I grew up in a Christian home, but I was far from God until I read the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. Then, everything changed. I tell about it here.
I had known a lot about God and the Bible, but my knowledge had not changed me. In fact, while outwardly religious, I was moving farther and farther away from God, all the time feeling better than others because of what little good I was and did.
But sin and my human nature were constantly getting the better of me, until, as I tell in the link above, the death of my sister plunged me into an existential crisis of grief and meaning. Looking for comfort and hope, I began to read the Bible for answers.
Reading one night after work, I came to the story of Jesus’ Passion in the Gospel of John. As I read, His story came alive in a way it never had before. If you had asked me before that night why Jesus died on the cross, I could have given you a factual answer.
But this night, God opened my eyes to see how much Jesus (and the Father) loved the world, and how much they loved me personally. I have often said that it was like a floodlight shining into my heart and mind.
Suddenly, the immensity of God’s love and Jesus’ willingness to suffer for our sins became crystal clear to me. Their love was so amazing, I immediately knew I needed to make a choice of whether to follow Jesus, or not. Getting down on my knees, I said, “Jesus, I don’t know how to follow you; but if you will accept me, I will.”
I know He accepted me and changed my heart because in the days and weeks that followed, many things changed in my life–my desires, my motives, what I enjoyed, how I lived. It was a change from the inside out. I did not become perfect, but my heart was changed. I began to love what I had no interest in before and dislike the sin I loved before.
The Power of the Cross
Why does the story of Jesus’ death have this power to change our lives? I didn’t know much about why Jesus died back then. All I knew was that He suffered and died because He loved us and that He died for sin. But that was enough.
The reason it was enough for God to accept me and change my heart is what I am going to explore in several blog posts over the next few weeks. But here is why God can exercise His power to save through Christ’s death:
He Earned the Right. Jesus died for all human sin (1 John 2:2), and by doing this He earned the right to forgive, accept, and change us. “He (Jesus) has died as a ransom to set (us) free from. . .sins” (Hebrews 9:15).
He Gained the Authority. Through Jesus’ suffering and death, He defeated Satan. How? He resisted the devil’s efforts to get Jesus to sin in His humanity, and He showed that Satan’s arguments that it was impossible to obey, were false. God helped Jesus be faithful. So now Jesus has authority to help us too. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil. . .Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:14, 18 NIV).
The Cross is His Power Station. So much happened at the cross that allows Jesus authority and power to change our lives when we turn and put our trust in Him. Workmen are installing towers and high voltage power lines near our neighborhood. When they are finished, they will charge the lines and power will flow for miles to meet the needs of thousands. When Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” on the cross (John 19:30), He meant that God’s plan to provide forgiveness and salvation was completed. At that point, the power of the Spirit was released to change people through the story of Jesus’ death. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).
Come to Jesus’ Cross
The cross is especially where God gets access to our hearts to change and empower us. That is so because He earned the right there. This is why the Bible calls us consider the cross, teach about it, and meet Jesus there, as these verses show:
“‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” John 12:32-33 NIV
“We preach Christ crucified: . . .the power of God and the wisdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:23, 24 NIV
“Christ (sent me) to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” 1 Corinthians 1:17 NIV
Will You Consider Jesus’ Cross with Me?
Would you like to experience more of God’s power in your life? Would you like to know and love Him more? I would like to invite you to consider Jesus’ cross with me as I blog about it over the next few weeks.
I have learned so much more about why Jesus died than I knew at first, and because of that, I love Him even more. I want to share these amazing things with you. The more we see and understand, the more we will love Him; and the less power sin and Satan will have over our lives.
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This blog is an urgent call, in light of the times we are living in, to study the Bible carefully, not just devotionally–and some basic “how to” steps to do it.
Many Christians make time for devotional moments with God, but fewer set aside space to regularly study the teachings of Scripture more deeply. Maybe it is an issue of time, not knowing how, or thinking that deeper Bible study is primarily for teachers and pastors.
In any case, we lose out on much spiritual growth and many rich insights in our relationship with God when we miss this kind of study. Also, our faith and relationship with God could very much be at risk, as I’ll explain later.
There has been a major trend in Christianity that “doctrines aren’t important; it is one’s relationship with Jesus that counts.” The idea of “doctrine” (the teachings of a Bible on a given topic) has become suspect to many. Doctrinal fights and judgmental attitudes within or between denominations helped birth this “Jesus only” trend. But it is a huge mistake and a serious spiritual danger. Here’s why:
1. You Need a Solid Foundation for Your Faith
The doctrines of the Bible work like the frame of a building, or the skeletal structure in the human body. They give stability, strength, and form. A broken or missing member causes major challenges. We’ve heard of buildings collapsing, with tragic loss of life, because codes were not followed. Paul pionts to this role of Biblical truth when he calls the church “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 NIV). The Church–and our spiritual lives–are built with a foundation and superstructure of Biblical truth.
The teachings of the Bible describe the truths that form a Christian worldview and inform our concept of God and reality. They are not just like boards or dry bones. Bible teachings fill out the beauty of depth of God’s character and reveal His plans and purposes for us. The nature of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit; the nature of humans, the truths related to salvation, judgment, heaven, the afterlife, the Last Days, the Second Coming, and so many more, make up our belief system and give us stability and hope.
The bottom line is that Jesus is fleshed out by the truths of Scripture. Bible doctrines tell us more about Him, and about God’s amazing, beautiful character. To ignore doctrine is to diminish God and all that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to us.
2. To Be Secure in Jesus and Safe from Deception
Years ago, I knew two young women who got caught in a cult. Both died as a result. The grief for their family and church was gut wrenching. Ever since, I have been cautious about leaders who exhibit cult-like personalities. While this is an extreme case, false teaching is nevertheless destructive.
Bible writers sound many warnings about false teachers and distorted doctrines, both in their day, and the Last Days. They warn that the goal of these misguided people is often to recruit followers and make money. Ego is foremost, rather than the glory of God. In my early pastorate, a man began to produce videos criticizing leaders and presenting his take on truth. He eventually began accepting donations and became quite wealthy. Later, he confessed to his wrong motives. Here are two cases from the Bible:
“For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain.”
Titus 1:10-11 NIV
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter (false teaching), because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.”
2 Timothy 2:15-18 NIV
Be cautious of people claiming to bring you a new message or truth from God, especially if they have attitudes of criticism, or self-promotion. There are many false teachers today, as in Bible times. Following them can be damaging to your faith and even dangerous. On the other hand, take time to prayerfully and carefully study out what they are saying, in the ways I’ll describe later. It is an opportunity to grow and see real truth more deeply. You may be able to help others as well.
3. To Keep Safe in Our Relationship with Jesus Through the Last Days
Bible writers left us urgent warnings about deception and false teaches in the Last Days of earth’s history. Satan knows that His time is short. He hates God and everyone connected with Him, so he wants to destroy our belief structure and collapse our faith. He gets demonic pleasure out of tearing down what God has built up. He delights in attacking and troubling us as he pokes a finger in God’s eye.
Corruption of truth come from challenges outside the faith, such as when social or political movements co-opt and misapply, or redefine, thought categories. They can also originate from inside the Church when teachers distort key doctrines, sometimes with apparently well-meaning motives. John urges us: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits (people, teachings) to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1 NIV). I have seen so many distortions of Scripture in my years as a pastor. Fact check everything you aren’t sure about.
Paul tells us he received his gospel directly from Jesus, probably through visions (Galatians 1:11). This included revelations of what would happen in the last days. Here are two of his serious alerts about the Endtimes:
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
2 Timothy 4:1-4 NIV
“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.”
1 Timothy 4:1-2 NIV
Paul wasn’t alone in warning about spiritual dangers in the last days. The apostles were all aware this will happen.
“Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’ But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.”
2 Peter 3:3-7 NIV (See also Jude 3-4)
Revelation, Jesus’ message to the Church about what would take place between His Ascension and Second Coming, especially in the Last Days, warns about the false teachings of Balaam (Revelation 2:14), the Nicolaitans (2:15), and Jezebel (2:20) that had infiltrated the Christian Church.
In Revelation 12-18, Jesus describes the deceptions and false miracles that will become nearly universal in the world. Paul refers to the same thing:
“Then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.”
2 Thessalonians 2:8-12 NIV
Jesus told a powerful parable about building a solid faith. He described two men building homes. One built his house on sand, without taking time to dig deeply and build a solid foundation. The other chose solid rock to build on. When a torrential flood came, the house built on the rock was able to withstand the storm while the house built on sand collapsed.
Jesus’ crucial lesson is that we must take time to dig deeply and build our faith on Jesus (our Rock) and His word. Character and faith built on the word will survive the many kinds of storms that come against us.
How to Study Doctrine (Bible Teaching)
By now, it is clear how important it is to study God’s word more deeply, for our own spiritual growth and for our spiritual safety. I’ve had the privilege of theological training and being a pastor for many years, so I want to share a few things that have helped me. Here are 7 simple suggestions:
1. Accept questions and challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow.
When a question comes up, perhaps in a sermon, Bible teaching, or in your devotions, make a mental note of it. Keep a notebook or computer document of topics for future study.
2. Set aside time for Bible study in addition to your devotions.
If you want to study more deeply, you must set aside time for it. Even 30 minutes of study each day will begin to yield great dividends. Some combine their devotions with deeper study by keeping their focus on God. Choose a place with comfortable seating, good lighting, and fresh air for brain oxygenation. Take breaks every 25 minutes or so and walk around to keep the blood flowing.
3. Collect a notebook or computer doc, your Bible (or Bible App), a concordance, and a Bible dictionary.
A concordance lists all major words and where they are found in scripture; an online site like Biblegateway.com has a concordance search box that allows you to look up a word, words, or phrase, and with click of your mouse see all the verses in the Bible where they are used. A Bible dictionary will give definitions for Bible words, names, or places. A good search engine can substitute.
Bibles come in all varieties and levels of accuracy today. A “formal” translation which more literally follows the Greek and Hebrew is preferable for accuracy in Bible study. The King James Version (and New KJV), The New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version are formal translations. The later are easiest to understand. I prefer the New American Standard Bible for readability and accuracy.
Dynamic equivalency Bibles are good for devotional reading, but are not as accurate in some places. The Message, the Living Bible, and the New Living Translation are examples of this kind of Bible. The New International Version tried to strike a balance, but is not as literal as the formal translations I listed earlier. Don’t stress over this. Better to begin with the Bible you have than not begin at all.
4. Begin with prayer for the Holy Spirit to guide you in your study.
Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to “guide us into all truth” (John 16:13). He said the Father is more willing to give us the Spirit’s help than an earthly father is willing to give good things to his child (Luke 11:13). When we ask humbly in dependence on Him, He will always help us. Jesus died to fulfill the promise of the Spirit’s help in this, and every aspect of our lives.
The Bible was prepared by God to be an inspired and sufficient guide for our lives. It tells how to have a relationship with God and ultimately spend eternity with Him. The Spirit “inspired” Bible writers, and He will open it up (reveal the meaning) to you as you ask His help and depend on His guidance.
5. Write down key words, phrases, and concepts in your question. Research these.
In your concordance, look up key words or phrases in each verse they are used. Using Biblegateway.com (described above), you can scan the verses it lists for the most relevant. The Bible often defines its own terms, either in the immediate context or related passages. Write down what you find as you go. Use a Bible dictionary as a help, if you wish.
Doing this kind of study is building a conceptual framework made up of definitions and ideas. It is like constructing something piece by piece, painting a picture one stroke at a time, or putting a jigsaw puzzle together. The end product will emerge little by little. The joy is in seeing it come together and having the Divine Teacher at your side guiding you.
Scripture itself calls us to this kind of study: “From infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17 NIV)
6. As you study ask what this tells you about the God’s character, His plan to save you, and what He wants you to do about what you learned.
When Jesus revealed Himself to Saul (later Paul) on the Damascus Road, Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” and “What do you want me to do?” These are good questions to ask as we study.
We should relate everything we study to the great central truth of Jesus’ atonement for our sins on the cross and the gift of salvation. This will draw our hearts to Him. “If I be lifted up, I will draw all people to myself,” He said (John 12:32).
Currently, I am studying words that describe what Jesus’ death means. It has helped me see His love even more.
7. God’s greatest desire
God longs for us to love Him with our whole heart and mind. Understanding things logically and intellectually without seeking to know God’s heart can be spiritually self-defeating. Ask God to show you His love and heart for you as you study.
A Wonderful Promise of Spiritual Treasure
The Wise Man, Solomon promised that if we do this kind of study, with the same intensity of purpose as if we were looking for say treasure buried in our back yard, we will be richly rewarded. Indeed, we are searching for eternal, spiritual treasure which will fill our hearts and minds with God’s truth and goodness. We will build a house of truth on the Rock, Jesus, He will keep us safe in the coming storms of life.
“My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding— indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” Proverbs 2:1-6
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Very little, as it turns out; but an essential minimum. Even if you believe a lot of wrong things, God can still accept you and do what He does best. We see this clearly in the ministry and teachings of Jesus.
A Canaanite Woman
Matthew and Mark tell us about a trip Jesus took from Jerusalem to the mostly gentile region of Tyre and Sidon where He met a woman who knew very little, but just enough to receive Jesus’ help.
This story actually begins in Jerusalem with a debate between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees about a technical question in their law. These leaders had a LOT of religious knowledge. They knew the Hebrew Bible back and forth, and volumes of theology too.
But Jesus ended up telling them: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:7-9). Jesus’ point is that we can have a lot of religious knowledge, but be far from God.
It is at this moment Jesus leaves the center of learning and culture and travels with his disciples to Tyre and Sidon (northern Syria today, quite a journey on foot). From the center of religious knowledge in Judaism, Jesus led His followers to an area known for its superstition and false gods. From great knowledge to little knowledge. It was a cross-cultural mission trip; and I think Jesus was trying to teach His disciples a lesson.
There, a Canaanite woman came begging Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). She cried, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly” (Matthew 15:22).
A pathetic situation, one which should have aroused the disciples’ compassion. Instead, they complained to Jesus, “Send her away because she keeps crying out after us” (v. 23).
Their reaction is hardhearted, for sure. But a little background helps us understand their reaction from their perspective. Canaanites were gentiles, with very distorted views of God (from a Jewish viewpoint). They were the corrupt people of the land when Israel arrived centuries before, which God told Israel root out. In Jesus’ time, they were still seen as pagans, and under curse of God.
Unexpectedly and out of character, as the woman begs for help, Jesus ignores her. When He finally speaks, He tells her that it wouldn’t be right for Him to take the children’s (Jews’) bread and give it to their dogs (gentiles).
I can hear His disciples muttering, “Right!” Some Jews referred to gentiles as dogs in Jesus’ day. So Jesus is treating her as some of His people might do. He is giving His followers a lesson–one we also need today.
The woman’s desperate and persistent response is, “True Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v. 27). Jesus immediately replied, “‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment” (v. 28)
What gave her this persistence? Was it Jesus’ expression of sympathy, His tone of concern, a twinkle in His eye? Was it her own desperation? Something made her keep trying.
How much did this woman know? Not much; but enough. When she first called on Jesus, she cried, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (v. 22).
Clearly, she had heard of Jesus. She believed He was the Jewish Messiah, descended from David. Jesus had learned about His willingness to extend mercy and love to those who did not deserve it. She had heard of His miracles, and perhaps a few rumored teachings. Where had she gotten this sparse, but important information?
Much earlier Matthew reports that news about Jesus had “spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them” (Matthew 4:24).
The woman may have talked with some who heard Jesus teach or received His healing touch. Her knowledge was limited, but it was enough. She believed Jesus had come from God and that He extended grace and mercy to those who needed it. Putting her trust in Him, her daughter was healed.
Jesus disciples were amazed. God loves everyone the same? He has no favorites? He will love and give race and blessings to even the “heathen?”
The people God entrusts with a knowledge of Him are blessed so they can bless others, not horde His gifts. Jesus died for all, bearing the sins of every human on the cross, so all who wish may receive mercy. How much knowledge is necessary for that?
At Jesus’ Birth Too
We see this illustrated at the beginning of Jesus’ life. Poor shepherds, considered unclean and low class by the Jews, and the gentile Magi, both groups slim on Jewish religious knowledge, are the ones to come to the welcome Messiah. His own people who should know the prophecies, are oblivious, or preoccupied. Even at Jesus’ birth, God was signaling that His love and mercy were for everyone.
First Sermon Nearly Ends in Death
Later, we observe it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In his first sermon at his home town of Nazareth, He reminds the worshipers that God’s heart is bigger than Israel. Elijah had been sent to provide food for a heathen widow in Zarephath. Namaan, an Aramaean (Syrian) army officer in the time of Elisha, had been healed of leprosy. God’s own people had not asked, but these “non-believers” had.
If you’ve read the story, you might have been shocked that Jesus home-town people tried to throw Him off a cliff when He said this. Why?
When we grow up in a religious community, it is easy to believe that God’s blessings are restricted to those who believe the right things, those who have the “correct” theology. It is possible to look down on others.
With that perspective, we may feel we don’t “know enough” for God to accept us. But God’s love and mercy and acceptance are as wide as the world, and He gives them freely to those who simple believe and ask.
At the Cross
We see this again at the cross.
A young man hangs from nailed wrists, mouth dry as cotton, flies buzzing, body and brain exploding with pain. He is in agony, slowly dying. He has lived a life of crime, led on by bad associates. A lapsed Jew, he may have had some religious knowledge, but he had tossed it aside like a crust of stale bread years ago. It was like a hazy memory now.
Yet strange, hopeful thoughts are going through his mind. He has heard Jesus’ followers say they had believed the crucified Man on the center cross was the one who was going to deliver Israel. He heard the religious leaders mock, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ of God, the Chosen One” (Luke 23:35).
He remembered his mother telling him about the sacrifices and how they pointed forward to a Messiah deliverer who would die for others. He watched Jesus’ behavior, heard His few words, and as the Spirit spoke to his heart, slowly the realization dawned on him that this was the Messiah, dying for the world’s sins, his sins. Did Isaiah 53, the prophecy of Messiah’s suffering and death come back to him?
This life held nothing for him now; it was almost over. But what about his eternity? In a parched voice, he called out from the depths of his heart, “Lord, will you remember me when you come in your kingdom?” (Luke 23:42). And immediately, Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43).
This backslider, with faint religious memories, sees in Jesus a gracious, loving Savior, puts all his trust in Him, and is assured of eternity.
I have heard stories of addicts, incarcerated persons, and people from all walks of life who had little religious knowledge, but called out to God in their time of need; and God responded and gave them a new spiritual life. It turned their lives around. Why is this possible?
Because, simply, Jesus died for the whole world and every person in it. God’s love is not restricted to a chosen few; it is for everyone. That is wonderful news. God’s grace and love are as free and available as the air we breathe because of the cross. If you realize your need of God, you can call on Jesus today and put your faith in Him as your Savior. He will accept you because He paid for the right to do so.
A Place for Knowing More
I am not saying here that religious knowledge and education is unnecessary. It is extremely important. The Bible encourages parents and the church to teach this as the foundation of faith for children and believers. And once we come to faith, Peter says we should “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
The more we know about God and the One He sent, the more we love them. And the more we know about God, the more we can become like Him. Truth describes God’s will and path for us. It helps us avoid spiritual deceptions and stay in the center of God’s will.
What I am asserting is that it is wonderful news that God’s love is so broad and Christ’s grace is so free that anyone in the world can call on them, no matter how much or how little they know, and God will forgive and receive them as His children.
Jesus did the really hard work of overcoming Satan in our flesh and then dying for the sins of the world–so God can accept absolutely anyone who comes to Him in need and faith. Knowledge is no barrier. Your wandering, sinful past will not stop Him.
That is really good news. And so the saying is true, “It’s not how much you know, but Who you know, that counts.” “This is life eternal that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ, Whom You have sent” John 17:3.
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I grew up knowing a lot about God. My family attended church regularly. I was in children’s classes every week. My dad and mom were both Christians. Dad, especially seemed to have a personal relationship with his “heavenly Father,” as He called Him. I could tell by the way he talked about God and the way he prayed. He had grown up in the back alleys of Denver in a home where his dad was mean and abusive when he drank. It came as a relief to my dad when he learned about a heavenly Dad who was full of love and kindness.
I went to Christian schools for fifteen years and denominational summer camps nearly every summer. Christian clubs and extracurricular activities added to my knowledge and religious acculturation. I knew a LOT about God and His Book and could answer many questions in a Bible trivia game. But I didn’t know either God or Jesus, personally. In fact, I didn’t feel a need because I somehow equated knowing “about” God and participating in religious services and activities with what I thought was real religion.
However, this did not “work” for me. Throughout my high school and college years, I struggled with personal sins, often violating what I knew was right. There were many cycles of giving in to temptations of various kinds, experiencing religious guilt, yet failing again. I seemed to have no power in areas where I was weak.
Yet, somehow, I thought of myself as quite a good person, better than some, maybe most, because of the right things I knew and did. . .and didn’t do (and that list was pretty long). I was sometimes miserable, and certainly self-deceived. But I didn’t know what to do about it.
In college (a Christian one), I majored in theology (because I liked my high school religion teacher, also my coach, and I wanted to “help people). I joined a summer ministry team and became religious vice president of our student association, all the time struggling privately with pride and sin. My religious pursuits and the good feelings that came from serving kept me from seeing my need, and the solution to my problems.
In my freshman year, some students on my campus began to talk a lot about having a personal relationship with Jesus. They had been trained at Campus Crusade for Christ, which made them a bit suspect in my mind, because Cru was a non-denominational ministry, and I almost equated salvation with being in the “right” church.
At the same time, I was intrigued and a bit troubled by what these young men were saying. The “relationship” they talked about seemed real. On one level, it reminded my of my dad. But, I didn’t have what they were describing. I was weirdly uncomfortable for a religious kid.
I went to their meetings, attended a prayer gathering or two in dorm rooms (where they prayed conversationally with God) and got to know some of the guys personally. What they were saying was shaking what I had been trusting in. They said religious knowledge and doctrinal beliefs were not enough. Knowing “about” Jesus was not the same as knowing Him personally, and good works could never “save” anyone for eternity. The foundation I had been trusting in for acceptance with God was getting rattled, but not enough to topple my house of cards yet.
In the meantime, a friend began asking me questions like, “Who do you think Jesus Christ was?” And, What do you think having eternal life means?” I could give theological answers, but not relational, experiential ones. Rick was finding a relationship with God and wanted to nudge me in that direction too.
Looking back, what was keeping me from trusting Jesus as a personal Savior was my false belief that religious knowledge and good works were enough to earn God’s favor. My pride and sins also got in the way too, though, as it turned out, they were the result of my condition, not the cause of it. The root cause was that I didn’t know how lost I was without Jesus as my personal Savior, and my failure to trust and surrender my life to Him.
In the summer of my Junior year, my sister Susan was killed in a car accident. She was a sunny, cheerful, likable girl of seventeen. This shattered my world. My deep grief led me to read the Bible. I had to see for myself if the things I had believed were true. Was there a heaven? Would there be a Second Coming of Christ and a resurrection from the dead? Would I get to see my sister again? I wrote the date of Susan’s death beside meaningful verses. At this point, I was seeking comfort and assurance about things I had only known in my head, not my heart.
One evening after work, I found my self reading John’s description of Jesus’ passion–His struggle to surrender in Gethsemane, His trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. I have often said it was like God shined a floodlight into my mind and heart, and I saw clearly, as I’d never seen before, how much He loved the world–and how much he loved me personally. Immediately, I knew I had a choice to make; it was clear and obvious: to give my life to Him and follow Him.
It was an easy choice in some ways. I saw a love like I’d never understood this deeply before, and Someone who loved me like I had never been loved. I wanted to follow this Jesus. I knelt down and prayed a ridiculously simple prayer for a third year theology student and life-long “religious” person: “Jesus, I don’t know how to follow you, but if you’ll accept me, I will.”
It was a prayer of repentance (turning to God), surrender, and desire–to know God personally in the way I had never known Him.
I know without any doubt that He accepted me and changed my life. I became voraciously hungry to read the Bible–to know as much about God and Jesus, and what they had to say,as I could. The power of sin was broken in my life, and my heart and behavior changed. I learned later, this was the new birth Jesus told Nicodemus about (John 3). Now I went to class and worship to know God better.
In case you are wondering, did I ever struggle with temptation again? Did previous sinful patterns suddenly evaporate? No. I found that as time went along that there were areas God needed to address in my life, but this happened in a growing relationship with Him, over time–learning how the Christian life worked and what He offers to help. In a word, He offers the power of His Spirit and His work of grace in our hearts. This happens as we read and accept His words and walk in a trust relationship with Him.
Jesus offers us so much when we give up depending on ourselves and our own goodness and knowledge. He can do this because He died to earn the right, and He freely forgives and accepts whoever puts their trust fully in Him.
So, why won’t religious knowledge and good works save you, and what can you do about it?
Knowledge and human goodness can be a trap. The biggest illusion in Jesus’ day was that religious knowledge and belonging to a certain group could save you. It felt so complete being full of information about God and worshiping with large groups of people. It felt so right to believe the “right” things. But theoretical knowledge is not enough. It is like describing the sun without moving into its light and warmth, or explaining a cold drink on a hot day without sipping it. Being a fine, upstanding person; having some morality and good works in your life; and being religious, can actually prevent you from feeling your need of God to rescue and change you. It is not even enough to see God’s love and believe it intellectually. Jesus came, lived, explained God, and died for our sins, then rose for one purpose: to make it possible for us to choosearelationship with Him. We must choosetotrust in and follow Him in order to have a religion that really works. No Jesus, no life. Know Jesus, new life.
Without Jesus, we’re dead. We are born with a nature that is dead to God, spiritually blind to our own need, and naturally resistant to God and the life of God. Romans 3:9-18 is a description of human nature. It is not hard to see oneself in the list. Galatians 5:19-21 has a similar list of what our natural sinful nature produces. Not only are we spiritually dead by nature, but sin in all its forms deadens our hearts and prevents us from seeing God clearly. “The god of this age (Satan) has blinded (us). . . , so that (we) cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). This is why we need the new birth, in which God supernaturally, through the Holy Spirit, gives us a new nature. We receive the new birth when we give up trying to be good in our own strength and trust Jesus to be our Savior from sin. When we do, He sends the Spirit to live in our hearts to rebirth us and change us over time. The veil which has been shrouding our minds is removed, and we see Jesus and His new life clearly (2 Corinthians 3:14).
You can’t have a relationship without a relationship. A good mutual friend told me about the woman who is now my wife. The way he described her certainly made me interested in getting to know her. I emailed her, and we began a three month correspondence. We share many things about our life and got to know each other very well. Sending that first email opened the possibility of knowing her, and the more I knew her, the more I loved her. We were created for a relationship with God. There is a God-shaped vacuum in each of us, as one writer said. The First Sin changed human nature and separated us from God. Jesus came to show us what God is really like and to build a bridge (His death on the cross) to give us the right to be forgiven and have a personal relationship with God as our Father. Jesus died to pay the price for all human sin, and when we admit our need and trust Him to forgive and receive us, accepting Him as our personal Savior, our relationship with Him and heaven begins. Why not tell Him now that you would like to know Him? He will certainly take you up on it. Then begin reading things to help you know Him personally. The Gospel of John in the New Testament is a good place to begin. When you are ready, ask Him to be your Savior and God. He died for the privilege of accepting you. Don’t ever doubt He wants you and will be so glad to receive you.
I want to urge you not to take what I’ve written lightly. Accepting Jesus is the only way to the new life He offers. It is like being resurrected in this life. By the power of His Spirit He changes our hearts and raises us spiritually from the dead. The reason many people have no power over sin in their lives is that only Jesus can free us from our old nature and give us a new heart. He says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). To reject or delay turning to Jesus is to live defeated and miss the assurance and amazing love that come with surrendering to Him.
Please think deeply about what I’ve written. Talk it over with God. Tell Him your fears and concerns, and ask Him to help you to make this decision.
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
John 1:12 NIV
“For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”
Yesterday, I shared how the COVID Quarantine has given me, and perhaps you, time to reflect on and pursue a deeper relationship with God. Today, I am asking what God might wish for as a new spiritual normal for us.
The Old–Afraid and Confused
Twelve men and some women were living behind locked doors. They were afraid– afraid of death. Their world had been rocked. Everything had changed suddenly. Dreams dashed, future dark with doubt and uncertainty.
The last three years had been like a dream. Sure, they were often confused and slow. They slept when they should have prayed. They feared instead of having faith. They questioned when they could have dug deeper.
But they had their Messiah. They saw the miracles. No one had ever done what He did. They heard His words. No one had ever taught like He taught. He was in control. They could slack a little.
Now He was dead. And their had hopes died with Him.
So here they were, behind locked and barred doors, afraid. Then, everything changed.
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”
John 20:19-20 NIV
Waking to the New
Jesus’ appearance to His disciples was the beginning of an amazing awakening. I believe it is an awakening God can give each of us if we wish, ask, and pursue.
Over the next forty days, Jesus patiently explained what they had missed. He graciously forgave their failures. With unstoppable purpose, He prepared them for their future mission.
During this time, they remembered what they had forgotten. They understood what they hadn’t grasped. They became strong where they’d been weak. Like a plant in warm sunshine, their faith grew quickly.
Then Jesus left, ascending to heaven to carry on His work there. But not before promising to send a Helper like Himself, the Holy Spirit, to be with them always.
“On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.'”
Acts 1:4 NIV
They did not wait idly. They worshiped the Lord they had just been with. They lamented their shortcomings and sins and resolved, by God’s grace to change. They put away differences and became unified. They grabbed hold of the promises Jesus had made, stretching their hand of faith higher and higher. They prayed intensely for a fitness to share the message of salvation. Then, the answer came.
When the Holy Spirit was poured out, it was like Heaven’s floodgates opened, as if a floodlight was shined into their minds. Everything was clear as noon. Unbelief was swept away. They spoke powerfully about Jesus and their faith in Him.
The book of Acts emerges like a Phoenix out of the ashes of these disciples’ former lives. Out of confusion, confidence. Out of fear, faith. Out of dim wits, bright clarity.
In the power of God’s spirit they proclaimed the resurrection of Christ, healed the sick, raised the dead, traveled to the ends of the earth. The “Sun of righteousness” had truly “arisen with healing in His wings” (Malachi 4:2).
But the greatest miracle was their own spiritual resurrection. Christianity is a religion of power–God’s power to change our hearts, make us new, help us overcome what holds us back. Read these verses:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” 2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26 NIV
“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36 NIV
“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” Romans 8:11 NIV
In the last verse, Paul likens our personal spiritual resurrection–the awakening of our mind and heart to the realities of God–to the resurrection of Christ.
In other words, God is willing to exert the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, to raise us from the dead, spiritually speaking, and give us new life. He is not talking only about the resurrection at Christ’s coming, but our spiritual resurrection now.
This was the spiritual awakening the disciples experienced from Resurrection to Pentecost. And God is just as willing to give it to us as to them.
There is no need for us to live in the shadow-lands of faith. We can ask Jesus to give us new birth–new hearts–and new eyes. That is a prayer He loves to answer. To start over. Begin with a clean page. Ready for God to write new things into our hearts and lives.
A new (spiritual) normal
During the Pandemic and Quarantine, have you had some serious thoughts about what is really important in life? About where this world could be headed? About your need of deeper faith and a closer walk with God?
If you have, that is most likely because God is calling you. Recognize this as His personal invitation. Tell Him what you desire and ask Him to do for you what you can’t do for yourself: to give you a new heart, the ability to understand Him and His words, victory over what holds you back.
Like Jesus’ first disciples, you can awaken to a new life. Because this same Jesus is alive today, and is just as powerful and present as before.
Everywhere we are hearing the phrase, “The New Normal.” Government and health officials, even church leaders, are saying the effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic have been so impactful, they will likely transform the way we do things in the foreseeable future.
The Quarantine has certainly been hard in many ways, but some results will be beneficial.
Yesterday I was talking (properly distanced, of course) with a neighbor who is a teacher. He told me state schools have been planning to use technology more creatively, but the pandemic forced them to implement it and work the bugs out immediately. In his opinion students and schools will be much better equipped for the future by what they have gone through and learned as a result.
Utilizing social media and online platforms, churches have created many new ways for members to connect with each other for prayer, study, and fellowship–and to reach out supportively to their communities.
I joined a morning prayer group begun by our church prayer leader, to worship and pray for our members, our community, and our nation during the pandemic. We have called in at 7 am each morning for over a month so far. My wife and I are new to this church and do not know many people, but listening to these folk pray each day has drawn us closer to God and to them. We feel more a part of the church community as a result.
How is your new normal?
How have you grown during the pandemic? Have you gotten closer to people you love? The Quarantine forced us indoors, meaning we ended up spending more time with our family. Were you able to work through some things in your relationships and come through stronger? Have you identified things you can work on with God in this area? I have.
How has your relationship with God grown? I have heard many are taking stock of their connection to God and church and making changes during this time. Joining the prayer group I mentioned above was because I wanted to deepen my faith and connection with God through community.
Some really special things have happened for me as a result of this prayer time. My faith has grown stronger. I have been less worried about the news and the potential fallout from the pandemic. And even though I still don’t know most of the people by sight, I feel very close to them because of opening our hearts to God and each other.
Getting back to normal
There is a natural desire to get back to normal. We need the income from work; our children miss the structure of the classroom and their friends; we long for the end to disruption and a return to normality.
But are there ways in which you don’t want to go back to the way it was? Maybe you fell more in love with your spouse and family, and you don’t want to slip back into the humdrum again. Maybe you felt called to something deeper with God and found it; and, you don’t want to lose that.
In that sense, we want a “new normal.” We can tell God that, and determine, with His help to pursue it. God is longing for a new normal for you too. The Bible describes Him has a kind, loving Father who deeply wishes for a relationship with us. Though He certainly didn’t cause this pandemic, I imagine He has been wishing that many of his children would turn to Him and come home to His heart. He told Isaiah during a similar time:
“See, I am doing anewthing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
If we feel the desire, that is evidence that God is drawing us to His heart. We can say, “Yes, God I want you to do a new thing in my heart and life. I ask you to make a road in the wilderness of my world and refreshing streams in the wasteland of my life. Renew my relationship with you. Restore my relationships with my loved ones.”
These are prayers He loves to hear and answer.
Seeing with New Eyes
How about asking God for 20/20 spiritual eyesight in 2020? The pandemic has forced us to look at our lives and re-evaluate things. Why not ask God to open your eyes to see what you need spiritually? I have been doing this. That is a first order of magnitude prayer He will answer.
We have been hearing so many stories of trouble related to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Lockdown. Hard stories of economic hardship, health crises, and losses of loved ones. Difficult stories of the chaos caused by the disease and the impacts triggered by trying to manage it.
Trouble. People are caught in trouble of all kinds. Mentally taxing, emotionally draining, soul trying, trouble.
Psalm 91 is a prayer for God’s protection and deliverance from trouble. I wrote in detail about it here. But today, I want to focus on one phrase in it: “I will be with him in trouble” (Psalm 91:15).
When trouble comes, we pray to be delivered from it. Psalm 91 promises faithful believers will be spared in the great Time of Trouble before Jesus comes. But between now and then, we go through trouble. Jesus said we would: “In this world you will have trouble, ” He said; “but take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
So we live in the in-between reality that Jesus overcame sin in all its forms, resisted the devil, and died victoriously. He had revealed that God is good, infinitely self-sacrificing, and that Satan is a liar and a murderer. Invisibly but powerfully, Jesus is winning hearts and taking back spiritual territory in this world, but His absolute reign is yet future.
In this between-the-times, Jesus is very much with us as we go through trouble, even if He doesn’t always deliver us from it. And what I want to say today is that the presence of Jesus with us in our trouble is a great gift. It is almost as wonderful, maybe better, than being rescued.
Years ago, I experienced a difficult loss. It took place over about two years, a time that was filled with grief, tears, heart longings, and many prayers. Often, I prayed to have the loss restored.
But something else was happening at the same time. My faith in Jesus was growing and deepening. He was becoming more real, and His love and presence were often palpable. The scriptures were becoming alive to me in ways that had never happened. Jesus was clearly fulfilling His promise to be with me in trouble.
He has promised to be with us many times:
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10 NIV
Jesus, before His death and Ascension: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” John 14:18-20 NIV
“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23 NIV
Jesus during His Great Commission: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:20 NIV
“The Lord is near.” Philippians 4:5 NIV
Jesus is here invisibly, through His Spirit. He is loving us, helping us, drawing us to Himself. His promise to be in our lives is especially fulfilled when we put our trust in Him. If we accept Him as our Redeemer and Friend and decide to follow His words, He takes up residence in our hearts. Here is His promise:
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in. . .”
Revelation 3:12 NIV
So friend. whatever you are going through, Jesus is willing to be with you. He welcomes your prayers for deliverance and He will do what is best in the long run. I know this takes faith. Sometimes, it is only years later, that can see God knew best.
But, in any case, He will be with you. He will comfort you with His love and show you more of His heart. That is ultimately what David meant in Psalm 91.
Whatever you are going through, I pray you will experience the presence of Jesus with you. May you believe His promises and trust His heart, as this song speaks about.
There is so much during the COVID-19 Pandemic that is heart breaking. As of today, more than 82,000 people have died in the U.S. and almost 300,000 world-wide. Every person represents a grieving family and community.
Hearts are breaking every day. Family members lost too soon, businesses going under, jobs lost, futures uncertain. Does God understand all this heartbreak? Does He care?
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted. . .”
Psalm 34:18 NIV
When Jesus was here in this world, He experienced many kinds of heartbreak. He was grief stricken by the rejection He experienced.
His life was one of constant sadness as the gifts He offered were refused. Isaiah wrote about His experience: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3).
Jesus’ experienced the ultimate anguish and sorrow on the cross when His heart was broken by our guilt and sin which separated Him from God. He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46) just before He died.
Jesus’ disciple John noticed that water and blood flowed out of the spear wound, which was evidence of a broken heart (John 19:34).
Yes, Jesus has experienced heartbreak.
But, is He close to us in our losses and troubles? Does He care?
When He was here, Jesus said He would be very close to us. He would not leave us as orphans in this world. He would still live with us through His Spirit (John 14:18, 23).
He said we would have trouble in this world, but that He overcame it and will eventually return to more than make everything whole again (John 16:33). In the meantime, He offers to give us His peace and comfort.
Friend, Jesus understands your breaking heart. He is willing to come beside you and help you in every way possible. He knows your need and will listen to your prayers.
We live in a war zone with great trouble taking place all around us. But Jesus has come behind enemy lines to help us in every way He can. Call out to Him. Trust Him. Wait for Him to work. He feels your pain and will do all He can.
The lyrics to an old song express it well: “Tears Are a Language God Understands,” sung here by the Heritage Singers. I listened to it many times years ago when my heart was breaking with loss. God seemed very close and the words reassured me that He understood and cared about what I was going through.
Tears Are a Language God Understands
Often you wonder why tears come into your eyes And burdens seem to be much more than you can bear But God is standing near, He sees your falling tears And tears are a language God understands.
God sees the tears of a brokenhearted soul He sees your tears and hears them when they fall God weeps along with man and He takes him by the hand Tears are a language God understands.
When grief has left you low it causes tears to flow When things have not turned out the way that you had planned But God won’t forget you His promises are true And tears are a language God understands.
God sees the tears of a brokenhearted soul He sees your tears and hears them when they fall God weeps along with man and He takes him by the hand Tears are a language that my God He understands.
God weeps along with man and He takes him by the hand Tears are a language God understands.
Many people have been asking if the Carona Virus Pandemic is a sign of Earth’s Last Days. They are asking not just because it is a serious illness, but because of the global impact of COVID-19, closing everything down, disrupting economies, troubling international relations. Something this impactful must be a sign, they feel.
I started writing on this topic by showing what Jesus said about pandemics in his teaching about the Last Days (In Matthew 24, He calls them pestilences, another word for pandemics or plagues). You can go to what I said about that in Part 1 and Part 2.
Then I moved to the book of Revelation. Why? The Bible’s last book speaks apocalyptically about Earth’s final events. Not just that, of course; it covers the stream of time from Jesus First Advent to the Second Coming of Christ.
Jesus Himself shows up in a vision to John, one of Jesus’ early disciples. It is now sixty years since Jesus died, rose, and ascended to heaven. The Christian Church is under serious persecution, and Jesus returns to reassure His followers of His care and concern and to lay out the future in broad strokes. It was comforting and enlightening to Christians then, and has been down through the centuries.
Revelation’s First and Last Sections
In the first half of Revelation Jesus lays out what the Church will experience in the years between John’s ministry and His return. In cycles of seven (seven letters to churches, seven seals, and seven trumpets), Jesus loops through history three times to show different angles of the same story – what His Church will face ahead. I covered that here.
The last half of Revelation is a dramatic exposé of Earth’s final events; not in the detail we might wish for, but in enough broad strokes to know the outline and major events that will come, what they mean, and how to relate to them when they arrive. It was given so we can take our stand on the right side of spiritual issues that come and have God’s strength to keep us faithful.
Purpose of this Blog
My purpose in this blog, Part 5, is to give a short overview of what Jesus told John would happen in the final period of Earth’s End-time. I will not go into great depth. The details have filled many books. My purpose here is to give you an orientation to chapters 12-22 and to spotlight a few things that show where we are in the stream of time. Jesus’ coming is certainly nearer than ever before.
A Master of Divinity student I am mentoring told me the other day that some people ask, “Why study the book of Revelation? After all, we should spend our time helping people get to know God and doing good like Jesus did, not conjecturing about the future. Besides, focusing on the Last Days just creates a lot of fear, not hope and peace.”
Those are fair questions. Remember, Jesus Himself gave us the messages and information in this book. He considered The Revelation very important for at least these three reasons:
1) To Strengthen Our Faith. Jesus knew the years ahead would be a very difficult time for believers to live in. Faith would have a hard time surviving. So He gave us information and evidence that would strengthen our faith when we saw events coming to pass. Jesus told His disciples, “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am” (John 13:19). Our relationship with Jesus should not depend on “signs,” but on knowing His character and trusting His grace and promises, but signposts are a “help” he has given as part of our trust relationship with Him.
2) Courtesy Signs. “Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door” (Matthew 24:33). When friends or loved ones used to come for a visit (before The Quarantine), as a courtesy, they would call or text a few minutes away to let us know they would arrive soon. That way we could do our last tidying up, finish food prep, and be ready to meet them. Jesus loves us and has given “courtesy signs” to let us know what will happen and when He’ll be arriving soon so we can be alert. As He said about this in Luke, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28 NIV). How thoughtful of Jesus!
3) Intense Times Require Preparation. I met a young man in Russia many years ago, shortly after the Iron Curtain fell. He told me that several years earlier, he expected to be arrested for his faith, so he spent time getting prepared spiritually so his faith would not fail in prison. He spent time reading His Bible, committing texts to memory, praying, surrendering His life to God daily. Fortunately, he was never arrested. Jesus gives us “signs” to remind us along the way we need to stay ready. Before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus warned His disciples, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Jesus has laid out final events in Revelation to encourage us to “Watch and pray. . . .”
Introduction to Earth’s Climax – Revelation 11:19
Revelation 11:19 introduces the Last Days. It describes the Inner Sanctum of God’s temple in heaven being opened. John sees the “ark of his covenant,” containing the Ten Commandments and covered by the “mercy seat.” Lightning flashes, thunder rolls, the earth quakes, and more. Something awesome is about to happen.
The Hebrew sanctuary or worship center illustrated God’s way of saving us and also a timeline for God’s salvation plan. Jesus’ death, His ascension to be our Mediator, the Judgment, and the Second Coming were all pictured.
This scene in chapter 11:19 initiates the Last Days, the Day of Atonement, the heavenly Yom Kippur. While this takes place in Heaven, Satan will ravage the earth like a wounded animal, knowing his days are numbered.
“Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”
Revelation 12:12 NIV
Revelation 12 – 13:1-10: Cosmic Conflict
In Revelation 12 and 13:1-10, Jesus describes the Final Scenes in the long spiritual conflict between God and Satan. He does this by picturing the history of the Christian Church from the perspective of this cosmic conflict.
Revelation 12, like other parts of Revelation, contains several scenes. It begins with the birth of Christ. He is is born through the “woman,” God’s covenant people in the Old and New Testaments (Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Salvation is from the Jews.” John 4:22). Her tiara of twelve stars represents the twelve tribes of Israel. Her standing on the moon while clothed with the sun is a picture of the old covenant (moon) with its symbols giving way to the realities of the New Covenant (sun) and “Jesus, the True Light who gives light to everyone.” John 1:9; 2 Corinthians 3:7-18).
But then, an enormous red dragon swoops in, landing in front of the woman to devour her child as soon as it is born. This dragon is Satan (verse 9), but he is works diabolically through a human government to try to kill Jesus before He accomplishes His mission to save us (Satan acted through King Herod. See Matthew 2:13-18).
Christ is eventually snatched up to God’s throne (after His life, death, and resurrection; verse 5), so Satan now turns his wrath on Jesus’ followers, the Church. She flees into the wilderness, trying to escape persecution by Satan through Rome and its successors. Revelation often skips over details as it describes a larger narrative.
Why all this suffering? After these scenes, Jesus pulls the curtain back to show why the Church will suffer so much down through history (of course other persecuted minorities have suffered too). Revelation 12:7-12 shows is because Satan is carrying on a long war with God. His hatred for Jesus and the Father lead him to harass and kill their followers. He diabolically delights in suffering and death and brings suffering on the whole world.
This rebellion began in heaven where Satan gradually changed from the Angel Leader, Lucifer (Light Bearer) to Satan (the accuser) through pride and coveting God’s throne. Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 tell the story, veiled in prophecies about human kings. Through brilliant propaganda and cunning lies, Satan persuaded one third of the angels to join his side (Revelation 12:4).
Revelation 12:7-17 describes this revolution in heaven, Satan’s and His angel followers’ eventual expulsion, and their long war on Jesus’ Church through the centuries. Most importantly, Jesus tells how His followers can be victorious in this war:
“They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”
Revelation 12:11 NIV
The woman (Jesus’ true followers) will be the “Church in the Wilderness” always persecuted, through the Dark Ages (verses 14-16).
The transitional verse which opens the curtain on the final conflict described in Revelation 13 and 14 is very significant.
“Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.”
Revelation 12:17 NIV
In the Time of the End, the period of the heavenly Yom Kippur, Jesus is finishing His work of intercession and Judgment in heaven. Satan knows that his time is short. So he turns his fury on the Woman’s (the Church) final descendants. Chapters 13 and 14 will describe how he does this through earthly powers.
The Last Act: Cast of Characters
Previously, I said that Jesus gave the Revelation so His people, the Church, would understand the scope of what they would face from John’s day to the Second Advent. But now, Jesus focuses in on the last period of time in this cosmic spiritual struggle.
In Revelation 13, he identifies two kingdoms or nations that will especially persecute God’s people. They are pictured as “beasts.” This was an ancient way of identifying kingdoms. We do this today as well. School sports teams have their mascots, often an animal.
The First Beast of Revelation 13
At the close of Revelation 12, the dragon (Satan) stands on the shore of the sea in John’s vision. The sea represents the nations and people of earth. As he stands there, a beast emerges from the sea.
It becomes clear as we read Revelation 13:1-10, that Jesus is describing the ruling power that has been persecuting the woman in chapter 12. The dragon is going to work through this beast to persecute some of Jesus’ followers.
This first persecuting beast is actually a composite of the kingdoms in Daniel 7, Revelation’s companion book in the Old Testament: a lion (Babylon), bear (Medo-Persia), leopard (ancient Greece, and dragon (Rome). Animals in apocalyptic literature represent kingdoms; see Daniel 7:17.
This combination animal gathers the kings and nations of Europe and Western Asia into his reign. As the kingdoms of ancient Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome all persecuted God’s people, this beast does the same in the Christian era, from the time of Christ through the middle ages, to the End of Time.
Notice that he has a throne and great authority. So, he reigns as a monarch. He is wounded, but survives, and the whole world follows him (vs. 3, 8). He persecutes some of God’s followers for the same period of time (forty-two months) as mentioned in Revelation 12:6.
Second Beast of Revelation 13
As John watches amazed, he sees another animal emerge, this time from the earth. This beast looks lamb-like. A lamb is a symbol of Jesus in both Old and New Testament, so this is a nation with Christian roots. However outwardly Christian it is, it sometimes speaks with the voice of a dragon and becomes more and more dragon-like. This nation comes after the first beast in history because he leads the world to reverence and worship the first beast kingdom.
By working miracles, the second kingdom gains world-wide allegiance and leads all nations to set up an image of the first beast. He gives this image life so it can speak with authority and cause all who refuse to worship the first beast to be killed. So there is a collaboration between the first beast, which continues to exist, and the second beast. As John watches these two beasts in their dragon-like work, his attention is suddenly riveted by something happening in the sky.
Three Angels of Revelation 14
As chapter 14 begins, John sees Jesus’ faithful followers at the end. They are the “sealed” people of Revelation 7. They have a pure faith, follow Jesus faithfully, and have God’s character in their minds. While he is watching them, three angels fly through the air loudly announcing a three part message to the whole world.
Their message comes directly from God as a response to the activity of the two beasts as they fight for world-wide attention and allegiance. The angels’ proclamation is a universal warning not to worship the beast or receive the “mark,” or sign of his authority, on their forehead or hand.
What Does All This Mean?
There isn’t time to go into every detail, but here are some important things to notice:
It’s Who You Worship. The beasts are doing everything they can to gain world-wide worship and authority. Satan, who has wanted worship from the beginning of his apostasy (Isaiah 14:13, 14; Ezekiel 28:17) , works through them to get the worship he wants. Paul predicted this would happen in 2 Thessalonians 2. The Three Angels remind everyone that only God is worthy of worship because He is the Creator, Savior, and Judge of all.
It’s Who You Obey. The Last Day cosmic struggle will be about who to obey. The beasts and their image will try to force obedience and worship on pain of death. At the same time, Jesus invites all to obey and follow Him because He is the true God. Two key statements are made which show this.
“Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.”
“This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.”
Revelation 12:17; 14:12 NIV
Jesus’ Last Day followers will obey all of God’s Ten Commandments (James 2:10-11) and hold on to their testimony about Jesus, that He is their Savior and Lord. They don’t just believe, they obey. They are grateful for saving grace, and through Jesus’ help they keep God’s commands. That’s why Satan hates them and is trying to get rid of them. They are the opposite of what he has become. They are faithful and, through grace, are becoming more and more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Final Call. This is earth’s spiritual Endtime crisis, Jesus’ final invitation to accept and follow Him. How do we know? Immediately after the Three Angels give their message, Jesus comes. His Coming is described as the earth’s harvest. The Seven Last Plagues take place, the judgment on the beasts and their followers (also called “Babylon”) occurs, and Jesus comes.
Who is Babylon? Babylon plays a prominent role in Revelation 14-18. Who is this Babylon? Ancient Babylon was originally made up of God’s followers, the family of Noah who were faithful to God and survived the Flood.
After the Great Flood, some of Noah’s family lost their faith, gave into doubt, turned against God, and established a religious philosophy of salvation through personal effort, instead of trusting God completely (Genesis 11). This group of Noah’s descendants became the ancestors of ancient Babylon, which in turn became a major antagonist to God’s people, Israel, in the Old Testament.
In Revelation Jesus draws on Old Testament names and places to symbolize what will take place in the Last Days. People that historically followed God, but turned away, will become the persecutors of those who humbly trust and obey Jesus’ teachings.
Miracles and Authority. In Revelation, Jesus warns us not to base our faith on the teachings of people or miracles, but on Jesus and His word. While genuine miracles will take place, Revelation warns strongly against false miracles. This is in line with Jesus’ earlier teaching:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Matthew 7:21-23 NIV
Conclusion: What’s It All About?
Revelation begins with Jesus. Chapter 1 is dedicated “to Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood,” and who “is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him. . .” (Revelation 1:5-7).
Jesus appears to John in symbols, showing that He has kept His promise to be with His Church “until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Revelation shows that our crucified, resurrected, and living Savior has led the Church through the centuries since His First Advent, and will lead us through the Last Days before He returns at the Second Coming.
We can trust this and love Him even more for His faithfulness.
So, is COVID-19 a sign of the End? Not by itself, though something like this could certainly help trigger the things described by Revelation. When we examine what Jesus taught about the Last Days, we see a coming together of many influences and events. It is world-wide in scope. Like a painting is made up of hundreds brush strokes, the Last Days will involve many things.
In times of crisis, people sometimes turn to God out of fear. Nationalism and majoritarian religion can create a climate of xenophobia and racism, which leads to persecution of minorities. In a crisis, leaders sometimes over reach in power. Constitutional liberties are overlooked in the interest of personal and national security.
Revelation predicts a time when this will happen on a world-wide scale.
Signs Visible Now – Questions to Ask
Looking over Revelation 13-19, what do we see now that might show Jesus’ Coming is very close?
Nations with World-wide Authority and Power. Ask yourself, what nations have the influence and power described in Revelation 13? What kingdoms and powers are collaborating to force obedience to non-scriptural laws. This may still be in the future, but it is important to be alert.
Miracle Movements. What movements focus heavily on the miraculous, and how broad is their influence? Do they accurately teach the Bible? When miracles are used to justify false teaching, as often happened in Old and New Testaments, those leaders and miracles are not from God.
Power and Force. What tendencies do you see to grab power and ignore the principle of freedom of religion and conscience? What movements exist to undermine human rights in major countries. In our nation, we must protect the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.
Economic Problems. Revelation 18:17 and James 5:1-6 predict a time when wealth will disappear through economic trouble or collapse. What trends in our world indicate this could happen?
Battle over God’s Law and Jesus’ Gospel. Revelation 12:17 and 14:12 say clearly that the final spiritual issue will be whether people hold to their faith in Jesus and keep God’s Ten Commandments. We are saved by grace to live a life of holiness and obedience as Romans shows. In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus said He did not come to abolish the Ten Commandments. In other words, grace does not void out God’s Law. What efforts and movements do you see growing who distort these truths?
So, what should we do?
This is such an important question. When Jesus gave His teachings about Church history and the Last Days in the Gospels, He concluded by showing how we should live while we wait for His Second Coming.
Interestingly, He did not teach that we should focus all our attention on signs and events, but on living His life and serving others in His name. While we should be aware of all Jesus taught about signs and events, it is the mission He gave us that we should concentrate mostly on. I will conclude this series on COVID-19 and the Last Days by looking at what Jesus taught about this in Matthew 24:36-51 and 25.
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
Hebrews 4:16 NIV
In the Bible and in Christian teaching, God’s grace is defined as His mercy, kindness, and favor toward we who are undeserving. We usually think of grace in relationship to sin–disobedience of God’s will and human failing in general. God extends His grace to us when we realize our shortcomings and ask His forgiveness.
In the middle of the COVID-19 Pandemic and all its fallout, we are all struggling in many ways. Couples and families cooped up in Quarantine. Employers struggling to understand government requirements and getting needed supplies. Employees asked to do additional work, or let go indefinitely. Children being educated on Zoom or video chat, frustrated by the new ways. And so much more.
Personal and societal stress results in much need of God’s forgiving grace. In this short blog, I want to describe the two kinds of grace God offers us and how they can help us.
Two Kinds of Grace
1) Justifying, Saving Grace
God’s first gift of grace is amazing, almost unbelievable; but it is the foundation of every other dispensing of grace He gives us. It is the grace that saves us.
God offers me this grace when I realize how broken I am as a human being and how sinful attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions keep bubbling out of me, no matter how hard I try. When I realize there might be help from God and turn to Him, admitting my need for His forgiveness and help, He forgives me, justifies me, and changes my heart. Paul describes this in his letter to Titus.
“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
Titus 3:3-7 NIV
What allows God to do this for us is this: Jesus came in human form, lived our life without sin and died for our sins on the cross. In His life, he did what we had failed to do. By depending deeply on God (it was a daily battle fought by prayer and self-surrender), He resisted every from of temptation and lived a sinless life. Then on the cross, He willingly accepted the guilt and punishment of every human being (1 John 2:2; 1 Peter 2:24; Isaiah 53:5-10). Our sins broke His heart and crushed out His life.
When I understand this, and put my trust in Jesus to help me, He does several things.
He forgives all my past sins because Jesus liquidated my moral debt on the cross. He justifies me, a legal action, which means He pardons me and erases my guilt because Christ took it on the cross. At the same time, He credits Jesus’ perfect life to me, covering my past life with His perfect life, so I stand before Him faultless.
He also changes my heart in a supernatural “new birth” experience, so now, from my heart, I desire to love and follow Him and His path instead of my former selfish ways. Now, I am a child of God by spiritual rebirth, and He sends His Spirit to live in me to help me live a new and different life. The Spirit helps me become more and more like Him and grows the fruit of true goodness and holiness in me, more and more, as I learn how to walk with God.
Many people look at Christians and think they are living through self-effort, that they have accepted certain behaviors and practices and do this hard work to earn God’s favor. Probably many do. But real Christianity is a supernatural experience. God changes our hearts, and we live differently because He loves us and lives in us.
We have peace because we have been forgiven and justified. We have been accepted by God and are His loved children. We are pictured as “standing in grace,” in God’s favor and mercy, no longer under guilt and condemnation.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.
Romans 5:1-2 NIV
How would you like to have God take all your failures and forgive them? How would you like Him to take your life history with all the dark places, and cover it all with Jesus’ perfect life? How would you like Him to change you from the inside out. If you will admit your need and confess you sins to Him, surrendering your heart and life to Him, He will. The Bible describes this as being covered with a white robe of righteousness, Jesus’ life.
2) Helping, Growing Grace
God not only justifies us and takes us into His family, but He gives us daily grace to help us live a different, new life.
This grace is a different expression of God’s kindness than justifying grace, but it comes from the same place–God’s kind mercy. It is also based on Jesus’ death for us. But the first kind of grace is forgiveness, the second is God’s help to lives a different life. The second is based on the first.
This is the grace we need for patience with our spouse and children. We can ask for this grace when we have not been treated fairly. This grace is needed when we face inward brokenness and sin of any kind. God gives us this grace to grow and become more like we were intended to be.
Because we have been forgiven, justified (#1 above), God can now help us whenever we ask. We can request for this grace whenever we need it as our opening scripture said, Hebrews 4:16.
“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
Romans 8:32 NIV
This second gift of grace is known by different terms: inward grace, assisting grace, strengthening grace, sustaining grace, sanctifying grace, grace to help us in our times of need, grace that matures us, grace for obedience. This shows that God has grace for us for every situation in life. All we need to do is humbly ask in faith, depending on God for His help. His grace is sufficient for every need.
Here are a few scriptures that describe this helping grace God is so willing to give us:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9
“It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace.” Hebrews 13:9
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” Philemon 1:25
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. . .” 1 Corinthians 15:10
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Hebrews 4:16
One sad effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic and Quarantine is the loneliness so many are feeling. Many kinds of loneliness.
Probably the worst kind is the loneliness thousands of sick people are feeling as they are quarantined in hospitals or nursing homes, unable to received the love and support of family and friends. The the Pandemic first began, our pastors went to visit our members in their retirement homes, but for safety, visitation from outside people had been curtailed. Loneliness.
We have seen the pictures of elderly spouses waving to their loved ones through hospital windows, unable to speak to them and give the gift of loving touch. We are grateful for healthcare workers who are doing their best in such circumstances, but being very ill and dying without family around you must be so very hard.
And there are other kinds of loneliness. Not being able to gather as families. Grandparents who can’t be with their grandchildren. Being suddenly isolated from our social and work networks, the people we love to be around. Missing up-close, personal human interaction. Social media, Skype, and Zoom, help; but they are not the same.
Sometimes we are lonely even with others, if we feel unloved or unappreciated. That is a difficult kind of loneliness. The Quarantine may bring out the brokenness in our close relationships.
Then, someone pointed out the other day how dehumanizing it is to relate to people through masks. We communicate so much below the level of our eyes–affirming smiles, expressions of agreement, acknowledgment, and more. Wearing masks is important, but we lose so much of human warmth in doing so.
In the middle of all this, God can help us with our loneliness. That is what I want to share with you today.
“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”
Psalm 25:16 NIV
King David wrote this at a time when he was facing attacks by political enemies and people who wanted to do him harm. He felt alone. Who could he trust? Who could he turn to in such circumstances? Only to God.
The truth is, God promises to be with us in our troubles, our isolation, our loneliness. Whatever circumstances are causing us to feel alone, He is there for us.
When Jesus was preparing to go back to heaven after His resurrection, he acknowledged that His followers would feel alone; so He made a wonderful promise we can take to heart now.
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. . .Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
John 14:18, 23 NIV
This promise was not just for those disciples. It applies to everyone who accepts it. God offers to make His home in us.
This is not a replacement for human love and presence, but it is a deep help with the problem of loneliness. Having a God who loves us so much, a Jesus who lived, died, rose, and always lives for us be willing to be with us at all times an in all circumstances is a wonderful blessing.
Jesus experienced His Father’s presence with him in this way. He said, “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me” (John 16:32).
Friend, if you accept Jesus as you Friend and Savior, and God as your Father, you can have the comfort of their presence with you all the time. You don’t need to ever be lonely in the sense of being completely alone.
Since I accepted Jesus, I want to tell you I have never been lonely, because He has always been with me. Yes, I have missed family when I couldn’t be with them. In some situations, there was a sense of being alone. But I have never felt truly alone because God has been with me. This is a gift He offers to everyone.
What about those who are dying alone? This is so tragic. My heart goes out to families who long to be with their loved one and cannot, and the sick person who so much would like to have their family with them.
I believe that in ways known only to God, He has been there for them. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted. . .” “the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down” (Psalm 34:18; 146:8).
When my wife’s late husband died of cancer, they were alone at home together. My wife had prayed that her trust in God would not fail when the moment came.
After her husband took his last breath, and she realized he had died, she prayed, thanking God for His help and faithfulness during their difficult journey. She thanked God she still trusted Him. Suddenly she felt a physical touch like someone pressing on her back, hugging her. She knew instantly that God was truly with her and would be with her always. This reminds me of Jesus’ promise when He left:
“Surely I will be with you always, to the very endof the age.”
You can take hold of these promises from Jesus that I have shared today. We may not feel we deserve this, but He loves us more than we can imagine. In His eyes, we were worth enough to give His life for. He wants to be with us, to be a Friend and Companion. You can invite Him if you choose.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has presented many challenges at all levels of society. Government, business, healthcare, education, and finance have had to make huge adjustments in how to operate, often on a daily basis.
Teachers have had to re-tool how they educate. Hospital administrators have had to completely re-configure their hospitals. Businesses have had to build protection barriers and establish distancing requirements and customer flow. And the list goes on and on.
To complicate things, conflicting mandates come from different levels of government making decisions difficult. Resources are scarce. Income is drying up. Employees are being furloughed, or let go. This affects all of us, on a very personal level. Parents who work and home school. Healthcare givers who have to quarantine from family, and more.
In the middle of all this, God offers to give wisdom for all the situations and decisions we face. He makes this promise in James 1:5. It is a promise you can “take to the bank.” You can rely on it because a caring and grace-filled God stands behind it.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
James 1:5 NIV
Without finding fault. I appreciate so much that this says, “God gives generously to all without finding fault.“
This promise comes to us from a gracious God. A God who is full of sympathy and grace. (Biblically, grace is an act of favor or kindness toward someone who may not deserve it. But it is given because the heart of the Giver is full of compassion and understanding.) James is saying that God gives wisdom in that spirit when we ask.
We have a lot of faults, right? We have probably made a lot of mistakes. In the pressure of this situation, we might have lost our temper (more than once), hurt those under our leadership, failed in many possible ways. But God is saying here that He doesn’t scold us for past failures, when we come sincerely, with our needs. He doesn’t hold back because we have ignored Him. He gives it without finding fault. Because He is a God of inexplicable love and grace. That is the way He is.
He also “gives it generously.” He is a large-hearted God who pours out his blessings on everyone. According to Jesus, “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45 NIV). How do you see God? As judging, condemning, or selective in who He helps. He invites us to know Him as loving, gracious, and generous.
A Promise for Troubled Times
This promise of generous help is given in the context of trouble, which is what we are certainly dealing with now. Here is what James says before verse 5.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
James 1:2-4 NIV
We are facing trials of many kinds now. God’s promise of wisdom is for such times. He invites us to ask for it when we are faced with tough or complicated decisions. Decisions that affect our business, our employees, our families. Corporate decisions and personal ones.
James also reminds us of a benefit that comes to us in our trials. The testing of our faith in trouble develops perseverance which leads to spiritual maturity.
This perseverance is not human grit, but rather the perseverance of faith. Faith stretching out to grab hold of God’s help and wisdom in times of trouble. Faith growing stronger as we claim His promises and experience His faithfulness in giving us the help we need.
Yesterday, I was digging around a young citrus tree in my back yard. It hasn’t fared so well in the high winds of our area, losing most of its leaves. Most of Spring, it has looked dead. But as I dug, I found a long, thin root that had stretched out looking for moisture. New leaves are sprouting now, and it will be fine.
James is describing this kind of perseverance and faith that, weak as it is sometimes, stretches out to ask God’s help, perhaps find more of God Himself. Confessing one’s lack of faith and need of wisdom, and asking God for His faithfulness, is what he means.
That Kind of Help
So, when James invites us to ask God for wisdom, He will give us that kind of help. He will give it generously, with grace, without finding fault. We will experience His love and help in practical ways as we see our prayers answered. And our faith will grow as we persevere.
On One Condition
When we ask God for help, we must come in faith, trusting He is able to help us, and believing that He will give us the answers we need when it is best. James says it this way:
“But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”
James 1:6, 7 NIV
Is God switching from kind to demanding? From generous to stingy? No, faith is the condition which allows God to help us.
In the beginning, humanity turned from God by through doubting His word and distrusting His heart. This led to disobedience of a clear command. And this allowed Satan to claim us and this world as his. We chose his way.
Trusting God allows Him to do what He could otherwise not do.
A man came to Jesus asking for help. His son was possessed by a demon who had often thrown him into the fire or water to kill him. The family was tormented by the constant suspense and danger. The father said to Jesus, “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“’If you can?’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’
“Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief’!”
Mark 9:22-24 NIV
Immediately, Jesus commanded the evil spirit to come out of the boy, and he was freed.
Jesus invited people to put their trust in Him; to have faith, to believe. And when they did, He was able to help them. But as Jane pointed out in a comment below (and I agree), the point of this story is that God knows we often have weak faith, or no faith at all. But when we admit our need, God can help us. Admitting our need is the key that allows Him to work. There have been so many times in life when I came to God weak, in need of faith, asking for help and wisdom; and He was always there to help me.
So you see, James is right. Faith is a condition of receiving God’s help. Even struggling, weak faith. Not that God is trying to withhold His blessings. It is a ground rule for His action in the face of the cosmic war going on now.
Now that you understand, whatever role and responsibilities you have in your life, I pray you will take God up on His offer and experience His kindness and help. The answer to your prayer may not come immediately. But it will come when you need it most. God somethings allows our faith to stretch and grow stronger as we wait. It is a growth process, and it clarifies our motives and purifies our desires. So pray and trust. God is faithful.
The last few years of my pastoral career were extremely busy. I learned more than ever before in my life to depend on God for wisdom. Projects, counseling, sermons, leadership–things came at a fast pace. I learned to lean on God constantly. I was praying many times a day for wisdom, sometimes just breathing a prayer as I worked. God’s promise in Isaiah became a reality: “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).
This can happen for us because God loves us so much. He really cares and wants to walk beside us as we do life. He proved this by sending Jesus to walk with us. And when Jesus left to go back to heaven, He said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. My Father and I will make our home with you” (John 14:18, 23 NIV).
So, if you need wisdom, guidance, or support, ask. He loves to help.
Years ago I attended a large pastor’s conference. One speaker was the well known counselor and author, John Townsend. His topic very much spoke to where I was in life at the time, and I wanted to have more conversation with him.
I found him later on campus, and as we talked about his presentation, he asked, out of the blue it seemed to me, if I was depressed. His question caught me off guard. But after reflecting a moment, I said, “No, I don’t think so.” He replied kindly, “You might want to give it some thought.”
Who me? Depressed? I was a pastor with answers for others. I was a source of wisdom and help to many under my care. I was a healer. I didn’t need to be healed.
But his question stuck with me, and I thought about my life. A pastor in a challenging position in a large church with an attached school. ministering to youth, college students, and young adults. Three young children. Married and each of us working long hours in leadership. Who me; depressed? In retrospect, I think I was.
Discouragement and depression develop in situations that are overwhelming, where we are taxed beyond what our conscious coping mechanisms can handle. When life challenges are unrelenting, with no solution in sight, hope begins to fade and discouragement and depression sneak up, settling like a fog on our mind.
In this time of the COVID-19 Quarantine, with all its personal and national fallout, discouragement and depression are real for many.
King David struggled with depression and wrote about it several times in the Psalms. As monarch of Israel, he often faced overwhelming challenges–administrative, political, and military. He also grappled with his personal failings.
In Psalm 40, he describes some of what he faced:
“For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me. . .May all who seek to take my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace. May those who say to me, ‘Aha! Aha!’ be appalled at their own shame.”
Psalm 40:12, 14, 15
So, how did David cope? I believe his psalms hold solutions for us. In Psalm 42 he writes:
Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
I once heard the pastor of a very large church describe his struggle with depression. He had a young family, a child with mental health challenges, and a large, growing congregation with multiple staff. He slipped into depression and couldn’t find a way out.
One day, the idea came to him to write down encouraging things from Scripture and memorize them. He wrote these out on cards and read through them each morning and evening. Promises of God’s care. Passages about His goodness and love.
He shared with us that after three weeks, his depression lifted and joy returned.
What was it that helped him? Reading his cards shifted his focus from His problems to God’s goodness and promises of help. His faith strengthened. No doubt, God was at work in him too.
King David had learned that when he felt down, He could remember God’s goodness and guidance in the past. He could recall stories of His care, His promises to assist. And this became like a strong hand that lifted him out of quicksand and set his feet on solid ground again.
There are times when when we may need to see a counselor, or take medication for a while. Some depression has a physiologic or brain chemistry source. But God is a personal, caring God. His word is full of more than 3,000 promises which describe how He is willing to help us in a variety of life situations. This may, indeed, be the best medicine. While it may be hard to see a counselor or doctor during the quarantine, this remedy is as near as your Bible and your sincere prayer for help.
In Psalm 40, David describes how this prescription helped him with his discouragement and depression. “Waiting” for David meant trusting God, putting his hope in God’s character and promises while He waited for God to help.
I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.
This morning, a lady reported to our online prayer group, that she had received the dreaded letter. The hospital she works for had furloughed her. Another woman told how a friend, a sole provider with children in college, has also been furloughed. Of course, this is happening to thousands, probably millions, of people across our country and around the world.
I want to encourage you with a story from the first book of the Bible. Hagar, an Egyptian servant to Sarah, Abraham’s wife, has been mistreated by her mistress. It’s a complicated story, which you can read in Genesis 16; but we pick it up where Hagar has had enough abuse and has run away.
She’s out in the desert, alone, wondering how she is going to survive. Support gone. Resources dried up. Fearful for the future. Tears in her eyes.
That’s where an angel from Heaven finds her and gives her some guidance and a very encouraging message.
What is interesting is that Hagar probably didn’t follow Abraham’s God. Being from Egypt, she likely had her own national gods. Also, if you read the story, she had not been behaving especially well. But God didn’t hesitate. Because He has a heart for those in need. For the weak, the oppressed, the fired or furloughed.
When the angel finished, Hagar did and said something which speaks to my heart. I hope it will encourage you.
“She (Hagar) gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.”That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi (well of the Living One who seese me); it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.
“You are the God who sees me.” I didn’t know you, but You knew what I was going through. You saw me here beside the spring. In my home. On my knees. Collapsed on the couch. At a bar. Far from town. Tears in my eyes and fear in my heart.
If you are reading this, I want you to know that God sees what you are going through. He knows your circumstances and your need. If you cry out to Him, He will hear your prayer and help you in ways only a powerful, loving God knows how to do.
There are many promises He makes about this in the Bible, the record of His interactions with us humans. I want to share a few to encourage you. You can take them to Him and ask Him for help, because He is faithful. He is loving. And He sees.
“He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea.” Psalm 102:17
“The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys.” Isaiah 41:17-18
“The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him.” 2 Chronicles 16:9
“Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high,who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of his people.” Psalm 113:5-8
“I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.” Psalm 140:12
“I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.” Psalm 37:25
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10.
“Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” Psalm 62:8
So, friend; tell God your problems. Pour out your heart to Him. He will listen, and in His own time and way, He will act.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
John 16:33; 14:27 NIV
Can we have peace in the middle of our troubles? Can our minds and hearts be at peace in the center of a storm, whatever kind of storm it is? Peace in stress? Peace in problems? Peace amid fear and worry?
I believe the answer is Yes. Because someone named Jesus can give us that peace. Because it is a supernatural peace. Because God has power to give it.
In both verses above; in each instance, Jesus was speaking about fear, separation, and trouble. And He was offering peace in the middle of it.
In the first verse, John 16:33, He has just told His followers that the time is coming shortly when they will be scattered to their own homes, like frightened sheep chased by a wolf. And they will leave Jesus alone. He is predicting His arrest and crucifixion, and the disciples’ failure to keep faith in that traumatic moment.
In the face of that reality, as frightening and discomforting as it will be, He is promising to give them peace.
Jesus is saying that experience is symbolic of what life will be like for them going forward, as His followers. “In this world you will have trouble; but I have told you ahead of time, so that in me you may have peace.”
Jesus pulls no punches. It is going to be hard. There will be trouble. But “in Me you may have peace.”
Jesus is the Peace Giver. He stilled the storm on Galilee by saying, “Peace, be still.” He stilled the demon possessed men by speaking the word of deliverance.
He can still our hearts and give us His peace. Because He has overcome the world.
His mission was to reveal the Father’s character and to do what humans failed to do. To trust, to obey His Father whatever the personal cost. To reveal self-sacrificing love. He did it perfectly by surrendering to and depending on God. Even to the cross.
So, He has the right to forgive us, the right to help us, the right to sustain us in our storms.
In the other verse, John 14:27, Jesus is telling His closest followers that He is going to leave them and go back to heaven (verse 28).
This was not at all what they were expecting. Not in their plans at all. In Jewish theology of the day, the Messiah would come as a super-human being, defeat all foes, and take the throne of David to reign forever. This left out the suffering servant teachings of the Old Testament, the dying for sin and resurrection of Isaiah 53.
So, a dying and leaving Messiah was not in their cards. No way!
Anxiety producing without question! But this was the reality, the truth of what they would experience.
So Jesus promises two things in John 14. He is going to send them a Helper, a Person very much like them–the Holy Spirit who will be with them forever. He will comfort them, teach them, bring Jesus’ words back to their minds when they need them, and more.
And He is going to give them His peace, a calmness, an assurance that is beyond anything the world can give. Look at His promise again. It is for you.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27 NIV
It is from Him. To summarize, Jesus offers us to give us peace in a world filled with trouble, whether personal or in our world. It will be a peace HE gives us. Not something we concoct or think up ourselves. A peace from Him.
It is supernatural. It will be a supernatural peace, a peace that only He as God can give us. He IS the Peacespeaker, the Calm Maker, as this old song beautifully says.
It will calm your mind. And it will be a peace of mind because the Spirit will bring back Jesus’ teachings and promises.
It will be peace in your Storm. All this doesn’t mean your storm will go away, always. But it means He will give you peace in the middle of your storm.
Tell the Peace Giver
Do you need peace, friend? Do you need it especially now? I want to encourage you to tell Jesus directly. He died for the right to help us, and He is faithful to His promises. He has helped me so many times in this. He is the Peace Giver.
I am writing this morning out of great sadness. . .and yet hope. I want to offer you a gift–the knowing that God loves you and is with you in what you are going through.
This week a leading emergency room doctor, Dr. Lorna Breen, took her own life in the face of this Epidemic. I don’t know the whole story, but one report said health care workers in New York are feeling very defeated by this disease.
They have trained and given their lives to help people get well, but so many there are dying, despite their heroic efforts. The best medicine can provide is has often not been enough. Bone tired fatigue, lack of resources, failure despite best efforts, frustration of family members, the pressure and stress of overwhelming odds, and more, can lead to a loss of hope.
Even if you are not a front line worker, you may be feeling some of this too.
Where is God?
Many ask at a time like this, “Where is God? If He is a God of love, why does He allow things like this?” It is an ancient question I would like to give an answer to–one that has satisfied me and given me hope.
I have had more than one devastating loss in my life, but what I am sharing with you held me up and filled me with hope in the middle of despair. God’s love sustained me and carried me through.
Here is the summary. Read on if it interests you.
God is love. He is all powerful; Creator, Savior, Friend.
But His hands are somewhat tied.What He can do is limited. But He is not stopped. And in His love and power He never gives up–being present, helping, comforting, fighting back evil, sometimes working miracles.
Perfection and love was what what He created. But the old story, retold and confirmed, is that the first humans were seduced and deceived; an angel created perfect by God, but with free will. Love cannot thrive absent freedom.
Lucifer, leader of angels, began his rebellion in heaven. It started with pride, then self worship, followed by criticism and questioning everything about God, His love, His ways. Many angels were deceived.
Finally, open revolution. War. And they were sent away from heaven (Revelation 12:7-9). War in heaven? Yes, but probably not like ours.
Lucifer (Light Bearer) who became Satan (The Accuser), came to this world in an infuriated, jealousy-driven attempt to take over a world God had just created. To make it is own kingdom, a place where He could rule and reign like he wanted.
The first humans were created “in God’s image,” with free will. They were intelligent. They had been warned, but the devil deceived them. Led them to question God’s love, doubt His words, and disobey His instructions for happiness.
It is called “The Fall.” It happened. It opened Pandora’s box. Disease, death, human trouble of every kind.
You might be thinking, this story is a myth. It is too old to be believed. In the class of every other ancient religious legend. Let me offer an answer.
Jesus. He was born, lived, died, and rose from the dead. Over 500 people saw him after His resurrection and traveled the world to tell about it.
Saul of Tarsus, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin (ruling council), thought Jesus was a Jewish false messiah. He went everywhere imprisoning, torturing, and killing Christians. Until the risen Jesus appeared to him as he neared Damascus on a mission of death.
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
“Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9)
In an instant everything changed. Clarified. Scriptures understood. Life mission altered. From martyr maker to missionary, to authoring much of the New Testament.
Here was Saul’s and the others’ message: God came to earth as one of us. He entered our darkness, our suffering. He invaded Satan’s kingdom as a Baby. Weak, vulnerable, out of love for a lost and suffering planet. He learned to depend on God, was filled with power; went everywhere teaching and healing. But He was killed. No, He gave His life as a remedy for our sin. To give us options: the option to believe, trust, follow again. The most sinful can be forgiven; the most questioning receives patience; the weakest can get all the help needed–to be a child of God again. To believe, to love, to serve.
The Jesus who died and rose again had confirmed the story. There was a devil, a fall, a history of God’s beach head of love in an occupied world. The story of a God who has never given up. All through history. Pursuing, helping, loving. God wouldn’t resurrect a liar, would He? What Jesus said can be believed. If there are things we don’t understand; well, we can trust.
God could have taken it all back by force. But force is not His way. His way is love, reason. “Come let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins are as scarlet, they can be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they can be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18).
In France and other countries, during World War 2, resistance movements formed–to spread the truth, to empower, to free where possible. Resistance in the face of tyranny. Love for truth and freedom and human dignity in the face of evil.
Since humans turned away, God has been mounting a resistance of love and truth. He invades quietly. Jesus came as a helpless Babe. He sends His Spirit, angels, changed people. He does everything in His power to change hearts and minds through love and reason.
When a mind opens, He has the right to work a miracle. Change a heart, replace fear and doubt with love and certainty.
So yes, God is love. God is powerful. But He is limited in only this world until Jesus comes again.
In Tragedy, Love
Jeremiah lived through the destruction of his nation. He saw death in the streets. He witnessed cruelty and evil on a massive scale. But he didn’t give up His faith in a God of love. Here is his witness.
“So, I say, ‘My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.’ I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: It is because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.’”
So friend, I have an invitation.
Believe God is real. Believe He loves you. Believe He loves this world and is doing all He can. Believe in the middle of this devastation and loss.
Trust Him. Become part of the resistance. Fight for a higher purpose. We may lose some in this life, but there is a kingdom of love to restore. Serve in love, in His strength. If you choose this, He will help you. Everything inside will change. You will have hope, peace, purpose, strength to keep going. Believe the story. There is love. There is hope. There is a Kingdom. It is here, and it’s coming.
It was a time not unlike ours, though it was long ago. Circumstances were different, but we can draw so much hope from it.
God’s people had been attacked and devastated by their archenemy, Babylon. Families had lost loved ones, the economy was devastated, farms and businesses ruined. Many had been carried off into captivity, socially distanced by many hundreds of miles with no way to communicate. Fear, uncertainty, and despair were ravaged their hearts. The future looked very bleak.
It was then God sent a message of explanation and hope to His people.
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.
God said He still had plans for them. He wanted to prosper, not harm them. He had plans to give them a home and a future. Really? After all they had been through? Yes, God still cared. In fact, He loved them all along. Even though they had turned away for years, and trouble had come to them. He still had plans for them.
He wanted to restore hope to their hearts, by letting them know He knew exactly what they were going through. It hadn’t caught Him off guard. He had good plans for their future. They could hope again.
You may be wondering, Does God know what I am going through? Does He care? Does He still have a plan for my life? I can tell you He does, friend. No matter what losses you have experienced, or what fears you have now. God knows each of us. We are all precious to Him. He made us, and He died for us.
In the Bible, He often sent angels or messengers to an exact address. He knows where you live and what you are going through.
“The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.”
2 Chronicles 16:9 NIV
What may be different in this story in Jeremiah 29 is that God was in a direct relationship with Israel at that time. He had taken them into a covenant as a nation. He promised to protect and bless them when they were faithful, but told them He could not when they turned to other Gods or became faithless (see Deuteronomy 27-30).
They had rebelled and turned away. God patiently sent messengers to call them back. For hundreds of years. Finally, he honored their choices and let them go.
God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11 was originally given to Israel in that setting. He had foretold their captivity hundreds of years earlier if they turned away (Deuteronomy 28:49, 50). Jeremiah 29 explains what has happened in those terms, and what God will do if they would turn back to Him.
I am NOT saying that COVID-19 has come because of our sins, though the world certainly seems ripe for judgment sometimes. My blog on Revelation is looking at signs Jesus told about the last days.
What I am saying is that when we go through loss or trouble, we have a compassionate God Who is more than willing and able to help us when we turn to Him. He is willing to enter a relationship with us now. Jesus died to build a bridge between us and God, because they both loved us.
In all His working with us, God has an overarching purpose–to save us and bring us home to His great heart of love where He can help and bless us as He wants to.
I don’t know what you are facing personally. You may have lost a loved one, or your job. Your business may be in danger of folding. Maybe you feel paralyzed by worry and fear about the future. There is plenty to be concerned about.
God invites us to turn to Him, and bring all our needs and anxieties. He invites us to bring everything. He can comfort us with His love and provide for us. If we have not known Him or wandered away, we can admit our need, or our sins, and ask His forgiveness. Because He loved us, Jesus died to forgive and restore us.
If we know and are trusting Him, we can claim His promises for sure. His heart is always open to us. His answer may seem delayed, but don’t give up. Faith grows stronger in trials. His eye is on you.
Take time to read all of Jeremiah 29. You will see a God who cares, who keeps His promises, who loves. Yes, you will see a holy God who cannot always bless us when we turn away from Him, but is waiting for us to return. He has plans to restore and help us when we do.
Here is a wonderful promise:
“Worry is blind, and cannot discern the future; but Jesus sees the end from the beginning. In every difficulty He has His way prepared to bring relief. Our Heavenly Father has a thousand ways to provide for us, of which we know nothing. Those who accept the one principle of making the service and honor of God supreme will find perplexities vanish, and a plain path before their feet.”
The Desire of Ages, p. 330
I am taking this time to deepen my relationship with God through prayer and reading His word, the Bible. I invite you to set aside time to do this too. Your faith will grow stronger, and you will grow in hope and awareness of His love. Let’s look up and see Him looking at us with hope and love.