Day 324: Be Doers of the Word

Psalms 95-97; James 1

The book of James was written by James the Just, the half-brother of Jesus. The book begins similarly to an epistle, but after the greeting, the rest of the book is a collection of wisdom sayings focusing on works of righteousness.

Thinking of James as a list of Christian proverbs is a helpful framework from which to read James – especially since he covers a broad range of topics throughout his book. He covers trials, temptation, poverty, blessings, anger, speech, obedience and social justice in the first chapter alone!

The main emphasis of this first chapter is for Christians to not just be hearers of the word, but doers as well (James 1:22). As we hear the word of God, our hearts are either hardened against it or softened under it. There really is no middle-ground… Our response to God (even on a daily basis) is either humble repentance and faith or a hardness of heart that leads to self-will. James is pleading with Christians who are experiencing great poverty and persecution to trust in the almighty God and submit themselves to His authority by acting in obedience to His word.

For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness (Psalm 95:7-8).

How will you respond to Him today? With indifference or defiance? Or with humble dependence and obedience? 

But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing (James 1:25).

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Day 321: Hall of Faith

Psalms 84, 86-87; Hebrews 11
(Psalm 85 was read on Day 227)

Faith. Without it, it is impossible to please God.

The author of Hebrews has laid out his case for the Supremacy of Christ. He has exhorted them to not drift away from Christianity back to the familiar ways of Judaism – but rather to strive to keep the faith.

Now he gives an entire chapter full of examples of faith from the Old Testament. These are people who persevered to claim their reward. Think of the encouragement this would bring to these young Jewish converts…

First, they would see that God’s grace pre-dated Abraham, and reached all the way back to Abel! This would remind them that their new faith in Christ was the exact same faith which was credited to Noah and Abraham as righteousness!

They would also be encouraged that imperfect men such as Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Japheth were included as men of faith. Perfection is not a requirement. It is faith in God which justifies the sinner.

Ultimately, they would be challenged to pattern their lives after these Old Testament heroes – men and women who suffered greatly because they believed a God they could not see and died before God’s promises were fulfilled. Yet they continued to trust in the goodness of God…

Be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all the day.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my plea for grace.
In the day of my trouble I call upon you,
for you answer me (Psalm 86:3-7).

Faith is not just some shot in the dark, wishful thinking. A true, saving faith is a sure anchor for the soul based on the truth of God’s word. It is the belief that the unseen is more real than the seen.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).

What do we hope for? A city on a hill, the New Jerusalem, filled with the glory of the Lord. We look forward to the day when every tear will be wiped away and the dim reflection of His presence in this world will be seen clearly in all His glory. We hope for Jesus and the wedding feast of the lamb and an eternity in perfect relationship with the Savior and with fellow man. These aren’t just wistful dreams – these are truths that we should be willing to die for!!!

Where is your faith? Do you place your hope in your own fleeting material wealth or aspirations of success? Is your hope in your spouse or in your children? Or is your hope in the unseen, yet eternal God who is trustworthy and true? Don’t sacrifice eternity for a lesser, instant pleasure.

Strive to enter His rest; persevere in your faith, and be one who overcomes to the end!

Day 295: Life beyond the grave

Ecclesiastes 7-91 Thessalonians 4

Paul continues his letter to the Thessalonians by exhorting them to continue in their faith “more and more,” encouraging them in their sanctification. And then Paul turns to address a great concern of the young converts in Thessalonica.

Some of the new Christians had died, and not knowing what happened to a Christian at death, the people fell into a hopeless depression. They assumed that since they died before Jesus’ 2nd coming, they were lost, and missed the promised salvation.

Can you imagine how grieved these new Christians would have been without the hope of life after death?

The writer of Ecclesiastes (most likely Solomon) gives us insight into the hopelessness of life “under the sun,” as if there were no spiritual realm beyond this life – no eternal hope for which to live…

But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun (Ecclesiastes 9:4-6).

But Solomon also knows that divine revelation is more trustworthy than his limited perspective, so he writes,

Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13).

Yes, without God’s clear instruction on the eternal nature of life, every possible human conception leads to despair.

Solomon despaired because death was inevitable for both the righteous and the wicked.
The Thessalonians despaired because they believed death prevented the salvation of the righteous.

Paul gives us the truth about life after death… that those who have died before the 2nd coming of the Lord go ahead of those on earth to be with God (1 Thessalonians 4:14-15). And when Jesus comes again, all believers on earth will be “caught up together [with those who have died] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:17). So all believers both asleep and on earth will be “with the Lord.”

The details of this passage can be difficult to comprehend or imagine, but the heart of Paul’s words are clear. All believers will be with the Lord! Death has lost its sting. It no longer has any power over the believer. No longer are the days of our lives as “the wind,” meaningless or “vanity.”

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection give us hope beyond the grave!

Day 294: Our purpose

Ecclesiastes 4-61 Thessalonians 3

In the first half of Acts 17 we read of Paul’s visit to Thessalonica. He spent a relatively short time there, but long enough to preach the gospel effectively to see the beginnings of a small church. Paul’s presence angered the Jews, and they tried to capture Paul…

But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd (Acts 17:5).

The new Thessalonian converts helped Paul and Silas escape by nightfall to Berea which was 50 miles southwest of Thessalonica. But the persecution did not end after Paul and Silas left. The Thessalonians continued to endure hardship as a church, and Paul was anxious…worried they might fall away from the faith. So he sent Timothy to visit them (1 Thess. 3:5), and to Paul’s joy, Timothy reported back that they were steadfast in the faith (1 Thess. 3:6; 8).

What would enable these new converts to stay faithful amidst harsh affliction?

Christ. Christ’s love. Christ’s sacrifice. Christ’s promises. Christ, alone.

The writer of Ecclesiastes knew that life lived apart from the eternal purposes of God was meaningless. This world is fallen and to work for possessions that will only endure one’s lifetime is vanity. It lacks purpose.

The fact that the Sovereign and Righteous God has made a way for us to be in relationship with him now and throughout eternity gives our lives meaning in this fallen world. Each small pleasure is a gift of God, and therefore, more meaningful. Suffering can be endured because of our hope in an eternal home. We can take joy in the work of our hands because a job done for the Lord brings glory to him and makes an impact for eternity.

God’s love is our song and His word is our guide. In Him, we find our purpose!

Day 276: Take the high-road

Esther 7-10; Galatians 5

Esther concludes in dramatic fashion as she reveals Haman’s evil plot to destroy the Jews to the king. One of my favorite aspects of this story is how the foolishness of evil is revealed – especially in the ironic relationship between Haman and Mordecai. In the end, evil is defeated in the most humiliating of ways – as all of Haman’s evil plans come back on him!

But let’s turn our attention to Galatians 5, where Paul is continuing to persuade the Gentile Christians to not look to the law for salvation…

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. […] For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (Galatians 5:2; 6).

And then Paul clarifies himself…

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another (Galatians 5:13).

Paul then paints a vivid picture of how to live by faith. He instructs the Gentile Christians in Galatia to walk in the Spirit. He lists all the ways to live in the “flesh” and contrasts them with the fruit of living in the Spirit. The fascinating thing about these two lists is that they contrast the “works” we are able to accomplish in our own power with the “works” that the Spirit can accomplish through us. Do you see the difference? One list represents “our effort” and the other list represents “God’s effort.”

This is what we are able to accomplish with our sin nature at the helm: impurity, idolatry, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, dissensions, divisions, envy (5:19-21). I took out the “bad” sins just so we can more easily identify with this list…because all of this list – even the “bad” sins I omitted – are present in our churches today.

Contrast this with what God can produce in us by the power of His Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control (5:22-23)….This is the way of faith.

When Paul says that we are “free from the law,” he is not saying we are no longer under moral obligation…No! We are to live a life surrendered to the Spirit – so that our lives can no longer be condemned by the law.

In a way, it’s a higher calling – made possible only by the Spirit’s working in our life!

Day 275: A false gospel

Esther 4-6; Galatians 4

The situation in Galatia is intriguing. Paul was originally detained in Galatia because of an unknown illness (4:13-14), so he took the opportunity to preach to the pagan Gentiles in the region. They received the gospel with joy and faith, and Paul left to continue his missionary journey. Then false teachers, trying to please the Jewish authorities, began to teach the new Gentile Christians in Galatia that they needed to also obey aspects of the Jewish law – such as circumcision and observing the holy days and festivals (4:10).

Paul was outraged! If the Galatian Christians received salvation through faith alone, then they should continue to live by faith alone! Adding requirements to the gospel makes it a false gospel… in essence, it is teaching that we are justified through works – which is impossible!

Paul continues to counter the false teachers by giving examples from the Old Testament that prove that justification has always been by faith and never by works (or the law). In Chapter 3, he pointed back to Abraham’s faith as an example (3:6) and also quoted from Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith” (3:11). And in today’s reading, Paul contrasts the two sons of Abraham – saying that Ishmael represented slavery under the law, but Isaac was a child of the promise…he represented faith.

And then Paul does something extraordinary… he tells the Gentile Galatians – those who used to worship pagan gods – that they are also children of the promise; consequently, they are not under the law (4:28)! This is amazing! And a truth that should set us free from works-righteousness and help us to embrace the gospel of grace.

But we mustn’t think that God has forsaken those of Jewish heritage. ABSOLUTELY NOT! God has opened the gates of heaven to all who turn to Him in faith!

We see a picture of extraordinary faith in today’s reading from the Old Testament, as Esther, puts her life in God’s hands and acts on behalf of the Jewish people…

Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:15-16).

This is the kind of faith that pleases God… a self-sacrificing sort of faith, that surrenders everything into God’s hands. Self-justification through good works is an arrogant affront to God. The love of Christ is what compels us to good deeds because our salvation has been accomplished through his perfect work on the cross! When we add anything to the gospel, it becomes a false gospel!

Day 270: Forget not His benefits

Psalm 78; 2 Corinthians 12

Before we continue on to the book of Esther, let’s pause for a few days and consider the Psalms that relate to the restored people of Ezra and Nehemiah’s day…

Psalm 78 is a historical Psalm – written to preserve God’s work in Israel from generation to generation. No doubt, this Psalm was a useful teacher to the restored exiles in Jerusalem – working to reestablish their Jewish community and heritage!

Fast-forwarding in history to Paul’s day, he is still defending his authority as an apostle of Jesus in 2 Corinthians 12. Remember, he is writing in response to false allegations made against him by false teachers. Paul is reluctant to list his qualifications, and responds to his offenders by focusing on his weaknesses, rather than his strengths!

In today’s reading, we find Paul’s famous assertion that he was given a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from being conceited after receiving glorious visions of paradise, the place where God dwells.

This passage has always been comforting to me…for two reasons!

  • First, it reinforces my hope of heaven…that there really is a spiritual realm where God dwells – and that place is like paradise (2 Cor. 12:3)!
  • And secondly, it gives a good purpose for pain. In this case, so Paul would not become conceited. God gave him a constant trial to keep and grow Paul’s godly character. God gave Paul the “thorn” because He loved him.

If you are going through a trial, are you convinced that God still loves you? If we struggle to persevere in our faith during life’s trials, we must take a lesson from the Israelites. We must look backward in our history and remember his faithfulness to us in the past. 

The act of “remembering” is sprinkled throughout Psalm 78…

…so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God (78:7);

They did not keep God’s covenant,
but refused to walk according to his law.
They forgot his works
and the wonders that he had shown them (78:10-11);

They remembered that God was their rock,
the Most High God their redeemer (78:36);

They tested God again and again
and provoked the Holy One of Israel.
They did not remember his power
or the day when he redeemed them from the foe (78:35-36).

When the Israelites failed to remember God’s faithfulness, they fell away. But when they remembered, they were encouraged to draw near to God! We must not forget His goodness to us!!

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s (Psalm 103:2-5).

Day 267: Fighting the opposition

Nehemiah 6-7; 2 Corinthians 10

Today, both Nehemiah and Paul address their opposition…directly.

Remember, Paul is writing to the Corinthian church because opponents to his ministry had infiltrated the church and caused a large rebellion against Paul. Paul spent the first seven chapters of 2 Corinthians refuting his opponents indirectly, but now he shifts his focus to address them directly.

Paul’s opponents judged him by the world’s standards. Because Paul was meek in appearance and manner, his opponents discounted his apostolic authority – while boasting in their own worldly attributes. But Paul refutes their criticisms by pointing to his spiritual abilities and the fact that he was appointed by God himself.

Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends (2 Corinthians 10:17).

Meanwhile, Nehemiah is dealing with his own opposition. Sanballat and Tobiah just won’t go away! They continue to try to trap Nehemiah both physically and morally to bring about his downfall. But Nehemiah rebukes their efforts and much to their displeasure, finishes the wall in spite of the opposition!

So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God (Nehemiah 6:15-16).

Did you catch that last phrase? With the help of our God”!!

This is the key to both Paul’s and Nehemiah’s ability to overcome their fierce opposition. They were called, equipped and undergirded by their God. They trusted in God despite their grave circumstances. In other words, they fixed their eyes on what was unseen. “For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).

Lord, when I am faced with opposition, help me to not be discouraged! But rather, help me to look to the unseen realm…help me to fix my eyes on Jesus and persevere in faith as I wait for Your sure help!

Day 266: Greed

Nehemiah 4-5; 2 Corinthians 9

Nehemiah faced opposition from both outside Jerusalem (Neh. 4) and inside Jerusalem (Neh. 5).

The foreign oppressors, Sanballat and Tobiah, hurled insults and threats toward Jerusalem… Why? They hungered for power and lusted for control. Whereas the people within the walls were opposing each other as the Jewish nobles were oppressing their own poor. The rich were taking advantage of the fact that everyone was working on the walls and not cultivating their land. Without a crop, there was no money – so the rich nobles were lending money to the farmers and charging interest.

Greed. Nehemiah was fighting the effects of greed – both from the foreigners and within the Jewish community. As we read in today’s passages, Nehemiah fought it effectively. Through his fine leadership, he refused to give power to the oppressor’s taunts and persuaded the nobles to return the interest charged and land to the Jewish peasants. He motivated them by exhorting them to fear the God that brought them out of slavery!

Greed is a powerful sin. It builds deep roots in our hearts and works together with fear to seduce and deceive.

Consider Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 9. Paul is continuing his request from Chapter 8…that the church give generously to their needy brothers in Jerusalem. But there is great potential to twist these verses to satisfy the greed in our hearts. Consider verses 6 & 10…

Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully (2 Cor. 9:6).

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness (2 Cor. 9:10).

Many have used these verses to teach, “If you give abundantly, then God will ‘multiply’ and give to you abundantly.” But that is using greed as a motivator for giving. NO! These verses only promise to multiply our righteousness, not our wallets! 

It is true that “God loves a cheerful giver.” But the cheer that pleases God is from your willingness to give sacrificially – not from your expectation to receive in return!

For our God owns a cattle on a thousand hills. He has no need for our money! But he does want our hearts. And so many times, our hearts are entangled with the sin of love of money.

If God has generously provided for you abundantly – it is not for your security’s sake – but that you might emulate Him in providing for others. For God “has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever” (2 Cor. 9:9).

He is our loving Father. We can trust Him – even with our money!

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work (2 Cor. 9:8).

Day 257: A life well lived

Daniel 5-6; 1 Corinthians 16

Today, we read the end of the historical narrative of Daniel’s life. He lived most of his life in exile, in service to foreign kings for close to 70 years! During that time, he remained faithful to God, and God kept him alive in a figurative lions’ den for all that time!

Daniel lived to see part of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream fulfilled – as he witnessed the fall of Babylon to the Medes and Persians. Daniel continued to serve the Medo-Persian court – so well, in fact, that his jealous colleagues arranged to have him thrown in the lions’ den.

Wrapped up in this familiar children’s sunday school story… is the culmination of one man’s lifelong journey of faith. Daniel was faithful in a time when most of Israel had turned away. His trust in His God turned the hearts of foreign super kings. God honored Daniel’s perseverance!

We also come to the end of 1 Corinthians. We read Paul’s final exhortation to the Corinthian believers…

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love (1 Corinthians 16:13).

I think Daniel would say a hearty “Amen” to this list of commands!

The New Testament consistently teaches that perseverance is evidence of a saving faith. As members of God’s kingdom, we are called, similarly to Daniel, to persevere as exiles in this foreign land. May we follow Daniel’s example as we live life in the lions’ den with our eyes fixed on our Savior!