Just the Way He Planned It

Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives. “All of you will desert me,” Jesus told them, “for God has declared through the prophets, ‘I will kill the Shepherd, and the sheep will scatter.’ But after I am raised to life again, I will go to Galilee and meet you there.”

Peter said to him, “I will never desert you no matter what the others do!”

“Peter,” Jesus said, “before the cock crows a second time tomorrow morning you will deny me three times.”

“No!” Peter exploded. “Not even if I have to die with you! I’ll never deny you!” And all the others vowed the same.

This was the second time that evening that Jesus predicted that his disciples would desert him (see Luke 22:31-34; John 13:31-38 for the first prediction). And for a second time, all the disciples declared that they would die before deserting Jesus. A few hours later, however, they all would scatter.

Talk is cheap. It is easy to say we are devoted to Christ, but our claims are meaningful only when they are tested in the crucible of persecution. How strong is your faith? Is it strong enough to stand up under intense trial?

It’s easy to think that Satan temporarily gained the upper hand in this drama about Jesus’ death. But we see later that God was in control, even in the death of his Son. Satan gained no victory—everything occurred exactly as God had planned. It will be the same for you.

Your Spiritual Practice

Psalm 34:9 Learn to savor how good the LORD is; happy are those who take refuge in him.

What are the things you like to savor? Perhaps it’s that first cup of coffee in the morning, or a piece of your favorite pie. Maybe it’s the last bit of color in the sky after a breath-taking sunset. The psalmist tells us to learn how to savor God’s goodness. This implies that it takes practice. We have to seek God’s presence actively, learn to recognize it, and then simply rest there. Resting in God’s presence calls us to take refuge there from all else that might distract us. Savoring God’s goodness means focusing on God alone. Happy are all who take refuge there.

What personal experiences of God do I savor?

Teach me to savor your goodness, my God. May your presence be my refuge.

The Breaking of the Bread

Through the Scriptures we see a growing awareness of what it means to call Christ “King”. In the early parts of the Old Testament, God’s Rule was seen as very much like human empires, but bigger and more powerful. The dominant idea in these passages is that God destroys God’s enemies and crushes all opposition in order to create a world of justice and peace. In the prophets, the language employed to describe God’s Rule becomes “apocalyptic” (which means it is revelatory – revealing deep truths).

This language cannot be taken literally, but employs metaphor, mystery, image and poetry to convey truths that are beyond human understanding. This is the same language that is used in the last book of the New Testament – Revelation. At first glance this language also seems to be about power through dominance and violence, but when we place it alongside the teachings of Jesus, we see a different picture.

In Jesus, the Rule of God is revealed to be peaceful, merciful, compassionate and just. Yes, evil is confronted, but always from a place of love for enemies. And, yes, God’s Rule is proclaimed as the ultimate authority that will overcome all others, but not through violence and destruction. Rather, it is through the cross – the sacrificial, serving, loving way of Christ – that God’s Rule floods the world.

As we prepare for the season of Christmas, seek that which of mercy and peace.

Sharing the Lord’s Supper

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”

(Take the Bread)

In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”

(Take the Cup)

Go in His Peace!

Your Spiritual Discipline

One of the hardest practices of Christian discipleship is to reject revenge and seek reconciliation with those who oppose us. When we open our hearts to all people, even enemies, we will get hurt, but our lives will never become cold and hard. If we seek truly abundant life, learning to welcome all people is one of the key ingredients. Try it today.

Help me to keep my heart open, O God, even to those who have hurt me

Experience or Relationship?

The lights dim as the music begins to play. The energy in the crowd seems to almost crackle audibly. You feel a surge of anticipation for the songs you know, the empowering words you always hear, and the inspirational, larger-than-life people you see standing before you. At a well-designed worship service, Bible conference, or summer camp, God seems real, close, and exciting.

Then, you go home and open your Bible alone. You know the Scriptures are filled with life-giving words and powerful examples, but somehow, it’s not the same. The atmosphere is gone. You struggle to maintain your interest. Spiritual dryness sets in. What is wrong with you? Where has the joy gone?

The Joy is Gone

In Psalm 16:11, David speaks of the joy that you now are missing: “You [God] will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” What is this joy? Joy is a positive mindset that expresses our satisfaction and pleasure in things we value. We find joy in what is most important to us. What do we value most?

Too often we value a feeling over the reality that would produce that feeling. We want to feel close to God without actually drawing close to God. We want the benefits of a close walk with God without the heart change required to walk with God. Many times, we want the outward trappings without the inward transformation. Our need for an experience can become an idol that dethrones God in our lives.

How do we rediscover joy in our devotional time? What can we do to avoid the spiritual dryness that comes from seeking an experience rather than a relationship?

1. Seek God, Not the Feeling of Seeking God

David writes of his own experience in Psalm 27:8: When You [God] said, “Seek My face,” My heart said to You, “Your face, LORD, I will seek.” That yearning for closeness to God is good and right. James 4:8 confirms this: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” God commands us to seek Him, not an emotional experience. But where does the emotional experience come from?

Joy in Psalm 16

Let’s go back to Psalm 16. Fullness of joy in the presence of God was a result of (not the object of) David’s relationship with God. Before he described the joy, David spoke of the source of that joy. In Psalm 16:8, David writes, “I have set the LORD always before me; because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; My flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” David set the Lord always before him. He sought the Lord. Joy was the result, not the object of his seeking.

We don’t joy in joy: we joy in God. With the prophet Habakkuk, we must declare, “I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:18).

Joy in Psalm 63

Make Psalm 63 your prayer and heart’s desire: “O God, You are my God; Early will I seek You; My soul thirsts for You; My flesh longs for You In a dry and thirsty land Where there is no water. So I have looked for You in the sanctuary, To see Your power and Your glory. Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, My lips shall praise You. Thus I will bless You while I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name. My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness, And my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips. When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches.”

2. Seek God on God’s Terms.

But you might say, “Wait, I am seeking God, but I don’t feel the joy David describes.” Maybe you are seeking God on your own terms. Those who truly seek God do what it takes to be close to Him. This means personal holiness (Psalm 51:12).

Let’s go back to James 4:8 and read the whole verse in context: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” We cannot draw near to God if we are unwilling to get right with God. We cannot go our own way and feel close to God. We must submit to God (James 4:7) and to His way.

3. Seek God in the Day-to-Day. Enjoy the Mountain Top Moments.

“But wait,” you say again. “I am seeking God, and I have confessed my sin. I just don’t feel the emotional high when I go to God alone.” Maybe your expectations need some adjustment.

What if we viewed marriage like we sometimes view our walk with God? When everyday life is not as exciting as our honeymoon, should we worry that something is wrong with our marriage? No! Both the high points and the day to day are wonderful blessings. The romantic getaways are a highlight, but the daily grind is where the genuine relationship lives.

Faith in a Hostile World

In its practice of religious pluralism, the Western world tends to remain quiet about religion. Rarely will you hear the public media discuss Buddhism, Hinduism, Scientology, Mormonism, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. When you do, the media uses muted tones and carefully crafted statements to avoid offending followers of those religions.

However, when it comes to Christianity, it seems the editorial rulebook goes out the window. Other religions might be scoffed at or questioned, but no other organized faith suffers as much public mockery, derision, and scorn as Christianity.

In fact, while other religions have succeeded in improving the world’s perception of their faith—the normalization of Mormonism through its “I am a Mormon” ads, and the liberalization of Catholicism by the current pope—the public opinion and influence of evangelical Christianity has steadily declined for years.

But that opposition shouldn’t take us by surprise. The evening before His arrest, Christ warned His disciples about the response they should expect from the unbelieving world:

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)

The natural result of being an outsider to the world is persecution. In the words of Paul, our life and doctrine is the aroma of death to unbelievers (2 Corinthians 2:15-16), and the world responds to our stench with extreme prejudice. Persecution, then, should be a source of encouragement and joy as we follow in the footsteps of our Savior.

Being in the world and not of it brings persecution, but it also has gospel implications. It’s true there is a spiritual divide that separates us from the unsaved world. But we cannot be faithful ambassadors for God or heralds of His gospel if we create a physical chasm.

As we saw last time, godly living is divinely intended to serve as a rebuke to sinners. But there’s more to God’s design than just holding to a higher moral standard. Our pursuit of holiness ought to reveal the light of the gospel to men and women blinded by their sin.

In his book The Upper Room, John MacArthur describes how the testimony of your life must point others to the truth of God’s Word:

We cannot hide from the world what Scripture says and expect unbelievers to sense that they are indicted. We’re not supposed to retreat to our churches and proclaim the gospel there but never take the message to the world. It should not be necessary for people to come into our church to hear the truth of God’s Word, to be exposed to the gospel, or even to discover that we are followers of Christ. Our lives in the world should show it. Jesus says in Matthew 5:14 that we should be like a city that can be seen for miles because it is set on a hill. In the next verse He says that believers are like a lamp that should not be put under a basket but rather should be set on a lampstand so that it can light the entire house. Our faith should be visible to the world, not hidden away in a Sunday-school room, only to be brought out for an hour or two on Sunday.
We stand out from the world because Jesus has chosen us. In John 15:19 He tells His disciples, “I chose you out of the world.” The verb in that statement is in the Greek middle voice, which gives it a reflexive meaning. Jesus is literally saying, “I chose you for myself.” He has chosen us to be different. We are called not only to learn the Word of God and hide it in our hearts, but also to proclaim it to the ends of the earth, to live it out before a watching world, and thereby to be a living rebuke to those in love with sin. That is always costly. [1]

Your integrity—or lack thereof—is perhaps the loudest, clearest testimony to the true nature of your heart. You can say you believe anything, but the watching world knows whether it’s true by how you live. This society is adept at spotting hypocrisy, and eager to find it in our midst.

Being in the world but not of it means we need to be living, breathing testimonies to God’s transforming work through His Word. There needs to be a noticeable difference between us and the hell-bent world—one that draws sinners to the light of His Word.

But that’s not possible if we aren’t actually in the world. Too many believers allow their spiritual separation from the world to justify creating a physical barrier, withdrawing from society completely. But in the process of shutting out the influences of a wicked culture, zealous Christians forfeit their opportunities to be salt and light in that culture.

That kind of pious stiff arm won’t bring anyone to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, total separation from the world isn’t an accurate portrayal of our Lord, who crossed a much wider spiritual chasm to die on our behalf. In light of Christ’s example, we must be willing to reach out to sinners with the good news of His life and sacrificial death.

However, too great a separation isn’t the only pitfall for believers when it comes to being in the world but not of it. While many Christians cut off avenues of gospel ministry by pulling away from the world, many others tarnish the testimony of the gospel through their careless dalliances with the world.

In the days ahead we’ll consider how to be in the world without succumbing to its corrupting influence.

J. Johnson

When Losing a Loved One

I was awakened Sunday by a telephone call from a friend telling me news I never expected to hear: that my friend and former student had been killed, run over by an 18-wheeler while helping stranded motorists beside a highway. Before grief hit incredulity. I kept saying “What?” And in the hours since, I cry for a few minutes and then think, Wait? Did this really happen? It doesn’t seem real. I keep wondering, at least for a split second, whether I just misunderstood the news—that my friend is preparing, as he would any other Sunday morning, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, that all of this is just some sort of mistake.

That’s a common reaction, I know. Those of us who’ve had to tell people about the deaths of loved ones have had the same reaction: “It can’t be! There must be some mistake!” And all of us who have lost loved ones know that this sense of unreality persists. For months after my grandmother died, I would find myself dialing her telephone number. A widow I know told me that—even years after losing her husband—she still rolls over in the morning expecting to find him there, only to be hit by the sight of his empty pillow and the harsh reminder that he’s gone.

Why is this?

Death Shouldn’t Be Real

It seems to me that the loss of those we love doesn’t feel real, first of all, because it shouldn’t be. As much as we tell ourselves that death is just a part of life, that human beings are just part of the same cycle as that of the rest of the earth, it just doesn’t ring true to us, at least not in the moments when we encounter it with our psyches instead of our theories. Losing a person is more than just the ever-changing whirl of our environment. And loving a person seems to be something that should be permanent. A person seems to be more than just a type of a generic whole. Each person seems to be unique and irreplaceable—a story that may rhyme in the lives of others but can never be retold in the same way.

The loss of those we love doesn’t feel real, first of all, because it shouldn’t be.

Some would say that this is “denial,” a denial of what’s certain for every one of us, and that this refusal to face facts is an anesthetic to keep us from grappling with the inevitability of death. Is that partially the case? Yes. Does it tell the whole story? No.

Jesus grieved over the death of a friend (John 11:35). Death is an enemy—in fact, it’s the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:21). Death comes to us, Scripture tells us, “through Adam” (Rom. 5:12). Something in us knows, though, that exile from one another—exile from the Tree of Life—is not as it was “from the beginning.” Sometimes people will say to those grieving, “Don’t be sad they’re gone; be happy for the years you had together.” There’s something true about that, of course. We should see the lives of those we love as gift, and we should not take them for granted. But, even so, something about that sentiment is false.

The sense of unreality at the loss of one we loved prompts us to “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). In this feeling of unreality we seem to recognize that this isn’t the way things were meant to be, that we’ve lost something—a communion with one another that cannot be broken because it’s centered around communion with God at the Tree of Life. But we’ve lost our way (Gen. 3:24).

Intuitions and Deeper Reality

There’s another reason the loss of loved ones seems unreal to us, and that’s because, in an important sense, it’s not real. I do not mean, of course, the heretical teaching that suffering and death are illusory. But we do confess, with all orthodox Christians through the centuries: “I believe in the communion of saints.” Referencing God’s identification as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”—even long after their deaths—Jesus observed: “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:27). Jesus’s point here challenges our tendency to speak of those in Christ we’ve lost in the past tense. It’s not “I loved him” or “I loved her” but “I love . . .”

There’s another reason the loss of our loved ones seems unreal to us, and that’s because, in an important sense, it’s not real.

At the level of our deepest heart knowledge, feeling as though the death of a loved one in Christ is “not real” is not a denial of reality. It’s our intuition looking for a reality that’s deeper than what we can see or express. In the Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot famously wrote that humankind “cannot bear very much reality,” and that what we find are often momentary “hints and guesses” at a Reality just beyond our perception. The feeling that the death of a Christian we loved isn’t quite real points us to a Reality we were made to know—but that we cannot bear quite yet. It points us to a Reality where our loved one is, in fact, both living (more than we ever saw of life) and real (more real than our current shadowy existence).

One Day, Death Won’t Be Real

If you’ve lost someone, don’t let anyone tell you that you’ve lost sight of reality when you say, “It just doesn’t feel real to me yet.” Instead, let that remind you that one day it won’t be real, not real at all.

Maybe at that point of regathering in the light of glory we will ask ourselves—out of shocking joy, not shocking grief—Can this really be happening? Is this really real? Maybe we will then be told, by One who led us along with nail-pierced hands: “Oh, this is real—and it’s just the beginning.

B. McCracken

Your Spiritual Discipline

Confession is not about creating a shameful list of our failures. It is about recognizing the truth about our lives so that we can learn and grow. As you seek to be more aware of God’s presence and power in your life, confess those things that distract you or keep you from being mindful.

Teach me to keep my eyes and heart open to your always-coming Kingdom, O God.

Your Spiritual Discipline

When we remember that the coming of Christ always works in three time frames – Jesus has come, is always coming, and will come – we are able to remember God’s presence within us and around us, and we can celebrate the coming of God’s Rule in your life now. Today, use your thanksgiving to remember that God’s Kingdom is not only in the future, but with you and within you.

Thank you, Jesus, that you are always coming into my world and into my heart.

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