Happy are the Humble

One day in 1974 Pastor Ira Stanphill was listening to the radio as he drove home from his church office in Fort Worth, Texas. A commercial for a bar was on the air, advertising their Happy Hour. Then a cigarette commercial told of how their product would bring happiness to smokers. This caused him to think about how often the promise of happiness was used to sell products. Then he thought about how most people really longed to be happy. Finally, it struck him that true happiness did not come from acquiring things, but with knowing Jesus. He began to create a chorus and went straight to the piano when he got home. In a short while he composed this snappy song:

          Happiness is to know the Savior, Living a life within His favor,

                  Having a change in my behavior, Happiness is the Lord.

          Happiness is a new creation, Jesus and me in close relation,

                  Having a part in His salvation, Happiness is the Lord.

           Real joy is mine, no matter if teardrops start,

                   I’ve found the secret – It’s Jesus in my Heart.

           Happiness is to be forgiven, Living a life that’s worth the livin’

                   Taking a trip that leads to heaven, Happiness is the Lord.

This song reveals the source of happiness and joy for believers in Christ—it is Jesus! Our Lord preached on that subject from a hillside in Galilee early in His ministry. It was probably the greatest sermon of all time. We know it as “The Sermon on the Mount.” In this sermon, presented in Matthew 5—7, Jesus began with eight ways for Christians to be happy or “blessed.” We call them the “Beatitudes.”   

Among the thousands who heard Him that day his twelve disciples had front row seats. In fact, the sermon was aimed mainly at them, as He explained in understandable terms, the way Christians ought to live. This is important: The Beatitudes are not things you do to gain God’s favor, but ways to live because you have received God’s favor, through faith in Jesus Christ. He never intended for His commands to be lived out in human strength, but with divine power, generated by the Holy Spirit, who indwells every believer in Christ. The Lord’s disciples had already received and believed in Him, so in this sermon, He tells them how to live for Him in this world.

Jesus wanted them to know: to be happy—they needed to be humble—“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  The word “blessed” really means “happy.” In these verses, Jesus describes the inner qualities needed in a follower of Christ that would bring him blessings in the future. Incidentally, these inward characteristics were in stark contrast with the self-righteous Pharisees, who were proud, boastful and judgmental.

It is amazing that the first recorded sermon of Jesus focuses on how to be happy as a Christian. Most non-Christians do not categorize believers as being happy. Somehow unbelievers visualize God as a cosmic killjoy and His followers as sour, skeptical and judgmental toward anyone perceived as having “fun.” Though untrue, that is the common worldview.

In this great sermon, Jesus offers happiness based on a new kind of living—self-less living in a humble lifestyle. His teaching flies in the face of society’s selfish trends. This sermon tells Christians how to live happily for Jesus in this world.

Jesus begins by challenging His followers to be “Poor in Spirit.” So, what does that mean?

  1. The Meaning of Being “Poor in Spirit”

Being poor in spirit is the fundamental characteristic of a Christian following Jesus. Humility is the opposite of pride, and nobody ever enters God’s Kingdom with a haughty, prideful spirit. In fact, Jesus said it was impossible to enter His kingdom without humility: “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all” (Mark 10:15).

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. They started construction on the building in AD 326, but the amazing thing is the main entrance to the church is through a door that is only four feet high and two feet wide, called the “Door of Humility.” You must bow down to enter. Similarly, the first requirement to enter God’s kingdom is humility, admission of sinfulness and confession of sins, as we realize we cannot save ourselves.

Happiness begins with humility—realizing what Christ has done for us. Even after salvation, humility continues to be a needed characteristic in life, “All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility, for God’ resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5-6).

  1. The Result of Being “Poor in Spirit”

When Jesus said the “poor in spirit” would be happy, did he mean only those in material poverty, who have no money, income or property would be blessed? Being poor in spirit has nothing to do with the lack of material prosperity. Scripture promises God would bless his followers materially (Psalm 37:25; Malachi 3:10-12). Neither Jesus, nor His apostles, nor His church were poverty-stricken, begging for food.

Jesus said those who are “poor in spirit”—those who are depending totally on Him spiritually—would be most blessed. When we realize we are bankrupt “in spirit”—that we are helpless spiritually—that we can do nothing to save ourselves, then His salvation floods our souls. This sums it best: “The Lord is near to those who are of a broken heart, and saves such as be of a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

  1. The Way to Be “Poor in Spirit”

So, if Jesus says those who are poor in spirit are happy and blessed. How can we reach that spiritual poverty? You won’t get there by becoming a poverty stricken monastic. That may reveal the worst kind of pride, as you desire people to view your great sacrifice.

First, realize that, in yourself, you are nothing. You have a sinful nature that goes away from God, not toward Him. In fact the best we can do is still empty, “and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rages (Isaiah 64:6).

Next, confess your sins and call on God to save you. Jesus said the justified one prayed, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Then revealed, “Everyone that exalts himself shall be abased, and he that humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14). He is blessed! He is made happy! “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

The Preeminence of Christ

Okay. I admit it—I am a word-nerd. I probably should join Adverbs Anonymous. Word origins and meanings fascinate me.  For example, the word “preeminent” is an adjective which means to be more than eminent, to put something above or before others. Something preeminent is superior, surpassing all others, of paramount rank, dignity or importance. The words “prominence” and “eminence” are related to the word “preeminence.” All three words are rooted in the Latin verb stem “minere” meaning “to stand out.” The difference between them is that “prominent” means to stand out or project, while “preeminent” describes something that exceeds all others in quality or rank. That which is preeminent is the most important, even more than something that is prominent.

So, when Paul wrote the Colossians that Jesus, “is the image of the invisible God;” that He is, “the firstborn of all creation;” that, “by Him all things were created;” that, “all things have been created through Him and for him;” that, “He is before all things;” and that, “in Him all things hold together;” which will result in, “He Himself will come to have first place in everything;” he was presenting the awesome unprecedented preeminence of Christ!

Anyone who reads Colossians 1:15-20, whether he or she agrees with it or not, must admit that Christ is presented as being preeminent above all else, in heaven and on earth. Within these heavy laden, powerfully descriptive verses, are four reasons Christ Jesus should be preeminent.

1. Christ is Preeminent in His Identity—“He is the image of the invisible God”

Paul meant that Jesus was God become visible. The Greek word for “image” is the root of our English word, “icon.” An icon is an image that represents something larger. When people say that Michael Jordan is a basketball icon, they mean he represents the whole sport; that he is the image of the highest skills in basketball.

When Jesus was born, it fulfilled the prophecy: “A virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which translated means, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). His birth literally meant God had come to dwell among people. This truth explains what Jesus meant when He told Philip: “When you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Jesus is not only identified as the manifestation of God, but He is the only legal heir of God—“He is…the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus certainly was not the first one born in time, but He was the “firstborn” of God, the “only begotten son of God” (John 3:16). This means Jesus has the birthright and is the only legal heir to the throne of God.

2. Christ is Preeminent in His Work—“By Him all things were created”

When Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” happened, it was Jesus, God’s eternal Son, who, with the Father and Holy Spirit, created all things. He fashioned all things, “both in the heavens and on earth…all things have been created through Him and for him” (Colossians 1:16).

Jesus is also preeminent in His work of sustaining His creation—“He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). In unscientific terms, the whole universe would fly apart without His supervision. The writer of Hebrews states that: “He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3).

3. Christ is Preeminent in His Position—“He is also head of the body, the church”

One position Jesus holds is Head of His church. The church is the called out assembly of baptized believers in Christ, who are covenanted together to carry out His commands. Jesus is the head of every church that belongs to Him. He is the ultimate one in charge, with supreme authority over each body, its life and service.

Another position Jesus holds is the overcomer of death, “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (verse 18). Jesus was not the first person raised from death to life, but He is the first to overcome death and never die again. Through His death He destroyed death for every believer in Him (Heb. 2:14-15).

Jesus is also in the position of preeminence, “so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (verse 18). There will come a time when every person who has ever lived will recognize Christ in His preeminence: “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).  This does not mean every person will be saved—it does mean every person will recognize that Christ is Lord of all—some willingly and others forcibly.

4. Christ is Preeminent in His Salvation—“And through Him to reconcile all things to Himself”

Salvation and eternal life only come through the sacrifice of Christ. Through Christ alone God will reconcile all things to Himself. Mankind and all of creation have been out of fellowship with God since the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But there will come a time when God will bring everything back into fellowship with Himself and make everything right that has been wrong.                       

Christ is preeminent in His salvation because He has “made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:20). We only have peace with God through the bloody sacrifice of Christ on the cross. But, peace with God is available: “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).

Our Lord Jesus Christ is preeminent over all. The question we must ask is: Is Jesus preeminent in your life? Is He your Savior? Are you following, honoring and serving Him as your Lord? The good news is, you can choose to receive, love and follow Him today!

What Makes You Joyful?

Remember when you got your tickle box turned upside down? People laugh at different things, but they all laugh at something. Joy and laughter are parts of the universal human personality. There are thousands of languages with hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone has the capacity to laugh.

When barren Sarah heard the news that she would bear a child in her old age, she laughed in disbelief. God Himself confronted her, yet she denied laughing. Her denial ended when God said, “No, but you did laugh” (Genesis 18:15). When that son was born, Abraham called his name, Isaac, which means laughter in Hebrew. The follow-up to this hilarious event goes like this: “Now Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:5-6). Her early nervous, fearful chuckle later became relaxed, joyful laughter as she reared that son in her old age.

Every psychologist and human behavior expert agrees that joy and laughter are good for you. But, God said it first—“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22).

The answer to what makes you joyful is an interesting study. If you Google the question, “What causes joy?” you will get this response: “We feel joy because of the release of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters in the brain.” I am sure that is true but what we would like to know is what triggers those endorphins with their resultant emotions of joy, pleasure and satisfaction.

When Pastor Rick Warren answered the question of what causes joy, he said: “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life. It is the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and is the determined choice to praise and thank God in every situation.”

The Apostle Paul, in Colossians chapter one, named four things that should make us joyful. Though written almost 2,000 years ago, these four things can still bring joy to your life.

1. We can be Joyful because Christ Has Qualified Us…”Joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (verse 12).

We should have joy because, through faith in Christ, God has qualified us to receive a share of His inheritance! Imagine the inheritance from the King of kings!

 There are only two ways to qualify for an inheritance: by being part of a family, or by being in someone’s will. You may write a millionaire and ask to be in his or her inheritance, but you would probably never get a reply. However, if you were in the family; if you were an heir of the millionaire; or if you were in the last will and testament of a millionaire; you would be qualified for an inheritance.

None of us deserve an inheritance from God, but we can receive one by becoming part of His forever family. “You are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26). As a child of God through faith in Christ, He qualifies you for an inheritance.

2.  We can be Joyful because Christ has Rescued Us…”For He rescued us from the domain of darkness” (verse 13a).

Before salvation by grace through faith in Christ, we were dead in our sins. We were lost, we were hopeless, in darkness, miserable, drowning in our sins and bound for hell, until He rescued us! We could not save ourselves. Nobody could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We needed to be rescued from Satan’s power and authority.

The saved are now safe because, “He rescued us from the domain of darkness.” The word “domain” means the power or authority of darkness. Darkness symbolizes Satan’s domain, his world, his power. Satan is “the prince and the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). After trusting Christ for salvation, Satan has no more authority over you. It doesn’t mean you won’t sin or be tempted; it does mean you don’t have to submit because Satan is not your boss!

3.  We can be Joyful because Christ has Transferred Us”And transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (verse 13b).

Want something that will bring joy? As soon as you receive Christ as your Savior, you are rescued from the domain of darkness and are immediately transferred to the kingdom of Christ! The wording of this verse means you have been permanently transferred, once for all time.

This is what Jesus meant when He said, “Truly, Truly I say to you, he who hears My word and believes on Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into condemnation, but is passed out of death into life” (John 5:24). When you trust Christ as your Savior you immediately become part of His spiritual kingdom, which enables you one day to be in His actual physical kingdom in heaven and on earth. The new birth ushers you into His kingdom (John 3:3).

4. We can be Joyful because Christ has Forgiven Us…”In Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (verse 14).

In Christ, at the point of salvation, all our sins are forgiven! This great redemption takes place “in WHOM” (in Jesus!). We have forgiveness of all our sins, in Jesus!  “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the reiches of His grace which He lavished on us in all wisdom and insight” (Ephesians 1:7-8).

This forgiveness of sins is what the gospel is all about. Jesus told Paul his ministry was: “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:16-18).

We should be joyful because Christ has Qualified Us…Rescued Us…Transferred Us…and Forgiven us through the sacrifice of His life for us. All you need to do is come to Him repenting of your sins, and trusting Him alone to save you. What joy can be ours in Jesus!

What Makes You Prayerful?

Do you ever wonder what the Lord is thinking when you are praying to Him? Sometimes when I pray, I think He must think: “Oh, No! Here he comes again!” I know my prayers often sound like this: “Dear Lord: I, me, my, mine; me, me, me. And Lord, I need, I lack, I desire, I want…me, my, mine; me, me, me. And, Lord, one more thing; I, me, my, mine; me, me, me. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”

Prayer is the easiest thing to do—but the hardest thing to do consistently well. Sometimes prayer is simply a rapid response to a crisis. Thankfully, our prayers don’t have to be long to be heard. When Peter walked on the water, he took his eyes off Jesus and began to sink. As he was going down, Peter uttered a three-word prayer: “Lord save me!” (Matthew 14:30). One word of that prayer could not be left out without affecting it. His prayer was short and to the point. And the Lord answered it, saving him from drowning.

One of the best ways to improve your prayer life is to read the prayers of men and women recorded in the Bible. The deep spirituality of our Lord’s prayer in the Upper Room the night of His betrayal, recorded in John 17, is like a graduate level course in how to pray. Hannah’s prayer after dedicating her only son Samuel, to the Lord, is powerful and moving (1 Samuel 1:27—2:10). The prayer of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:4-11), confessing, repenting and praising His Lord is inspiring and beneficial, even today. Mary’s prayer after learning she would bear the Messiah (Luke 1:46-55), is so rich and full, it is called her Magnificat, “My soul” from the first words of the verse in Latin. Her prayer of praise includes 15 discernible quotations from the Old Testament.

The apostle Paul’s recorded prayers are great examples of things for which we should pray. His prayers are also striking in what they did not contain. Though Paul’s prison epistles (Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon) were written from a damp prison cell, he never once asked people to pray for his release or comfort. When he did ask for prayer of the Colossians, he wrote: “Praying also for us…that God will open up to us a door for the Word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ…that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak” (Col. 4:3-4).

 So, what can we learn about praying from Paul’s prayer? Using his prayer in Colossians 1 as an example, here are some things for which we should pray:

  1. Pray to Know God’s Will, v. 9 “We have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”

Jesus taught His followers to pray in specifics, not in generalities. He said, “Ask [verbalize it] and it shall be given to you, Seek [act on it] and you will find, Knock [persist in it] and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8, emphasis mine).

More than anything else, every believer needs to be “filled with the knowledge of His will.” God has a will for each person. And, every Christian needs to be prayerful about finding and doing His will.

  1. Pray to Walk in God’s Ways, v. 10 “So that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects.”

God’s desire for believers is that they walk, or live their lives in a manner worthy of Him. For the Christian, life is not about pleasing yourself but Him who saved you. Life for believers is about conducting their lives in harmony with God’s Word and his will. Paul even wrote, “Be careful how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of your time because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).  We should seek to “please Him in all respects”…in every way.

  1. Pray to Bear God’s Fruit, v. 10 “Bearing fruit in every good work.”

 The whole purpose of the Christian life is to serve God and bear fruit for Him. Jesus said, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit” (John 15:8). In fact, “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). Fruit is evidenced in three ways: Converts (bringing others to Christ); Conduct (living clean for Him); and Character (manifesting fruit of the Spirit—Gal. 5:22-26). Let us abide in Him to bear fruit to His glory (John 15:4).

  1. Pray to Increase in God’s Knowledge, v. 10 “Increasing in the knowledge of God”

The average Christian has a feeble knowledge of God. Some people only know what they learned as children in Sunday School, and have not grown in knowledge, faith or obedience. We should pray to increase in what we know about God (from His Word) and what we have learned about Him (in our walk).  Let your knowledge of God be a growing database of information and experience.

  1. Pray to Grow in God’s Strength, v. 11 “Strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might”

God wants you to grow stronger in your Christian life, and will help you. He is the resource for strength in life. As you live in His will, grow in His Word, are indwelt by His Spirit—you can walk in His strength. God’s prophet Zechariah strengthened Zerubbabel by reminding him: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). AND: This promise still stands!

 

What Makes You Thankful?

Do you remember a time when you were overcome with emotional feelings of thankfulness? Maybe it was stimulated by a near miss, when you could have been injured or killed. Or perhaps you were so flooded by blessings that you just had to stop and look up. It is probably true that the saddest person in the world is an atheist on Thanksgiving Day, because he has no one to whom he can express gratitude.   

Theoretically, the older you are—the more thankful you should be. Hindsight tends to clarify your view of life, so the farther you can see in your past, the more you may realize God’s hand of guidance and care, resulting in expressions of gratitude.

Little children are taught to say “Thank You” because it is not a natural reaction. The normal self-centeredness of children tends to make them believe they deserve anything they want and get. It was a banner day in our house when each of our five children finally said, “Thank You,” without being prompted by Pat or me saying, “What do you say?” Genuine appreciation was a characteristic we strongly encouraged in our children.

The things that make you thankful reveal a lot about your heart.

When the apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church at Colossae in Asia Minor, he began, “We give thanks to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you” (Colossians 1:3). He began by telling them why he was thankful to God for them. The things for which Paul thanked God are examples that can improve our thanksgiving today. Using Paul’s thankfulness as our example, what things should make us thankful?

1. Be thankful for Faith in Christ”Since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 4).   

There is no evidence Paul had ever been to Colossae, but he had spent three years ministering in the city of Ephesus, about 100 miles to the northwest. From Ephesus the gospel went out to the whole province (Acts 19:10). A native of Colossae, Epaphras, had probably heard the gospel and been saved during those days, had returned to Colossae, led others to Christ, baptized them, and started that church. So, Paul said, they had “understood the grace of God in truth” as they “learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant” (Colossians 1:6, 7).  

Though Paul did not know them personally, he was thankful for their faith in Christ. He knew that it was faith in the Lord Jesus that saved them, changed them, and gave them assurance of a home in heaven. Scripture promises: “By grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). The Colossian church members had heard the gospel and had placed their faith in Christ to save them.

 2. Be thankful for Love for Others”and the love which you have for all the saints” (v. 4).

The church members of Colossae sincerely loved all the saints. The word “saint” in Scripture was not meant to describe some highly respected, deceased, godly person with a halo. In the Bible, the word was used of people who had been set apart to God because they had trusted Christ as their Savior. A saint is a believer who is made holy and identified by his or her faith in Christ. Those members in the Colossian church loved saints, believers in Christ in other places.

The Christian life was not just about them, but was about loving Christians in other places who loved and served the same Lord and Savior. Loving other brethren in Christ was evidence of saving faith, “We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14). Christians are commanded to “Let love of the brethren continue” (Hebrews 13:1).

3. Be thankful for Hope in Heaven… “because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (v. 5).

Because the saints in Colossae had placed their faith in Christ Jesus, they were saved, and had real hope beyond this life. For Christians, this life is not the end, but the first phase of a life that lasts forever. Jesus said, “he who hears My word, and believes in Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).

It is amazing that Christians can live here on earth, motivated by the fact that after they die here, they have a life and hope awaiting them in heaven that will never end. Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

Notice that this hope is “laid up for you in heaven” (Colossians 1:5). When your hope is “laid up” that means, no matter what happens in the present, your future life is secure, out of danger, awaiting you in heaven, God’s home. That is why Paul said, “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:19). We are to live here with our hope there.  

These Christians had hope secure in heaven because they believed what they “previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel” (v. 5). Epaphras had shared the gospel, which was the good news that Jesus died on the cross for their sins, that he had been buried, but rose again the third day, and that anyone, anywhere, who placed his or her faith in Him would be saved (John 3:16).  

So, what makes you thankful? If you have trusted Christ, you can be thankful for your faith in Him, your love for others, and for the hope you have in heaven. If you have not trusted Christ for salvation, you can do so today by repenting of your sins, and trusting Him alone to save you. Then, you will have eternity to thank Him!

WARNING!

A few years ago, Pat and I sponsored eight newly graduated high school seniors on a mission trip to Costa Rica, Central America. The teens had earned the trip by memorizing Scripture and reading books in Discovery, a national youth ministry program. After arriving in San Jose, we spent four days painting, cleaning, repairing and renovating several mission buildings around the capitol city.

Days five through eight were spent sightseeing, zip lining on a rain forest canopy tour, visiting the Arenal Volcano, and taking a hike to a jungle waterfall. The teens worked hard and had earned some time to see the country. So we prepared for an adventure.

Our guides in Costa Rica were John and Kathy Ward. Both were thrill-seeking, fun-loving, hard-working missionary helpers. John was a mountain climbing, whitewater rafting sort-of-a-guy, who was afraid of nothing.

Knowing John’s brash, risk-taking ways, I was caught off-guard by his somber lecture to our group prior to the mile-long jungle hike to La Fortuna Waterfall. With all the sincerity he could muster, John warned of possible dangers we could encounter on the hike, but uppermost he wanted us to watch out for the dangerous Fer De Lance, poisonous pit viper that was common in that area.  

The pit viper, Bothros Asper, better known as the Fer De Lance (Lance Head), is the most dangerous snake in Central and South America. This poisonous snake causes more human deaths than any other American reptile. The average bite from a Fer-de-Lance injects from 105 to 310 milligrams of venom. One single bite from the Fer De Lance contains enough poison to kill 32 people.

So, John had my attention, but I thought he might have been exaggerating just to scare the teens into good behavior. But we had barely started our trek down the jungle trail when one of the guys yelled, “SNAKE!” at the top of his voice. Everybody froze and looked down and around. When we reached the spot, there was a 15 foot circle of teens staring at a 7-foot snake, that was sure enough, a Fer De Lance! As we tried to get everyone away from the snake, who didn’t seem to be bothered by the noisy crowd, I was trying to imagine what I would say to the parents of any of those teens, if that snake bit them. After that close encounter of the poisonous kind, it took twice as long as normal to get to the waterfall and back. Every foot placement on that trail was analyzed before the step was taken.

I am thankful for the warning John gave us that day on the jungle trail in Costa Rica. It may have prevented a loss of life. Warnings are given to save lives and spare damage and pain. They are given for our good, and the wise person will listen to good advice and heed warnings.   

Warnings are warranted when threats abound. So, God’s Word warns us about things that can harm, distract or hinder us.  We need to heed God’s warnings about:

Competing Philosophies

These days Christians are bombarded by conflicting worldviews. A worldview is a particular philosophy of life, or conception of the world. Christians should have a biblical worldview—That is: God created the world and the people in it. It was not a random cosmic accident. The God who created has also spoken, and the Bible is His Word. All people in this created world are accountable to a perfect Creator, and will one day stand before Him. In Jesus, the Creator has provided a perfect Savior for all of mankind, who must be received by faith.

There are human philosophies that compete with this worldview. God’s Word warns us: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority” (Colossians 2:8-10).

Peter warned, You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:17-18).

 Instead of being led astray and confused by false philosophy, intensify your love and devotion to Bible truth, and increase your knowledge of God.

Empty Covetousness

Jesus warned: “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). In the United States, we live in a land of plenty, like former generations could only dream of. So, the Lord’s warning about greed applies to us, just as much as to His hearers. Greed causes people to be dissatisfied with what they have—while they strive to possess more and more, exerting their “rights.” Jesus said abundance of possessions does not equal a good life.  

Christ-less Consequences

Much like the prophet Ezekiel, we who know Christ are to be watchmen who warn others of eternal danger. God appointed Ezekiel to be a watchman, “Whenever you hear a word from My mouth, warn them from Me” (Ezekiel 3:17).

People need the Lord! Like Paul, “We proclaim Him, warning every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). We who know Christ should say as Paul when he preached to the people of Antioch: “Let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39).

When poisonous “fiery serpents” came among the children of Israel, God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent and place it on a pole so that, “everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live” (Numbers 21:8). This unusual event pictured Jesus, lifted up on a cross, so that, “whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:15). We need to heed the warnings!

The Wonder of the Word

A week of work had gone into the preparation of my Sunday sermon. More than twenty hours of study, research and alliteration that preachers do, had been poured into that message.  Then, in a flash the computer monitor flickered and it was all gone.  The entire sermon disappeared into cyberspace, never to be seen again.  The worst part of this loss was that it occurred early on a Sunday morning as I was putting the finishing touches to it, before preaching it at 11:00.  So, I sat down, for I had stood up when it passed, and wrote out as much as I could remember, while I prayed hard for recall of the rest.  God saw my desperation and blessed with most of what I remembered as I wrote out that sermon.

Written words are so fragile.  In a heartbeat the work of a week, or the accumulation of a lifetime, can be gone. In 47 B.C., Julius Caesar burned his ships in the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt, to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. He did not realize it, but the fire quickly spread to the docks, the naval arsenal, then to the great library of Alexandria. In a short while he had destroyed more than 400,000 ancient scrolls of the largest library of its time.

This fact makes the preservation of our Bible an amazing truth. God’s Word has survived floods, fires, riots, book burnings, persecutions and catastrophes. The Bible has been inerrantly preserved through three and a half millennia. Isaiah revealed this great promise around 700 B.C., “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8). It stood then. It stands now. It will stand forever!

Archeological finds constantly reinforce the truth of Isaiah’s words. One of the greatest discoveries of recent history occurred in 1947 among eleven caves by Wadi Qumran, that came to be called, the Dead Sea Scrolls. During the Roman army’s advance in the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), the Essene community hid thousands of ancient scrolls and manuscripts among the caves of Qumran. These caves were 1300 feet below sea level, on the western shores of the Dead Sea. Because of the extremely arid conditions, darkness and low humidity, the caves became the perfect environment for storing velum (animal skin) and papyrus scrolls.

The scrolls of Qumran were hand copied between 250 BC and AD 68. Archaeologists have discovered 972 manuscripts and over 15,000 fragments. Included with some non-biblical books, are scrolls and fragments of thirty-eight of the thirty-nine Old Testament books.  The only Old Testament book not discovered in Qumran is Esther. Among the scrolls and fragments, scholars found 19 copies of the book of Isaiah, 25 copies of Deuteronomy and 30 copies of the Psalms.

Another amazing fact is that there are only minimal variations in the manuscript texts compared to the Bible versions we have today. One Isaiah scroll, almost intact, is 1,000 years older than any existing manuscript, but when translated, reads almost identically to the book of Isaiah in our Bibles today. They are incredibly accurate, even after 1,000 years of hand copying.  This verifies the accuracy of Bible manuscripts that were handed down over centuries and millennia of time. It is more remarkable when you consider the scrolls were hidden in Qumran almost two thousand years ago.

These archaeological facts make the words of Scripture about itself ring ever more true.  The psalmist wrote, “Forever, O LORD, Your word is settled in heaven” (Psalm 119:89), and “The sum of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting” (Psalm 119:160).  Jesus said, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:18), and “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).  The Apostle Peter wrote, “But the Word of the Lord endures forever. And this is the word which was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25).

This Word that is eternal, inspired and inerrant is alive, active, and able to reach within the thoughts and intents of your heart and mind if you will read it.  Listen to this description of what God’s Word can do: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

God’s Word is also applicable. Paul wrote, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). God’s Word does not reach its full purpose and power to impact life until its truths are applied to the human heart. This Word of God can make you “adequate” and “equipped for every good work.”  If you will read and study the Bible, it can equip you for all the good works He calls you to do.   

As you open your Bible to hear from God, stop a moment to reflect on how precious it is.  Ask God to speak to your heart through its words. Will you also pray for those who still do not have a Bible in their native tongue?  Pray for dedicated Christian linguists who are translating Scripture into the heart language of these people.  Then, pray also for those who cannot own Bibles of their own, or who are persecuted for doing so.  They, as well as we, need to enjoy the wonder of the Word.

Words Matter

Missouri statehouse lawmakers learned the hard way that words matter. “World Magazine” reported that the Missouri state legislature decided to ban Styrofoam coolers from their rivers. Inexpensive white foam coolers are easily broken, and when discarded, cause unsightly river litter. So they passed a law to ban polypropylene.  What they meant to ban was polystyrene. Because the deliberative body almost used the right word, their law resulted in banning Tupperware and plastic containers instead of ice chests. So, for now, if you float a river in Missouri, you can bring cold cuts and cokes in your cheap Styrofoam cooler, but will be breaking the law if you bring a Tupperware container of lunch meat. Words matter.

Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Words contain and convey tremendous power, both for good and for harm.  For each word on the 720 pages of Adolph Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” 1,880 people died during World War II.  Words matter.

To some people, words matter only if they get them what they want. Dishonest politicians use words to make extensive promises to woo voters, but often conveniently forget them after the election. Slick salesmen may use words to get you to buy something you don’t want that leaves you with buyers remorse. However, Jesus said, “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36, 37). Imagine—people will be justified or condemned—based on their words! 

Solomon wrote, “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18). Some words cut and slice, leaving carnage in their wake. Harmful words cut deeply; sometimes they are remembered for a lifetime, altering the thinking and direction of those whom they slice. Other words, spoken with grace, compassion and love, can bring healing to a hurting soul. Mere words may fortify people with boldness and courage. Sometimes simple, caring words bring comfort that encourages the downcast surveying his losses. The saving gospel of Christ can be communicated in words. Not only do words matter—they have great potential.

Wise and godly speech have several things in common:

First, wise words require care and wisdom. We should be selective of words and careful in speech. Proverbs 17:27 and 28 say, “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has an excellent spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.” The psalmist David wrote “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). Proverbs 13:3 teaches, “The one who guards his mouth preserves his life; the one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” Words should be guarded so they will build up and not tear down people around us. Think before you speak, so your words will not harm. “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Prov. 15:28). 

Second, wise words are truthful, not false or exaggerated. “A trustworthy witness will not lie, but a false witness utters lies” (Prov. 14:5).  Always tell the truth.  You don’t have to tell all you know, but what you do say should be truthful. When words matter to us, they can become a blessing to others. Kind words are a creative force that builds up what is good and showers blessings on hearers.

Third, wise words are powerful. James compared the power of the tongue to the rudder of a great ship. He wrote, “Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.  See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!” (James 3:4-5). Amazingly—hasty, critical or hurtful words spoken years before can be recalled and still render pain to the recipient. Harsh words may be forgiven, but they are not often forgotten.

Fourth, wise words are always considerate. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly” (Prov. 15:1, 2). Simple words have the power to soothe hurts or stir up anger. A wise person considers the consequences of his words before they escape his mouth.

Finally, wise words are timely. Words spoken at the right moment are priceless.  “How delightful is a timely word!” (Prov. 14:23). Imagine these beautiful pictures of the positive effects of words: “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances. Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear. Like the cold of snow in the tie of harvest is a faithful messenger to those who send him, for he refreshes the soul of his masters” (Prov. 25:11-13).  

Let’s determine to speak carefully, truthfully and wisely, so Christ will be glorified and His kingdom extended! Good words are extremely valuable and very economical. Words matter.  Choose yours wisely!

Keys to a Healthy Heart

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More than ever before, people are interested in the condition of their hearts. Everyone wants a healthy heart. But there is another heart that is even more important. You also need a healthy spiritual heart—that core of your innermost spiritual being.

Solomon wrote, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). Scripture reveals the heart is the source of the emotions, intellect and will. It is the seat of the total personality—the source of all human actions.

This truth—that the heart is the wellspring, the source, the driving force or purpose of your life—is worth deep consideration. It should make us think seriously about what we allow our eyes to watch, our ears to hear, our thoughts to dwell and our hands to do. Things to which we devote our minds, thoughts and imaginations are what we become.

The goal of every Christian should be “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God…taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). God wants you not to pollute the wellspring of your life. Do not give yourself to the vain things in this world.

Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Treasures are highly prized. People set their hearts on what they treasure, so make sure you value the eternal and not merely the temporal. Seek to live your life with a biblically based value system.

What the Bible says about heart health is revealing: Scripture warns us to avoid a double heart: “They speak falsehood to one another; with flattering lips and with a double heart they speak” (Psalm 12:2); not to harden our hearts: “Do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness” (Hebrews 3:8); not to sin by having a proud heart: “Haughty eyes and a proud heart and the lamp of the wicked, is sin” (Proverbs 21:4); to avoid an unbelieving heart: “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12); and to confess sin and ask God for a clean heart: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). We should follow the example of David who cried out,  “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts” (Psalm 139:23).

We have a tendency to excuse our sinful actions, yet criticize others who fail. What we need to realize is that God looks at our hearts. Know that “every man’s way is right in his own eyes, But the LORD weighs the hearts” (Proverbs 21:2). God sees, not only the outside—the deeds we do, but the inside—the heart motives we have, and He weighs or evaluates them.

Another reason to guard your heart is that whatever is in your heart will eventually be exposed. Jesus said, “For each tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a briar bush” (Luke 6:44). He then explained, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (verse 45). Jesus meant that whatever you plant in your heart—will bear fruit in your life.

We live in an evil world. Following God’s command—“Do not love the world nor the things in the world” John summarized its content: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 John 5:15, 16). The pollution of sin is all around. Temptations abound, so be careful to protect your heart from contamination, which could ruin your life and destroy your testimony. Guard your heart, “for from it flow the springs of life.” 

So, how can you improve your heart health?

One way is to fortify your heart by faithfully spending time in God’s house, hearing God’s Word and singing praise with God’s people. The Coronavirus Pandemic has hindered the gathering of God’s people, but when we can, we should not forsake “our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).

Another way to strengthen your heart is by carving out a special time every day to spend with God, reading His Word, praying to Him and interceding for others. This daily “quiet time” will fortify your heart for the day ahead. For greatest effect, read and heed God’s Word consistently, methodically and prayerfully. Experience what the Psalmist did: “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11).

A third way to a healthy heart is spiritual exercise: “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily exercise is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7, 8). Put into practice what you know is good and right.

SO—Obey what Scripture says—Love what God values—and  do what Jesus would do, and you will be blessed with a healthy heart!

Satisfaction

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It is hard to believe Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones are still around and able to sing.  It may be surprising, but I was a fan of their music in the late 60’s. In 1965 Jagger and Keith Richards wrote a popular song that epitomizes what I want to write about. They wrote and sang, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

Sadly, the theme of that song is the life-story of many people. Some spend their whole lives seeking an unattainable state of satisfaction. They bounce from one pursuit to another, thinking—If I only have this, it will make me happy. Others move from one spouse to another, one job to another, one church to another—seeking what they can never find. Most often, when they gain the new object of their desires, it does not result in fulfillment. Frequently they experience a new emptiness, and the vain quest begins again. The illusive dream is just that for most people—a fantasy that fails to satisfy.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, philosopher and physicist, explained the only solution to such fruitless searches. He wrote: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing—but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” People are born with a black hole of emptiness in their soul that only God can fill. Neither human relationship nor earthly gain; neither fame nor fortune, can fill the inward void that Jesus does. When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), He indicated there was no other access to God, truth and life, but by Him.

Centuries before Pascal, King David shared the true key to filling your heart’s desire when he wrote:  “Trust in the LORD, and do good; Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He will do it” (Psalm 37:3-5). God’s people are urged to trust in the Lord, delight in Him and commit their ways to Him. When a person finds their delight in the omnipotent God, He will satisfy the deepest longings of their heart.

It is interesting to me that it is not often the great, extravagant or expensive things that bring joy in life, but most often the simple, normal, daily things that do. Loving relationships with family, church and friends are worth more than gold; the still small voice of God in your heart as you quietly read His Word; a striking sunset or a pleasant breeze on a crisp fall day; special family celebrations like holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, cookouts, ball games or recitals; a porch swing with a morning cup of coffee and your spouse; all these events bring a joy to the heart that money cannot buy.

God has blessed my wife, Pat, and me with five beautiful children—three sons and two daughters. During their formative years we enjoyed doing things and taking trips as a family. Since our children have grown up, when they all come home, it isn’t long before they reminisce, with one of them saying, “Hey, do you remember when we…” followed by some adventure we had. Listening to their discussion is always funny and delightful. The amazing thing to me is that the memories they treasure and discuss, rarely involve traveling to expensive places doing costly things. Most often they laugh together and remember things like, eating baloney sandwiches in a city park; hiking through the woods; picking up rocks (many of which still litter our house and yard); making s’mores; push-starting our VW Bus when the starter often quit; riding bike trails, and eating popcorn Friday nights, while watching movies on our old VCR. What the memories have in common are togetherness, transparency, and love for life and one another.

In reality, only God can bring the satisfaction for which we long, but cannot achieve. The earlier we learn that truth, the richer our lives will become. Though elusive here, it will be realized when believers in Christ spend eternity with and around the object of their desires. At the end of Revelation, John “saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). He also heard a voice from the throne saying, ”Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them” (verse 3). In those future days, humanity will have come full circle. The perfect state in Eden where God walked and talked with man in sweet fellowship, later shattered by the entrance of sin, will be restored forever, through our redemption in Jesus Christ. Then, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. And He who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (verses 4 and 5).

This is God’s eternal answer to the pain of emptiness in life; to filling that black hole in your soul. So, if the chorus of your life is singing, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” you need to quit looking to people, places and things, and look to Christ for your fulfillment.  If you have life experiences that reflect this, I would love to hear about them. Write me at LarryEClements@gmail.com. In the meantime please don’t “Paint It Black!” (another Stones’ song!  Isn’t that terrible? Sorry!)