Welcome to a sacred place!
For what looks like words may be life. And what is spelled out in black and white may be transformative.
“…what happens in the next few minutes borders on the holy…The quietness will slow my pulse, the silence will open my ears, and something sacred will happen. The soft slap of sandaled feet will break the stillness, a pierced hand will extend a quiet invitation, and I will follow.”
~ Max Lucado, The Applause of Heaven, p. 19
The day held a sense of expectation. As I took my place in the pew at the Beth Moore simulcast, I knew God was going to do something great. But, as each session slipped by, so did the hope that God would speak to me in a personal way. Until the afternoon session…
After lunch, I engaged a woman who had prayed the opening prayer, mostly because I was interested in receiving the Bible study she had written on Nehemiah. We chit-chatted a bit and then an unusual thing happened. She looked me dead in the eyes and said, “May I pray for you?” Not knowing how life-changing the next few moments would be, I answered, “Sure”, in a rather nonchalant way. What transpired in those few moments has become the impetus for this website.
She prayed a powerful, Spirit-inspired, prophetic prayer over my life. I have no accurate recollection of the specific words that were spoken; I just had the awesome sense of being in the very presence of God and hearing Him speak directly into my soul. She prayed over my ministry. She prayed over my family. She prayed over my future, but most importantly, she prayed an answer to a prayer I had been winging toward heaven for close to six years. I had been seeking God for something I could do for the Kingdom that was tailor-made for me and this stranger named my specific niche in ministry. She called it out from the hazy boundaries of my subconscious and the oblivion of my fearful desires and she birthed in me a monumental dream: a dream of writing.
The Lord joined this dream to the trauma I had experienced through my lifetime to create something new, something bold, something transformed. He formulated a vision in me of how that dream might play out, “You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” (Isa 48:12b)
God has taken me on a number of detours since that day: a left-turn at heartache, an underpass of pregnancy in my 40’s, a bridge out sign directing us to move countries, and a traffic jam of waiting on God. Another almost-six years have passed me by since that startling day and God is calling me out again. This call feels similar – to inhale His truths, to breathe out life through the medium of words – and yet different, because I am different. God has broken me down and has begun His good work of rebuilding me brick by painstaking brick.
I am humbled by this opportunity and greatly conscious of my inherent weaknesses. But I invite you to join me as I write with passion, with trepidation, and with, what I feel, is a powerful undergirding of the Spirit. Will you join me in helping to rebuild some walls in our lives and in the lives of those who are broken around us?
Part 3 of 6
The Shocking Dichotomies of God
We received a heart-stopping, mouth-covering, hope-sinking, clasping-the-hand-over-the-mouth type of email this week. To give you a bit of background, I have to tell you about how our mission runs in this country.
SEND International is a veritable toddler here in Thailand. The mission just gave birth to its on-the-ground life barely five years ago and has stumbled around an awful lot since trying to determine its way forward. Currently, there are only seven units that comprise our mission here in this whole nation. We work here in Chiang Mai along with another couple, who run a TESOL program. There is one Filipino couple working north of us in the Chiang Rai greater area, two singles serving in Mahasarakham and one family in Korat City.
Because of the spread of mission work here in this royal nation, we have two area directors. One Canadian director couple lives in Chaing Rai and oversees the work there and in Chiang Mai. All the work in the Isaan is overseen by an American couple, who literally live in Florida due to aging parents, and who make itinerant trips to superintend the missionaries in that far-east region. Every single one of these four ministry areas is a fledgling work with very little by way of personnel to share the load.
The American director (I will call him Bob) does a lot of work through Skype and email because he cannot be on the ground here to help oversee the intricacies of day-to-day ministry. His wife (Janet) teaches in Florida since they had to buy a house so that aging parents could move in with them. They have also stayed States-side because their youngest son, Jay, has been struggling an awful lot since their return from many years of serving in the Philippines. We knew them there years ago as colleagues and friends in our joint ministry in the greater-Manila area. Incidentally, Janet was our middle son’s third grade teacher way back in 2011.
Now that I have generally caught you up to speed, I want to tell you about an email we received this past week. Here is part of that email with names and specific locations changed to protect very sensitive information. This came from our Canadian director Sunday night:
Dear SEND Thailand colleagues,
I am deeply saddened to inform you of the sudden, accidental passing away of Bob and Janet’s youngest son Jay on Friday, September 20 in Florida.
I have just gotten off the phone from talking with Bob and Janet and will continue to connect with them regularly as they go through this time of unspeakable grief. While we grieve, we also rejoice in the flood of Jay’s friends who have come to their home asking about the faith of Jay. Jay had told them of his heavenly hope, and that they should go to talk to his parents, since only they could explain it clearly. Within 48 hours of Jay’s death, Bob and Janet have already led several of Jay’s friends to Christ. They asked to come with them to church on Sunday morning, where more of these friends responded to the gospel…
After I picked my jaw up off the floor, the questions began to flood my mind. What on earth? Can Bob and Janet handle one more trauma? Why would God take someone so young? Why this time? (Almost two years ago, Jay was in a horrific motorbike accident where he was going too fast and lost control on an exit ramp. Mostly dead, he was airlifted to the hospital where he underwent several surgeries to keep him alive. His recovery from that accident was incredibly slow, but he did not die then and even made a fully recovery.) Why would God essentially take his life just 1 ½ years later. Good grief, he was still in his 20’s with all of his life ahead of him.
In our Canadian director’s email, he pointedly told us not to contact Bob and Janet in any way at this time. As a result, I have hunkered down to watch what God is doing and to pray for whatever God continues to want to do. But it has been hard due to the cryptic nature of this email. Yes, for sure I am glad that God appears to be at work in all of Jay’s friends’ lives. Yes, I am thrilled that God is expanding the kingdom for His glory. But I am struggling, as I always do, with the sacrifice of one physical life for the return of a few eternal ones.
As I have read and re-read this email, I was stopped often by those words, “sudden accidental passing away.” To Bob and Janet, to Jay’s relatives and friends, to the greater ripple in that Florida hometown, Jay’s death occurred as an accident and it was very sudden. But the thought has occurred to me many times that there was nothing unforeseen or accidental about Jay’s death; not to the Father who orchestrates all things for our good and His glory. This unexpected-to-us passing was ordained on the Kingdom calendar before Jay even came to be (Ps. 139:16). This accident was termed “providence’ in the eyes of the Master Time Holder. The Sovereign God knew about this death of one of His precious saints even as He created little Jay in the womb of his mother (Ps. 116:15). And it is this thought that has sparked a flurry of frustrated meditation on my end.
Where We Have Been…
Over the past five weeks, we have been dipping our toes gingerly into the poignant story of John the Baptist’s imprisonment, which is found mostly in Luke 7:18-35. The purpose of this study is to know how to be counted W.O.R.T.H.Y of our sufferings, to make them purposeful for our time here on earth and fruitful for our time in Glory.
We have barely skimmed the thought of two themes so far - the prison of unanswered prayer and the doubts that go along with that prison - and we have four more thoughts to flesh out. To make it easier to remember, I have placed these basic concepts in a table for easy access. We will add to this table as we move forward in this thought-inducing story about John’s struggle with God’s lack of action on his part, despite his persistence in obedience.
I know I struggle sometimes with God’s lack of response to my persistent prayers and righteous living and I think maybe you do, too. My prayer throughout this very taxing-to-write series is that God will meet us in these unchanging, prison-like circumstances with a revelation of Himself, a revelation that will transform our perspectives and hearts even if the circumstances themselves never change.
O God, please come and move among us. Reveal Yourself to us. Uncover all the motives that only keep us from the comfort of Your love. Speak deep into our wounded souls, infuse us with Your power that we might walk in truth You’ve shown us from above. Lord, bring us freedom, we pray.
The material I have covered has been very weighty and I have felt it has needed more fleshing out. That is why I took two weeks to cover the first thought and three more to meditate on the second thought. Hopefully, this particular devotional will flow more concisely as I move along to the rhythm of the Holy Spirit.
Where We Are Going…
In all of the last five weeks, we have only studied three verses from our key passage. I hope to traverse a bit more ground today as we look at the question John posited to Jesus by way of his disciples. The crux of Jesus’ answer is really the meat of our lesson today, so let me list the verses which we will be studying throughout the course of today’s devotional:
“When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’” At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Lk. 7:20-23).
John asked Jesus a specific question, “Are you the one who was to come?” If you will notice, Jesus did not really answer John’s question very clearly. Instead, He delayed any answer while He kept on doing what He had been doing when they arrived: healing and preaching. Eventually, He turned to John’s messengers and told them what they should report to John. His words were meant to change John’s perspective and alleviate his doubts. And wonder of wonders, I believe they did!
Jesus could have given John many different kinds of answers. He could have responded to John’s question by stating outright that yes, He was the Messiah. That seems, to me, to be a better way of responding to John’s anxiety, with a clear-cut, truth-filled statement. But Jesus did not.
Remember that John was languishing in prison while Jesus was working miracles on everyone else’s behalf. Jesus could have spoken to that lonely, abandoned feeling, making sure that John was assured of His love and pride in him. He could have asserted John’s value to the kingdom and to the Father. But again, He did not answer in this way.
Honestly, Jesus could have strode to that prison cell, spoken a God-inspired word, and the chains would have fallen off of John. He could have sprung him from that dungeon; He could have worked a miracle in response to John’s questioning angst, but again, He did not. He left John in prison where he eventually was martyred for his faithfulness to God.
Instead of answering John’s question in any of these logical-to-our-thinking ways, Jesus went about His regular God-given duties with a single-minded purpose. He continued to minister to the broken and after He demonstrated His power and priorities to the messengers, He told them to report back to John all that He had just done. Jesus’ answer to John’s doubting questions was supposedly all John needed to both rest in His circumstances and in the truth of the Messiah-come-down. Seeing what Jesus did, hearing what Jesus preached - these actions proved Jesus’ identity and calmed John’s fears.
If this ignoring of John’s questions spoke to his soul-cry, if this demonstration of Jesus’ power alleviated his concerns, and if His cryptic answer quelled John’s doubts in the midst of his dungeon circumstance, it is imperative for you and me to know why and how. Our task today is to figure out how Jesus managed to assuage John’s doubts without ever clearly speaking to his question.
In your time of doubt you, like John, may ask Jesus very pointed questions. He may choose to ignore them, setting up a frustration in your soul. He may continue doing His work in others all around you, which may make you feel unimportant in the scheme of life. He also may say something to you that doesn’t make much sense in light of your original question. God’s apparent non-answers can bring about a crisis of faith in your life, for how do you trust a God who will not give to you when you ask, help you find what you are seeking, and open the door to you when you knock (Mt. 7:7)?
I want to submit to you that God’s seeming non-answer is the answer you need. It may not be couched in the way you like. It may not be as clear as you would prefer. It may not even be the method or person or timing you desire, but it may be the very answer your soul craves. Reading between the lines of Jesus ignoring the messengers, His demonstration of ministry, and His cryptic answer is a tremendous truth about God, if you open your ears and mind to the hard-to-hear and difficult-to-understand heavenly priorities.
Because we do not understand God as we should, we are let down by God’s choice to ignore the specificity of our questions. Because we struggle to see outside of ourselves, we are disenchanted by God’s work on others’ behalf. And because we are overshadowed by the pain of our dungeon circumstances, we are let down when God finally does choose to speak to us. It seems too little, too late. Our perspective on God’s response of choice moves us into discouragement and negativity. A dark, dungeon mentality takes over our faith and we succumb to a mental and verbal Disillusionment with God’s Deeds.
We need a change of perspective. In these four verses (vv 20-23), Jesus speaks truths that can change our perspective, if we open our hearts up to God’s agenda and priorities. Let’s move ahead now and dive in to what God may be trying to tell us today.
The Dichotomies of God
As I think about Bob and Janet’s current prison circumstance, I understand that God has a plan for each of our lives. I am well aware that young Jay is not considered to be expendable to his good, good Father, but it sometimes seems like that to me. Are Bob and Janet questioning their God right now? I know I would be. God’s timing is so strange. His ways so incredibly mysterious and enigmatic. His plans no one can fathom and His thoughts are far above our thoughts (Isa. 55:8). I know all of these truths in my head, but my heart stumbles against them in my soul-reality.
Why is such suffering needed to bring about Jay’s friends’ redemption? Why would one life be snuffed out so others can be ignited? Why would God save Jay one time from almost-certain death only to allow him to die just a few years later? It doesn’t make any sense to me. God’s methods, how He avails of people, and His timing are so shocking to me. All of these questions create an inexplicable sinkhole in my theology.
The soft side of God turns hard on the spit of suffering. Instead of talking with God face to face, like Moses did, we are left shouting ‘whys’ to what feels like God’s retreating back. God’s love is difficult to believe in, let alone experience. His priorities seem skewed somehow: killing one person to save another, causing one person suffering to bring about another’s joy, leaving behind 99 people to save 1, and allowing the cross we are commanded to carry to sometimes break our backs. The kingdom agenda runs roughshod over our comfort and leaves us gasping, “Where is this God of love and goodness?” In short, God’s nature and ways lead to faith’s disillusionment at God’s seeming duality of purpose and deeds. He shocks us with His unexpected requirements of discipleship and belief, causing doubt and a subsequent wrestling match with Him, both as our Hound of Heaven and as our Potter.
The Dichotomy of God’s Ways: It is hard to reconcile God’s ways with our expectations.
Take God’s methods, for example.
- He used a donkey to speak truth to a false prophet (Num. 22:21ff)
- He commanded a bunch of Israelites to walk around a wall in order to bring it down (Josh 6).
- One time the Lord told David to attack the Philistines and the very next time, God told him to circle around behind them, to wait for the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, then to move toward them quickly (2 Sam. 5:20-24). They won the battle both times but in entirely different ways.
- He allowed Gideon to defeat the Midianites with only 300 men, blown trumpets and broken jars (Judg. 7:19ff).
- An oil jar filled in faith did not run out until all of a widow’s debts were paid (1 Kings 17:16).
- Or what about a simple shepherd staff that was used to enact miracle after miracle (Ex. 4ff)?
The Bible is full of examples where God worked in ways that seemed completely incongruous with nature or expectations...or even reality. But His methods worked because He orchestrated the events to bow before Him.
What about the people God chose to use?
- A judge who had a sexual addiction (Jdg. 13:1ff).
- A prophet who hated his enemies and refused to obey God’s injunction to warn them of impending doom (Jonah).
- A slave girl in a foreign land who knew God and knew His power in a prophet’s life (2 Ki. 5:2-3).
- A fear-filled, shaking, weak, unbelieving young man from the tribe of Manasseh (Jdg. 6:15).
- A religious fanatic who persecuted Christians to their death (Acts 22:3-5).
You know I could go on and on. The Bible is full of broken people being used by God in very mighty ways. All of them were paradoxes to the mission set before them, but God’s sovereignty overshadowed people as well as methods and events.
Or what about God’s timing?
- Moses went to Pharaoh and he responded by making the Israelites’ work harder. The Israelite foreman became angry toward Moses and Aaron (Ex. 5:1-22). Things got harder, not easier. I’m sure they thought that God’s sense of timing was very skewed.
- Despite a terrible famine, Elijah asked a woman for a drink and a piece of bread. She was preparing to die, since she had enough food for one more meal, which she intended to make for her son before they died. He told her not to be afraid, but to first make a small cake of bread for him, then make something for her son (1 Ki. 17:7-13). What? Make food for a stranger then provide for the family? God’s timing did not make sense.
- Through Isaiah, God asked Ahaz to request a sign when armies were standing at Judah’s door (Isa. 7). It seemed too little, too late.
- Jesus said, “My time has not yet come,” but He listened to His mom and changed water into wine anyway (Jn. 2:4-10).
- Jesus received word from two people He loved and instead of responding, He waited two more days (Jn. 11). By the time He arrived, Lazarus had been dead for about four days. Mary and Martha thought Jesus’ timing really stunk (excuse the pun).
Many times, God seemed to wait until the last minute or even after all hope had long passed. Looking at when God works can be mind-boggling because it defies all logic most of the time. Yet God is still the Author of time and He knows when the perfect moment has flowered in order to bring the greatest good and brightest glory.
The Dichotomy of God’s Character: It is hard to reconcile God’s ways with our expectations, but it is sometimes even more difficult to reconcile God’s revealed character with His lived-out ways. Let me demonstrate by way of a few examples:
- John tells us that God is love (1 Jn. 4:16), yet that loving God allowed John the Baptist to die in his prison circumstance in a truly horrible way (Mt. 14:8ff). This can be such a conundrum.
- God is holy (Rev. 4:8). He does not sin and cannot abide sin, yet just confessing sin cleanses sinners from all unrighteousness (1 Jn. 1:9). Does this seem like a conflict of interest to you?
- God is patient hoping all will come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9), yet He told Moses He would not leave the guilty unpunished, but would punish the children to the third and fourth generations (Ex. 34:7). These two thoughts seem a contradiction in terms.
- God is good and all His ways are good (Ps. 119:68), but Stephen died serving God (Acts 7) and the persecution that the early church suffered did not seem good at all (Acts 9:1). God’s goodness seemed absurd in the face of such persecution.
- God told Moses He was slow to anger and forgave wickedness, rebellion and sin (Ex. 34:7), yet He punished Israel for their sin by striking them with a plague and He refused to go with them into the Promised Land until Moses interceded for the people (Ex. 32:33-35, 33:3, 5). This feels like a paradox to me.
- The psalmist declared that God defended the fatherless and the oppressed (Ps. 10:18) and Luke said that He will bring justice for His chosen ones (Lk. 17:7), but Tamar never received justice for her sexual abuse. She lived deflowered, disgraced, and desolate (2 Sam. 13:20). What absurdity and to what gain?
God’s ways are not our ways and yet we have to live in relationship with this God. Yes, the righteous - that’s you and me - are to live by faith (Rom. 1:17) and faith is to be placed in what is not seen. But how do you and I place our faith in a God who is unseen, but seems to act in dichotomous visible ways here on earth? How do we live by faith when the Object of our faith appears to be such a paradox? The question on the table for this devotional is this: How do I faithfully navigate the shocking dichotomies of God enough to rest in His character and trust in His ways?
There are many reasons people reject Christ as their Savior, but I think the largest majority of refusals come about because of the shocking paradoxes of God. Unbelievers, and believers alike, cannot reconcile a loving God with their unrelenting suffering. Even Charles Darwin, though raised in a religious atmosphere, walked away from Christianity altogether when his daughter, Annie, died at the age of 10. Suffering moved from a theoretical aspect of life to a poignant and unchanging reality and rubbed his fading theology raw. Unfortunately, he witnessed every “last degrading moment of her short life” and that “experience destroyed what was left of his Christian faith” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/sep/17/darwin-evolution-religion).
Darwin is not the only one to have struggled with God over a prison circumstance. Joseph did, too. Imagine how he must have felt to receive a dream from God that no one believed, including his own parents. Imagine his sense of betrayal when his very own brothers sold him into slavery, content with the fact that they would never see him again. Imagine his struggle with God when, after being faithful in all of Potiphar’s house, he was blindsided by temptation; after being faithful to God and not giving in to temptation, he was clapped in jail; and after he was faithful to speak prophetic utterances in that jail, he was forgotten by one he foresaw would regain his good life.
The prophet, Jeremiah, was another good man in a series of bad situations. He had a job no one wanted: to tell a nation rebelling against God that they needed to repent. No one listened to him. No one cared about their responses to him. He was placed in prison for passing on to others what God had told him to say. And he stayed in that prison, or other ones like it, for years.
The apostle Peter knew what prison felt like, for he suffered through a tremendous persecution against the church. James, his good friend, was killed in that persecution, and he was captured and thrown into a jail as well. Imagine what was going on in his heart with the Lord that horrible night in stocks while he awaited his public trial the next day. His prison stay looked like it would end in death.
Paul and Silas also were clapped in jail for doing a good deed (Act 16:16ff). Paul freed a girl from demonic possession and the owners were so angry that they created a riot. This riot roused the Roman guard, who reacted strongly by whipping Paul and Silas and securing them in stocks.
All of these men, John included, were real people stuck in very real prison circumstances. We do not have the dialogues between them and God that must have occurred in their dungeons (oh, how I wish we did), nor do we know the intricacies of the journey God took each of them on in order to bolster their faiths in this difficult arena. All we have available to us in Scripture are their obedient responses to their God, who continued to place each of them in unrelenting circumstances. (We will continue to study these men and their prison circumstances throughout the rest of this series.)
Unrelenting circumstances unearth the realities of a poorly-grounded faith. Before suffering, a woman may tout the goodness of God. She may speak to the faithfulness of her loving heavenly Father. She may even preach that same message to those around her in faith-filled ministry. But something happens to her verbal assent to the truths of God when adversity pounds on her heart’s door. Suffering knocks the feet out from under her hollow theology, especially when it runs a long and terrible course or is severe beyond measure.
You do know that untested faith is not tried-and-true faith. What is inside of our hearts cannot be revealed - even to us - unless the heat of our circumstances, the pressure of our anxious prisons, boils it up and out of us. The Lord, in His sovereignty, often chooses to weave our faith-journey with the threads of anguish and misfortune. We reel back from God in horror and unbelievable hurt and then we come to realize what God already sees. Then we come to know our hearts. Then we come to see the sinkholes in our theology. Then we come to understand what we truly believe about God, despite what we say to the contrary.
What do we do with a God who allows such pain? How do we engage this mysterious God? When do we finally walk through our prison circumstances with trust ? My friend, how do we faithfully navigate His shocking dichotomies?
Where these questions really come home to roost is in the middle of a prison experience where God chooses to remain aloof: not answering prayers to our satisfaction, not engaging the pain of our hearts, and not changing our devastating circumstances. It’s hard when you are in the middle of a lock-down situation, to read much of the Bible, for over and over, God moved in incredible ways in answer to normal, pain-filled prayers.
Women (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah) who prayed for children eventually received them. People like Hezekiah, who experienced tremendous sickness, were healed. Moses, Elijah, and David, who suffered in a wilderness experience, eventually came out of it into abundance and blessed ministry. Innumerable amounts of times in the New Testament, people cried out to Jesus for healing or change, and He answered them. The God of the Bible appears to be a God who listens to His people, hears the angst of their hearts, and eventually moves on their behalf.
But what do we do when He doesn’t move? Why, then, I ask you, do believers today ask and ask and ask, and still not receive? Has God changed since biblical times? Has He reworked His agenda and priorities? Or it is that Christians in this day and age lack the faith needed to move the heart of God on their behalf? These are important questions and need answers. Thankfully, these answers are found in Scripture and John’s questioning stance before His Savior is all the invitation that is needed to open up our dialogue with the God who does not lie (1 Sam. 15:29) or change like shifting shadows (Mal. 3:6, Jms. 1:17).
Over the last couple of months, the Lord and I have gone round and round over eight consecutive stories in the life of Jesus. As I was studying through the book of Luke in July, these vastly different stories are listed back to back. I would normally study each one separately and move on in my read through the New Testament, but something settled deep within me about the importance of their sequence, both to what I was learning with God at that time and now as I look back, to this devotional. The Lord used this nagging sense that there was a treasure in these vignettes, a treasure that might answer some of the perspective issues in a prison circumstance. There was a treasure and I am grateful to the Lord for finally connecting some dots for me. Let me give a brief summary of these stories in order to move us sequentially to the treasure God finally showed me and which I will eventually reveal to you.
Jesus Calms A Storm (Luke 8:22-25): These few verses detail the storm that blew up on the lake of Galilee with the disciples smack-dab in the middle of a swamped boat. Jesus slept through the storm until His disciples awoke Him in a panic. He calmed the storm, rebuked their faith, and caused great awe to arise in their hearts. They wondered who He was that even the waves and wind obeyed Him.
Jesus Heals a Demoniac (Luke 8:26-39): After reaching the other side of the lake, Jesus was met by a demon-possessed man. A dialogue went on between the demons and Jesus until He finally cast them into a herd of pigs feeding on the hillside. The pigs’ owners came running and saw the man sitting at the feet of Jesus, dressed and in his right mind. All the people of the region asked Jesus to leave them because they were so afraid of Him. The freed man wanted to go also, but Jesus told him to go back and tell how much God had done for him.
Jesus Heals Jarius’ Daughter and a Woman With Bleeding (Luke 8:40-56): When Jesus got back across the lake, a crowd was there to welcome Him. In that crowd was a man named Jarius, who pleaded with Jesus to come because his only daughter was dying. Jesus was on His way to Jarius’ house when He was touched by a woman with a horrible history of bleeding. A dialogue ensued between Jesus and that woman, who was healed, both inside and out, but while that conversation played out, the daughter died. Jesus told Jarius to just believe and she would be healed. Sure enough, he went into the man’s house, took her by the hand, spoke to her to get up, and she did at once.
Jesus Sends Out His Disciples (Luke 9:1-9): In chapter 9, Jesus called His disciples and gave them authority to drive out demons and cure diseases. They went out on a preaching, healing tour with a number of instructions about how to handle people that welcomed them or not. They obeyed Jesus and experienced a fantastic ministry tour. Herod heard about all that was going on and tried to figure out who Jesus was. John, whom he had killed or Elijah coming back from the dead? He asked this question, “Who, then, is this I hear such things about?”
Jesus Feeds 5000 (Luke 9:10-17): After the disciples returned to Jesus, they had so much to tell Him. He could tell they were depleted so He took them by themselves to rest. However, in His sovereignty, He knew that there would be a crowd waiting for them. Sure enough, there was, and Jesus welcomed that crowd. After a long day of ministry, the Twelve told Jesus to send the people away. He told them to feed the crowd. They countered that only five loaves and two fish were to be found in the crowd. Jesus had them seat everyone and He took those loaves and broke them and fed over 15,000 people.
Peter’s Confession of Christ (Luke 9:18-27): One time when Jesus was praying, He asked the disciples who the crowds said He was. “John the Baptist, Elijah or a prophet,” they replied. Then He turned the question on His disciples and Peter answered, “You are the Christ of God.” Jesus then went into a discourse about the Son of Man being rejected and killed. He told them that they would need to lose their life in order to find it.
The Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36): Eight days later, Jesus took His inner circle up onto a mountain to pray. As He was praying, His face changed and He was transfigured before them. Moses and Elijah appeared talking with Jesus about His departure soon from Jerusalem. The three disciples were shocked and Peter wanted to build shelters for the three glowing figures, but then a voice from heaven spoke, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” They did not speak of this event with anyone but talked of it together.
Jesus Heals a Boy With an Evil Spirit (Luke 9:37-45): Immediately upon coming down from that mountain, a crowd met them. A man begged Jesus to help him because the other disciples could not exorcise a demon from his son. Jesus spoke of their unbelief, rebuked the spirit, and healed the boy. And all were amazed at the greatness of God. Jesus took His disciples aside and told them that He was going to be betrayed into the hands of men. But they did not understand what He meant.
When I studied these passages of Luke 1 ½ months ago, I struggled with the Lord over its meaning for my life. I felt God was trying to show me something and I did make some connections at that time. I noticed that many of the vignettes Luke presented in this back-to-back sequence talked about similar topics: the glory of God, the cost of suffering, the importance of prayer, the presence of faith/belief, and the question asked many times and in varying ways, “Who is Jesus?” These themes run rampant, not only through these eight stories, but through all four Gospels.
In preparing for this devotional, the Lord brought back these stories to my mind. I went back through my journal and began to study them again in light of God’s shocking paradoxes. One amazing thought stood out to me. Instead of musing on these stories as if they were personally tailor-made to my situation, which I often do, I began to look at them as if they were a glimpse into the agenda of God. This changed my whole perspective and gave me a bird’s-eye view of Jesus’ ministry, especially as it related to these eight vignettes.
Now before I lose you altogether, let me state this truth clearly and succinctly: God has a kingdom agenda and that agenda is bigger than you and me. We are part of His plan because He graciously allows us to join Him in His work, but individually, you and I are not the only people for whom God desires to work. God has certain priorities in place, something He termed the kingdom of God, a godly agenda that He desires to work out on planet earth.
To know the mind of God is to be consumed with the heart of God. And to be consumed with God’s passions, we must feast upon His Word and His ways. His priorities for mankind and eternity are clearly seen if one simply takes the time to study God’s practices both in the Old and New Testaments. To add more practical clarity to what is revealed about God, Jesus’ actions, which are carefully documented for us in the gospels, demonstrated a flowing-down of God’s priorities toward the Jews and Gentiles of His day.
So the next question we need to answer is this: what are God’s priorities? Based on what is revealed in the Scriptures, what constitutes His agenda for mankind? If we can answer these questions, we will understand God’s heart for us. And if we can understand His heart, then we will also comprehend the treasure imbedded in Jesus’ words to John’s messengers.
The P.R.I.O.R.I.T.I.E.S. of God
Before I delve into the vast, unplumbable depths of God’s mind and heart, let me be very careful to say that I do not presume to box Him up and package Him out. I have a very holy fear of God and would never trespass on such an immense and over-my-head topic with a familiar attitude. My prayer echoes David’s, “My heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul...like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps. 131:1-2).
I do not presume to know God with some special revelation so that I can speak with confidence about matters too great and wonderful for me. No way have I explored the fathomless riches of God’s heart for this world nor what He did to bring us close to Him. God has a multi-faceted plan and I’m grateful to be a tiny part of it, but I do not pretend to understand all of God’s ways. What I hope to share with you is simply a brief synopsis of what I have gleaned from a long study of Jesus’ statements pertaining to why He came to earth and Jesus’ actions as seen in these eight vignettes. What I hope to offer you are ten priorities that appear to be important to the Godhead. These stand out for me like sentinels on duty: clear, focused, and persistent. I will list these priorities for you in advance and then take some time to validate and fill out (I hope) each of these simple statements.
Keep in mind that there may be more actions of God that do not fall into this concise arrangement. You may know of other godly priorities off the top of your head. This list is not meant to be a comprehensive one, but a general itemization for the purpose of instruction. With all these caveats out of the way, let’s study these ten priorities of God.
P - Preach the Good News
After the confirmation of His baptism and after the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus returned to Galilee and began to teach in the synagogues. One Sabbath day he went into the synagogue as was His usual custom and He stood up to read. The passage He chose to highlight came from Isaiah 61 and other passages in Isaiah. These are the first spoken ministry words documented by Luke, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Lk. 4:18).
Over and over in the gospels, we see Jesus preaching and teaching, both to the crowds and to the disciples who were closer to Him. One time while Jesus was praying in a solitary place, Simon and others went to look for Him. They told Him that everyone was looking for Him and Jesus answered, “Let us go somewhere else - to the nearby villages - so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” He continued traveling throughout Galilee, preaching in the synagogues and driving out demons (Mk. 1:35-39).
I hope you caught those important phrases. Preach. That is why I have come. Preaching the Good News of the Gospel was a high priority of God that Jesus set out to complete.
Even in our tiny cross-section of the gospels - these eight vignettes - this theme of preaching rises to the top. When the demoniac was healed, he begged to go with Jesus. Jesus told him he needed to stay in his town and tell what God had done (Lk. 8:39). When Jesus sent out the disciples, He told them to preach the kingdom of God and they did, preaching the gospel everywhere (Lk. 9:2, 6). After Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus preached the gospel message to them, that the Son of Man would suffer many things and be killed (Lk. 9:21). Elijah and Moses talked with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration about his departure from Jerusalem (Lk. 9:31). After Jesus exorcised the demon from the boy, once again He took His disciples aside and said these words, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Men is going to be betrayed into the hands of men” (Lk. 9:44).
These examples are just a few of the times Jesus preached the good news to people who were hungry for hope. What is that good news? Paul declares it simply in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.”
Even Paul declared the gospel message as being of first importance. Jesus’ death brought you atonement. Jesus’ burial brought you the glorious option of dying to sin (Rom. 6:4a). His resurrection gives you the option of living a new life (Rom. 6:4c). That He appeared to others gives proof of your salvation and justification.
My mom used to sing a CEF children’s song to me. It still rings in my head today. Here’s how I think it goes if I am remembering correctly from forty-plus years ago:
Good news! Good news! Christ died for me. / Good news! Good news! If I believe / Good news! Good news! I’m saved eternally / That’s wonderful extra good news.
Good news! Good news! Christ lives in me. / Good news! Good news! He prays for me / His Word tells that He’ll come again for me / That’s wonderful extra good news.
Dear friend, if you do not know this good news personally, I invite you to contact me. I would love to share with you this incredible news that is of first importance to Jesus. The Good News of God is that Jesus was sent here to obtain salvation for you so that you could one day live eternally with Him. That is wonderful extra good news.
R - Redeem Sinners
This second point may seem a bit redundant of the first, but Christ separated redemption out enough from preaching the gospel that I feel it is important to do so as well. The Good News is of general importance to our eternal destination, but the redemption of your life and mine is very specific.
Jesus made many statements about this priority as it pertained to His coming to earth. So did Paul. Listen to a few of these:
- “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).
- “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk. 19:10).
- “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn. 3:16-17).
- “Jesus said, ‘For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind’” (Jn. 9:39).
- “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (Jn. 17:4).
- “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished - he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26).
- “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim. 1:15).
My quick google search for the word ‘redemption’ brought up these two definitions. 1) The action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil. Synonyms include vindication and absolution. 2) The action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt.
Both of these definitions proclaim the agenda of God. He sent Jesus to die so that we would be saved from sin. He vindicated us by the cross, absolved us of unrighteousness, and cleansed us with the blood of Christ. But He also bought us back from Satan’s power. He recovered us, reclaimed us, and repossessed us for His goodness and glory.
Precious one, how does it make your gratefulness stand to attention to know that the Creator of the whole universe had you in mind when He sent Christ to die? Does your heart not thrill with praise for the One who purchased you by His very own blood, calling you His child? Oh, take a moment and meditate on this priority of God...for you. One of the top goals on His kingdom agenda is you.
Dear one, your redemption was, is and always will be one of God’s top priorities on the kingdom calendar.
I - Increase Faith
Our mission’s work in MaeSai is incredibly moving. Twenty young girls comprise the church plant in that small Shan village, but oh, what incredible girls they are. A couple of years ago, when Paao (name changed to protect identity) was fourteen years old, she heard the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who would not bow to the statue of the king.
It wasn’t long before Paao had the opportunity to demonstrate a similar faith. Before the day begins in any Thai school, the national anthem is played and all are required to bow before a statue of Buddha. That day, when every other head went down in reverence before Buddha, Paao stood straight and tall. When interrogated as to why she would not bow, she gave a simple testimony. “I just learned about three men in the Bible who would not bow to a statue. Because I believe in Jesus and He is my God, I cannot bow to Buddha anymore.”
Paoo was rebuked and ridiculed. She was verbally abused by all around her and though she was not kicked out of her family at that time, she was ostracized by her friends and neighbors. But her testimony of faith in Jesus has reaped much fruit in the lives of young women around her.
Jesus smiled and applauded Paoo on that day because faith is one of God’s highest priorities. Over and over in Scripture, faith is touted as a key ingredient to pleasing God. It is essential to growing in the likeness of Christ into godly maturity and righteousness.
Faith stands out in almost every vignette I have described to you. After Jesus rebuked the storm, he turned to His disciples and asked, “Where is your faith” (Lk. 8:25)? The Gerasenes missed out on all that Jesus desired to do in them when they begged Jesus to leave, overcome with fear instead of faith (Lk. 8:37). After Jarius got the news that his daughter was dead, Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed” (Lk. 8:50). The disciples were given authority to heal and preach and they were successful because of their faith in Jesus’ words (Lk. 9:1-6). Faith was a prerequisite to the disciples’ gathering of five loaves and two fish as well as seating over 15000 people in preparation for a miracle of God (Lk. 9:13-17). It was through the revelation of the Spirit and Peter’s faith that he was able to declare an obscure truth, “You are the Christ of God” (Lk. 9:20). When the disciples could not cast out the demon from the little boy, Jesus first addressed their faith, “O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you and put up with you” (Lk. 9:41).
Faith is, and always will be, of utmost importance in the mind of the Father. Over and over, the gospel writers document who did and did not have faith in Christ (Jn. 11:44, for example). The efficacy of preaching is based on faith (Acts 3:16). Leadership qualities include faith (Acts 6:5). Stand-alone kind of faith ripples out to others who are struggling in their faith; it is a catalyst for change (Rom. 1:8). The gospel is revealed by faith (Rom. 1:17). Righteousness comes by faith (Rom. 9:30). Ministry is produced by faith (1 Thess. 1:3). It is important to share your faith (Philemon 1:6). We draw near to God in full assurance of faith (Heb. 10:22). Faith requires testing (Jms. 1:3). Deeds are nothing without faith (Jms. 2:14ff). And what about that whole chapter on faith? By faith, person after person after person pleased their loving God (Heb. 11).
The word ‘faith’ comes up in my Old Testament search engine 16 times and in the New Testament 283 times. You can know for sure that faith is declared this often throughout Scripture, you must know that it is very important to God. The same God who cultivated His disciples’ faith affirmed Paoo’s faith-filled stance. And He will work the same priority into your relationship with Him as well. It is clear to see, after all, that what you believe in really does matter to the Lord of Hosts.
O - Obliterate Satan’s Works
In the opening verses of Ephesians 2, Paul outlines some incredible truths about Christ’s work and the believers’ inheritance, but he starts with a startling and attention-grabbing truth, “You were dead in your transgressions and sins,” he said, “in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (vv 2-3).
The depiction of the ‘ruler of the kingdom of the air’ (NIV) is rounded out in other translations: the prince of the power of the air (NKJV), the ruler of the evil powers that are above the earth (NCV), the dark ruler of the earthly realm (Passion), and the devil, the commander of the powers in the unseen world (NLT). For those of you still unsure of whom Paul speaks, this is Satan, who is the ruler over the dominion of darkness (Col. 1:13) and who also lives in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12). He marshals a force that is not flesh and blood, but are made up of rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world, and spiritual forces of evil (Eph. 6:12).
In Ephesians 1 and 2, Paul tells us that before Christ, we were dead in our sins because we followed Satan’s ways. We gratified our sinful nature and followed its desires and thoughts. In this sad scenario, we were considered by God to be objects of wrath (Eph. 2:3). But God, who is rich in mercy, stepped into this sad tale, rescued us from this dark dominion, and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves (Col. 1:13). John described Jesus’ work of obliteration with these words, “...the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 Jn. 3:8). As a result of this heavenly destruction, a rescuing, forgiving, redeeming God becomes our Father and we step into the richest inheritance imaginable.
The writer of Hebrews describes Jesus’ obliterating methods this way, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too (meaning Jesus) shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15). Jesus worked to obliterate the devil’s powerful hold on you and me through His death on the cross. But more than that, if you read this verse carefully, Jesus’ death destroyed the power of the devil. Look at it again. The victory was won. Christ obliterated Satan’s works of captivity and death.
This transfer from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light is life-changing, but it is only one way God works to obliterate Satan’s works. In the prayer that Jesus taught His disciples, there are two powerful phrases that speak to God’s destruction of Satan’s ongoing works, “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Mt. 6:13). Though the heavenly demolition work has already been won, Satan’s power is still unbound. Yes, he is subject to the King of Kings. Nothing happens to you and me without God’s permission. Satan has incredible authority over this world, but he still has to ask permission to come after you. Satan works very hard to tempt you to sin, to doubt, to act in unrighteous ways. That is why our prayers for deliverance from his evil is an incredible part to play in God’s kingdom agenda. It helps to reduce Satan’s power over us and it obliterates one of Satan’s works.
Another one of Satan’s agendas is to steal from you, kill the good that is bearing fruit on the inside of you, and destroy what God is doing in and through you (see Jn. 10:10a). He steals your hopes, kills your faith, and destroys your dreams. The works of Satan are always about destruction and evil. But look at Jesus’ answer to Satan’s agenda: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (Jn. 10:10b - NASB). Jesus’ obliterates Satan’s work of destruction with His agenda of abundance, more than you expect, life in its fullness until you overflow (Jn. 10:10 - The Passion).
If Satan cannot destroy you outright, he will work to eat away at your integrity. Those who look good on the outside but are deep sinkholes on the inside have given way to one of Satan’s works. This duality of faith and deeds is term ‘hypocrisy’ by God. It is as detrimental to the glory of God as outright rebellion. Jesus spoke against hypocrisy often (Mt. 6:2, 5, 16; 15:7; 22:18 for example). He had more fighting words with the Pharisees of His day than any other group. Hypocrisy is a full-out, degrading work of the devil and God condemns it, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Mk. 7:6-7). In His address to the church of Laodicea, God told them that because they were lukewarm in their deeds for Him, He would spew them out of His mouth (Rev. 4:15-16).
Captivity. Death. Stealing. Killing. Destroying. Harassing. Tempting. Hypocrisy. These are just a few works of Satan that God seeks diligently to annihilate. As God-followers, we must know His priority of Satanic destruction and we must purposefully put to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature (Col. 3:5). As we participate in this work by prayer and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we join forces with the God-head to obliterate Satan’s work in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
R - Restore Broken People
In Jesus’ declaration of ministry points in Luke, He listed these four statements after His desire to preach the good news to the poor. “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Do you feel imprisoned by your circumstances? Are you blinded about your future or even your own motivations? Are you oppressed by another’s dictatorial behavior or by a financial crunch? Are you in great need of the Lord’s favor? If you identify with any of these four statements, you need to realize that you are a priority of God. He finds great delight in restoring broken people and restructuring broken situations.
Hebrews 2:14-15 speaks to these same themes, “...by his death he might destroy...the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” These New Testament statements are expressions of the beautifully poetic imagery in Isaiah 61. The Spirit of God desires to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives, release from darkness for the prisoners, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve, to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair (vv 1-4).
Jesus did not heal everyone who was sick, but much of His ministry involved restoring the broken. He embraced the outcasts, those who had been marginalized by society. He hung out with tax collectors and sinners (Mt. 9:11-14). He touched the leprous (Mt. 8:1-3) and spent time with Gentiles (Mt. 8:5ff; 15:21ff). He spoke kindly to Judas, the one who would soon betray Him (Mt. 26:2-25). He even forgave sinners from the cross (Lk. 23:34). Jesus’ whole life was wrapped up in restoring broken people to health and spiritual wholeness.
Taking the time to look again at our eight vignettes, Jesus set a man free from his captivity of demon possession (Lk. 8:29, 36). He raised a girl from the dead, restoring her to good health once again (Lk. 8:53ff). His power healed a woman with an issue of blood, but then Jesus took the time to heal her socially and internally, bringing her to spiritual peace (Lk. 8:46-48). In applying authority to His disciples, Jesus gave them power to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, along with their commission to preach the kingdom of God (Lk. 9:1-2). He took care of the physical needs of 15000 people who were hungry, both for real food and for the food of God (Lk. 9:10ff). Again later, He healed another demon-possessed boy, even when His disciples were unable to do so (Lk. 9:42).
As Christ-followers we are all to have God’s priorities foremost in our ministry thoughts and actions. We are to proclaim the Good News, help in the process of redeeming sinners, work to increase others’ faith, participate in obliterating Satan’s works and help to restore broken people. (These are the priorities we have studied so far.) If God thinks these kingdom values are important, we must as well.
However, I do believe God also places His kingdom passions into each of us in very individual and specific ways. Out of all the ten priorities we are going to study in this devotional, one wraps its way around my heart like the warmth of glowing coals. Like Jeremiah who said, “if I say I will not mention him or speak any more in his name” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jer. 20:9). Jeremiah could not hold the Word of God in His heart. He had to share it. It was a specific and individual burden of proclaiming the Good News that was placed on his ministry plate.
For me, the fire in my bones is restoring broken people. More than evangelizing, more than redemption and salvation, my life’s song reverberates to the heavenly tunes of restoration. I know this passion was placed in me by the Lord, for a verse was drilled into my heart by the Holy Spirit quite a few years ago, “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isa. 58:12). I have not seen this fiery commission played out into a full-blown ministry yet, but I believe it is coming. For now, I seek to restore other people through the avenues of mentoring, discipleship, teaching, speaking, composing and writing. These outlets channel my passion into ministry opportunities.
If your heart throbs over ‘r’ words - rebuilding, remaking, rejuvenating, and I could go on and on - then you are probably a fellow- restorer. If so, you can know this: your heart beats in tune with the heart of the Master Rebuilder. Restoring broken people is one of God’s highest priorities.
I - Inspire Right Living
A statement in the opening chapter of Hebrews outlines another priority for Jesus, “But about the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy” (Heb. 1:8-9).
Did you see that word ‘righteousness’ mentioned twice in those verses? Righteousness is the scepter of Jesus’ kingdom. Why? Because He loved righteousness. If we are to have a kingdom mindset, we also must love righteousness and hate wickedness. Righteousness must rule our lives as it ruled the Son’s.
We are not to offer our bodies to sin as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer ourselves to God and present the parts of our bodies to him as instruments of righteousness (Rom. 6:13). We are not to be so worried about matters of eating and drinking. Instead, we are to focus on righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. These qualities are important in the kingdom of God (Rom. 14:17). We are to dwell in grace, for God’s grace is the fountainhead of righteousness (Gal. 2:21). Our love is to abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so that we can be pure, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus (Phil. 1:9-11). We are to flee temptations and traps that money brings into our lives and be content. If we flee these hazards, we are to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness (1 Tim. 6:6-11).
It is very apparent that God is interested in righteous living. Paul, in Romans, spoke of God’s priority using a very different word: conformed, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). So righteous living equals conformity to Jesus, but the question my practical side blurts out is “How?” How do you and I infuse a sense of righteousness into the marrow of our walk with God?
I am not going to give a complete list, obviously, but let me spell out a few ways we can begin to live more righteously. In Luke, we discover three practical actions. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Lk. 9:23-24). In these two verses, we see that righteousness begins with denying self, taking up one’s cross daily, and following after Jesus. Trying to hold onto my life, my ways, my attitudes, my way of doing things is contrary to the concept of discipleship. There must be a losing of one’s life, a surrender of goals and dreams and aptitudes for the greater glory of God. When that happens, righteousness begins to bud in the heart of a disciple.
Another great verse describes another three actions that will water the righteous seed God has placed within us. These actions are the essence of real change. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will (Rom. 12:1-2).
Notice the three actions mentioned here: offer your bodies as living sacrifices, refuse to conform to the world, and allow God to transform you by renewing your mind with truth. You allow yourself to be a sacrifice when you offer your time to God, your pleasures to God, your money to God, your resources to God and your family and friends. God is not a kill-joy. He will take your sacrifice and use it to further the kingdom, leaving behind in you a deposit of righteousness.
While you are offering your body as a sacrifice to God, you must remember that the world will continue to pull at you. You must not allow yourself to conform to this empty, meaningless, dark and evil world. Instead, you must put off the old self (Eph. 4:22). If you enjoy drinking and God has convicted you of its influence, put if off. If watching that certain Netflix series brings twinges to your conscience, put off that show. Every time you put off part of your old nature, you dip your soul in the righteousness of God.
You can’t just put off old habits without transforming your mind, which is the third injunctive in Romans 12:2. You transform your life by being made new in the attitude of your mind (Eph. 4:23), meaning you replace all the lies that Satan has constructed in your belief system with the truths of Scripture. As you dwell on those true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy passages of Scripture (Phil. 4:8), you will find that your negative, worldly attitudes will be replaced with righteous thinking and living.
There are so many more passages of Scripture that focus on righteous living. I would hazard a guess without any specific study, that the vast majority of content in both the gospels and epistles are steeped in the ‘how-tos’ of righteousness. Thoughts like loving your enemy (Mt. 5:44) and forgiving others (Lk. 6:12) are just tiny drops in the bucket of the righteous requirements of discipleship. God cares deeply about your conformity to Christ. He cares deeply about my transformation. All in all, this inspirational passion of God moves Him to engage the inside of our lives often, if not daily. Righteous living is high on the priority list of God.
T - Testify to the Truth
Our family has been watching portions of The Truth Project for our devotions most nights. In the very first video, the teacher, Del Tackett, asked the question, “What reason did Jesus give for coming into the world?” His class gave up a lot of good answers, some of the answers that have driven my acronyms on God’s priorities. Tackett quoted this verse as the basis for Christ’s Incarnation and the focus of the whole study on which he was embarking, “...Jesus answered, ‘You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (Jn. 18:37).
Because of the fourteen other statements Christ made as to why He came into the world, I do not believe this one verse was Christ’s only stated mission. However, in thinking about Tackett’s encompassing premise, it does appear that testifying to the truth is the underlying motivation for all of these ten priorities we have studied so far. For example, without truth, there is no proclamation of Good News, no building blocks in the process of redeeming sinners. Without truth, faith is null and void. Without truth, there is no plumbline to obliterate Satan’s untruths. Broken people will stay broken if there is no truth to begin restoration. And righteous living is a pipe dream without the foundation of truth.
Testifying to the truth is clearly a huge priority of the kingdom.
Jesus was truth personified. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). Later on, in answer to a question from Thomas, Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). Embodying truth was inherent to its testimony.
Jesus also spoke truth. On many occasions when Jesus previewed a major theology bombshell, He used the words, “I tell you the truth.” I tell you the truth that not one stroke of a pen will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Mt. 5:18). I tell you the truth, hypocrites have received their reward in full (Mt. 6:2). I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them (Mk. 3:28). I tell you the truth, anyone who gives a cup of cold water in my name will not lose his reward (Mr. 9:41). I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his hometown (Lk. 4:24). Because Jesus was truth, He verbalized nothing but truth.
Not only did Jesus embody truth and speak truth, He also confirmed truth. “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy…” (Rom. 15:8). You see, God had spoken many promises and prophecies to men in the Old Testament. Jesus confirmed the truthfulness of His Father when He fulfilled all of those prophecies. Matthew 5:17 tells us that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. His aim was not to overthrow existing truth, but to satisfy it in full.
Deception is one of Satan’s works, so it is no surprise that Jesus was so adamant about the need for truthfulness. Righteous living must include the blossoming beauty of truthful integrity. If you want to know what God’s will for your life is, look no further than the importance of speaking, hearing, meditating on, memorizing, breathing in and living out the truth of Scripture. Truth is one of God’s highest priorities for you and for me.
I - Illuminate God’s Glory
If ever there was a primer that revealed God’s priorities, it would be Jesus’ pattern of prayer seen in Matthew 6:9-13. One British pastor serving in Singapore has broken down the Lord’s Prayers into these priorities: praise (v 9), purpose, (v 10), provision (v 11), pardon (v 12), protection (v 13), and pardon (added ending to the prayer). www.cscc.org.sg/sermon/what-are-gods-priorities-today/ (You can bet all of this alliteration really appeals to my love affair with words.)
As I study through this prayer model, I do notice - alliterations aside - that allusions to God’s glory appear three times in this prayer. The second phrase “hallowed be your name” (v 9) speaks to the reverence we need to have in approaching the glory of God. Praying for “God’s kingdom to come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (v 10) is a heaven-induced longing for God’s glory to reign here on earth. And as some later manuscripts have said, “for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever” (v 13+). Obviously, glory is attributed to God when we pray in His will and for His will to govern our hearts and the circumstances around us.
Jesus extended this priority into almost everything He did. For instance, in a conversation where He predicted His death, he revealed that His heart was troubled. In His flesh, He wanted to have His Father save Him from His hour of persecution, but then His faith talked to His emotions, “No, it was for this very reason I came to this hours. Father, glorify your name!” (Jn. 12:27). The glory of God ruled His recalcitrant emotions and moved Him into His faith-filled purpose.
The subject of God’s glory is laced throughout Jesus’ poignant prayers for Himself some time between His long teaching discourse and His arrest. “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you...I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (Jn. 17:1, 3-5). He prayed for God’s glory to rest on Him. He prayed His actions would glorify God. He reiterated that all that He had accomplished for God had brought Him glory. He prayed that God would glorify Him in His presence, the same presence He had experience with His Father in heaven.
As I look back over my eight consecutive vignettes, this glory theme threads its way through most of them. In the aftermath of Jesus’ spoken words to the sea and wind, the lesson the disciples learned was that this Jesus was a man to be reverenced. They demonstrated fear and amazement at His glory (Lk. 8:25). After Jesus healed the demoniac, the people saw how he had been cured. God was glorified, although their response was the wrong kind of fear (8:37-38). The healing of Jarius’ daughter and the sick woman resulted in astonishment by those who viewed it. That astonishment was a measure of glory in the right direction (8:56). Herod’s attempt to meet with Jesus was due mostly to the awe he felt about all that was happening (9:9). Jesus’ probing about who people said He was ended in a discourse on sacrifice and losing one’s life. He talked about the return of the Son of Man when He comes in all of His glory (9:26). The transfiguration was completely about glory and Peter, James and John “saw his glory” after they woke up from their naps (9:32). After Jesus healed the boy with the evil spirit, all were amazed at the greatness of God (9:43).
Between the Lord’s prayer, the prayers of Jesus before His Father and the amazement and wonder engendered by His miraculous deeds, God was given the honor due Him. The Son glorified the Father through every aspect of His life. As you read through the prayers, especially note that these
are potent prayers. When you choose to downgrade your wishes and wants in order to upgrade the Lord’s glory, amazing things will happen. You will participate with God in accomplishing the goals of the Kingdom, which are other-centered, far-reaching, and eternal.
E - Equip Leaders
Nowhere is this goal of God’s more clearly pronounced than in the Great Commission. Listen to these words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:18b-20).
The last words Jesus spoke to His disciples before He ascended to heaven were termed a “blessing” by Luke (24:50-51). He blessed them with the favor of God by inviting them into the priorities of God. Equipping leaders requires the authority of the Godhead and Jesus had all of heaven’s authority at His disposal (Mt. 28:18b). With that authority, He commissioned His eleven disciples for a huge mission. These men - who had walked with Him, talked with Him, learned from Him, failed Him, and been restored by Him - were the backbone of leadership in the era following Jesus’ return to heaven. All of God’s priorities rested on their very human shoulders.
Just in our eight vignettes alone, we can see some characteristics that Jesus elevated as leadership material:
- Jesus took His disciples into a storm to increase their faith (Lk. 8:25). Faith is required by all disciples, but especially those who need to lead others to Jesus.
- He crossed an entire lake for a Gentile man who was demon-possessed, showing His men that leadership crosses all cultures to save and disciple those who are bound by Satan’s chains, even if only one responds (Lk. 8:26ff).
- He delayed healing for Jarius’ daughter so that He could tend to a minority woman who desperately needed a soul-refresher (Lk. 8:40ff). In this incredibly bold move, Jesus showed His disciples that leaders speak to all needs in all people: physical, emotional, and spiritual.
- As He sent His disciples out to preach the kingdom of God, His injunction to take nothing for the journey was not necessarily a command for all ministry leaders to travel light (Lk. 9:3ff). It was a reminder that God was in control of all leaders and their missions. They could trust Him to take care of His kingdom agenda that was being worked out through their willing hearts.
- In the feeding of the 5000, Jesus taught His leaders that all they had to give out on their discipleship journeys were the five and two already in their possession. They had to offer those innately-bestowed gifts of God to Him to be blessed, broken and distributed for the refreshment of other needy seekers (Lk. 9:10ff).
- When Jesus asked the disciples who the crowds said He was, then made that question more personal, He showed them the importance of crystallizing all they had seen and heard into faith-filled statements of conviction (Lk. 9:18-20). Leaders must know who Jesus is and be willing to lay all on the line for His calling and agenda (Lk. 9:23-27).
- He took His three closest men to witness His transfiguration. These men, overawed as they were during most of the encounter, heard what leaders need to know down deep in their marrow, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him” (Lk. 9:35). Listening to Jesus is a leader’s greatest beacon to light his often-cloudy way forward.
- In the exorcising of the demon afflicting the boy, the leaders-to-be learned they could not do miracles in their own power. They needed fasting and prayer to take care of some very deep spiritual strongholds (Mk. 9:29). All leaders need to be dependent upon God for every move, but more than that, prayer must be the plumb-line for all discipleship endeavors.
In these vignettes and all through Jesus’ careful mentoring of His disciples, Jesus knew that He had imparted to them all the leadership material they would need to disciple others, all the leadership testing their faith would need to persevere, and all the leadership integrity that would draw all men to God. He had taught them for three long years and they had muddled their way to the top of God’s leadership charts for the post-cross church, termed The Way.
With all that they had received from God, they were to make more disciples of Jesus. Not by being stand-alone icons of a heavenly counsel, but by loving their enemies (Mt. 5:44b), by praying for those who persecuted them (Mt. 9:44c), and by preaching the Good News of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (Lk. 9:2). In short, they were given the authority to take in and live out the ten top priorities of God.
Making disciples includes baptism, meaning that those same God-followers must make a dramatic stand for Christ: some against their families, some against their culture, and some against their traditions, but all for God. All those disciples must enter into a Discipleship 101 class, where they learn to obey everything God has commanded them to do, everything that falls under God’s kingdom agenda.
Equipping leaders is no easy task. All potential leaders have the potentiality of failure. They are weak human beings who need constant encouragement to live God’s way and not be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Heb. 3:13). They need to be remembered constantly in prayer (1 Tim. 1:4). They require shepherding so that they fan into flame their gifts from God (1 Tim. 1:6). They must be prodded to testify about the Lord, even joining in suffering for the gospel, if that is what God wills (1 Tim. 1:8). They need to be encouraged to stand on Whom they have believed because they are convinced that God is able to guard what has been entrusted to Him (1 Tim. 1:12). They need to learn to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:1). Each disciple-maker must keep reminding his flock of all the priorities of God (2 Tim. 2:14), so that they are presented to God as one approved, a workman unashamed, who correctly handles the word of truth (1 Tim. 2:15).
Amongst all of the other nine priorities of God that Jesus sought to live out, He brought along twelve unlikely men to watch Him, question Him, and begin to emulate Him. In that mimicking, learning process, what we term discipleship today, Jesus formed leaders that changed their known world. As you and I also go in the truths that Jesus taught, with the authority of heaven at our backs, we, too, can be God’s leaders appointed for the equipping of others. We can baptize and teach them to obey all of God’s priorities and experience the promise Jesus spoke to His first equipped leaders, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:20)..
S - Solidify a Relationship With God
I hope you have realized by now that these priorities that we have been studying are not in any particular order. I have simply pulled out these truths and arranged them so that they fit an acronym that reminds me of God’s first things in the world. However, there is one priority that rises to the top of God’s kingdom agenda; maybe it can even be described as the most important priority of all: the priority to love God.
One time a teacher of the law came to hear the Lord debate with the Sadducees (see Mark 18, 28). This teacher saw that Jesus handled His own against these great religious leaders, giving them good answers to their questions, so he decided to ask Jesus his own question, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Jesus’ answer to him is very important to us. “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mk. 12:29-30). What Jesus elevated that day, above all of the 600 plus commandments that the religious leaders attempted to follow, was this: a relationship with God must drive all of the other priorities. Out of the overflow of that all-important relationship, cascaded the priority of helping others solidify their own relationships with God.
Jesus did not speak this command of God lightly; no, He lived it out in spoken and active detail. Listen to some of these statements Jesus made about His relationship with His Father. They are achingly alive with intimacy and rich in relationship. Jesus knew His Father and sought to please His Father with all of His heart, soul, strength and mind:
- “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mt. 11:27).
- “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me” (Jn. 8:42).
- “Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father - and I lay down my life for the sheep...The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life - only to take it up again” (Jn. 10:14, 17).
- “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (Jn. 10:37-38).
- “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well” (Jn. 14:6-7).
- “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing the work” (Jn. 14:10).
- “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you...If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn. 14:20, 23).
- “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love” (Jn. 15:9).
You do realize that I could go on and on. The gospel of John is chock-full of statements that demonstrate Jesus’ solid relationship with His Father. He loved His Father, spent much time with the Father, and further demonstrated that those who knew Him would also know His Father.
One way that Jesus evidenced His deep desire to deepen His relationship with His Father was through prayer. In the aftermath of healing a leper, Luke tells us that the news about Him spread all the more, so that crowds came to hear Him and be healed of their sicknesses. Instead of giving in to the notoriety, instead of feeling pressured to heal everyone who came to Him, instead of seeking the limelight, Jesus focused on a key priority of His Father’s: intimacy. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Lk. 5:16).
Before Jesus first called His disciples to Him, Luke makes mention of the fact that Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray and spent the entire night praying to God. In the morning, He called His disciples to Him and chose twelve of them to be apostles (Lk. 6:12-13). Seeking God’s favor and will, Jesus prayed for guidance.
After Jesus had healed many, He got up very early in the morning, while it was still dark. He left the house where He was staying, went off to a solitary place, and He prayed. Simon and His companions went looking for Him, and told Him that He was in great demand. Jesus gave them His new mission, preaching in other villages (Mk. 2:35-38). Where had He gotten that new direction? He had been guided by His Father while bending His heart over His knees.
Intimate prayer with the Father proceeded the great Transfiguration, where God pronounced His absolute favor over His Son (Lk. 9:28ff). Jesus’ example of prayer prompted one of the disciples to ask him how they should pray. What followed is the heart of God for you and me in our devoted time with Him (Lk. 11:1-4). Jesus prayed long and hard in the Garden of Gethsemane, seeking His favor, bending His will, and drawing down comfort over His war-torn soul (Mt. 26:36ff). Jesus even prayed from the cross as impending darkness veiled His soul-knit relationship with God, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” (Mt. 27:46)?
Do you want to know God’s heart, His will for your life, His kingdom agenda? You will only come to understand the priorities of God as you come to lean upon His breast. God is love (1 Jn. 4:16). As we abide in His love, fear, thoughts of punishment (1 Jn. 4:18), even doubts, will be erased as we look full on His glorious face.
That is why Paul felt compelled to pray for the Ephesian church in this way, “For this reason I kneel before the Father...I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge - that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:14-19).
God has at least ten kingdom priorities, but I believe a deep and maturing relationship with you is uppermost in His thoughts. David knew this truth. If you read the psalms that poured out of his soul, you will come to know the depth of his relationship with His heavenly Father. This intimacy was reciprocal, for the author of Acts testified on God’s behalf, “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do” (Acts 13:22).
My friend, does this statement describe your relationship with your Father? If not, then the first step you need to take before you read any further in this devotional is the step of surrendered prayer. Ask God to plant in you a burning desire to know Him more. Ask Him to water that seed until it bursts up and out of you onto a very thirsty world. Do not let complacency rob you of intimacy with your Beloved. Do not let busyness choke out the priority work God is trying to do in your heart. Engage it! Engage Him. And be changed!
Five Prison Circumstances
I promised you a brief look into five other prison circumstances. Since we have studied God’s priorities, I think it will be easier to see the heavenly plan behind the dungeon frustration. Knowing God’s agenda has really helped me to look out from myself and my situation and see what He may be trying to do around me. That same looking-in perspective can help us ascertain what God was trying to accomplish in the dungeons of Joseph, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul and Silas, and later on, Paul again. With heavenly priorities at the forefront of our thinking, let’s look into these dungeons and see the bigger picture of what God may have been trying to accomplish.
Joseph (Gen. 37-50): Joseph had a dream of the future. However it played out, this was a proclamation from God; He proclaimed the Good News of the family’s salvation through a dream years in advance (37:5). Joseph was sold into slavery and while God was equpping Joseph to be a leader by putting him through temptation and betrayal and abandonment, He sought to redeem and restore the sinful and broken. One whole chapter was given to Judah’s redemption and restoration (ch. 37) and later on, he was the one who worked to redeem his own brother, Benjamin. All of the pain played out in Jacob’s life, but God was trying to solidify a relationship with Him. He was working to obliterate Satan’s stranglehold on Jacob’s heart by increasing his faith and inspiring righteous living. After the brothers headed to Egypt to buy food, the whole process that Joseph put them through - questioning them, being harsh toward them, testing them - these were to ascertain if they had both a solid relationship with God and whether they would testify to the truth (chs 42-44). He acknowledged to them after his unveiling that God had sent him ahead to save their lives (45:5). That kind of language should now make you sit up and take notice because God used Joseph’s pain and life to redeem and restore his whole family. All in all, Joseph’s prison circumstances illuminated God’s glory from start to finish.
Jeremiah (Jer. 37ff): What got Jeremiah into prison was His proclamation of news testifying to the truth. Assyrian would come and both Israel and Judah would fall into slavery. This news was not well-liked so he was imprisoned for years. While he was in prison, however, King Zedekiah often talked to him in private (37:17). Jeremiah had the continued opportunity to proclaim the Good News if Zedekiah would obey and testify to the truth of his prophecy. He worked to inspire righteous living in that evil king, hoping that increased faith would overturn the judgement that was coming. The fall of Jerusalem (ch. 39) was God’s great work of trying to restore His people to Himself. Even in the darkness of a dungeon or captivity, God was still given the glory. The commander of the Assyrian army attributed all that had gone one to the Lord’s proclamation and restoration (40:2-3).
Peter (Acts 12): Persecution broke out against the church. As a result, James was killed and Peter was clapped in irons. However, the persecution scattered the Christians, enabling them to proclaim the Good News in many places around the known world of that time and many sinners were redeemed (Acts 11:19-21). The night Peter was in prison, the whole church was praying earnestly for him (12:5). Do you see that Peter’s imprisonment served to increase their faith? When an angel miraculously sprung Peter from his prison, he alluded to the fact that he had doubted what was going on (12:11). His faith was increased in the process as well. Rhoda, the servant girl who answered Peter’s knock, told the gathered believers that Peter was at the gate. As Peter described his amazing adventure, they were astonished. As he proclaimed God’s amazing acts, their faith was strengthened and God was given the glory.
Paul and Silas (Acts 16ff): Paul and Silas were on their way to prayer one day when they were blindsided by an opportunity to redeem a sinner and obliterate Satan’s works. A demon-possessed slave girl kept following them around and finally, Paul cast the spirit out of her (16:18). This caused her owners to be enraged and they started a riot that got Paul and Silas slapped in jail (16:19-24). About midnight Paul and Silas were singing, a perfect way to proclaim the Good News and testify to the Truth, because all of the prisoners were listening to them (16:25). There came a terrible earthquake, which released all of the prisoners. The guard, thinking that everyone had escaped, moved to kill himself. Paul yelled out that they were all present. Their choice to stay in their prison gave them the opportunity to proclaim the Good News, help to redeem that jailor and his whole family (16:29-32). Paul had the opportunity to solidify that man’s relationship with the Lord and ultimately, to give God the glory.
Paul (Acts 28:17, Rom. 16:7, 2 Cor. 11:23): Paul was under arrest for a very long time. But in that arrest, he was able to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and testify to the truth of the Gospel. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ (28:31). Not only did he proclaim the Good News, but he wrote it as well. Scholars believe that the entire books of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon were written during this prison circumstance. God was glorified. The church was inspired to right living and you and I still benefit from Paul’s prison circumstances.
In all of these dungeons, God was at work; not always for the person in prison, but ultimately for one of His priorities in the world. As each godly prisoner surrendered to his sentence, he became a conduit for the kingdom of heaven to be displayed here on earth. Joseph, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul and Silas could have doubted and given up because of their prison’s discouraging circumstances, but they did not. We have their example to point us to the greater kingdom agenda of God.
A Delay Unto Death
If you will bear with me for a few more minutes, I want to share with you one of my favorite stories in the New Testament. There were no physical prisons mentioned in this story, but there were many spiritual ones. John 11 gives us an amazing glimpse into the reasons why God delays, His passion for us in the middle of the delay, and the outcome of some prison circumstances.
We find out early on that Lazarus was sick (v 1). He was no stranger to Jesus, who had been in his home many times. John makes sure that we know Mary, his sister, was the one who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair (v 2). If you recall, she was also the one who sat at His feet listening to all He said.
The sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (v 3). When He got the news, Jesus spoke upfront about God’s priorities in that circumstance, “This sickness will not end in death. No, It is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (v 4). Three priorities of God are mentioned: illuminating God’s glory, testifying to the truth and obliterating Satan’s works of death.
Jesus loved the whole family (v 5) “yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (v 6). Jesus loved them, yet He delayed their answer beyond human ability to comprehend.
Finally, when He knew Lazarus was good and dead, He told His disciples they were going to head to Bethany. They were shocked because people from there had tried to kill Jesus before. A conversation ensued about walking by daylight or darkness and finally, Jesus told them plainly what He meant, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe” (vv 14-15). Do you see another kingdom priority here? Jesus wanted to increase the disciples’ faith.
They headed toward Bethany and Martha went out to greet Jesus. A whole conversation went down between them that was supposed to testify to the truth, increase Martha’s faith, and inspire righteous living in her heart. Her beliefs were very important to Jesus and He brought her, in that conversation, to a new level of confidence in Who He was (vv 17-27). In the process, He worked to free her from some belief prisons and solidify her relationship with God.
Mary went out to greet Jesus and eventually, they all made it to the grave. Jesus ordered them to take away the stone, which they finally did after some protest from Martha and a gentle reminder from Jesus that increasing her faith was a priority for Him (v 40). After the stone was removed, Jesus prayed to God, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (vv 41-42). That prayer demonstrated relationship, testified to truth, proclaimed the Good News, inspired righteous living, and increased faith.
Jesus called Lazarus out of that tomb and he came out (v 43-44). A broken man was restored and God’s glory was illuminated. Jesus told the people to remove the grave clothes from Lazarus’ bound body and in that process, many spiritual grave clothes were removed from the lives of those who assisted Lazarus. Verse 45 says that, as a result of Lazarus’ resurrection from the dead, many put their faith in Him.
Throughout this incredible story, the Good News was proclaimed. Sinners were redeemed. Many people’s faith was increased. Satan’s works were obliterated. Broken people were restored. Righteous living was inspired. Truth was testified to. God’s glory was illuminated. Leaders were equipped and many sought relationship with God.
Friend, all ten priorities of the kingdom were displayed in startling array through this four-day prison circumstance. God had a plan - ten of them, in fact - and Jesus knew the Father’s heart from the get go. He desperately loved that family. His delay did not nullify His love; it demonstrated it even further. He was more interested in their greater good than in their immediate answer to their unanswered prayer for healing.
How does this truth speak to you?
Who Am I?
On July 26th of this year, I continued my personal quest with the Lord to discover the links between these eight vignettes God had burdened me to study. I knew there were truths in those stories, truths that could change my perspective on my unanswered prayers and prison circumstance. I shared my considerable anxiety over the lack of movement in my life with the Lord and asked Him what I should do. This was His response to me, “You believe in me. You trust me despite what happens. Heather, I am the sovereign God. I know what I am doing. Who do you say I am?”
I began to list what I had learned from these eight passages in Luke about who God is. I told my Father what I had gleaned, I see you, Lord, as the God...
- Who sleeps in peace even if you know about the trouble that is coming (8:23)
- Who speaks and the wind and raging waters subside to calm (8:24)
- Who commands winds and water to obey (8:25)
- Who is well-known by demons (8:28), who have to ask you for permission to do anything (8:48, 50; 9:41)
- Who has power over all of the demon host (8:25-33)
- Who wants people to tell the good things He has done (8:39)
- Who responds to requests for help in need, both of dying people and sick (8:44ff; 9:41)
- Who delays an answer to one to answer another’s request (8:45-50)
- Who understands that fear messes with our faith (8:22-25, 50)
- Who raises people from the dead (8:53)
- Who gives power and authority to disciples (9:1)
- Who sends us out to preach and heal (9:2)
- Who wants to provide, wants us to be dependent on His provision (9:3-5)
- Who Is concerned about our rest (9:10)
- Who welcomes crowds with all sorts of needs (9:11)
- Who can multiply 5 loaves and 2 fish into enough food to feed 15000 people (9:15-17)
- Who is generous - you blessed until there were leftovers (9:17)
- Who greatly values prayer (9:16, 18, 28)
- Who is concerned with who we say He is (9:20)
- Who sometimes tells us the future (9:21-22, 44)
- Who knows that following Him is a sacrifice (9:23-27)
- Who Is other-worldly (9:29)
- Who honors His beloved Son (9:35)
- Who wants us to listen to Jesus (9:35)
- Who points to the greatness of God (9:43)
- Who sometimes hides things from us...we cannot grasp them (9:45)
- Who heals (9:42).
I finished my list documenting my findings, but I still did not know what God was really trying to say to me. I asked a few more questions of God and this was His response to me, “...I am most concerned about your soul...most concerned with your personal faith in me. You say that I am sovereign, but in practical life, are you believing it? If (I never answer your prayer) will you still say that I am sovereign, that I am good, that I am loving?”
“I don’t know, God. I am really struggling with this.”
“...Everything Jesus did was to elicit faith in me somehow...healing, calming storms, delaying answers to prayer (Jarius), feeding the 5000 men, casting out demons and pointedly talking about the suffering on the cross. Heather, on earth suffering is inextricably linked with glory. For Jesus, mountaintop experiences were juxtaposed with unbelieving valleys, suffering with glory. Out of the 8 vignettes you have studied, how many linked suffering to glory?”
“Every single one of them, Lord.”
“Heather, on this earth, there will always be deep suffering of every kind juxtaposed with varying amounts of glory. But through it all, Jesus was still the Son of the Most High (8:28), the Christ of God (9:20), the Beloved Son (9:55), whether people believed it or not. His character did not change though the circumstances did. His character did not change in the suffering or in the glory, whether believed or not, He is still the same God. He does not become unloving, un-good, un-sovereign just because He does not answer your prayers.”
I dialogued with the Lord further on this, trying to understand how to believe this deep down in my heart. I wanted to know how to embrace this, how to wrap my pain and hurt around this truth. The Lord’s answer to me was that I was to embrace it through faith.
Near the end of my devotions, the Lord asked me again, “Who do you say I am?” This time I answered with my heart instead of my head, with faith instead of facts. My soul cried out the answer and it was none of the truths found in these Scriptures. It was, instead, a truth that resonates deep within the intimate places of my relationship with God, “You are my Beloved. Yes, I know you heal and do miracles, but honestly, to know I am special to you is far more important than anything else. I have faith that you love me and call me your beloved child.”
“Then, Heather, this truth is your center. Even if I don’t change (your circumstances), the fact that I am your Darling is all you need to know. I am sweet on you. You are sweet on me. Unanswered prayers do not change this fact...When storms arise or healings never come, I love you deeply. Whether your faith falters or you don’t understand everything, you can know this truth: I am yours and you are mine. All unanswered prayers can be left at my feet because I am the final answer! My Presence covers all the questions that my words and actions do not answer. I am all you’ll ever need, changed (circumstance) or not.”
Jesus’ Revelatory Answer
I share this very vulnerable journal entry with you for a reason. Imbedded in the truths of God’s answer to me is the link between John the Baptist’s questions toward Jesus and his understanding of Jesus’ cryptic answer. Just like the Lord’s question to me, “Who do you say I am?” John essentially asked Jesus the same thing, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else” (Lk. 7:19). In other words, “Are you really who you say you are? I have preached that you are the Messiah, the Lamb of God. Are you speaking the truth? What should I believe about you in the darkness of this prison?”
Instead of answering the messengers, if you will recall, “at that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind” (Lk. 7:21). After proving His mettle, Jesus then turned to the messengers and spoke these words, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Lk. 7:22).
What was Jesus really saying in this almost-evasive answer? Precious one, He was listing the priorities of God that He was fulfilling.
Did you get that? Did you understand the import, the substance of Christ’s answer?
He first fulfilled God’s agenda in action, then He told the messengers to pass on these words of truth. “I am proclaiming the Good News and redeeming sinners. I am working to increase faith and obliterate Satan’s works. I am restoring broken people and inspiring righteous living. I am here to testify to Truth and illuminate my Father’s glory. I am equipping leaders and I am helping others to solidify their relationships with God.”
When Jesus was twelve, His parents left the Passover feast and it was not long before they realized their Son was not with them. Backtracking to Jerusalem they sought His whereabouts for three days. They finally found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.
His parents were amazed and just a bit perturbed. “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought you anxiously.” His answer to them was equally as mysterious as His answer to John, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business” (Lk. 2:41-49 - NKJV).
Be about My Father’s business. Do His will. Seek His face. Live out His priorities. This was Jesus’ whole earthly and heavenly mindset.
Jesus answered John’s question much like He answered Moses’ query in Exodus 3:13, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name? Then what shall I tell them?” In modern-day language, Moses was asking, “Who do you say you are?” God’s answer to Moses is the same answer to John and to you. “I AM WHO I AM...I Am has sent me to you” (Ex. 3:14).
All of God, the I AM, resided in Jesus, as the author of Hebrews confirms, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3). If Jesus was God, then Jesus’ agenda reflected God’s. His will was God’s will. His priorities were God’s priorities. His purpose for coming to earth was the obedient action needed to fulfill God's purpose for mankind.
Yes, the whole time Jesus was here on earth, from start to finish, He was about His Father’s business: preaching, redeeming, faith-increasing, Satan-obliterating, restoring, inspiring, testifying, illuminating, equipping and solidifying relationship. The words that Jesus spoke, the actions that Jesus undertook, they were simply an extension of the solid relationship He had with His Father. They were literally the Father living in Him, doing His work (Jn. 14:10).
A Blessing Within a Warning
I believe John understood Jesus’ message entirely, for nowhere else in the Scriptures do we see John questioning the Lord from His prison cell again. He ended up dying a horrible death for the sake of the Gospel, but with Jesus’ priorities proclaimed in black and white, I believe he set His face as resolutely toward his death as Jesus did toward His fiery baptism (Lk. 12:50). But I do believe Jesus’ last statement to the messengers was what secured John’s absolute victory over doubt.
After showing the disciples what He was doing and delivering His thundering answer for them to pass on, Jesus added a little blessing couched in a warning. Listen to these words, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Lk. 7:23) or as the ESV states, “who is not offended by me.”
What does Jesus mean by this last almost-throwaway charge? It is important to know this, because again, I believe this cinched the deal for John.
That word ‘offended’ means “to entrap, trip up (figuratively, stumble or entice to sin, apostasy or displeasure” (ESV Strong’s). We get our English word ‘scandal’ from this Greek work skandalizo. My CSWB Dictionary further clarifies this word, “To cause to stumble and fall, figuratively, to be a stumbling block to someone, to cause to stumble at or in something, to give a cause of offense to someone.”
This word ‘offense’ would have brought a picture to a Greek’s mind, a picture of a bait-stick in a trap made especially for birds. The action that depressed the bait-stick and triggered the trap was the offense. Jesus used this colorful picture to refer to the cause of the trouble: John’s doubts. John was in danger of being trapped like a bird in a cage because he was preoccupied with what Jesus was or was not doing. “He was stumbling over the Lord and His ministry” (Wiersbe, The Exposition Commentary, p. 197) and those doubts were trapping him in discouragement and defeat, just as sure as if he had triggered the bait-stick of a trap lying in wait for him.
Jesus told him there was a blessing in all of this for John if he would just trust Who Jesus was. As a relative of John’s, He cared deeply for John and in this gentle warning, we see the love of Jesus for His cousin. “I will bless you, John, with uncountable blessings, if you will just hang in there. I am working out my Father’s will and you will be favored as an extension of that will. Don’t give up your faith. Don’t give in to doubt. Don’t look elsewhere for the Messiah. I am here. I am doing what I was called to do. I am for you, not against you, and someday, you will be with Me in paradise. Hang on for the blessing; it will surely come.”
A New Perspective
Does this gentle reminder speak to you like it does to me? I stand in awe of God’s ways and His patient gentleness with those of us who struggle with doubt and fear.
At the first read-through of this passage months ago, I completely missed what Jesus was saying. His words hindered my trust, rather than invoking it. But as I have studied the priorities of God this past week and sat for hours in the truths of the kingdom agenda, Jesus’ answer has become clear as a bell. My dungeon perspective read this passage as if Jesus completely ignored John’s pain. I felt Disillusioned by God’s Deeds, rather than motivated to trust Him more. My prison circumstance darkened my perspective on this passage, but as I have read and studied these seeming Shocking Dichotomies of God, I have come to a new perspective. I have had to R - Rework my expectations of God around the priorities of the kingdom. Instead of disillusionment, I have re-Discovered God’s Desire for me.
So how do you navigate the seeming dichotomies of God without falling away on account of them? You discover His kingdom priorities, realizing all the while that God is working those priorities on your behalf as well as for others. He will proclaim the Good News to you and redeem you from your sins. He will work mightily within you to increase your faith. He will obliterate Satan’s works of lies and shame wound tightly around your belief system. He will restore you when you are broken, inspire righteousness within you when you feel dirty, testify to the Truth when you cannot see the way forward. He will illuminate areas of your life to bring the Father the greatest glory. He will equip you as His leader if you work with the Godhead to solidify your own relationship with Him. He may not be answering your prayer or changing your circumstances, but I can almost guarantee, He is working out at least one of His kingdom priorities in your life because of that hateful prison circumstance.
So, my friend, who do you say God is? In your heart of hearts, what do you really believe God can do or be in your life? Your doubts reveal the truth of your belief system. Take Jesus’ gentle admonition to John as your charge today. Don’t allow what God is not doing for you to cause you to numb yourself to what He desires to do in you. Don’t fall away from the only Lover who can satisfy your soul-needs because He won’t answer one of your prayers.
Who is God to you? And if you cannot answer that question with absolute integrity of heart, answer this question, Who do you want God to be to you? Ask Jesus to change your ‘want to’ from disillusionment with His deeds to the discovery of His desire for you. That truth will destroy any bait-stick Satan has lying in wait for you in your prison circumstance.