In 2013 I wrote a daily devotional guide for the Advent season. Please feel free to download a copy [ PDF | Kindle | ePub ] for personal or church use. You are welcome to share this resource, but please do not make any changes or charge a fee when distributing.
Grab this FREE sampler of worship music quick before it’s gone:
1. Lay Me Down (Live) – One Sonic Society
2. The Rock Won’t Move – Vertical Church Band
3. Christ Is Risen- Matt Maher
4. Open Up Our Eyes- Elevation Worship
5. Cast My Cares – Tim Timmons
6. King Of Love- I Am They
7. It Is Well (Oh My Soul)- Brandon Heath
8. Mighty Jesus- The Neverclaim
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Here is a piece that I wrote a couple years ago for the newspaper. With Good Friday and Easter Sunday coming up I thought it would be worth sharing again.
Take a look at your calendar. If you’re wondering why eggs are on sale this week it’s because Easter is just a few days away. In the Christian tradition this is Holy Week, and the day after tomorrow is known as “Good Friday.” Instead of the word “good” I suggest a better adjective to describe that first Good Friday might be the word “bloody.”
It was indeed a day filled with blood, especially if you were a lamb. Long before Christians marked the day as Good Friday Jews knew it as the first day of Passover. This holy day was linked to one of the most significant events in Jewish history. The day was set aside to commemorate the mercy of God shown to those who took him at His word while enslaved in Egypt. God told His servant, Moses, the man chosen to lead Isreal to freedom, to enact a rather strange yet highly symbolic act.
In a final catastrophic sign designed to show the sovereign power of God, the faithful among the Hebrews were to mark their homes with the blood of a slaughtered lamb. That night, death came to the firstborn of every home in Egypt that was not covered by the blood of a lamb. God made provision that, if enacted by faith, would cause His holy judgment to “pass over” those who put their trust in Him.
Fast forward to the final Passover weekend of Jesus’ life, the day we call Good Friday. That night Jesus and his students would share a Passover meal none of them would ever forget. It was a meal filled with symbolism, not only pointing to the days of Moses in Egypt, but one that also pointed forward to a better blood sacrifice that was about to be offered.
In addition to the bloody sacrificial lamb there was also blood at the dinner table (well, not literally.) As Jesus and his friends celebrated their last Passover together a cup of wine was passed and shared. All of this would have seemed perfectly normal until Jesus said to them, “This is my blood” (Matthew 26:28, ESV). Let’s all agree that if we were sitting there, and the cup came to us, we would hope Jesus was speaking metaphorically. Indeed he was, for he went on to say that it was his “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
But that wasn’t the end of Bloody Friday. Jesus had tried repeatedly to explain to his followers what was to happen to him that night. But his words fell on deaf ears. And so, with a criminal’s death sentence just hours away, Jesus did what most of us would do in our hour of darkness–he turned to prayer. Traveling with his disciples, he journeyed to a favorite spot. The New Testament writer, Luke who had a background in medicine, records for us that Jesus prayed with such emotion that it caused his capillaries to burst and “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 24:44, ESV).
Soon Jesus’ prayers were interrupted by the sounds of soldiers. An arrest party came looking for him led by a man he had shared life with for much of the last three years. The arrest led to a trial, the trial led to a beating, the beating led to a verdict, and the verdict led to a cross. That Friday evening Jesus of Nazareth, the one some called “Christ” or “Messiah,” was nailed to an instrument of torture by the Roman killing machine. Blood oozed from the wounds made by the nails. Blood poured from the exposed areas of his flesh, torn about by the flogger’s whip. And after he breathed his last, blood and water poured from his side where a centurion’s spear had punctured his heart.
Good Friday? What’s so good about a night filled with so much blood?
Less than a generation later the Apostle Paul would write words of encouragement to a group of Christians living in the city of Ephesus. Reflecting on the violent death of Jesus Christ he said, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7, ESV). Good Friday is about good news, what Christians call “the gospel” (which in the language of Jesus’ day meant “good news”). The good news is that Jesus died as a substitute for all who have been alienated by their sin from a holy God. Jesus’ blood was shed to satisfy the justice of God, so men and women like us might be graciously forgiven. It is the cross of Christ that makes Good Friday so good. But the good news gets even better.
Following the crucifixion of Jesus friends of his buried his broken body in a tomb. After the events of Passover had been completed, a small group of women set out on the first day of the week (Sunday) to grieve and to finish preparing Jesus’ unpreserved body. Upon their arrival they were met by an angelic messenger from God announcing that Jesus had been raised from the dead, that the tomb they were visiting was empty, and that the risen Jesus was planning to rejoin his followers. This is what we celebrate on the Sunday Christians call “Easter.” For those who unite themselves with Christ by faith, we believe Jesus not only died the death we deserve to die, but opens the way of eternal life for us by his resurrection.
Good? Even more so.
Worth celebrating? Absolutely.
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Sometimes when we lie we end up telling a partial truth. That was what happened on the night Peter denied knowing Jesus. Following the betrayal by Judas and the arrest by torchlight, Peter cautiously followed the mob to see what would happen to his friend. It was there outside the courtyard of the high priest’s house that Peter turned his back on the one he called Master. Peter’s attempts at hiding his affiliation with the accused were futile at best. When the heat was on this member of of Jesus’ inner circle exclaimed, “I do not know the man” (Mt 26:74, ESV).
On the face of it this was a bold faced lie. Peter had left his home and his career and had spent three years traveling throughout Judea following Jesus. Rarely was this member of the Twelve ever away from the Master for more than a few hours. He ate with Jesus, served with Jesus, and walked with Jesus (and not just on land). To say that he did not know Jesus of Nazareth, as if he were just another pilgrim in Jerusalem was a coward’s way of weaseling out of a tense situation.
But here’s the irony of Peter’s words. Did Peter really know Jesus or was his picture of Jesus falling apart? Earlier that same evening, Jesus had predicted that all of his disciples–Peter included–would fall away because of him (cf. Mt 26:31). At first Peter proved his loyalty by drawing his sword at Jesus’ arrest (Mt 26:51). But when Jesus failed to call down his angel army and instead went away quietly in handcuffs, Peter’s picture of the Christ crumbled. The Jesus he thought he knew was turning out to be someone else.
The funny thing is, once when Peter was pressed with the question of Jesus’ identity by the Lord himself, the Rock got it right: “[Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”” (Mt 16:15-16, ESV). But Peter’s view of the Messiah was too narrow, too incomplete. It’s the difference between knowing Jesus as a personal savior, and knowing Jesus the Savior of the world.
If I know Jesus as my personal savior, then I know him as the one who has saved me from my sin and will one day take me to heaven. However, if I know Jesus the Savior of the world, I not only know that he has rescued me, but that he has also commissioned me as his disciple to lead others to his cross. It was on that same night of Peter’s denial and Jesus’ arrest that the Lord said to his disciples, ” If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15, ESV). Similarly, John would later write, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn 2:3-4, ESV). Jesus’ commandments are not just those that govern Christian behavior but those that govern our disciple-making mission as well (cf. Mt 28:18-20).
The question we all should consider as we approach this Easter season is whether the Jesus we say we know is the Jesus of Scripture or a picture of Jesus that we’ve made for ourselves.
So, did you fall for any tricks today? For those who like a good joke it can be a day of great creativity. For those on the receiving end, April 1st can be quite annoying. The Bible has a lot to say about fools, particularly in the book of Proverbs, though it has nothing to do with practical jokes.
Proverbs is one of the books of the Bible categorized as Wisdom Literature. Most people describe Proverbs (like the book of James in the New Testament) as being full of practical wisdom. We tend to like Proverbs because it doesn’t take a lot of interpretation to get at what the writer is saying. Many of the sayings are written as contrasts: do this and be successful, but do that and you will have trouble. Often times the contrast is shown not just by describing opposite actions but by contrasting the wise person versus the fool. By my count (at least in the ESV) there are 73 references to “the fool,” “fools, or “foolish” behavior in Proverbs. One verse that stands out to me can be found in Proverbs 18:2 (ESV) which says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”
One of the great freedoms that we have living in this country is the freedom to have and to express our opinion. We know that both historically and in modern days there are places in our world where such freedom does not exist. In the “marketplace of ideas” opinions are offered and then evaluated, and most people believe that the best ideas will rise to the top. Of course that word “best” implies that some ideas are “good” and other ideas are “bad.” This may either mean “good” or “bad” in a moral sense, but it may also mean “good” or “bad” in the wisdom sense. For example, it may not be immoral to ride a motorcycle without a helmet but it might not be wise.
In this culture, where a diverse set of opinions is not only acceptable but is also encouraged, we are now faced with a societal belief that all opinions are to be respected as equally valid. This is what many people today call “tolerance.” It used to be that “tolerance” simply meant that you recognize that someone holds a different opinion from you, but you still respect their right to hold that opinion. You have your reasons for holding your opinion and you have your reasons for not adopting theirs. Based on the evidence you have you might judge your opinion to be “right” and the other “wrong.”
But today many are changing the definition of “tolerance” to mean something like “Your opinion is true for you and my opinion is true for me.” It doesn’t matter if the two opinions are contradictory. If we are talking about things like personal preferences, then we should indeed encourage tolerance of each other’s opinions. It’s not morally wrong for you to disagree with me that Pepsi is better than Coke or the Cubs are better than the Cardinals. I might want to offer reasons for why I think my preference is better, but it would be intolerant for me to call someone an idiot for liking something that I don’t like. However, morality issues don’t fall under the category of personal preference, at least not from a Biblical worldview. Adam and Eve “preferred” to make their own rules (Gen 3), but God saw things differently. This wasn’t a difference of opinion; to disobey God’s command was sin.
From a Biblical perspective the “Thou shalt not” commands are pretty black and white. But how does a Christian discern what is right in the more “gray” areas of life? Is there a hidden Bible code we must discover to sort these things out? Should we expect a sign from God or a heavenly nudge? Should we yield these questions to the spiritual professionals and religious philosophers? How do we maintain humility without falling into the same errors as the moral relativists of our day?
I think the proverb quoted above give us a hint. Read it again: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Pr 18:2, ESV). The fool “takes no pleasure” (ESV) or “hath no delight” (KJV) in understanding. He is not interested in the soundness of his opinion because his delight is in himself rather than in the things of God (Ps 1:1-2). He is self-centered rather than centered on Christ. He reasons from a sick heart (Jer 17:9), not one that has been transformed by the Spirit (Ezek 36:26). The gospel isn’t just about saving our souls from Hell, it’s also about transforming our hearts and minds for Heaven (Rom 12:1-2).
Did you watch it Sunday? No, not the Super Bowl. Did you see the Radio Shack commercial? In case you missed it, the tag line was, “The 80’s called, they want their store back.” If you’ve ever shopped at a Radio Shack you get the self-deprecating reference. This electronics chain that once was considered “high-tech” for its day has struggled over the years to stay relevant in our ever increasing tech society.
In a follow up video, Chief Marketing Officer, Jennifer Warren said of the new campaign, “We really want to disrupt the marketplace and tell people, “We are not the Radio Shack that you think we are.”” Whether the advertising works or not, I think Radio Shack’s vision for the future is right on the money. Without compromising their mission they understand that they need to “disrupt” the public perception that they are a dinosaur corporation stuck in a pre-Internet age.
Like it or not, there is a public perception today that the church is the “Radio Shack” of religious institutions. The church had its heyday years ago but now our culture has moved on to spirituality without all the rules and regulations. Many people today aren’t anti-church, they just see it as an irrelevant dinosaur that has little or nothing of value to say modern society. The 50’s called, they want their church back.
Knowing this, the church today has a number of options to address the growing tide of irrelevance. The first option is to fold our arms in protest and do nothing. “This is the way the church is–love it or leave it!” This approach hardly embraces the compassion of Jesus (cf. Mt. 9:36). A second option is to revise the message, taking out all the offensive parts. “We’ll preach the love of Jesus. That’s far more attractive than sin, hell, and judgment.” But this approach of course empties the gospel of its power (cf. 1 Cor 1:17-18).
There is a third option that is sometimes suggested: proclaim the gospel, but ditch the church. The thought here is that if we can trim away all the fat that has accumulated over 2,000 years of church history, we can get back to the pure first-century version of Christianity. But this approach reduces Christian faith to “just me and Jesus” and ignores much of what the Bible says about growth in community and membership in the body of Christ.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us in the same place that Radio Shack apparently sees itself today. First, we too need to “disrupt the marketplace.” In our case it is the marketplace of ideas that needs disruption. Presently all “worldviews” (how one understands who we are and why we are here) are marketed as equally valid options for life. Yet we believe that the gospel is very different. We believe that a gospel-centered worldview is not only true but it alone is truth (cf. Jn 17:17).
Second, we need to do a better job of communicating to an uninformed or misinformed world what the church is. Some of the misinformation is our own fault. Somewhere along the line we’ve left people with the impression that church is where “bad” people go to learn how to be “good.” Marital problems? You need to be in church! Prodigal children? Get them to Sunday school! Struggling with addiction? You need some good preaching! But “church” has no power to change hearts–only the gospel can do that.
The other side of this coin is the infamous label “hypocrite” that we Christians often get stuck with. Again, we are partly to blame. Certainly all of us fail to live consistently with the gospel lifestyle we affirm. But in our desire to be as inclusive as possible, we have tended to rope in all who do not identify with “another religion” and who speak of belief in God as fellow “Christians.” Could it be that many of these “Christians by default” have never truly become regenerate (cf. Jn 3:3)? Is it any wonder then that there are “Christians” in churches all over this country that behave like “hypocrites”? All the more reason to guard the door of church membership.
Third, we need to be willing to let go of any non-essentials that might be preventing us from reaching the lost. The Apostle Paul said it best when he said, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor 9:19-23, ESV).
Perhaps the dirtiest word used in the church today is the word “change.” We think that our preferences and methods are to be as set in stone as the gospel itself. While it’s true we must never compromise the gospel, this would be the equivalent of Radio Shack saying, “We are committed to technology, but we prefer to offer it in the form of cassette players, fax machines, pagers, and corded telephones.” And so we say, “Good luck with that.”
The church is not a for-profit company, and yet I wonder why the marketing world is sometimes able to see things that we the church tend to miss. What we have to offer the world has more power to transform our world than every piece of technology ever invented. Our gospel alone offers hope to a hopeless world. The question is are we hopelessly stuck in the wrong decade while trying to reach the world of today?
John Piper offers a brief but helpful reflection regarding Veteran’s Day and the risk soldiers are willing to take in service to their country (H/T Justin Taylor). Thank you to all who have and continue to risk their lives for the sake of our shared freedom.
Have you ever received a gift from someone that you knew was quite expensive? How would you feel if you came to find out that they could barely afford it? Would you insist that they take it back? Would you feel compelled to give them something in return? Would you work hard at crafting just the right thank you note? Being on the receiving end of a gift can be quite humbling, especially when we sense that the gift was quite costly. I can imagine that when Paul showed up in Jerusalem with a generous gift from Macedonia, many believers were humbled by the generosity of this church.
Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about the generosity of the Macedonians in 2 Corinthians 8. One of the reasons Paul was writing was to encourage the church in Corinth to make their own contribution for the Jerusalem church. To demonstrate that generosity was more a function of spiritual maturity than economic ability, Paul included the example of the Macedonian believers.
“We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints– and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us” (2 Cor 8:1-5, ESV).
The generosity of this Gentile church toward Jewish believers in Jerusalem made no earthly sense. Aside from the racial tensions that existed between the two groups that was still being worked out through the gospel, Paul mentions that the Macedonians had gone through “a severe test of affliction” and were experiencing “extreme poverty.” Even if they wanted to give, Paul did not expect them to be able to contribute to the Jerusalem fund. So when the believers begged to join the partnership Paul knew there was only one explanation for such joyous generosity: the grace of God.
Paul was not trying to twist the arm of the Corinthian church to give to the Jerusalem fund. It is not as if Paul was saying, “Hey, if the poor old Macedonians can dig deep and make a contribution, then you should be able to scrounge up a little something too.” No, Paul wasn’t appealing to a moral obligation. He was appealing to God’s grace at work among these believers that enabled them to give themselves wholly to the work of the gospel. Therefore, if the kind of joyous participation in the work of the gospel that was true in Macedonia happened to be absent in Corinth, then what should Paul conclude? Was the grace of God actively transforming the lives of believers in Corinth? And what are we to conclude about our churches today if such joyous generosity has grown stagnant?
I don’t think Paul thought that God’s grace was absent in Corinth, but it appears he may have been concerned it had gone dormant. So in the following verses Paul presented this solution:
“Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything–in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you–see that you excel in this act of grace also” (2 Cor 8:6-7, ESV).
We know from this letter and from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that they were a “gifted” bunch. Paul admitted that by God’s grace the Holy Spirit had gifted them in many ways, “in faith, in speech, in knowledge,” etc. That meant that the grace of God wasn’t missing from Corinth, it just needed to be stirred up a bit and given a bit of direction. Paul sent Titus to help lead the church in Corinth to “excel in this act of grace also.”
Our world situation is often an easy scapegoat for restricted giving. We point to the economy, unemployment, and even unusual weather patterns as reasons for our hampered giving ability. But tell that to the first-century Macedonian church. Did they offer up their afflictions and extreme poverty as excuses?
The greatest factors affecting Christian generosity are not earthly but spiritual. When the grace of God is flowing, and disciples of Jesus are growing, God’s people will be sowing a bountiful harvest (cf. 2 Cor 9:6-7). May the gift of God’s grace cause us to become cheerful givers toward the work of the gospel.