Lent 2021

For Lent this year, I was asked if my devotional book – A Journey with Jesus – could be used in our church. It is a real honour to be asked, and humbling too. I wrote the book many years ago now, and at that time for a specific church I attended. Since then, I updated the material and published it for use by anyone. Although it is written with Lent in mind, it can be used any time of the year.

It is my intention to record a weekly video message to go along with the daily readings from the book. If you want to follow along, then let me encourage you to get yourself a copy of the book from Amazon here – A Journey With Jesus. As you will see, it is available in both paperback and Kindle format. If you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, then it is totally free to read. There is also a large print copy available for those who prefer it.

If you don’t have a copy of the book, then the weekly video messages will still be of interest (I hope!) so please do not feel excluded.

Lent is an interesting time and I am always fascinated by how people use the time. Some fast, while others do not mark it at all. I have always been a fan of trying to use the time to read a book or study in some way. Do you mark Lent in any special way? Do comment below if you do.

However you spend the season of Lent, I pray that it is a time where you draw close to God. If you fully devote yourself to Jesus this Lent, imagine how different your relationship with Him might be in 40 days time? Imagine how you might have grown, or how He might have guided you. Any day is a good day to focus on the Lord, but Lent gives us a good excuse to do so. Don’t waste this time but embrace it! I pray you are extremely blessed as you encounter Jesus this year.

Eternity in the Balance

I listen to a series of podcasts called “Stuff You Should Know.” It is a general knowledge podcast, with each episode selecting a theme and then giving an overview of the subject matter. Episodes can range from astrophysics, to nature, to history and occasionally ventures into religion too. I recently listened to an episode about the subject of “hell.”

In the episode, the hosts talked about the different religious views on the afterlife, with some attention given to the Christian view. While some of their general themes were correct, they did not well describe a true biblical view. For instance, they gave the overview that if you live a good life, then you go to heaven, and if not, then you go to this place called hell. This is a commonly held belief of course, but is in no way biblical. For what is a “good life?” How good is good enough? The Bible shows us that none of us are good enough, and all are destined for hell without the intervention of a Saviour – and that Saviour is Jesus Christ.

The hosts talked about the idea of “eternal punishment,” but suggested that most now felt this was extremely excessive, and that it is way out of proportion to punish someone for all eternity for a few mere sins on earth. Let’s return to this point later on…

They then discussed beliefs which they “preferred,” namely universalism and annihilationism.

I have seen a couple of slightly different definitions of universalism, but the general point is the idea that all people ultimately end up in heaven. This can come about in a number of ways. Either they could go straight to heaven for living a good life, or they could be sent to “hell” or “purgatory” to serve their time. Once they have completed the penalty, they are then promoted into heaven.

To some, this idea also carries the view that all religions lead to God. Perhaps we worship in a variety of ways, but ultimately, we all find our own way to God and so into His loving arms.

Annihilationism on the other hand is the idea that good people go to heaven, and “bad people” do not go to some form of punishment, they simply cease to exist – they are “annihilated” hence the term. This, too, the hosts of the podcast said seems favourable to that of eternal punishment.

A couple of points to note. Firstly, what we “prefer” has no bearing on what is true. I might prefer the sky to be a nice shade of green, but it remains blue. I may prefer to start work at 10am every morning, yet my boss will “prefer” to employ someone else if I do! Just because we prefer to have things another way, does not make them so. Preferring there not to be an eternal consequence of our sin does not mean there is not one. We must face reality.

The second point is this. Universalism and annihilationism are not supported by the Bible. In Luke 16, Jesus tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. I did a short series on this parable a while ago, and you can read the first part here – The Rich Man and Lazarus Part 1.

Jesus said:

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

Luke 16:22-26 (NIV)

From this, two things are apparent. Firstly, the rich man is awake, aware and conscious in the place of torment (see verse 24). Secondly, we see that there is a chasm, divide or separation between the two places such that no one can travel between the two (see verse 26). Without any other biblical evidence, we see that neither universalism nor annihilationism can be true.

The rich man has no means of traversing between the good and bad places of the dead (whatever name you give them) and this means he cannot and will not end up in heaven. We too see that he is not destroyed, but rather continues to exist in that state of eternal torment.

There is other evidence in the Bible which add to this and Jesus Himself taught many things about life after death, and you cannot bend those teachings to lead to either universalism or annihilationism.

What does this mean then? If these two theories are not true, then we must look again at the frightening reality of eternal punishment. As much as we do not like he idea, we must consider it to be true alongside all else that Jesus taught.

Returning to the point that the hosts of the podcast made, that is, that eternal punishment is grossly out of proportion. How do we defend this point? If they are correct, then God is surely unjust to punish humanity for all eternity for their sins on earth?

I think part of the problem is that we fail to understand sin. We think of sin like we do crimes; there are big crimes and smaller crimes, and therefore bigger and smaller punishments. If we break the speed limit, then we get a fine. If we intentionally murder someone, then we spend a long time in prison or in some places, forfeit our lives.

Sin is not merely a crime against God. There are no big sins and small sins. Sin represents a total break in our relationship with our Holy God. God’s holiness is such that He cannot relate to our sinful selves. Sin puts a chasm between us and God, and it matters not how far we jump across – near or far – we can never reach the other side. The only way to bridge the gap is by having someone act as our substitute. That Someone is Jesus Christ.

Jesus lived the perfect life. He committed no sin, and yet was punished as a sinner. He bore the punishment that each of us deserve, and He bridged the gap between us and God. Only by accepting Him and what He did for us, can we be free of the penalty of sin.

Sin deserves eternal punishment for at least two reasons that I can fathom. Firstly, eternal punishment is merely the only other option to being in the presence of God. You are either in and enjoying His presence or you are not; the latter is what we call hell. The second reason for eternal punishment is not the sin itself, for Jesus dealt with all sins, but instead for rejecting Christ and His work. God became a human being, lived perfectly and yet suffered and died as a sinner. For us to refuse to accept that is to – for want of a better way of putting it – to reject the cross. It is to make Christ’s death of no value, or to suggest He died in vain.

Another danger of teachings like universalism is that it makes us complacent. If, ultimately, all go to heaven, then there is little driver for us as Christians to share our faith. Truth be told, if all go to heaven no matter what, then there is little point in us living out our faith in any way at all. We can live however we want to, and it won’t matter, because we’ll all end up in the same place in the end…

The take home message for us is this: there is a heaven to gain and a hell to avoid – at all costs. We, as Christians, must never be complacent and must share our faith with as many as we can. There is but one way to heaven, and His Name is Jesus Christ! All must put their faith in Him to get to heaven. We must turn from our sin and turn to Him! There are no shortcuts or alternatives, only Christ!

Our Christian lives must be driven by a sense of urgency. Even if Christ does not return in our lifetimes, we must live like He will. We must live like we only get one chance – because we do! When this life is over, there is no do-over, no reincarnation, no winding back the clock. The time to share our faith is now, and we must pray like life depends on it, because it does!

We do not know what hell is really like. There are glimpses in the Bible, but it is open to some interpretation. Is it actually a place where fire burns, for instance? It could well be, or it could be that such fire is a symbol for judgement. Either way, the Bible makes it very, very clear that hell is no place you want to be. Eternal safety is found only in the Father, and we can only reach Him through His Son Jesus.

If you do not know this Jesus I speak of, then make the effort to find out who He is today. Read the New Testament in the Bible, perhaps starting with the books of Mark or Luke. Find out who Jesus really is, and put your trust in Him. Please do get in touch if you make that choice for Him today, as I would be honoured to pray for you.

If you are a Christian already, and know Jesus, then please let this post spur you on to serve Him with your whole heart. Time is short, and eternity hangs in the balance.

Why water into wine?

It was my pleasure to stand in for our local vicar at short notice this week. In this video, I share a few thoughts about why I think Jesus turned water into wine from John 2.

For some technical reason I do not understand, I was not able to upload the video directly to this post. However include a link below to the video on Facebook. Hope you enjoy!

https://fb.watch/3d1lSFD0DE/

Even the Demons Believe

Do you believe in God?

It’s a straightforward question I suppose, but often with a complex answer. Some might respond with:

  • Which God do you mean?
  • I believe in a Higher Power, if that counts?
  • There must be something, right?

How might you reply to the same question? If you are reading this blog, then the chances are you do believe in God or are at least curious enough to find out more.

I suppose the challenge I want to raise today is this – does your belief in God make a difference in your life? Do you “believe” in God, and yet live your life as though you do not?

James puts it like this in his letter.

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder

James 2:19 (NIV)

James’ point in context is this, and excuse my liberal translation here: You believe in God? Good for you! So does the devil!

His point is that believing in God is all well and good, but what have you done about it? The devil believes in God too, yet I do not think we want to be like him at all!

So, is believing enough? Clearly not, if we believe like the devil does. What, then, can we make of Jesus’ words in the following passage?

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

John 6:25-29 (NIV)

Are James and Jesus here in opposition? On the one hand, it seems that James is saying believing is not enough, and yet Jesus suggests that believing is the work of God. Who is right?

In short, they both are and there is no contradiction here.

Believing is indeed a matter of the heart. It is in many ways a choice we make. We weigh up the evidence and ultimately choose to accept that there is a God or there isn’t. This is not, in my view, the kind of belief that Jesus was talking about.

Jesus, like James, does not want mere lip service. He is not talking about a belief which results in no change at all. For this is no kind of belief. The kind of belief that Jesus is after – the work of God – is to believe in Him, and for that belief to lead us to change the way we live accordingly.

I believe in exercise. I have a strong desire to be healthy. I carry a gym membership card, and pay a monthly subscription. But if I never go, and constantly eat junk food, then my “belief” in being healthy is worthless. For my belief to be of any benefit, I must act on it.

Paul talks much about faith in his letters. Some therefore conclude that Paul and James are in somewhat of a conflict. This is not true, and rather they are complementary. Paul focuses on faith, and James on acting out that faith. Doing good won’t earn you any faith, but having a true faith will always lead to some form of action.

I believe in God and the One Whom He sent. I hope that others can see this in my life. If they were to examine my diary, my bank account, my entertainment choices, my words and indeed any area of my life, I hope they would see my faith being lived out. I am far from perfect, and there are many areas in which I want to better demonstrate my faith, but I sincerely hope there is at least some evidence of Christ in my life.

How about you? Do you believe? Great – so what will you do about it today?

God bless you as you live out your faith. Let Christ so indwell you that you cannot help but be totally transformed in his love.

New year prayer

Here is a brief prayer I heard this morning, starting off 2021 in the right frame of mind.

Lord, in this New Year, may you give me everything that I need, and not necessarily everything I want.

May I surrender to your timing, and not rush or delay in my own plans.

No matter what happens, may I always take the time to thank you for your many blessings and not dwell on the problems of the day.

Holy Spirit, guide me in your paths and your ways. Help me to trust you in all things, and lean not on my own understanding.

May everything I say, think and do be for your glory, and let my life sing out your praise for all to see.

Thank you heavenly father for this New Year a new opportunity to serve you and share my faith with all who need it.

We worship you and pray all of these prayers in the mighty name of Jesus! Amen

The Rule of Six

Here in the UK, the government have now introduced a new rule known as “The Rule of Six,” which means that outside of work or other specific situations, no more than six individuals should meet together. This is an attempt at preventing further spread of COVID-19 which is on the rise across the country right now.

Some have questioned the new rules, accusing the Government of having no science to back this up. While true, there are no scientific papers to support the idea of six people being anything other than an arbitrary number, it is more a practical decision. Previous rules were somewhat confusing about who could meet and when. The premise of the Rule of Six is to simplify things. Sadly I don’t think it has achieved that.

Our family is a family of six, which means we cannot all meet up with any other person or group. Some point to the absurdity of being able to work with a group of seven people but then not being to go out to lunch with them.

It is all rather easy to criticise the Government in this situation. They cannot get it right for trying. No one wanted a lockdown, and yet they were criticised for not locking down sooner. There is obvious contradiction in their seemingly random approach, encouraging us to eat out one minute and stay home the next. I do want to point out what a difficult job the Government have and it is right that we believers pray for them continually.

This is all well and good, but not exactly my usual approach to blogging. Typically I stick to the Bible and leave politics out. I make no comment here on the new or previous rules, and so turn to the Scripture in our uncertain times.

Whether deliberately or otherwise, a great sense of fear was created around this virus. We have never locked down before, and many – rightly – understood this to mean how serious the situation was. The subsequent consequences to the economy pose an equal or even greater threat, so steps are being made to try to undo the damage. Fear is not so easily dismissed as it is created.

We were not created for fear. In fact, we see that fear was the very first negative experienced by Adam and Eve after the Fall of humanity.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool[c] of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”[d] 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

Genesis 3:8-10 (ESV)

Having eaten of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve realised they were naked. They were just as naked before, but now, for the first time, took their eyes off of God and turned them on themselves. Sin entered the world, and the first emotion they felt was fear. There is no evidence of fear prior to this.

The Bible has much to say about fear – far more than I can ever say in this one short post. Suffice it to say that fear is not what God wants for His people. Fear often stops us obeying the Lord or doing what we know is right. Sometimes we fear other people and so don’t fully serve God, frightened of people’s judgement or criticism.

Many places in the Bible tell us not to fear. It does not necessarily mean do not feel the emotion of fear, but rather, do not allow the fear you feel to stop you doing what you know is right.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.

2 Timothy 1:7 (NLT)

So how do we conquer fear? How do we master it in these fearful times? I could write a whole book on the subject, but hope these few points help.

We must start from the point of understanding that God does not want us to be afraid. Fear is a very real and powerful emotion at times, but we must harness it, not allowing it to drive us but instead God’s Spirit. As you act and speak this week, ask yourself if the words or deeds are driven by fear or the Holy Spirit.

We must pray through fear. Fear is not an easy foe at times, and so we must stand firm in prayer and draw on the strength of God. If you are facing a particularly frightening time, then please do seek God more and more. Often the thing we fear becomes tiny and insignificant as we compare it to the splendour and majesty of our God!

My final suggestion is to think through the consequences or outcomes of what you fear. For example, a couple of weeks ago I faced a situation which was quite scary. I knew it was coming and was getting anxious about it. As I thought about it however, I realised if it did not work out as I wanted, there were virtually no consequences. at all. Fear and worry about it was a major waste of energy. We play the “What if?” game which can be mentally draining. Many of the things we fear though have little consequence, and even fewer have eternal ramifications.

The world we live in can be a frightening place at times, but you do not face it alone. Fear can be beaten, and we do so in the strength of our Lord. What do you fear right now? Talk to God about it and fight that fear!

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

We take a little break from the book of Acts to consider this question today. Many individuals over the centuries have tried to answer this one, and the vast majority were cleverer than I am! I offer a few thoughts here which I hope you find helpful.

The argument often goes something like this. If God is supposedly all good and all powerful, then how can there be suffering in the world? If God can remove suffering and chooses not to, then He can’t be all good. If He can’t stop suffering in the world, then good He may be, but He is not all powerful. Suffering therefore disproves a good or all powerful God, right?

It is a compelling argument, and one that many have used over the years. The problem of suffering in the world is a tough hurdle for many to overcome. For most, it is sufficient to conclude that there is no God at all, or at least not one that is in any way interested in us.

The Bible totally disagrees with this view!

God is Good

God is a good God. It is easy to say of course, yet we see throughout the pages of Scripture it is true. There are many places in the Bible where God’s love and goodness are demonstrated, but all could be argued away by pointing to other Scriptures are wrath and judgement. In my view, God’s wrath does not diminish God’s love, but is in actual fact a necessary part of that. Love is not love without hatred of evil. Something for another day perhaps!

I can say with absolute confidence that God is a good God because of one single event. Jesus Christ crucified.

Jesus, who we believe was both God and man, sacrificed Himself for the world. If God was mean or distant, there is no way He would have come down as a Man, lived a perfect life and then allowed Himself to be executed in such a cruel and undignified way. Such a mean or distant God would not have cared about whether humans lived or died for all eternity. Such an uncaring deity would have simply washed His hands of us.

Not our God!

Our God is so good and so kind and so full of love for us, that He became a Man and took on the punishment we all deserve. Not satisfied to let us die in our sin and face eternal punishment, He gave up His very self to pay the ransom only He could pay. Praise this wonderful God of ours!

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (WEB)

No one who sees the cross and what it took for God to do that, could ever claim our Lord is not good or loving. Suffering is a very real problem, but the cross, if nothing else, tells us clearly that suffering is not on us because God does not love us. The cross has the final word. Even in the midst of all suffering, we can know for sure that God loves us, and He is good.

God is All Powerful

if you accept this, then perhaps suffering exists because God is simply unable to remove it from us. Good as He is, perhaps He does not possess the power necessary to withdraw all suffering from the world.

Again, the Bible simply cannot support such a claim.

We read in the book of Genesis in the Bible that God made the entire universe, and He did so by uttering a few words.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 1:1 (WEB)

We cannot comprehend the kind of power God possesses, and must still possess, to have created all that we know. Neither can we restrict this creation to just the physical, as there is an entire spiritual world beyond that which we can see and perceive with our eyes.

There is probably no other example which better demonstrates the kind of power we are talking about here. Yes, God parted the Red Sea before the Israelites, and yes, He made the sundial go back and even held the sun in the sky for a time (see 2 Kings 20 and Joshua 10) but do such astonishing miracles compare to the creation of all things?

Are we to say nothing of the resurrection of the dead? We see many examples in the Bible of those who were dead, and yet lived again. None more important than Christ Himself. Could a God who could do all of this and more ever be considered less than all powerful? I think not.

Conclusion

Where does this leave us then? If you accept the points above, then you accept that God is both good and all powerful. Yet, suffering still exists.

We must therefore conclude the following. If God is all powerful, it means He can remove suffering from the world if He wishes. As He has not, then we see that He has a reason not to do so. As we demonstrated above, if He is good as well as all powerful, then His reason for not removing suffering must likewise be a good one. And we do not know what it is…

I put it to you that God, being both good and all powerful, has His reasons for not withdrawing suffering from the world. Just because we cannot comprehend or understand it, makes it no less true or valid. God has no obligation to explain Himself to us.

I would love to be able to sit here and explain to you why you are suffering. If I did though, it would not in any way reduce that suffering. Someone will always ask, “Why me?” and yet, “Why not you?” For us to try and fathom such things is perhaps no small hubris on our part. We are not God, nor can we expect to understand all that He does and knows. Job lost everything, and he was not privileged to know the reason. When he encountered God at the end of the book, he was silenced before the Almighty daring not to even question the God who made him.

If you are in the midst of suffering right now, then these intellectual arguments probably don’t help all that much. Suffering can rarely be explained away, and especially not when we are personally facing it.

If that is you today, then I urge you to look to the cross. I cannot explain your suffering to you in any satisfactory way, but I can grieve along with you. The cross, if nothing else, shows you that the Maker of all things is not distant, but that He chose to suffer and die for you. He knows how suffering feels, and He will walk through it with you every step of the way.

God bless you.

Many Miracles

Today we tackle a fairly short but astonishing passage from Acts chapter 5. It again highlights to us the kind of life that these early believers lived and it is only natural to compare their experiences to our own.

Many miracles and wonders were being performed among the people by the apostles. All the believers met together in Solomon’s Porch. 13 Nobody outside the group dared join them, even though the people spoke highly of them. 14 But more and more people were added to the group—a crowd of men and women who believed in the Lord. 15 As a result of what the apostles were doing, sick people were carried out into the streets and placed on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 And crowds of people came in from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing those who were sick or who had evil spirits in them; and they were all healed.

Acts 5:12-16 (GNT)

Many Miracles

The passage opens by telling us that “many miracles and wonders were being performed by the apostles.” We must not miss this, as it is clear that miracles were “many” and not “few.” The Early Church saw many wonderous works and this is something to praise God for.

As i said above, it is rather natural to compare this to our own experience. I confess that my experience is not of “many” miracles at all, and they are sometimes rather few and far between.

This is partly because of what we mean by “miracle.” This passage shows that these were wondrous works, and if we do not see things that fit this category, then we assume that miracles are not occurring. This is not so! To me at least, one of the greatest miracles is to see a life changed by God. Someone coming to Christ and committing to Him fully is nothing short of a miracle in my book.

I am not trying to sidestep the passage however, and it is a genuine question as to why we do not see the frequency of miracles the Early Church saw. There are many answers to this question, but I do not think it is because miracles are now extinct – far from it.

A few suggestions:

  • We fail to ask for or expect miracles.
  • We are afraid of failure if we step out in faith.
  • Little of value is taught on the subject (in my experience).

From the Outside Looking In

Nobody outside the group dared join them, even though the people spoke highly of them.

Acts 5:13 (GNT)

I have read this passage many times, and yet this is perhaps the first time I’ve really picked up on this verse. Those outside the group dare not join them – why not? Churches are sadly known for their cliques’ at times, and is this the first example of it? I think not.

In reality, the events at the start of this chapter probably have a lot to do with it. If you recall, Ananias and Sapphira were struck down for their deceptiveness before God and the church. This story would have gone around like wildfire and I imagine put many off trying to infiltrate the group. For me, it lends credence to the idea that what happened to Ananias and Sapphira was an act of defending the church from those who would harm it.

Note that all the people spoke highly of the early believers. This is a real challenge to us. Some churches do not have a great reputation among their community. This can be for many reasons. Yet we should aim to have a good reputation as it can only strengthen our witness. This is not to say we should water down our beliefs or be swayed by the winds of the world, but as much as we can, we should strive to be well thought of.

A Crowd of Men and Women

Verses 14-16 clearly show that the Early Church was no impenetrable clique. Many were being added to the group due to the acts of the Apostles – hence the name given to this book of the Bible. These men and women, responding to the teaching and miracles of the Apostles, “believed in the Lord.”

Those who were sick were brought in on beds and mats, and verse 16 says that people were coming in from the towns around Jerusalem. The word was getting out about the church, and the things it was doing in the Name of Christ.

Our passage today closes with the words “and they were healed.” We should not gloss overr this fact. The picture is painted of many sick people coming to the apostles, and the passage does not suggest that many went away empty-handed.

We see the same was true for Jesus in Matthew 8:

When evening came, people brought to Jesus many who had demons in them. Jesus drove out the evil spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. 17 He did this to make come true what the prophet Isaiah had said, “He himself took our sickness and carried away our diseases.”

Matthew 8:16-17 (GNT)

Acts 5 also describes how the people crowded around, hoping that even Peter’s shadow would fall on them. This is reminiscent of the woman who wanted to just clasp the edge of Jesus’ garment so that she might be healed. In a time when there were no hospitals and medical science was yet to be invented, people strained to receive healing from the Lord. That too may be a reason we do not see these kind of signs and wonders – few are willing to go to great lengths to reach Jesus.

As I finish today’s post, let me encourage you to meditate on this passage. Use your mind’s eye to put yourself in the middle of the scene. What would it have been like to be in that crowd and to see the miracles right before you? Imagine striving through the masses gathered to let Peter’s shadow fall on you.

Praise the Lord for such wonderous works!

Graves Into Gardens

I was having a bad day last week, and not the first during this lockdown period either I’m afraid to say. Work was proving difficult, the children were not exactly enthusiastic about their education that day, and I really wasn’t being the best Christian witness. I came away feeling pretty low if I’m honest. Part of that was due to tiredness, so let me add that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is get an early night!

I decided to put on some worship music and a particular song began to play and it really moved me, where I was in that moment. It was called “Graves Into Gardens” and is by Elevation Worship. You can hear it on your music platform of choice or else watch it here on YouTube.

It is a song about our Transforming God – not that he transforms, as He never changes, but rather how He transforms us and the situations we face.

Graves Into Gardens

The title of the song, and the begining of the chorus states how our God changes graves into gardens. It is a picture of resurrection, and how God can bring life even into a graveyard full of death.

In my own mind, I picture this from Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus cried again with a loud voice, and yielded up his spirit.

51 Behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. The earth quaked and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection, they entered into the holy city and appeared to many.

Matthew 27:50-53 (WEB)

As Jesus died, and the curtain in the temple was divided, many of the dead saints rose to new life. This is a point we sometimes miss when thinking about the death and resurrection of Christ. Imagine being in that graveyard that evening…!

Bones Into Armies

In a similar way, God also turns dry bones into armies of flesh! He takes the dead and dry, and breathes new life into them. He is a God or restoration!

Again he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and tell them, ‘You dry bones, hear Yahweh’s word. 5 The Lord Yahweh says to these bones: “Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you will live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will bring up flesh on you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you will live. Then you will know that I am Yahweh.”’”

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. As I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, there was an earthquake. Then the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I saw, and, behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh came up, and skin covered them above; but there was no breath in them.

Ezekiel 37:4-8 (WEB)

Seas into Highways

Our God can do the impossible. No matter the size or inertia of the obstacle before you, God can make a way!

As the Israelites approached the sea, with the entirety of Pharoah’s army behind them, it looked like there was no way out. We dare not limit our Limitless God!

Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of Yahweh, which he will work for you today; for you will never again see the Egyptians whom you have seen today. 14 Yahweh will fight for you, and you shall be still.”

15 Yahweh said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Speak to the children of Israel, that they go forward. 16 Lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it. Then the children of Israel shall go into the middle of the sea on dry ground. 17 Behold, I myself will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they will go in after them. I will get myself honor over Pharaoh, and over all his armies, over his chariots, and over his horsemen. 18 The Egyptians shall know that I am Yahweh when I have gotten myself honor over Pharaoh, over his chariots, and over his horsemen.” 19 The angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them, and stood behind them. 20 It came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel. There was the cloud and the darkness, yet it gave light by night. One didn’t come near the other all night.

21 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and Yahweh caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 The children of Israel went into the middle of the sea on the dry ground; and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

Exodus 14:13-22 (WEB)

Nothing is Better Than You

The repetitive refrain of the song echoes that nothing is better than God. Our God is the greatest, the highest, the most wonderful Being in existence! We chase after all this world has to offer, and yet the maker of all things stands ready to be in relationship with us. The sin that separated us has been dealt with at the cross of Christ, and through faith in Him, we can rest in the very presence of the Father.

As I sang this song that day, it moved me as I realised all the cares and worries of this life are literally nothing next to the surpassing greatness of knowing God through Christ. In my weakness and failure, I can still enter into the presence of God by the blood of Jesus. All my failures are forgotten and forgiven, and I can worship Him without fear.

I do not deserve the wonders of the Father’s grace, but if I did, it would cease to be grace. At times, I glimpse the glory of God, the depth of my sin, and the lengths He went to to save me from it. There is only one response to this – worship!

Join me today in worshipping our God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who transforms us, giving us beauty for ashes. Sing with me that there is nothing, not one single thing, bettter than Him! Hallelujah!

Praying Under Persecution

It had been my plan to complete Acts 4 today, but as I read through the remainder of the passage, I felt that what I wanted to say about the first part should stand alone. We will cover verses 23-30 today, and then complete Acts 4 tomorrow – God willing.

Being let go, they came to their own company and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard it, they lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said, “O Lord, you are God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them; 25 who by the mouth of your servant, David, said,

‘Why do the nations rage,
and the peoples plot a vain thing?
26 The kings of the earth take a stand,
and the rulers take council together,
against the Lord, and against his Christ.’ Psalm 2:1-2

27 “For truly, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together against your holy servant, Jesus, whom you anointed, 28 to do whatever your hand and your council foreordained to happen. 29 Now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal; and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of your holy Servant Jesus.”

Acts 4:23-30 (WEB)

In case you have not read my posts on Acts 3 and the first part of chapter 4, let me catch you up. Peter and John went to the temple one morning, and encountered a man unable to walk and begging at the temple entrance. They healed this man before all the people, and it caused a stir! Peter shared the Good News about Christ, and was promptly arrested and detained overnight with John. The next day, the chief priests and religious leaders questioned them and strictly warned them to no longer speak in the Name of Christ.

The “Being let go…” in verse 23 above, refers to Peter and John being released, and we see them returning to the other disciples which was now quite a number. Peter and John tell them of what has taken place, and the group respond in unison. Note that phrase again in verse 24 “with one accord.”

In the face of this persecution from the religious leaders, the community of believers pray. The focus of my post today is that prayer. As we, too, face persecution in this world for our faith, how should we pray and what can we learn from the early disciples?

Recognition

They open their prayer, as all good prayers should, in recognition of Who God is. They acknowledge that God is He who made the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them. We were no cosmic accident or roll of the dice, we were skillfully and wonderfulloy made! The One who shaped the stars in the sky is the same One who formed us from the dust of the ground. It is indeed right that we worship and praise Him!

In continuing that recognition, they quote Psalm 2 where King David asks why the nations plot in vain and the kings of the earth gather together against the Lord? It is an act of complete futility, and yet they persist in taking their own council and taking their stand against God and His Anointed One! utter foolishness!

Despite all good sense and evidence to the contrary, there will always be those who stand against God and His Kingdom. There will be those who persecute and kill the church as best they can, and while they may inflict much damage on us, they will never succeed.

Verse 28 says that they gathered “to do whatever your hand and your council foreordained to happen” to the Messiah – Jesus Christ. They acted in vanity against God, hating Him and yet were acting in line with His will and purpose. They were His instruments to bring about God’s will, yet are not innocent of their crimes.

The Request

As they bore the brunt of this persecution, they conclude their prayer petitioning God. What do they ask for? If it were you or I, we might ask for that resistance to be removed from us. They do not.

Now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal; and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of your holy Servant Jesus.”

Acts 4:29-30 (WEB)

They do not ask for the “threats” to be thwarted, but instead for the power to be bold and to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of that trouble. They ask God to stretch out His hand to heal, that as they preach the Good News, they are backed up by the power of signs and wonders authenticating their message.

It is not in their power that they do these things, but in the Name and power of God’s Servant – Jesus Christ.

In the West, we have been largely free of persecution for some time. We have had freedom to worship God without “threats.” Times are changing, as I mentioned yesterday.

This came as something of a shock to me when I started to share this blog on social media. In the large part, many were supportive and enjoyed the posts. As I shared it more widely, I encountered those who mocked the faith and made fun of the message I gave. Don’t misundestand me, I was in no fear of my life as many Christians are across the world, and I do not compare this mockery to the physical threats many face today.

In recent days, a fellow Christian blogger had his posts removed from Facebook without reason or explanation. I saw nothing offensive in his writing, nor have I read anything which covered controversial areas of the faith. So why would Facebook remove it without apparent cause? I can think of no other reason than it is Christian in nature.

This, too, is persecution. Post on social media about all manner of sinfulness or any other religion, and it is fine. But post about the Risen Lord…? It is becoming unacceptable, but let that not prevent us from spreading the Gospel!

If you want to support that fellow blogger, you can check out his blog here – Devotional Treasures.

Persecution

Persecution will come, and in many forms. There will always be those who mock or slander God and the faith of those who follow Him.

Like Peter and John, we must pray and ask God the Father to give us “all boldness” as we speak His word. Not to be deliberately offensive, but to not allow fear to prevent us from standing up for what we believe in. May He also ordain signs and wonders to follow our proclamation of Christ, that He may be glorified and as many as possible turn to Him.

Persecuted we may be at times, but we are also a praying people, and we will stand firm! This world offers its trouble and trials, but we follow the One who has overcome the world! Amen

What a Chore!

What is your favourite part of a church service?

Some might choose the sermon, while others enjoy the musical worship. Still others might prefer the fellowship, and yet others the coffee and snacks afterwards!

I am willing to bet very few would say that the prayers are their favourite part.

Few Christians (in my experience at least) are truly excited about prayer. This is my fourth post on the subject of prayer, and I hope it has encouraged you to want to explore more in your prayer life. But does it excite you?

Have you ever met a Christian who boasted about their prayer life? Perhaps they rise very early in the morning and pray for five hours before making breakfast. Maybe they tell you all about the different things they pray for, and the miracles that occur as they petition the throne of God. As much as we know we should be happy for them, if you are like me you will probably feel somewhat small, or even condemned.

Comparing your prayer life to someone else’s is never a good idea!

When we meet someone like this, we might try to replicate what they are doing. We set our alarm extra early and are all set to rack up the hours. Five minutes in though, and we’ve prayed for everyone and everything we can think of.

We sit it out, watching the clock and struggle through an hour. Ultimately we give up and feel even worse. Why is prayer such a chore!

The Father never intended for us to see prayer as a chore. Sometimes prayer is indeed work, but was not meant to be a drag which we dread.

If you want to subdue a group of believers, just suggest an evening of intense intercession!

The early church was not like this, and never seemed to struggle to pray like we often do.

They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Acts 1:14 (NIV)


They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Acts 2:42 (NIV)


When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.

Acts 4:24 (NIV)

So why does the modern church struggle so much with prayer?

I do not mean to paint a bleak picture here. I’ve met many Christians who were passionate about prayer, but often they are those with a particular gift for it. The low attendance at many prayer evenings betrays something about our view of prayer.

Some religions mandate prayer requiring its followers to pray four or more times every single day. For Christians, no such rules exist. I believe that this was a deliberate choice by God, who could have easily demanded prayer at regular intervals.

God does not want prayer to be a chore. It is not something we have to do, it is some we get to do.

If you are not all that excited by prayer, then ask yourself why not. As I think about the answer myself, I suggest these might be some common responses.

  1. I never know what to say
  2. I’m too easily distracted
  3. I am busy and just don’t put aside the time to do it, and I must admit it is not a priority for me right now
  4. My prayers seem to go unanswered

Do any of these ring true for you? They are certainly all true for me at different times!

The first three are largely matters of discipline. If we don’t know how to pray or what words to say, then we can use the Bible to help us or buy ourselves a book of prayers to get us started.

If too easily distracted, then we need to know ourselves and put aside things that will get in the way. It might mean putting the phone in a drawer for a while!

The third item was hard for me to write because it hit home. While I would never say that prayer is not a priority for me, do I actually prioritise it? It is tough to be excited about something you put off.

The last one is a complex one, and it can be very difficult when we feel our prayers are not being answered. Often we mean that they are not being answered in the way we would like, rather than not being answered at all.

We do not have the space here to discuss reasons why prayers seem to go unanswered at times. Sometimes it is simple, and sometimes not. For instance, we do not get the answers we want if we have not asked (see James 4:2). Also, if we ask but don’t really believe we will get it, then we stray into wishing and not praying.

One thing I can say for sure is that God is always listening. He wants to hear from you, and He delights in answering our prayers. Remember that if we were Him, knowing all that He knows, then we would answer our own prayers the way He does.

Let me close by reminding you of what prayer is. It is the opportunity to talk with the Creator of all things. And this is not some distant or unknown character, but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He loves you and proved this love at the cross. When we fix our eyes on Jesus, we cannot help but be excited by prayer.

Prayer is a powerful and extraordinary thing. We have direct access to the Father and can ask Him whatever we wish. We can stand in His presence, and seek His favour. We can ask Him to bless those we love, and to spread the good news about Jesus across the world. He loves and enjoys our prayers, and delights to say “Yes!”

Let us all stir up our hearts and get truly excited about prayer. It is not a chore, but an adventure! Praise be to the God who hears our every prayer!

Praying in the Moment

We sometimes think of prayer as an activity – a spiritual discipline if you like – which we may do for a certain length of time. Yet, the Apostle Paul encourages us to:

pray without ceasing,

1 Thessalonians 5:17 (ESV)

So how do we do that? Are we to quit our jobs and just spend our entire lives praying? I do not think so. In fact, I think Paul was instructing us to pray in the moment, while doing whatever other activities we needed to do.

Nehemiah did this.

In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. 2 And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. 3 I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” 4 Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.”

Nehemiah 2:1-5 (ESV)

There is much going on here, so I will try to explain. These events occur after the nation of Israel has been led into captivity. Nehemiah is essentially asking to return and begin to rebuild the city of Jerusalem.

He appears before the king to serve him yet clearly the king recognises that Nehemiah is sad. Nehemiah is afraid because you dare not appear before the king with a downcast face. You could lose your head for such a thing!

The king questions Nehemiah, and he shares the reason for his sadness. In verse 4, the king asks what he wants. What does Nehemiah do? He does not blurt out his request, but instead it tells us he prays first. Clearly he did not stand there and hold a prayer evening before making the request. He has only a split second before answering the king. His prayer cannot have been more than a simple “Help me!”

There are definitely times when we need to dedicate a set amount of time to God in prayer. But there are also times when we need to pray in the moment, and simply ask for help.

How much trouble could be avoid if we do this? Imagine the time and energy we could save, or the pain we could avoid, if we just took a moment to pray before opening our mouths. Think of the bullets we could dodge by just asking God what He thinks before we commit and make a decision.

I’ll tell you a silly story, but hope it illustrates the point.

Many years ago, I bought a CD… That alone should tell you how long ago it was! I hope no one reading this does not know what a CD is…!

Anyway, as I was waiting in line to pay for the CD, I got a sense that I shouldn’t buy it. Not that it was sinful but just a gentle nudge inside. I ignored it. And do you know, I never once enjoyed listening to that CD? I recognise now that God was trying to tell me that in advance. if only I had followed Nehemiah’s example and just checked in with God first. I could have saved the money and not wasted the time.

What decisions do you make without praying about them first? Now you have a brain and God wants us to use it. No need to pray about whether you should get and go to work, as that’s a given. But we make a mistake thinking we know it all and can run our lives better than God can.

Pray in the moment. If you are in a conversation which is in danger of becoming an argument, take a moment to pray before you say the next thing which may inflame things.

Pray without ceasing. That does not mean pray instead of doing other things, but while doing other things. The Holy Spirit lives inside of us and wants to be our Guide throughout life. He won’t shout or raise His voice over the din of our everyday lives, so we need to take moments to check in with Him and listen.

What traps or trouble might you avoid today by doing this? Ask the Holy Spirit to remind you continually to pray, and offer up prayers in the moments of your day.