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Heaven

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I will probably upset someone with this devotional based on today’s Bible reading. It’s because I don’t share the most popular view of eschatology. As a result, I see this passage very differently than many people. But we need to seek to understand and apply the Bible according to the Bible and not according to popular theology and popular Bible teachers. The majority can sometimes be wrong.

I recently got into a text discussion with a friend over this very topic, eschatology, the study of the End Times. It’s the only view that many Christians have ever been exposed to. The popular view of today’s passage looks to the future for the fulfillment of Jesus’ words, often with an America-centric slant. The popular view sees all of this passage as being in the future. But is this Jesus’ focus?

If you read Matthew 24, Jesus appears to deliver the entire chapter in one speech. In other words, look at the passage as a whole to seek to understand what Jesus is saying. He begins with a prophecy that the Temple will be destroyed. Next, He describes signs of the end of the age. The next three sections in the chapter deal with Jesus’ Second Coming, concluding with a strong statement that no one will know the day or the hour.

Obviously, the destruction of the Temple isn’t in the future; it happened in AD 70 with the fall of Jerusalem. But the rest from Matthew 24:3 could have happened in the past, are now happening, or will happen in the future. Is Jesus giving us a step-by-step description to guide our worldview? Or is He simply giving us a “watch for these signs and be alert” warning?

I believe He’s giving us a warning to watch and be alert rather than a timetable. The central application point is Matthew 24:12-14.

And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Matthew 24:12–14 (ESV)

Application

Jesus couldn’t be more clear that the timing of His return is unknowable. So why do so many seem to be obsessed with when He will return? Shouldn’t we instead be faithful with proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom (v. 14) and stay alert (v. 42, 44, 46), faithfully loving and serving Him?

If you tend to focus on the timing, step back a bit and look at the passage as a whole. Look at the book of Revelation as a whole. You’ll find that our call is to make sure we’ve been saved (had a conversion experience) and that we will be saved in the end (ultimate salvation for those who endure and not fall away) as well as to bring as many to heaven as we can.

Make sure that your love for Him and His people doesn’t grow cold. (Matthew 24:12) Be faithful today. Be obedient today. Be watching today. Get to know and love God better today. Live to God’s glory today. Sure, watch for the signs. But concentrate on growing deeper in your relationship with Him today.

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In addition to reviewing the once-for-all sacrifice Jesus gave for our atonement, today’s Bible reading includes one of the most compelling arguments for being regularly involved in a local church.

As a pastor, I often hear excuses from people who have no interest in going to church. One of the most popular arguments is that they can attend church online. True, you can watch any number of Bible teachers and preachers online and on TV. Some are better than others.

Honestly, you can get a lot of good Bible teaching online and on TV. But instruction and music aren’t the only reasons we go to church in the first place.

Application

Let’s go back to why we meet as churches to begin with. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us in today’s Bible reading that we shouldn’t neglect meeting together. Why? So that we can “stir up each other to love and good works” and encourage each other. (Hebrews 10:24-25) We all need to be encouraged. We all need to be stirred up to love and good works. All of us.

I don’t care how good the preacher or Bible teacher is. You can’t be stirred up to love and good works and you can’t be encouraged with an online church experience, compared with an in-person church experience.

Besides, when you watch church on TV, you may not be watching a live-stream of a real worship service. Christian TV and radio ministries often heavily edit the content of their programs to meet time constraints. Instead of “watching church”, you may be watching a pre-packaged, edited production. I admit, before posting the audio of my sermons online, I run it through software to remove long pauses and then I remove coughs, sneezes, etc. But otherwise, I very rarely make any other kinds of edits.

Do I believe someone will be denied heaven because they don’t go to church? Of course not! There are times and seasons when it’s nearly impossible to get out of bed on Sunday Morning, much less to get dressed and make it to church. And there are times when you or people around you aren’t well and need to stay home.

But one thing you don’t need to do is to try to make excuses. If you are well — and sometimes when you aren’t well! — you need to be in church on a regular basis. You simply won’t be equipped for the work of your own personal ministry without it. Also, if you aren’t there, your fellow church members won’t benefit from the spiritual gifts that God has given to you to use in your church. So for your benefit and for the benefit of your church, you need to be there regularly.

As I type this, state and county Emergency Management Officials are doing something they’ve never done before. They are canceling all meetings and activities where there will be lots of people in attendance and in close proximity. This includes area churches and school districts. As a consequence of their unprecedented decisions, church leaders are having to make difficult decisions in light of the Covad-19 global pandemic. I live in Tarrant County (Fort Worth) Texas. Both Tarrant and Dallas Counties currently have “community spread” cases of Covad-19. In other words, people who have not traveled out of the country and who have not had contact with people who have traveled are testing positive for the virus. I pastor in the next county (Parker County) to the West of Tarrant County. As of right now, no one has canceled mass gatherings in our county. But I’m sure we will have to make decisions in the coming days as the virus continues to spread. Pray for us. Pray for people in our community. Pray for God to stop the spread of the virus. This is no time to panic. And this is no time to be calloused to those in our communities with fragile medical conditions.

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Stephen is martyred

Preachers are always concerned about how their sermons will be received. We agonize over the Biblical text, wanting so much to be true to what God says. We want our hearers to receive the Word as good soil. (Matthew 13:23)

In today’s Bible reading, Stephen (one of the Seven who were chosen to serve tables) recounts the history of the people of Israel, the physical children of Abraham. He begins with God’s call to Abraham to leave everything familiar to him to go to a land he didn’t know about. The trip would take a couple of months, traveling up to twenty miles a day with his family, his servants, and his livestock. Stephen continues through Moses’ call to lead the Hebrew people out of their slavery in Egypt. So far, so good. Finally, he quotes Isaiah 66:1-2 and then makes his application:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7:51–53 ESV)

Now, if a preacher was trying to attract new convert with a “seeker-sensitive” sermon, he definitely wouldn’t have concluded his message with those three verses!

But Stephen was true to God’s Word. He applied it to his hearers in such a way that they stoned him to death. They understood his message. They rejected his message. So Stephen became the first Christian martyr.

Application

The Greek word for martyr means “witness”. Stephen was a witness and shared the Good News with these religious leaders. But before you can get to the Good News, must understand the implications of the Bad News. And that makes the Good News all the more attractive. Unfortunately, much of modern preaching and evangelism overlooks the Bad News and its implications. Instead, it offers an incomplete Good News message and cheap grace without the mention of sin and our need of repentance.

We (all of us, not just the ordained, but also the ordinary) need to follow Stephen’s example and be willing to be the witness/martyr that he was. Stephen was unfazed as his audience picked up stones to kill him. He continued to bear witness to the glories of heaven.

Being a witness for Jesus may cost your life. But isn’t that what we’re called to do? A call to salvation is a call to come and die. (Luke 9:23)

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Image source: Sweet Publishing/FreeBibleimages.org

How do you respond when someone says, “I have good news and I have bad news”? Several times in today’s Bible reading, Jesus does just that.

He talks about the Last Days and His return. In the way He describes things, it would be very easy to be anxious. But that’s not why He tells His Disciples about the end times. Instead, He gives them this information so they would be encouraged. As they see things happen in the future, instead of being anxious, they should be encouraged, knowing that the end and Jesus’ return is coming soon.

Note: The “End Times” isn’t something that will happen sometime in the future only. When Bible teachers talk about “the End Times”, they’re talking about the time that began when Jesus arrived preaching His good news. In other words, we are in the “End Times” now. Yes, we are closer to the end than when the church was birthed in Acts 2, but we have been in the “End Times” for almost two thousand years. We are in an overlap of this Present Age and the Age to Come. A time of “already, but not yet”. Some of the things Jesus prophesied have already been fulfilled, such as the fall of Jerusalem that occurred in AD 70 and prophesied in today’s reading. (Mark 13:2) But Jesus hasn’t yet returned in all of His glory to take His bride — Believers — to her eternal home with Him. 26-27)

Application

Are you ready for Jesus’ return? What does it mean to be ready? It means to live with an expectancy that Jesus will come soon. It means to live an obedient life, telling other people how they, too can have an eternal hope.

Several times in the Gospels, Jesus tells His Disciples — and us — that we should always be ready because no one knows when He will return. Even He doesn’t know when His Father tells Him to bring His children home. If you’re one of His children, He will come for you, so you want to make sure that you’re always ready.

As we continue reading through the Gospels and Revelation during this year, it’s important to see Jesus’ warnings as both good news and bad news.

Spend some time today thanking God that He has a plan to bring His chidren home to live with Him for eternity.

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We finish our reading through the New Testament with today’s Bible reading. John describes heaven as the Garden of Eden revisited, with only the Tree of Life, not the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. What was lost in the Garden of Eden has been remade in the new beautiful City of heaven. Where Adam walked with God in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, God’s people will once again see Him face to face.

Having seen and described what he saw, John hears an angel tell him what must soon take place. The angel told John the same thing in Revelation 1:1-3. Over and over, Jesus tells John that He is coming soon. God’s people are to remain close and clean. It’s a good reminder for John. And for us.

Both the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”
Let anyone who hears, say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come.
Let the one who desires take the water of life freely.

Revelation 22:17 (CSB)

Application

Both God and the church invite anyone who would come. No one will be admitted into heaven who doesn’t want to be there. There is a universal offer. And everyone who comes will be welcomed in. The water of life is free for the taking for anyone who is thirsty.

Yes, there’s a universal offer, but God is not a universalist. No one will be made to drink. Only the thirsty will come. Only those who are drawn will come. And all who come will come through Jesus alone.

As you have read through Revelation, I hope you found comfort and assurance that God is in control. If not, I hope you have been confronted by God’s Word and made adjustments accordingly.

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