The Seal of God

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most         vehement flame.                           (Song of Solomon 8:6)

Occasionally I will buy or be given a product that is ensconced in seemingly impenetrable plastic and cardboard packaging. I’ll wrestle with it a little bit, but I have a low frustration tolerance for this sort of thing. Thankfully, my husband or daughter will notice, and being individuals with stronger mechanical skills, they will rescue me and extricate the object from its hard shell.

Whoever decided to package it that way wanted to insure it got to the designated recipient clean, whole, without signs of tampering. I find this analogous to the way in which Christ-followers have been sealed by God–authenticated, protected, and marked with no expiration date.

When the Bible was written, it was customary to use a seal, made of clay or wax, to close a letter or official document. It would often be marked with an insignia of the sender pressed into the wax by a ring or stamp. References to a seal are found in Deuteronomy, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Song of Solomon, and all the Major Prophets. Usually a sealed document contained an official order by an important ruler, or a written covenant between two parties. If a document was sealed in this way, it indicated authenticity and the full authority of the sender and signatory. The seal protected the document from being violated by someone other than the intended recipient.

In the New Testament, the concept and imagery of the seal is used quite a few times. Jesus proclaimed that those who belong to him have been sealed by God. The seal indicates that the believer has the unconditional guarantee of eternal life (Jn 6:27). The seal tells the world that an individual has received the testimony of God and believes it to be true (Jn 3:33). The seal marks those who belong to him.

Paul refers to the sign of circumcision given to Abraham as a “seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all them that believe…” (Rom 4:11). Circumcision was the outward sign, the seal with God’s insignia, signifying that God had already rewarded the inward faith of Abraham.

A similar idea is conveyed in 2 Corinthians and Ephesians. But rather than an outward sign on the body, the seal is the “holy Spirit of promise” (Eph 1:13), an “earnest of the Spirit” in the heart (2 Cor 1:22). The Spirit given to the believer serves as a down-payment on the promise of eternal life. What an amazing truth!

This is a better sign of our covenant with God than any engagement ring or physical mark could be. The Spirit that seals also imparts and infuses the believer with holy fire and supernatural power!  He anoints us for ministry, strengthens us in our trials, inspires us in our praise and worship, leads us to his truth, and protects us from our enemies.

What a privilege it is to carry this seal of God upon our hearts! The Holy Spirit within testifies that we have been bought and paid for by the perfect blood of Jesus Christ. We are his beloved, authentically and eternally joined to him by covenant.

No one can break in and wreck us without our permission. We are enclosed and surrounded by heaven’s perfect packaging.

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The Exemplary Prayer Life

As I was reading through the book of Nehemiah recently, my attention went toward Nehemiah’s habit of praying through every circumstance he faced. Amidst the fascinating story of the return of Jewish exiles to rebuild the ravaged city of Jerusalem, there is this portrait of a leader who constantly relies upon God’s strength, protection and favor. He is a true man of prayer.

The first instance is when Nehemiah learns of the suffering and devastation overcoming the Jewish people in their homeland. He “sat down and wept and mourned for days… fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (1:4).  He spoke to Yahweh as though they had a longstanding and intimate connection. And yet, Nehemiah’s tone was one of awe, reverence and the right kind of fear of God. He interceded, confessing the sins of Israel, pleading for God’s mercy, and asking for favor with the Persian king to permit him to undertake a mission trip to Jerusalem. During his audience with the king, he prayed silently again, and the LORD answered. Lo and behold, “it pleased the king to send me” (2:6).

The next example occurs when Nehemiah and his construction crews encounter extreme hostility and opposition from some of the local leaders in Jerusalem. Sanballat and Tobiah were the ringleaders, taunting and threatening the Jewish builders. Nehemiah’s response? “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night” (4:9). The answer of God was to “frustrate” the plan of their enemies, and “we all returned to the wall, each to his work” (4:15). Nehemiah implements the strategy of providing the workers with a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other, with a sword strapped to their sides.

In the next chapter, the text cites Nehemiah’s godly, wise leadership when conflict arises within the Jewish population. Because of his habit of seeking the Lord’s counsel at every turn, he is able to quickly and effectively arbitrate these conflicts. In response to his judiciousness, “all the assembly said ‘Amen” and praised the LORD” and “did as they had promised” (5:5).

The local troublemakers continue to plot against Nehemiah and his team, seeking not only to stop the work, but to destroy Nehemiah’s reputation and fill him with fear. In prayer, Nehemiah expresses his trust in the LORD to administer justice and protect him from every form of harm. And thus, the work was completed “with the help of our God” (6:16).

Then another amazing God-thing happens! Ezra the priest shows up with the book of the Law; the priests and Levites begin preaching and teaching “both men and women and all who could understand what they heard” (8:2).  Nehemiah recognizes when the Spirit of God begins to move powerfully among the people. He is a mature believer, having trained his senses through prayer. He knows how to steward and shepherd people in the revival that breaks out in response to the hearing of the word of God. It is a glorious time!

As is often true during revival, celebration and deep repentance occur simultaneously amidst the Israelites. Nehemiah recounts for the people the history of God’s goodness and forbearance with them. In his public prayer, he reminds God, “You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (9:17). The conviction that comes to the people leads them to return in their hearts to their ancient covenant with Yahweh. They agree to separate themselves from pagan nations and their idolatrous practices. They pledged “to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord and his rules and his statutes” (11:29). The priests and Levites were also transformed, promising, “We will not neglect the house of our God” (11:39).

Having restored order and beauty to the city and temple, Nehemiah next presides over the establishment of worship in the manner of David’s tabernacle. Sacrifices, dedications, and purification rituals are instituted with the background music of two grand choirs, and “the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away” (13:43). This is a picture of complete restoration of a place and a people. It could not have happened without the leadership and authentic prayerfulness of this extraordinary man, Nehemiah.

In summary, Nehemiah demonstrated many types of prayer on many occasions. He prayed intercessory prayers, prayers of repentance, prayers for favor and protection, prayers of trust and submission, prayers for wisdom, prayers for revival, prayers of remembrance, prayers of dedication, and prayers of consecration. How wonderful. His story teaches us that prayer is always necessary, and always appropriate. There is no time when crying out to God is a bad idea.  It is prayer to God that sends, upholds, strengthens, and ultimately rewards God’s people. Because God delights to hear our prayers.

Lord, please make us people of constant prayer, like Nehemiah. Train us in your ways. Remind us, O Lord, to seek your face in every circumstance. Amen.

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Motives in Ministry

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Ministry in the kingdom of God can be tremendously fulfilling and joyful. We live to feel the Lord’s smile upon us. We long to know that he is blessing our work with fruitfulness for his glory. It’s  one of the best feelings in the world.

But Christian ministry is also fraught with many hazards, as any experienced pastor or minister can tell you. Ministers who are not careful of their boundaries can very easily find themselves overworked, overwhelmed, or overcome by temptation and moral failure. Even those who are good at setting boundaries are not immune from intense pressure, hurt, and disappointment.  This can lead to ethical compromise and impure motives.

People in the body of Christ assume much about their leaders, often unconsciously. There are unspoken expectations that in the kingdom of God, people—and leaders especially– should be more just, kind, honest, and fair than those who are lost in the world’s ways. But people are people everywhere, inside and outside the church. And where you have people, you have problems. The best of us are imperfect, and are bound to disappoint others, despite our finest, most noble efforts.

Nevertheless, leaders are accountable to God for their leadership, and for the ethics and motives that undergird it (Heb. 13:17).  Much of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is a defense of Paul’s leadership and a full disclosure of the motives of his heart. He argues fervently that his teaching and behavior towards them were the outworking of his inner motives. Because he worked so diligently to conform his heart to Christ’s, this was to be the basis for their evaluation of his apostleship.

To drive home the point, Paul repeatedly contrasts right and wrong motives. He exhorts disciples of Christ to carefully discern what defines authentic, honorable ministry of the gospel. We must understand well what authentic, Christ-centered ministry looks like, so we will recognize and avoid ministries driven by unholy motivations.

I’ll just give a summary and a few examples from Paul’s very heartfelt letter.

We’ll start with the idea that Paul and his team of leaders were not operating from a hidden agenda, but from a burning desire to present the truth, commending it to “every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (4:2). He didn’t ask the Corinthians for money, or praise, or recognition as someone great. He had brought his ego into submission to the word and will of God. He insists, “It is Christ’s love that fuels our passion and motivates us” (5:14, TPT).

From there, we see that Paul stood in “holy awe of God” (5:11). His fear of God prohibited him from ever handling the word of God with trickery or deceptiveness. There were no confusing mixed messages. He didn’t cover up or avoid confronting people with the truth, even when it stung. In the letter, he expresses his anguish at having appeared harsh at times in his presentation of the truth. Yet he celebrates the fruit that resulted. In one of my favorite New Testament passages, Paul expresses great satisfaction with the Corinthians:

“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves…” (7:10-11).

Paul demonstrates the heart that Jesus seeks in those who are making disciples.

What is most compelling and convincing about the authenticity of Paul’s ministry—one we should seek to emulate—is the high price he paid for the privilege. He presents “proof” of his legitimacy in Chapter 6, detailing his endurance amidst great hardships, stress, calamity, beatings, riots, hunger, sleepless nights. Throughout every season, even when at death’s door, he clung to truthful teaching, kindness, holiness, love, and full transparency.  This fearless apostle had a clear conscience, knowing that in his heart he had never betrayed the Lord or his people.

As I read and reflect on these things, I pray that I will be able to say the same thing at the end of my race. Whatever life and ministry throws at me, I want to be able to say that my heart was steadfast, true, and noble, motivated always by burning devotion to Jesus Christ, his word, and his church.

Messengers

“The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place” (2 Chron. 36:15)

When I lived in New York City in the 1980’s, it seemed that bicycle messengers were everywhere, weaving adroitly through multiple lanes of traffic, miraculously (it seemed) arriving in one piece at their destinations. This was before business transactions could be executed by computer or video conference. At each step in a business deal, executives would dispatch bicycle wizards with parcels holding important papers for their counterparts across town. When received, the documents would be examined, revised, and signed, and another messenger would return them to the original sender. The need for reliable couriers provided a rather risky livelihood to many fearless cyclists. This is still an image that comes to mind when I think of messengers.

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I realize it might be difficult for younger people who have never known life without computers to find an appropriate image to associate with the concept of “messenger.” In our day, messages can be delivered instantly and effortlessly. Therefore, when we consider the geographical and cultural distances between people groups during the centuries when the Bible was being written, it is mind-boggling to consider how information got transmitted. They didn’t even have bicycles!

Messengers had to walk, or ride on pack animals, or sail on ships. They were essential to the functioning of all civil, social, and governmental systems. They were sent to execute transactions, deliver peace treaties, warn neighboring leaders of impending war or invasion, and in general, to communicate essential information across geographic and cultural boundaries.

In his parables, Jesus often portrays servants who function as messengers for the Master. In the parable of the great banquet (Lk. 14:16-24), for instance, a servant was tasked by the master of the house with informing the invited guests that the banquet was ready. When the invitees made excuses and refused to come, the servant was then commanded to find “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” and bring them into the party. When that was done, there was still room, so the servant was to “go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in”.

It is evident that Jesus intended this parable to show that all types of people–but especially those whom the world considers despised and unworthy, will find a seat at the table in the great house of God. Others who seem secure in their own righteousness will forfeit the opportunity. But the parable also tells us that his trusted servants are charged with bringing people in, that the Master’s house may be filled. He could send angels to speak for him (and sometimes does!), but he sends us too.

God still speaks today. He looks for faithful servants who will carry his messages to the church and to the world. With the Great Commission of Jesus, God’s servants are sent to all nations, to make disciples everywhere, baptize them, bring them into the refuge of God’s family, and teach them to obey Jesus’ commandments (Mt 28:19-20). This could be construed as an exalted position, but it is a responsibility entrusted to all who are willing–whosoever believes!

When Jesus sent out his twelve disciples, their primary message was, “The kingdom of God has come near.” They ventured out into a Roman culture that was largely hostile to their message. They followed Jesus’ instructions, and returned joyfully reporting how God had used them to bring truth, healing, and deliverance throughout the Galilee.

This same message of the kingdom and its power and love is what the world needs to hear.  It is unpopular to say, but there are severe consequences for repeatedly rejecting the message of God and causing harm to his messengers (see the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21:33-41).

But the God of the Bible is merciful. Over and over, he dispatches his messengers and gives human creatures opportunity to join their lives and destinies to him and his liberating truth.

Thank you for your patience with your people, Lord. Help us to be faithful messengers for you.

Trusting God and Loving People

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A few weeks ago, while on a trip, I heard in a radio interview the statement, “We are never commanded in Scripture to trust people, only to love them. We are commanded to trust God and to love people.”

This arrested my attention, and I have been chewing on it ever since. More than just pondering it intellectually, I have been seeking application, and finding plenty as I go about life and ministry.

Last week I became aware of an immediate need within my church family. A woman, I’ll just call her Jane, had begun attending recently. She had to be hospitalized for a few days, and when ready for release, had no transportation home. After various group texts between church leaders, it became clear that no one in that loop was available to help. But I was. I was just about to leave my office anyway. I didn’t have any place I needed to be right away. I even had a full tank of gas. So, I simply checked in with the Lord to ask whether he wanted to send me on this assignment of picking her up and getting her where she needed to go. I got a green light, so I headed in her direction.

The woman in question is quite a character. When meeting her, it doesn’t take long to understand that her body and mind have been ravaged by years of very hard living—drug addiction, prostitution, homelessness, trauma, disease. She is used to being neglected and neglecting herself. Now that she has been born again and is surrounded by Christians of good will, she is quick to ask for help, and she is persistent until she gets an answer.  This can be experienced in church world as intrusive and inappropriate.

I knew this about her. I knew that she has probably learned in her difficult life to use manipulation to get her needs met. I also suspected that the assignment would take me far out of my way, to not the greatest part of town. I knew there was a chance that she would need more than just a ride—some cash, or some food, or another side errand. I knew that this mission of mercy could quickly become very inconvenient indeed. This is not a person I trust. At least not yet.

As I was on my way, I recalled the statement I had heard about trust and love. I thanked the Lord that he was completely worthy of my trust, and I was trusting him with my safety and welfare. I confirmed my trust in him to help me to establish a boundary with Jane if necessary. I reminded myself that I can trust God to be my strong tower and refuge at all times.  Therefore, I was able to perform an act of love for Jane without concern about whether I trusted her or not. My duty was to trust God, and this would free me to love Jane.

It is possible to love people without trusting them. But it might be impossible to truly trust another human being without loving them. I trust my husband to a great extent, because he has demonstrated trustworthiness over almost 32 years of love and marriage. But I don’t trust him completely, because he is a human being. He has a very good track record with me, but not a perfect one.  On the human level, he is the person I trust the most. I could list some friends and family members I also trust a lot. But not completely.

Only God Almighty–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—can be trusted absolutely. To speak truth, to uphold righteousness and justice, to administer grace and mercy, in just the right way at just the right time. Always.

We must never allow broken trust with people to damage our trust in the LORD. If we maintain steadfast trust in him, we are free to risk extravagant acts of love for people, whether we trust them or not.

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:4-5, NIV).

Praise as Ascent

Having been a praise and worship leader for many years, I have been motivated to study the Bible’s exhortations about bringing praises to God. To comprehend the attitude of heart that God seeks in his worshippers, I seem to come back consistently to the imagery of pilgrimage, ascent, and bowing down in the presence of the living God.

Psalms 120-134 in the Hebrew songbook are “Psalms of Ascent.” They collectively describe a journey from a land of trial and anguish up to Mount Zion and the sanctuary of the Lord. Before the journey begins, the pilgrims lament the violence and deceit that surrounds them on every side. In desperation, they lift their eyes to the hills up ahead, sensing that their help derives from that holy place (Ps 121:2). They remember who they are and begin crying out to the God of their nation.

The throngs ascending to Jerusalem, exclaim, “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (122:1). It is feast time, a holy convocation to celebrate the Lord’s goodness and deliverance. He has always shielded and surrounded them “as the mountains surround Jerusalem” (125:2). How excitedly they shout and laugh together, recalling how the LORD has restored their fortunes, and done such great things for them. Those who have sown many tears are overcome with shouts of joy! (126:5).

The closer they come to the temple mount, the more thankful they become—for God’s blessing upon their homes, husbands and wives, children and grandchildren, their land, work, and nation. At times they pause to reflect on the bitterness of the past. This is part of the ascent, the remembrance of God’s mercy and faithfulness even at the lowest places in life. They are humbled in his presence.

They come through his gates with thanksgiving and praise. They calm and quiet their souls in his presence, contented children who simply wish to enjoy the beautiful fellowship of their benevolent Father. They reach the summit, surrounded by priests, worshippers, and provisions for sacrifice.

This picture shows the southern steps of the temple ruins in Jerusalem. My visit to this site in 2014 was one of the most profound moments in my trip to Israel. I was caught up in the mystery and history of this place adjacent to the Beautiful Gate where Peter and John healed the crippled man. The ruins of the mikvehs can still be seen, where worshipers bathed before ascending the steps. But the most achingly beautiful aspect was the fact that the steps are of all different heights and depths, varying from 7 to 10 inches high and 12 to 35 inches deep, forcing the ascending pilgrims to climb very slowly and carefully. This is the place of the Selah, a place to pause and reflect, a place that elicits reverence, awe, and deep prayerfulness.

That throng of visitors, tired from their journey, but cleansed and ready, prayerfully climbed the ancient steps to meet their God in his holy temple.

Ever since my visit this is the image that I associate with praise. It is our destination. It is a climb to the highest place. It is intentional. It requires effort. It involves the body, soul and spirit. It is driven by a thankful, beating heart. It is a sacrifice. It is an ascent into the realm of the holiness of Yeshua.

We do not have access to these steps every day to remind us. But may we ascend at every opportunity to praise God, with clean hands and pure hearts.

What a privilege to ascend into a daily encounter with our most worthy and lovely Lord and Savior.

  Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose walk is blameless.

(Ps 84:10-11)

 

How Did Joseph Get So Smart?

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Paul admonishes and exhorts the Corinthians about a great many things in his two epistles to them. Beginning his first letter is a lengthy discourse on the wisdom and power of God, contrasting them with man’s words and “the wisdom of this world.” As I read these passages this morning, I began thinking about Joseph, known for his perseverance in the face of injustice and captivity, but also for his great wisdom.

Thence came the question that is the title of this post.

Joseph was the youngest and favorite son of Jacob at the start of the Genesis narrative concerning him. They were a family of herdsmen, highly favored and prosperous as beneficiaries of Abraham’s covenant with God, but not of a scholarly or religious caste. Joseph was only seventeen years old when his jealous brothers sold him to Midianite merchants. They told their bereaved father Joseph had been mauled by a wild animal.

There began Joseph’s long sojourn in Egypt, serving in the home of one of Pharaoh’s captains. The text reads, “The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered…and the LORD gave him success in everything he did…and the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph” (Gen 39:2-5). When Joseph was unjustly accused of sexual assault and imprisoned, even behind bars “the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor.” He was given responsibility for the running the entire prison…as one of the prisoners! This is not the normal way of things.

Joseph’s release from prison was founded upon his ability to interpret dreams by the power of God. Pharaoh needed a particular enablement, and Joseph was the man for the job. His accurate interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, and his proposal for guiding the nation through seven years of famine led to his promotion as Egypt’s second-in-command.

Why? What qualified Joseph to work for Potiphar, or serve as a prison administrator, or lead an entire nation?  He didn’t have degrees, or management experience, or a special pedigree. Yet Pharaoh declared there was no one “so discerning and wise” as Joseph, no one like him, “in whom is the spirit of God” (Gen 41:38-39). Ah, there it is.

So…back to Corinthians. Paul uses the word wisdom 16 times in just the first three chapters. After all that, one would have to be dense to miss his point. The wisdom of God is unavailable to those who deny God, but  it comes liberally to those who have his Spirit dwelling within them. It does not depend upon the world’s educational system—in fact, what the world calls wisdom is often contrary to God’s truth, and therefore foolish in the end. Paul wrote this extraordinary statement,

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,  so that no one may boast before him.  It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’” (1 Cor 1:26-31)

Joseph lived before Pentecost. The new birth by the Spirit was not yet available. But he learned at an early age, perhaps while tending sheep, that all wisdom and strength come from the LORD. He was instructed by the Holy Spirit at crucial times throughout his eventful life. This doesn’t discount the fruits of his trials and persecution. Like Jesus, he learned obedience through sufferings, and developed an intimate connection to his God.

When we display wisdom, when we get something right, we give credit to our God. We do not boast in our own wisdom. But the more we walk in his infinite wisdom, and endure life’s challenges in his strength, the wiser and stronger we become. Then we can be trusted to manage important matters in his kingdom

Devotion and Distraction

We live in a time and a culture of distraction. This is so much the case that there are now signs on the highways reminding drivers to avoid driving while distracted. This usually refers to texting on cell phones, but they could add eating a burrito, changing your clothes, applying mascara, disciplining your kids in the back seat, completing your tax return, etc.

It seems to me that some people want to be distracted. They might say that they find their lives very stressful and rushed, and would like to be able to relax and focus on only one thing at a time. But if they were to be completely honest about it, they might admit to being scared to death of what thoughts would occupy their minds if they allowed themselves to become very still and listen.

Life as a disciple of Jesus should be different. It requires a measure of devotion that surpasses that which we give to any other pursuit. I’ve found that the distracted, busy mind is the enemy of this kind of devotional life.

In the famous account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha, we witness Martha busily preparing a meal. She loved Jesus and wanted to be a good hostess. What was wrong with that?  I would want to cook a meal for Jesus too, and watch him enjoy it. This was Martha’s ministry. But the problem was that she became “distracted with much serving” (Lk 10:41, KJV). This led to resentment toward her sister, who sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to his every word. Jesus commended Mary for her choice, because it was a choice of devotion, not distraction. There was nothing happening for Mary that evening but being in love with her Lord. It eclipsed every other concern.

The Apostle Paul makes a very important point about devotion and distraction in his exposition about singleness and marriage in the kingdom of God. The married person, he asserts, is perfectly entitled to be married, but cannot devote the same attention to ministry of the Word as his or her single counterpart. Married people, he says, are concerned about the affairs of this world” and how they can please their spouses, and their “interests are divided.” But the unmarried are “concerned about the Lord’s affairs,” pleasing Him, being “devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit.” Paul brings no condemnation, but clarifies that whether married or single, the aim as a Christ follower is to “live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:32-35).

“Undivided devotion to the Lord.” That seems like a pretty tall order these days, doesn’t it? But the Holy Spirit doesn’t ask us to do things that are impossible to do. We have the God-given grace to press into his rest and to give him our full attention, even with the other demands of our lives. We can be undivided, un-distracted, devoted. Like Mary, we can choose the “one thing that is needed,” wholehearted, abiding fellowship with our beautiful Jesus.

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Be Reconciled!

Paul taught in his second letter to the Corinthians that Christ-followers have been given a “word of reconciliation” and a “ministry of reconciliation.” I am going to attempt to present my understanding of these concepts, as well as some application. I offer this caveat: As with other deep theological truths, there is great mystery here, because the initiator of reconciliation is God, whose ways are never fully explainable by human beings. As a wise soul once said, “Henry can explain the Ford, but the Ford can’t explain Henry.” I don’t presume to have perfect understanding of a single thing when it comes to the mind of God.

There are several occurrences of the word reconciliation in the New Testament, all of which refer to “a change in the relationship between God and man or man and man,” moving from “a state of enmity and fragmentation to one of harmony and fellowship.” * Most of the occurrences are found in this well-known passage:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.  Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.  For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor 5:17-20).

We see first that God is the originator of the plan to reconcile us to himself through Jesus Christ, the only suitable mediator. He draws us near. His plan results in a new species, human beings who are spiritually alive and in intimate fellowship with Him! Never since Adam has the earth known such a being.

Second, when God gives us the unspeakably lavish gift of restored relationship with Him, he also gives us a ministry, an assignment to serve and represent him in the world. This God-ordained ministry is rooted in the “word of reconciliation.” This can only refer to the gospel, the essence of which is that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” He has seen fit to wipe out our guilt and transgression, and then appoint us ambassadors. As ambassadors, we plead with those who are not yet restored in the grace of God, “Be reconciled!” This is a beautiful message we get to carry. It is the key that opens the hearts of men and women.

Most people are not looking for a religion. Deep inside, they are looking for the missing piece that only God can fill. The fatherless are crying out for a Father. The lonely long to be set in a family. People everywhere want to feel some assurance that God is real, and that he is not angry with them. He is not harsh or arbitrary, plotting ways to punish them because they are not perfect.

I believe God never has a bad day. He never wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, itching for a fight. Scripture asserts that when we accept his righteousness by faith, we are at peace with him. He loves us just because we’re his kids. No further negotiation is needed between us on that point.

Afterwards, though, there is work to do. There is stuff to learn and grow in if we are to serve as effective ambassadors. Here is where the application begins.

Our spirits, brought back to life in the new birth, are perfect. But our souls are dinged, dirtied, and damaged by the world, the flesh, and the devil. Soul and spirit are at enmity with each other and must be reconciled. This is the process of sanctification. We work to attain a new mind, a cleansed conscience, and a will that conforms to the good purposes of our Creator. This is the reconciliation within. It happens by deepening our relationship with Him through prayer, fellowship, and meditation upon his words of truth. In the process we are aligned, cleansed, and healed.

There is also a necessary reconciliation with the outside world of humanity and the rest of creation. We are becoming more like God, the one who choose to exercise grace and love on all occasions. It is a very strange person who loves and forgives the ones who are trying to kill him.  Jesus is this strange person, strange in his magnificent love. The ministry and word of reconciliation causes us to become strange like that, if we are doing it right. Paul tells us that the “dividing wall of hostility” between groups of people has been destroyed, and he has made a way of peace possible for us (Eph. 2:14-15).  We walk this out by demonstrating radical love and forgiveness toward all, especially our enemies. If that isn’t a counter-cultural idea, I don’t know what is!

So…reconciliation with Him, reconciliation with ourselves, reconciliation with others. Restored relationships bring new life.

How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are! (1 Jn. 3:1).

*https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/reconciliation.html

Choosing and Being Chosen

Recently I have been reflecting on how people make the choice to become Christ-followers. What I have remembered through my study is that we are chosen before we choose.

I am not a staunch Calvinist by any means. I believe that all men and women are free to choose their respective paths in life, and that salvation by grace is accessible to all–to “whosoever believes.” But I recognize and accept what Jesus and his apostles said concerning choosing and being chosen. The word of God overrules all else for me. The first passage that comes to mind is this exhortation Jesus gave to his disciples:

 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you (John 15:16).

Jesus knew the hearts of all people he dealt with in person, and he knows our hearts as well. He knows whether we are going to follow him and put our trust in him. He knows when and he knows how to reach us. Sometimes we observe him orchestrating circumstances, decisions, and personal connections to draw souls to him. Jesus confidently declared, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me…” (Jn 6:37), and, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (Jn 6:44). His mission was to declare the will of the Father and bring his kingdom to the earth. The Father oversees and continues to designate who will join Jesus in this assignment.

The Apostle Paul understood that the destiny and purpose of God’s people lie squarely in His hands. Paul saw the saints of God as “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph: 2:10). Even more explicitly, he wrote, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…”(Col 3:12).

Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers, described members of Christ’s body as “chosen by God and precious” (2:4). Collectively, we are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people” (2:9). These Scriptures clearly indicate that the Father has the privilege of choosing us first.

Then it is our turn to respond and choose him!

Those who had been baptized by John the Baptist were quick to recognize Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29). Brothers Peter and Andrew, and James and John, abruptly left their homes and jobs as fishermen with only the simple invitation from Jesus, “Follow me.” They had no way of knowing where the journey would lead, but they knew they had been chosen to follow, so they followed!

God takes the initiative. Always. The New Testament reveals that he calls, “Follow me,” to many kinds of people—sinners and godly persons, pagans, priests, secularists, Jews, scholars, businessmen, paupers, princes, soldiers, widows, and orphans. He invites the sick, the lame, and those tormented by the Devil. Some say yes to his call, and sadly, many say no.

I’m very grateful that in spite of an upbringing, education, and cultural environment that caused many in my generation to turn away from Christian faith, my heart persisted in responding to Christ’s invitation.

My family and friends couldn’t make sense of what was happening to me. I had trouble explaining it. I just knew that he had whispered my name. He had chosen to reveal himself to me, and nothing would ever be the same. And I am not ashamed of my choice.

Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, because you also made a conscious choice, like Joshua:

“…if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14-15).

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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