Baptized by fire

Passage: Matthew 3:1-12 — John the Baptist prepares the way

Key Verse: Matthew 3:11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: 12 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

I ran today. That is no great accomplishment, for I have been running for twenty five-years now. What distinguishes today from other days was the rain, cold, wind, and rawness of the day. I hate to run in cold rain and most of the time this is never an issue. Nine months out of the year I live in Florida and cold, raw, rainy days are a rarity. However, we have just started our summer vacation in Maine, and I have been indulgent with my diet, so when I got up this morning, even though I did not want to run, I knew that I would feel better and assuage my guilt if I did. We innately know that doing difficult things like running eight miles in the cold rain will make us stronger and better, but it is unnatural to embrace the discomfort and pain.

There is a disagreement among scholars as to what baptism by fire means. Some take it to mean being baptized with the fires of hell because of the following verse (v. 12), while others take it to mean that the Christian’s faith will be tested and refined through trials and afflictions, just as gold and silver are purified by fire (Malachi 3:1-3). I take it to mean the latter — a testing of one’s Christian faith.

Forcing myself to run in the cold rain is one thing, but the real test of my faith has been my debilitating IBS. Before I got sick, I was the VP of engineering for a small software company, earning a handsome salary, enjoying my work, and raising four kids — my version of the American dream. But all that changed with IBS. I had chronic fatigue (I could no longer get through the day without a nap; I had to force myself to stay awake until 8 PM), brain fog (I could no longer think, concentrate, recall simple things, write software, write English; once, at a gas station, I could not remember my zip code to verify my credit card), constipation, and host of other inexplicable ailments, for which the doctors could find no cause. (I was told that I was depressed or under too much stress… this is always the medical answer for maladies they cannot explain.) At one point, I lost 40 lb in two months because I was unable to eat solid food. My intestine ached, and I spent all day flat on my back on a hard floor watching TV. That’s all I could do.

It is easy to be a Christian when everything is going well. You feel blessed by God. That is certainly they way I felt until I reached thirty-five. The real challenge is remaining faithful while the life you knew is falling apart. But the illness has a purpose. In my case, it made me a better husband and father, and better human being. I am more involved in family life than I was when I was the VP of engineering securing the Internet. That said, it is not perfect. There are trade-offs. Although I spend more time with my wife and kids, I’m not all there. The brain fog keeps me distant, and I can barely remember the events of yesterday. (For five years, my brain was so addled, I could not recall a single dream. I’m not sure I had any.)

The point with all this is that every Christian, sooner or later, will be baptized with fire, and how you respond determines whether or not you are in Christ. The purpose of the testing is to make us grow. In our flesh, we don’t want to grow, just as I did not want to run in the cold rain. But in the end, running in the rain makes me physically better and stronger, just as being baptized by fire makes me spiritually better and stronger. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. (2 Corinthians 9:10-11)

Prayer: Lord, help me to overcome, and help me to endure to the end.

The Crimson Tide Repents

Passage: Matthew 3:1-12 — John the Baptist prepares the way

Key Verse: Matthew 3:2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

In the Greek, repentance (metanoia) literally means to have another mind or to change one’s mind. It reminded of the 1970 college football game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the University of Southern California Trojans in Birmingham, Alabama. That game was notable because USC started six black players (including their entire backfield) while Alabama started none. In the early to mid-1960s, Alabama had won three national championships with an all white team and the fan-base was still under the delusion that they could win without integrating their team and their school. In the game, USC fullback Sam Cunningham ran up and down the field for 135 yards on 12 carries and scored two touchdowns, and the Tide was trounced 42-21. At one point, Alabama had eight linebackers in the game trying to stop Cunningham, but they could do nothing. It was after this game that the Alabama fan-base realized that if they did not integrate the football team, they would remain a mediocre team, not a national powerhouse. In a way, they repented — they had another mind about things.

So it is with people when it comes to Jesus Christ. We must repent, change our minds, with respect to sin, God, and self. That is, we must view sin as what keeps us alienated and separated from God, and realize that there must be a remedy to bridge this separation. We must view Jesus Christ as God’s bridge that overcomes and reconciles that gap. Moreover, we must view ourselves as helpless apart from Jesus Christ — we cannot bridge this gap through our own innate goodness. Most people in modern society believe that they are good enough to stand before a Holy God because they see the shortcomings of their religious neighbors and deem themselves better. If God is going to let my neighbor into heaven, he will most certainly open the doors for me. But that is not quite the way God views things. The Bible teaches that we are all — no matter how good we may think we are — helpless before God apart from Jesus Christ. Rom 3:10-12 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: 11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. 12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Until the Crimson Tide changed the way they viewed black players and integration, they would never win another national championship. Until we repent of the way we view ourselves, sin, and Jesus Christ, we will never be right with God.

Prayer: Lord, enlighten me. Open my mind so I see things the way you see things, and give me the strength to act according to my new mind.

You talking to me?

Passage: Matthew 2:1-12 — The visit of the wisemen

Key Verse: Matthew 2:12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

In the first two chapters of Matthew, God talks to Joseph three times through dreams. First, God tells Joseph that the baby Mary is carrying is the product of the Holy Ghost, not natural procreation. Second, God tells Joseph to flee Bethlehem for Egypt because Herod is intent on slaughtering young children. Finally, in another dream, the Lord told Joseph to bring Jesus and Mary back to Israel because Herod, who sought their lives, was now dead.

This got me thinking about the ways in which God speaks to people today. He may still speak to us through dreams but I cannot say I have experienced this revelation first hand. He also may speak to us through people. I do believe that God brings certain people into our lives to guide us and minister to us. But I also believe the primary way God speaks to us is through the Bible — his word. This morning, as I was going through my devotions, I was struggling with the question of whether or not I should pursue ministry or software development. Perhaps it does not matter. I haven’t worked in six years and I will probably never get back to a point where I could work in either field. Six years is a long time. Be that as it may, as I read my devotions, I ran across two verses that were germane to my question and were as if God was speaking directly to me. First, Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19) The point being that preaching and teaching the Word of God is of great honor and value to him, and of great value to those receiving the instruction.

Second, But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33) One of the reasons for pursuing software development is the salary and the health benefits. Both Robin and I pay for healthcare from our own pockets, and last year I spent $26K on insurance premiums and medical bills. It would be nice to have a steady paycheck and company provided health insurance. However, the Lord said that he would take care of me if I simply sought his kingdom first and that is what I have decided to do. I am going to write this devotional blog, apply for pastoral positions, and trust God to provide for us. This is faith. But life was a whole lot easier when I was whole and able to work. But that required no faith.

Prayer: Lord, give me the spiritual sensitivity to know when you are talking directly to me. Confirm my decisions and strengthen my faith.

The nature of Jesus Christ

Passage: Matthew 1:18-25 — The Birth of Jesus Christ

Key Verse: Matthew 1:23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

Before he was president, in a primary debate in Iowa, George W. Bush was asked who his favorite philosopher was. His answer was Jesus Christ because he’s the only philosopher who can change lives. Although Bush was excoriated by the secular press for being an evangelical, his answer was typical as to how the world views Christ — they view him as a great philosopher, teacher, religious leader, not substantially different than Plato, Thereau, or Ghandi. But, as we see with today’s key verse, that is not the biblical witness. The biblical witness is that Christ is God in the flesh, and this is one of the conspicuous differences between people who self-identify as Christians. The believer confesses the deity of Christ, while the make-believer does not. To the world, Jesus Christ is a great, if not delusional, man to be admired, but to the Christian Christ the God of universe, who is worthy of our worship and praise. Or, in the words of the Disciple Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

Prayer: Lord, let me acknowledge you for who you truly are — not just in my words but also in my deeds.

Never lose sight

Passage: Matthew 1:18-25 — The Immaculate Conception

Key Verse: Matthew 1:21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

Last summer I was having trouble with my eyesight. At night I could not read street signs because the street lights washed them out. In the early morning when I ran, every car seemed to have their high beams on and I was blinded and forced to avert my eyes. When reading the Bible, I had to tilt my head at odd angles to see through the dark clouds and the blinding glare emanating from the page. At the end of the summer, I went to the ophthalmologist and he diagnosed me with cataracts, which was somewhat surprising because I was only 49 years old. However, early in life I had taken prednisone for asthma, and sometimes this causes premature cataracts. The doctor looked at my eye for five seconds, and then asked, “Have you ever taken prednisone?” and that was that.

What does this story have to do with the above verse? Sometimes we lose sight of the purpose and ministry of Jesus Christ. He came to earth to save people from their sins. Sometimes I forget this with my criticism of the Modern Church. The Modern Church is weak and feckless, and its witness is severely compromised — it not much different than the world, not much of a beacon of light in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation. However, that does not change what Christ hath done for me and for the rest of mankind. There is probably something much different than this that causes you lose sight of what Christ hath done, but the remedy is still the same — stay focused on Christ and what he hath done and will do.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for saving me — thank you for doing for me what I could not do for myself. Never let me lose sight of this.

Being just

Passage: Matthew 1:18-25 — The Immaculate Conception

Key Verse: Matthew 1:19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

The word just comes from the Greek word dikaios, which can be rendered either just or righteous. Righteous is not a word we use every day. Its basic meaning is to do right by God and right by people. When I was growing up, the rapper MC Hammer did a Pepsi commercial and after taking a swig of Pepsi he looked into the camera and declared it righteous, but that’s a perversion of the word — it does not mean to be delicious and refreshing (like the Junior Mint!). A Pepsi cannot be righteous — it cannot do right by God and right by people. But people can.

In today’s verse, we read that Joseph did right by Mary and right by God. At first, this doesn’t make sense because, according to the Old Testament, someone who committed adultery was supposed to be made a public example, which appears to me to be a euphemism for a public stoning (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). However, v. 20 tells us that God spoke to Joseph in a dream and told him that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and Mary was innocent of any immorality.

One lesson we can draw from Joseph is that we should do right by people regardless of how the outside world views things. Everyone in Joseph’s circle must have thought that Mary committed adultery or that Joseph and Mary “knew” each other before they were married, but, nevertheless, the truth was contrary to popular opinion. The same is true in our own lives. For example, the world believes that man evolved from the ape, but the biblical witness is that man was made in the image of God from the dust of the ground and thus man is ultimately responsible to God. That view of man is not popular today, but nevertheless, regardless of what everyone else believes, this is the truth of God, just as Mary’s miracle conception was the truth of God.

Again, from the passage, it is also important to do right by God and do right by people. This call to be just convicts me to walk my dog, Beau, even when I don’t feel like doing it. Somedays I am so tired the last thing I want to do is walk the dog, but there is a tacit contract between the owner and his dog, in which the owner provides the four things a dog needs: food, water, exercise, and love, and when we do not provide those things we are not being just.

For a long time while suffering from IBS I wanted to go back to work as a software engineer but decided not to. I think there was a good possibility that I could get through the interviews and be hired somewhere, but I realized that I could not work a complete day — I could only work three to four hours and some days I could not work at all, and this would not be fair to my employer — this would not be just. So, I never interviewed and I never went back to work.

Prayer: Lord, please give me the strength, energy, and courage to be just with people and with you. I confess that I cannot do it on my own strength; I confess that I often take the easy, not righteous, path. To be just, I need your divine help.

Dead to the law

Passage: Romans 7:1-6
Romans 7:4 Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God.

People who reject Christianity love to quote elements of the Old Testament law that modern man finds odious. They typically cite the following:

1. The prohibition against eating unclean animals (shellfish, rabbit, pork, etc.; Leviticus 11).
2. The purification rights concerning a woman’s menstrual cycle (Leviticus 15:19-33).
3. The death penalty for adultery, homosexuality, and rebellious children (Leviticus 20:9-21; Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

Different denominations view the Old Testament differently, but for the most part the Old Testament has been abrogated by the New because Christ has fulfilled and will fulfill all of the promises therein. This is why the believer is said to be “dead to the law by the body of Christ.” There is no Christian sect that refrains from eating shellfish, rabbit, or pork because of Old Testament prohibitions. Part of this is because God spoke to Peter and said that there is no longer any unclean foods, so slay and eat (Acts 10:9-16), but more generally the New Testament abrogated the Old and that is why the testaments themselves are described as “old” and “new” (the modern practice of referring to the Old Testament as the Hebrew Scriptures is just another expression of unbelief).

The Old Testament ordinances are typically separated into three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral. Those that are civil pertain to the nation of Israel during Old Testament times, but they are not applicable to modern Gentile governments. Those pertaining to ceremonies (sacrificial offerings, priestly duties, food restrictions, regulations on priests, etc.) are considered fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the high priest of the Christian Church who sacrificed himself for all of mankind once and for all.

However, those pertaining to God’s moral law are still in force because they are based on God’s immutable character. Therefore, stealing, lying, oppressing your neighbor, idolatry, sacrificing children to false gods, adultery, bestiality, incest, and homosexuality are still considered sins and violations of God’s righteousness. Almost all of these sins, including homosexuality, are deprecated in the New Testament.

The main message of the passage (Romans 7:1-6) is that following the letter of the law like a group of lawyers, without a heart change, yields no fruit; it only brings squabbling and death. If you are really going to live for Christ and produce fruit, you must live “in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.”

Prayer: Lord, change my heart. Give me the strength and conviction to live according the spirit of Jesus Christ and not by empty creeds and words.