been written about the effects of technology and social media on society. Our phones and apps have a tendency to distract us, to take us out of the moment so that we live our lives through a lens instead of being present. But this is not the only temptation that our modern obsession with social relevance brings. There is another danger. It is an ancient vice that has become a modern virtue: narcissism.
Legend has it that Narcissus was so beautiful that he fell in love with his own reflection. His self-obsession eventually cost him his life. That is what narcissism is: it is the worship of self. What does this have to do with social media? So much of our social media obsession is rooted in our desire to look good and to be admired. That is why we only post pictures of our “best sides”. We publish our achievements and ignore our failures. And when we don’t get the adoration we think we deserve, we become depressed. “Why didn’t anyone ‘like’ my photo? Why didn’t they comment?” The same applies when we pity ourselves on social media. It is another way of seeking attention – it is an expression, not of humility, but of wounded pride.
So what is the answer? Some suggest abandoning social media. It might help, but it won’t deal with the core issue. Self worship doesn’t need an internet connection. No, we need to abandon self. Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). This is the only way to eliminate self worship: true worship. Social media is a symptom, not the problem: our idolatrous hearts are the real issue. The only way to push self out is by inviting Jesus in. You’ll only do that if you believe that Jesus is worth it – that Jesus is better than self.
What do we want most: to look good or to look like Jesus? To be admired or to admire Jesus? Let’s look away from our reflections and “[look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
Because of Christ,