Monday, March 27, 2017

A Sheep In God's Flock

Psalm 23

This Psalm is perhaps one of the most well-known and beloved of all passages of Scripture.  For many it is one of the first chapters they have committed to memory.  Let’s take a brief look at a few of the many gems to be found in this beloved Psalm.

During his youth and as a young man, David had worked as a shepherd, so he knew the job well.  As an Old Testament believer, he knew God as our Shepherd as well.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus calls Himself our Good Shepherd, (John 10:11).  The author of Hebrews calls Jesus the Great Shepherd of the sheep (Heb. 13:20), and Peter calls Jesus the Chief Shepherd (I Peter 5:4).  

Sheep are not the smartest of all animals.  They have no sense of direction, and will wander away from the flock.  They will also blindly follow each other, even into danger.  As sheep, we need the guidance and direction of our Shepherd.  As our Shepherd, He will provide for all of our needs (vs. 1).  Sheep really are unfit to live on their own, and without God in our life, we are helpless as well.  He is a Good Shepherd, and He will lead us to the best places to feed and find refreshing water (vs. 2).  It is better for sheep to have still water, as they will wander into a swiftly running stream, and with their wool wet, it is difficult for them to get out, and can easily drown.  If we do wander away from our beloved Shepherd will seek us out, and has promised to restore us (vs. 3).

Our Good Shepherd is also the Lord of Life.  He alone can safely walk and lead His sheep through the dark and unknown valley of death, and bring us safely to the other side (vs. 4a).  With Him by our side, we do not need to fear anything, including death.

Shepherds in earlier times usually carried two items to help with the care and defense of his sheep - a rod and a staff (vs. 4b).  The rod was used to defend the sheep from predatory animals.  Sheep have no natural defense from their enemies - no horns, fangs, or ability to run swiftly.  We need a shepherd, and He is there to protect us from our enemies, particularly our great enemy, Satan and his minions.  The staff was used by shepherds to help corral the sheep when they were wandering away.  God will use what it takes to bring us back into His fold when we wander.  Just like the shepherds crook on his staff may be uncomfortable when hooked around the sheep’s neck, sometimes God may have to use some difficult circumstances to bring us back to Him, but like a good shepherd, it is all done in love.

In the next verse we see some more examples of how our Good Shepherd deeply cares for us.  Our enemies may seek to knock us down and see us destroyed.  Our Shepherd says here, in verse 5a that He will prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies.  They will see when He blesses us, and meets all of our needs.  They will see how much He loves and cares for us, and as they witness His goodness and faithfulness to us, hopefully they will seek to join His flock, as well.

In Biblical times oil was poured on people when bestowing a blessing.  Here, in verse 5b, the Lord has anointed us with His blessing, also done in the presence of our enemies.  They will see His blessing upon us.  Oil was also used by shepherds in the healing and care of their sheep.  It was poured on, soaking into their wool coats, and if a sheep might cut himself while grazing, it would soothe, cleanse, and heal the wound.  Our Good Shepherd is there to care and protect us.

Finally, we, as sheep in the Lord’s flock, see goodness and mercy following us every day (vs. 6).  Several well-known preachers have likened them to the Shepherd’s sheep dogs, keeping watch over the flock.  We may not see the Lord’s goodness and mercy ahead of us, but looking back along our path through life, we see how He has helped us.  God’s goodness and mercy towards us will hunt us down, just like the sheep dog does, never stopping, pursuing us our whole life.

At the end of our life, if we are a part of God’s flock, we have assurance that we will dwell in His house forever.  Are you a part of His flock?  Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior, as your Good Shepherd?  If so, you are a sheep in His flock, and can know all of the blessings of this Psalm.  If you have never accepted Jesus as your Savior, do not delay in calling upon Him.  Become a sheep in His flock, and know the joy of having Him as your Good Shepherd through life.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Look Beyond The External

I Samuel 16:1-13

Not that long ago I picked an apple from a bowl of fruit to eat.  As I held it in my hand, getting ready to take a bite, I saw its beautiful red color.  It looked perfect, without a blemish on its skin.  As soon as I bit into it, though, I saw that I had been deceived by its good looks.  The apple was rotten!  The perfect skin had hid its inedible inside, and the apple had to be thrown out.  Perhaps you may have run across a tree that has recently fallen over in a storm.  It had looked like a perfectly fine tree from the outside, but now laying on its side you can see that the inside was all rotted.  With the inside in such condition, it couldn’t stand through the big storm.

As we take a look at the Old Testament passage for this Fourth Sunday in Lent we see that the prophet Samuel is faced with a challenge.  God has rejected King Saul, the current king over Israel.  The reason that God did not want him sitting on the throne any longer was because Saul would not obey Him.  In the previous chapter we see a very noticeable example of Saul not following a specific command that God had given him, thinking his way was better.  Samuel was grieving over the fact that Saul had failed as a king, and that God had rejected him.  God tells Samuel, in verse 1, to get over it.  Saul had been disobedient to God, and thus, he was not the kind of man He wants to reign over the people.  Samuel was instructed to go to Bethlehem and God will pick a new king from among the sons of Jesse.

As the sons of Jesse start to file one by one before the prophet Samuel, he sees the first one, Eliab, tall and handsome.  In past times, kings and leaders were judged mainly by their physical attributes, rather than character or spiritual attributes.  Saul had been tall, athletic, strong, and good looking, but his character was found to be lacking.  Before Samuel could make the same mistake again, God stopped him, as we see in verse 7.  Seven times each son passed before him, and each one was rejected.  Only when they had to run out to the pasture where the youngest one, David, was out watching the sheep, did Samuel find the one that God had chosen.  David had been considered so insignificant by the family, that they hadn’t even thought to bring him along when Samuel came.

How often have we been just like Samuel was, judging people by their outward appearances alone?  In our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and unfortunately, even in our churches, have we sat and silently, or not so silently, judged someone because of their weight, how homely they look, or because they aren’t as well educated as we are.  Maybe they can’t afford such nice clothes, or we don’t care for where they live.  The people that society rejects are often the ones that God chooses.  When we judge by appearance, we will often overlook good people who happen to lack those physical or financial attributes that society has currently put on a pedestal.

Unlike us, God does not judge us by our outward appearance.  He looks inside and sees what is in our hearts, what is making up our character.  He evaluates our inner disposition.  God sees exactly what we are like inside, and there are no surprises with Him, unlike when I bit into that apple, thinking it was a good one, or the people who would have seen the tree the day before it fell, thinking it was good, when inside it was dead.  Society today praises and glorifies Hollywood and sports stars, when often their lives and moral character leave so much to be desired, and they scoff and scorn someone who stands for righteousness.  They are only looking on the outside, the Hollywood good looks or the strong body and ability of the athlete.

Follow the lead that God was directing with Samuel when we are tempted to judge by externals.  Pray for God’s wisdom, as only He can look into someone’s heart.  We need to look at people’s character, rather than only what we see on the outside.  David’s family thought he had no value, as he wasn’t even considered worthy to attend.  Those who people consider worthless, God often chooses.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Woman At The Well

John 4:3-26, 39-42

In this Scriptural passage we have a very beautiful story of Jesus’ love for people, and is also another example of His one-on-one encounters with individuals.  In verse 4 we read that Jesus needed to go through Samaria.  In Jesus’ day, the Jews hated and despised Samaritans, thought them an impure people, and went out of their way to avoid any contact with them.  Jews traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem and back, took a much longer route to travel just so they could avoid going through Samaritan towns.  His disciples were probably a bit annoyed that Jesus decided to go into Samaritan territory.  He did this, though, because He had a divine appointment with this Samaritan woman.  He knew she would be there at the well, and He was determined to go there to seek and to save the lost.

This unnamed Samaritan woman had a past, having been married and divorced multiple times, and now currently living with a man with whom she was not married.  Most women at this time in the Middle East would collect their water from the well in early morning and early evening, when it was the coolest time of day.  Here they would gather and have a bit of social time together.  Not this woman, though.  She came alone during the noon hour, probably because she was ostracized because of her past and current lifestyle.  Jesus knew this also, which is why He came to the well at this appointed time, and sent His disciples off to get some lunch.  He wanted unhindered time to unburden this woman from the sin and guilt she had been carrying for years.

Jesus initiated the conversation with her.  He sought her out, a sheep wandering from the fold, a soul thirsting for Living Water, drawing her to Himself (vs. 7 - 15).  At first this woman didn’t understand what He was talking about, thinking only of the natural world and a natural thirst.  She didn’t want to have to continue coming here in the heat of the day, risking contact with other scornful and judging women.

Jesus then quickly turned the conversation to her personal life, to the real need she had of salvation (vs. 16 - 19).  How did He know that about her, she wondered, as she knew Jesus was a stranger in town?  She perceived that He was a prophet, a religious man.  Jesus knows all about the pain, heartache and grief we have hidden in our lives.  He knows everything about us, and He loves us still, just as He did with this lonely, sinful and hurting woman.  He wasn’t going to leave her there, to expose her, ridicule and condemn her as she had been so often in the past.  Jesus revealed Himself to be the Messiah (vs. 25 - 26), and invited her to partake of that Living Water He offered, and accept salvation.  He took the burden of her sin, and set her soul free.

She knew that this was not something that she could keep to herself, so she hurried back to town to tell the villagers that she had found the Messiah, and He had set her free from her sins and past.  Those folks who had labeled her as the “sinful woman” could see a change in her.  There was something about her that was now different.  Whatever it was, whoever had done this for her, they wanted to see this for themselves, and followed her back to Jesus (vs. 39 - 42)  Through this woman’s testimony and changed life, a whole town sought out the Lord Jesus.  A little revival broke out in the town, as Jesus stayed on in town for a few days, preaching and ministering to the people, and many came to accept Him as the Messiah and their Savior as well.

If we have burdens that we are carrying from our past, things we might be ashamed of, or are weighing us down with the pain and heartache, we need to come to Jesus and lay them down at His feet, as this woman did, letting Him take them from us.  And then, we need to go and tell others as well, leading them to the Savior, just as this Samaritan woman did.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Peace With God

Romans 5:1-11

Picture, if you will, an outlaw who has been poaching off of the king’s lands, who has pilfered from his storehouse.  There is certainly no peace between him and the king, and he knows if he gets caught, the punishment will be severe.  But one day the king’s son pays the price for all of the wrongs the outlaw has done, and ushers him into the king’s presence.  The outlaw is an outlaw no longer, and can stand in the presence of the king.  There is now peace between the king and the man.

This is the case of mankind with God.  Because of our sins, and the sin nature we inherited from Adam, we were God’s enemies.  We were at war with Him.  But now, through the Blood that Jesus shed on the cross, all those who have accepted Him as Savior, have peace and fellowship with God (vs. 1 - 2).  We have peace because we have been forgiven, we are assured of our salvation.  This is a restoration of the broken relationship between God and mankind for those who have been born-again.  Because of man’s sin and rebellion we were His enemies, and His righteous anger was hot against us.  But when we are saved and justified, this broken relationship is restored forever.

Now that we have peace with God, some believers may wonder why there are still so many difficulties and problems in their life.  Why, if God loves me and has forgiven me, are their still trials in my life, they ask.  Problems, difficulties, and tribulations are not fun.  Paul assures us here, (vs. 3 - 5) that trials and adversities do not come to us because God dislikes us or no longer loves us.  These tribulations help us grow.  God uses them to help our character to grow to become more like His Son.  He uses these trials in our life to help deepen our trust in Him, and give us a blessed hope in our future.

Finally, one last good thought from the remainder of this Scripture passage, (vs. 6 - 10).  God doesn’t love us or didn’t die for us because of how wonderful or lovely we are, because we aren’t.  As verse 8 says, God showed how much He loves us when He died for us.  And when did He die for us?  When we were all nice and polished and clean?  No.  We were at our worst before we were saved.  He died for us when we were still the worst of sinners.  The Lord will save us no matter how bad of a sinner we are.  There is no requirement that we purge all sin from our lives before getting saved, and there is no way that we possibly could.  God didn’t save us because of what a good person we could try to be, He saved us because of who He is, the God who loved us so much He would die for us, and die for us while we were still worthless sinners.

Verse 11 wraps the passage up by proclaiming how much joy this should bring to our life.  Knowing that He loves us so much, He died for us while we were still sinners.  Because of that, we have peace with God through our faith in Christ.  Also, remember that God is using all that we go through in our life to develop our character.  All of this should indeed bring us joy.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Praise God And Keep Your Heart Softened

Psalm 95

Our psalm reading today, for this third week of Lent, is one of both praise and thanksgiving to God, and also a warning to all those who read.  Let’s start with praise to God (vs 1 - 3).  Joyful and thankful hearts will sing.  Some people have been blessed with wonderful singing voices.  God wants everyone, whether those with a good voice or not, to sing to Him, thus the call to make a joyful “noise” to Him.  We cannot properly worship unless we have a joyful and thankful heart.  Sometimes we might become so overwhelmed with a problem in our life, and it is difficult to pray.  When this happens it is good to turn from our prayer of petition to a prayer of thanksgiving to God , putting our focus off our problems and onto the Problem-solver, thanking Him.

In verses 4 and 5 we see the psalmist focusing our attention to God as the Great Creator.  Most of the false gods of the surrounding heathen nations were local gods, and their supposed “power” or “sphere of influence”  was also limited to a local area.  Yahweh, the one and only true God, reigns over the whole earth.  He created the world, from the lowest depths of the oceans to the highest mountain tops.

Knowing this, we should come and bow before Him in worship, in a humble posture (vs 6 - 7).  He is our Creator.  He is not just our Creator, though, He is our Shepherd, and we are His sheep.  Sheep are very dependent animals, and will get in trouble or danger if left on their own.  All through the Scriptures, God portrays Himself as our Shepherd, one who loves us, His sheep.

The remainder of this Psalm, verses 8 - 11, is reminiscent of my previous meditation on Exodus 17:1-7.  As we saw there, the children of Israel were turning against God, complaining that they didn’t have any water, and they were tired of the quail and manna every day.  The psalmist is reminding us here to not grumble and complain against God about situations in our life.  In several places in the Bible, God has likened man to clay, often calling Himself the Potter.  To be used, clay needs to be soft and pliable.  A hard lump of clay is useless.  We must guard our hearts from becoming hardened, like a hard lump of clay.  The Children of Israel were stubborn, with hardened hearts, unable to be used by God.  He let them wander in the wilderness until they died, and the younger generation entered the Promised Land.  Their behavior kept them from receiving God’s blessing.  As we read about the Hebrew people, we should learn from their example and not follow their bad example of grumbling, complaining, being ungrateful, and unthankful.  This is a lesson that I know I need to keep learning.  As I frequently read this Psalm, I take careful notice of this warning, and check my attitude.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Don't Have Spiritual Amnesia

Exodus 17:1-7

Many TV shows over the years have used the storyline of one character getting amnesia, forgetting many events or everything that has happened in their life.  Reading through the Scriptures of the children of Israel leaving Egypt and traveling to the Promised Land, it would look like they, too, had suffered a terrible case of amnesia.  Earlier in the Book of Exodus, the Hebrew people had whined and complained to Moses that they were hungry, that there was nothing to eat.  Now, when they arrived at Rephidim, another stop on their trek to the Promised Land, they started to complain that they had no water.  This time the people didn’t just limit themselves to whining and complaining.  Moses felt that they were preparing to stone him, they were that angry and violent over the thought that they had no water (verse 4).  Their behavior got so bad that the name of the location was changed to Massah and Meribah, which means “testing” and “contention”

What was wrong with the people’s memory?  They were forgetting how God had performed all of the miracles with the 10 plagues that were brought upon their captors, the Egyptians, but had spared them.  They were forgetting how He had parted the waters of the Red Sea, where they had walked across on dry ground, but the Egyptian army was drowned.  Then here in the wilderness they were forgetting that God was providing them with the manna every morning, and quail to eat every evening.  This was like an amnesia over all the blessings that the Lord God was providing them.  Everything He had done for them was conveniently forgotten.

Why was all of God’s earlier provisions being forgotten?  All through their wanderings in the wilderness, the people were focusing solely on their physical needs being met.  God wanted the people to focus on their need to trust in Him, believing that He loved them enough to take care of them.  All along He had been providing for them each and every day.  They witnessed each day God’s miracle of food and water for them, but their hearts were hardened with unbelief.  They didn’t want to live “one day at a time”, they wanted to see with their eyes provisions for the unlimited future.  That is not how God works, though.  He takes us one step, one day at a time.

When faced with this situation of a lack of water, Moses chose to go to the Lord in prayer.  The people, instead, chose to whine, complain, and get into an angry rage.  When we choose to do that, instead of praying, it only serves to raise our stress level, and can even bring about physical ailments.  Choosing to turn to prayer will help to calm us down in a stressful or problem situation, and will bring our focus onto God and not the problem.  Keeping a record of what God has done in our past will help us, as well.  Remembering all his many blessings will turn around that selective amnesia.  As the old-time hymn bids us to do - “Count your many blessings, name them one by one.  Count your many blessings see what God has done.”

Friday, March 17, 2017

For God So Loved The World

John 3:1-17

One thing that is unique about John’s Gospel is that throughout his narrative, John gives many examples of Jesus’ one-on-one ministry with individuals.  Here in Chapter 3, we see the first such example, as Jesus spent an evening talking with Nicodemus, explaining salvation to him, and showing him the way to the Father.

The Jewish people were looking for a military hero to be their messiah, one who would kick the Romans out, and set up a kingdom for the Jews.  What Jesus told Nicodemus in this passage of Scripture was totally different from what the Jews had always believed.  This kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of was for the whole world, not just Jews.  It is personal, not national or ethnic.  They were a very exclusive people, but God is not.  Also, as He explained here, one cannot be a part of this kingdom unless they repent and are born again.

Today most people, at least here in the United States, have heard the phrase “born-again”.  Nicodemus, though, had never heard that phrase.  What would being born-again mean?  It is through being born-again we become the children of God, and heirs to everything He offers us.  The Holy Spirit works in a person’s heart to where they believe that Jesus Christ died in their place on the cross for their sins, and that His death provides forgiveness for those sins.  One must accept that Jesus Christ is the only One who can redeem us, repent of their sins, and confess Him as Lord and Savior.

As many preachers throughout the ages have said, probably the most well-known verse is right here in verse 16.  It has been called the Gospel in a nutshell.  God paid the price for our salvation with the life of His Son.  Jesus took the punishment that was ours, and paid the price for our sins.  He offered us a new life and a place in heaven.  Jesus’ death on the cross is mankind’s only hope.

In verse 16 we read the word “believe”.  That word in this context here is more than intellectual agreement, more than just having head knowledge about Jesus, such as He was a historic person, born in Bethlehem, died in Jerusalem, did this and that, etc.  It is believing in God, that Jesus took your punishment on Himself, died to save you from hell, and believe that He rose again.  It is putting our trust and confidence in Jesus, trusting that His words are true, and believing that He alone can save us.  

Another thing we read in verse 16 is the word “whoever”.  Whoever believes, not just some people or certain people, but whoever.  God has not chosen some people for heaven, and some people for hell.  The good news found in Jesus is offered to all who will receive Him as their Savior.  His mercy extends the globe.  It is a lie of the devil to  think that we aren’t important enough for God to single us out for His love and blessings.  He loves us, and says it again and again in Scriptures.  There has never been another god who was willing to come to earth and sacrifice himself for mankind, but Yahweh loves His people so much He sent His Son, Jesus to die for our salvation.

Let me close with a closer look at verse 14.  The reference being made here comes from the story in the Book of Numbers in chapter 21.  The people of Israel had been complaining to God yet again about the food, or their thinking in a lack of good food.  God sent the fiery serpents, and those who were bitten died.  Moses made a bronze copy of a serpent and placed it on a pole, and whoever looked at it, believing they would be healed, would live.  Jesus says the same thing about us.  If we look to Him, there upon the cross, believing why He was there, will live, live eternally.  This brings to my mind an old-time Gospel hymn by William Ogden, “Look and Live”.
Look and live, my brother, live!
Look to Jesus now and live;
‘Tis recorded in His Word, hallelujah!
It is only that you look and live!