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Ceaseless Prayer

Saturday, May 06, 2023

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-22

Paul instructs Christians to “pray without ceasing.” This echoes the parable of Jesus which teaches that disciples “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1-8). Ceaseless prayer suggests a mental awareness of God’s presence and a disposition of heart that seeks constant communication with him. The knowledge of God's nearness forms the basis for this command; God is “near to the brokenhearted” (Psa. 34:18) and is “not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). The omnipresence of God means that no matter where we are, God is “there” to “lead” and “hold” us (Psa. 139:7-12). God’s nearness is a comfort to the faithful and a great encouragement to pray. Though he is “far from the wicked” he “hears the prayer of the righteous.” (Prov. 15:29)

This constant communication with God offers tremendous practical blessings to the Christian. Throughout the day, our thoughts often turn to worry, fear, discouragement and anger. But when we have the mindset of ceaseless prayer, we turn those unfruitful thoughts over to God. Undisciplined thinking results in anxiety and propels us away from God as our imagination takes over in all the wrong ways (see Mt. 6:25-34). But the one who “prays without ceasing” disciplines his mind and takes every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5).

When our minds are trained to “pray without ceasing,” we learn to surrender our thoughts to God and receive the peace only he can give: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:5-7) Note that the nearness of the Lord forms the foundation for the command to take everything to him in prayer.

In another place, Paul says we are to “continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (Col. 4:2) He sees prayer as an indispensable piece of our spiritual kit and an effective weapon against evil (Eph. 6:18). Prayer is our first line of defense in our trials and our first method of attack in our fight against the powers of darkness. When we pray ceaselessly, we remain strong because we are continually dependent on God’s grace (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

Because we live for the world to come, we experience constant tension in a world that is “passing away” (1 Jn. 2:17). Alone, we simply cannot bear up against the pressures and temptations of this “present world” (Rom. 12:1-2; 2 Tim. 4:10). Hence the need to be in constant communication with God through ceaseless prayer. We cannot afford any interruption in that fellowship or else we will quickly lose our way. Prayer should be as natural to Christians as breathing: we breathe in God’s truth (his communication to us through his word) and breathe out God’s praise (our communication with him through prayer).

Jesus taught that because his disciples were not “of the world,” the world would hate them (Jn. 15:18-19). He asked the Father not to “take them out of the world” but that he would “keep them from the evil one” (Jn. 17:15). One way God answers Jesus’ request is by providing us the avenue of prayer. Though the whole world lies in the power of the evil one (1 Jn. 5:19), when we “pray without ceasing” he cannot gain any purchase on us because we are safely abiding in Christ (Jn. 15:1-11; Rom. 8:38-39). In the world we experience tribulation, but in Christ—where we enjoy access to God through him—we have peace (Jn. 16:33). Ceaseless prayer is an essential part of Christian living. It keeps us humble, thankful, joyful, focused and at peace, despite the daily challenges we face.

Demonstrating Reverence

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.

Leviticus 10:3

Stories like Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10), Uzzah and the ark (2 Sam. 6), Phinehas (Num. 25), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) and Herod Agrippa (Acts 12) all illustrate, in very dramatic ways, the importance of showing reverence to God. Psalm 89:5-7 says:

Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord,
    your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!

For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord?
    Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord,

a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones,
    and awesome above all who are around him?

God is altogether holy. He is in a category of one. Therefore, it is vital that his covenant people exhibit God’s holiness in their lives (Lev. 19:2). Knowledge of God’s holiness transforms the way we regard him in our hearts. Peter says, "in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Pet. 3:15). When Christ is sanctified in our hearts (regarded as “holy”), we can demonstrate proper reverence for God in all areas of life: religious, moral, social, etc. Reverence is connected with the idea of a healthy fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Fearing the Lord will affect our attitude toward morality. We will develop a hatred for wrong and a love for what is right (Prov. 8:13; Psa. 119:112-114). When we hate evil and love good (Rom. 12:9), we will turn away from evil and pursue good (Prov. 3:7; 16:6; Psa. 34:11-18). Thus, the fear of the Lord transforms us from the inside out. Learning to fear God keeps us from wrong (Ex. 20:20).

Lest we mistakenly think “the fear of the Lord” is merely an Old Covenant concept, consider God's promise through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.” (Jer. 32:40)

Practically, how can we demonstrate reverence toward God today? There are many ways, but consider these three:

We demonstrate reverence in how we speak of God — The third commandment says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Ex. 20:7) Using the acronym “OMG” or saying “Oh my God,” if it is not uttered in a prayerful or worshipful way, is a vain use of God’s name. To use God’s name as an expletive in conversation displays a deeply irreverent attitude. When we speak of God, we must speak of him with the highest respect.

We demonstrate reverence in how we speak to God — Jesus taught us to pray to “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Mt. 6:9) We have a ready audience in prayer with our Father who loves us. But we must never forget that he is our heavenly Father. Yes, he is near, but he is also above and separate from us. Because of what Christ has done, we can approach God’s throne confidently (Heb. 4:16) but never casually.

We demonstrate reverence in how we listen to God — When Ezra the scribe read the Law before the congregation, everyone stood to listen. “And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” (Neh. 8:3) The people demonstrated their reverence to God in how they listened to God’s word. Whenever the Bible is read and expounded, we must exhibit this same reverent attitude in our hearing. Let us “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” and be reverent doers as well as reverent hearers of the word (Jas. 1:19-27).

Are you demonstrating reverence to God in these ways?

Seeking God's Will

Saturday, April 22, 2023

…When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.

John 8:28-29

As a fully human being, Jesus possessed his own will, the power of choice to either do what he wanted or to submit to God. Part of the good news is that he sought his Father’s will not his own (Jn. 4:34; 5:19, 30; 12:44-50, etc.). He never spoke or acted on his own initiative but submitted to the Father’s authority. When Christ came into the world, he said, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.” (Heb. 10:7)

Jesus came not only to do the will of God but to announce the good news of God’s reign (Mt. 4:23; Isa. 52:7). The kingdom is about God’s rule and his will being done (Mt. 6:10). God’s rule and his will are inseparable. To say, “Not as I will, but as you will,” (Mt. 26:39) is to submit to God’s authority as King. Knowing God’s will is vital if we are to carry it out. God has revealed his will in Scripture and Jesus has shown us what seeking God’s will looks like. The question, “Whose will am I seeking?” is the same as asking, “Who am I trying to please?” or “Who is enthroned as King in my life?”

Jesus sought his Father’s will (Jn. 4:34), sought to please his Father (Jn. 8:29) and, though being equal with God, divested himself of his divine prerogatives and voluntarily submitted himself to his Father’s authority (Phil. 2:3-11). In doing so, Jesus showed us the way of righteousness and blessing (Psa. 1). Disciples can and do please God by living under his authority and seeking his will like Jesus (1 Cor. 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 5:9; Col. 1:10; 2 Tim. 2:4).

However, seeking someone else’s will other than our own, even God’s perfect will, is difficult. Paul urges Christians to set their mind on the Spirit because “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom. 8:5-8) And again, the “desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.” (Gal. 5:16-17)

When Paul speaks of walking “according to the flesh” or being “in the flesh” he is speaking about living in opposition to God. The “flesh” is Paul’s shorthand for the part of us that still struggles in rebellion against God. Therefore, to live “according to the flesh” is to live according to our will and our desires instead of God’s will and God’s desires. This has been the human condition since Genesis 3.

The battle between the flesh and the Spirit (Gal. 5) is ongoing for the Christian. Which will win out as the dominating influence, the ruling power that calls the shots, is up to us. However, it is a battle that, without Jesus, we are bound to lose (Rom. 7:24-25). Jesus has freed us from our slavery to the flesh. In him, we can now live by God’s Spirit (Rom. 8). Whereas the “flesh” was controlled by sin and rebelled against God, living by God’s “Spirit” means being free to live in obedience to God’s good will which the Spirit revealed.

Jesus won the battle by submitting to his Father’s will and going to the cross to give himself for us. Through his self-sacrifice we can be completely cleansed of sin and given new hearts that desire to obey God (Ezek. 36:26-27). We hope in Jesus, who overcame temptation and lived by the Spirit as a human (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:15-16), who lived a life fully pleasing to God by completely surrendering his will to the Father. As his disciples, we are to emulate his example so that we can overcome sin and live a blessed life (1 Pet. 2:21).

Who are you trying to please in life? Whose will are you seeking? Who is ruling as your king? In Christ, we are free from “the flesh.” That is, we are free from being led by our corrupt desires, obeying our every impulse and taking our cues from our morally confused culture. Instead, in Jesus, we can walk by the Spirit.

Reaching the Skeptic

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.

1 Thessalonians 5:19-22

How does the gospel reach the skeptic? Skepticism can be helpful when it encourages us to test claims before trusting them. Truth rewards honest inquiry. That is why Paul said “test everything,” including his teaching (Acts 17:11). Wherever he was, he “reasoned” with people about the truth of the gospel (Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 24:25). G. K. Chesterton famously said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” The gospel reaches the skeptic like it reaches anyone else, through Christians presenting it persuasively and reasonably.

First, consider the faith it takes to doubt it — Honest skeptics embrace the gospel when it gets harder and harder to justify not believing in it. When presented persuasively, reasons for rejecting the gospel become weaker and the case for Christ grows stronger.

Unlike other worldviews, Christianity answers all the fundamental questions about our identity, our origin, our problem, our purpose and our destiny. Strong philosophical arguments can be made for God’s existence, the origin and design of the universe, humanity’s uniqueness and moral awareness. Arguments from history support the historical reliability of the Bible, the claims and credentials of Jesus, the prophecies he fulfilled and the vast constellation of evidence for his bodily resurrection. When the gospel is taken seriously, the faith it takes to doubt it is simply too great.

Second, consider the problems we have without it — If we live with the conviction that there is no God or that the gospel is untrue, the implications are staggering. We boil them down to just four.

If Christianity is untrue, then (1) there is no hope. There is nothing beyond death but nonexistence. If there is no God, then (2) there is no meaning. Any purpose we construct for ourselves will be taken away through suffering, old age and death. If there is no God, then (3) there is no justice. In the end, there is no difference between the one who lived a life of evil and selfishness and the one who loved and served others. Finally, if there is no God, then (4) there is no morality. There is no ultimate standard for morality, no fixed reference point beyond ourselves or our culture to determine right from wrong. If all morality is relative, then society falls into depravity and ruin (Jdg. 21:25; Rom. 1:18-35). However, a life with God and his Son Jesus Christ is a life filled with abundant hope, clarity of purpose, the expectation of a just judgement and a fixed, discernible morality revealed in God’s word.

Third, consider the beauty we see within it — There is a unique and compelling beauty to the story told in Scripture. God created humans in his image to rule his creation on his behalf but we rebelled against his loving authority. In response, God pursued us in love: he became one of us to suffer for us, die as a sacrifice to take away sin and was raised to eternal life to defeat death and open up the way back to him so that we can be with him forever.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” (Jn. 14:6) providing us with the three essential aspects of our existence to which secular thinking has no answer: he is the “way” to live, the basis for our thinking and decision making (“truth”) and the hope for a future beyond death (eternal “life”). In Jesus, God has answered the deepest longing of every heart, to love and be loved. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

May God help us persuade others to repent and believe the gospel. May God open their eyes to see the truth: the faith it takes to doubt it is too great; the problems we have without it are too many; and the beauty we see within it is too captivating.

The Appearances of Jesus

Saturday, April 08, 2023

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.

1 John 3:8

The Bible describes two “appearances” of Jesus. The purpose of his first appearance was to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8), to “once for all… put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9:26). Through his self-sacrifice, Jesus offers salvation to all who would receive it: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” (Titus 2:11) This sacrifice was given in love so that those who are dead may live: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (Jn. 3:16-17) Therefore, Jesus appeared to save sinners, but this salvation can only be accessed by faith in him (Rom. 1:16-17).

Now we await his second “appearance,” when Jesus will return in glory and judgment (2 Thess. 1:5-12). How we meet Jesus at his return depends entirely on how we respond to his first coming (Titus 2:11-14). “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb. 9:27-28)

Christians who are preparing for his return are “waiting for and hastening the coming day of God” by living “lives of holiness and godliness” (2 Pet. 2:10-11). We resolve to live in vigilance, wakefulness and sobriety so that we can obtain the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11; 1 Pet. 1:3-9).

Jesus appeared in the past to save us from our sins by offering himself in love as a once-for-all sacrifice. Jesus will appear again in the future to complete our salvation and judge evil once-for-all. The salvation he has already provided and the judgment he promises to bring have the power to transform us in at least three ways:

  1. The appearances of Jesus change what we do — Because Jesus appeared to take away sins “no one who is born of God makes a practice of sinning.” (1 Jn. 3:9) In view of his past and future appearances, we learn to practice righteousness and love in the present (1 Jn. 3:10, 16-18).
  2. The appearances of Jesus change how we think — Even more fundamental than the change in behavior is the change that is wrought in our thinking. Because of Jesus’ appearing, we want to do right. This “renewal of [the] mind” (Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 4:23; Col. 3:10) comes to us via Jesus’ appearing: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us… according to his own mercy…” (Titus 3:4-5) The appearance of this grace trains our minds “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives…” (Titus 2:11-12)
  3. The appearances of Jesus change who we are — Deeper still is the transformation of our identity. Those who repent and believe the gospel no longer identify with Adam, the first man characterized by sin and death, but with Christ, the second man characterized by grace and life (Rom. 5:12-21). In him, our situation is reversed from darkness to light, slavery to freedom, condemnation to justification, brokenness to renewal.

A changed identity leads to changed thinking which, in turn, leads to a changed life—all this because Jesus appeared to take away sins and he “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb. 9:28)

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