The Bible’s “emergency letter”
Jude: I’ve dropped everything to write you.
There’s nothing leisurely about the little letter of Jude. In fact, you might call this an “emergency letter.” Jude has received disturbing news concerning happenings in an unnamed church. Events there are unfolding that could result in their turning away from the faith. He quickly reminds them of just how dangerous this is, listing one event after another from the Old Testament about spiritual failure and its consequences. Jude is just a short no-chapter book but if one takes time to follow all the references, the book expands considerably. The bottom line, though, is that they’ve allowed teachers into their number who aren’t teaching the Gospel. The result is that a cancer has begun to grow in the church that, if left unchecked, will have disastrous effects of biblical proportions concerning their salvation. Jude gives them a plan of action and urges them to act immediately. They’re to focus on the “most holy faith” and to pray “in the Holy Spirit” and to stay “right at the center of God’s love” and keep their “arms open and outstretched” to receive the mercy of Jesus in their lives. As they deal with those who are already wavering in the faith they’re to tread lightly and as they deal with those who are outside the church, the sinners, they’re to take it easy on them while standing firm against their sin. Jude has already told them what to do about the false teachers who have infiltrated their church: they’re to “fight with everything” they have “for the faith entrusted” to them. As I read this “two-page book” I’m reminded to be careful about who I allow to influence my spiritual life. Not everyone who claims to speak for Christ does so. At the same time I’m reminded not to get too worked up over this kind of stuff. Jude says: “Relax, everything’s going to be all right.” As I focus on the basics of love and prayer and the like, things will work out just fine for me.
Take Away: It’s a challenge for Christians to major on the majors and to minor on the minors and to tell one from the other.
The most powerful force on earth
James 5: The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.
One righteous person praying is the most powerful force on earth. It’s true you know. Prayer is the most powerful and most underutilized force available to us. Righteous praying influences the God who’s already inclined to bless us. I think I believe this but tend to not act as though I believe it. Prayer’s more an “add on” to what matters to me. I sometimes do the best I can do and then toss in a prayer for good measure. In doing it that way I do it exactly backwards. What I need to learn to do is pray first and then add my efforts to it. James’ example of a powerful pray-er is Elijah. This righteous man prays for rain, and then, when he sees the first evidence that his prayer is being answered, takes action, preparing for that answer to come. His template, then, is: pray first, then, stop praying and start acting as though that prayer is being answered. I really do believe that Elijah is correct in this but all too often I don’t act like it.
Take Away: Pray first and then act.
Faith without works
James 2: Faith expresses itself in works.
The most famous portion of the Bible on the topic of faith is Hebrews 11. While that chapter describes faith in a different way it actually underscores the truth of James’ words here. If faith isn’t put into action it’s something less than faith. If works of righteousness are accomplished outside of faith (maybe out of a sense of obligation or guilt) those works are something less than righteous. Faith and works, according to James, are joined at the hip. When the writer of Hebrews embarks on this topic he takes us through the faith hall of fame, listing for us people who inspire us to greater faith. Now, as James deals with this topic, he takes us out to the streets challenging us to practical acts of faith. He challenges us to treat people as valuable just as they are. He tells us to not just speak words of faith but to back up those words with action. After all, he says, belief without action betrays itself as impotent. James doesn’t ignore the great examples of faith completely. He takes us back to Abraham, who, in faith, takes action more than once. James is having none of this sitting around trusting God kind of faith. He demands, “If you really believe, go and do something about it.”
Take Away: What more can I say? Faith without works is dead!
Praying in times of pain or confusion
James 1: If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help.
James writes his letter to Christians in general, scattered throughout the region. His writings might be labeled “common sense Christianity” because he covers many topics and always in a reasonable, “tell it like it is” way. For instance, he doesn’t deny that hard times have come to many of them but at the same time he tells them that such an unwelcome set of circumstances isn’t all bad. In fact, they can rejoice when, in the midst of trials they catch themselves responding as genuine people of faith. As hard times continue they can be pleased as they realize that they’re handing such times better than they would have earlier on. It isn’t fun to go through hardship, but there’s reason to rejoice when I realize I’m responding as I think Jesus would and that I’m maturing in my relationship with him. James knows this sounds like so much gibberish to many people; outsiders for sure, but also to some believers who’ve concluded that if they’re faithful to the Lord and trust in him things will always go well for them. The Apostle has some advice for that crowd too: pray about it. If I’m in a fix and can’t imagine how God can work in such a disaster, I don’t have to pretend I’m handling things just fine. Instead, I can turn to the Lord and confess that I’m having a hard time seeing him anywhere in all this mess. James is absolutely sure that the Father will hear and respond to such a prayer. I guess it would be better if my first response was the best one, but if that doesn’t happen, the next choice is a good one too as in absolute honesty I run to the Father, telling him I just don’t get it and I sure don’t like it. After all, James assures me, “God loves to help.”
Take Away: It’s encouraging to catch oneself responding to an unwelcome situation as we believe Jesus would respond.
Continuing the story
Hebrews 11: Their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole.
This chapter of the Bible is called the “faith chapter” because of its almost poetic description of the power of faith. Now, it’s not just faith in faith. The focus of this powerful faith is clearly identified as “trust in God.” If I place my faith elsewhere, no matter now sincere that faith might be; it will be an act of foolishness that will take me down the path of disappointment and maybe even destruction. The heroes of faith described in this passage didn’t believe in belief. Rather they believed in, and trusted in, God. These people weren’t disappointed as the Lord came through for them in wonderful ways. The writer takes us on a faith tour, stopping before each exhibit just long enough to remind us of their victorious stories. Before we’re ready, he tells us time is up and we get just a glance down the hall of “current events” where we see people making great sacrifices for their faith, believing whatever it is they’re facing is worth the reward they’re earning. As we prepare to move on, our host says something quite surprising. As wonderful as their examples of faith is, it’s incomplete. We’re not on this tour just to look back. Rather, we’re here to be inspired to join in; to add our stories to theirs. Their looking-forward-to-God’s-better-plan-faith is to be balanced and completed by our embracing-the-better-plan-that’s-now-available-faith. As we live in this new salvation plan we prove the validity of their faith years ago. They carried the torch of faith as far as they could; now it’s been passed on to us. What an honor, what a privilege, and what a responsibility is ours.
Take Away: We don’t just remember great faith of years gone by – we embrace it and advance it to our day and age.
The bottom line
1Thessalonians 5: If he said it, he’ll do it.
When Paul first preached the gospel at Thessalonica he made it quite clear to them that not only is Jesus coming back, but that they can be ready for that sure event. Both of these things are absolutely true, facts that can be taken to the bank. He also told them in no uncertain terms that the date of the Lord’s return is quite uncertain. No secret codes reveal the date. We’re sure he’s coming but we’re in the dark as to when. What’s left? In the words of Jesus, we must “be ready.” Paul reminds them of that as he closes this short letter. As I live my life in the Lord, trusting in him and cooperating with him, he makes me “holy and whole” and keeps me “fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ.” The bottom line in any discussion concerning the Second Coming is that, while we don’t know when it will happen, we can be (and must be) ready for it. So I pay attention to the things that matter: prayer, cooperation with God, showing compassion, staying away from “anything tainted with evil.” I don’t know “when” but I’m reminded in this passage that I do know “how” to get ready and stay ready for Jesus to come back.
Take Away: The most important thing in life is being ready for the sure return of Jesus Christ.
Thessalonians 3: But now that Timothy is back, bringing this terrific report on your faith and love, we feel a lot better.
When Paul first came to Thessalonica he told them about Jesus. He told them what Jesus taught and did. He told them about the resurrection and the promise of the Second Coming. He also warned them that living for Jesus isn’t always a walk in the park. Actually, Paul’s beaten and bruised body, a result of things getting rather rough in nearby Philippi, was proof of that. They entered the Christian life with their eyes wide open. Now, years down the road, Paul has received word that his friends in Thessalonica are going through some hardship of their own. Paul lays awake at night praying for them; that they’ll make it through. Ultimately, he sends his son in the faith, Timothy, to them with a message of encouragement. The great Apostle wants to give them all the tools necessary to live for Jesus and remain ready for him to come again. Well, Timothy has completed the trip and his report on Thessalonica is better than Paul ever imagined. Timothy hasn’t found a cowed, shrinking group of believers just hanging on trying to stumble over the finish line at Christ’s return. These believers may not be enjoying the hardship that has come, but they’ve never been more in love with Jesus. Their faith has not only survived, it has thrived. Paul is relieved and thrilled. Isn’t it good to remember that the people of God don’t have to live small, pitiful, just-making-it-through lives? We aren’t always going to have an easy journey, but in Christ, we can enjoy his strength; and in that strength, we can be constant overcomers.
Take Away: The way may not always be easy; but it’s a blessed way.
So near and yet so far
Acts 26: Keep this up much longer and you’ll make a Christian out of me!
With Paul’s appeal to Caesar on record, Festus has a problem: he has no real charges on file against him. Rome isn’t interested in the religious arguments of the Jews. To send Paul to Caesar because of such a trivial (in Rome’s eyes) thing will reflect badly on him. In an effort to pass the buck, or at least spread the blame, Festus involves Agrippa, another Roman ruler. Agrippa is considered by Rome to be an expert in Jewish affairs, so having his name on the documents concerning this case will take much of the pressure off of Festus. After two years, Paul is more than ready to state his case and before Agrippa he brings his finest defense. Having done so, Paul directly asks Agrippa if he believes his claims about Jesus of Nazareth and the King’s response that he’s “almost persuaded” becomes his epitaph in Christian history. Some have seen his words as those of a man under deep conviction and others have brushed them aside as sarcasm. On one hand, I don’t think Agrippa is actually teetering on the brink of faith when he responds to Paul. On the other, I don’t think he’s laughing off Paul’s question either. The truth, I think, is somewhere in the middle. Paul’s defense has been eloquent and reasonable. His “offence” (that is, his invitation to Agrippa to respond concerning Jesus) is persuasive. I think that for just a moment Agrippa is moved to faith, but he quickly looks around, sees the crowd, and remembers his place of authority here. He quickly gathers himself and pushes back from the moment. I don’t know what might have happened had Agrippa became a Christian that day. It might have cost him his reputation and position. By not responding those things remained intact. As it is, historians say he lives to his 70’s. Sadly, his best remembered act is “almost believing.”
Take Away: How sad, to be remembered for “almost” doing the right thing.
No yarmulke or “minor surgery” necessary
Acts 15: So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules.
This is a huge moment in the life of the church with far reaching implications. Some of the Jewish Christians want the Gentiles who convert to adopt Jewish rites, specifically circumcision. Peter, Barnabas, and Paul argue that it’s all about Jesus and that faith in him as Savior and Lord is all that’s necessary to be saved. Will Christianity be a branch of Judaism or will it be a religion of its own? It’s a tough decision for this group, made up of Jewish men who follow a Jewish Savior. However, the answer’s really easy. As Peter points out, the Holy Spirit has already ruled on the issue, earlier, as he preached at the house of Cornelius. Barnabas and Paul affirm this. They’ve been “out there” and seen what happens when Gentiles simply believe in Jesus. Now James weighs in, this time with Scripture that declares God’s intention to include the Gentiles who will, indeed, have a place at the table of his grace. If these new followers of Jesus will just avoid a few things that the Jewish followers of Jesus find especially objectionable there will be, not two flavors of Christianity, but one. Obviously, this new religion will be diverse but it will, never-the-less be united.
Take Away: Christianity is about the Christ and any focus elsewhere is mistaken.
Sometimes God answers right now!
Acts 12: The house was packed with praying friends.
Herod decides it’s time to put the followers of Jesus in their place. He murders one of them, James, brother of John. Then he arrests Peter, intending to publicly execute him. However, Herod has heard some of the stories of miracles and he well remembers how the body of Jesus somehow escaped the tomb so he assigns sixteen guards to the fisherman. Two are actually chained to him. Meanwhile, the Church prays like it’s never prayed before. God hears and sends an angel to rescue Peter from the jail and the clutches of wicked Herod. Poor servant Rhonda gets the laugh line every time this story is told. She gets so excited that their prayers are answered that she leaves Peter standing in the street. I’m sure she laughed about it herself in the years to come. When God answers prayer like that, in such a surprising and timely way, even the most faith filled prayer warrior might get a bit confused. I can just imagine years later as various people who were present at that prayer meeting gather with friends for prayer. Someone brings a seeming impossible request, maybe with a bit of defeat already mixed in. That’s when one of those prayer warriors from this passage speaks up. “Don’t count God out. Why, I remember a time when Peter was being guarded by sixteen soldiers….” Everyone already knows the story but no one wants it to stop. Answered prayers feed faith. We need to cherish some of the really good answers and draw strength from them. In fact, we need to use them to encourage those who need a “faith-lift” as they pray over some difficult situation.
Take Away: Answered prayers feed faith.