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John the Baptizer preaches at the Jordan River

In today’s Bible reading we fast forward a few years and Jesus and His cousin John (the Baptizer) are about thirty years old. John steps into the Jordan River and preaches that people should repent of their sins and be baptized.

By today’s standards, John was a very politically-incorrect preacher. Nowhere do we hear him talk about self-esteem. Nowhere do we hear him say that God loves everyone and has a wonderful plan for them. Nowhere do we hear him talk about God’s grace and mercy. Nowhere do we hear him talk about how God wants you to have health and wealth if you would only have enough faith. Nowhere does he apologize for offending his hearers. .

No, John simply preaches the Law. He preaches the bad news that people are sinners and in need of forgiveness. Sinners? Surely not! Where is the gospel, the good news?

Recent conversations with Facebook friends have revealed to me the massive divide between what I believe the Bible teaches and what they believe. For these friends, our deepest need is to be saved from not being good stewards of our planet. To be Christlike is to be more loving and accepting, and less judgmental of others. There is no mention of the word or even the concept of sin as described in the Bible. There was no admission of guilt for any sin on their part. Sin is a problem other, less tolerant people must deal with. These were people who were raised in the church. And today, they are leaders in mainline churches.

Until people hear and understand their helpless, fallen condition (the bad news), they won’t have a desire for deliverance from that condition (the good news). Look back at our earlier readings from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. He begins with the bad news.

Look at the response of John’s audience in Luke 3:10, 12, 14. The exclaim, “What shall we do?” The Philippian Jailer asked the same question in Acts 16:30.

It isn’t until Romans Chapter 8 that Paul says that there is no condemnation for believers. (Romans 8:1) From that statement, Paul strongly implies that non-believers are still very much under God’s judgment.

Application

Have you come to a point in your life where you realized that in light of God’s holiness, you have absolutely no claim to spending eternity with Him, much less walking with Him on this side of eternity? You may be better than many (or most) other people, but how do you compare with Jesus, the perfect man who was tempted just like we are, yet was without sin? (Hebrews 4:15)

I’m not just asking if you have sinned. Everyone (except Jesus) sins. I’m asking if you have ever come to God and confessed that you have offended your Creator and that you have an issue with a sin condition that separates you from His holiness?

If you haven’t come to grips with that question, I invite you to call, text, or email me. I’d love to help you make the best decision of your life!

This devotional was originally published June 29, 2019.

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BSA Citizenship in the World Merit Badge

Taxes. Laws. Government Officials. Law Enforcement Officials. What do these have in common? Like them or not, they’re all part of Citizenship in the United States of America.

Believers are citizens of two kingdoms. In today’s Bible reading, Paul asserts that a believer living with a Kingdom of God mindset will be a good citizen of the world in which he/she lives.

Paul says, “Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God.” Romans 13:1 (CSB)

Yes, obeying the inconvenient traffic laws, honoring and praying for government officials from the “other” political party, even paying your income taxes. All of these will mark a child of God who lives with a Kingdom of God mindset. Why? Because it’s an expression of Christlikeness. (Romans 13:14)

I remember walking into an IRS audit (my only one). I had heard horror stories. I knew I had been honest in reporting my income and deductions. And yet, I was still nervous. There was a red flag, but not a violation. After reviewing my paperwork, the IRS agent told me that I was “in compliance”. When I asked what that meant, she replied, “It’s all good.” I asked her how often says that to people under audit. She replied, “Let’s just say that we earn our money.” Ouch!

Application

Being a good citizen in the Kingdom of God doesn’t mean that I’m not involved as a citizen of the USA. In fact, my Kingdom of God citizenship informs my US Citizenship. It affects how I vote. It affects how I pray. It affects how I interact with the police officer when he pulls me over. It affects how I respond to the Red Light Camera citation in my mailbox.

Look, I’m not perfect. I struggle with laws (eg, Red Light Cameras) I don’t like. And when called to account, I paid the fine. I didn’t want to. I feel they’re unconstitutional (you can’t face your “accuser” in court). But as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, I had to suck it up and write the check for the fine.

There are speed zones I don’t agree with. There are politicians I don’t agree with. But being a good citizen in the Kingdom of God will influence my citizenship in the United States of America.

And if you’re a believer, you’re a citizen of two kingdoms. As a child of God, you’re called to be a good citizen of both. Doing so is a reflection of Christlikeness.

This devotional was originally published May 31, 2019.

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large prayer gathering

Today is the National Day of Prayer. Because of social distancing, this year’s observance will be very different than those in the past. Normally, churches and communities will gather for a worship service, a prayer breakfast, or a prayer service. Oftentimes, local politicians are invited to pray — or to be prayed over — during this time. For the national observance, popular Christian artists will perform for large crowds and popular Christian leaders will be asked to speak.

I’m not sure how much prayer actually happens at these events. In the events I’ve organized, I tried to make our time very prayer-centered rather than preacher-centered or church-centered. We used public forums to avoid the accusation that this was a “Baptist Thing” or even a specific church thing. We invited all churches and individuals to participate, per the National Day of Prayer’s guidelines. We tried to center the event on praying for the seven mountains/spheres of influence in America: Family, Religion, Education, Government, Media/Communication, Celebration (Arts, Entertainment, Sport), and Economics (Business, Science, Technology).

But what about Jesus’ statements where Jesus told His Disciples to not pray in public? (Matthew 6:5–8) A college friend of mine and I have had some heated disagreements on the application of this passage to the National Day of Prayer. He says that Jesus said Believers shouldn’t pray in public. My contention is that Jesus isn’t condemning the public display of prayer, but rather publicly praying for the purpose of being recognized and being applauded for doing so. Jesus’ emphasis is on the heart, the motivation for praying in public. He says the same for publicly giving to the poor and publicly fasting. His point is that if you’re only in it for the public recognition and public applause, that’s all you’ll get. If instead, you’re looking for the recognition and applause from your Father, then pray in secret, give in secret, and fast in secret.

So in the future on the National Day of Prayer — or the next time you go to church for that matter — consider your heart. Are you going to an event to be seen? Are you going to an event to be recognized? Are you going to an event in order that people will know how committed to prayer you are? Then be careful! If you’re wanting the applause of people, that’s all you’ll get. But if you want God to hear your prayers, pray in secret. Sure, pray in public, but don’t let all of your prayers be heard in public.

God’s more interested in your heart, not your public display of your faith.

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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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Paul asks if it's legal to flog an uncondemned Roman citizen.

In today’s Bible reading, we see Paul being stretched out to be flogged by the Romans. They want to know why the crowds are shouting against him. (Acts 22:24)

Paul asks the Centurion if it’s legal to flog an uncondemned Roman citizen. Uh-oh! They both know the answer to that question. The Centurion quickly tells the Commander, who asks if Paul is a citizen. Paul tells him that he was born a Roman citizen. Immediately, the Commander panics because he’s the one who put Paul in chains to be flogged. His life is on the line now!

This is a pivotal moment in Paul’s timeline. The Romans know that Paul is a Roman citizen, with all of the rights and privileges. If anything happens to Paul, the Centurion and the Commander will have to answer for it.

Application

Paul is a citizen of both the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of God. Being a Roman Citizen opens doors for Paul, including giving him rights that the common person didn’t possess. And Paul took advantage of that in Acts 22 and following. As we continue through the book of Acts, we’ll see that Paul uses his Roman citizenship to appeal to Caesar against the claims of the Jewish leaders who are calling for his head. Exercising those rights will give him an audience with many very important people.

But Paul is also a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Throughout the book of Acts, and throughout his letters to the churches, Paul exercises the rights of this citizenship to call for the assistance of the King to open doors and hearts for ministry. God has given every Believer the same access to Himself through prayer that Paul had.

Don’t hesitate to exercise your citizenship rights.

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