Category Archives: Devotional

Why Christmas?

There are several ways Christians view the Christmas season. Some go at it with reckless abandon – house full of lights, presents galore, fridge full of eggnog, Bing Crosby and The Carpenters blaring on the radio. Others shun it altogether, citing it as unbiblical, or even pagan. Many are somewhere in between, feeling confused, wanting to be faithful but wondering what to make of this time of year. I suppose my family falls into this latter category. Like most Christians around the globe we observe the holiday, but struggle to find the best way to do so. How much emphasis on the decorations, or the presents? How do we rightly instruct the children? Is all of this really necessary? Certainly, there are excesses this time of year, yet also a lot to celebrate. So … what do we do about it?

Well, this post isn’t about whether or not Christmas is pagan (that will be another post). And it’s not to preach a definite “do this” or “don’t do that” regarding presents and trees and such. Rather, my goal is to lay out some basic principles – or, better, emphases – to guide us during this season.

Adoration of the Magi (1632) - Rembrandt.  public domain

Adoration of the Magi (1632) – Rembrandt. public domain

Number One: celebrate the coming of the promised Messiah

Try to forget, for a moment, cute children singing “Happy Birthday Jesus.” That’s most certainly not the point of Christmas. There’s a much more edifying way to look at it. Think of it this way: there was a time in history before Christ. Yes, of course, but what does that mean? For the Jews, he was the long promised fulfillment of dozens of ancient prophecies. They longed for his coming, spending time in a lengthy exile and under foreign subjugation in their own land. For me, as a Gentile, it also means a whole lot. Prior to his coming there was no redemption, no hope of eternal life, no giving of the Holy Spirit. There were no Gospels instructing us about God’s ways. There was only hopelessness, the fearful truth that death would come, but without a sure knowledge of what would come afterward.

Jesus changed everything. His entrance into the world was epoch-making. If he hadn’t come, I would be doomed. Because he did come, I’m saved. “But I’m a Gentile!”  “Yes, but now you’re mine too.”

That’s why I celebrate this time of year. Yes, we should also remember his resurrection and long for his return. But that doesn’t mean we cannot have a time when his first coming is celebrated. This coming – or Advent – demands our primary focus. It’s a time to reflect on our own blessings, as well as point others to the purpose behind his advent.

Number Two: don’t be too distracted

There is a yearly tendency to get wrapped up, so to speak, in all of the hustle and bustle of the season itself. Lots of gifts to buy, decorations to put up, travel plans to make, dinners to cook. None of these in and of themselves are wrong. However, they can become problematic if our focus is taken off Christ. If that occurs, the whole holiday is just an end-of-the-year party, devoid of any spiritual merit. How easily this happens! My advice (and this includes myself) is to know thyself. Take a daily inventory of where you’ve focused time and energy. Know when the season threatens to steal your true joy. Make it a point to meditate on Scripture, particularly those relating to salvation in Christ. And direct your children consistently to those same vital truths.

Number Three: don’t spend too much time fretting over what Christmas has “become”

Yes, Christmas is over-commercialized. This has been going on for many decades. Charlie Brown even lamented this in the 1960’s. The fact is that Christmas to the world is completely secular. It’s all about being with family, sharing gifts, Santa, and hoping for snow. But instead allowing this lack of spiritual focus to annoy us, it should remind us to pray, and to use every opportunity to engage the culture with the truth. The irony of Christmas is that most people reject the very one in whose name they celebrate. Our task is to show them what they’re missing. We can also pray that while they sing or record some of the traditional carols, some of those biblical lyrics will lead them to think about him of whom they sing.

Christ by highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the incarnate deity,
Pleased as Man with Man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today.

For lo the days are hastening on
By prophets seen of old
When with the ever circling years
Shall come the time foretold
When the new heaven and earth
Shall own the prince of peace
Their King
And the whole world
Send back the song
Which now the angels sing

[In order, Hark the Herald Angels Sing (verse 2); O Little Town of Bethlehem (verse 4); It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (verse 4)]

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What is the significance of the 153 fish in John 21:11?

“So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them.  And although there were so many, the net was not torn.” John 21:11 (ESV)

Konrad_Witz_–_Petri_fiskafänge

Konrad Witz – Petri Fiskafänge (1444, public domain)

One of the interesting aspects of Scripture is its use of numbers.  Certain digits in particular seem to repeat often.  For example, the number 40 (number of days it rained during the deluge; years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness; days Jesus fasted in the desert) and the number 12 (tribes of Israel; number of Jesus’ disciples) show up several times.  So there is good reason to see a pattern.  Why certain numbers have more significance than others is a bit of a mystery.  For the present discussion, I want to address how we view certain numbers when they show up in the text.  More specifically, is there a hidden meaning behind certain numbers, which yield extra knowledge of God and his ways?  With this question in mind, I want to explore an important event at the end of John’s Gospel.

In John 21:1-14 we learn about the third appearance of the post-resurrection Jesus to his disciples.  There were seven present, and they had been fishing all night with no results.  Toward morning a voice calls out to them from the shore asking if they caught anything.  Getting a negative answer, the man says to cast the net on the right side of the boat.  They do as instructed and the catch is so large that they can barely pull it out of the water.  John recognizes the voice now.  It’s Jesus.  Peter jumps into the water to meet him.  Jesus has a fire prepared on shore and invites them to eat.  When the boat comes ashore the catch is counted – 153 fish.  Amazingly, the net is intact.  Jesus and his disciple eat bread and fish together.

A search of the internet of this passage will yield multiple interpretations of the real meaning behind the 153 fish.  You’ll find references to Pythagorean theorum, cubed numbers, prime numbers, the total number of people helped by Jesus in the NT, and other even more esoteric meanings.  What you won’t find is any consensus.  But why would the meaning be hidden to us for over 2,000 years?  If it has a deeper significance, no one can be faulted for searching it out.  Wouldn’t God want us to know about it?  The problem is that no one seems to have the key to interpreting the number.  And we love our mysterious, cryptic codes just waiting to broken!  But the question remains: Should we be searching for the deeper meaning of the number, or is there a simpler explanation?

The most obvious and straightforward interpretation of the 153 fish, is that it is meant to serve as an evidence that it truly was a large number of fish caught.  Furthermore, John emphasizes that even with such a catch, the net wasn’t broken.  We can rephrase it this way: “It was a very big catch.  You want proof?  I was there when we counted them – 153 fish!  And get this – the net survived unscathed!”  The event also demonstrated to the disciples that this was Jesus, and not some imposter.  The huge catch, the unbroken net, the timing of it; these all worked together to demonstrate that a miracle had just taken place.  That’s it.  No reason to follow rabbit trails to Wonderland.

I should point out that one can find additional significance in the passage.  For example, when Jesus called his disciples, he said that he would make them fishers of men.  It is legitimate to see a correlation to the large number of fish in this passage, and the large number of human converts they would soon be ‘catching’.  Therefore, the miracle could also be viewed as an object lesson of the soon to be realized spiritual awakening.  Reading the text this way is legitimate and beneficial, whereas seeking the hidden meaning behind a number benefits us none.  God desires us to be strengthened in faith and love.  Yet the various methods I’ve read attempting to explain the number 153 can hardly be said to help any of God’s children in the way he wants. The myriad interpretations of the catching of the 153 fish serve as a great reminder why we must not look for hidden messages in the Scriptures.  Doing so can lead us astray of the intended, plain meaning of the text.  God’s message in his word is clear.  He knows that we are but dumb sheep, easily led astray by false shepherds.  He isn’t going to make it harder by expecting us to treat his word like a puzzle waiting to be solved.  I’m not saying there aren’t difficult passages.  But these are in the minority.  The vast majority of the Bible is plain, and can be understood by using a solid translation and grasping the context and the literary genre.

In conclusion, we must use caution when reading the Bible.  We have a tendency to look for the hidden things, mysteries, and codes to break.  And we like to share our latest findings, to be the first to find what no one else has been able to locate (I’m not above committing this error myself).  But doing so puts us more in line with the interpretative methods of the Gnostics and the Kabbalists, rather than the most faithful Christian interpreters throughout history.  Therefore, let us rightly divide the word of truth, laying aside our appetites for secret knowledge

 

 

 

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A Puritan Prayer

I just read this today.  Sometimes its good to meditate on the words and prayers of others, of those whose heads are filled with Scripture, whose hearts are warmed by God’s Spirit.

Revive deep spirituality in my heart; let me live near to the great
shepherd, hear his voice, know its tones, follow its calls.

Keep me from deception by causing me to abide in the truth, from harm
by helping me to walk in the power of the Spirit.

Give me intenser faith in the eternal verities, burning into me by
experience the things I know;

Let me never be ashamed of the truth of the gospel, that I may bear its
reproach, vindicate it, see Jesus as its essence, know in it the power of the
Spirit.

Lord, help me, for I am often lukewarm and chill; unbelief mars my
confidence, sin makes me forget thee.

Let the weeds that grow in my soul be cut at their roots; grant me to
know that I truly live only when I live to thee, that all else is trifling.

Thy presence alone can make me holy, devout, strong and happy.

Abide in me, gracious God.

Taken from The Valley of Vision, p. 129

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The Kindness of the Lord

“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:4

A common understanding of God’s kindness toward us is to assume that it means we are in God’s favor.  To put it another way:

Things are going well for me = God is blessing me and therefore must approve of my life

Many times I’ve heard people say something to this effect.  Even though any number of them were dealing with unrepentant sins of various kinds, each assumed that life was going too well to be outside of God’s favor.  After all, if God didn’t approve of their choices and lifestyle, surely he would have done something to make that known.  And this isn’t a new idea.  This kind of thinking permeates us all by nature, and is even found demonstrated throughout Scripture.  Job dealt with it when his friends insisted that he must be out of God’s favor because of something he had done, even though he hadn’t.  And Jesus corrected those who said that God caused a man born blind because of either his own sin or that of his parents.  It was neither.  In both cases the assumption was, “well, if you had been living right, this wouldn’t have happened to you.”  It could be put this way:

Things are going bad for me = God is making life hard for me and therefore must disapprove of my life

It is true that God will sometimes get our attention by bringing some type of calamity into our lives.  The problem is when we automatically assume that a hardship is because of sin.  Nowhere does Scripture state that this is necessarily the case.  There can be any number of reasons for difficulties, and sometimes the reason simply isn’t revealed to us.

But what of the kindness of God?  Is it true that having things go our way means we are in His favor?  According to Scripture, the answer is “no.”  In fact, in many cases the opposite is true.  When God graces us with good gifts – houses, clothing, jobs, successes, etc. – the purpose is to recognize that these things are from God, undeserved, and given with the intention of leading us to Him.  We can put it this way:

Things are going well for me = God is good to me, and patient with me, in order to lead me to repentance

But we must also discuss where this all leads.  There will be a reckoning for sin.  Just after Paul writes of the purpose for God’s kindness, he states this:

“But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” Romans 2:5

A couple of sobering truths to note: (1) the reason we tend to ignore the purposes behind our good fortunes is because our hearts are “hard and impenitent.” (2) there will be a day of wrath for our sins.  The more we ignore God’s kindness now, the more future wrath we “store up.”

We cannot presume upon God’s kindness toward us.  He is patient with us “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (1 Peter 3:9b).  May God grant our eyes opened, and our ears attentive to his word, that we might all direct our hearts toward his means of escaping judgment, namely, Jesus Christ.  The most well-known Bible verse in the world clearly defines God’s love, what we must do, and the consequences of either decision.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only unique Son,  that everyone who believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16

 

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Avoiding “The Great Imposter”

About ten years ago I was positively affected by a short article by Mart De Haan of RBC Ministries, called “the Great Imposter.”  In it he noted how subtle pride can be and then went on to list the many ways it can rear its ugly head.  An updated version of the article can be read at his blog here.  I’ve listed below some of his “prides” to avoid.  But beware, some of them sting.

Self-defeating pride– On a good day, it keeps us from thinking that we need to do anything differently. When trouble comes, we don’t want people to think we’re changing our ways just because we’re in trouble.

Wounded Pride The pride that prompts us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think can also fill us with self-contempt when we don’t live up to our own expectations.

Fearful Pride The ego that causes us to be overly competitive on some occasions can also keep us from trying at all in other situations. Sometimes pride makes us willing to win at the expense of others. Sometimes it causes us to avoid the embarrassment of possible failure.

Uninhibited Pride The pride that causes us to be meticulous with our appearance can also cause us not to care what others think of us.

Self-deceiving Pride The pride that causes us to call attention to other people’s mistakes can lead us to believe we don’t have any reason to be critical of ourselves.

Procrastinating Pride The arrogance that causes us to think we can change anytime we want can keep us from ever changing at all.

Uncaring Pride The conceit that allows us to be preoccupied with our own problems can also help us to be oblivious to the pain of others.

Sulking Pride The pride that keeps us from asking others for help can also cause us to sulk when others are not “there for us.”

Self-introducing Pride Sometimes to admit pride seems fatal. At other times, saying that we know we are proud is a way of saying we think we have something to be proud about.

Self-berating Pride The pride that keeps us from admitting we’re wrong can also lead to self-berating behavior that helps us avoid being corrected by others.

Pious Pride The pride that causes us to be prayerless in our personal life can also prompt us to pray with crowd-pleasing eloquence in public settings.

Overly-talkative Pride The survival instinct that prompts us to be silent about what is really happening in us can also cause us to dominate conversations and relationships when we don’t want others asking questions.

Slacker Pride The self-sufficiency that drives workaholics to try to make themselves indispensable can also cause a lazy person to assume that he can be a slacker without consequences.

Tearful Pride The conceit that causes us to disregard the feelings of others can also cause us to use tears to play on the emotions of others when we want something.

Quiet Pride The self-interest that causes us to parade our success can also prompt us not to admit our failures.

Contrite Pride The self-absorption that allows us to protect ourselves at others’ expense can also prompt us to think we deserve forgiveness once we’ve admitted our wrongs.

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Saved, To Sin No More

At church this past Sunday we sang the classic William Cowper hymn, There is a Fountain Filled With Blood.  For anyone not familiar with Cowper’s story, it’s a powerful testimony of God’s grace, not only in salvation, but in the struggles that so many face.  It can be read here.  The following three verses (there are six in all) stuck with me long after the song had ended:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.
Be saved, to sin no more, be saved, to sin no more;
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.

E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
And shall be till I die, and shall be till I die;
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.

The first verse affirms the gospel, namely that Jesus Christ died to remove our sin – i.e., all of our “guilty stains.”  He doesn’t remove some of our sin, or even most of our sin, but all of our sin.  Therefore, when our faith is in Christ, our future home is secure.

The second verse reminds us that our Lord’s death was a once for all sacrifice, powerful to save us to the end, when we will be glorified.  When we sang this particular line: “Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more” I couldn’t help but utter in my spirit, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  What a wonderful day when this earthly struggle between spirit and flesh is ended and sin is completely eradicated!  It is a day the Lord has promised, and he cannot lie.

The third verse mentions “redeeming love” as our “theme” throughout our lives.  The gospel must define who we are, in every aspect of our lives.  There is not a single area that is not brought under the lordship of Christ, be it family, work, play, friendships, or church.  Once we are His, we are no long our own.

Here are a couple of renditions of “There is a Fountain.”  The first is an a cappella version of the traditional music.  The second is a more modern rendition performed by Red Mountain Church.

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A Great Quote to Live By

God calls us to pray and think and dream and plan and work not to be made much of, but to make much of him in every part of our lives.   John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life, p.38

How tempting it is to live our lives seeking the approval of others!  Such an emphasis inevitably makes us unproductive in our spiritual walk as our convictions are compromised on the altar of being “made much of.”  But God has called us to honor him above all things, and above all people.  When we seek to live in the light of his grace, when we meditate on and marvel at his amazing glory and holiness, we can do no other but honor him with both our lips and our work.  On the other hand, when we become the center of attention, when we constantly seek the admiration of other people, it’s an indication of what’s lacking in our hearts – namely, true love toward God.

May God in his immeasurable grace grant us a strong desire to “make much of” him, for he is worthy of such praise and adulation.  Furthermore – and this is the beauty of it – it’s also to our greatest good when God is so honored in us.

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