“Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:27-28)
Have you ever noticed that nearly every time someone follows Jesus, they leave something behind? Here, Levi leaves his tax booth. Peter and Andrew left their nets, and James and John left the boat and their father (Matthew 4:18-22). The woman at the well left her water jar (John 4:28). The man who found the “treasure hidden in a field” and the merchant looking for fine pearls sold all they had for the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:44-46). It is a subtle but consistent theme in the Gospels: To follow Jesus means to forsake something else.
This points to at least two truths that we need to cling to. First, the value of following Jesus surpasses anything we possessed before we knew Him. Whether we are preoccupied with our livelihood, our relationships, our interests, or our duties, when we really see who Jesus is, everything else pales in comparison. The items left behind in these passages are almost reported as an afterthought. These people did not seem to agonize over their decision; they were just too focused on something better. They were completely preoccupied with Jesus.
Second, following Jesus implies a radical rearrangement of all of life. Nothing is the same after we meet Him. He redirects us from our previous path. No one in the Gospels became a follower of Jesus and squeezed their discipleship in around their current lifestyle. The encounter was too earth-shattering for that. Everything was new.
The greatest adventure a person can have is to follow Jesus without hindrances. When we try to pick up the trappings of our old life to carry with us, we soon find out that we follow at too great a distance. Jesus urges us onward, leaving all behind, with eyes focused entirely on Him. He calls us to a new way of life.
September 27 – October 3
“I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11)
Anyone who has ever worked on a farm with sheep will attest to this fact: Sheep are stupid. They wander off without any sense of direction; having thoroughly consumed the foliage in one field, they must be driven to the next or they will not eat; they often do not recognize danger when it is present, and even when they do recognize it, they do nothing in defense; and they get lost easily. Of all God’s creatures, they are some of the most vulnerable and simple. And this is exactly the image Jesus uses for us.
Anyone who has ever been a shepherd will attest to this fact: It is servile, thankless labor. It is a task that most would avoid doing, if they could (which is how David got stuck with the job as the youngest of eight brothers). It offers no rewards in the eyes of the world, and it is lonely work, offering a man no companionship outside of his flock. And this is exactly the image Jesus uses for Himself.
The sheep’s relationship to the shepherd is one of absolute dependence. It is one of protection. It is one of long hours together in the same field. It is one of constantly being guided or rescued by the rod and the staff. When a sheep wanders off and gets stuck in a ditch (which happens a lot), the shepherd must search for it, find it, pull it out, and compel it to come back. If he does not, it will die in its predicament. But a good shepherd always does.
This picture that Jesus chose to describe His relationship with us may be foreign to most members of modern Western civilization, but it was a strong image for His hearers. It was a promise that regardless of their predicament, He would take the initiative to keep them in the fold; that regardless of their vulnerability, their welfare was entirely in His hands. The sheep-shepherd relationship is a humble picture, but it is a comforting and compelling illustration of us and our Savior. Think about it the next time you’re stuck in a ditch.
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24)
Some unbelievers build beautiful mansions with their lives. Others build shacks. The same can be said of believers; there are both mansions and shacks among us, too. But nowhere in this passage does Jesus talk about the quality of the house. He speaks only about the foundation. If the foundation is not good, the quality of the rest of the house doesn’t matter. It will wash away.
The world sees many non-Christians who have done wonderful works of benevolence, given much money to charities, demonstrated kindness, believed in various religions wholeheartedly, and come up with truly beneficial theories. And they wonder: How can the Bible say they do not have salvation apart from Christ? Jesus’ answer: The foundation is wrong. Million-dollar mansions are worth nothing unless built on solid ground.
But there is also an application here for the Christian. We have, of course, chosen the proper foundation. But, astonishingly, some of us have a tendency to build elsewhere. We settle on the foundation of Christ mentally, but we wander from it as we build our lives. And whatever we’ve built on other sites will wash away when the storm comes. For many, very little is added to the foundation.
There are all types of houses in the world. Big and small, beautiful and plain, elaborate and simple, lavish and humble. Regardless of the style, the crucial question is the foundation underneath it. Yet it is a crucial question that we often answer casually.
Are Jesus’ words the foundation for our work? for our attitudes? for our habits? for our use of time and money? for our relationships? If they are not, we build our houses in vain. If they are, whatever we build will be solid.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
Have you ever considered the insanity of sin? Sin, of course, is rebellion toward God, an enthronement of self in the human heart. We have all been guilty of it and, in fact, continue to be guilty of it, sometimes habitually. Have you pondered the implications of that?
We know that God is the Creator of the universe, perfect in His goodness and love. He wants our ultimate happiness and knows exactly how we can get it. His wisdom is complete, His designs perfect. The promises of obedience to His will are extravagant, eternal, and incredibly exciting to think about.
And in spite of this knowledge, we often consciously reject the abundant life He offers in favor of a destructive fascination with sin. We are inextricably attracted to the thief and apathetic toward the giver of life. The God of the universe invites us to have an intimate relationship with Him, and we consciously choose to offend Him. This is absurd. If we really believe the truths of the gospel and the promises of God, know the futility of disobedience, and still persist in our rebellion, isn’t this by all standards considered irrational? And yet, every Christian can relate to Paul’s confession: “The evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).
Many Christians struggle with habitual sin. It has power—from the world, our own flesh, and the evil one. And that power is intense. We are to forsake it, but only Christ can break it (Romans 7:25). If this is your struggle, ask Him to break it now. Cry out to Him, don’t stop asking until He does, and know that He will. He is stronger than the thief, and His will is that we have life in all its fullness.
“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)
To the eyes of casual onlookers who do not hold kingdom values, the gospel is a waste. They see the life of Jesus as tragically “cut short.” Just think of what He could have done had He lived longer! They believe the talents of many young people have been squandered on “religious service” rather than impressive secular-minded careers. Just think of the achievements that could have bettered mankind if they had focused on something “practical”! The fruit of the kingdom is hardly visible to those outside of it.
David Brainerd, an early missionary to the Indians of the American Northeast, lived among them in a forest while his health deteriorated. He died at twenty-nine, having seen only a handful of converts. But his diary prompted William Carey, Henry Martyn, and scores of others to go to mission fields. William Borden graduated from Yale before going to Egypt as a twenty-five year old missionary. He died of cerebral meningitis within weeks. But thousands have been moved to action by the testimony of his eternal values. And, of course, Jesus spent only three precious years in public ministry before the appointed time of His sacrifice at the hands of a vision-impaired world. But His eternal kingdom is growing mightily.
We serve in a kingdom of wheat kernels, mustard seeds, and hidden pearls—small things with huge impact. The world cannot see their value. In our more discouraging moments, neither can we. But history encourages us; the legacies of “wasted” lives have influenced the world in more dramatic ways than any of mankind’s impressive achievements.
Do not be discouraged if your faithful service to God has imperceptible results. They are imperceptible only to the naked eye. They are highly valued in the eternal kingdom, where those who give away their lives find them again.
“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” (Revelation 3:19)
Rarely do we view the difficult circumstances of life as statements of Jesus’ love for us. We more likely interpret them as interruptions in our walk with God. In our best moments, we may interpret these interruptions as tools God will use to stretch our faith; in our worst moments, we may even see them as His disfavor. But we still tend to view them as distractions from the course He would have us pursue.
But God’s hand is in even the most difficult circumstances, letting affliction have its deepest results. This is His chosen path for us, not a diversion from it. Whether He is letting hardship strengthen our faith, or disciplining us for some sin, as in this verse, He is always the Lord of our situation. The superficial source of our hardship may be easier to discern; we see Satan, other people, chance, our own sin, or a variety of other causes as the root of our affliction. But God is sovereign over all of them, and He is specific in His purposes. If we are in pain, He knows it and He allowed it to happen.
We can take comfort in the fact that God is behind our trials. He does not train those whom He does not intend to use in wonderful ways. Though we may suffer at times, we suffer with a purpose. He has a plan for us that only this type of hardship will prepare us for. He will develop our character to prepare us for His purposes, and His method is like a refiner’s fire.
Many times we pray to know Christ better, to have deeper fellowship with Him, and to be more fruitful in His work. We must learn that this prayer will likely result in more of the refiner’s fire, more time in the training camp of His kingdom. Should we stop praying it? Of course not. No one who has been used mightily by God has avoided the difficult developing of their character and faith. They have been through the fiery trials and would willingly go through them again.
“By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:20)
How do we recognize an apple tree? Some knowledgeable people may be able to tell from the leaves or the bark, but most of us will rely on clearer evidence. If it bears apples, we have our answer. It’s an apple tree. Peach trees don’t bear apples, and apple trees don’t bear peaches. We can tell the tree by its fruit.
False prophets abound. Jesus told us to guard against them and to expect to encounter many. He encountered many Himself. But how do we detect them? Jesus’ answer is simple. It’s all in the fruit.
When we hear a new teaching, we listen closely to the teacher’s words to determine if they line up with our understanding of biblical doctrine. This is a good start. But a better indicator is the behavior of the teacher. If we really want to know what people believe, we will not focus on their words but on their actions. Words are easy to fake. Behavior is not. Jesus tells us we will recognize false teachers by what they produce. We won’t find perfection in any human, but when someone comes with gentle words and ferocious actions, we know the truth about that person. We know that with bad trees, bad fruit will eventually be evident.
We can apply Jesus’ principle of fruit to ourselves as well. What do you really believe? What you do will indicate what’s deep down inside. If we say we believe in the power of prayer but rarely pray, we don’t really believe what we say. If we say we believe in the power of love to change lives, yet harbor critical and judgmental attitudes, once again we deceive ourselves. We may not be like the false prophets Jesus warns His disciples about by preying on people like ferocious wolves, but we are like them by exhibiting a contradiction between our words and our deeds.
What is the evidence of genuine belief? Learn to discern the truth. It’s all in the fruit.
“This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign.” (Luke 11:29)
This is a wicked generation, too, just as surely as was the one to whom Jesus spoke. Like that one, ours will hardly listen to any preaching that calls for repentance (as Jesus implies in verse 32 that true preaching will do). It is unable or unwilling to discern truth from error. A sign, however, would be convincing evidence, wouldn’t it? Probably not. Secular mouths ridicule the signs of the church and the signs of the Bible as hoaxes or premodern myths. Still, we think, if there were clear evidence of a supernatural power behind the gospel to which we testify, more people would be saved.
Perhaps so, but really the world has all it needs to accept the gospel, especially if we are living it. That’s the truest, most indisputable miracle—a changed life. If the world sees that the gospel has recreated us from within, given us a new heart, and subdued our willful humanity, perhaps it will believe. People have been brought into the kingdom by such a sign. It’s what everyone, deep down inside, really craves.
What kind of sign are you to this generation? Are you a living testament to the power of the gospel and the resurrection of Jesus? Can people look at you and say, “I’m not sure what’s going on there, but the change is definite, something or Someone from above is in there”? Maybe on some days, maybe not on others. It’s something we should be aware of. We are God’s primary sign to any wicked generation.
We covet the ability to work miracles in the name of Jesus. By God’s grace, that happens many times in the life of the church. Healings, deliverances, and clear answers to prayer are often given mercifully by His hand. But that can never be our focus. Our focus must be on the miracle that Jesus has wrought within, and whether we are demonstrating ourselves to be the miracle of God. There’s a huge difference between doing a miracle and being one. Above all, make sure you are one.
“I love the Father and . . . do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (John 14:31)
In John 8, Jesus had one of His many confrontations with the Pharisees. During the argument, these religious leaders appealed to their authority as Abraham’s children. No, Jesus told them; they were Abraham’s descendants, but not his children. Then the Pharisees appealed to their status as God’s children. No again, Jesus told them; they would get along with Him well if they were God’s children. They didn’t get the point; He would have to spell it out for them. “You belong to your father, the devil,” He said (v. 44). It was the most offensive thing He could have said to them. Why was He so blunt? Because they were blind to this truth: Those who love God do what God says.
Jesus’ statement in John 14:31 about doing exactly as the Father commands should not be foreign to us. Can we say the same thing? We’re not sinless as He was, so we can’t claim to have loved God perfectly. But we can make that our guiding principle, can’t we? We absolutely must realize the connection between love and obedience. They were perfectly combined in Jesus; they can be increasingly combined in us.
Many Christians get caught in an inconsistency between their words and their lives. It’s quite common. We say we love God, but we fail repeatedly in our obedience, usually in one or two areas in particular. We have secret sins, nagging habits, persistent character flaws that we just do not want to let go of. We know this, and we know God’s desire for us to leave those things behind. But we don’t; it’s too hard. That’s when we need to ask ourselves a deep question: Do I really love Him? That’s the issue, isn’t it? If we loved Him more than that habit, sin, or character flaw, we would have victory. We pursue the things we love the most. If we hang on to our hidden faults, don’t we love them more?
Jesus often used “love” and “obey” in the same sentence. It isn’t a coincidence. It’s a challenge. Search your soul. Decide whom you love, and obey Him with all your heart.
“Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40)
The life of faith requires us to lean on an invisible source of strength and wisdom. We do not have an unfounded faith, but we learn quickly that it does not rest on our five senses. And as we trust God, we find that very real and visible storms war against our belief in the invisible God. Sooner or later, a greater test will come and we will have to choose: Trust God or trust ourselves. We cannot do both.
At some point in this walk of faith, we must learn to detach from the things that so greatly concern us and cast them wholly on God. This feels irresponsible at first, but it is actually irresponsible not to do so. We must stop thinking of ourselves as the source of deliverance in a difficult situation. It is not up to us to save. We may be useful tools of God, but everything is riding on us. Usually, we approach crises as though God is depending on us to do the work while He supports us in the background. We need to turn that around. We must depend on God to do the work while we are behind the scenes believing in Him. When He says to act, we must act. But most of us act far too quickly and believe much too slowly. We must be quick to believe and hesitant to interfere in God’s work. By this we can keep our hearts from being so troubled, if we will really trust in Him.
How do you react in a crisis? Do you feel responsible to step in and intervene? Perhaps God will require you to do so, but rarely until you have first trusted Him with a calm heart, sought His will diligently, made yourself fully available, and waited for His timing.
When we pray and ask for God’s will to be done in a given situation, we must believe that His will is, in fact, very good, and that He is quite able to accomplish it. Any asking that maintains an internal sense of panic is not genuine trust. It reveals a hidden belief that we are perhaps more critical to the situation than God is. But to trust is to rest, and the heart that is calm has learned that Jesus is above the storm.
November 29 – December 5
“I will show you whom you should fear.” (Luke 12:5)
One enduring trait of most human beings is that we obsess about the approval of others. This obsession affects more decisions than we might realize; we might consider what others think about our job, or about the home we choose to live in, or the car we drive, or the clothes we wear. We are prone to act more spiritual than we really are when we are around other Christians, and we might act more worldly than we really are to make an impression on non-religious folks. We are, more often than we think, shaped by the opinions—real or assumed—of those around us.
And yet this is something completely absent in Jesus’ considerations, and He expects His followers to be like Him in this regard. Jesus, in all of His teachings and His actions, shows no fear of men, whether they be hostile Pharisees or would-be disciples. His life and message are entirely God-directed, with no hint of compromise apparent. He fears no one.
Like our Master, our lives are also to be entirely God-directed. When we obsess about others’ opinions, we have a distorted view of reality. We place more stock in something temporal and transient (and completely fickle) than we do in what is eternal and most worthy. We ignore the truly valuable (the will of God) to pursue an illusion (the approval of human beings). It is an incredibly costly exchange.
Jesus tells us emphatically not to fear men. He urges His followers to think only of God. In any decision we make, we are to consider His character and His plan and ignore the effect our decision might have on our standing in others’ eyes. Do we fear for our self-esteem? His grace will be more than enough to compensate. We are—without compromise—to seek the esteem that comes from serving God rather than the esteem that comes from human approval. Only then will we be in touch with reality.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)
When we think of the Christmas story, we usually think of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. These explain how Jesus came into this world. But why did Jesus come? He answers that Himself in many of His teachings. One of the answers is given in Matthew 5:17.
We don’t often think of this verse in terms of the Advent. To us, it is more than a confusing statement about legalism and the role of the law in a Christian’s life. But there is much more to it than that. The Law and the Prophets are the Word of God—immutable and inviolable. The law that Moses received at Sinai cannot be broken without catastrophic consequences. The prophets cannot be ignored without the same results. Yet the law was broken and the prophets ignored repeatedly. Only by man fulfilling them can man be saved. How could God accomplish our salvation in light of our numerous willful violations? He sent a Man.
Jesus fulfilled all righteousness. When He went to John to be baptized, it was not for His own need. It was a baptism on Israel’s behalf—and, by extension, ours. “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness,” He said (Matthew 3:15). He accomplished what we could not: true obedience and true repentance on our behalf.
Jesus did not come to tell us “never mind” about the law. That’s not a basis for God’s forgiveness, though we often presume that it is. God has never just ignored our offenses. Humanity could not be saved without a law fulfiller. That’s why Jesus came. He paid attention not only to every small letter and stroke of the pen, but also the Spirit behind them. In so doing, He accomplished what we could not—righteousness. And then He gave it to us.
That’s the reason for Christmas. The baby in the manger was our only hope to fulfill God’s law. Thank God He did.
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)
Isaiah prophesied about the coming “Prince of Peace” (9:6). The angels declared peace on earth in Luke 2:14 as they announced the coming Lord. But Jesus had a different declaration. He will be the source of division on earth. People will fight about the truth of His words. They will draw swords against each other in heated conflict over His claims. The fact of His cross and resurrection would become history’s greatest scandal. When persecution comes, friends and family members will turn each other in. And when judgment comes, He will be the dividing line by which families and nations are split.
Was His prophecy true? History bears it out. There is no more controversial figure in the entire human race than Jesus. He has been blessed as God incarnate and cursed as a man-made delusion. He has changed countless lives even while “scholars” have disputed whether He ever existed.
No, the kind of peace the world seeks is harmony on this planet. Jesus made it clear that His peace is of a different order. It reconciles God with His traitorous creatures and humanity with its holy God. It puts a new Spirit in a once-conflicted heart. It is a peace within and a peace from above, but it is not universal peace among our race. Many hate Him. It will always be so. Such is the rebellion of man.
Who would have thought that the infant in Bethlehem would be so scandalous? But the enemy knew it in the Garden, Herod saw it in the star, and Pilate heard it from the mobs. No one could make such kingly claims without controversy, even when demonstrating their truth. The pride of the human heart will bow to no Lord, especially One who reveals its sin. The Prince of Peace? Absolutely. But not the kind the world expects. Our peace is deeper and better—and it lasts forever.
“I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (Mark 5:39)
Why did Jesus come? Why did the Creator decide to clothe Himself in creation and enter this world through a young girl late one night in the company of livestock? We know the answer, of course. The Bible is very clear: Jesus came to save us. But His incisive declaration in John 6:38 should tell us something about the will of God: It is good. Jesus defines it for us: “This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day” (v. 39).
For everyone who has ever wondered how God sees him or her; for everyone who has ever doubted God’s love when a prayer has gone unanswered or a life has become broken; for everyone who has cried out to God, “Are You there?” or “Do You care?” Jesus has this answer: He has come to do God’s will, and His will is very, very good.
The good will of God is a natural, theological belief for those who hold to 1 John 4:8—“God is love.” But as a practical belief, we often fall far short of affirming this. Causing us to doubt God’s love is one of the enemy’s most frequent points of attack and one of the flesh’s most devastating points of corruption. In fact, everything but the Bible itself sometimes seems arrayed against this belief: circumstances, moods, relationships, and the harsh words and deeds of other people. Nevertheless, it is true. Hold out for it. The Bible promises that if we will only believe, God’s will toward us is a cause for celebration, not despair.
Jesus came into this world as an act of divine love, not vengeance. When we’re suspicious of His agenda, we need to remember: There is nothing of judgment in His work until He comes again. So relax. We need no clearer illustration. He is here by God’s will, and it is God’s will and great pleasure to love us.
December 27 – January 2, 2021
“You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37)
Jesus was an enigma. He came into the world as the child of a working-class family from a notably un-noteworthy region of the country. He amazed people with His teaching and His miracles, but He always defied their expectations. When they expected Him to act like an average Galilean, He wouldn’t. When they expected Him to act like a king, He wouldn’t. No one could get a handle on exactly who He was.
The same is true for us today. The God-man, the Creator incarnate, defies our expectations as well. We pray to Him as our King, but He often leads us in the way of true humanity. Then we follow Him as a human example, but He often insists on His kingly authority in our lives. He is not just our teacher, but our Lord. And He is not just our God, but our friend. The enigma of Galilee remains enigmatic even today, even as we pray to Him. But what an enigma! He simultaneously fulfills our deepest needs for human fulfillment and for intimacy with the holy. He is exactly the answer to everything we didn’t know we wanted.
Jesus said He came into the world to testify to the truth. This is what Christmas is all about. Think about it—infinite truth in a finite body! It is an answer to all of those questions the philosophers have asked for centuries: Why are we here? Who made us? Where are we going? In Jesus, God pulled back the curtain on divine mysteries and made them visible. Not completely understood, of course, but tangible at least. He opened the window on all that has been going on behind the scenes in this drama we call life. We can see the divine in something as mundane as human history. An enigma? Yes. But a blessed revelation, too. The Incarnation gave us truth—in person.