Friends With God

Some of what I propose in this devotional is obvious. The problem with the obvious is that it gets overlooked and taken for granted; it becomes mundane and unexciting. So how do we take the emotions and conduct of being a friend and having a friend back to exciting? What was it about Abraham that God would name this man, and this man alone in all Scripture, "Abraham, my friend"? (Isaiah 41:8)

Before we address being a friend of God lets take the more elementary steps of being a friend to anyone. Typically we choose our human friends based on like-mindedness and reliability. We have common interests and we know we can count on each other. Friendship is most definitely a two-way street. I find that if I substitute the word 'friendship' for 'love' in Paul's definition of love in his first epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 13:4-7), I now have a well-founded pathway to being a friend. Old cliches and common sense insist that "to have a friend we must be a friend".

As friends we allow ourselves to be accountable to one another and we honor our responsibility as our friend bares their soul and becomes accountable to us. When a friend is victorious we celebrate with them and when they stumble we hold their hand and seek a way to get them back on their feet. When our friend confesses their shortcomings – their trespasses – even against us, we embrace their honesty, we salute their contriteness, and we forgive, and when our friend calls out for a need we set our own agendas aside and come to the rescue where possible. Sometimes we can only offer a shoulder, but how often I can recall that shoulder being all I needed at the time. Being a friend is developing that relationship where nothing is off limits, where we keep our promises, and where love is the order of the day.

So what was it about Abraham that God would call him 'friend'? Surely we are aware of some of his mis-steps such as the journey to Egypt, where Sarah would acquire Hagar and that ill fated consequence. When I read the story of Joseph I wonder why God didn't call him friend. Scripture doesn't reveal any wrongdoing by him. Though nothing of the sort is found in scripture, it has been suggested by scholars that perhaps Joseph participated in idol worship as a member of the Egyptian elite. We read in Acts that David was "a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do."  (Acts 13:22), yet God did not call David 'friend'. The question remains – what was it about Abraham that caused God to call him friend?

We find the answer in Genesis. Isaac has gone to the land of the Philistines because of a famine. God speaks to Isaac telling him not to go to Egypt and promises him that He will keep the promise He made to Abraham "because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws." (Gen. 26:1-5)

Is it that simple? Obedience? Surely there must be more than that. Does all God ask of us to be called His friend is that we obey?

I find that obedience is the natural product of faith. In Hebrews, chapter eleven, we read of the OT faithful elite and it says of Abraham that when God called him to leave his family and home to go to a place where he did not know, "he obeyed". (Heb. 11:8)

Fast forward to the New Testament and the testimony of Jesus as related in John. Our Lord Jesus speaking to the apostles tells them, "You are my friends if you do what I command" (see the whole passage – John 15:9-17) Once again the prerequisite for friendship with God, whether the Father or Son, is obedience.

As a child I remember being bullied and pushed around in school. I recall wishing I had a big strong friend to rescue me, but that never came to be. Today we are bullied by any number of adversaries – Satan tempts us and our sinful nature gives in. This fallen world brings bullies in the way of sickness, heathen employers, and calamities and maladies by the score. Yet God has promised to rescue us from our storms – whatever their source – if we are obedient to His commands. (Exodus 23:22)

What comfort it is to know the Mighty, Majestic, Omnipotent, Creator God stands with us, desiring to be our friend if we will only obey.

Be blessed.

The Aroma of Christ

"But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing." (2 Corinthians 2:14-15 NIV)

There's a 'not so kind' saying that goes, "Old fishermen never die, they just smell that way." Well, your author is an old fisherman, and I suppose on some  successful trips I have smelled that way. Of course, I do try to remedy that condition at the earliest opportunity.

Science tells us that the sense of smell is more acute than any of our other senses. A single whiff of apple pie, fresh mowed grass, orange blossoms, or an approaching rain shower is immediately recognized, even to the unseeing eye. Age old memories are brought forth clear and distinct by a momentary breath of an aroma from our past. I still remember the smell of my mother, her passing some 24 years ago. I don't have to see my wife to know she is near; her fragrance is sweet, magnetic, and a joy for me to inhale. So it is with genuine Christianity. Those who love the Lord Jesus emit a lovely aroma.

The Greeks in Corinth would have been very aware of the significance of Paul's reference to 'fragrances'. Whenever the Romans won a major military victory they would celebrate with a spectacular parade. Preceding the victorious company of soldiers would be heralds and priests swinging their censers with sweet smelling incense. The commanding general would lead the procession in a magnificent chariot, followed by his soldiers, musicians, and other officials. Then, soldiers would lead the defeated enemies through the city in bondage. All along the parade route you could smell the sweet aroma of the spices people were burning.As a part of the celebration, the Romans would burn fragrances on altars, filling the entire city with a pleasant aroma. Even those who could not witness the triumphal procession could hear the victory music and smell the pleasing incense. Everyone would know that their army had been victorious. The special fragrance came to symbolize victory to anyone who smelled it.To the conquered victims the incense has the stench of death lingering all about them.

Paul goes on to say in verse 16, "To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life." To those who are perishing we are the smell of death. At least we should be. Our righteous walk with the Lord should be evident for all to see and as such bring a sense of guilt and remorsefulness to our unsaved brothers. We wear this smell of death not haughtily or in false piety, but remembering always that we once walked the same path as they. As for the fragrance of life; "We are to God the aroma of Christ…". We wear that fragrance only by the grace of God; "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast." (Eph. 2:8-9 NIV)

Another aspect of having the 'aroma of Christ', and the more important one, is the aroma sensed by our Father in Heaven. There is a TV commercial presently depicting some people sitting around a garbage can blindfolded. Hanging over the stinking garbage is a deodorizer that has supposedly masked the stench and when the blindfolds are removed the people are amazed that they could not smell what they now can see.

Going back to Leviticus (chapters 1-5), where the LORD established the method and manner for each of the five sacrificial offerings, the text states that each offering would be "an aroma pleasing to the LORD" . Such is the aroma of Christ's death on the cross to our Father God. The stench of our sin nature, our unholiness is masked by Christ's sacrifice at Calvary. Through Christ Jesus we exude the aroma of His sacrifice.

We who were God's former enemies (Rom. 5:10) have been conquered by the sovereign saving grace of God (Eph. 2:5), and taken captive by Him, and as His bond slaves are led and displayed by Him before a watching world (v. 7). It is my prayer that as we daily walk with our Lord, His sweet fragrance fills the air of our passing and all those we encounter would breath in the sweetness of Jesus.

May the Lord abundantly bless you and yours, and may you be a blessing to others.

Conditional Grace

“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. . .Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:16, 18)

As we re-visit this most beautiful promise of eternal life we must also reread the conditions for that eternal life. The first few words of the passage assures us of God’s unconditional love – “For God so loved the world. . .” – no conditions, no stipulations, no caveats. How wonderful it is to know that there are no prerequisites to His love of us all.

Jesus followed that unconditional promise of God’s love with the conditional promised reward of eternal life – “that whoever believes in Him. . .”  Jesus was speaking to the Pharisee Nicodemus, of whom He referred to as “Israel’s teacher”. He then expounds on this  promise in more explicit terms in verse 18.

Jesus had opened the conversation with the declaration that “. . .no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3) Here the terms are reversed – a curse is promised, but with a conditional reprieve.

Another verse you see me use often is 1 Corinthians 2:9 – “However it is written: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him”. Then follows verse 10 – “but God has revealed it to us by His Spirit.” Here again we see God has done the preparatory work, but there is a condition for who will benefit  from His providence – “those who love Him”, and verse 10 declares that we have no excuses as the truth has been revealed to us.

In second Chronicles, chapter 30, we read of King Hezekiah’s restoration of Passover for Israel. Although Hezekiah was King of the southern kingdom of Judah, he sent letters out to several of the tribes of the remnant of the northern kingdom, having been conquered by the Assyrians. We will address only a few verses from Hezekiah’s letter here, but may I encourage you to read the entire chapter for better context. (2 Chronicles 30:1-12)

  • Verse 6: “People of Israel, return to the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, that He may return to you who are left, who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria.” In other words, if you return to the Lord, He will return to you.
  • Verse 7: “Do not be like your fathers and brothers, who were unfaithful to the LORD, the God of their fathers, so that He made them an object of horror, as you see.” The cause – the condition of their being made an object of horror was their unfaithfulness.
  • Verse 8: “Do not be stiff-necked, as your fathers were; submit to the LORD. Come to the sanctuary, which He has consecrated forever. Serve the LORD your God, so that His fierce anger will turn away from you.” God’s burning anger is due to – conditional on – your being stiff-necked. His anger will turn away if you will serve Him.
  • Verse 9: “If you return to the LORD, then your brothers and your children will be shown compassion by their captors and will come back to this land, for the LORD your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn His face from you if you return to Him.” Not only will God show His compassion, He will cause whatever may be your ‘captor’ to relent.

The narration of the response to Hezekiah’s letters follows in verses 10-12. Some responded with ‘scorn and ridicule’ (10), while others ‘humbled themselves and went to Jerusalem’ (11). Why did some respond negatively and some positively? Read verse 12 (2 Chron. 30:12). “. . .the hand of the LORD was on the people to give them unity of mind to carry out what the king and officials had ordered, following the word of the LORD.”

We should meditate on this and think of the stunning implications. Is there a contradiction implied here? Is the Bible saying that God says “return to Me, and I will return to you” and yet “the hand of the LORD was on the people to carry out the word of the LORD”? Does God choose to ’cause’ some to follow His will and others He does not? Where does that leave us in our responsibility to choose to obey or not to obey?

Such thought is a grave mistake and a misunderstanding of the scripture. Verse 12 is a revelation of God’s unmitigated grace. For those who are predisposed to disobey, God’s grace passes them by like an invisible, unknowable spirit. For those who are predisposed to obey, God grants that same grace that allows us to choose to follow Him. (Eph. 2:8-9)

Someone recently shared with me their vision of God’s grace. He said he pictured grace as an umbrella. We choose to stand under it or not – and yet it is God, by His Holy Spirit, that guides our choice as where we may stand – in His grace or not. We should never jump to the conclusion that what we choose, and what God does in response, depends ultimately on us.

Verse 12 teaches explicitly: ‘What God commands, He may also give.’ It is a very close parallel to Augustine’s famous prayer: “Command what you wish, but give what you command.” (Confessions, X, xxix, 40).

Let us be ever mindful of the sovereignty of our Lord God. He rules and reigns with no input or counsel from His creation.

We pray God’s blessings on you and yours and that He will bless you with the grace to choose to follow Him.

If Only!

“You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.  The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.  Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed.  You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.  The LORD will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven.” Deuteronomy 28:3-7 NIV

“The eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him.” 2 Chronicles 16:9 NIV

“Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” Malachi 3:10 NIV

The Bible is replete with promises of God’s desire to bless us, to fulfill our dreams and those of our nation. We could fill many pages with scriptural promises of our Lord’s goodness, faithfulness, and provision. . He wants to fight our battles – whether those battles are with conquering nations or conquering addictions. He wants to cure our ailments, whether they are heart attacks or broken hearts. If only. . .

That’s the rub – we don’t, won’t abide with the ‘if only’. It’s as we’re shouting back at God, “NO, I don’t want your blessings, I don’t want you to fight my battles, don’t restore my relationship with my daughter – I’ll just go on being angry with her. Don’t cure my addictions – I enjoy overeating – drinking to excess – being angry with the world, judging, being intolerant, greedy, or (fill in your slave master).

NO God, don’t show me a life of peace, love, and joy. . .I’d rather be sullen, critical, and jealous, a burden on my family and my community. Don’t pour out the abundance of your love, grace, and mercy on me – I’d rather just carp and complain about how my plans have gone amiss. We say we want His blessings but we want them on our terms, as if they are owed to us. We say, “I want God’s help, but I don’t want God to tell me what to do.”

And what is the ‘if only’? To obey. The preface to the abundance of God’s storehouse of blessings that He promises in Deuteronomy 28 is repeated twice in the first two verses – “If you obey”. As He entered Jerusalem for His divine appointment on Calvary, the book of Luke relates Jesus mourning over that great city, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace. . .” (Luke 19:42) ‘If only’. . .

Continuing from our opening, Moses relays more of God’s promises, if only we will obey in Deuteronomy 28:8-13, The LORD will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The LORD your God will bless you in the land He is giving you. The LORD will establish you as His holy people, as He promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the LORD your God and walk in obedience to Him.  Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they will fear you.  The LORD will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land He swore to your ancestors to give you. The LORD will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.  The LORD will make you the head, not the tail. If you pay attention to the commands of the LORD your God that I give you this day and carefully follow them, you will always be at the top, never at the bottom.

God has a heavenly storehouse of such abundance that is simply unimaginable. Paraphrasing Isaiah 64:4, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Cor. 2:9) God’s blessings are like a runner in the starting blocks, or a race horse held back by the jockey, each waiting for the starting pistol to be fired. You, my friend, hold the pistol. You, my friend, are the only obstacle to receiving all that God has for you, all He has promised you. You, my friend, are like the young man in the picture; your hand is held out, saying “Stop the blessings machine!”

Our Lord’s Tenacity

Tenacity – that’s a word we don’t usually find associated with God – for some reason we Christians like the word perseverance. I could have titled this devotional “Our Lord’s Perseverance”, but I wanted to convey my vision of God’s tenacity, His fervid diligence, His painstaking persistence in His ‘good work’ of Philippians 1:6. Tenacity and persistence aren’t characteristics we always associate with perseverance, as those words often convey an attitude of hard headedness or single mindedness. But tenacity is certainly the attribute of the successful.

Much has been written about how we are encouraged to persevere in our faith, in obedience to God, and in our battles against sin and the evil one. Scripture inspires us with promised rewards for our own perseverance (Heb. 10:35; Gal. 6:9; James 1:12), but sometimes we need to dig a little deeper to see how tenaciously persevering God is as He fights for us. I believe it important for us to understand the difference between God’s grace, His mercy, and His patient perseverance.

Christopher Reeve said, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” And what great obstacles we present to our Hero, God as He labors for our salvation through our unfaithfulness. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)

Philippians 1:6 (NKJV), “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”

So our Lord has died on the cross for you, and He has begun a good work [of salvation] in you. . .so what’s the hinderance?  What is holding back Mighty God? He is omnipotent, all powerful. He told the mountains, “you can grow no higher”. He told the oceans, “here is your boundary”. What restrains this all-powerful, invincible God from His work?

I do. And you do. Mankind for all time has thwarted and frustrated God’s patient attempts to restore the Eden relationship He so fervently desires. We do so by our choosing to follow our own self directed path rather than that perfect one planned for us.

We read of the restraint God exhibited as He first determined to destroy all mankind in Genesis chapter 6, but He found a spark of promise in Noah, and relented from His wrath. The Bible does not say Noah was a righteous man, that he was faithful to God, or that in any way he deserved God’s grace. Certainly none of us deserve His grace. But God did not give up on mankind. “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” (Gen. 6:8 NKJV) The NIV and ESV render this verse as “Noah found favor“. I prefer that we found grace in the eyes of God.

Again in Genesis His patience is tried at the tower of Babel (Gen. 11), and by Abraham as he interrupts God’s plan for His chosen nation. How tenaciously patient He was with Moses and the Israelites during their years in the wilderness, and later in the promised land, as they turned away from Him to worship other gods. How tolerant He was with David, a man after His own heart, yet egregiously sinful in murderous lust. Even as He scattered His chosen people to the far corners of their world, He would not, could not, did not give up on them.

In Isaiah’s oracle of the Messiah to come God promised, “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.” (Isaiah 42:2-4) How gentle is our God in dealing with our unfaithfulness – our backsliding – our self serving ways. Eight times in the Old Testament we read that He is ‘slow to anger and abounding in love’, and He will not falter, He will not be discouraged.

F. B.  Meyer wrote, “Though our Lord is principally concerned with the bruised [reed] and the dimly burning wick, He is neither one nor the other. He is neither discouraged nor does He fail. …but through it all He persevered until the heavens and earth which now exist stood forth appareled in beauty that elicited from the lips of the Creator the verdict, “It is very good. ” The centuries which have followed Calvary’s supreme sacrifice have witnessed alterations of chaos with cosmos; of disorder with order…But the Master was never once discouraged, nor slacked His hand, but through good report and evil pursued His purpose.” (Christ in Isaiah, pg 45-46)

We must consider the events of history that have blasphemed our Lord. We would cite the atrocities man has inflicted on his neighbor through wars of conquest and just plain hatred. We could cite the insanity of the Inquisitions and Crusades done in God’s name. We recall in our own lifetime the wars of genocide in Europe and Africa. As our nation was being founded on Christian principles and morals, we sanctioned enslavement and brutality in our own back yards. We must look inward at our personal failings, our individual faithlessness and ugliness, and we ask the question – “How is it that God remains slow to anger and abounding in love? How is it that He has not relented in His mercy. How is it that we are yet beneficiaries of His grace, His mercy, His forgiveness?”

Because we serve not only a loving God of second chances, but because of His determination that He will see His plan prosper. That plan is for us to be reconciled to Him and He will not be frustrated nor tired in His pursuit of that perfect plan.

Praise be His Holy Name.