May Devotional by Steve Abbott

Introduction

This month my reflections will centre on the Romans reading, given it is so rich with content and worth more detailed attention. Through the pen of Paul, this passage forms part of the Holy Spirit’s unfolding of the implications of the glorious powerful gospel (see Romans 12:1-2 ‘In view of God’s mercy offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…’). The final verse, 12:21 ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’, could almost act like a summary principle for the whole passage. It also immediately brings to my mind the great prayer of Jesus in John 17 and in particular verse 15, ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.’ Both Jesus and the Spirit intercede on behalf of Christians, so we can almost certainly be sure that Jesus and the Spirit are praying the contents of Romans 12:9-21 into our lives. This reflects the will of God for us as we live in a fallen, sinful society, which is broken and corrupted at its very core.

The passage seems to seamlessly move from providing godly guidance for the internal life of the community of faith as well as its external engagement with those who are outside faith in Christ. This of course makes perfect sense, for Christians ought not to divide their life into sacred and secular partitions. The ‘other-person centred love’ we exercise within the life of the community of faith (12:9-13) needs also to be mirrored in our relationships with those who are not yet Christians (12:14-21).

It is clearly strategic for effective gospel ministry that believers demonstrate an attractive caring concern for each other, reflecting something of the graces of the gospel: sincere love and goodness (12:9); mutual devotion and honour (12:10); generosity and hospitality (12:13). With its myriad of ups and downs, Christians face life with a different set of values than unbelievers. Christians know the sovereign Lord has everything in His control, therefore we are to never lack in zeal for the things of God. We maintain our spiritual energy as we serve the Lord in any and all circumstances. Despite the challenges of normal life and opposition to our faith, we can remain joyful in hope, patient and prayerful (12:11-12). The gospel, ‘God’s mercy’(12:1) is to tangibly shape how we live together in Christ and also how we respond to the hardships which life may throw at us. We show the world a better divine gospel way to approach life.

This of course doesn’t change when we engage with those still outside of the faith community, even those who stand opposed to us and may physically or emotionally choose to intimidate us (12:14, 17, 19-21). Christians are never to forget they were once themselves enemies of Christ and needed God’s grace. Therefore, we ought to treat everyone equally, bless not curse our enemies, celebrate and mourn with them according to the turn of events in their life and not repay evil with evil (12:14-17). There is a concern to live in harmony and at peace with all people, while recognizing not everyone will respond in kind (12:16, 18). Christians know that God will ultimately bring justice and we can leave that to Him and His timing (12:19). Indeed rather than retaliate, Christians move forward with Gospel grace, providing for the needs of their enemies so that they might cause them to change their stance. That is, Christians overcome evil with good (12:20-21). In my view, by quoting Proverbs 25:21-22, Paul reflects what Peter teaches in 1 Peter 2:11-12 ‘Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’The open living out of our faith exercising gospel graces may lead some of those who oppose us to personal trust in Jesus, whereby they glorify God. Could there be a more dramatic demonstration of evil being overcome by good?

My dear sisters and brothers, may we ensure that both inside and outside the church fellowship, all our relationships are marked by a commitment to fulfill Romans 12:21‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’.

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Jeremiah 7-8:3 and John 1:19-42

Todays readings are Jer 7:1-8:3 and John 1:19-42

I suspect it’s generally true that we commit sin when we think we are out of sight or when we have become so blind and deaf to the truth that we consider our life choices are okay with the LORD God even though they are not. This is what we see in the Jeremiah reading today. As the prophet is at pains to point out, Israel, the people of God have stopped listening and paying attention to God’s word (7:13, 24, 26-27). They have stopped listening to God’s many true prophets (7:25) and have listened to the lies of the false prophets (7:8) embracing the worship practices of the surrounding nations (7:9) even allowing their gods to be worshipped in the LORD’s Temple (7:30). They even engaged in the most despicable and unthinkable practices of offering their children as sacrifices (7:31). But nothing was hidden from the LORD God. As the sobering and disturbing words of 7:11 state, ‘But I have been watching! declares the Lord.’ The result: The people of God are now under the LORD’s personal wrath (7:29, 8:3) and their current places of idol worship will be renamed ‘The Valley of Slaughter’ (7:32-34). Israel: people, kings and officials, priests and prophets will all be humiliated and banished, longing for death over life (8:3).

It would be easy for us to think how foolish this ancient people of God were for failing to remain faithful to God and to walk in obedience (7:23). But we would do well to search our own hearts for as John Calvin, the great Swiss reformer wrote: ‘the human heart is a factory of idols’. A stroll through a large Westfield or Stockland Shopping Centre would quickly confirm Calvin’s statement. We westerners worship clothes, personal grooming (from pedicures to hairstyles), food, gadgets of all shapes and sizes, footwear, entertainment, coffee and cakes, ‘health’ drinks, massages, holidays, etc etc. Maybe we could say today that the human heart is a perpetual factory of idols! We who claim to follow Jesus are not immune to the allurements of these many and varied idols. Take a moment right now and ask the LORD to show you the idol or idols, which have your attention and distract from your undivided loyalty and obedience to the LORD’s call on your life echoed in Jeremiah 7:23 ‘Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.’

My personal idols are: ……………………………

Ask the LORD to forgive you for worshipping the false gods of our generation and to empower you by His Spirit to walk in step with the Lord Jesus, who declared in the wilderness of temptation ‘It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him alone.’ (Luke 4:8).

We can confidently pray in such a way because of the teaching of the final prophet in the line of prophets like Jeremiah. John the Baptist provides us with the powerful sacrificial identity of Jesus Christ: ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29, and again in 1:36). Jesus would become sin for us so that the wrath of God could be exhausted at the cross and forgiveness and pardon could flow down to us. We see in this grace filled declaration just how serious idolatry is. It requires that the very Son of God (John 1:34) be banished on our behalf so we could be brought back into fellowship with the Father. And even more, it is through this Jesus, the Lamb of God, that we can now receive the very same Holy Spirit that rested on Him (John 1:33). All this so that we might be empowered to walk in fellowship and resist the constant temptations to worship the multitude of contemporary idols. Take some time to thank God for the Lord Jesus and his personal sacrifice that ‘takes away the sin of the world!’, even yours and mine.

Isaiah 43 and Revelation 1

Introduction

Today’s readings are Isaiah 43 and Revelation 1. Both readings are addressed to the people of God, a people who are under the pump, whose backs are up against the wall. Israel remains in Babylonian exile and the first century churches are suffering severe persecution under the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian.  Like them, we too languish in a land not our home. Peter describes the Christian community as ‘foreigners and exiles’ (1 Peter 2:11).  Like them, our home is in glory with King Jesus. Our context is also marked by opposition. The Christian community is increasingly being pushed to the margins of mainstream society. Our voice is being drowned out.  The fundamental Judeo-Christian biblical principles, which formed the strong fabric and solid foundation for a just and moral society, are being denied and overthrown. Today our children and grandchildren are being brought up in a world where values are fluid and flexible. It’s a bit like playing football on a field without any boundary lines no one knows what’s in and what’s out? This chaotic and disturbing situation can unnerve and unsettle us. Like ancient Israel and the first century church, we need to hear and embrace the encouraging words of the LORD so that we may not grow weary in well-doing and fulfill our vocation to live for God’s glory (Isaiah 43:7) and proclaim his praise (Isaiah 43:21) in the power of His Spirit (Isaiah 44:3).

Isaiah 43-44:5 (44:1-5 properly belongs to Isaiah 43)

This section of Isaiah reaffirms that exiled Israel remains the LORD’s servant despite the promise of another greater servant (Isaiah 42). Dr Barry Webb helpfully notes that there are six statements of encouragement in this passage. Six words of affirmation for all people of God to be encouraged by:

  1. Isaiah 43:1-7 There is no need to fear the world, for the LORD is invested in his redeemed. Yet there is no promise of a quick fix or a trouble-free future. What is promised, using some of the most tender language in Scripture (see 43:1, 4, 5), is God’s sustaining presence right through until journey’s end, no matter what.
  2. Isaiah 43:8-13 The people of God may feel inadequate and feel like failures but the LORD has a ministry for them anyway. This ancient people of God, and also Christians today, are called to be witnesses to God’s uniqueness in the world (43:10-12).
  • Isaiah 43:14-15 The LORD reminds his people that he is King, the invisible, yet greater reality that will bring Babylon and indeed all nations, to heel in his perfect timing. The fact that history records the fall of ancient Babylon should encourage us that the Lord is able to do the same in our time, when he is ready.
  1. Isaiah 43:16-21 Nothing can stop the LORD fulfilling his promises. The history of the Exodus from Egypt testifies to this (43:16-17). But he will now do a new thing in providing a way through the desert out of exile (43:19-21). Jesus is the way through our wilderness (John 14:6).
  2. Isaiah 43:22-28 Despite this text drawing attention to Israel’s failure to obey God and worship him rightly, the heart of the text’s encouragement comes in the LORD’s description of himself as the one who ‘blots out transgressions and remembers sins no more’ (43:25). We Christians know that it was the Lord Jesus who was the means of this grace for all time.
  3. Isaiah 44:1-5 This sixth and climactic encouragement focuses on the future and the outpouring of the Spirit (43:3), when not just Israel but non-Jewish people will also become the LORD’s (43:5, see also Acts 2:16-21). What a spectacular promise we see fulfilled today. The very same Spirit that energized Jesus’ ministry and who wrote the Scriptures, lives in us as we engage with a less than friendly society.

Ultimately all of God’s promises would eventually find their spectacular ‘YES’ in Christ, which is exactly what we find in the second reading.

Revelation 1

Despite its strange apocalyptic (unveiling) language and scary beasts, the overall message of this book is this: The people of God win in the end. The Satan inspired world and our society may huff and puff and seek to blow God’s house and purposes down. However they will fail, as did the evil one when tempting Jesus in the wilderness. The book calls Christians of every generation to endure opposition, to hold fast to the truth, resist the devil and to obey the commandments of God. The symbolic visionary image of the risen glorious Jesus (1:12-15) reminds us that while he is human, he is also much more gloriously and sublimely divine. This glorious Jesus stands among the churches (lampstands). He is the chief Pastor (Elder/Bishop). He is walking among the churches, patrolling, supervising and assessing, as the following two chapters will reveal. But here in Revelation 1, we do well to note that the image of the lampstand for the church is one. This indicates that it is designed to be a light bearer in the darkness of the world. However, to do this the church needs to remain in Christ’s presence.

Conclusion

We must not be surprised when an unbelieving society acts like an unbelieving society and does all it can to shut us down and turn us off. But we must not be afraid. We have the LORD on our side and one day he will call all to give account. Just like the Babylonian nation, all nations and societies that persist in opposing the Lord and his church will be called to account. Remain close to the Risen Lord Jesus today as you engage society. Be encouraged by his promises. Remember you have come to know he who is ‘the Alpha and Omega, who is and who was, and who is the come, the Almighty.’ (Revelation 1:8). Represent Jesus to the all you meet in word and work. Be a witness to his grace and glory.

—Steve Abbott

Things aren’t always what they seem

Todays readings are Isaiah 8:1-18 and Acts 14:1-28

Do you ever find yourself overwhelmed by society and the world in which we are called to live out our faith in Jesus? In Australia it can seem at times that Christians, the Church and Christ himself are being swamped by a headstrong majority who think they know better than God. Whether it be the definition of marriage, the boundary-less possibilities for expressing our sexuality, the rights to abort our babies or determine when we die, the increasing avenues for gambling, our obsession with accumulation and on the list goes; it looks as though God and His people have been left out to dry!

But things aren’t always what they seem. The two readings for today provide tremendously encouraging messages. We need to build our lives on God’s word no matter what society, the world or even some wayward religious leaders might say and do. Both Isaiah and Acts challenge us to look at the world from God’s perspective and to shape our lives by His word.

Isaiah reminds us that the world may huff and puff, like the proverbial wolf, to blow God’s house down. But it is the LORD (Yahweh) and His powerful word which will have the final say. In Isaiah’s day, despite the popularity of forming alliances with the powerful pagan nation of Assyria, as the King and people were (8:6), it is best to stay the course and wait only on the LORD for worldly plans will come to naught. Isaiah 8:10 “Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted; propose your plan, but it will not stand, for God is with us.”  So the faithful people of God will join the prophet and choose to fear God and not the human powers that currently flex their muscles (8:12): “The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.”  For he is the one who will bring judgement on the nations and on those within Israel, who align themselves with the nations (8:14b-15). But, for his faithful ones the LORD will be a sanctuary, a holy place, a place of protection and care (8:14a).

Meanwhile in Acts 14 we find ourselves at the back end of Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey. A similar pattern continues as we’ve seen before. The good news of Jesus is preached and people, Jews and Greeks, come to faith (14:1). Immediately there is opposition which ultimately leads to Paul and Barnabas fleeing the city under the threat of stoning (14:5). However, apparent defeat is turned into more ministry fruit as now the gospel is preached in Lystra and Derbe (14:6-20). We can notice in this chapter the wonderful synergy of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in the spread of the gospel throughout the Mediterranean. It is only under the will and power of God’s grace that the apostles’ gospel message is confirmed by the performing of signs and wonders (14:3, 8-10). However, it is not the miraculous which keeps them pressing on in the face of violent opposition and misunderstanding (notice here that the misunderstanding springs from a miracle 14:11ff). No, Paul and Barnabas’ focus is the ‘good news’ and the establishment of churches where authentic discipleship is evident. A discipleship that endures even in the face of the world’s opposition (14:15, 21-25).

Imagine being members of the Antioch church, the sending church of Paul and Barnabas (see Acts 13:1-3, 14:26) and listening to their missionary report. How encouraging to hear of “…all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” Did Paul still have visible cuts and bruises on his face and arms from his stoning in Lystra? Maybe. But they were hearing of answered prayers (13:3), of God’s gospel being preached and making divine unstoppable powerful progress. Christian communities were being planted throughout the Mediterranean. And all this amidst vehement and violent opposition.

Friends, the gospel is still the power of God for salvation. Lost people still need to hear the good news of the dying and rising Jesus. Australians of all ages, races and creeds are coming to faith as you read this blog. Yes, Australian society will still huff and puff and try to blow our house down, but the LORD is our sanctuary and our sovereign powerful partner in mission. Therefore, don’t fear/trust people, rather fear/trust the Lord and speak the gospel boldly and wisely. Ultimately, we will win the day “…for God is with us.” (Isaiah 8:10).