December holds the exciting conclusion of God’s Story of blessings. We get keen insights from those who wrote letters as the church continued to grow, both in number and in maturity. Paul, James, Jude, Peter, the writer to the Hebrews, and John all penned messages of hope, encouragement, and loving warnings to those they deeply cared about. The final blessings that await us in Heaven seem too good to be true. But they are. God is true and His blessings remain forever.
God’s first blessings came to mankind in a beautifully fresh garden filled with good food to eat and unhindered love. As we experience His Story personally and throughout history, we see that God is good and He blesses us with way more than food. God’s final recorded blessings will take place in a spectacular garden city. One of my favorite cities to run in is Singapore, an island city-state in South East Asia about eighty-five miles from the equator. Among the skyscrapers and busy sidewalks are spacious parks with ancient trees that provide cooling shade in a land of interesting diversity. As clean and green as Singapore is, it cannot compare to what is yet before us. In God’s perfect timing everything will be made new. The future Holy City’s foundations will be rare jewels that glimmer and I get so excited trying to picture what it will feel like to run on streets made of pure gold! Planted along the crystal clear river flowing with the water of life is the Tree of Life. This tree will yield both fruit and healing.
Those who belong to God will live forever in His protection, provision and love. In Jesus we are fully blessed. Because of Him we know true love and have hope even as we wait with eager expectation for everything that is still before us. Our future hope is real and God’s Story concludes with His children being blessed. Jesus declares, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.” Jesus says He is coming quickly. Come, Lord Jesus, come! May the grace, joy, peace and favored blessings, of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people now and forever more! Live Blessed! Amen.
Although the conclusion of God’s Story is about our bright future we are still living in a world that is upside-down and broken. John also lived in a broken world and everything that he saw and heard concerning the new Heaven seemed too good to be true. Finding the goodness hard to take in, John, in awe, bowed down to worship at the feet of the angel who had shown to him these marvelous things. The angel, however, was quick to tell John not to worship him but to worship God alone! God is the worthy One. Trustworthy, praiseworthy, bless His holy name forever! Are you like me curious about the time frame for when this all will take place? We may not be able to mark the date on our calendar, but we do know that the time is closer now than when John first wrote about it.
Jesus says, “Look, I am coming soon! Blessed are those who obey the words of prophecy written in this book.” When Jesus says we are blessed for obedience I want to obey. Throughout God’s Story we see how generous God is, over and over again lavishing His extravagant love upon those He created. And like all good fathers He desires for His children to grow up to maturity. Jesus is God in the flesh, come to the world to show us what it means to grow up: to be holy (set apart) and full of compassion, kindness, humility, and joy. Our strength to be this, and so much more, really does come from Him. God’s training in righteousness leads to great freedom; we can be free to live a satisfying life that pleases Him. Our Father does not keep us guessing about what makes Him happy. We can detect God’s love language throughout His Story, and right up through to the end we read that Jesus has the same love language: obedience. “If you love Me, obey My commandments.”—Jesus.
God is preparing something incredible: the unified Heaven and earth. The descriptions tell us that it will sparkle and shine with precious stones and gold. There will no longer be barriers to love. The glory of the Lord will illuminate and life will be fully satisfying. The new Heaven is the guaranteed blessing for all who have their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Real joy will abound. No tears. No pain. No mourning. God promises: “All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.“ There will be the absence of sorrow and the fullness of joy! We will see God face-to-Face in our new unbelievably stunning home. The curse of sin and the fear of death will be gone forever.
The death of Ben still makes my heart ache. Ben was about eleven, a little older than our Sophie when we first met him. We rented the Thai house that his mother had built and our friendship with his family grew deep over the years. A compassionate son, friend to many, Ben’s genuine smile bridged cultures. He had a way of making everyone feel at ease. It was fun cheering alongside his father as we watched Ben, in his number eight jersey, play soccer with skill, passion, and integrity. Then came a Thursday morning when his life tragically ended in a motorcycle accident while he was on his way to school. Grief unimaginable. After several days of Buddhist rituals, the community gathered for his cremation. And when I thought I could cry no more, fresh tears formed as a friend of Ben’s family, a famous saxophonist, played Amazing Grace in the stillness of that blue-skyed setting. God, do I know Your grace that is beyond amazing? Will I be with You surrounded by joy, alive in peace, as one who has inherited Your blessings?
At last, Satan, the enemy of old, will be seized, bound and thrown into the abyss, locked away for 1,000 years. Now more fascinating things happen. The faithful-to-God ones (people who had been beheaded due to their testimony about Jesus, those who had not worshiped the beast or accepted his mark) will come back to life! Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of the Messiah, and they will reign with Him for 1,000 years. Satan, for the last time, is set free to deceive and then is thrown into the lake of fire. God will then judge everyone, both the living and the dead.
God’s Story is anything but boring. But as we read it, we need to keep in mind that we are a part of it; we will be judged by how we choose to live. God, I pray that we would choose wisely. You have provided so much for us in the way of knowledge and nearness, in provision and blessing. But You do not control us like puppets on a string. You allow us choice, even if that may mean choosing against You. God, have mercy upon us and those we love because Your judgment is coming. No one can stand against You in their own strength; we need the covering of Jesus. May we humbly bow before You. Amen.
John’s role as a scribe continues and he writes a great encouragement of what is yet to come. Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” Remember the wedding in Cana that Jesus attended at the beginning of His earthly ministry? John was at that wedding. When Jesus performed His first miracle, turning water into wine at that marriage celebration, John was there. When the angel in Heaven told him about the wedding supper that will take place in the future, I wonder if he thought back to the Cana wedding. Just what did he picture?
Think back on the wonderful wedding celebrations you have been to throughout your lifetime. Recall the happiness of shared love as the groom and his beautiful bride are joined together in holy matrimony, beginning their lives as one. Then there are the weddings written about in novels and we read the story describing all the great and blissful details: the prince and princess overcoming insurmountable odds and they victoriously live happily ever after. We have watched moving weddings in movies when we cry happy tears, or maybe we’ve followed the pomp of royal weddings with all the grandeur of riches. Even a combination of the best of these events will be colorless in light of the marriage feast of the Lamb! The invited ones will be blessed beyond measure. Believe it! God’s Story is not a fairytale.
God’s righteous punishment continues against everyone who obstinately remain in their wicked ways: those who will not repent of their rebellious actions and give glory to God. Seven angels will go forth on the earth to pour out seven bowls of God’s wrath. The destruction will be final and there will come a thorough cleansing of the world from sin. Those who remain alert and watchful for God will be blessed. “Look, I will come as unexpectedly as a thief! Blessed are all who are watching for me, who keep their clothing ready so they will not have to walk around naked and ashamed.”
This statement from Jesus reminds me of Adam and Eve at the beginning of God’s Story. When they disobeyed God their eyes were opened to their nakedness and they no longer had joy and peace but were ashamed. God wants us to trust Him and obey Him; He has provided a way for us to give up our shame. Jesus died in our place, and the sin and shame of all of mankind was nailed to His cross. Because God’s love is greater than our sin, God raised Jesus from the dead and we can be dead to sin and alive to walk and live in new life. This news is good! May we live in awareness of God, intentionally and bravely practicing perseverance in the trials we face every day. May we be ready, humbly relying on God, no matter what comes our way. For we know that Jesus is coming! Let’s live expectantly!
Trumpets, angels, plagues, battles, evil enemies and God’s faithfulness; the next few chapters of God’s Story, as recorded in the Revelation of Jesus Christ, stretches one’s imagination to say the least. God’s judgment and hostility toward the adversary’s assaults cause havoc on the earth. But God remains in control. In spite of everything that is taking place at the coming of Jesus and with Satan’s war against Christ’s church, there is hope for the faithful and blessings as well. From Heaven John heard a voice say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”
Mary, the mother of Jesus, had rest from her labor the night Jesus was born in a manger so long ago. Jesus encourages us to come to Him to find rest from our labor when we give our burdens to Him. All of us long for rest in spite of the variety of labor pains that we presently experience. And the kind of rest that comes to those who die in the Lord is a blessed rest indeed. But until then we have the joys and challenges of this life. Let’s remember that the good deeds that we do and the ways we bless others will not be forgotten. Let us go forward in faithfulness to our Lord. Thank You, Lord Jesus, for we can come and adore You! You have taken fear out of death. There will come a day when we will rest in lasting peace. Your life, death and resurrection made it possible for those who trust in You to have reconciliation, peace, and joy. Joy to the world, the Lord of rest has come. Amen.
There is a promise for those in Heaven that brings such hope: God will wipe away all tears. All who love God will experience full and abiding comfort. One day, multitudes from every nation, tribe, people and language will worship Him. The angels will join in with the praises. “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength belong to our God forever and ever! Amen.” And the praise goes on! When we notice people who are different from us, try to see them as God sees them. See them as people Jesus died for – those who, if they bow their knee to the King of kings, will join the multitudes to receive His peace. May we be active in extending God’s hope, one person at a time. Honest transparency helps us as we seek to share God’s Story with others. Even though I know the joy of what the future holds, some days on this earth I still slip into melancholy.
The dark, cold afternoons of London winter contributed to my sense of discouragement so I prayerfully considered my options and then I joined a gym. Each day before going I would ask God to give me a friend to share His goodness with and He faithfully provided many opportunities for meaningful conversations. After one workout, I met Fariba, a beautiful Iranian who was also new to the gym. Fariba and I had fun exploring London together, learning from each other and discovering what we each valued. About a month before Easter, Fariba asked me what I was giving up for Lent. I told her depression. My depression is not the kind that requires medical care. When I choose to focus on Jesus as my Hope, my dark mood lifts. In a gym we train our bodies; in God’s Word we train our minds. When a pity party breaks out, stop, and invite in thankfulness. Hopefulness and gratitude are good workout partners for the mind and at times we need to do more repetitions of both. When it is our turn for Heaven, let’s be in good shape to join the faithful around God’s throne. May we be strong in lifting up His praise because all glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor belong to Him. He is the One who gives us strength and power to live now in hope and to actively share it.
Suddenly, John is transported to Heaven. I wonder what that must have felt like! John had just recorded interesting and eye-opening messages to seven different churches, messages that critiqued each for what they had done well and for what they had failed to do. Today, churches can be more effective when leaders read this information and needed adjustments are implemented. While in Heaven, John was escorted by an angel. John sees amazing, hard-to-express things that human minds can only somewhat imagine. But what he hears is loud and clear: on-going praise to God the Father and Jesus. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
Then every living creature everywhere (in Heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea) all joined in with the praise chorus: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” What an incredible foretaste we are privy to as we read God’s Story. If we allow our minds and hearts to take in all that John tried to describe, we too cannot help but to worship. Lord Jesus, You are worthy to be praised forever and ever. All blessing is Yours. All honor, glory and might belong to You. We will join the masses to praise You throughout all eternity. May our lips and lives praise You even now. Amen.
When trying to decide if a book is a good one some readers will glance at the first chapter and if it captures their attention they continue turning pages. Others choose to read the last chapter and if it offers a satisfying conclusion, they will then invest in the rest of the book. With God’s Book, the Bible, we can take either approach and discover His Story is one not only worth reading but worth living by. Genesis, the beginning of God’s Story, records many blessings. The blessings do not stop there; they continue on generation after generation, situation after situation. Revelation, the conclusion of God’s written Word to us, maintains this blessing theme.
John lived on a small island as an outcast for telling God’s Story. In his nineties, he wrote down everything he saw, just as God told him to do. The final book in the Bible is challenging to fully comprehend but God rewards those who read and embrace its truth. The one who reads this is blessed, and those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it are blessed, because the time is near! The time is more nearer today than it was yesterday. May we be encouraged to love God’s blessings and journal them for ourselves and for the generations yet to come. We can take good comfort in knowing that the time is near. God is near. Live fully in the God of the blessings!
Grace (spiritual blessing), mercy, and [soul] peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ (the Messiah), the Father’s Son, in all sincerity (truth) and love. What do we really long for in our days? Is it not for our soul to be at peace with the God who created us for love? John’s second letter is a mini version of his first one and his personal greeting for our goodness blesses all who read it. To live really comprehending that we have mercy instead of punishment from God is undoubtedly a blessing worth repeating. Forgiven sinners embraced by God Almighty. It is hard to fathom, but true. Do we have peace with God? He offers; will we accept?
When the apostle John was young, he walked beside Jesus and he penned his gospel account that is filled with distinctions between light and dark. As an old man John wrote letters to those who wanted to follow Jesus’ teachings. There are so many things he could have shared as he pondered the past. He contemplated the present situation and addressed the need to love faithfully and to remain obedient to God’s commands. John knew false teaching was a real enemy so he pleaded with his readers to practice discernment. Then John concluded one of his letters by giving needed assurance. “I write this to you who believe in (adhere to, trust in, and rely on) the name of the Son of God [in the peculiar services and blessings conferred by Him on men], so that you may know [with settled and absolute knowledge] that you [already] have life, yes, eternal life.” What a blessing his words must have been then and how they remain a blessing to all who still yearn to follow Jesus today. We are blessed with eternal life. All praise to God! We do not need to wait until death ushers us into life; through God’s Holy Spirit we can live with eternal life kind of hope even now. Jesus is the Key that opens the door.
It is imperative not to reject God’s grace! We need to consider all that is at stake and no matter what, do not refuse the richness of forgiveness offered to us through the Son of the Most High God. The early Christians needed this warning just as we need it today. Along with that firm exhortation, the writer adds: pursue peace and holiness and pull out by the very roots any form of bitterness. And make sure that there isn’t any immoral or irreverent person like Esau, who sold his birthright in exchange for one meal. For you know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected because he didn’t find any opportunity for repentance, though he sought it with tears. Don’t wait until it is too late; receive God’s mercy today. His Story was written so we can not only learn from the errors of others but also see for ourselves the goodness of God’s grace which calls us to repentance and trust. This then gives a life worth living. As we trust in the Lord at all times we will be drawn to Him rather than want to hide from Him.
The Great Hall of Faith chapter in God’s Story begins with a definition of faith. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we still do not clearly see. Faith and blessings are often interlinked. Abraham had lived by faith and passed blessings down to his son Isaac. By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. The next generation also experienced the faith/blessing combination. By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. When we live our lives by faith, being certain in God whom we do not see, we can bless those who come behind us. What a legacy to give: the example of a life lived faithfully. While on earth, we may never fully know just what kind of impact we’ve made. But there can be no impact for good or for God if we hide our light under a basket. Let’s shine brightly for our Lord and King! Our children, our nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and neighbors need light in order to properly grow. Little seeds of faith require good soil, water and light. Let’s allow the Gardener to use us in this process.
My mom was raised on a farm and she’s still a wonderful gardener. Each season finds her doing what needs to be done to bring about beautiful blooms in her many flowerbeds. The first time Russell and I had a rental home with a little yard, I wanted to have flower gardens like my mom but found it very hard to while keeping up with three toddlers. Her wise words to me were to put flowered-printed dresses on the girls, bright colors on Isaiah, and spend my time playing outside with my young ones, for they were my flowers for this season. Through blended families, Mom is now the grandmother to fourteen grandchildren and two great-grandsons. She has watered those souls with prayers and shines her light on them as she spends time with each—in her gardens, in her kitchen, at their sporting events and on and on. I picture that when she leans against her hoe, like Jacob did on his staff, she is thankful to God knowing her “gardening” has made the world a more beautiful place.
To further clarify his point of the superiority of Jesus, the writer to the Hebrews retells the story of a Melchizedek, a priest, with a name that means king of justice and peace. This Melchizedek was king of the city of Salem and also a priest of God Most High. When Abraham was returning home after winning a great battle against the kings, Melchizedek met him and blessed him… And Melchizedek placed a blessing upon Abraham, the one who had already received the promises of God. And without question, the person who has the power to give a blessing is greater than the one who is blessed. The writer goes on to explain the priesthood of Jesus and how He is our permanent, powerful, and perfect priest. Others may bless us in our lifetime, like how Melchizedek blessed Abraham, but the blessing of Jesus extends into eternity. Father, how thankful we are that Your Story has an extensive history and it has room to include each of us. We who believe in You are blessed and no matter if we are returning home from winning a battle or are still in the midst of the fighting, You have overcome our sin and through Jesus it is paid for in full. Thank You for the blessing of being Your child. Amen.
God’s promises are certain and true. We are firmly cautioned not to become lazy or seek to take matters into our own hands. Instead we are wise to imitate those who live faithfully and to trust the promises of God for ourselves. The writer of this letter hoped to refresh a specific promise made years ago for his readers, one that had impact on their lives, and still does on our lives today. For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.
Reminders about the past can give healthy encouragement to those in the present. “Team white van” made a long drive from Texas to Florida and allowed us to enjoy a great family Christmas gathering at Russell’s dad’s home. Along the way, we stopped in Pensacola where I met first Russ thirty years earlier. I loved reminiscing about our early days as a couple and telling our kiddos, each one now older than we were back when we first fell in love, about how I met their father. There were some turbulent times during the years leading up to sealing our love with a promise on our wedding day. By God’s grace that promise stands. God models faithful promise keeping. He is just and will not forget our love toward Him and diligence toward loving others. Be strong until the end, for we can have confidence in Him. And as His Story faithfully tells, His promises include blessings!
It is unclear who wrote this letter to Christians with a Jewish background, but what does ring clear is the truth that Jesus Christ is superior to everyone and everything including all of the traditions within the Jewish heritage. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. This illustration about the land is a warning to all of us against falling away from the goodness and redemption found in Christ alone. It is essential for us to check what it is that we are growing in our character and to live useful and not worthless lives. This letter written to the Hebrews is fascinating. It is filled with warnings and blessings and retells God’s Story in a concise and powerful way. Give it a fresh read, circling the blessings for yourself, and be blessed!
God, I pray that we would not drift away from You but out of gratitude we would press on into purposeful and effective living. Let us not coast but produce a crop of goodness that blesses You and blesses those You place in our lives. Amen.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Awareness and proper perspective can make all the difference in the way one lives through suffering. Peter, gentle with his words, lets his readers know that committing to a faithful Creator and continuing to do good is the direction to go for those who seek to follow Christ. One day the glory of Jesus will be made known to all.
When Russell teaches CrownHeartWorld, the whole biblical Story using three symbols in five columns, I love applying verses like this one from Peter. They fill in more details to our final hope. Column five show what is yet to come, when we will see God for who He is and all things will be restored. When we are complete, face-to-Face with our Creator and Redeemer, our hearts will never flip over into selfishness again. For now, though, those of us who have placed our faith in Jesus are still living in column four. In column four, we advance toward transformation and there is testing and suffering and the hurts of a world that is broken. But hold on to hope, there is over-rejoicing guaranteed in our future!
Benjamin Franklin, in his 1757 Poor Richard’s Almanac, repeats a phrase that has become familiar: “God helps those who help themselves.” Ben is not however, quoting the Bible. God helps those who are helpless. And when it comes to salvation, each one of us is in dire need of God’s help. God does reward those who seek to do what is right. Sometimes it may feel like the unjust are receiving benefits while the godly are penalized. But always remember, God will have the final say, and His judgment is fair and true. But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Short and to the point, Peter’s reminders go a long way to those who are being persecuted unjustly and this truth is good to keep in mind. Today is not the end. Keep calm and carry on in the ways that honor God. He sees and His Word says He will bless.
Peter stressed the importance of unity within the community so that compassion and harmony could flow. Living this way will glorify God. Peter said at the close of his letter, “Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude. Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it.” Like in other places in God’s Story, we find that when we bless others (even when they don’t “deserve it”) God will bless us. Look for opportunities to bless, and all the more so, when blessing may seem far from what might come naturally.
Let God’s supernatural love flow. From March of 2013 to March of 2014 I had a new job. While wearing a cute apron, I worked part-time at a friendly self-serve frozen yogurt shop in our neighborhood. I loved riding my bike to work on quiet streets lined with large trees. Greeting guests and offering them samples of our yummy flavors was fun for me. Everyone is happy in a frozen yogurt shop, right? Well, early in my training, a guest impatiently fussed about a number of things and when she left the store, my team leader, who has wisdom in many areas, encouraged me not to let it get to me, as this lady was known for her grumpy, insulting attitude. My new mission was to show extra genuine kindness, blessing this guest until she could not help but to enjoy her fro-yo with a smile. When we have been blessed by God’s love, how can we not desire to bless others, especially those who may not know Him yet? Over time as this lady came into the shop, she warmed up to what I like to believe is God’s love flowing through, and now she even smiles and says kind words. This is a blessing to me and to all those around her.
P.S. During my long ankle recovery I contemplated a variety of jobs that I might like to explore and added dog walking to my now-mobile days. I also went back to the yogurt shop. It is just one of many good venues for living out Peter’s teaching: be tenderhearted, keep a humble attitude, when rudeness comes respond with kindness. This is the way to living a blessed life.
God’s Story is passed on through the perspective of Peter. He used to be a fisherman and then he had a change in careers. This was not a smooth transition for Peter, but an important one, and by the end of his life those who knew him learned about many blessings of God. Do you need a good reason to praise God today? Peter gives us several as he begins his first letter written to Gentile Christians who were living in a time of great hostility to the gospel. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” Peter, the fisherman, also known as Simon and Cephas, wrote this. But Peter did not write this right away. First he needed to experience and then process those experiences.
Friendship with Jesus changes people. In John’s Gospel we read that it was Peter’s brother Andrew who introduced Peter to Jesus. Peter lived and learned what it meant to truly trust God by seeing Jesus in action. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus led Peter up the mountain of transfiguration. Jesus told Peter where to fish and so many fish were caught it must have been talked about for years. Another time Jesus told Peter to catch a fish and that fish had a coin in its mouth which was used to pay taxes. Peter heard Jesus’ sermons and was able to ask the smartest Man who ever lived question after question. And then, when the time came, Peter denied that he ever knew his Friend. But that is not where God’s Story ended for Peter. It went on to see Peter’s reconciliation with a resurrected Jesus. God’s Holy Spirit filled Peter with boldness to preach and gave him a purpose worth living for. Praise be to God, who has so richly blessed His children, born into a hope that will not die, with an incredible inheritance guaranteed. God’s mercy is great and the promise of what we have yet to receive is unimaginable by human minds. Thank You, Father God, for raising Jesus from the dead and through Him offering us abundant life and a living hope. Amen.
In his brief letter, Jude warns his readers not to become false teachers and not to be led astray by them. For certain men have crept in stealthily [gaining entrance secretly by a side door]. Their doom was predicted long ago, ungodly (impious, profane) persons who pervert the grace (the spiritual blessing and favor) of our God into lawlessness and wantonness and immorality, and disown and deny our sole Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One). Instead of listening or responding to those false teachers, we need to be built up in the faith, pray in the Spirit, and keep ourselves in God’s love. We need to be wise and not let the wolf in sheep’s clothing lead us away from the truth that is found in our Messiah and His teachings. How do we know if a leader is a wolf? Look at his offspring, or in other words, what kind of fruit is coming from his life? Jude was not the only one who warned of the seriousness of knowing who it is we choose to follow. Jesus made it clear that it will not end well for those who lead others astray.
It is virtuous to be patient, but often we desire patience and yet want to bypass the very thing that grows our patience best: suffering. It was the same for those in the early church, so James helped them remember a man who was familiar with both patience and suffering. Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. Job was blessed by persevering. The Lord is full of blessing, full of mercy, full of compassion. Hold tight to Him and to His promises. Nothing is wasted in our lives as we live out God’s Story trusting fully in Him. Job was blessed. So were countless others who have persevered, suffered, grew in patience and in doing so knew the compassion and mercy of God. It is now our generation; our turn. How will we choose to respond to suffering?
To make his message about training the tongue clear to his readers, James brings to life many visual aids. Animals can be trained, but can the tongue? With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Do we want to be blessed? Don’t curse. When we desire purity in our body and speech, we take action to rid ourselves of the hypocrisy that our enemy would like to trap us in. James desires us to thrive in the freedom that comes from living an unmixed life. Then we can in full confidence bless God and bless people.
Do we want to be blessed in what we do? James gives helpful direction. We cannot just listen to God’s Word; we need to actually do what it says. That means taking it in, then working it out. This concept reminds me of a friend back in our Marine Corps days when Russell and I served in Spain. This young man would swallow several bodybuilding supplements with the desire to be buff but not take the time to lift weights in the gym. His body should have processed the supplements during sweaty workouts as his muscles were being built, but instead of bigger muscles, what his body produced was an unpleasant smell. We sure do not want to be stinky Christians by just taking in more information. We are blessed when we study God’s Story and then live out what it says for us to do. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works—this person will be blessed in what he does. We need to do more than just take in truth. Those who follow Jesus need to actively apply that truth, situation by situation. What good is the freedom Jesus provides if we do not live in it? Press on into blessedness. God, may our love for Your Word increase in us, not puff us up with knowledge but give us strength to live life effectively. I pray that our actions really would show what we believe and that loving You and loving people becomes our treasure. May our lives be a fragrant offering. Amen.
James, believed to be a half-brother of Jesus, is a to-the-point kind of man. As a leader in the early church, he addressed persecution and his words of wisdom hold true for all generations. “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” His letter goes on to give advice for remaining steadfast. James teaches us to be unshakeable, wholehearted and firm in our convictions by gaining a realistic perspective of trials, temptation, and the need of putting faith into action. Each lesson builds on the other. But is it all worth it? Remaining resolute and loyal to God is a blessing in itself. If we need more motivation, let’s ponder “the crown of life” that James says God promises to the ones who love Him. When the busy swirl of day-to-day obligations and pressures make it hard for us to contemplate the future that awaits us beyond this world’s struggles, we are wise to pause and re-think priorities. Do our thoughts and behavior reveal a trusting, growing, dependent and joyful love of God? Nothing needs to separate us from that love. Embrace Him in the good and in the bad times because the testing will come. I like the expression “she passed” as a way of saying that someone has died. This world is our test; at the end of it I sure want to pass—pass with flying colors right into the Presence of God who knew me even before there was a me to know.
Like many sojourners, our family has moved a lot. For me, settledness in a new home comes when the kitchen has what it needs for me to make meals to serve my family and our guests. This can sometimes take a while; some of our kitchens literally had only the kitchen sink when we moved in. Eventually though, the room becomes useful and well-furnished and I feel settled. When it was time for Hannah to begin life on her own in college, I began to write minickmenus, a blog that has grown to include over 300 family recipes. Now that all of my kiddos have kitchens of their own, it is fun to hear how they access the blog to recreate meals we once shared around the same table. Try to picture what mealtime was like back in the days of the New Testament. I find it interesting that in Paul’s second letter to Timothy he used a “kitchen” illustration. In a well-furnished kitchen there are not only crystal goblets and silver platters, but waste cans and compost buckets—some containers used to serve fine meals, others to take out the garbage. Become the kind of container God can use to present any and every kind of gift to his guests for their blessing. We can bless others with gifts from God when we become usable to God. What kind of container are we now? What are we training to become?
Who do we know who needs to be remembered by us today? Is there someone we could bless by sending a quick text message, a Facebook comment, an email, a card or even a handwritten letter? Encouraging one another is a way we impart godly love and blessings. All who are with me wish to be remembered to you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace (God’s favor and blessing) be with you all. Amen (so be it). What a great way to end a good letter! Titus, a new pastor in Crete, was certainly blessed when he read Paul’s pastoral advice and it gives us solid counsel today. Titus was glad that he was not forgotten as he served God in a faraway place.
In 1996, when our family first arrived in China, we communicated our prayer requests in handwritten letters mailed to those whom we loved. I would bike across the city to the post office where stamps were stuck on envelopes using a chopstick and brown goo. My letters were cryptic since we never knew if they would be opened and read before they left the communist country. Communication forms sure have changed since those days and how much more so since the time of Paul! With the help of technology, correspondence happens instantaneously to and from almost anywhere in the world. Prayer needs as well as praises for God’s answers can be communicated without long delays. Then all who partner in sharing God’s love and growing His Kingdom can together give the credit to Him, praising God for His grace. Let’s continue to stir one another along with love and by good works, blessing as we go.
Titus was living in Crete and could use some encouragement and a strategic planning seminar so Paul wrote a letter to him. Titus needed reminding (don’t we all from time to time?) of what “blessed hope” is especially when he faced challenging tasks. For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. It takes discipline to say “no” to things that do not bring about lasting goodness, and say “yes” to Jesus who is our strength and our model for upright living. He is our Blessed Hope and He is returning!
As we anticipate Jesus’ glorious appearing, we are encouraged to live redeemed lives with action and purpose, which grow both our joy and our freedom. Disappointment and frustration is a part of life, yet anger, bitterness or other unhealthy coping mechanisms are not a good way forward. Let’s aim to use setbacks as an opportunity to go to God and depend more fully on Him for our needs. We are people who Jesus wants to purify. How eager are we to submit to this purification process?
Before beginning rewrites today I was praying, more like grumbling, to God about my immobility. It has been over fifty days (I’m trying to make the days count rather than just counting days) since the bicycle accident that has left me unable to walk and there’s no projected walking date set. God knows that my desire is to depend fully on Him, and He also knows that a lot of my life has been lived in self-reliant ways. During my recovery He is showing me afresh His good, faithful, fulfilling love through His Presence, His Story and through a whole lot of people He has used to bless me. Will I accept His purifying lessons and fully trust Him? Waiting does not come naturally for me, and I do not think I’m the only one that struggles with this. God says we are to wait upon Him, He is the One who renews, restores, redeems and purifies. What is the next good step we can take today as we embrace our Blessed Hope? His grace is for us.
P.S. Four months went by from my biking accident to the beginning of physical therapy when I began to apply weight to my right ankle. God did restore me and I am again walking, biking, and even somewhat running! And the lessons I learned about God’s grace and waiting for His blessed hope inspire me yet today.
At the close of a very constructive letter about Christ-like living, Paul continued to urge Timothy to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. He motivated him to fight the good fight of the faith, because God gives life. Gushing praise of God breaks forth from Paul, and he writes, “He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, the only One who has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light; no one has seen or can see Him, to Him be honor and eternal might. Amen.” God is truly worthy of praise and true praise is heard loud and clear in godly living. May we bless God with our lives day after day, choice after choice.
Paul says that both honor and eternal might belong to God who lives in unapproachable light. One day we will see Him. Until it is our turn to approach Him in all His glory, may we be found faithfully growing authentic God-like character. We can be dedicated like an athlete who values building strength and might. Paul tells Timothy that growth in godly character is good not only for this life but for the one yet to come. Picture the situations that God allows to come our way to be like a gym, and when we handle the circumstance wisely our faith muscles mature. Whether we like it or not we are in a fight against God’s enemy. Being trained is critical. God, I pray that although we do not yet see You, we would keep our eyes, our focus, on You. You are our prize. Amen.
Timothy was a young leader who Paul treated like a son. So Paul offered Timothy good training: “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” That is a lot to take in. But basically Paul is saying that there is a big difference between the lawless and their activities and a holy God. Living ethically is a blessing to those who practice integrity and to everyone else in society. God can change a chief of sinners into an ambassador for Jesus. The gospel transforms lives and God’s Story provides guidelines for character growth. We serve a blessed God, and He wants us to live a blessed life as His children.
Paul’s Christian life was far from boring! In November we joined him as he continued on in his adventurous journeys of sharing God’s good news message to all who would listen. When trouble comes his way and he is thwarted from travel he used the opportunity to connect meaningfully by writing letters. We now are privileged to read the blessings of God through Jesus that he originally penned to believers in Corinth, Rome, Colossae, to a friend named Philemon, and to gatherings of dear friends in Ephesus and Philippi.
Paul has a good relationship with the church in Philippi. They were excited about giving generously and increasing God’s Kingdom, and Paul did not want those brothers and sisters to lose that joy. “You Philippians well know, and you can be sure I’ll never forget it, that when I first left Macedonia province, venturing out with the Message, not one church helped out in the give-and-take of this work except you. You were the only one. Even while I was in Thessalonica, you helped out—and not only once, but twice. Not that I’m looking for handouts, but I do want you to experience the blessing that issues from generosity.” Blessings given are often blessings returned. I hope we don’t get tired of the idea that we are blessed to be a blessing. It continues to be a major theme in God’s Story. Let’s not miss out on His goodness!
The “rejoice again letter” was Paul’s fourth prison correspondence. His joy was not that he would soon be released, but his rejoicing came through knowing, loving and serving the risen Lord. He began his letter with a blessing to the Christians in Philippi. Grace (favor and blessing) to you and [heart] peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (the Messiah). From there he addressed selfless living, and being an active example of peace and forgiveness. How is peace and forgiveness lived out in the day-to-day of life? The year before Hannah graduated high school, Russell taught our house church practical advice from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He then wrote a booklet, Joy Beyond Anxiety: The Philippians’ Peace, and a copy was given as a gift to each of Hannah’s fellow graduates. On page forty, he challenges us not to grab for control and start being anxious when we sense we need something. Instead, let’s reflect with gratitude on the goodness of God and tell Him what is going on (pray) and ask for the help you feel you need.
May we learn that it is good to slow down and allow the assurance that God cares to fill us. He will provide all that we need to grow into the image of His Son. May this good news calm our racing minds. Then the peace of God will be with us: His favor, His heart-peace, His blessing.
P.S. Years later at The Grove, discipleship training found us again diving into the principles Paul shared with his friends in Philippi. To better understand what we were learning, Russ encouraged us to choose a person as our audience and then write our own commentary based on what God was teaching us. I choose my niece Ali and was so happy to give to her The Philippians’ Joy upon her high school graduation. Pass on what you are learning; it will help you learn it even better!
Let no foul or polluting language, nor evil word nor unwholesome or worthless talk [ever] come out of your mouth, but only such [speech] as is good and beneficial to the spiritual progress of others, as is fitting to the need and the occasion, that it may be a blessing and give grace (God’s favor) to those who hear it. What we say says a lot about us as individuals and the team that we support. God wants His team to use words that actually edify and bless those we are talking with. But this takes intentional speech therapy. Total immersion in the language and culture is the best way to learn a foreign language. If wholesome speech is not currently flowing from us, we can consider a detox from movies, books and social settings where foul language runs rampant. Instead, let’s seek to put ourselves in environments where we can hear, read and practice speaking the language of Heaven.
Don’t get discouraged if this new language doesn’t come naturally overnight. It takes time to replace our polluted ways of thinking and talking with fresh and beneficial speech. But it is worth it. The Book of Proverbs gives lots of training tips, and so does Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He advises us to think about things that are pure and noble and praiseworthy. When Peter, a good friend of Jesus, wrote about following in His steps, he said that no deceit was found in Jesus’ mouth. If we want to love life and see good days we must keep our tongue from evil and our lips from unwholesome speech. James, another New Testament contributor, offered useful guidance on the subject of how to talk in ways that build up. We are blessed as we are used by God to relay wisdom in our speech during every occasion. God, help us to be a part of the blessing. May we be vocally thankful to be on Your team, to live as a member of Your family. Help us to speak the language of love. Amen.
Halfway through the letter to his Gentile friends in Ephesus, Paul emphasized that all people can become children of God. The word is spreading that both Israelites and non-Israelites could be connected to God, just as God said it would be when He gave the promise to Abraham. The gospel is for everyone! And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus.
No matter what our background is, we all can be adopted into the blended family of God! One is not born into God’s family because they have parents or grandparents who go to church. We see in God’s Story that the way into His family is through an individual belief in the good news that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through belief in His Son who died on our behalf so that our sins can be forgiven. A great exchange takes place: Jesus removes our sins from us and we inherit His riches offered through the Father’s grace. Our bad gone and His good given! Everyone can belong. There are no limits due to family history, location, status, or even poor personal choices. God extends His adoption plan to everyone and He often uses His children to share with others His plan. Belonging to Jesus is a blessing we can be happy about.
The opening salutation of Paul’s letter to his dear friends who lived in Ephesus is rich in blessings. He wanted them to be refreshed and to stop and think about some very good news. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. God is to be blessed for He has remarkably blessed us. And how has He blessed us? He has given us every spiritual blessing in the Heavenly realm. That is definitely a lot to take in. So Paul clarifies a bit by saying, “Be happy, be blessed.” We are adopted by the Father of it all. This is all possible through Jesus who is treasured by God. We too are treasured; Praise God! We are adopted and loved and have the opportunity to grow up and be like our new Daddy.
Is being holy and blameless our goal? If our desire is to grow in maturity, it should be. If you need a little coaching, get it. Be enthusiastic in your pursuit for Christ-likeness, and do so knowing you are blessed! Years before Paul wrote this letter, Jesus taught His followers on a mountain what it meant to live a blessed life. In the middle of His sermon Jesus said we are to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. This “perfect” in the Greek language is teleios, which means mature or full-grown, having arrived at a set goal. We are blessed and equipped to be whole because this is God’s plan for us. We can hinder that plan, however. The world offers a wide highway to travel on, but those who choose to go through the narrow gate, the way of proactively dying to selfishness in order to grow in godly maturity, are blessed beyond measure.
I, Paul, am a prisoner for the sake of Christ, here with my brother Timothy. I write this letter to you, Philemon, my good friend and companion in this work—also to our sister Apphia, to Archippus, a real trooper, and to the church that meets in your house. God’s best to you! Christ’s blessings on you! With a greeting like that, don’t you want to dive right into the rest of the letter? That’s what Paul hoped since the news he was sharing challenged his friend Philemon to make a choice. At stake was reconciliation and restoration with a person who had wronged Philemon in the past. So why is this letter addressed to so many people in addition to Philemon, and why do we get access to it now so many years after it was written?
I believe that we seldom make a big decision that does not significantly affect others in our community. Paul wanted God’s Kingdom to expand in Philemon’s life and also within everyone who met in his house church so that the whole community would be more like Jesus and be blessed. The strong argument that Paul makes is based on Christ’s love and forgiveness. We as followers of Jesus should also seek to live out the godly principles of reconciliation and restoration. Regardless of the way the world would handle a situation or how our feelings might dictate, it is wise to consider what Jesus would want us to do. Philemon had been blessed not just to be blessed but also to be a blessing. Likewise our blessings should not end with us, they should extend to others.
Many important points were made clear in Paul’s short letter to the Colossians, including the truth that Jesus is supreme above all and that He should be the focus of our lives. An embrace of those facts will shape our relationship with Him and with people. Connecting with others in honest ways about both the good and the trying situations can be a great place to start to share God’s faithfulness and care. Paul did this as he signed his letter: I, Paul, [add this final] greeting, writing with my own hand. Remember I am still in prison and in chains. May grace (God’s unmerited favor and blessing) be with you! Amen (so be it). Paul did not gloss over the fact that he was in prison, and it was from that position that he wrote about God’s grace. He was experiencing the goodness of grace and he wanted others to participate in God’s blessing. When we correspond with people, may we ask for God’s blessing and favor to be upon those who receive our letters. Blessings are a good thing to share! I love how Proverbs 25:25 communicates this idea in an easy-to-picture way. It says that good news from a distant land is like the blessing of cold water when you have a parched throat. Paul knew how to quench the thirst of others and he was good at offering Jesus who is Living Water for our souls, for our very lives.
Be encouraged in faith, united in love and really unpack the treasures of wisdom that are hidden in Christ. That is what Paul desires for those who are growing in Christian maturity. The Amplified Bible expounds on this idea wonderfully: [For my concern is] that their hearts may be braced (comforted, cheered, and encouraged) as they are knit together in love, that they may come to have all the abounding wealth and blessings of assured conviction of understanding, and that they may become progressively more intimately acquainted with and may know more definitely and accurately and thoroughly that mystic secret of God, [which is] Christ (the Anointed One).
When we first moved to China, I saw knitters everywhere. Some were old ladies or young girls, some sat in small shops, others were squatting along the edge of the road, and some looked like they were sleeping but their hands were busy working a wide spectrum of yarn colors, knitting them into all sorts of practical items. Even though people have tried to teach me, I do not know how to knit. I am in awe of how a ball of yarn put onto two needles clinking next to each other produces a brilliantly creative and useful outcome. That is the picture of how we are to be as we develop in the process of loving God and loving people. Loving well, like knitting, requires training and skill, and it might come more naturally to some people than to others. But we all increase our ability to love (or knit) the more we practice. May this love of ours expand and never come unraveled.
Well, Paul did make it to Rome, but not in the timeframe or along the route he had planned. While he was in Jerusalem the crowds tried to kill him and then Paul was arrested but was allowed to give his testimony about how Jesus changed his life. This led to a two-year imprisonment in Jerusalem. During his time in prison as he awaited trial, several prominent leaders heard the gospel from Paul. Paul appealed to Caesar and so he was sent to Rome and survived a shipwreck along the way. He lived under house arrest in Rome for another two years. These days, weeks and months were not wasted in self-pity, but lived with purpose. Paul empowered the believers in Rome and also served the Lord by writing letters.
Four of these wisdom-filled letters written during this time are included in the New Testament. Believers who lived in a heavily pagan-influenced area benefitted greatly when they received one of Paul’s letters. To the saints (the consecrated people of God) and believing and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: Grace (spiritual favor and blessing) to you and [heart] peace from God our Father. The best way to share blessings and peace with others is to do so out of a heart that is filled with God’s grace and peace. Paul was able to authentically offer grace and peace for he had contentment in less-than-best living conditions. His life is a good example for us. Let’s not wait until the situation is just right to live the abundant life that Jesus offers.
It was also during his Roman imprisonment that Paul wrote to his friend Philemon and we get to read that letter a little later in God’s Story. Tucked into the letter that Philemon received was a jewel of wise counsel. Paul said that as we share our faith, we will gain a full understanding of every good thing we have in Jesus. Let us share, and not stockpile, the good that we have, because when we do so, our understanding of this good makes more sense to us. May it lead us to be appreciative and to generously offer grace and peace to others.
The Ephesian believers wept as Paul departed because they knew they would not see him alive again. But Paul encouraged them and reminded them that it is all worth it when you live for what is right. Paul’s words to them also give us inspiration: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” It is so good to reflect on the life and words of Jesus; He gives proper perspective in the face of trials. I’m glad that Luke, who had been traveling with Paul and penned Acts, took the time to jot down this quote of Jesus. It gives us another thing to ponder about Jesus along with all that had already been written about Him by Luke and the other three Gospel writers. All the books in the world could not contain the full life of Jesus. Paul made other encouraging visits along the way, and then he pressed on to Jerusalem. Do we believe it is more blessed to give than to receive? Our actions will testify to our beliefs. When we bless those who cannot pay us back, we are choosing to live out the teachings of Jesus during our lifetime. There are so many ways to help the weak. How does Jesus want to use us today?
Back in 490 B.C., Greece came under serious attack by the Persian Empire and a great runner named Phidippides saved the day in the thriving influential city of Athens. Long story made short, the outcome also gave birth to the first marathon. About 550 years later, Paul was about to set sail from that part of the world, carrying a financial gift for the needy in Jerusalem. When he learned that the Jewish religious leaders in Syria were plotting to take his life he took the long way around. Instead of sailing the direct route he was able to reconnect with believers at various places along the coast of the Aegean Sea. As Paul trekked great distances, he strengthened and challenged new Christians with his teachings. Knowing the danger ahead of him, Paul shared with his Ephesian friends who met him along the way: “But none of these things move me; neither do I esteem my life dear to myself, if only I may finish my course with joy and the ministry which I have obtained from [which was entrusted to me by] the Lord Jesus, faithfully to attest to the good news (Gospel) of God’s grace (His unmerited favor, spiritual blessing, and mercy).”
Phidippides ran his course and Athens was saved. I wonder if Paul thought about him as he pressed on with his course. Scottish athlete and devoted missionary to China Eric Liddell once said, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast! And when I run I feel His pleasure.” God did not make me fast, but I sure do feel His pleasure when I run. I had been running for over twenty-five years when I ran my first and (to date) only marathon in northern Thailand. The center of Chiang Mai’s ancient walled city was lit with lanterns and the minty smell of muscle cream filled the cool air. The stillness was broken by a sound like distant thunder: running shoes hitting the road. It was the start of my forty-two-kilometer course and excitement surged through all that was me. My feet went forward as the sun rose and God brought people to my mind to pray for as I ran. Family and friends cheered me on and I thought about how God’s Word says we are to encourage one another to run the good race. I felt God’s pleasure in a breeze and smiled, remembering Eric Liddell and how he faithfully lived his life. When the run became hard, Isaiah came alongside me, helping me keep pace. Sophie carried my iPod shuffle when that burden became too great for me to bear. Knowing the end was near, Russell joined us on the brick road calling out cadence to finish strong. Hannah’s finish-line hug began the celebration; I had completed the race!
God, we all have different races to run and I pray that each of us would be strengthened by You to finish our course with joy. This takes intentional focus on You no matter what challenges lie ahead of us. May our story be faithful to Your Story as we live out the life You have blessed us with. Amen.
This is Paul’s longest letter and maybe his most important one. In modern days, we type and can quickly edit what we’ve written. But try to picture Paul writing with pen and ink on an scroll using materials that would have been expensive and challenging to get from one person to another. It was quite a process and it is amazing how his words have been preserved for all these years. In his conclusion to his letter to the Romans, Paul lets them know that he wants to visit them when he takes a trip to Spain. But his immediate destination is Jerusalem because the Gentile believers in the Macedonian area have collected money to help the poor in Jerusalem and Paul would personally deliver it. Talking about the offering Paul adds, “For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.”
Mankind has spiritual needs, physical needs and relational needs. God is the One who designed us, and He is very aware of our needs. Jesus, during His Sermon on the Mount, taught His followers how to pray, and it is interesting that these three distinct areas come up in that model prayer. Our daily bread represents our physical needs. The need we have for two-way forgiveness reminds us that we depend on God for our relationship needs, to get along in healthy ways with people. Our spiritual needs are explained by the request for protection from temptation and the evil one. As we live and communicate with God in prayer, our ability to rely on His goodness grows. We become less egocentric and we can stop seeking to have our needs met in lesser ways. God filled Paul and used him to help provide what was lacking in the lives of many; may we be open and obedient to be filled and then used as well. Let’s be thankful to God for our blessings and pray, as we pay it forward, so others too will know His goodness.
You may believe there’s nothing wrong with what you are doing, but keep it between yourself and God. Blessed are those who don’t feel guilty for doing something they have decided is right. This advice from Paul requires us to be mature as we relate to God and other believers. Paul is not giving a blank slate go-ahead to do whatever feels good, but instead he reminds us that God – not you or me, is the Judge of us and of others. It is best for us to take the time that is needed to know why we do (or don’t do) what we do. Going forward with our thoughts and activities, being thankful to God for them, and not hurting others along the way, is a good indication that we have made a decent decision. A clean conscience is a wonderful blessing.
Some concepts in God’s Story are difficult to understand. Other concepts however are difficult to really do. I think that Romans 12:14 is not so much hard to comprehend, but very challenging to actually put into action. Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Not only are we to pour out happiness on those who harass us and treat us unjustly, but Paul tells us to talk to God about these people, asking Him to show them favor too. When we can do this, we get a better grasp on the forgiveness He has extended to us. So here are some ideas for practicing this good principle. When road rage strikes, try praying out loud in your car for the other driver instead of motioning a curse. If your boss or a co-worker or a teacher is demanding, take their names before God’s throne as you walk into work or school, and especially before any specific meeting. Rudeness may be on the rise, but we as God’s children do not need to swim in that same easy current. By staying close to God we can overcome and respond with sincere kindness.
When I was learning the Thai language, my first school closed down so I needed to switch schools. I found the new school’s director very challenging to connect with and condescending toward my language goals and progress. I wanted to avoid him, so during my breaks, I walked laps around the block and would sometimes cry. While feeling sorry for myself in my less than supportive environment, God prompted me to pray for the school’s administration and for its teachers. This simple act of obedience increased my closeness to God, and He helped me to see that there was more going on at the school that needed my prayer. Day-by-day, I began building deeper relationships with the Thai teachers, getting to better know them as individuals and I continued to pray for the director. Learning Thai was my main objective, but God did not want me to curse those who were making it extra difficult, but to bless them by praying and by caring. There are lots of ways we can put into practice Paul’s admonishment to pray rather than to curse. People need changing and we are all people. God is the One who changes people best; let Him start with us and see how He opens up the opportunities for us to then compassionately love others, even those who persecute us.
Good communicators use relevant and relatable illustrations to better emphasize and clarify the concept they are trying to express. To get his next point across, Paul chose to paint the picture of tree grafting. The stem of one plant would be cut and then another cut stem would be bound to it so that the two sets may be joined to grow together from one root system. He wanted both Jews and Gentiles to know that every person could receive the blessings of God. But some of these branches from Abraham’s tree—some of the people of Israel—have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree.
Before moving back to the US, I went to the Sunday Walking Market in Chiang Mai for the last time. It was the summer of 2011. Scented candles, fresh roasting meat, the sound of ancient instruments and displays of creative art were some of the things I knew I would miss, so I walked slowly, taking it all in. I found the lady who had sold me colorful stone braided necklaces in the past, and I purchased six more. This blessed her. And it began my prayer to God to please give me new friends. I was about to move to a big city that I had never lived in before and our new nest would be empty, like in our first year of marriage.
I was in a reflective mood and thought back to years earlier when our young family moved to a village on the edge of a Chinese town; we felt like outsiders. Over time though, relationships were formed and we began to be invited to festivals, marriages and funerals. We were grafted into their community, and eventually praise songs were written by villagers who became grafted into God’s family through faith in Jesus. God had been faithful then to provide community (and He had done that for us with several moves) but would He provide for us in Houston too? Christmas came around for the second time after leaving our life in Asia, and I excitedly shared the story of God’s goodness as I gave those necklaces to five women rejoicing with each how God had answered my prayers through them. The sixth necklace I wear as a reminder of God’s blessings. May we never forget that God does not want there to be outsiders, but for everyone to be brought into His family, to be grafted in and share in the blessings of His rooted love!
The “grace vs. law” debate continued and like all good lawyers, Paul did not ask a question that he didn’t already have an answer to. Paul followed up his line of reasoning about the Israelites trusting in self rather than God, by asking, “Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves. Now if the Gentiles were enriched because the people of Israel turned down God’s offer of salvation, think how much greater a blessing the world will share when they finally accept it.” The world is in for a great blessing when everyone accepts the goodness of God’s offer of salvation. Just picture what it could be like if everyone loved God and loved people. If that is not our present reality, let’s not give up hope! Instead, let’s do our part by sharing and showing how we have been blessed and by repeatedly saying, “yes” to God’s invitation to work with Him for the good of the world.
A lawyerly tone is used by Paul in the middle of his letter to the people he hopes to meet in Rome. He doesn’t argue for law or for deeds but for everyone to embrace God’s grace. Passages from Deuteronomy, Isaiah and the Psalms give weight to his position. Paul built his case to show the history of the hard-heartedness of human beings and included a quote from King David: “Let their bountiful table become a snare, a trap that makes them think all is well. Let their blessings cause them to stumble, and let them get what they deserve. Let their eyes go blind so they cannot see, and let their backs be bent forever.” Paul didn’t bring this up to condemn the people who were still stuck in a trap regarding their thinking about the law and grace, but he wrote to offer hope and deliverance. May we never lose sight of the truth that every blessing is a gift from God. If we think our plenty comes from what we have earned, we too are like a snared animal. Instead, let’s live in the freedom that comes freely to us from the One who paid a great price.
One of my favorite T-shirts from Thailand says “same-same” on the front and “but different” on the back, a phrase that can often be heard by Thais as they describe something that is similar but not really the same. Paul could have used “different-different, but same” when he wanted to get his point across about people. There are differences between languages, cultures, customs, preferences, social status and physical appearance. But when it comes down to who we are as people created in the image of God, we are very much the same. For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Paul quoted what prophets of old had written.
Each one of us has the same need and that is to call out for Jesus to rescue us. This need was throughout history and this need is throughout our world today. It is beyond understanding to know the depths of just how richly He blesses everyone who relies on Him for redemption. Here’s the deal: if you are saved you are blessed. A drowning man would take that deal, so how much more blessed is it to be rescued from the everlasting penalty of our sins? Jesus, You are our Rescuer, our Redeemer, and our Savior. We have a great need to be reconciled with God the Father and it is through You that we can have this peace that goes beyond all understanding. Nothing we have done is too bad for Your grace to cover, and nothing we will ever do is good enough to earn our way into a relationship with You. What must we do to be saved? Call on the One God has provided. Thank You Jesus for answering that call. Amen.
Life is complicated. The Bible, God’s Story from the beginning of life and His guidelines for how to live a blessed life, is complex but simple. Think about all the lives that have lived through the Old Testament up to the New Testament and every generation that has lived since. Mankind needs help. Right after he wrote a huge assurance that nothing at all can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus, Paul shared something personal. Professional religious people, like Paul used to be, gave him great anguish. They didn’t yet trust in Jesus as the Giver of the help they needed. Paul spoke to the people of Israel and said, “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” Thanks be to God for His mercy that allows any of us to be adopted by Him. May the people of Israel not reject but wholeheartedly embrace God’s provision through His Son Jesus. May all who have breath acknowledge that He will be blessed forever. In the complexity of life, how good it is to reflect on the simple, yet profound, truth that Jesus loves me, Jesus loves you.
It is true that there is forgiveness of sins through Jesus, and Paul writes more about this in his letter aimed at both the Greeks and the Jews who made up the church in Rome. Paul explained that even those who do not share the same genealogical heritage as the Israelites were included in this great blessing that God offers to everyone. Blessed and happy and to be envied are those whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered up and completely buried. Blessed and happy and to be envied is the person of whose sin the Lord will take no account nor reckon it against him. Is this blessing (happiness) then meant only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? Good question, and the answer is found in the truth that this blessedness comes through faith alone. How do we achieve God’s standards of righteousness? By faith. By faith like Abraham’s. Righteousness is gained by faith.
Abraham was the father of the promise that God would bless all nations when those nations placed their faith, trust, belief in Him. Today, we are part of the “all nations”. Do we trust Him today? Relationship is so much more than a one-time belief that took place at some point in the past. A relationship with God is a growing process where joy and blessing increase as we place our confidence in God in each new situation. Paul experienced the joy that his sins were forgiven. He knew God’s Story when he quoted these passages from what David wrote in Psalm 32:1-2. He is excited and wants everyone to know this extremely good good news! There are a lot of pages to read between the Book of Psalms and Paul’s letter to the Romans, and God’s theme of blessing shows up over and over again. His invitation is extended to all generations and all nationalities. God’s Story of blessings is the best!
Paul wrote about the great joy and delight that awaits those who have been rescued – those who have received forgiveness of their sins, and he wanted to make it clear that the redemption that takes place is by faith and not by works. As he made his point to his readers in Rome, he brought up the fact that King David celebrated this same truth. “Likewise, David also speaks of the blessing of the man God credits righteousness to apart from works: How joyful are those whose lawless acts are forgiven and whose sins are covered!” All who have asked for forgiveness from God the Father through Jesus are blessed! We are then free to work, serve, and live in joy trusting that our sins are covered. Jesus covered all our sins with his blood – shed for mankind at Calvary, a real place outside of Jerusalem where His crucifixion occurred. Every blessing beyond what Jesus did for us on the cross is blessing upon blessing.
When the first SD believer understood the goodness of a loving, forgiving, holy God, he was amazed at God’s generosity. But he could not fathom that redemption was a gift. Instead he wanted to do something to pay God back. He asked us, “What does God like? Does He want fruit? Rice? Meat?” Grace, apart from works, was explained with more clarity. God does not want or need food from us; He is the One who blesses His children with all that we need. Greater awe, joy and gratitude flowed from a forgiven heart that humbly accepted God’s blessings. May we never lose our admiration of God who is worthy of all our praise. Are we joyful today because our lawless acts are forgiven? We who trust in Jesus have our sins covered! May joy and praise abound.
While Paul was visiting his friends in Corinth he wrote to the loved-by-God ones in Rome and introduced himself and explained more of the gospel. He had hopes to visit them in person so he wasted no time and declared that since the beginning of time, God has made His divine nature known so that there is no excuse for rejecting God. The godlessness and wickedness of mankind will be judged. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Erroneous thinking that exchanges the truth about God for a lie goes as far back as the Garden of Eden. From that lie, mankind has added many other lies that have become even more distorted, and in doing so have turned away from God to worship His creation. When we come to the point when we really believe that God will be blessed forever, our thinking and our actions change. God will remain. In this world we have choices to make. Choosing to live outside of God’s truth has consequences both now and into eternity. It has always been that way. Heeding Paul’s warning is a good choice. Please do not trade the truth for a lie.
“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying.” Our Father God is undeniably eternally blessed. He knows our desires, our plans and our motives so there is no benefit in lying. I pray that boasting would come from our lips – the boasting that shows that Jesus is strong and able to provide just what is needed. We are dependent on Him. When we are weak, He is strong. Paul continued his letter and shared that God gave him a thorn in his flesh and he pleaded with the Lord to remove it. Paul wrote that Christ’s power rests upon him when he is weak. As I have matured in my response to my migraines (or any other type of physical pain), I have even grown to be thankful for the disability. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like pain, but similar to what Paul experienced, I have found that when I am weak, then I am strong. The strength doesn’t come from me but from the Lord. All blessing, honor and praise and boasting to Him!
By-the-way, it was not long after Paul wrote this letter that he was able to pay the Corinthians a visit, just as he had hoped for earlier! It is such an encouragement to me to see how prayers are indeed answered. God’s timing and our timing are not always in the same time zone and it was that way for Paul too.
And God is able to bless you abundantly… Paul could have stopped his sentence here and it would have been more than enough for us to know and believe that God is able, and that His blessings are abundant, and that He aims those abundant blessings our way. But Paul continues on …so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.” Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
May faith increase and lead us to grow joyful and obedient generosity. Generosity flows from our awareness and thankfulness to God who bountifully blesses us with all that we need. One night as we were better getting to know Chris, our young teammate in China, he shared with us a principle that his dad taught called OHSP: open-handed stewardship policy. Along with being a wise steward or manager of what God has provided, it also means to live with hands opened, not fists clenched. We see this character lived out consistently in Chris’ life. Years later, Chris’ brother Sam demonstrated OHSP by opening his hand and dropping his car keys into Russell’s. Renting vehicles week after week when we returned to the US became expensive. Sam was going out of town on business and although we had just met him that day, he met our need for a car while he was gone.
The opportunities to be generous are endless. People are not invisible to God, so they should not be invisible to us either. Think about how the whole world is God’s and He wants all of humanity to be cared for. Allowing the blessings of God to flow through us and to others, pleases God. God, thank You for the many ways that You have enriched our lives, blessing each of us abundantly. May we look for ways to be generous to people You place in our paths. Help us to notice people, both those we know and those we don’t, and help us take time to listen and then care enough to take action in appropriate ways. Amen.
Good visits can really be a blessing. We look forward to re-connecting with those we love, as God allows our paths to intersect, but sometimes the best laid plans still do not come about. Paul really wanted to go to Corinth so he could spend time with his friends there but seeing everyone face to face was impossible. His letters would have to do. Our letters have been straightforward, and there is nothing written between the lines and nothing you can’t understand. I hope someday you will fully understand us, even if you don’t understand us now. Then on the day when the Lord Jesus returns, you will be proud of us in the same way we are proud of you. Since I was so sure of your understanding and trust, I wanted to give you a double blessing by visiting you twice—first on my way to Macedonia and again when I returned from Macedonia. Then you could send me on my way to Judea.
Paul and his friends missed out on this double blessing of double visits and that makes me sad. But we can be thankful for Paul’s many written correspondences. So much wisdom can be gained by reading and studying the letters he wrote to various churches, and let’s encourage one another to apply the truth to our lives. God, help us not get distracted by specific issues meant for a certain time or place, but let us see Your timeless truths recorded for us in Paul’s letters. Paul reminds us that our Lord Jesus is returning; let’s live faithfully and expectantly for His return. Amen.
Living life connected to God is an individual decision and it involves the efforts and support of whole communities. If it takes a village to raise a kid, how much more does it take to raise and spread the concepts of living purposeful God-centered lives throughout the world? Paul, once again traveling, wrote his final letter to the Corinthians. He let them know how recent near-death experiences he and his team faced in Asia highlighted their need to rely on God and not on their own strength. He urged the Corinthian believers to be involved with his life and ministry by praying. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. Prayer – connection to God, is essential and can be experienced corporately when the Body of God lifts up the needs of the people of God. That way, everyone gets to celebrate God’s blessings as He provides.
I’m so thankful to so many people who, with the desire to know Him and make Him known, have faithfully helped us by praying to God for various needs. As I write this, Russell is leading a mission trip to Brazil. As you read this please take the time to thank God for lives that are changed by people who are willing to go and share His goodness. We all personally know people we can pray for as they serve God in various roles, seeking to expand His Kingdom. May we praise God for everyone who will be around His throne – answers to our collective prayers. God blesses our partnership in prayer, in more ways than we could ever understand.
Paul writes a tribute to a wonderful God as he begins another correspondence to his friends living in Corinth. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Our God really is the God of all comfort and I am so very thankful that He is. Praise to Him who gives generously to us in our need, and fills us up so that we can give likewise. Paul then writes: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” Do not read this last bit too hastily. What does it mean to “share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings”? I want the abundant comfort part, but do I have to go through the abundant suffering to get it? That is not an easy teaching.
It is so good to know that when we suffer we do not experience it alone. God is there with us and He knows how to provide comfort for our souls. At age forty-eight God saw fit for me to experience my first broken bones and after surgery, my first time to have stitches. Up until then, I thought I had compassion for people who suffered in these ways, but when I actually went through the pain, things changed. I changed. I see more depth in Scripture about pain and comfort and our need to draw near to God in times of suffering. My prayers for others who go through long painful healing now have more heart. And, through the experience, my awareness of what Jesus suffered for me has become more vivid. Suffering is just pain unless we use that time of suffering to draw ourselves near to God who is near us all the time. When we experience how God has comforted us through the suffering, we can offer meaningful comfort to others. This is yet another way of blessing.
The final greetings in this letter to the Corinthian church are tender and personal. Paul cares deeply about this gathering of people and wants them to be courageous in their faith and loving in their actions. He desires that people live with respect for each other, honoring others who are committed to the Kingdom’s expansion. “When Timothy comes, don’t intimidate him. He is doing the Lord’s work, just as I am. Don’t let anyone treat him with contempt. Send him on his way with your blessing when he returns to me. I expect him to come with the other believers.” Even over an expansive distance, life is still best lived in the closeness of community. Love those around you and greet others as they travel through; be blessed and be a blessing.
Hospitality is not a southern thing; it’s a biblical principle. I resolved in 2005 to live out the truths in a part of Paul’s letter he wrote to those in Rome. “Practice hospitality” was one of those truths. Like other skills that we practice, we can grow to get better at them, even if it does not come natural at first. To help me be more concrete in this goal I began a Hospitality Notebook. How blessed I am to read through pages of visitors and to think back on the times we shared, some just over night and other stays more lengthy. I asked our guests to write down where they were coming from, where they were heading and something I could pray for them. Opening our home, no matter where it happens to be blesses our family because we learn more about people and the world from those traveling through it. And when the time comes to say good-bye, we aim to send the sojourners on their way with a blessing.
There will come a time when there will be no more traveling; all in the family of God will be safely home. Distance, time and language will no longer separate us. Nothing can separate those who are in God’s family from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord, and one day all believers will be united again. What a wonderful family reunion that will be!
Should unfamiliar language be used to communicate public prayer in church? Paul seeks to address the issue in a letter he wrote to those seeking to worship God in Corinth. This less modern version of 1 Corinthians 14:16-17 can help us to see a little more clearly the dilemma. “Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.”
This seems to suggest that even if what is said is good, it is hard to agree or be helped by words that are not understood. Paul goes on to “sayest” that he is thankful that he speaks in tongues but when it comes to speaking in churches, he strongly encourages people to use a language that can instruct and be understood. We are to pursue love and by communicating in understandable ways, people can be strengthened, encouraged and comforted by God’s truth. Father, may we bless You with both our spirit and with our mind, being sensitive to each situation. May we seek to live out of love so that the words that come from our tongue are so much more than a clanging cymbal. Thank You God, for listening to us when we pray to You. Please continue to guide us in truth and peace. Amen.
In Paul’s straightforward way of speaking, he tells the Corinthians to worry a whole lot less about what others think and a whole lot more about what God says. “…I’m not going to walk around on eggshells worrying about what small-minded people might say; I’m going to stride free and easy, knowing what our large-minded Master has already said. If I eat what is served to me, grateful to God for what is on the table, how can I worry about what someone will say? I thanked God for it and he blessed it!” Paul’s teaching here has to do with food that has been sacrificed to idols. I don’t think we have eaten idol food, but we sure have had our share of interesting meals. Often I’m asked to describe some of the weirdest food I’ve eaten while serving in Asia. One dinner comes to mind. While at the village home of good friends an intriguing trio was placed on the short, round wooded table: snakes and snails and mountain cat tails. We thanked God for the meal and He blessed our time of sharing His love as we shared special food. Paul gives us all good perspective about gratefully eating what is served to us. It can be a little mind stretching and take us out of our comfort zones to eat unfamiliar food, but seeking to connect to people of different cultures may open up doors for sharing with them Jesus, the Bread of Life.
“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” In October we experienced Jesus’ life during Holy Week, His death for our sins, His amazing resurrection and the blessing He gave for His followers right before He returned to Heaven. Jesus changed the way life was lived. Hope and peace, due to faith in Him, could not be contained but was actively shared. Bold new leaders like Peter and Paul preached and the early church formed and grew. Paul wrote to the new churches in Galatia, Thessalonica and in Corinth.
There were divisions when Paul was writing to the Corinthians and the challenge of loyalty still has an effect on people today. “The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread.” Paul focused on the Lord’s Supper when Jesus used the bread and wine at the meal to make reference to Himself and the new covenant that He was making. Jesus was offering unity with the Father through Him. Actions speak very loudly and show just where our allegiances are. May we be unified in Jesus and remember that His death bought for us life—new life, blessed life, a life that is connected to Him and the Father.
This was the kind of new life Russell was teaching about at La Palabra de Dios, our first church for Hispanics. He emphasized the importance of loyalty to Jesus and Ricky had a hard choice to make. He loved God yet he loved the girl he was living with too. Long story short, with proper use of church discipline and faithful teaching that the Lord’s Supper was for those who were following Christ in obedience, Ricky and the whole young church were built up. Repentance led to restoration and great joy. We at The Word saw how trusting God changed lives. Restored hearts celebrated the cup of blessing with thankfulness as we joined to share the Lord’s Supper and remember all that Jesus has done for us.
Paul writes about what he does, how he does it and for what reasons. In each of his interactions, whether it concerns food, freedom, income, self-discipline, temptation or loyalty, he says, “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” He has counted the cost, and has found that the blessings that come from following Christ far outweigh other things that might vie for his attention and affection. Paul is all about doing everything for the praise of God. May we live life with clear purposes and ultimate goals, because in the end, what really matters most? This radically God-focused lifestyle does not come about on a whim but requires careful thought. What have we been saved from? What have we been saved for? What does “for the sake of the gospel” mean? Is the cost worth it? What do we give up and what do we take up?
With serious compassion Jesus answered some of those questions by saying, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.” He told this to His disciples as He sent them out with power to be change-agents for good. He shared the price of this discipleship to the crowds that gathered around Him. When a man seeking Jesus’ approval who thought that he had met the requirements by the law heard directly from Jesus that he needed to put Him above his own riches and take up the cross to follow Him, he calculated that the cost was too high. Even though Jesus loved this rich, young ruler, He honored the man’s choice and the man walked away sad. God, today You give to us the choice to follow You or not. I pray that we would grow in our confidence through Your Word and through Your Spirit, that You are worth the cost. I pray we would embrace afresh the good news that You love us and that no matter what, You are worth following. Amen.
Paul addressed some very real concerns regarding marriage and singleness, and he passed on this advice to the church in Corinth because they had written to him about these situations. After talking about marriage, singleness, separation, and about helping spouses who are not yet believers, he addressed the issue of remarrying. “A wife must stay with her husband as long as he lives. If he dies, she is free to marry anyone she chooses. She will, of course, want to marry a believer and have the blessing of the Master.” Marriage and other deep interpersonal relationships are the challenging ways we learn and live out the story of love and commitment. May our relationships honor God. I pray we would seek the blessing of the Master upon us as we live, loving in good and appropriate ways. Amen.
P.S. Sara honored God and her wedding vows to her husband in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for nearly thirty-nine years until in death they did part. Her grown children lovingly gave her their blessing to marry again. May God richly bless the marriage of Sara and David, a widow and widower seeking to joyfully live their lives for the Master.
From Ephesus, where he stayed about three years, Paul wrote lengthy letters to the struggling church in Corinth. These correspondences sought to answer questions and gave training in godliness, even if it was from a distance. Paul did not want his followers to be deceived, but to build on the foundation that is found in Jesus alone. He brought to his readers’ minds how he and his team lived among them and he warned them about pride that can so easily rob God and distort reality. Paul wrote,“We work wearily with our own hands to earn our living. We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us.”
Making rice taffy is hard work, yet that was one of the ways Hank made a living. He was a new believer and his family lived in a minority village in China. One day Hank was in the market hawking his wares offering samples to those doing their shopping. A man took the taffy, then arrogantly spit it out all over that day’s inventory. Hank had a choice to make. The old Hank would have beaten the rude man, but the new Hank did not. Later, Hank shared this experience with a group of young men who also needed to learn that blessing and patience could be lived out. Returning evil for evil didn’t have to be the way. When our foundation is firmly placed on God, we have the strength and the state of mind to offer a blessing instead of cursing, to patiently put up with insults. This shows a maturity from a life trained in God. He will judge all. Frequently recalling that our identity is as a child of the King will help give us a proper perspective as we actively live in a world that desperately needs to know Him.
Evangelistic tour number three is about to begin for Paul, but he is not the only one going forth to share the good news. In Ephesus, after getting some training from Paul’s colleagues, Priscilla and Aquila, a Jew named Apollos chose to take the message of hope to the Achaia province. Before he left, his Ephesian friends gave their blessing and wrote a letter of recommendation for him, urging the disciples there to welcome him with open arms. The welcome paid off: Apollos turned out to be a great help to those who had become believers through God’s immense generosity. He was particularly effective in public debate with the Jews as he brought out proof after convincing proof from the Scriptures that Jesus was in fact God’s Messiah.
A letter of recommendation may help open the door, but it takes faithful work to keep us employed! Just where is it in your life that God wants you to work for Him? No one can do everything, but every one of us can do something. May the many examples throughout the Book of Acts inspire us to get involved and do what we can to enlarge the Kingdom of God. Sometimes this takes some training – actually, it almost always takes some kind of new training. So embrace the opportunities that come your way to grow and to give of yourself. Has God been generous to you? Apollos turned out to be a great help. We each can be a great help too.
In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul prays that God may find them worthy and for God to fulfill every good purpose that comes about by faith. He prays this for a reason: “…may the name of our Lord Jesus Christ be glorified and become more glorious through and in you, and may you [also be glorified] in Him according to the grace (favor and blessing) of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One).” Try to imagine the name of Jesus becoming even more glorious in and through us. Now try to envision us as His children becoming glorified in Him. “Glorious” is a word that is a little hard for me to picture. It helps me when I think of it this way: May we value Jesus more highly than anything else. Let’s see Him as He is: heroic, brilliant, beautiful and triumphant and then make choices in our life that lead to elevating and celebrating Him. May His renown go forward in dazzling, noble and honoring ways. As we live to enjoy Him, may all these attributes and more shine forth in us as we reflect just how glorious He is! May God find us worthy instruments, useful for His good purposes. This is no small blessing that God desires for His children.
Here are a few bumper sticker exhortations from Paul: Live in peace. Warn the idle. Encourage the timid. Help the weak. Be patient. Be kind. Be joyful. Be prayerful. Be thankful. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid evil. Actually those would take a pretty big bumper and it might be a bit overwhelming to try to apply all of them at once. Paul knew this and he reminded his readers that God Himself is faithful and it is God who will bring about all of these needed life changes, and then some. Deliberately living for our Heavenly Father will reshape us as we become more aware of the difference between a selfish self and a holy God. God is trustworthy to lead us as we pursue Him.
It is easy to skim over Paul’s conclusion to his letter and miss the weight of it.“The grace (the unmerited favor and blessings) of our Lord Jesus Christ (the Messiah) be with you all. Amen, (so be it).” God, through Jesus and with the written word of Paul’s letter, is offering grace, undeserved mercy, to us. Years ago I learned a helpful acronym and hopefully it helps you to also make clear this concept of grace. GRACE can be described as God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. This extended grace is not free, it cost Jesus His life. Jesus chose to obediently lay down His life so we could live. May we be attentive to God’s Presence, His favor and blessing in our lives today as we seek to live like Him and for Him. Our Father, as we become increasingly aware of Your goodness and Your greatness, please help us to break (put to death) our old habits that do not lead to peace, kindness, joy. I pray we would avoid evil every chance we get, and thankfully and prayerfully turn to You who have so richly blessed us with new life through Your Son Jesus. Thank You for grace. Amen.
Paul’s goal was to establish new churches and train people to grow up in the character of Christ. He was on the go, traveling here and there, increasing the awareness of Jesus to all who would hear. But as busy as his days got, he still took the time to further counsel and encourage those at the newly established churches through his letters. Paul was thankful for the faith of the Thessalonians and he recognized that faith, hope and love were a part of their lives. Paul then continued to build up the believers at Thessalonica: “…live lives worthy of God, Who calls you into His own kingdom and the glorious blessedness [into which true believers will enter after Christ’s return].” Paul does not want them, or us, to forget the eternal perspective even when suffering and hard times come.
Ruth, a believer among a people group that is beginning to hearing the gospel, is a wonderful example to me of someone who chooses to live worthy in spite of real hardships. Her persecution as a follower of Jesus Christ has been from the government, from village neighbors and even from her own family. Ruth is an integral part of a team that works diligently to translate the Bible into her language. In her joyful expression of living for God, she has turned many truths of God’s Story into songs. As she faithfully teaches and sings from village to village, God’s Kingdom is made bigger. We were blessed to hear her sing Paul’s Thessalonian letters as she strummed her guitar in her humble home during Christmas of 2007. This sister understands what Paul wrote concerning the return of Jesus. Right now she experiences joy mixed with pain, but she knows there is a blessedness that is yet to come that will be glorious.
Life gets hard. We are living in a world that is upside-down, where sickness, evil, confusion and death are very present to those who follow Jesus, and to those who do not. So, at times it might feel natural to want to give up on hope. Would it not be easier to live for self, rather than to press on growing character which seeks to be conformed to the image of Jesus? Paul knew this very human temptation and he rallied his readers with this battle cry: “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.” We may not always have control over the situation at hand, but we always have a choice of responses. Choosing to do good will bring about benefits even if at present we do not see them.
Paul lived out what he had written as he set sail on his second missionary adventure shortly after writing this letter to the Galatians. I can imagine that traveling back in the New Testament days could be very draining, yet Paul pressed on. He knew his purpose, he had good to share, and his harvest of blessings was bountiful. Father, thank You for the example we get to read about in the life of Your servant Paul. You have not only used him to share Your good news first-hand in many unique situations, but You also allowed him time, sometimes while in prison, to write letters that continue to inspire and encourage us today. May we press on in the strength that You provide in the fields that You have prepared for us. May our harvests be joyfully abundant. Amen.
Do not give up hope! Paul did not write to his friends to condemn them but rather to encourage them to live life with joy and great hope. This expanded sentence shows that pressing on in God is so worth it. For we, [not relying on the Law but] through the [Holy] Spirit’s [help], by faith anticipate and wait for the blessing and good for which our righteousness and right standing with God [our conformity to His will in purpose, thought, and action, causes us] to hope. Let’s be thankful for the blessings we have received, and with hope wait for the blessings yet to come. And come they will to those who seek to live rightly with God. Anticipate His blessings like a child anticipates a birthday gift. God’s blessings are presents that help shape us to be more like Jesus. Being like Him is very, very good for us.
I’m no longer a kid, but I still love birthdays. Back in 2001 I founded ABC (August Birthday Club) with two friends, and through the years it has been fun to include other women who have August birthdays too. I had a feeling that turning forty might be a challenging year for me so I bought journals that year for my birthday friends and I began to focus on a year of joy. As passages about joy filled my journal, my life reflected that joy with expanding hope. My fortieth year was a great growth year. I was intent on seeking out joy, wherever it could be found, in both the obvious places and in challenging situations too, and in doing so my faith and trust increased. I’m excited about the blessings God still has for me, no matter what my age. Each completed year is evidence of His love in my life as His Presence is the most cherished gift.
Paul mentioned a personal situation and asked those he taught in Galatia to recall the love that they had for him and for one another. “…you know that previously I preached the gospel to you because of a physical illness. You did not despise or reject me though my physical condition was a trial for you. On the contrary, you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself. What happened to this sense of being blessed you had?” Even though the times were challenging, the church once had deep satisfaction and a grateful spirit when Paul was serving among them. Hardships and trials can bring about real bonding. Paul wrote a reminder of this because he didn’t want those he cared about to forget the joy that they once had together. He wanted them to go forward in peaceful blessedness.
Blessing and being blessed is God’s plan for our life story, but at times we forget, and other times our enemy would like to rob us of our sense of being blessed. Thinking about God’s love for us can help us assess the situation and calibrate our reactions appropriately. Then we can choose to bless.
Back in the days before cell phones, the over-night bus from Kunming to Lijiang normally took fourteen hours to wind its way through China’s developing countryside. Our young family of five and a fellow language student boarded with Oreo cookies – a rare treasure – to bless our friends that we were going to visit. Some time around midnight the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. Thirty-something hours later, after dynamite had cleared a dangerous mountain road landslide, we hugged our anxiously waiting friends. We were greatly relieved that our bus did not go over a cliff, like some do, and we all laughed about the gifts of cookies becoming our survival food. To this day when I enjoy Oreos I remember that trip, my gratitude to God for our safe travel, and for the bonding created because of the “trial”. Remembering God can be the sweetest part of our days.
P.S. Small trials can prepare us for bigger ones. Our friend who studied Chinese with us in the mid-1990s has bravely weathered many trials without becoming bitter toward God. She diligently prays for those from whom the trials come, and in the pain she seeks hope and models faithfulness, beauty and trust.
Further explanation given in the letter Paul wrote to the church in Galatia shows us a couple of things. We can read just how strongly this community was driven to live by legalism and then read just how important it was for them, and for us today, to reflect and live gratefully based on what God has provided for us through His Son Jesus. “What is the point, then, of the law, the attached addendum? It was a thoughtful addition to the original covenant promises made to Abraham. The purpose of the law was to keep a sinful people in the way of salvation until Christ (the descendant) came, inheriting the promises and distributing them to us. Obviously this law was not a firsthand encounter with God. It was arranged by angelic messengers through a middleman, Moses. But if there is a middleman as there was at Sinai, then the people are not dealing directly with God, are they? But the original promise is the direct blessing of God, received by faith.” Let us live as grateful free people, free to love God and love others in ways that please Him who has so richly blessed us.
Paul continued his letter reiterating that Christians are not given new life by obeying the law of Moses, but by living according to the way of Jesus. Whether we are new Christians or have been in God’s family for a long time, it is great to think about the truth that Paul explains. “But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” Through Christ Jesus, God has blessed the Gentiles with the same blessing he promised to Abraham, so that we who are believers might receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith.” One day our faith will become sight. But now we live by faith with God’s Holy Spirit living within us.
Our family has moved quite a bit. Yet wherever we go, God’s Holy Spirit goes with us, within us. One day I was going through boxes that were stored in Russell’s sister’s home during the time we lived away from the US. What a blessing it was to find an old Bible from my own new Christian days and to read notes like this one- “Faith is: F-forsaking A-all I T-trust H-him.” That is just what Paul sought to teach! Jesus came to reverse the curse and offer life to walking dead people. It is time to give up the prideful ways of thinking, that goodness in itself is adequate outside of God. Humankind needs redeeming, not just touch-up work. Can I trust that He is all I need and can I really believe that He died to rescue me? Jesus gave us new life with His Spirit to fill us where there once was sin and void. He removes our hollow meaninglessness.
Paul traveled to many areas to share the good news, and as he taught and preached he lived life in community. He could not be everywhere at once, so he wrote letters of encouragement and correction to various churches he had started or in other ways had had an impact. Now each of us can learn from these letters written many generations ago. The people living in Galatia needed a reminder that it is by God’s grace that anyone can be rescued. Everyone is made right by believing, placing faith in Jesus who is the One who does the rescuing. Paul reminded them: “Now the Scripture saw in advance that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and told the good news ahead of time to Abraham, saying, All the nations will be blessed through you. So those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith.”
Praise be to God who has made a way for us! This is good news and it is so exciting to think that the blessings back in the days of Abraham are passed on to all who have faith, in Paul’s day and in ours, and for the generations yet to come. All nations will be blessed. That is a big promise. But that is okay, our God is big. As we live out the blessings in the community we find ourselves in, may we live faithfully and expectantly with a desire to both learn and teach. God, help us in our days to not let the light go dim or the truth lose its saltiness. Amen.
For many new Christians (most of whom at this time had Jewish backgrounds), it was no small thing to see non-Jewish people being brought into God’s Kingdom through faith in Jesus. Gentiles were thought of as “other”, and some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem wanted the new Gentile converts to be circumcised and follow the law of Moses. They considered those steps necessary to be brought into the family of God. This caused quite a stir. After a meeting and a discussion, the resolution included the truth that people are saved by the grace of Jesus regardless of heritage or culture. Two prophets, Judas and Silas, hand-carried a letter with this news to the Gentiles in Antioch and they encouraged and strengthened the recently converted believers. After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. When life is muddled at best or hostile at worst, there are few things more meaningful than the blessing of peace. May we seek to choose peace based on truth and in doing so be a blessing to others even when at first the issues may seem irreconcilable.
I’m thankful that biblical teaching was not only taught at the church we loved in Timberlake, North Carolina but something that was also practiced. Sweeping issues under the rug at home or at church is not a healthy way to go forward if our desire is real Christian maturity. But this growth is seldom without pain. Is it worth it to live having peace with God and peace with others? Peace allows the dirt under the rug to be cared for and the door to hope to open. Something that Russell and I enjoy doing, even up to this day, is returning to our own Antioch – the church family that faithfully sent us out with blessings in 1996, and supported our family as we served God in Asia. Returning is always a double blessing; we get to hear what God is doing in and through the church and also get to update our brothers and sisters with the things that God is doing in our part of His world. Each homecoming is full of joy because we treasure the same God who wants His children to live out the blessing of peace.
Paul, with Barnabas as his companion, set sail on the first of several missionary journeys. After sailing on from Crete, they were at a synagogue in Pisidia when Paul was asked to give a word of encouragement and he stood up to preach his first recorded sermon. I love how God’s Story includes lots of “firsts.” Paul began with the deliverance of their forefathers from Egypt, and continued through the history of the Jewish nation, right up to David, and then from David to Jesus, his descendant. I picture Paul pausing at this point and turning to the area where the God-fearing Greeks where gathered. In a loud voice for all to hear, Paul went on to say that God’s promise to Abraham was to bless all nations, and that this promise is fulfilled through Jesus. Since He raised Him from the dead, never to return to decay, He has spoken in this way, I will grant you the faithful covenant blessings made to David.
Paul concluded his message of hope: it is through Jesus that the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed. God’s Holy One will not see decay. People knew of King David. His life story was passed down from generation to generation and his psalms of praise to God were still being sung from the synagogue’s hymnals. Yet David died and his body did decay. It was Jesus whom God raised from the dead, never to experience decay. Jesus is our sure blessing. When our future seems uncertain, hold on to the facts, and it is a fact that God raised Jesus from the dead. That changes everything!