Acts 24-25

Read Acts 24-25.

Justice. I don’t know about you, but I tend to have a longing for things to be made right. When I see things that are unjust, I want them fixed yesterday. I want the truth to be known and things to be fair. This is all good and great until the things are out of my control. I don’t have the ability to make everything right in the world or to fix every injustice I see. Sitting around being frustrated by this fact isn’t going to change it. Reading this passage telling of Paul’s long journey through the justice system being charged for crimes his accusers couldn’t even prove simply drives me batty. I want to scream, “It’s not fair! He did nothing wrong! What an absolute waste of time!”

Then I remember…God’s plan is better. Even as Paul was being treated unjustly, he saw many an opportunity to become less so that His Savior could become more. He continually shared the good news of the gospel to those in his reach, he witnessed to his accusers through his defense, and he sought to bring glory to God and rejoice in his own suffering. What if we did the same? What if we sought to love others and lean into God’s good plans even when life is tough or things seem unfair?

Romans 1-2, Acts 20:1-3

Read Romans 1-2, Acts 20:1-3.

“Do as I say, not as I do.” I’m sure you’ve heard this statement made or maybe have said it yourself. I know I have. Either way, it can be an easy sentiment to relate to. It’s a real conundrum when you are fully aware of your less than great choices but see someone you care about going down a similar path. It’s hard to tell them to stop when you know you haven’t. They can look back at you and say, “But you do the same thing!” A lot of times, it’s just simple things that we utilize this saying for. Things like telling our friends not to take their work home, knowing we take it home on the regular. Or telling our kids not to use their greasy fingers to erase the white board, knowing that we do it all the time when we are in a hurry. We understand the consequences of these choices, but we don’t follow our own advice to avoid them.

Here in these passages, Paul is taking His readers down a similar but more serious path of thinking. Living by faith requires our actions to match our words and our understanding. It’s one thing to know how God calls us to live and another thing to actually live in that way for His glory. If we understand His call to love our neighbor as ourselves but then put ourselves first, what good is that understanding? If we teach others of our call to seek His glory but then seek our own, what good is our teaching? Sometimes it can be hard to practice what we preach, but ultimately, it’s what we’ve been called to do.

1 Corinthians 9-10

Read 1 Corinthians 9-10.

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.

1 Corinthians 10:23-24

Many of us have had the opportunity at one time or another to explain to a child that just because something they want to do is typically allowed doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. We must weigh the value of our choices on the scales of glorifying God and loving our neighbors. Our culture (and that of the Corinthian believers) seems to magnify the focus on rights and freedoms. It’s true, we are blessed with many rights and freedoms, however, when we allow them to become the lenses through which we view the world and our choices, they become more like idols than anything else. Paul reminds us that we have indeed been set free in Christ, but more importantly than seeking our own satisfaction and pleasure, we are to be laboring toward the goal of glorifying God in all that we do, to be concerned for our neighbors from a posture of love not pride. We are to care so much about others that we would consider the well being and soul of another over our own. As Paul points out, these things require us to relinquish the rights we hold so dear and the freedom we cling to so closely. It requires instead that we cling to Christ and the call to love others and make Him known. Honestly, that’s a difficult challenge. In spite of the difficulty let’s encourage one another in our walk with Christ and our focus on God’s glory. As Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31)

Galatians 4-6

Read Galatians 4-6.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.

Galatians 5:25

Our Sunday school kids frequently find themselves in positions of discussing what it means to “live by the Spirit” as followers of Christ. A lot of times we try to change our behaviors without changing our hearts. We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that if we can just get our words, actions, and attitude in line, we will have an easier time following Him. Part of that is true. We do need to strive to make wise choices that glorify God. But it’s also a little mixed up…our choices flow from the state of our heart. As Christ followers, we have been given the presence of the Spirit to guide us and convict us. We are also no longer slaves to sin but children of God. That being said, instead of starting with our behaviors, maybe we should be tackling our heart issues first. Are we truly living for God’s glory and not our own? Are we really working as if everything we do is for the Lord? Are we willing to love our neighbors as Christ loves us? Even the ones we disagree with?

As our kids have discovered, to see the fruits of the spirit displayed in our lives we must feed our relationship with the Spirit. We must spend time seeking God’s will, growing in our understanding of His Word, communing with Him in prayer, and listening to the Spirit’s guiding. If we try to produce the fruits without the Spirit, they are simply fake fruits…kind of like the ones you find in the kitchen center of a preschool room. They look good, but they aren’t really fruits. Just good works that will eventually fade. So won’t you join me in taking time today to assess your spiritual fruit stand? Let’s look closely. Are we really in step with the Spirit…producing fruits that can only be credited to the work of the Spirit? Or are we just trying to make good choices without the heart work?

Acts 6

Read Acts 6.

Have you ever felt like your responsibilities far outnumbered the hours in your day, but you intentionally chose to add more to your to-do list anyway? Or you already had several projects you were committed to working on but when more opportunities presented themselves you just couldn’t pass up one more accomplishment? If so, I get it. If not carefully monitored, this can tend to be my go to way of life. Instead of thinking I’m physically invincible, I start to think I’m faster than time itself…and when this happens, something always falls through the cracks or the quality of every project suffers. Here in this passage, the church was growing rapidly. So rapidly that the workload was becoming unmanageable for the apostles. They knew they were responsible to preach the Word, but they also knew that they were responsible to care for their fellow believers. Caring for our neighbors takes time. Lots of time. What’s great though, is that instead of trying to do it all, they wisely chose friends to help carry the load. They could continue to be diligent in their preaching and teaching, but by way of their co-laborers, their neighbors were loved well.

 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:30-31

I wonder, am I the only one that, as I plan how to spend my time, forgets to follow the apostle’s example and prioritize caring for those around me? Am I the only one who gets caught in the web of busyness only to realize I’ve not loved well? I’m guessing probably not. Let’s take time to remember what it means to be a Christ-follower and take note from the leaders of the early church. How can we work together to love our neighbors well?

Matthew 26:35-27:31

Read Matthew 26:35-27:31.

The final stretch in Jesus’ journey to the cross is filled with moment after moment of disappointment. His friends can’t stay awake to pray with Him, Judas betrays Him, Peter denies Him, the people choose a murderer to be freed before Him, and the leaders mock Him. Interwoven through it all is is a devastating sense of shame and fear. Judas is so overcome that he hangs himself, while Peter weeps bitterly at the realization of his own failures. Friends have scattered, and all seems lost.

But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.

Matthew 26:56a

Even as everything seemed to be unraveling and evil appeared to be winning, a greater plan was unfolding. It’s difficult to wrap our minds around Jesus going peacefully into the hands of his tormentors. However, that’s just what He did. Every step toward the cross was prophesied in the Old Testament. Every moment of disappointment and pain was part of the ultimate redemption plan. It was finally coming to be. The Messiah had come and now it was time for the sacrifice He would make to redeem the sinful people He so loved.

As we live our lives, let’s not keep our knowledge of this sacrifice on the periphery of our minds, but rather, make it paramount to our decisions. The love Jesus displayed by willingly walking that agonizing journey to the cross is more than we can grasp most days. In a culture so divided, angry, and fraught with selfishness, can we keep Jesus’ call and example of love at the center of our choices? I believe we can. It may be difficult, it may require some discomfort, it may require putting our own interests aside. I pray we follow Jesus, not flippantly, but intentionally…with great love for our Savior and our neighbors above ourselves.

Luke 15-16

Read Luke 15-16.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Luke 15:1-2

What a picture these first two verses paint. A scene simultaneously full of grace and grumbling. Often times while studying these parables and other interactions with Pharisees, we find it easier to view ourselves as the sinners seeking Jesus. Not necessarily because we enjoy identifying as sinners (though that is what we all are), but at least the “sinners” in these passages were actively seeking Jesus not judging Him. You see, the Pharisees were just as much a group of sinners as the motley group Jesus often tended to, but the difference was that they viewed themselves as men who were, well, better. They fancied themselves as understanding the Law and as great achievers at following it. So it angered them to see lowly tax collectors, prostitutes, and beggars receiving the grace and love that Jesus offered. If anyone should receive anything, it should be them.

But should it? Here’s the thing…every individual is of greatest importance to Jesus. The beauty of the gospel is that God provided a solution to our great sin problem and Jesus offers forgiveness to those that repent and seek to follow Him. As Jesus systematically tears down the legalistic religious structure the Pharisees had built and so proudly stood on, He reminded them, and us, of the value even one lost soul has to the Father. That it’s impossible to serve two masters. That there is a difference between earthly and worldly treasures. That He was willing to make the greatest sacrifice, that of an underserved death, to pay the penalty for even the most wretched sinner.

Will you take the time to clear your vision and seek Jesus? Wherever we fall in the spectrum of characters, our goal should be the same–seeking to glorify Jesus and humbly loving our neighbors as we share the gift of grace that Jesus has so generously provided.

Matthew 6

Read Matthew 6.

Priorities are tricky. It’s easy to slip into mindsets that upend them. Slowly they become more centered on ourselves and less on our purpose. As Jesus teaches us in this passage, we are to give and serve without seeking praise of our own. We are to humbly seek God, not striving to be noticed for our eloquent speech. We are to fast and seek His will in a way that brings glory to our Father, not ourselves. But..sometimes, we do get praised. We do receive encouragement and acknowledgement for the things we do or the ways we serve. And that’s ok and most of the time is really helpful. The tricky part comes with the posture of our own hearts. Remember Edmund in The Chronicles of Narnia? He had somewhat of a pride issue. And as the evil queen was trying to woo him into betrayal, she offered him some magical Turkish delight. Once he started eating it, he simply couldn’t stop. If our hearts aren’t focused fully on our Creator King and our purpose to serve Him, those accolades and encouraging comments can quickly become our own form of Turkish delight. We get hooked on receiving praise. We want more and more of it. We begin to feel as if we deserve some of that attention. As Edmund made himself sick on Turkish delight, we make ourselves sick on praise over time.

You see, Jesus says that we are to give, pray, and fast quietly, focused on the Father. Our true rewards will be given by Him. When we start relying on the praise of others and acknowledgement for our good works, we are no longer satisfied with the gifts of the Father. We start noticing what we don’t have and wanting more of what we do. Our thoughts become centered fully on ourselves leading only to disaster and most of the time greed and anxiety. Later in this chapter, Jesus reminds us of the importance of not seeking earthly treasures and the importance of relying on the provisions of our Father. He knows exactly what we need and when we need it. We don’t need to rush around relying on our own skills and success or worrying about what will happen tomorrow. We simply need to steward those gifts and skills for His glory and rest in the assurance of His faithfulness.

Malachi 2

Read Malachi 2.

You know that feeling when you take a bite of something and you just don’t chew it well enough…maybe you’re in a hurry or maybe you just aren’t aware…and then, the awful experience of it getting stuck in your throat? You aren’t really choking, but you’re extremely uncomfortable and even in some pain. Even downing a glass of water doesn’t seem to bring instant relief. That’s the feeling I get when I’m reading Malachi. It’s not a comfortable experience. Even though it’s a message to a specific group of people, God’s people who were brought out of exile, it’s a message that still stings. In this particular part of Malachi, God is speaking directly to the priests about their hypocritical ways. Instead of being faithful followers and leading their people in true worship of the God who redeemed them, they give in to more disobedience. They say they know God, but their actions don’t line up. They have led the people astray, breaking their covenant with God. They don’t feel blessed, they wonder where the God of justice is, and they are tired of struggling. They literally wore God out with their complaints…“You have wearied the Lord with your words” (Malachi 2:17a). The Lord used Malachi to pass on a strong warning, to get the attention of those whose words didn’t match their actions.

This book is a great reminder of the seriousness of our sin nature. The patterns we find ourselves in of sinning, seeking forgiveness, and sinning again. Yes, as long as we are living in this broken world we will struggle with sin, but we have been included, through Christ’s sacrifice, in God’s big plan for redemption. He doesn’t seek followers in word only. He calls us to faithfulness as we serve Him in word and deed. Malachi was used to convict the hearts of God’s leaders in this passage and to remind them of the covenant they’d broken. As followers of Christ, the Holy Spirt serves to convict our own hearts. It may be painful and uncomfortable to have our hearts convicted, but let us not turn from that conviction with a hard heart but rather, let’s lean in and repent. Knowing that our God is greater than our sin. That even when His message stings, it’s a message of love. Let’s lead those around us to rehearse the gospel and truly worship our Redeemer.

Nehemiah 1-2

Read Nehemiah 1-2.

Lately our kids have been practicing the skill of searching for and identifying themes in the Scripture passages that we are studying. This is a skill that required much guidance in the beginning but now they have progressed to short periods of independent analysis of the Scripture. They then have the opportunity to report back and start discussion on the themes they see playing out in the assigned passage. During their first week practicing this skill independently, we happened to be studying the first 6 chapters of Nehemiah. When we regrouped the overwhelming majority of the kids brought the theme of prayer to the table for discussion. We realized that Nehemiah was a man of God who was experiencing many emotions. His heart was broken for his people and his land, he was fearful for the king’s reactions, and he was pressured and threatened by his enemies. However, he didn’t let his God-given emotions rule his actions. He spent a great amount of time in prayer as he sought the will of God. Even in the midst of a conversation, he stopped to pray before answering the king (Nehemiah 2:4-5). We see how he continually stayed in communion with the Lord through prayer. Nehemiah continued to be sensitive to the leading of God and instead of becoming a slave to his strong emotions, he used them for God’s glory. He was obedient even in the midst of sadness, fear, and pressure.

As our kids worked through the theme of prayer here in the beginning of Nehemiah’s account, they began to work out what that type of prayer life looks like in their own lives. How it can be so difficult to not get caught up in our anger and take it out on others, but instead ask for God’s guidance in our frustrating circumstances. The temptation to get caught in the quicksand of stress and sadness, ultimately neglecting our relationship with our Creator, when really that’s when we should be clinging closest. The tendency even in our happiness and success to act out in pride hurting those around us, when ultimately, all our joy and success can be credited to our King. Our kids had some honest conversation about the times we pray or don’t pray. So I challenge you to take the time, in the midst of whatever emotions you may be experiencing, to spend some time in prayer. Seeking the Spirit’s guidance and striving to live in obedience. What greater joy than the opportunity to converse with the God of redemption?