Discerning Good from Evil

Romans 16:17-19 – I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.

Take Heed Lest You Fall

These are some of Paul’s last words to the Church at Rome. With these words he revealed his Christian love and pastor’s heart for this congregation. After a significant, deep, and vital treatise on Christian doctrine and living, Paul stressed one last time how crucial it was for these Christians to take heed to what he shared with them.

Paul knew there were those wolves in sheep’s clothing (Acts 20) who would creep in among God’s people (from within and without) and cause divisions – some purposefully and others because they themselves had been deceived. Regardless, these wolves would place obstacles before God’s people. They would seek to undo and disrupt sound teaching, the very doctrine Paul took pains to communicate throughout his Letter to the Romans.

Deception, Then Derailment

Paul said to keep away from such trouble-makers. Don’t hang around them. No good can come from getting too close to them. Such people do not represent our Lord, regardless of how smooth their words are. They serve the idol of their own agenda, their own desires and cravings, not Christ’s. The first result of listening to them is deception. Once deception sets in, wandering from the faith is never far behind.

Paul loved the Church at Rome. Because he cared for them he therefore encouraged them and built them up by complimenting their obedience. But he warned them to be wise with regard to what is good and innocent concerning evil. Sticking your head in the sand won’t do here. The discernment Paul spoke of required learning and growing in the sound doctrine he had been teaching them throughout his letter. Their lives and souls were at stake, as well as future generations of Roman Christians. The same is true for you, your children, church, and friends if you wander from the sound, life-giving, life-transforming doctrine of God’s Word.

Walking Points

  • I encourage you to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. Pray for the Spirit’s discernment regarding good and evil. Flee from evil and those who bring it, regardless of whether or not the world calls you judgmental. Cling to what is good and thank God for it.
  • Read through Paul’s Letter to the Romans with some friends and discuss what each chapter teaches you about truth and falsehood, good and evil.
  • How are your observations relevant to today’s world, and your life in particular? Write down those principles and your observations.

Prayer

All-wise Father, your Word presents to us, from beginning to end, commands and encouragement to take the right path and warnings against taking the wrong one. We are to believe in you and no other. We are to follow you and your Word and nothing else. We are to take the hard and narrow road and not the wide and easy one. Every page of Scripture beckons us to trust you and follow the map you have set before us. Please forgive me for those times when I, as did Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, stray from the path, even a little. Thank you for your abundant grace which shows me my error and your Spirit who enables me to get back on the right path and continue my journey with you. Please help me to serve as a guide for others who are traveling through this world, seemingly unaware of the map and other road signs you have provided. Furthermore, help me lead and protect from false teachers and prophets, those you have entrusted to my care. For it is in the name of the Good Shepherd I pray. Amen.

The Hope of Real Repentance

2 Chronicles 7:14 – …if my people who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

Good News, Bad News

The Lord was pleased with the Temple Solomon had completed. God said he would take up residence there to receive worship and sacrifices. Then something a little strange happened, at least from our perspective. In a vision, God spoke sobering words to Solomon by telling him that, should God decide to shut up the heavens to prevent rain from falling, or command locusts to devour the land, or even send a plague on “his own” people (v. 13), he would still show mercy to genuinely repentant hearts.

The past sins of God’s covenant people against the Holy One was no trifle to be winked at. God taking up residence in the Temple was also no excuse for disobedience and idolatry. These were great offenses. But our gracious Lord offered hope in verse 14. God declared that when these calamities (consequences for sin) befall his covenant people, there would be something they could do.

Four Steps of Repentance

First, his people were to humble themselves. There was no room for pride and self-dependence here. Instead, God’s people were to fall on their faces before God as an act of spiritual poverty and brokenness. They had neither strength nor wisdom in and of themselves. God was then, and remains now, the Source for all that and more.

They were also commanded to pray. Prayers of adoration to God, confession of sin, expressions of their helplessness, and complete dependence upon their sovereign God would be good places to start.

Next, they were to seek the face of God. Imagine that great Day when we will behold the face of God. It is that face which we are to pursue in this life. We too need to cultivate the character of God in our lives, trust him alone, follow his commands, seek his presence, and enter into intimate communion with him. 

God also said his people must turn from their wicked ways. The rest of the chapter gives us a glimpse of what those wicked ways looked like: God’s people had been turning away from and forsaking God and his decrees, as well as serving other gods and worshipping them. This is wickedness in the sight of God and is why God said he might bring disaster on his own people (v. 22). God’s people were to abandon such spiritual adultery at once. That’s repentance.

Forgiveness and Healing Await

If God’s people humbled themselves, prayed, sought God’s face, and turned from their wicked ways, God promised to hear them, forgive their sin, and heal their land.

Ours is a land in desperate need of healing. Whether it’s our country, culture, local church, or family, there is much need for the healing power of God. But it will not come merely because we recognize the need. That’s a good first step, but more is required – genuine change – change that results in humbling oneself before God and clinging to him alone. Saturating ourselves in prayer, grieving over our transgressions and seeking his forgiveness and restoration is essential. Following hard after God – his will, commands, presence, and pleasure – should be our life’s pursuit. And biblical repentance is necessary – turning from our wicked ways and leaving them behind and turning in a Godward direction. Our prayers should include pleading with God to enable us to do just that.

Holy and Gracious

We want to experience God’s forgiveness and see our land healed. But change will have to first take place. Until then, we should expect the discipline of a loving Father – one who loves us too much to let us continue down a destructive path, and who, therefore, will do much to bring us back to the right one. Because he is holy, he will never overlook our transgressions.

Because he is gracious, God will continue to call us away from the gods of this age. He summons us back to obedience and submission to his Lordship. And with that comes his promise to forgive us and heal our land. Thanks be to God – the great Promise-Maker and Promise-Keeper.

Walking Points

·         What comes to people’s minds when they hear the word, “repentance?” What working definition do you think they use? Why?
·         Which of the four steps of repentance is hardest for you? Why do you think that is?
·         What are 2-3 ways you could make repentance a more natural part of your life?
·         What are the positive results that would happen if you more faithfully practiced biblical repentance?
·         Do you spend much time crying out to God in intercessory prayer on behalf of your family, community, church, culture, country, and world in which you live? If not, why not?
·         We cannot make other people genuinely repent, but how can our intercessory prayer still be a blessing to our land, as we beg God to heal it?
·         If you meet with other Christians, include such intercessory prayer this week. If you don’t belong to a small group, give two or three friends a call and get started. You won’t believe the difference it will make in your life. And based on our Scripture, who knows how God will answer your prayers for our world?

Prayer

Forgiving and healing God, you are holy and full of grace and you alone deserve to be worshipped. I give you praise that my sin, while detestable to you, does not prevent your continued offer of forgiveness and restoration. I ask you to never cease providing me with godly humility, so I can turn to you in complete recognition of my own sin and as well as my need for mercy and grace. Help me never believe I’m sufficient in and of myself. But more than mere recognition of my sin, I pray you will also enable me to turn away from sin and toward you in a life of joyful obedience. Give me also, O Lord, a heart that breaks for the land in which I live. Burden me with a desire to intercede for this pitiful and fallen world, knowing you long to hear such prayer and bring healing. My own rebellion and idolatry are surely representative of the wider culture in which I live. And so, dear God, I pray you will help us all see the destructive path we’re on and draw us into deeper and more intimate communion with you. In Christ’s holy and gracious name, I pray. Amen.

The Shape of Love

We are able to love God and others because, the Bible tells us, God first loved us (1 John 4:7, 10-12, 16). Think of our love for others as an overflow of God’s love for us. When we receive the love of God, we can’t help but love God and others.

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he had over 600 commandments to choose from. The Israelites had a lot of commands they were commanded to obey in the Old Testament. Would Jesus say, “Do not murder” is the most important? Would he answer, “Have no other gods before God” was the primary commandment? No, instead, he summed up the Ten Commandments by saying, the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Then, he said, and the second most important commandment is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. 

By commanding us to love God and our neighbors, Jesus summed up the main points of the Ten commandments. The Ten Commandments show us what this love looks like. The first four commandments emphasize our love for God, while the last six focus on neighbor-love.

But even there, we think we’re obeying these commands by NOT doing something we’re commanded not to do. But the commandments mean so much more. For example, not only are we NOT to murder another person, but we are to have their best interest at heart and try to help them when we can. There’s a positive side of every command, just as there is a negative side.

The Good Samaritan not only committed no harm to the injured Jewish man (The Jews and Samaritans hated each other, as groups of people). But the Samaritan did more than “not hurt” the Jewish man, he helped him. He put the Jewish man’s needs before his own. He went out of his way to help him and then made sure that if more was required, that too would be taken care of. Jesus is telling us that that is what our love for others should look like. 

That’s the shape of Christian love. And most importantly, that’s how God loves us. We aren’t called to love others because they deserve it any more than God loves us because we’re so awesome. We love others because the grace-filled love of God flows in us and through us so that we can love others with God’s love. Thanks be to God for his love. Amen.

Yesterday, Today, and Forever

Hebrews 13:7-8 – Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. [8] Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

No Expiration Date

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is unchangeable. What blessed consolation there is in these words. What challenge there is in these words.

If our Lord is the same today as he was yesterday, then that means what he said 2,000 years ago about himself and his work remains true to this very day. He has overcome the world. His yoke is easy. His burden is light. He is living water. He is the bread of life. He is the way, the truth and the life. He is the door. He is the gate. He came to bring life. He came to save sinners. He came to bear witness to the truth.

His words of exhortation to believe and receive all these truths about himself (and more) are just as true, binding, and life-transforming for us today as when they were first spoken. And they will continue to be so 2,000 years from now, should our Lord wait that long to return. His promises are trustworthy because he is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

A Larger Perspective Needed

When I consider the saints who have gone before us and read their words about our Lord, I am moved by the fact that, regardless of the century in which their words were written, there is a vital and familiar thread that runs throughout. It’s not simply because those who wrote were merely using the same vocabulary to describe Christ. It’s much more intimate than that. Instead, they were describing someone they knew – someone who does not change with the tides of time and place. Span the centuries and you will find the Lord Jesus being written about, adored, and worshipped with striking continuity and intimacy.

We would do well to imitate those faithful saints who traveled the way of Christ before us. Our vision of our Lord, when confined to our time and place alone, can become myopic and limited. It’s easy for us to grow accustomed to his face. Instead, we need to step outside our surroundings and see a bigger, more beautiful Jesus. We need to cross the generations to discover what others have said about our Lord and learn how their thoughts and lives were transformed and renewed because of him.

I love to read the works of the saints who lived, served, and died over the last 500 years (though, admittedly, that too can be limiting). I want to learn from those giants of the faith, whose lives, ministries, and teachings have stood the test of time. They have much to teach me today in my narrow little place in history.

I encourage you to do the same. Aside from time in God’s Word, there are few better ways to occupy your life of study and mediation than to read Christian biography. The lives of those who traveled with our Lord in the past can serve you as you travel with him in the future.

Walking Points

  • What are some of the ways you are comforted and encouraged by the unchangeable nature of Jesus?
  • What are some ways that truth convicts you?
  • Do you have a favorite person you enjoy learning about from Christian history? What is it about that person that inspires and encourages you?
  • There are many fine mini-biographies available to introduce you to some of the great saints of Christian history. Find one that interests you and start reading today. Keep a journal of some of things you learn from it.

Prayer

Eternal God, you are the one, true God of the past, present and future. Your Son is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I give you praise and thanks that the promises you made in the past are just as true today and will be tomorrow as well. I bless you that what was true about you in the days of the Apostle Paul were just as true when you spoke to Abraham. And praise God, they are just as true today. You and you alone, are worthy of trust because you are the one, true God, and you do not change. Please fill me with your eternal Spirit and keep me close to you today, tomorrow, and forever. In Christ I pray. Amen.

Lasting Hope

Part 3 of a series on encouragement. Click here (for Part 1) and here (for Part 2).

Hope in Jesus

The author of Hebrews reminded his readers that because of who Jesus was and what Jesus did, we now have real and lasting hope. It’s not what we sometimes call hope, which is really nothing more than wishful thinking, like “hoping” your team wins the big game this year. Instead, it’s a hope more akin to an absolute fact because it’s grounded in the work of Christ and the promises of God.

This Jesus, the writer encouragingly reminded his readers, is supreme over our problems, our circumstances, and whatever else is weighing us down. Jesus is where those early believers were directed to place their hope. It’s where we too are called to place our hope.

These Three Things

The writer to the Hebrews encouraged his readers to do three things. The first thing he said was, because of who Jesus is and what Jesus did, and because God’s promises are true,

Hebrews 10:22 – let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith (Emphasis Added)

In other words, we don’t have to stand at a distance from God. We can come close to God and know him. We can have assurance that he loves us and that he’ll keep his promises.

The second thing he says to is,

Hebrews 10:23 – Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful (Emphasis Added)

We have hope because God is a promise-making and promise-keeping God. It is that God in whom we place our trust and hope. We therefore can and should hold to it unswervingly.

The last thing the writer encourages his readers to do is this:

Hebrews 10:24-25 – And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. [25] Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Emphasis Added)

Encouraged to be Encouragers

In these two verses we’re encouraged to be encouragers. The underlying point is we can’t encourage one another if we don’t often see each other, if we don’t meet together, if we don’t participate in worship and other forms of fellowship together, if we don’t know each other. Whether it’s Sunday morning worship, a Sunday school class, a Bible study or small group, an accountability group, or a close Christian friend, you are unlikely to know what’s going on in someone’s life if you are not meeting together. Others will not be able to know how to encourage you if you stop meeting with them.

Christians Need One Another

Christians need to be with each other to encourage one another. This was the heart and soul of how John Wesley understood discipleship. This is what it means to watch over one another in love.

But How?

What does it mean to encourage one another? We often think of encouragement as simply a pep talk or the power of positive thinking. It includes a little of both of those. But it’s far more than those. Here are some ways the word “encouragement” is translated in the New Testament: Beg, comfort, desire, pray, plead, console. As previously mentioned, it literally means, “to come alongside another person to help out.” That’s what Barnabas did!

Panic!

During my last year of seminary, it finally started to dawn on me I would soon be graduating without any actual pastoral experience. I had never done a funeral. I had never performed a wedding. I had preached a total of two or three times in my whole life. I had not even led a worship service. And they were actually going to appoint me to a church? Had they lost their minds? I thought so.  

Thankfully, there was a wonderful and godly professor who took me under his wing and met with me once a week to help me. He encouraged me by telling me I wasn’t the first baby bird to be kicked out of the nest.

He encouraged me by building me up. He encouraged me by investing his time and effort in me. He encouraged me by giving some practical “how to” help as well. And, he encouraged me by giving me a little pep talk from time to time. Like Barnabas, he came alongside me to help me when I needed it most.

Who Do You Know?

Who do you know who is discouraged, depressed, scared, or hurting? Who do you know who has lost their way or is struggling with something serious in their life? Who do you know who seems to be stagnating in their faith or even moving in the wrong direction?

Friends, they need your encouragement. They need a timely word. Will you encourage them? Who will if you won’t?

Maybe It’s You

Maybe you are the person wrestling with one of those things. Are you connected to your brothers and sisters in Christ? How else will they know you are in need if you are not regularly meeting together? How can they encourage you, strengthen you, comfort you, and help you if they do not know what is going on in your life?

Our Ultimate Encourager

It is true we need each other. Yet we must never forget that our hope is in God. Psalm 10:17 says,

Psalm 10:17 – You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry

By all means encourage one another. By all means allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be encouraged by others. We need each other. But never forget our ultimate encouragement comes from the person and work of Jesus Christ and the hope we have in God’s promises. The encouragement we offer others ought to primarily point them to their real Hope.

Walking Points

  • Who do you know who needs encouragement? What are you doing to come alongside them, like Barnabas, and encourage them?
  • How about you? What’s going on in your life? Where are you struggling and hurting? Who is encouraging you?
  • Do you regularly meet with a group of Christian friends? If not, find a group to join this week.
  • Are you already part of such a group? Then why not find another person to encourage and invite him or her to join you.

Called to Encourage

Part 2 in the series on encouragement

Called to Encourage

Barnabas seems to have had the spiritual gift of encouragement. Yet, though there are those with that particular gift, all Christians are called to encourage others.

Can you think of anything quite as meaningful and as powerful as a well-timed word of encouragement from a family member or close friend? Encouraging and comforting words are like balm to the soul. They’re healing. Observe how the book of Proverbs describes encouraging words.

Proverbs 15:23 – A man finds joy in giving an apt reply– and how good is a timely word!

Proverbs 25:11 – A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver

Is that your experience?

Who Encourages You?

Who is the person in your life you want to hear from more than anyone else when you’re scared or discouraged or depressed or hurting? When your world is crumbling all around you, who is the one person you know will have a word of encouragement for you? What is it they do or say that makes them such an encouragement in your life?

Who Do You Encourage?

Who in your life would say that you are that person for them? Are you an encourager? Do you seek to build people up with your words and presence, or tear them down? James puts it this way in James 3:9-10,

James 3:9-10 – With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. [10] Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be

Indeed, it shouldn’t be. Sadly, however, it often is.

Encouraged and Encouraging

The testimony of the Book of Hebrews is that we need to be both encouraged and encouragers.

We don’t know who wrote the Book of Hebrews, but we do know it was written primarily to a group of Jewish followers of Christ who needed to be encouraged. They were being persecuted and were losing hope. Many were being tempted to fall away from their faith and go back to previous ways of life.

Jesus is Supreme

Therefore, in order to encourage those believers not to lose hope, but to persevere to the end, the writer exalted the supremacy of Jesus Christ over all things. Jesus, the author made clear, had no equals. He was superior to Moses and the angels. His covenant was superior to the old covenant. His priesthood was superior to the old priesthood.

Through most of Hebrews, the writer showed how and why Jesus was supreme. And then, toward the end of the letter, the author revealed why the supremacy of Jesus matters.

Stay tuned for Part 3

Son of Encouragement

A Man Named Joseph

Joseph was a Jewish Christian who lived in the first century. While he wasn’t extremely rich, he was a landowner. He lived in a time and place in which many of the early Christians were greatly persecuted.

One of the things Joseph did to help his fellow Christians was to sell his land and give the money he made to the group of believers in Jerusalem. However, not only were the early Christians being stripped of their money, their very lives were being threatened for following Jesus. Therefore, Joseph traveled the land to encourage those believers and to persuade them to keep on keeping on in their commitment to Christ.

He was much loved and though you’ve probably never heard Joseph’s name, the early church knew him well. He was highly regarded among them. In fact, he was so highly considered that the leaders of the early church assigned him the job of teaming up with a recent convert to the faith, a fellow who had been known for stirring up a great deal of trouble against the early church.

This new convert had been a great persecutor of the early church, but now, seemingly out of nowhere, was a disciple of Jesus. Understandably, the men and women of the early church found it difficult to trust this man.

What this new convert needed desperately was for someone greatly loved and trusted to come alongside him and help him build bridges to the rest of the early church. That’s exactly what Joseph did. In fact, Joseph did such a thorough job that he was eventually eclipsed by the mighty work God did in and through the life of this new disciple. This new disciple of Jesus became one of the most influential missionaries and theologians the Church, in any age, has ever seen.

Perhaps you have figured out who that “new convert” was. It was Saul of Tarsus who became the Apostle Paul. However, you may not be quite as sure of Joseph’s identity. Maybe you know him by his nickname: Barnabas. The name “Barnabas” meant, “Son of Encouragement,” and that’s exactly who Barnabas was. He was a great encourager.

Come Alongside Of

One of the primary definitions of the word, “encourage,” is “to come alongside of.” That’s exactly what Barnabas did.

He came alongside those in the early church when they needed money. He sold his land and gave the profits to the early church in Jerusalem.

He came alongside the persecuted believers and lifted their spirits with the message of the Gospel and by reminding them of the hope they had in God.

He came alongside Paul when he was distrusted and disliked by so many folks and helped to bring reconciliation and trust between Paul and the early churches.


Stay tuned for Part 2