Today in the Word is a daily audio devotional available via podcast. Today in the Word features solid biblical content and study that models the mission and values of Moody Bible Institute.
There is nothing quite like the taste of fresh grapes. They are sweet, juicy, and refreshing. I don’t have first-hand experience of growing grapes, but I’ve been told it can be a fickle crop that needs constant attention. Grapes were—and still are—one of the most common agricultural products in Israel. In today’s reading, Isaiah envisions God as the owner of a vineyard. Planting a new vineyard was an especially arduous task. Vineyards were typically planted on a hillside (v. 1). They needed to be cleared of stones (v. 2). In an age before tractors or other mechanical help, this was backbreaking work. The stones would then be used to build a fence around the vineyard and a watchtower for protection (v. 2). Planting a vineyard was also a long-term investment. It takes a few years before a vine will grow eatable grapes. In Isaiah’s song, God has done this work skillfully and carefully. He has tended His vineyard with the utmost care and patiently waited for grapes to grow. Instead of good grapes, His vineyard only produced rotten ones (v. 2). In this metaphor, Israel is the vineyard. God had planted them in the land of Canaan and provided for them. Yet, they consistently rebelled against Him (v. 7). The leaders did not uphold justice but oppressed the weak and vulnerable (v. 7). This parable makes clear that their failure was not because of neglect on God’s part. Because of their rebellion, they would be judged (vv. 5–6). Thankfully, this is not the end of the story. God promised: “I will again plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them” (Amos 9:15). God does not give up on His people. >> Jesus taught that the way to live in right relationship with God was to stay connected to Him as the true vine (John 15:1–8). How are you cultivating and nourishing your connection to the Lord and His church?
In 1935, the United States had 6.8 million farms. Today, while approximately the same amount of land is used for farming, the number of farms has decreased to about 2 million. The shift from a family-based farming model to agribusiness is the reason. As a result, most Americans lack firsthand knowledge of farming. Farming was one of the most common occupations in the ancient world. It is not a surprise that one of the first images of God in the Bible is that of a farmer. In Genesis 1, God is the sovereign Creator. He speaks and the world comes into existence. Then the tone shifts in Genesis 2 and God gets His hands dirty in the soil. He “formed a man from the dust of the ground” (v. 7). After creating Adam, God “planted a garden in the east, in Eden” (v. 8). God was the very first farmer. He “made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (v. 9). After completing His work, God turned over the responsibility to Adam. He charged the man “to work it and take care of it” (v. 15). The garden would produce food that would sustain them. It would be a place where they could fellowship with God and have meaningful and productive work to accomplish. But because of sin, man’s relationship with the land changed. God proclaimed, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it” (Gen. 3:17). From that point on, farming became more difficult. Still, God continued to provide for His people. >> Most of us purchase our food from a grocery store. But if you have a garden or farm, you realize the work that goes into farming. Thank God for who He is as farmer and provider. It is by His hand that we are nourished. If you are keeping an image journal, draw or sketch something God has created for us.
Several years ago, I had a student in class who was old enough to be my father. Over the course of the semester, I got to know him and hear his story. He was originally from Cambodia. As a teenager, he was forced to flee from his home when the Khmer Rouge rose to power. During the short reign of this regime, an estimated 1.7 million people were killed, including many members of this student’s family. This is just one example of the horrific power of state. In today’s reading, Daniel has a vision of a succession of kingdoms portrayed as terrifying beasts. Daniel himself lived under some of these regimes. In his lifetime, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem. He also saw the Persians conquer the Babylonians. He knew from experience the beast-like nature of empires. From a human perspective, these powerful empires seem all-powerful. Daniel describes the fourth beast as “terrifying and frightening and very powerful...it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left” (v. 7). Yet, it is important to remember that human governments are not a law unto themselves. There is a higher power to Whom they must answer. In contrast to the beasts, Daniel’s vision also includes a picture of God sitting on his throne as the judge (vv. 9–10). A judge is one who not only knows what justice is but who also can hold people accountable. In Daniel’s vision, the terrifying and oppressive beast is easily condemned and judged by God (v. 11). >> We often need to be reminded that God is the ultimate authority in the universe. While human tyrants may seem to get away with evil in the present, God will hold them accountable. One day, the Lord Jesus will return and rule over all: “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (v. 14). We need not live in fear, but in the confident expectation of our future hope.
Throughout its history, Israel was in an almost constant state of warfare. During the events described in the Old Testament, they were attacked by the Egyptians, Philistines, Moabites, Assyrians, and Babylonians—to name just a few enemies. In such a dangerous world, warriors were both common and necessary. In many places in Scripture, God is described as a warrior. In Exodus 15, Israel had achieved the unthinkable. They had escaped from Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth at the time. They did not escape because of their military prowess or their political savvy as negotiators. Instead, they were freed from slavery because God fought on their behalf. After the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea, Moses led Israel in a hymn of praise that proclaimed: “The LORD is a warrior, the LORD is his name” (v. 3). He silenced the prideful boasting of the Egyptian army (v. 9). God showed that He is unique. There is no one like Him. Egypt’s gods can’t compete (v. 11). As warrior, God often used forces of nature on His behalf. He parted the Red Sea, so Israel could walk through, and had it collapse back on the Egyptians. In other events of the Old Testament, God used hailstones and made the sun stand still (Josh. 10:1– 15). Other times, God empowered Israel to defeat their enemies (2 Sam. 5:22–25). God did not simply side with Israel though. When Israel was unfaithful to God, He fought against them (Deut. 28:25–26). In the New Testament, Paul uses warrior language to describe the victory Jesus accomplished on the cross (Col. 2:13–15). Our ultimate hope is that Jesus will return as a warrior and ultimately defeat Satan and the forces of evil (Rev. 19:11–16). >> You are not alone in your battles. When we pray to God for help, He is powerful enough to handle any situation. Jesus has already achieved victory over sin and death on the cross. He will be with us in our trials every step of the way.
On May 1, 1931, the Empire State Building opened to great fanfare. At the time, it was the largest building in the world. The construction involved over 3,500 workers and took three years to complete. Architects, iron workers, stone masons, carpenters, and plumbers were all needed, along with many other specialties to craft the iconic building. In Job 38, God is the master builder. He created not a skyscraper but the entire universe! He alone is the Creator of everything. You may remember that the Old Testament book of Job shares the story of a man who had lost everything. His house, wealth, reputation, and his children had all been taken from him. Job could not fathom why. What had he done to deserve such calamity? Job’s intense suffering impacted his relationship with God, and he began to question God’s justice (Job 31:35). God met with Job “out of the storm” (v. 1), giving him a series of rhetorical questions that centered around God’s work in Creation. God presents himself as the main architect, carpenter, and builder of the world. He alone knows the secrets of the universe because He is its Creator. God is the master builder. How does God’s answer relate to Job’s question? God reminded Job of his place in the universe. The questions forced Job to reflect: “Where were you? Who are you? Have you ever? Are you able?” God was the Creator; Job was merely a creature. He was not to judge God. He did not have the information, the standing, or the capacity to do so. He had been speaking “words without knowledge” (v. 2). >> This is not an easy message to hear, but sometimes we need to be reminded of our limits before God. There are some things we will not know. But one truth we do know is that we worship a fully competent and caring Creator. We can trust in His sovereign rule.
Many people dream of being an archaeologist like Indiana Jones, discovering lost treasures from the ancient world. However, actual archaeological digs are usually not so spectacular. Pottery is one of the most common discoveries, in part because it is highly resistant to decay, but also because pottery was so widely used in ancient cultures. In today’s reading, God instructs Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house (v. 2). Jeremiah notices that, in one case, a potter started to make one object, but the clay was not cooperating. Rather than giving up on the clay, the potter smashed it and shaped it into something else (v. 4). God used this scene to teach Israel about their relationship with Him. God is the potter, and Israel is the clay. There is a relationship between them. The clay can be unyielding to the potter’s hand, but the potter remains in control of what happens to the clay. God has the same kind of freedom as the potter (v. 6). This is both a warning and a source of hope for Israel. If God announces judgment against them and they repent, God can relent from His judgment and bless them (v. 8). But if they are rebellious against God, He can reconsider the good He had planned for them (v. 10). Just like a potter, God can change course in the midst of forming the clay to create something else. Tragically, Israel was being clay that was difficult to work with. They had forgotten God and turned to idols (v. 15). Most significantly, they remained unrepentant. They proclaimed, “It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; we will all follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts” (v. 12). >> Are you ever stubborn clay? We are at our best when we recognize our position before God. We need to realize that He is the potter. God has called us to submit so that He can shape us in the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29).
“It is legal because I want it,” King Louis XVI said. This quote embodies the attitude of monarchs throughout history. And while the Bible recognizes the authority of human kings and rulers, God is the King of kings! Any human king is under God’s authority. Daniel 4 is an unusual chapter. It is the only place in Scripture where a Gentile king is allowed to speak for himself. In the form of a letter or proclamation, Nebuchadnezzar testifies about God’s work in his life. He recounts a dream he had about a mighty tree that was cut down. Naturally, he turned to Daniel for its interpretation. Daniel declares that God has pronounced judgment on Nebuchadnezzar for his pride. He would be “driven away from people” and “live with the wild animals” until he acknowledges the truth that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth” (v. 25). And that is exactly what happened. One day, while Nebuchadnezzar was relaxing on the palace roof, he surveyed the city and boasted, “Is this not the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (v. 30). While the words were still on his lips, God pronounced judgment on him. The once mighty king was reduced to living with animals and eating grass like an ox until he acknowledged God’s sovereignty (v. 33). Imagine if you lived at that time. King Nebuchadnezzar looked all- powerful. What a striking object lesson to see a person who seemed so majestic now humbled in such a dramatic and public way. When the king finally acknowledged God, his sanity was restored. He declared, “[God’s] dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation” (v. 34). >> It is easy for us to get discouraged by the failures of human leaders. But be encouraged today! No matter how things may look at times, God is on the throne. Even those who walk in pride, “he is able to humble” (v. 37).
There is almost nothing worse than working for a bad leader, in a workplace filled with confusion, mistrust, and frustration. On the other hand, when we work for a good leader, even the most difficult job can seem bearable. Again and again, the Bible refers to God as King. In democratic nations, we may be a bit suspicious of that title. But unlike many earthly kings, God is not an elevated tyrant concerned only with his own power and privilege. In today’s reading, the Psalmist celebrates God’s rule with great enthusiasm: “Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises” (v. 6). Psalm 47 celebrates God’s rule over all the earth, including all the nations (vv. 1–2). As believers, we owe Him our allegiance. We can trust God as King. Our King wants to hear from us. He delights to receive our worship (v. 6). He cares for us personally and is intimately involved in our lives. David declares, “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Ps. 145:18). The fact that God rules over all things gives us hope. This psalm looks forward to a time when God’s rule will be recognized by all people (vv. 8 9). When Jesus returns to rule from Jerusalem, “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation” (Micah 4:3). >> What does it mean to live under God’s rule in the present? One way is to remember that our lives are not our own, but everything we have belongs to Him (1 Cor. 6:19–20). We submit to God as King in every area of our lives, trust in His wisdom and guidance, and seek to glorify Him in all that we do.
Did you know that there are over a billion sheep on the earth today? In New Zealand, sheep outnumber people five to one! Humans have a long history of tending sheep. Since sheep are naturally defenseless against predators, they tend to be nervous and easily frightened. If you think about it, we have a lot in common with sheep. The world often seems like a dangerous place. Anxiety and fear are rampant today, even among the most wealthy and successful. In today’s reading, the Psalmist expresses deep distress. Instead of peacefully sleeping through the night, he groans and stretches out his hands to heaven in desperation (vv. 2–3). He laments to God: “You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak” (v. 4). Most disturbing was the fact that his situation made him question God’s faithfulness. He wondered if God would keep His covenant promises and be true to His nature as compassionate and gracious (vv. 7–9). These troubling doubts increased his anxiety. Imagine, if a sheep started questioning the shepherd’s care and trustworthiness! The Psalmist then paused and encouraged himself to remember who God is and what He had done (vv. 11–12). He reflected on God’s stunning deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He reminded himself that God is powerful and cares about His people. Verses 16–18 remind us of the disciple’s observations about Jesus: “Even the winds and waves obey him!” (Matt. 8:27). This powerful, mighty God is our Shepherd, and we are His sheep. Note the comparison of God’s people to a “flock” in verse 20. >> Sheep need a shepherd to protect, lead, and calm them. We need that too! When doubts creep in, remember what God has done for you. Best of all, God showed His love by sending Jesus to save us from sin. He made a way for us to be in fellowship with Him. “The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing” (Ps. 23:1).
What animal is mentioned most often in the Bible? If you guessed “sheep,” you are right! Sheep were an important part of the economy of ancient Israel. It is no surprise that many biblical characters spent at least some of their life as shepherds, including Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Moses, David, and Amos. Shepherding in Israel was different than it is today. There were no fenced-in fields. Instead, shepherds had to be with their sheep to protect them from predators, lead them to good pasture, shelter them from the weather, and tend to their injuries. Shepherds became symbols of good leadership. Like shepherds, good leaders are compassionate, caring, and protective of those under their care. In today’s reading, God denounces the so-called shepherds of Israel. The priests and leaders of Israel had failed. They had extorted their people and did not care for them (vv. 2–4). They have not tended the sick and weak or sought the lost. They did not lead with compassion but with harsh brutality (v. 4). God declares that He will personally shepherd His people (v. 11). He will seek the lost, heal the sick, provide, and protect His people (vv. 11–14). This type of leadership is personal, sacrificial, and loving. He protects the weak from the oppression of the strong (vv. 20–21). In verses 23–24, God says He will shepherd His people through “my servant David.” Ezekiel is writing during the exile, long after David. The promise is that there will be a coming Davidic ruler who will be the ultimate Good Shepherd. This promise is fulfilled by the Lord Jesus. Jesus declared, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). >> As followers of Jesus, we have a Shepherd who cares for us, guides us, protects us, and loves us. What a gift this is! Perhaps it is time to return to your image journal and paint an image of a Shepherd caring for the sheep.
The largest bear species in the world is the polar bear. Male polar bears can weigh up to 1,500 pounds and stand up to 9 feet 10 inches tall! While ancient Israel did not have any polar bears, they did have a respect and fear of a bear’s power. There is a proverb in the book of Amos where the prophet says, “It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear” (5:19). That is similar to our proverb “Out of the frying pan and into the fire.” In Hosea 13, God pronounces a judgment against the northern kingdom of Israel. Israel had engaged in idol worship and even offered human sacrifices, something God detested. They had done this although God had delivered them from slavery to Egypt and warned them to “acknowledge no God but me, no Savior except me” (v. 4). They forgot their dependence on God and became proud. Because of their rebellion, God declares that He will come as a judge. He uses three animal metaphors to describe His anger toward Israel. He will be like a lion, a leopard, and climactically like a “bear robbed of her cubs” (v. 8). No one wants to get between a bear and its cubs! The image is clear, fierce judgment is coming. Part of God’s judgment is to give Israel what they wanted, the kind of leadership they asked for (v. 10). God knows this will only lead to ruin. God is heartbroken over the sin of His people. This passage reminds us of the seriousness of sin. God is not to be trifled with. He desires our allegiance. >> In modern culture, we tend to focus on God as love. We see Him as our friend. But it’s good to remember that we serve a powerful, almighty God who will judge and punish sin. Understanding this attribute of God makes us even more thankful for our salvation.
A baby bird is entirely dependent on its parents for survival. The tiny creature lacks the ability to procure food or defend itself, even against the least agile predators. For safety a baby bird relies on its parents. In the face of danger, many bird species will shield their young by covering them with their wings, safeguarding them from predators or inclement weather. Today’s reading abounds with protective metaphors for God. God is a “shelter,” “refuge,” and “fortress” (vv. 1–2). One of the most poignant metaphors compares God to a bird sheltering its offspring under its wings. For a baby bird, there is no safer place on earth than under the wing of the parent. The Bible frequently states that we live in a world filled with threats. This psalm lists pestilence, plagues, and the threat of foreign armies as just a few examples (vv. 6–8). These threats can easily become the focus of our lives. We worry about losing our job, our health, or our relationships. The truth is that sometimes we do lose those things. The world is not a safe place. Yet, this psalm reminds us of another reality. These threats are not beyond God’s protective care or supervision. How are we to understand the lavish promises in this psalm? The psalmist declares that “no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent” (v. 10). Yet we may wonder why our daily experience proves otherwise. Many of the most godly people in the Bible faced persecution and suffering. These promises are best understood when referring to God’s ultimate defeat of evil at the return of Christ. While sitting in a prison cell, Paul wrote, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:18). >> Are you facing difficulties? No matter how threatening life can be on earth, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. His is a wing under which you can always find shelter.
Did you know that Benjamin Franklin once proposed that a turkey should represent the United States on our national seal? Most Americans are probably grateful that instead, in 1782, the bald eagle was selected to adorn the Great Seal. The eagle has been a symbol of power and strength from ancient times. In Exodus 19, we read about another nation, Israel, that arrived at Mount Sinai. In this important passage, God summarizes the covenant relationship into which He was inviting Israel to enter with Him. He reminds Israel what He had done: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings” (v. 4). Here God compares His actions in the Exodus story to an eagle, symbolizing the speed and power of His deliverance. God makes an important point about why He delivered Israel. He did it not only to save Israel from slavery but also to bring them to Himself (v. 4). He desired to be in a close relationship with them. When we think about our salvation, it is important to remember the same truth. God delivered us not only to save us from sin and judgment but also to bring us into a relationship with Him (1 Cor. 1:9). In the remainder of the passage, God outlines His purpose for calling Israel. He called Israel to be His special people so they would be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (v. 6). They were not to ignore the rest of the world but represent God to them. They could do this through example, witness, and by keeping and proclaiming God’s Word. >> We are grateful that our God has brought salvation for His people. As those who hope in Him, we can claim this promise: “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isa. 40:31).
So far in our study, we have reflected on objects that are used as metaphors for God. God has been compared to light, a refuge, water, a rock, fire, a shield, and a strong tower. Today and for the next few days we will examine passages that compare God to an animal. In Isaiah 31, the prophet was addressing a nation in crisis. The fierce Assyrian army had threatened Judah’s existence. Judah looked to Egypt for an ally, thinking that if they could associate with another powerful nation, they could save themselves. God warns Judah not to be like those who “trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD” (v. 1). Our God is a greater ally than any human army (v. 3). To drive this point home, God paints a vivid image. Imagine a lion crouched over and defending its prey. Even if a group of shepherds tried to scare the lion away, it is not going anywhere (v. 4). That is how fiercely God will protect Judah. The image of a lion evokes great power and irresistible strength. We have a bike path by our house with a particular spot where red-winged blackbirds nest. In the spring, when we walk by that area, we are often bombarded by protective blackbird mothers. That is similar to another animal image God uses for Himself here: “Like birds hovering overhead, the LORD Almighty will shield Jerusalem” (v. 5). >> Because God is fiercely powerful and protective of His children, we have no reason to fear. While we may not have an army breathing down our neck, we still worry about things such as the economy, job loss, or cultural change. Take comfort that God is the same today as He was in the past. He shelters and protects His own.
Have you ever heard of someone who lives in an “ivory tower”? That kind of image is often used to describe someone who is out of touch with reality. While they might be highly educated, they lack first-hand life experience. The word “tower” occurs 50 times in the Bible, but never in that sense. The tower in the Bible refers to a military fortress. Cities had towers built into the corners of the wall as defensive fortifications. They also had a tower in the middle of the city as a final stronghold if the enemy was able to breech the outer wall. If you lived in a city in ancient Israel, these towers would be a daily visual reminder of a place of safety and security. In today’s reading there are two proverbs that are intentionally paired with one another in verses 10–11. These two verses paint a contrasting picture between the righteous and the wealthy. Where do they turn for safety and security? For the righteous, “the name of the LORD is a fortified tower” (v. 10). They find their security and trust in God. When difficulties come, they know exactly where to go. They do not hesitate or wander between this tower and that one. Instead, they “run to it [the LORD] and are safe” (v. 10). By contrast, the strong tower of the rich is often their wealth (v. 11). They “imagine it a wall too high to scale” (v. 11). The word “imagine” is the key one. They think their wealth will save them but it is no match for the kind of strong tower that the Lord provides. Not every wealthy person trusts in their riches instead of God. But trusting in wealth is a special challenge for those who have much (Matt. 19:23–24). >> Take a few minutes and reflect on the image of God as a tower. Where do you run to for safety and security? When challenges come in life, do you run to the Lord?
When you think of a shield, what comes to mind? Superheroes? Knights of the Round Table? In Genesis 15, God describes Himself as “a shield.” Abram had just rescued his nephew Lot along with the other residents of Sodom and Gomorrah from a group of marauding kings (Gen. 14:1–24). This was a stunning military achievement for a man who was not an experienced warrior. Clearly, God had been at work. Yet, the victory put Abram in a vulnerable position. He had made enemies. Remember that he was not living among his own people and could not count on the support of those around him. God appeared to Abram in a vision and said, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (v. 1). A shield was designed to protect a soldier from arrows or spear thrusts. God told Abram that he had no cause for worry. He would protect him. Abram’s response is surprising. He asks God how he can trust His promise since he was still childless (vv. 2–3). Remember, God had promised that Abram’s offspring would become a great nation (Gen. 12:1–3). Years had gone by, yet Sarah and Abram still did not have any children. Abram wondered if God was able to keep this new promise if He had not followed through on the first one. God asked Abram to come outside and look at the stars. Imagine being in the wilderness with no ambient light. God proclaimed, “So shall your offspring be” (v. 5). God was reminding Abram that He has created the stars. Could not the One who spoke the universe into existence be trusted to keep His word today? Abram believed God (v. 6). >> God is your shield. He protects and defends you as well. Just like Abram, we are called to trust in God and His Word. We can be grateful that the Creator of the universe is active on our behalf today.
Can you imagine a world without fire? Fire provides us with light in the dark and warmth in the cold. Fire enables us to cook food, refine metals, and power a car. Yet, fire is also dangerous. It can destroy homes and cities. The ancient Greek culture highlighted the importance of fire by naming it as one of the four basic elements along with water, air, and earth. In the Old Testament, God’s appearances are often described as fire. God appeared to Abraham as a torch of fire (Gen. 15:17). He appeared to Moses in the burning bush and as a fire on Mount Sinai (Ex. 3:2; 19:18). Fire symbolizes God’s holiness and purity. Fire is also used to portray God’s anger. The prophet Nahum asks, “Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him” (Nah. 1:6). In today’s reading, Moses reminds Israel that God did not appear to them in the form of any image or shape. Instead, God spoke to them “out of the fire” (v. 15). Fire is flickering and immaterial (the opposite of solid). The choice of fire was meant to teach Israel that they should not make an image of God in the form of any created thing (vv. 16–19). Their worship of God should not be inspired by an object. Instead, they should remember what God had done for them. How He had redeemed them from Egypt (v. 20). Their focus should be on God’s words and deeds. >> We may be tempted to worship a god created by our own imagination. John Calvin remarked that the human heart is “a perpetual factory of idols.” Yet, God made Himself known to us in Scripture. He desires our full and undivided worship. If we turn to false gods, we risk being the object of God’s anger. As Moses reminds us, “the LORD your God is a consuming fire” (v. 24).
Looking back on his life, David must have been amazed at all the trials he had endured and how much he had accomplished. He began his journey as a humble shepherd, went on to face the giant Goliath, served in Saul’s court, became a fugitive living in the wilderness, worked as a hired soldier for the Philistines, and ultimately ascended to the throne of Israel. In 2 Samuel 22, David reflects on a time when God delivered him from Saul. Although he may have composed this poem shortly after the event, it is included at this point in the book to provide a fitting summary of David’s relationship with God. In the central image of this poem, David describes God as a rock. “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge” (v. 2). “For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God?” (v. 32). In a world before the invention of powerful drills or explosives, a rock was the ultimate picture of stability and strength. If you were wandering in the desert, a rock would be a welcome sight. It would provide needed shade and shelter from the sun. Throughout the trials of David’s life, God had been his rock. God was his source of safety and security. No matter what he was going through, he could call upon the Lord knowing that God would hear and provide (v. 7). When it seemed like the world was crashing down around him, he could count on God (v. 8). >> God is your rock too! Solid. Strong. Certain. We can cling to Him when everything else seems uncertain, knowing that He will never let us down. God met our deepest need through the death and resurrection of Jesus for our sin. We can declare with David, “The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be my God, the Rock, my Savior!” (v. 47).
Water is one of our most basic needs. Without it, our bodies quickly break down. Yet, it is very easy to take it for granted. When I get home from work, my wife has never asked me, “Did you get enough water to drink today?” It just doesn’t seem that important. However, if I did not have easy access to water, it would quickly become an obsession. Psalm 42 opens with one of the most memorable images in the Psalter. The Psalmist’s longing for God is compared to a deer in the wilderness panting for water. The reason why the psalmist longs for God so desperately is that God seems absent. When things are going well, it is easy to take God for granted. But that is not the case here. The psalmist laments, “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (v. 3). This taunt of his enemies pierces his soul because he wonders about the same thing: Where has God gone? Why has God forgotten me? (v. 9). Yet even amid his sorrow and sense of abandonment, he knows God is with him. He tells himself, “By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me” (v. 8). He preaches to himself, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God” (v. 11). He ultimately knows that God cares for him as his Savior and protector (v. 11). He also knows that he needs God as desperately as a man dying of thirst needs water. >> God is the foundational source of our life. While we may sometimes take God for granted, without His constant care we would not survive. Like the Psalmist, we thirst for God. Even in times of fear or sorrow, we can completely trust in God’s love, care, and provision.
We all remember childhood games where there was a “safe” place. If you got to it, you could not be tagged or pursued. As adults we look to many things for security. When facing difficulty, we turn to our family, our friends, or even the comfort of our home. In today’s reading, David was in a challenging situation. Traps had been set for him (v. 4). He was sorrowful and downcast with grief (vv. 9–10). Not only did his enemies oppose him, but he had become the object of malicious gossip (vv. 11–12). In this crisis, David describes the Lord as his refuge. God is his ultimate safe place. David knows he cannot trust in his own ability, military might, or even the strength of his fortifications. Instead, he asks God to be “my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me” (v. 2). He trusts in God’s faithfulness and acknowledges that “my times are in your hands” (v. 15). He knows God ultimately wants what is best for him (v 19). Over and over in the Psalms, God is described as a refuge. This does not mean that dangers and trials will not come our way. But during these perils, we can turn to God as “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). Jesus demonstrated this trust on Good Friday. With His dying breath, He proclaimed to the Father, using the words of this psalm, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (v. 5; Luke 23:46). God the Father was His refuge. While Jesus would endure the pain of the crucifixion, He would be vindicated in His resurrection. >> Do you think of God as your refuge? He is your safe place when trials come! The psalms proclaim that God is our refuge and strength both for now and for eternity. If you can draw, try to portray a refuge, a hiding place of safety and comfort.
Did you know that the Bible begins and ends with references to light? Light was the first thing God created (Gen. 1:3). In Revelation 22:5, we learn that when we are reunited with Jesus all traces of darkness will finally be gone: “There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.” In the Bible, light is a representation of God’s presence and glory (2 Chron. 5:13–14; Ex. 34:29). Light stands for goodness and holiness as opposed to evil (John 3:20). Light is truth as opposed to the darkness of falsehood (Ps. 19:8; 119:105). Light is a symbol of God’s favor and blessing (Prov. 4:18; Num. 6:24–26). Today’s passage, Isaiah 60:1–22, looks forward to the redemption of Israel: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you” (v. 1). During the millennial kingdom, Israel will recognize the Messiah and the nations will stream to Zion to know the Lord (v. 3). In this time, God is described as light, “the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end” (v. 20). The hope that Isaiah 60 describes is for Israel and the nations to be in the “everlasting light” of the Lord (v. 20). This means they will be in the very presence of God and fully experience His glory. At that time, evil will be abolished and defeated (v. 21). Throughout this passage and elsewhere through Scripture, light is used as a symbol of God’s blessing and favor. We look forward to this time when God’s everlasting light will abolish darkness for good! >> Can you imagine living in God’s presence away from the effects of sin? Can you imagine a world where truth wins? No more darkness. No more sorrow! One day all people will submit to the Lord Jesus. That is our future hope.
“The LORD is my shepherd.” Psalm 23 contains one of the most famous images of God in the Bible. In the original language, the phrase is only two words long. Yet, it would take a whole book to fully unpack its depth of meaning. This month, we will look at the way God reveals His character to us through images. In the Old Testament, God is described as a light, a shield, a rock, an eagle, a potter, a craftsman, an artist, a warrior, and a king, to name just a few. The images of God in the Bible are not meant to be exact or perfect representations. When the Bible compares God to a shepherd, it helps us more fully understand who He is. For example, shepherds in ancient Israel were often servants or hired hands. This does not mean that God is a hired hand. But Psalm 23 shows us how God is like a shepherd. He provides for us: “I lack nothing” (v. 1). What a powerful statement! He guides our way and cares for our needs: “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters” (v. 2). God protects, loves, and cares for His people. In the same way, we are a lot like sheep. We trust our Shepherd and are blessed when we follow Him. A theologian explains how the Bible’s use of metaphor helps ignite our understanding: “Metaphor consists in bringing two sets of ideas close together, close enough for a spark to jump, but not too close, so that the spark, in jumping, illuminates for a moment the whole area around, changing perceptions as it does so.” We hope that this study will draw you closer to God and deepen your understanding of who He is. >> Since we are studying images, why not start a picture journal? Whether you are artistic or just love to doodle, try to capture images that teach you something about God using paint, colored pencils, or even crayons.
Salvation is by grace. We cannot earn it. The gift we have received from Christ is so great that we could never pay it back. And although we cannot repay this debt, we still owe something to Jesus. As the old song says, “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe.” As we close our study of Paul’s letters from prison, we are reminded of all that we owe to Jesus. Many of the Christian duties Paul emphasized in his prison letters, especially in those sections that describe the nature of the Christian life, come together in the apostle’s appeal to Philemon. Philemon owes a debt of gratitude to Paul (v. 19). Onesimus, who had broken the law by running away, owes it to Philemon to return to him but in a humble spirit (v. 11; see also Eph. 6:5-6; Col. 3:22). Philemon, in turn, has an obligation to recognize that he and Onesimus are equals in Christ. Now that he belongs to Christ, Onesimus is “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave.” He should be even dearer to Philemon than he is to Paul “as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord” (v.16). Paul’s request calls for sacrifice on both parts. Onesimus sacrifices his pride by returning to his old master. Philemon will lose a servant if he sends Onesimus back to Paul. Commentators are divided on whether Paul expects Philemon to free Onesimus. Elsewhere, however, Paul warns Christians not to become enslaved and urges those who already are slaves to obtain their freedom if possible (1 Cor. 7:21–23). Paul tells Philemon to charge any wrong that Onesimus has done or debt he has incurred to Paul’s account (v. 18). If there is shared loss, there is also love. Love for one another, and ultimately for Christ. >> As we conclude these studies of Paul’s letters from prison, what are your takeaways? What have you learned about the Christian life? How has Paul encouraged you to become more faithful to Jesus?
Frederick Douglass wrote, “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Onesimus tried to obtain his freedom in the same way. He ran away from Philemon’s household and somehow ran into Paul, “the prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Paul doesn’t say how he and Onesimus became acquainted. What the apostle does reveal is that he had been instrumental in his conversion. In verse 10, Paul explains that Onesimus “became my son while I was in chains.” It is possible that Paul already knew Onesimus before. In verse 6, he describes Philemon as a partner in the faith. In addition to being one of those who supported Paul financially, Philemon had also come to faith under Paul’s preaching (see v. 19). But Paul wrote this personal letter to inform Philemon that Onesimus had become a Christian and was now “a dear brother” (v. 16). Indirectly, Paul was asking Philemon to welcome Onesimus back and then return him to the apostle (vv. 8, 12–13). More than a help, Onesimus had become like a son to Paul (v. 10). When he describes Onesimus as “useful” in verse 11, he is making a pun based on his name, which means “helpful” or “profitable.” It may bother us that Paul did not tell Philemon directly that it was his moral obligation to grant Onesimus freedom. Indeed, Paul never speaks of the morality of slavery. Nor does he flex his apostolic muscles, although he gives a gentle reminder of his authority when he speaks of his request as something that Philemon “ought” to do (v. 8). Paul’s gentle tone is a testimony to his confidence in Philemon and to the transforming power of the gospel. Although a prisoner, Paul was used by God to introduce Onesimus to the freedom of Christ. >> We are all slaves and prisoners when it comes to sin. But Jesus promised, “...if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Have you ever been in a workplace where everyone got along perfectly all the time? What about a family? Or a sports team? Living in community with harmony does not come automatically. It’s a learned skill. That’s true in the Christian life. It is no accident that God designed the church to function as a body (see Col. 3:15). As he closes this letter, Paul sends personal greetings to several people in the Colossian church. He also mentions members of his ministry team. Tychicus and Onesimus probably brought this letter to Colosse (vv. 7–9). Onesimus is an individual we will learn about in the next two days since he is the subject of Paul’s letter to Philemon. Paul also mentions names that we may recognize from other letters. The apostle conveys the greetings of Aristarchus alongside those of Mark and Barnabas. During Paul’s first missionary journey, he and Barnabas had a falling out because of Mark (Acts 15:36–40). By the time this letter was written, they had reconciled (2 Tim. 4:11). In verse 14 Paul writes, “Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings.” We know Luke as the author of the third Gospel and the book of Acts. Demas, however, had a scandalous reputation. Several years after Colossians was written, love for this world motivated Demas to desert Paul (2 Tim. 4:10). Archippus, mentioned in verse 17, will also show up in Paul’s letter to Philemon. Here the tone seems to be one of reproof. “Complete the ministry,” Paul says, implying that Paul fears he might not. Paul clearly realized that not all members of the church would get along all the time. Even so, he urges believers toward the unity we have in Christ. >> Christian living is a team sport. Not everyone on the team plays well. Nor do they always play well together. No matter how much we do for Jesus, we never outgrow our need for grace, patience, and forgiveness.
Most sermons begin with a prayer. Sometimes we are tempted to treat it as a formality, like playing the national anthem before the game. Paul saw prayer as far more. For him, it was a source of help and power. Sometimes when we pray, we say we are having our “devotions.” But in verse 2, Paul urges the Colossians to “devote” themselves to prayer. The Greek expresses the idea of being busily engaged with something. Prayer is not a formality but an occupation. Furthermore, it is a demanding occupation. It requires the disposition of someone who is on guard and keeping watch. Prayer also requires a particular kind of expectation. Not the disposition of someone who makes demands but a grateful and trusting spirit that believes that God will answer in a way best suited to our needs. Paul asked the Colossians to pray that God would “open a door for our message” (v. 3). This is a striking request given his circumstance. We might have expected him, as a prisoner, to ask for his freedom or maybe for justice. Instead, he asks for an opportunity to make Christ known. Paul’s request reflects not only his sense of mission but also his conviction that success in preaching is dependent upon God. In addition to opportunity, Paul asked for clarity: “Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should” (v. 4). The skill that is required to preach is also a work of God. Most opportunities to proclaim Christ happen outside the assembly of believers. That’s why Paul urges the Colossians to season their ordinary conversations with grace and salt (v. 6). Grace does not mean elegant speech but the message of grace. Salt alludes to Jesus’ command that His disciples be “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). >> You do not need to be a pastor to proclaim the grace of Christ. As you pray today, ask God to give you the opportunity, clarity, and courage to tell someone about Jesus.
As Christians, we are a part of two families. The first is made up of those people to whom we are related by birth or have joined through marriage. We gather for holidays and birthdays. Sometimes we share physical features. For believers, our other family is the church, the family of God. Sometimes these two groups overlap. Paul speaks to both in Colossians 3:12–21. The church’s basic rule is love and the recognition that all Christians are bound together in Him (v. 12). The church is not a perfect community. Participation often requires patience and forgiveness from those who are part of it (v. 13). Paul describes the church as a worshiping community, constituted by the Word of God (v. 16). Those who make up the church are “members of one body” who speak and act “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (vv. 15, 17). This is a community whose only boundary is Christ Himself. It is not limited by ethnicity, gender, economic status, or nationality (see also v. 11). What Paul describes in verses 18–25 is more accurately a household than a family. The fact that Paul includes slaves is significant because it introduces a cultural element into the idea. God established the family as a divine institution in Creation. The New Testament household Paul describes has the family at its core. But the apostle also includes slaves, a social structure God did not establish. He urges slaves to remember that God accepts their sincere service as being offered to Him (v. 22). Christians live in a fallen world that has been shaped by God and has also been altered by sin. We are bound to live by the Word of God while in it. >> Even though our social systems are sometimes broken, it does not exempt us from the responsibility of living Christianly within them. Are you a member of a less than ideal family? Seek God’s wisdom, then trust and obey.
The other day during a conversation with one of my grown sons, I noticed a familiar facial expression and gesture. It was a bit like looking in a mirror. How did he learn it? Was it DNA or imitation? Perhaps it was a little of both. Living the Christian life is similar in one respect. There is a place for imitating Christ, but it is ultimately grounded in something much deeper. Christian living involves three important actions that are noted in Colossians 3: seeking, being, and doing. In verse 1, Paul urges us to “set your heart on things above.” The Greek word means to “seek.” It is referring to our aspiration and pursuit, but it is not “pie in the sky.” This seeking is only possible because the Christian has been united with Christ in His death and resurrection (vv. 1, 3). Being and seeking lead to doing. The Christian seeks the things above by living in the power of the cross. We put to death “whatever belongs to your earthly nature” by saying no to those sinful impulses that were part of our former life (v. 5). Our earthly nature, as Paul describes these sinful impulses, continues to assert itself even after we have been saved. Paul describes it almost as if it were an alien force. It may stir within us, but it is not who we are in Christ. Paul calls the Colossians (and us) to cast off the vestiges of the old self and walk in the new self (vv. 7–10). The change in life that Paul envisions for the Christian is not instantaneous. We are “being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (v. 10). The Greek verb is in the present tense. Our new life in Christ is a continuous and transforming experience. >> Christians do not walk a certain way so that we can obtain new life. That life is already yours if you are in Christ! Now, what we need to do, is walk in it.
Pastor and author Kent Hughes observes that legalism reduces the message of the gospel. He explains that it “enshrines spirituality as a series of wooden laws” and calls it godliness. “Being in Christ is a relationship,” he explains, “and like all relationships, it deserves disciplined maintenance, but never legalistic reductionism.” This kind of false teaching had crept into the Colossian church. Based on Paul’s rebuke in verses 16 and 21, they had begun to observe particular days as sacred and certain foods as religiously clean or unclean. It is unclear whether Paul had in mind legalists who wanted Christians to follow the law of Moses or the kind of rigid rule-following associated with some forms of mystery religions. Perhaps he had both in view. His statement (v. 17) that dietary rules and the observance of special days are only a shadow of the reality found in Christ sounds much like the argument made in the book of Hebrews. His warning about the false worship of angels (v. 18) may refer to Gnostic ideas about spiritual intermediaries or certain magical practices involving angels. Legalism does not work! Legalism will not help us control the flesh. Instead, it promotes spiritual pride. A Christian who falls into this way of thinking has forgotten the power of the cross. Christ’s victory over sin is the only thing that can truly keep us from “sensual indulgence” (v. 23). The rituals and observances of the Mosaic law were fulfilled with the coming of Christ. The rules and regulations of this type of religion have no lasting value and are “destined to perish with use” (v. 22). Without the power of the cross, the harshest discipline is merely a show. >> Sometimes we may be tempted to reduce the message of the gospel to a list of “dos and don’ts.” Be careful not to let someone else’s judgment about such matters control your practice. Instead, rely on the grace of God in Christ to make you righteous.
The second-century church leader Irenaeus famously said, “Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God.” In Colossians 2, Paul is also talking about life and our vision of God. Christian living, he points out, is the life of Christ at work in us. Our knowledge of God comes through Christ (v. 3). When we accept Him as Lord, we are empowered to live under His rule (v. 6). Instead of being taken in by fine-sounding arguments, “human tradition,” or speculating about “elemental spiritual forces” (v. 8), we look to Christ to understand what God is like (v. 9). The themes Paul emphasizes in verses 9–12 counter some of the false teachings that the Colossians faced at the time. It appears that false teachers in Colosse were denying that Christ was truly human. They speculated about a vast hierarchy of spiritual powers and authorities and taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation. In contrast, the gospel teaches that Jesus is enough. We are complete in Him (v. 10). More than this, we are united with Christ in such a way that His death becomes ours. This union with Christ in His death is the spiritual reality that Old Testament circumcision symbolized (v. 11). Believers, who are united with Christ in His resurrection and by it, have been made “alive with Christ” (vv. 13–14). By dying on our behalf, Jesus paid the debt. By rising from the dead, Jesus triumphed over evil (v. 15). This is just the basic gospel. Yet it is a message of immense spiritual power. Those who know Christ are alive in Christ. The glory of God is the believer truly alive in Christ. >> Can you say that you are alive in Christ? The key is to come to Him in faith. Recognize that He died and rose for you. Trust in Him today, and His victory will be yours. For more information on what it means to be a Christian, go to moodybible.org/ knowing-christ.
If you ask the average person to describe what it means to be a Christian, they will probably identify a moral view, lifestyle choice, or even a political position. While Christianity does have implications for all these areas, that is not what it means to be a Christian. Today’s passage reveals that Jesus Christ is the essence of the Christian faith. The heart of the Christian message has to do with the nature of Christ and the reason He shed His blood on the cross. Paul describes Jesus as both “the image of the invisible God” and “the firstborn over all creation” (v. 15). Paul’s choice of words is deliberate, probably intended to counter aspects of the false teaching that had crept into the church in Colosse. By taking a human nature, Jesus brings the image of the invisible God to light. The fact that Paul calls him the “firstborn” does not mean that Jesus was the first created being; it means that He is superior to creation. Jesus existed as God before He was born in Bethlehem. Indeed, He existed as God before anything was created (v. 17). As Creator, Jesus upholds all creation. Paul goes on to say that Jesus died “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (v. 20). By “all things,” he primarily means people who are alienated from God because of sin (v. 21). As Creator, Jesus is the glue that holds the universe together. But He is also the Redeemer who reconciles us to God by the death of His physical body (v. 22). Paul reminds the Colossians that this was the message that was preached to them. It is the bedrock of the Christian faith. >> With so many varying ideas about Christianity swirling about, we must remember the first principles of our faith. Christianity is about Jesus, the Creator who took on human nature to die for us.
As I write these words, an impromptu prayer meeting that began after a chapel service at Asbury College in Kentucky had been going nonstop for more than a week. There have been many reports of blessing and a sense of the presence of the Lord. I doubt that the apostle Paul would have been surprised by this. In today's reading, we get a snapshot of Paul's lifestyle of prayer. Every time Colossians came to mind, he gave thanks for them (v. 3). Located in the Lycus valley near the city of Laodicea, Colosse, had fallen on hard times by Paul's day. But of even greater concern was a form of teaching that had begun to creep into the church. Paul does not give many details in this letter. He is more interested in dwelling on the truth than in detailing all the false tenets of something he describes as a “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Paul's prayers for the Colossians focused primarily on two things. The apostle prayed that the Holy Spirit would grant them wisdom and understanding to know how they should live. He also asked that God's Spirit would strengthen them with power so that they would live out the truth as it was revealed to them (1:9–12). Paul did not pray for them to live this way in order to be redeemed. They were already saved. He prayed this way because redemption had already come to them through Christ. Jesus had already “qualified” them to “share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (v. 12). >> This lifestyle is as possible for us as it was for the Colossians. God “has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (v. 13). In Christ, we have redemption, which Paul defines further in verse 14 as “the forgiveness of sins.”
A woman recently posted a video of her husband trying to mow their huge lawn with a small push-style lawnmower, an impossible task. But when she looked outside an hour later, she saw several neighbors, people they had not yet met, arriving with larger riding lawnmowers. She was deeply moved by their willingness to step in and help someone in need. We often turn to friends to lighten our cares. In verse 10, Paul describes his joy over the church’s “renewed” concern for him. Their support had lapsed due to a lack of “opportunity” rather than disinterest. Yet he takes pains to assure them that, as much as he appreciated their help, he was not dependent upon it (v. 11). God’s supply was the secret of Paul’s contentment. He does not mean a supply of things but a constant supply of strength (v. 13). God does not always give us what we want. He does provide all we need. This helpfulness from the church at Philippi was not something new for Paul. Despite their poverty, they had supported his work since the beginning of their church (v. 15). At one point, apart from Paul’s work as a tentmaker, their help appears to have been his primary source of financial support. The phrase “giving and receiving” (v. 15) was a standard formula for financial transactions where one person gives money to another. Unlike many false teachers, however, Paul was not for hire. He had no interest in making a profit off the church. He was more interested in the blessing the Philippian believers received through their giving than he was in the gifts themselves (v. 17). Paul used a worship model and not a business model to fund his ministry. He understood that Philippian generosity was a sacrifice offered to and accepted by God (v. 18). >> The apostle did not discourage them from giving because he was confident that God would supply their need just as He had provided for Paul’s needs (v. 19). He will do the same for you!
One day, not long after I had begun to follow Jesus, I walked out the door and met a friend coming up the street. He was on his way to my house. “I came to see you because someone told me you had lost your mind,” he said. Word had gotten around that I had become a Christian. But despite what my friend had heard, I had not lost my mind. Like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, I had finally come to my senses. The Christian life is a life of the soul, but it is also a life of the mind. We believe with the heart, but what is believed is truth. “The heart is always to be influenced through the understanding—the mind, then the heart, then the will,” Welsh minister Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed. Like Paul, the Philippian church was not perfect. As probably true for all churches, the members had personality conflicts and stresses that created problems for them. The solution was to think rightly. Consider the case of Euodia and Syntyche, two women Paul viewed with high regard and considered to be colleagues. He pled with them to “be of the same mind in the Lord” (v. 2). He recognized that they might need a mediator. In verse 3 he asks someone he trusts in the church to help them resolve their differences. Paul believed they could be brought together by their shared experience of Christ. While they may not agree on every point, they must learn how to unite in Christ. The other issue was the problem of anxiety. Philippi was not an easy place to be a Christian. In verses 4–7 Paul urged them to set their hope on the Lord’s return and to voice their concerns to the Lord. >> Much of the media that occupies our attention is the opposite of true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy. How would following this advice affect your entertainment choices?
C. T. Studd was born to wealth and prestige on December 2, 1860. He distinguished himself as an athlete while a student at Eton. But when Studd was 24 years old, his brother became gravely ill. C. T. began to question the course of his life and decided that it came up wanting. “What is all the fame and flattery worth...when a man comes to face eternity?” he wondered. Studd determined to let it all go and devote himself to Christ. Paul made a similar choice. His achievements were not on the cricket field, as C. T. Studd’s were. Paul’s accomplishments were religious. He gives us his resume in verses 4–6, noting that if anyone had a reason to be confident in his own spiritual efforts, it was him. But an encounter with Jesus Christ changed everything. Paul suddenly realized that what he had been trusting in was not true righteousness but self-righteousness. Like Studd, he chose to let it go. Compared to the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, Paul felt his own attempts were mere “garbage” (v. 8). In verse 9, the apostle explains the difference between the two approaches. One was a “righteousness of my own that comes from the law,” and the other was “the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” Paul wanted the Philippians to know his story because they were tempted by preachers who distorted the gospel. These teachers claimed it was necessary to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses to be saved. The apostle disagrees with them (v. 2), calling them dogs, evildoers, and mutilators of the flesh (an allusion to the practice of circumcision). His strong language is a reminder that there is no common ground between these two approaches. >> Do you expect God to accept you because of your own efforts and religious practices? Let it all go. Turn to Christ and receive His righteousness as a gift through faith.
Can you have both fear and love? 1 John 4:18 observes, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Yet in Philippians 2, Paul urges his readers to work out their salvation “in fear and trembling.” What is the difference between these two kinds of fear? The difference is the fear of punishment. Paul does not urge the Philippians to work out their salvation for fear of losing it if they fail to perform well. Neither was Paul urging them to work for their salvation. He assures them, in verse 13, that God was already working in them “to will and to act.” Instead, he is talking about a salvation they have already begun to experience. New Testament scholar H. C. G. Moule describes this sort of fear as “a reverent and wakeful conscience in his holy presence.” To help them with this, Paul hoped to send his protégé Timothy soon to take stock of the situation and bring back a report (vv. 19 23). For now, he was sending them Epaphroditus who had been their connection to Paul. Epaphroditus was probably sent by the church with funds to help Paul's ministry and to assist in other ways. In verse 25, the apostle calls him a messenger or minister sent to care for Paul's needs. Paul also calls him a brother, co- worker, and fellow soldier. Working out our salvation is the process God uses to help us fully grasp the reality of a salvation that Jesus Christ has already accomplished for us. God works from within and sends His servants to help us as they work from the outside. >> The wrong kind of fear can be as crippling to spiritual growth as complacency. Don't freeze up in fear. Instead, draw near to God with a reverent awareness of His presence.
Followers of Jesus initially called themselves “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22). When the gospel came to Antioch, some people began to refer to them as Christians (Acts 11:26). The label signified that they belonged to the group associated with Jesus Christ. Eventually, the believers adopted it themselves. Today, followers of Jesus still call themselves Christians. When we claim this title, we are doing more than identifying with a group or a church. We are identifying with Jesus. According to verse 5, it’s our way of thinking that produces a way of being. We are to have “the same mindset as Christ.” How do we do this? Paul identifies three characteristics. First, we should remember the love, fellowship, tenderness, and compassion we experienced from Christ (v. 1). Second, we acknowledge what Jesus has done both for and in us (vv. 6–11). We must understand the gospel and its implications. Third, we begin to have the mind of Christ when we follow Jesus into His way of life (vv. 2–4). The order is important here. We must know and experience Jesus before we can imitate Him. No doubt this is why Paul spends the bulk of these verses describing the nature of Christ’s work. At its heart, we see a series of actions where Christ “made himself nothing” (v. 7). Theologians have written volumes about this phrase. But Paul explains what he means by it in the verses that follow. Jesus made Himself nothing by taking on human nature and humbling Himself to the point of death on the cross (vv. 7–8). Because He did this, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (v. 9). >> The path that Jesus took is also the path of the Christian’s life. We do not imitate Christ so that we can be saved but because we were saved by Jesus who “made Himself nothing.”
In the account of his conversion, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes joy as “a pointer to something other and outer.” The joy Paul writes about in the first chapter of Philippians serves the same function. Given Paul’s circumstances, we may be surprised to read that he rejoices. Not only was he a prisoner, but others were using his confinement as an opportunity to get ahead. They seemed to view the gospel ministry as a competition. “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill,” Paul admits in verse 15. But with a remarkable generosity of spirit, the apostle resolved to rejoice that no matter the motive, Christ was being preached (v. 18). Paul’s imprisonment was a concern for his friends at Philippi. The apostle reassured them in two ways. First, he pointed out that what might seem like a setback was bringing attention to the gospel. How? Through Paul’s ministry to the palace guard in Rome and by the preaching of others (vv. 13–14). Second, Paul assured them that their prayers would make a difference. He expected their prayers, along with God’s provision of His Spirit, to “turn out for my deliverance” (v. 19). Note how Paul defines deliverance. For the apostle, it meant the courage to trust that Christ would be glorified by whatever happened to him (v. 20). Paul did not feel the need to decide what God should do, in part because he felt genuinely ambivalent. As Paul puts it: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (v. 21). This is not fatalism but the hope of one who knows his future is secure in Christ and God will be glorified either way. >> Will you trust God to work through your difficult circumstances today? You don’t have to be happy about them or even enjoy them. You do need to trust that God knows what He is doing.
If you had asked Paul which of the New Testament churches was his favorite, he might probably have said: the church at Philippi. God directed the apostle by a vision to go to Macedonia after he tried to enter Bithynia (Acts 16:9). Philippi was a major city in the region. Still, at first, it must have seemed not promising. Paul began his evangelistic outreach in the synagogue. The Jewish community at Philippi was small; only a handful of women met by a river outside the city gate. But the Lord opened the heart of Lydia, a wealthy businesswoman from Thyatira, and her home became Paul’s base of operations (Acts 16:14–15). Luke does not say how long Paul and Silas stayed in Philippi, but their visit was long enough to be marked by conflict. They were arrested and beaten, with the jailer being the only other convert that Luke mentions in Acts 16. Despite these small beginnings, this church became an unwavering supporter of Paul’s ministry. They shared Paul’s faith and generously shared their finances despite their poverty (see also 2 Cor. 11:9). When Paul speaks of their “partnership,” in verse 5, he uses the word koinonia which means “sharing.” The apostle looked at this church as much more than a source of funding. Although he was the first to bring the gospel to them, he did not look down on them. Despite being an apostle, he saw them as peers in their experience of the grace of God through Christ (v. 7). Therefore, Paul prayed for them, giving thanks and asking God to cause their love and knowledge to grow. This letter is part of God’s answer to that prayer. >> The loving bond the Philippians shared with Paul has blessed the church in all ages. Can you partner with someone in the gospel? You don’t have to possess much to have a great impact.
When I began attending church regularly in the early 1970s, it was customary for people to dress up. Men wore suits and ties, and women wore dresses. Today, there doesn’t seem to be a dress code. Most of the people I see dress casually. It probably doesn’t matter to God what you wear to church. But He does care how you dress for spiritual battle. In today’s text, Paul finishes his letter to the Ephesians by describing the spiritual resources that enable a Christian to “stand against the devil’s schemes” (v. 11). Using the armor and weapons of a Roman soldier as his analogy, Paul shows his readers how to equip themselves for spiritual warfare. Paul explains that we battle against “powers of this dark world” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (v. 12). The struggle is earthly as well as heavenly. We can see the effects of these spiritual forces in our world, but their ultimate cause is not visible. How can we possibly fight against them? The spiritual armor that Paul describes in verses13–17 focuses on two kinds of weapons. Our defensive weapons include: the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, helmet of salvation, readiness which comes from the gospel of peace, and shield of faith. They point to the protection that the righteousness of Christ and the hope of the gospel provide. Our offensive weapon is the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. The method of engaging in spiritual warfare that the apostle outlines is simple. Instead of prescribing specific prayers, chants, or elaborate rituals, the apostle asks the Ephesians to “always keep on praying” (v. 18). He also asks them to pray for him so that he will fearlessly proclaim the gospel. The best way to protect ourselves spiritually is to know the gospel and be familiar with God’s Word. >> Do you know a pastor or missionary for whom you can pray? Ask God to help them declare the gospel fearlessly “as they should!”
Escaped slave, abolitionist, and statesmen Frederick Douglass observed, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.” Modern readers of today’s passage are often troubled to see Paul include masters and slaves in his directions about how Christian families ought to operate. It is a fact, however, that in the New Testament era, slaves were considered a part of the household as much as children were. Obedience was expected of both (vv. 1, 6). As we read Paul’s directives, it is crucial to recognize that he is not endorsing the practice of slavery (see this month’s “Practical Theology” column). Rather, he is offering guidelines for Christians forced to live within that social structure. He does not tell them to unravel the practice but to be Christlike within its constraints. His directions to children, however, while essentially the same, are based on something else. They grow out of the commandment to “Honor your father and mother” (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16). Paul observes that this is the first of the ten commandments to include a promise. Family was a biblical institution grounded in Creation. Slavery was not. Yet followers of Jesus in Paul’s day were called to live Christianly within both. This does not mean they were obligated to accept either institution’s “bad, corrupt, and wicked” elements as part of God’s will. Elsewhere, Paul advises slaves to gain their freedom if they can (1 Cor. 7:21). He says that those who submit should take comfort in knowing that God sees their obedience as something rendered to Him. Those who expect obedience must keep in mind that they will one day answer to God. >> While our own experience may not fit this passage exactly, we all have people to whom we must submit. How can we do this in a way that will bring glory to Christ?
In a culture that prizes independence, submission is not a popular idea. Many modern readers bristle when they come to Ephesians 5:22, where Paul says wives should submit to their husbands. However, the command to submit is not just for wives. In this section of his letter, the apostle speaks of submission as a universal obligation and as an expression of reverence for Christ (v. 21). These guidelines are sometimes referred to as the Haustafel, a German word that means “household order.” The command of verse 21 serves as a heading for this section of this letter, which runs through Ephesians 6:9. Here Paul describes the roles of wives, husbands, children, fathers, enslaved people, and masters. Paul’s goal was to help his readers live Christianly within a social structure of his day. John Stott points out that Paul’s directives assume the dignity of womanhood, childhood, servanthood, and equality before God of all human beings. The apostle describes differences in the roles of husbands and wives, using Christ and the church as a pattern. The guiding principle is the rule of love. He commands husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). Wives, in turn, respond to this love with voluntary submission. In its proper context, the call for wives to “submit to their husbands in everything” is not demeaning. Husbands are to act as servants to their wives in the same way that Jesus served the church (vv. 28–29). Rather than ascribing a difference in status between husbands and wives, Paul emphasizes mutuality. Both are dependent upon each other. Each serves the other. Husband and wife are equal in the eyes of Christ (1 Cor. 11:8–12). >> Jesus said, “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matt. 10:24). If He was not ashamed to take the role of a servant, we should not be reluctant to submit to one another in love.