The Smashing of Idols (The Last Days part 1)

One topic that always draws a lot of attention in Christian circles is the end times. In general, all followers of Jesus believe the same basic truth: History has a time limit. God in his plan has set boundaries on the beginning and the end of present age of humanity. Jesus will come back, and when he does he will right all wrongs and make all things news and glorious for his people.

As for the timing, order, and specifics of certain events related to that basic truth, Christians throughout history have diverged with various interpretations. That can be a good things as long as we humbly realize that we have much to learn from different perspectives and don’t become too heatedly dogmatic on debated aspects beyond the basic core truth.

With that in mind, in this devotional series, we’ll be taking a look at Matthew 24 & 25 and see some of what we learn concerning the end of the age and the return of Jesus.

We’ll start today with Matthew 24:1-2:

As Jesus left and was going out of the temple, his disciples came up and called his attention to its buildings. He replied to them, “Do you see all these things? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here on another that will not be thrown down.”

In Matthew 23, Jesus blasted the Pharisees and other religious leaders for their hypocrisy. Through their rules and regulations, they would lay heavy burdens on people they were not willing to bear themselves. Further, Jesus said that even though they gave the appearance of righteousness and zeal for God, their hearts were far from him. Then Jesus concluded with a lament over Jerusalem, speaking to how he longed to gather the people to himself but they were largely unwilling to follow him.

It’s in response to these scathing statements that the disciples seemed eager to find something about the city and religious culture of the day that would impress Jesus. So they pointed out the buildings of the temple.

But Jesus was not impressed. In fact, his reply was that the whole complex would soon be a pile of rubble. This sets the stage to follow, after Jesus and his followers go to the Mount of Olives in 24:3, for the discussion on the end of the age and the return of Jesus.

While the temple and Jerusalem of that day were largely destroyed in the year 70AD, fulfilling Jesus’ words, this speaks a truth to current history and the end of the age: God is not impressed with our idols.

You see, for the religious leaders of that day, the temple had become and idol of sorts. Jesus at one point even drove out persons and animals with whips while overturning tables because the outer courts had been turned into a market to make a profit off people’s sacrifices to God. The religious practices of that day had become corrupted so that a place of worship became a place for exalting man. The temple itself had become a status symbol for the supposed caretakers over the Jews.

Likewise, when Jesus returns, our idols will not stand. Paul wrote of this truth in 1 Corinthians 3 when he talked about how our works to help build God’s kingdom will be judged. Those who build with “gold, silver, and costly stones” or good works that exalt God and show love for others, will find their deeds refined and rewarded. Those who build with “wood, hay, or straw” or works that mainly exalt self, even though they appear good–motive still matters–will find their works in ruins.

This reminds us that as we wait for the return of Jesus, the point of life and faith isn’t to try to impress God and others. Rather, the point is to be faithful, God-glorifying, and others-serving. Thus, as Jesus said elsewhere: The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

So, let us keep watch on our motives, abandon our self-exalting idols, and live fully for the glory of God.

Scripture quotes taken from the Christian Standard Bible.

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The All-Seeing God (a daily proverb)

This devotional series examines a verse or two from a chapter of Proverbs each day of January 2017.

The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good. ~Proverbs 15:2

We call it omniscience, the fact that God knows everything with perfection. We call it omnipresence, the fact that God occupies every moment in time and every point in space without fail.

Solomon captured both of these truths in a few words. In Psalm 139, David more eloquently phrased it:

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. ~139:7-10

We cannot escape from the eyes or presence of God. We might try. We might think we can hide. We might think that what we do in secret is only in secret.

But God is there.

He keeps watch on the evil and the godly, Solomon wrote. This is why God is the perfect and truly fair judge. He sees all actions and he knows all motives. In his time, he will bring reward and recompense. To the wicked, this should be a cause of trembling. All the evil they do will not go unnoticed or unpunished. To those made righteous by faith in Jesus, this should be a cause of joy. God will repay every wrong done to us, and he will reward every good deed, and especially those that are done without longing for the praise of men.

Live with the joy of Christ, knowing that God sees all.

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Look to the past to fuel your future (a meditation)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith… ~Hebrews 12:1-2

“The dead still speak.” Those are the words I heard recently introducing a lecture on church history. And it’s true: the dead do speak. This is not in some macabre sense of ghostly spirits communicating through flashing lights, tv static, Ouija boards, or voice recordings. No, this is in the sense of people who have lived before having their words and lives shared through books, stories, or memories.

Even then, as Jesus said to the Sadducees, Moses called God “the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”—and he is not “God of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:37-38). So we remember that those who belong to Jesus through faith, though physically their bodies may have died, spiritually they live on in paradise, awaiting the resurrection.

It is these of which the author of Hebrews wrote. These men and women, some remembered well by history and others not, who’s life stories still speak to us today (Hebrews 11). These are ancient Bible characters, men and women who belong in the annals of church history, and people of an enduring faith who have lived long or who have died before us in our churches and families.

Hebrews 12:1 says such people form a “great cloud of witnesses” that surround us. And what is their purpose in our lives? To fuel us to a faithful future.

They have run the race, following after Jesus, and finished (or have nearly finished) the course. Their lives are a testimony to the fact that one can indeed live faithful and die faithful in a sometimes dark, confusing, and faithless world. Their voices echoing in various ways from the past urge us to strip off the weights of sin and fix our eyes squarely on Jesus.

Sadly, there are also some who teach us this lesson but from a negative perspective. Paul wrote of such in 1 Corinthians 10 where many heard God’s voice and experienced his miraculous provisions yet “with most of them God was not pleased.” Paul concluded, “These things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (10:5-6).

So as we run the race after Jesus, we look back and see the lives of the past and hear their voices. Those who ran faithfully, we emulate the good. Those who did not, we avoid their evil. Remembering their lives provides for us fuel for a faithful future.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

Rejoice today (a meditation)

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. ~ Psalm 118:24

Some days seem good, others seem bad. Some days we don’t want to end, others we can’t wait for them to be over. Good days, bad days, rough days, easy days—through them all, God commands our joy.

Joy can sometimes be a difficult thing for us to grasp, because the world looks at happiness primarily through the lens of pleasure. If it makes me feel good, then it must be good. There ensues a struggle—because what might bring momentary happiness might later bring lasting pain or destruction, if we do not approach the situations with wisdom.

But the Bible looks at joy differently.

Joy is a happiness focused on God—a happiness that looks not only at the momentary pleasures but also at the lasting, even eternal, outcomes. Seeing happiness through the lens of scripture we discern that some momentary pleasures will be fleeting in the long run (Hebrews 11:25), and we discern that some momentary pain will result in lasting happiness. We see this lesson even in an act such as childbirth—where there is pain in the labor but joy in holding new life.

This is why in John 17, Jesus could pray about us having his joy fulfilled in our lives and quickly follow with the pain of persecution for being faithful to him (17:13-14). This is also why Paul could say that the sufferings of today aren’t worth comparing to the glories to come (Romans 8:18) and James could tell us to take joy in our trials because of the good result they are producing (James 1:2-4).

Psalm 118 provides for us a two-fold reason as to why we can have such joy, even on the difficult days. First, God is in control of the good days and bad. The sun has come up, the earth has completed another rotation on its axis, and you have opened your eyes and taken another breath.

You have begun a day—this day, today. “This is the day that the Lord has made.” It’s God’s day, God’s plan, and he has graciously included you in it. Yes, because of Genesis 3 and mankind’s fall into sin, evil very well could (and likely will) happen throughout the day. God doesn’t clue us in as to why he allows certain acts of horrific evil to occur. God doesn’t promise that such evil will not bring pain into our lives. God does promise that whatever such evil is and however much it might hurt in the moment, he will set all wrongs to right, he will punish all evildoers who do not turn from such sin, and he will bring ultimate good in response to that evil through Jesus and for his people.

The darkness has not escaped his notice and will not always remain. So, we can live with a forward-looking joy.

Second, it is a day to rejoice because God has saved us from our sins. A few verses before this call to rejoice, the psalmist said, “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:21-22).

Verse 22 finds a quotation in several spots in the New Testament as a reference to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. That is ultimately how God has “become my salvation.” If you belong to Jesus, then every sin of yours on him was laid and every perfect act of his to you was given. Because of that gracious act, you are no longer a rebellious sinner but a beloved son or daughter.

As someone else has said, that means: For the Christian, the closest we will ever get to hell is the pain we experience in this life. That’s why Paul could write that the sufferings in this life aren’t worth comparing to the glories to come. What is to come is simply so much greater and better. Knowing that and knowing how Jesus rescued us from an eternal hell, we can be glad in this day no matter what it brings.

So, indeed, let us say with the psalmist: This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

A time for milk and a time for meat (a meditation)

You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. ~ Hebrews 5:12

“Act your age” is the admonition we sometimes give to older kids, teenagers, or young adults. In life, we expect kids to act one way and adults to act another. The process of moving from childhood to adulthood is maturity.

The same is true on a spiritual level. The Bible calls our coming to Jesus a “new birth” (John 3). We are born again and then enter into the stages of spiritual infancy, adolescence, young adulthood, and then mature adulthood. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

The author of Hebrews wrote to a church he knew and loved dearly, yet for some reason had been separated from (Hebrews 13). He encourages them with many things, but he also rebukes them at points—we find one of these toward the end of chapter 5. Seeing the lives of many in the church, even from afar, he knows something is amiss. They came to know Jesus, started to grow in faith, and then stalled.

They should have been to the point where they could give instruction to others—like a parent teaching a child, but they were still like children themselves. Their teeth should have been cut and they should have been dining on meat, but he had to feed them milk instead.

The meat is the deeper teachings of God through his word; the milk is the basic teachings—“elementary doctrines”, or: the “foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God and of instruction about washings [possibly: baptism], the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1-2).

There is a proper place for milk. When people first come to follow Jesus, most (if any) are not ready for things like comparing Jesus to Melchizedek (which the author does throughout chapter 7). They need the basics. But if that is all they ever get and never grow into the meat, then something is awry—either in their willingness to learn or in the teaching of their church.

For we must go on to meat.

That doesn’t mean that we never again touch the milk. It can be a good drink to go with the bigger meal—a reminder of the foundations on which we build the rest. But we need to get most of our sustenance from the bigger meal in order to keep growing healthy and strong.

So push onto growth. Gain from the milk, but once your spiritual teeth are cut crave the meat. There is a time for both, but let us not be stuck on the basics. Rather, may we “go on to maturity” (6:1).

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

Anticipating Eternity (a meditation)

“For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” ~Jesus, Luke 22:18

In Luke 22, Jesus was spending his final hours with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. During this time, he shared with them a Passover meal and took from it the bread and wine and gave them something new: a memorial supper. Some call this The Lord’s Supper others Communion—whatever our term, ever since in the church we have taken the bread and the cup and remembered what Jesus did for us in offering up his body and pouring out his blood on the cross.

Though we gather as Christians and partake of this Supper regularly, Jesus said that he would not eat the bread or drink the wine again until he could do it with us in his Kingdom (Luke 22:16, 18; cf. Matthew 16:29).

In his statement we should sense an anticipation of eternity. When we eat of the bread and drink of the cup, yes we look backward in time to when Jesus hung on the cross and suffered for our sins, but we should also look forward.

In Revelation 19, John spoke a marriage supper to kickoff eternity. This supper is a coming celebration meal when the church, the bride of Christ, is gathered for the first time as its whole—the day where Jesus-followers from all across the globe and all throughout history gather with each other and with our Savior-King to ring in the new creation and begin the age of eternal joy.

That feast will only be the start. In the new heavens and new earth: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit…my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands” (Isaiah 65:21-22); and, “In that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water” (Joel 3:18).

Though we join to eat and to remember, looking back and looking forward, Jesus said he would wait. Looking to him, we see a patient longing. The dawn of eternity is far off yet soon enough, and when it comes then we will celebrate with him.

In the meantime, though, we keep looking forward. We keep yearning and waiting as we share the broken bits of bread and drink from the cup, ready one day to do it face-to-face with our Savior-King who made it possible for us.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

Be Merciful to Me, a Sinner (a meditation)

One of my favorite old hymns is Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy. The last verse goes:

Let not conscience make you linger / Nor of fitness fondly dream
All the fitness He requireth / Is to feel your need of Him

It reminds us of the fact that we have nothing to offer God for our salvation. We are able to come to Jesus and find forgiveness of and freedom from sin only because he has acted and given to us fully by his grace.

Sadly, some people miss this truth and their thoughts go in other directions. One of these is the direction of self-righteousness and another is the direction of a soul crushed under the weight of never being good enough. The self-righteous person believes that he is somehow better than people around him, especially those he deems to be sinners.

Jesus gave an illustration of a Pharisee who fit this self-righteous mold in Luke 18:11-12. There in a prayer, the Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”

The song above addresses those who crushed under the weight of feeling never good enough. “Fitness” is making oneself ready. If that is what we strive for, then we’ll never reach the goal. Left on our own, such thought indeed crushes.

But in Luke 18, Jesus offered a better way—the way of the person who feels their need of Him. Contrasted with the Pharisee is a tax collector standing far off, eyes to the ground, and beating his hand against his chest. This tax collector called out: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)

Jesus said that this was the man who left the temple justified before God.

It is a simplicity of grace, yet one we fight against. Most of us would rather be in some way self-justified, feeling as if our goodness contributed something to our salvation. Yet, it doesn’t. And instead of this being a soul-crushing defeat, this should help us to realize the greatness of grace.

Some of us need to get over ourselves (Jesus talked about that in Luke 18:14). Some of us need to set our eyes more fully on what God has offered through Jesus. Then we will see our need for him. Then we will find true salvation in Jesus alone.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.