Praise Him for His Ways

Carving

Psalm 67: 1-2 “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us—so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.”

What does the psalmist mean by “your ways?” Sometimes when we think of God’s ways, we think of the ten commandments. In my counseling I find myself cutting to the chase more and more. I ask people up front, “Do you want to do things God’s way?” What I am asking is this: “Are you willing to be guided by God’s word? Are you willing to submit your desires and ideas to his? Or are we going to be sitting here just talking around in circles?” God’s ways, his commandments, are no big secret. We just don’t want to believe that they apply to us.

Even though God has promised to bless us if we follow his ways, though they lead us into a better and more blessed life, they often don’t inspire lofty praise and thanksgiving. The better we know them, the more clearly we see the vast gulf between God’s demands and our behavior. It is hard to praise God while we are smothering in our sin.

But the ways the author of Psalm 67 has in mind aren’t the ways God wants us to behave. These are the ways an unbelievably gracious God behaves himself. He created us and our world for the joy of having someone to pour out his affection on. Picture the craftsmen practicing his art not so much for profit, but for the pure joy of working with each piece, and making it as beautiful as it can possibly be. Though our sins have made us unbelievably difficult material to work with, the Craftsman hasn’t lost interest. He continues to pour out good things on believer and unbeliever alike.

This is because God’s way is to love deeply and completely in spite of our unworthiness. When I was growing up my younger brother had a security blanket. Over the years it became more ragged and tattered until it was literally one big hole with a cloth border around it. Despite its condition he continued to love it. He refused to throw it away. It was hard for me to see what he saw in such a rag anymore. You remember that in Isaiah God tells us that even our righteous acts are like filthy rags. Yet God doesn’t throw us away. His way is to continue to love us, even to cherish us, in spite of our ragged and tattered condition.

Think of the ways the Lord describes his love for us. He compares it to the devotion a good shepherd gives to protecting his sheep, the tender care a responsible and affectionate Father provides for his children, the intense love and desire a husband feels for his new bride. All the while his love for us continues to blaze hot and bright though we are sheep who love to wander, ungrateful children who constantly disobey, and a cheating spouse who gives her love to someone else.

Yet God’s way is to love us even more. He gives us more than things. He gives us more than affection. He gives us himself. The Psalmist calls it salvation. We know it as our Savior Jesus Christ. The Craftsman unites himself with the wood, or clay, or stone with which he works. He becomes a part of his own art. The Shepherd sacrifices his own life to save the sheep who were running away from him. In Jesus Christ God has joined our dysfunctional family and taken the whipping all the other children deserved. “May the peoples praise you, O God, may all the peoples praise you”–for your ways.

Still Here for Other’s Faith and Joy

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Philippians 1: 24-25 “It is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.”

Paul was convinced that by continuing to live and to serve, the Christians in Philippi would grow in their faith. He was certain they would find greater joy in their faith in Jesus. I want you to note something about Paul’s confidence. He has no visible proof that this would happen. He is talking about a future event. He is talking about inner attitudes and emotions that can’t be seen or measured.

But Paul knew how God’s word works. God promises that it won’t return to him empty. It will accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he sent it. Paul knew that he was serving under the power of the living Jesus who had risen from the dead. That meant doing as he once encouraged the Corinthians, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58b).

So Paul was convinced that their faith would grow. Even more, these Philippian Christians would be lifted up in joy, and that joy would so fill them that it would overflow.

Sometimes it’s hard for us to see how the things we do for Jesus, or the words we speak for him, are doing any good. Our evangelism efforts don’t always mean another person in the pew. Our words of Christian comfort don’t seem to dry any tears or bring any relief. Our Sunday school classes don’t transform our students into eager, well-behaved biblical scholars. Our cleaning and our fixing have to be repeated over and over, and maybe it’s hard to see what that has to do with real church work anyway.

Remember that faith and joy are not so clearly visible to our eyes. They can’t be measured by any human instruments. The promise of your living Savior is that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. Since God blesses our service to him, we can rejoice even when the fruit of our labor hard to see. We can trust that our service will help to bring faith and joy to others.

A member of a church I once served always greeted me on Sunday morning with, “It’s a beautiful day.” It could be pouring rain for a week. It could be as dry as dust and as hot as blazes. It could be bitter cold. It was always a beautiful day. He was right, and it’s still a beautiful day for us to trust God’s promises and serve his people with joy.

The Christian’s “Win-Win” Life

Laugh Sculpture

Philippians 1:20-21 “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

This is a striking statement. When you see pictures of people who have been arrested on TV, rarely do you see them holding their heads high and smiling at the camera. They put their hands over their face, or pull a shirt or jacket up over their heads so that no one can see them. They haven’t been convicted yet, but they are ashamed to have been taken into custody.

Paul had been under arrest for over two years and was facing trial. Yet he was absolutely confident he would not be disgraced by all this. He was following where his Savior led him in life. No matter where that might be, as long as he was trusting in Jesus, there was no shame for him. Even if his only way out of prison was to die there, Paul knew his trust in Jesus was not misplaced. Christ would be glorified. Paul rejoiced to know Jesus would not let him down.

Paul’s words “whether by life or by death” raise another powerful argument for rejoicing. He explains that we gain whether we live or die. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

The apostle could be content with either option. Even more, he could rejoice whether God was going to take his life immediately or let him continue to live for a long time. Look at Paul’s reasoning closely and see if he can help you share in his optimism.

“To live is Christ,” means this: “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.” Paul doesn’t say this because life was easy. It wasn’t. Imprisonment wasn’t even one of the more difficult crosses he bore. His health was poor. He had many enemies. He had more work than one man could handle. He enjoyed none of our modern comforts and conveniences.

But God had given him such a heart for Gospel ministry that, in spite of all this, he could be joyful. Jesus was getting his work done through Paul. Souls were being led to salvation. At times, even Paul’s mission ventures appeared to fail. In almost every city his gospel work started a riot. It never made him popular to the majority. But souls were finding Jesus. Living meant that Paul could still be part of God’s plan to save people from their sin.

If living has become a joyless exercise for us, maybe we are looking for our joy in the wrong place. There is nothing wrong with enjoying our friends, family, hobbies, or possessions. In fact, thankful Christians will praise God for these gifts. But all these things can be taken away. Jesus love for us, the forgiveness he extends us each day, the eternal promises he has made our own are sources of joy that no one can ever take away. Only the work we do to share those gifts with others has truly eternal value. That joy is available to us as long as we have bodies with which to serve. It is a joy we can find no matter what life is serving.

The other possibility confronting Paul was death. Paul considered this the more “appealing” option. “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far…” Because the world can see no good, no purpose, in suffering, they, too, may desire death. They hope it will bring them relief and escape. For the unbelieving, nothing could be farther from the truth. Death is still punishment. The author of Hebrews reminds us, “Man is destined once to die, and after that to face judgment.” Without Jesus, death only makes things worse.

Paul desired more than mere departure. He desired “to depart and be with Christ.” Jesus’ death and resurrection makes us absolutely certain of forgiveness. It guarantees that death is our gateway to a new and better life as well. We die to live–to live with Jesus and live in love. That means that we can rejoice even when life itself is about to be taken from us.

There are no bad options for those whose life is Jesus. Imprisonment, life, death—they are all occasions for hope and joy. May God give us eyes like Paul’s to see it.

Joy and Prayer

Pray Bible

Philippians 1:18-19  I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.”

Sometimes we approach life like our children approach the table when they don’t like what’s for dinner. They complain, then sulk, then glumly pick at their food, unhappy about what they have been served. It doesn’t matter that they don’t have to go hungry, or that the food is good for them. It doesn’t taste good. They find no joy in trying to choke it down.

Life serves up sour or bitter experiences for us as well. Maybe we have trouble getting along with our own family. For some, health is a constant struggle. Sometimes we watch helplessly while goals for which we worked for weeks, years, maybe even our whole lives, come apart. They disintegrate before our very eyes. What is there to do at such times but complain and glumly try to pick our way through life, unhappy about what we have been served?

Consider the Apostle Paul. At one point in his life he had been on the fast track to respect and power as a leader of the Jewish people. Then Jesus came and turned his life upside down. Christ made him one of the most reviled members of that despised new faith. As Paul writes these words to the Philippians he had been a prisoner for over two years. You might say that life hadn’t served Paul a gourmet feast, either. But what does Paul say about all this? “I will continue to rejoice.” And then he tells us why.

Paul continued to rejoice in spite of his troubles because he was sure Jesus would not let him down. First, he knew his Savior had surrounded him with supportive fellow believers like these Christians from Philippi. They were praying for Paul. Some people may question or criticize “thoughts and prayers” today. Paul coveted them.

I doubt whether this strikes us as unusual. We often ask each other for prayers. But this suggests a question: How much joy do we find in knowing others are praying for us? The power of prayer doesn’t lie in the words we say. It rests in the fact that God is pleased to answer our prayers. As Paul writes, perhaps he was remembering that God once miraculously delivered Peter from prison in response to the church’s earnest prayers. In spite of his chains, Paul was confident that Jesus’ answer to prayers wouldn’t let him down. He found joy as he anticipated God’s answer. Do we sometimes make our prayer requests without feeling our burden lightened so much as an ounce? We have no less reason to trust God’s answer.

Secondly, Paul rejoiced because he had “the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ…” Even in his current situation, sitting in prison and facing trial, Jesus was supplying what he needed. One has to imagine that, for a man like Paul, who traveled the world to share the gospel, being held prisoner for over two years was particularly frustrating. He knew that he couldn’t rely on himself to get through the long days. If his spirits began to sink, he looked to the Spirit his Savior promised to send to keep him going. You may remember that when Paul and Silas had been beaten and thrown into jail in the same city of Philippi, these two sang hymns all night to stir up the Spirit and bolster their faith.

Now Paul was held captive again, and he trusted in the same source of strength. We are tempted to hold a pity party for ourselves when life is suffocating our joy and happiness. But what does that get us? In addition to feeling generally miserable, we end up feeding poison to our own faith.

It is often in the middle of such trying times that we can best experience the help, comfort, and joy the Spirit of Jesus Christ provides. That help is never any farther away than our Bible or hymnal. Jesus promises the Father will give the Spirit to those who pray to him. But don’t forget how he answers that prayer. If we pray and don’t go to the word–whether written, spoken, or sung–it’s like ordering pizza but not answering the door when it arrives.

Joy does not have to be limited by the degree to which we find life pleasant. In spite of our circumstances, God will give it to those who ask. But don’t forget to look where he delivers it: in his words of love and grace.

I Want To Know Christ

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Philippians 3:10-11 “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead.”

I want to know the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Of all the events of Jesus life, of all the events of Bible history, of all the events of human history, none is more important than Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This is how we know that his death on the cross was an acceptable payment for our sins. This is how God has made it possible for us to be sure that we will rise from the dead. This is the good news we call the gospel.

I want to know its power. This is the message Paul was speaking of in Romans when he said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” This is the message he had in mind when he said, “Faith comes from hearing the message.” Jesus’ resurrection has the power to transform you and me from timid, quaking, uncertain, depressed, pessimistic, self-serving creatures of this world into bold, happy, daring, confident, willing, optimistic servants of God.

To have this, I am even willing to know “the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings.” We Christians often say that we want to be Christ-like. We want to be more like Jesus. But if we are truly like Jesus, that doesn’t mean living an easy, wealthy life free from trouble. The more Jesus preached the truth, the more people opposed him, and the harder his life became. If we are faithful to his message, we won’t have to go looking for troubles. They will come looking for us. But suffering for Jesus’ sake is okay, because it is one more evidence that we truly belong to him, and he to us.

Finally, like Paul, I want to “attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Ultimately, that’s what our attachment to Christ is all about, isn’t it? What good is a restored relationship with God, what good is the love of Christ and our new righteous identity, if this short, sad, hard life is all there is? I want to be sure of the next life! I want to be sure of heaven! And because of all that God has done for us in Christ, we can be sure!

Then, truly, we will know him, face to face, in all his glory and love.

Found In Him

TrickorTreat

Philippians 3:8-9 “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”

The true Christian faith is not a moral philosophy about how we must live. It is knowing Jesus Christ as our Lord. It is not just studying Jesus like studying some historic figure in a book. It is actually meeting Jesus in his word, being introduced to him, and living life with him as our Savior, our friend, and our brother.

Paul describes our knowing Jesus this way as a “surpassing greatness.” Do you understand why? When we know Jesus, then we truly know God. Knowing Jesus is the only way we can know God the way he really is. When you sit down on the hillside, and listen to Jesus preach his sermon on the mount, then you see how high God has set his standards for our keeping of his law, and how far short of his perfection we have fallen. But when you follow him down from the hillside, and you see him actually reach out and touch the unclean leper to heal him, you know the depth of his concern for your suffering, and the extent of his power to fill your needs. When you stand with Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, and you see the tears burning down his cheeks, and you hear his voice commanding Lazarus back to life, you know the intensity with which he feels your pain, and the authority with which he controls your world. When you kneel at the foot of his cross, and the blood running from his hands and feet carries his life mingled with your sins away past your knees, and his dying breath cries out, “It is finished,” you know that in his unsurpassed love for you he has left nothing more for you to pay or do.

We lose our own life not only to find and know Jesus in this way, but to be found in him. “I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” Do you want to be sure, really sure that God’s love and grace are yours, that your sins are forgiven, that you will live again after you die? Then we need to be found in Jesus, wrapped in the righteousness of his holy life, cleansed in the blood of his innocent death. A righteousness of our own that comes from our own keeping of the law is only a so-called righteousness. We never live our lives completely guilt free, and as long as we are still producing sin, we aren’t really righteous.

But then God comes and he gives us a righteousness of his own making. He gives us an innocence that comes to us from the outside. He takes and he hides our sinful selves in the perfect love of Christ. He so covers over the content of our lives with Jesus’ life and death that he can no longer see us at all. We are all little Christ’s to him. At Halloween we see little children walking around who have hidden their identity temporarily, hidden behind costumes and masks. By bringing us to faith, the Lord has dressed each one of us up as Jesus, only our new identity is more than a flimsy costume. We wear it every day for the rest of our believing lives. This is part of our great find, not only to find and know Jesus, but to be found in him, with this righteousness that comes from God. He has dressed us in a new identity: the precious, holy, dear, innocent children of God himself.

Confidence Properly Placed

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Philippians 3:4 “If anyone else thinks he has reason to put confidence in the flesh, I have more…”

Paul was battling with Christians who wanted people to believe that you needed more than just Jesus to be saved. You needed to be circumcised. You needed to “do something” to get into heaven.

Circumcision isn’t an issue in any part of the Christian church today as far as I know. But the underlying attitude Paul combated is always trying to sneak back in among God’s people. It appeals to our pride to think there is something I can contribute to a restored relationship with God. When a church shows more interest in “what you do” than in “what you believe,” the attitude which puts confidence in the flesh is trying to push its way back in.

It also appeals to our sense of fairness to think the most moral people, even if they are unbelievers, might somehow be saved. Many years ago my friend Frank insisted that former Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi would be in heaven. Gandhi lived such a kind, self-sacrificing life that Frank just couldn’t believe God would condemn him, even if he was Hindu.

But there was probably never a more moral unbeliever than Paul himself had been. That is why he says, “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for religious zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” Look at his credentials. Not only was this man a natural-born member of God’s chosen people. His theological leanings were the right ones, at least as the majority of the Jews of his day would have seen it. He was a faithful, Bible-believing conservative, not one of those liberals who were trying to change everything.

Martin Luther once followed a similar road. He said of his years before the Reformation, “I was a pious monk, and so strictly did I observe the rules of my order that I may say: If ever a monk got to heaven through monasticism I, too, would have got there…If this life had lasted longer, I would have martyred myself to death with vigils, praying, reading, and other labor.”

Why is it that, at least deep down inside, we would like to think that God can find such “good” people, whether Bible characters or heroes of history, acceptable for the great things they have done? I suspect that it has less to do with our concern for their fate. It has more to do with our own. We may not live such outstanding, self-sacrificing lives as some have lived, but we would still like to think our best efforts gain us some favor with God. We still like to think of ourselves as “good” people.

That is why we need to suffer a great loss in this regard. Paul continues, “But whatever was to my profit, I now consider a loss for the sake of Christ.” Paul is speaking the language of business and trade. Once he saw his “good” and “religious” and “spiritual” life as money in the bank, interest on his investment. These were the riches with which he would stand before God and be sure of his eternity. But God changed his point of view. Now he saw them as a loss. He wasn’t rich. He was in debt, and this false hope in his own life, and his own goodness, had put him there.

However, Paul had found a new source of wealth. Jesus Christ and his grace more than covered the losses Paul recognized in his own worthless life. He experienced the joy and discovery of the men in two of Jesus’ parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy he went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46).

The gospel of free forgiveness, the Savior who gives life and salvation as a gift—these lead us to let go of our dependence on cheap trinkets and plastic counterfeits coming from our own spiritual efforts. We give them up for the sake of real treasure, for the sake of Christ. That’s where Christian confidence properly rests.

All Useful

Bible Notes

2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

There are many ways God could try to get our noses into his Book every day. He could simply command us to read it, as Paul had earlier commanded Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture. He could warn us of the consequences of not reading it, as Jesus does in the parable of the sower and the seed. There he points out that those who don’t get their roots down into the word, who fail to get their life and faith thoroughly founded upon it, are in danger of losing their faith

But we Americans are practical, pragmatic people. If we are going to spend our time on something, we want to be sure it will be time well spent. In a way, the Lord condescends to just this concern when he assures us that all Scripture is useful. All of it, from cover to cover, is helpful for us. It has a place in our every-day lives.

That may not be obvious to us when we read or study some portions of it. Some parts may be hard to understand. Maybe you are one of those people who decided to read your Bible from cover to cover. You started in Genesis and ended in Exodus or Leviticus, because all of those laws and instructions about Old Testament worship and life were just too much.

Maybe you have noticed that some portions of Scripture deal with topics that don’t have much to do with your life right now.

That doesn’t mean these passages aren’t useful. They are simply preparing us for future situations. We all learned things in school that we didn’t see an immediate need for. Later we saw how practical they were. When I went to college to get ready for the seminary, I sometimes wondered why the curriculum was so heavy on the classics and led to a degree in liberal arts. It seemed to me that we should graduate with some sort of Bible degree. Now I see that in addition to the Biblical languages, they were trying to teach us to think for ourselves and use good judgment.

In a similar way, sometimes we have to wait to see when some part of Scripture will come in handy. In the meantime, Paul assures us that it is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

That first term, teaching, is a very general term. It could refer to the entire body of information the Bible reveals.

But the next three terms deal with the Christian life of faith in a very logical order. God’s word is good for rebuking people. This word pictures bringing the evidence that convicts someone of wrongdoing. In other words, God’s word makes it clear to people when they have sinned.

With all the sin we have in our world, and in ourselves, one could conclude that this alone proves the Holy Scriptures useful. Unfortunately, our world not want to hear about its sin. Even many Christians don’t believe it is useful to be shown their sins, at least not after conversion. But how will we grow in our Christian faith and life if we won’t listen to what’s wrong in the first place?

After rebuking, God’s word is useful for correcting. This word speaks of a very evangelical, very loving correction. It is that kind of correction that restores a person to a willing heart and mind by leading him again to the foot of the cross to see all his sins laid on Jesus, so that in faith and love he resolves to do God’s will again.

Finally, God’s word trains us in righteousness. What does it mean to live as God’s forgiven people? How can I thank the Lord for all his goodness to me? How can I live my life so that more and more I look like the righteous person that God declares I already am for Jesus sake? The Scriptures are useful to train us in just how these questions can be answered.

Convicted. Restored. Trained in Righteousness. God’s word is not only useful for me. It makes me useful, “thoroughly equipped for every good work.” What could be more practical than that?

Inspired

Bible Light

2 Timothy 3:16 “All Scripture is God-breathed.”

Timothy’s Spiritual training came from several reliable sources. His faith had been handed down to him by his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. The Apostle Paul had personally tutored Timothy in the saving truth about Jesus. But what good would all that spiritual training have been if the Christian faith were nothing more than another man-made religion, a collection of fables and myths?

It is not. All Scripture is God-breathed. The term “God-breathed” (or “inspired” as many have learned it from the King James Version) vividly pictures the source of the words. Before you or I can say anything, we must be able to breathe. Without breath behind our words, we are only moving our lips. No sound comes out. Our breath pushes our words out of our mouths, projects them into the air, and there they can be heard and known.

Every word recorded for us in Scripture is there because God himself made that word known to us. He made it possible for each of those words to be heard. As a spirit, our God does not have literal lungs, but he is the source and the power behind everything the Bible reveals. Whether we are hearing those words read, or reading them for ourselves, he wants us to understand and regard every word as a word which he himself is speaking to us. This is so whether they were recorded by Moses, or one of the prophets, or one of Jesus’ apostles.

Do you see why that reminder is so important for us if we hope to hold on to our Bible-based beliefs? Faith rests on things that are certain. Faith itself IS certain. If the words of Scripture cannot be trusted to be God’s own, how can they produce faith in him? But when we know that God is speaking to us here, we know our faith is well-founded. We know that our answer to that nagging question, “Does Jesus love me?” can be a confident one, because our answer is found in his inspired Scriptures.