Good News For The Year Ahead

Doing Life Well:
Romans 8:31-32

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

One of my favorite hymnsyeah, I still love themwas written by the German composer, Joachim Neander in the 1600’s. It still resonates with worshipers of all ages some 400 years later. I particularly relish this line in the fourth verse,

 Ponder anew what the Almighty can do, if with His love He befriends thee.

Think about that for a momentit will change your day, not to mention the New Year ahead. As a matter of fact, it will change the trajectory of the rest of your life. The only thing I would change in this otherwise magnificent hymn is the one little word in the second line, “if”. For me, and anyone else who has been redeemed God’s marvelous grace, that word rather should be, “since”! “If” speaks of possibility, “since” reflects reality!

God has indeed befriended us, amazing as that sounds.  If you are having trouble grasping that, go back and read the entirety of Romans 8. What you will find there are some jaw-dropping realities of what God has already done for you through Christ Jesus. Not the least of which is simply yet powerfully this: God has clearly and deliberately stated that he is for you! And, as Paul logically concludes, since that is true, nothing and no one can be against you.

God Is For MeDoes that sound like someone has over promised you something? If it were simply another human being making that claim, I would be suspicious of their ability to deliver on that pledge. But keep in mind the One declaring this vow to you is God himself! And here is the Almighty’s certification: He offered Jesus, literally, through his virgin birth, sinless life and sacrificial death, as the guarantee that his promise is 100% good.

Now since it is firmly established that you and I are friends of the Almighty, the realities of blessing, protection, provision, success and satisfaction in the days, months and year to come, along with eternity for that matter, are unlimitedlimited only by our unbelief.

So, indeed, take a moment to ponder anew what it means to walk in moment-by-moment friendship with your Almighty Father. I guarantee this: it will make all your moments to come a whole lot brighter. 

Praise to the Lord,
The Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him,
For He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear,
Now to His temple draw near;
Praise Him in glad adoration.
Praise to the Lord,
Who over all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings,
Yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen
How all your longings have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Praise to the Lord,
Who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness
And mercy here daily attend thee.
Ponder anew
What the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee.

Praise to the Lord,
O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath,
Come now with praises before Him.
Let the Amen
Sound from His people again,
Gladly for aye we adore Him.

Yes, for gladly we adore Him. How could we not!

____________________________

“How great peace and quietness would he possess who should cut off all vain anxiety and place all his confidence in God.” (Thomas à Kempis)

Doing Life Well: As you celebrate New Year’s Day—and the new opportunities lie ahead—take a moment to envision what it means to have God as your friend. Since he has graciously befriended you, what difference does that—should that—make in how you approach your work, how you make your plans, how you handle your fears, how you manage your emotions and in an all-inclusive sense, how you do life? Obviously, it should make all the difference! As a reminder, write on a 3×5 card: God is my friend! Now for the next week, tape that card to your mirror so that you see every morning before you leave for the day and every evening before you go to sleep that God is for you.

Inseparable!

Reflect:
Romans 8:1-39

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35,38-39)

Thank God for Romans 8. It is chock full of encouraging theology that reminds us of the great and unstoppable effort God exerted to redeem us from sin, remake us into the image of Jesus, and ready us to fit into His eternal purposes. From among many other reasons, this is so encouraging because often, on the surface of things, it seems as if precisely the opposite of redeeming, remaking and readying us for glory both in this life and especially in the next is the farthest thing from what is actually happening.

You see, we live in a dual reality. While the work of God mentioned above is inexorably marching toward a glorious conclusion, we are still trapped in the sinful flesh, living in the sin-infested world, under the assault of the king of sin, Satan. Often our sense of reality is that sin—our sin, the world’s sin, the unrelenting pressure of the sin-maker—is dragging us in the opposite direction of our redemption.

But the greater reality is that while that may seem to be true, God is at work in you, working out His eternal purposes. And here is the good news: His work is unstoppable! Moreover, while you are living in that dual reality between the awful pull of sin and the unstoppable work of redemption, you are inseparable from the stubborn, persistent, irrevocable love of God.

Did you catch that twice in these verses Paul reminds us of this glorious truth—that between you and God’s love the only thing that stands is the word “inseparable”? What is it that can separate you from God’s ever-abiding, redeeming, providing, sustaining love? Nothing!

Within the category of “nothing” is a pretty exhaustive list of things that cannot come between you and God’s love: Trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, the sword; not even death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. I think that pretty much covers it, don’t you?

Yes, not even your sin—past, present and future—can come between you and God’s love. Christ Jesus made sure of that on the cross.

Inseparable!

“My life is a witness to vulgar grace—a grace that amazes as it offends…this vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try and find something or someone that it cannot cover. Grace is enough….” ~Brennan Manning

Reflect and Apply: Memorize Romans 8:32, “Since God did not spare even His own Son but gave Him up for us all—won’t God, who gave us Christ, also give us everything else?” Now meditate on how this verse is to be understood in light of your sinful past (Romans 8:1), your moral weaknesses (Romans 8:5-13), your spiritual identity (Romans 8:14-17), your circumstances, past and present (Romans 8:28), and Satan’s attempts to separate you from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).

Proof Of Love

Reflect:
Romans 5:8

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Romans 5:8 is one of the standard verses included in most Scripture memory systems. And what a verse it is! It conveys one of the most incredible truths in the entire Bible. But, like all popular verses that we tend to memorize apart from the larger context in which they are found, this one deserve to be understood in it’s broader story—which we find in Romans 5:1-11. In this passage, Paul, like a skilled lawyer, makes a powerful and persuasive theological argument, which in a nutshell, is described in Romans 5:1-2:

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”

What Paul is arguing is that we have peace with God, not just inner calm and serenity, but literally, the mutual hostility between God and man has ended because of God’s grace, his unmerited favor. That peace was unilaterally brokered through God’s love, which justified us—a once-and-for-all legal settlement—by Christ’s sacrificial death. And all we did was to accept God’s offer of peace through faith!

Now that was a mouthful. Maybe it seemed a little clunky and convoluted. Perhaps it was a little much to wrap you mind around. But after reading and reflecting on it over and over, I find that it is quite funny. Not funny in the sense of ridiculous—although getting credited with righteousness before God through Christ’s account is a pretty ridiculous equation. Not just funny in the sense of foolish—although the idea of being right with God apart from good works and human effort is the height of foolishness to the human mind. And not just funny in the sense of odd—although it is certainly odd that God would go to such great links to prove his love by loving that which was completely unlovable—as Romans 5:8 declares.

No, I’m talking funny in the sense that what God has done for you and me is so undeserved, and we are such unlikely candidates for his grace, that the only response we can rightly offer in return is to fall on our knees, undone by love, overflowing with gratitude and giddy with joy!

These first eleven verses are so amazingly profound that no commentary I or anyone else can offer will really do them justice. So I want to recommend that you simply read and re-read them until the Spirit who inspired them illuminates them to you in a fresh way and brings you into a true and deeper understanding of what it took to justify you, and what it means for you to stand in peace and grace in God’s presence.

I have a sense that when you really begin to understand this—although I’m not sure you will ever really and fully “get” what God has done for us—you will probably fall on your knees in inexplicable laughter, or dumbfounded silence or unrestrained tears—because all those responses are appropriate when you grasp even to the slightest degree the amazing grace and the deep love of God for you—and the incredible, ridiculous lengths he went to prove it.

If you are ever in one of those moments where you need proof of God’s love, just go back and look at the cross. I think you’ll find all the proof you need.

“Mercy for the sinner, help in the hardest place, everything for nothing, that is grace!” ~C.C. Beatty

Reflect & Apply: Meditate on Romans 5:1-11 once a day for the next seven days (you might want to use different versions on different days). Ask God to give you a fresh understanding of the richness of these verses.

Be A Uniter, Not A Divider

Today’s Reflection:

“Watch out for people who cause divisions…such people are not serving Christ our Lord; they are serving their own personal interests.” (Romans 16:17-18)

I strongly believe that job number one for every Christian as it relates to our personal responsibility in the church is to protect the unity of the fellowship. There is no greater effort to which one can expend his energy. Likewise, there is no greater sin than to be party to disharmony and division among God’s people.

Several sobering passages in Scripture stand as eternal warning signs to us not to enter this territory. One of the most sobering reminds us that to engage in such behavior is to incur the displeasure and anger of God, “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: …a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” (Proverbs 6:16-19)

Jesus reminded us that where disunity exists, destruction of the fellowship is not far behind, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Matthew 12:25)

Paul felt very strongly about disunity as well. Instructing his young protégé, Titus, in how he was to manage the local church, Paul said that division requires an immediate, consistent and aggressive response from church leadership, “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You can be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:10-11)

That’s how repugnant division and disunity is to God, and on the flip side, just how important unity and harmony is to him. In Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, our Lord interceded for his church before the Father, praying, “I pray for all who will believe in me…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:20-21)

Of all the things Jesus could have prayed for, he was most concerned about the unity of the church. And since it was that important to Jesus, we must allow it to become that important to us as well. We must be very alert to any attitudes and actions on our part, or on the part of others, that would lead to even the smallest crack in the unity of the fellowship to which we belong. We have no right to harm the unity for which Jesus bled and died to preserve.

In light of that, I would suggest a few things that will help you to become one of those true heroes of the faith who helps preserves the unity of the church:

One, realize most of the stuff which causes division really doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things. Paul told Titus, “avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels…these are unprofitable and useless.” (Titus 3:9) Most of the stuff that divides Christians just doesn’t matter. So just let it go.

Two, realize that there is more that unites us than divides us. We have so much common ground in Christ. If we would focus on that, our differences would be minimized and our common love for Christ would be magnified. Paul challenges us to “do the things that lead to harmony and promote peace in the church.” (Romans 14:9)

And three, get tough with those who selfishly push their own agenda at the expense of maintaining “the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace.” As Paul said, warn them once; even warn them a second time. Remind them that God hates disunity and detests the one who foments it. If they continue, if they are a chronic divider, Paul says to “mark them.” In other words, get tough, because the unity of your fellowship is more important than the feelings and wishes of some unhealthy, selfish, immature person who is willing to risk it to get their own way.

God loves unity. And God will bless you if you will love it too.

Something To Think About:

“Into the community you were called—the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren,
you reject the call of Jesus Christ.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Getting Your Name In Lights

Today’s Reflection:

“I commend to you Phoebe…she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.”   (Romans 16:1)

So who was Phoebe? We don’t really know, except that she was a deacon in the church in Cenchrea—which brings up a whole different matter about women deacons. I won’t go there for now, but, hey, the Bible sure does…

Anyway, we don’t know much about Phoebe, nor do we know a whole lot about the other people Paul names as he closes out the book of Romans—and there is quite a list.  And I want to make a important point about these names that is especially relevant to you.  Now you need to stay with me on this, because I want to first do something normally guaranteed to lose your interest—I want to list those names for you. But before I do, promise me that you’ll read each name on the list. You probably won’t be able to pronounce them correctly, but who cares! I can’t either.

Here they are: There’s Priscilla Aquila, Penetus, Mary, Andronicus, Junia, Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, Apelles, the household of Aristobulus, the household of Narcissus, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus and his mother, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and his fellow Christians, Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, Olympia and her Christian friends, Timothy, Lucias, Jason, Sosipater, Tertius, Gaius, Erastus, and last but not least, Quartus.

Whew! My spell-checker is smoking. I don’t think it will ever be the same again.

So what’s up with these names? Simply this: Paul, the great Apostle, the guy who deservedly gets his name in lights almost every Lord’s Day in churches around the world, knew very well that he couldn’t have done it without the help of his friends. If Paul were accepting an Oscar, he would be up there for minutes listing off all the people he’d like to thank—these names and many others he mentions in some of his other writings.

This great theologian who was largely responsible for the evangelization of the western world didn’t do it all by himself. He needed a little help from his friends in every city where he preached the gospel and planted a church. Though you will likely never hear a sermon or attend a Bible study where these names are given any mention, Paul gives them their props in the eternal Word of God.

The point is that it takes a team to do the work of the Kingdom. For sure, there are leading characters on the Kingdom team, but it’s still a team, mostly of unnamed, unsung heroes who are typically forgotten—except by God. God never forgets. He appreciates the contributions of each and every one—even the lesser lights. And he has stored up indescribable recognition and reward for them in the Kingdom to come. Paul’s mention of them here in the last chapter in Romans is a subtle reminder to us of their contribution to his efforts and of their value to God.

Maybe you are one of those unnamed, unsung heroes who goes unnoticed by everyone else, but your faithfulness is noticed by God. Perhaps you are a Phoebe to a Paul or a Patrobas to a Peter or a Junius to a John, and you wonder if you really matter. My response to you is, “Yes, you matter. We wouldn’t be effective in building God’s Kingdom without you! It takes a team—and no matter how you feel, you are an integral part of that team!”

Yet more important than my acknowledgement is God’s. He has written your name in a book too—one that’s even better than the book of Romans. It’s the Book of Life. And God himself will celebrate your name all eternity long. How’s that for recognition.

So just be faithful doing what you’re doing. Your day is coming!

Something To Think About:
“The world is moved not only by the mighty shoves of the heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.” ~Helen Keller

Christianity for Dummies

Today’s Reflection:

“Everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence. But by the free gift of God’s grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free.” (Romans 3:23,24)

So many people are overwhelmed by the complexity of religion. They’re intimidated by it, they don’t get it, they don’t want to talk about it—and even if they do, they just can’t wrap their brain around it to be able to string enough cogent thoughts together to carry on a stimulating conversation about it.

But that is absolutely not the case with true Christianity. I know, “true Christianity” is redundant, but I want to distinguish authentic faith from the junked up, messed up stuff that some misguided folks have turned our faith into. Christianity is simple—so simple, even a caveman can get it. God made sure of that. Here it is in a nutshell in Romans 3. The Apostle Paul, a master theologian who sometimes was not all that easy to grasp, probably foresaw the need for a “Christianity for Dummies”, so he simply, clearly and briefly spelled out the real condition of humankind, God’s offer of salvation, the essence of faith, and the core beliefs of Christianity in this chapter.

I would highly recommend, as a reaffirmation of your faith and as a great refresher for evangelism, that you go back and re-read Romans 3 in a modern translation, like The Message or The New Living Translation. You’ll be amazed at the profound simplicity of our Christian faith.

Or I can give you the Cliff’s Notes version:

1. The truth about you and me—Romans 3:3:9-12

Basically, all of us, whether insiders (Jews who have the Law) or outsiders (Gentiles who live as a law unto themselves), start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners. Scripture leaves no doubt about it: “There’s nobody living right, not even one, nobody who knows the score, nobody alert for God. They’ve all taken the wrong turn; they’ve all wandered down blind alleys. No one’s living right; I can’t find a single one.”

2. The bad news—Romans 3:20

“For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are,” i.e., we’ll never attain God’s favor in this life now or in the life to come by being good enough.

3. The good news—Romans 3:21-22

“But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him [without our futile effort to be good enough for God]. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.”

4. Say What?—Romans 3:23-24

“Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners and proved that we are utterly incapable of living up to the standards God demands of us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ dying on the cross to pay for our sins.”

5. How cool is Christianity—Romans 3:25

“God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world—you and me—to clear that world—you and me—of sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.”

That’s it! That’s the Good News—and that news really is good! Religion is complex; Christianity is simple. Religion is about what you have to do; Christianity is about what God has done! Religion requires you to sacrifice to appease your god; Christianity required God to sacrifice his Son to appease himself. In religion, you pay; in Christianity, Jesus paid it all. Religious faith is about works; Christian faith is about belief. Religion leads to death; Christianity leads to life.

Need I say more?

Now I’m not all that bright—on par with a caveman—but I think I’ll take Christianity! How ‘bout you?

Something To Consider:
“At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” ~Martin Luther

Romans 16: Friends

Read Romans 16:1-27

Friends

I commend to you Phoebe…she has been helpful
to many, and especially to me.
~Romans 16:1

Digging Deeper: So who was Phoebe?  We don’t really know, except that she was a deacon in the church in Cenchrea—which brings up a whole different matter about women deacons.  I won’t go there for now, but, hey, the Bible sure does…

Anyway, we don’t know much about Phoebe, or the other friends Paul names as he closes out the book of Romans.  Now, I want to do something normally guaranteed to lose your interest at this point—I want to list those names for you. But before I do, promise me that you’ll read through this entire list.  You probably won’t be able to pronounce the names correctly, but that’s okay, I can’t either.  I just read them really fast and with a lot of bravado, so when people hear me they think I must be an expert in ancient languages.  Try it—you’ll impress your friends.

So here they are: There’s Priscilla Aquila, Penetus, Mary, Andronicus, Junia, Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, Apelles, the household of Aristobulus, the household of Narcissus, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus and his mother, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and his fellow Christians, Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, Olympia and her Christian friends, Timothy, Lucias, Jason, Sosipater, Tertius, Gaius, Erastus, and last but not least, Quartus.

Whew!  My spell-checker is smoking.  I don’t think it will ever be the same again.

So what’s up with these names?  Simply this:  Paul, the great Apostle, the guy who deservedly gets his name in lights almost every Lord’s Day in churches around the world, knew very well that he couldn’t have done it without the help of his friends.  If Paul were accepting an Oscar, he would be up there for minutes listing off all the people he’d like to thank—these names and many others he mentions in some of his other writings.

This great theologian who was largely responsible for the evangelization of the western world didn’t do it all by himself.  He needed a little help from his friends in every city where he preached the gospel and/or planted a church.  Though you will likely never hear a sermon or attend a Bible study where these names are given any mention, Paul gives them their props in the eternal Word of God.

My point is, it takes a team to do the work of the Kingdom. For sure, there are leading characters on the Kingdom team, but it’s still a team, mostly of unnamed, unsung heroes who are typically forgotten—except by God.  God never forgets.  He appreciates the contributions of each and every one—even the lesser lights.  And he has stored up indescribable recognition and reward for them in the Kingdom to come.  And Paul’s mention of them here in the last chapter in Romans is a subtle reminder to us of their contribution to his efforts and of their value to God.

Maybe you are one of those unnamed, unsung heroes who goes unnoticed by everyone else.  But your faithfulness is noticed by God.  Perhaps you are a Phoebe to a Paul or a Patrobas to a Peter or a Junius to a John, and you wonder if you really matter.  My response to you is, “Yes, you matter.  We wouldn’t be effective in building God’s Kingdom without you!  It takes a team—and no matter how you feel, you are an integral part of that team!”

But more important than my acknowledgement is God’s.  He has written your name in a book too—one that’s even better than Romans.  It’s the Book of Life. And God himself will celebrate your name all eternity long.  How’s that for recognition.

So just be faithful doing what you’re doing.  Your day is coming!

“God has not called us to do great things, but
to do small things with great love.”
~Mother Teresa

 

This Weeks Assignment

Read: Romans 16:1-27

Memorize: Romans 16:17

“I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions
and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the
teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.”

For Your Consideration: Every church is made up of friends of Christ as well as enemies of the Gospel.  Even your church!  That may be hard for you to swallow, but it’s true.  Now rather than getting you riled up and ready to go on a witch hunt, here is what Paul would ask you to do:  First, take the time to express your gratitude to God for those true friends who make the Gospel possible in your church.  And not only thank God for them, thank them, too.  Second, simply and steadfastly stay alert to anyone that would cause a division in your fellowship.  Satan’s chief strategy to weaken your church is to divide it—and he usually begins with small, subtle cracks!  Don’t’ let him!