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The gospel is never bound.

When Paul was “quarantined” by prison, his ministry didn’t stop. He simply shifted his strategy, methods, and tools.

We’re doing the same thing right now at church: shifting our strategy, methods, and tools. We can’t use one of our tools (our building) right now. But Social Media, Zoom Meetings, and phone calls are still working just fine.

And like Paul, our message will never change.

Don’t lose heart. This temporary pause — this “momentary affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17–18) — will end. We will meet together “in-person” again. In the meantime, we will continue being the church.

  • Pray for each other.
  • Pray for our church.
  • Pray for our country and its leaders. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
  • Call and text each other. Encourage each other. Pray with each other.
  • Invite your family and friends to join us for our online Bible studies.
  • Invite your family and friends to join us for our online Sunday Morning Messages.
  • Listen to and sing along with worship music.
  • Keep up with your Daily Bible Reading and Devotional readings.
  • Keep up with your monthly Scripture Memory.
  • Remember to be thankful.
  • Continue your financial support for our church. You can send your giving checks to the church or if you’re out, just drop an envelope in our locked mailbox.
Pure and undefiled religion

I’m glad the Navigators (the organization that designed our Daily Bible Reading Plan) placed the readings from James to follow Galatians. Some — even Reformer Martin Luther — don’t like James. But this is a good way to show the balance between faith and good deeds.

In today’s Bible reading, James concludes the first chapter talking about pure, wholesome religion. Many consider themselves to be “religious”. Others consider themselves to be “spiritual, but not religious”. Others simply say they aren’t religious, they just love the Lord.

In James’ day, some would claim to be very religious. They were devout. They were very dedicated in their faith. Some described pure and undefiled religion as social justice: taking care of the disenfranchised, the destitute, the marginalized. Others claimed to be religious and defined pure and undefiled religion as separation from the world. We see the same extremes in our day.

So which is it? Should religion aim for social justice? Or should religion aim for separation from all things “worldly”?

Application

James says that pure and undefiled religion is both social justice and godliness. The two are not mutually exclusive. Rather they are mutually inclusive.

Look around and you’ll see some churches emphasizing liberal causes. Others emphasize conservative causes, separation, and holiness.

Why can’t we just take the Bible as it reads? Why do we tend to read only the parts that agree with our personal and political agenda? The political and religious divide in our nation is very wide. If we want to see healing, we will have to read the whole Bible, in its context and try to apply it to our context. We have to let the Bible speak for itself without imposing our agenda on it and reading it accordingly. But why can’t we do that? It’s because we are all fallen creatures who have inherited a propensity, a proclivity, a bent toward ourselves and away from God. Our default setting is disobedience and rebellion from God. Until we cross over to the other side of eternity, we will continue dealing with the struggle between doing what we want and doing what God wants. We are involved in spiritual warfare.

Both extremes are wrong when taken alone. Instead, we should aim at glorifying God by reaching out in social justice AND live a holy, God-pleasing life.

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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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We finish reading through Acts with today’s Bible reading. We find Paul and his companions shipwrecked on the island of Malta. To keep the prisoners from swimming to shore and escaping, the soldiers considered killing the prisoners, but the Centurion wanted to save Paul.  Everyone survived; even those who couldn’t swim made it to shore by holding onto parts of the ship.

The people of Malta welcome the survivors and built a fire so they could warm themselves. Paul collected a stack of sticks to add to the fire. A venomous snake latched onto Paul’s hand. The Maltese believed that Paul was guilty of some kind of heinous crime and the snake bite was his punishment. But Paul shook off the snake and didn’t swell up; he didn’t suffer any ill effects from the bite so the people believed he survived because he was a god.

The chief man on the island was Publius. His father was suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul visited Publius’ father and miraculously, instantaneously healed him. Dr. Luke then tells us that others on the island brought their sick relatives and they were cured.

Dr. Luke’s description of what happened is very important for us. He distinguishes between the instantaneous, miraculous healing performed by the Apostle and the curing that he did as a physician. The Greek word Dr. Luke employed is the basis of our English word, therapy.

Application

The strong application from this story is that when we are sick, we should seek God’s healing. We should also seek medical help if God sovereignly chooses to not heal in a miraculous way. Many Believers choose to only pray, believing that God is obligated to heal His children. Many Believers choose only seeking medical help because they don’t believe that God heals in miracles anymore.

Both of these extreme positions are wrong. Nowhere do the Scriptures tell us that God will cease using miracles. So we can assume that we should pray for God to miraculously intervein. At the same time, God has given us foods and medicines as well as medical professionals who can use these to bring about therapy for restored health.

There should be no shame for seeking a miracle. And there should there be no shame for seeking medical help. If a doctor prescribes medicine or medical devices, take them and thank God for His provisions.

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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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1 2 3 8

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