Sunday, April 19, 2015

Prisoner Exchange - April 19, 2015

James 4:8 - Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Many of us have probably seen movies where one prisoner has been exchanged for another. I can remember a couple of East/West German exchanges in some old black and white movies from the 50s or 60s. The respective powers were swapping one high-profile prisoner on one side for another on the opposing side. On a trip to the German capitol several years ago, I saw this first-hand in photographs and video clips at the Check Point Charlie Museum in what was previously communist-controlled East Berlin. Somber, focused individuals that were extremely business-like made the handoffs with calculated coolness. The tension mounted as the prisoners walked toward their respective borders until finally reaching the safety of their comrades. Finally, there was noticeable relief on both sides as the prisoner swaps were completed. Both sides felt they now had their prize in hand. Bottom line, the stakeholder countries possessed something the other side wanted. Therefore, there were terms drawn up long before they ever "toed the line" on the actual day of the exchange.

Similarly, there is a type of prisoner exchange that occurs when we decide that we are done playing games with God and when we finally wish to get on with dying to self and living for the Almighty. The terms for this spiritual "prisoner swap" were determined millennia before the current conflicts we may have seen in museums or in film. Jesus Christ, Son of the Almighty God, determined to give Himself ages ago for the sin of humankind. Our treasonous betrayal of God was the catalyst that set Him on a course of sacrifice for the human race. So, when James, the brother of our Lord tells us to ... draw near to God and He will draw near to you ... this is describing a legal, spiritual-political contract that has been secured against the powers of darkness by the resurrection power of Jehovah on behalf of His beloved Son. When this agreement was being worked out in the heavenlies nearly 2,000 years ago, the enemy of our soul undoubtedly misunderstood the terms of the contract. Otherwise, those hell-bent on destroying the Savior would have thought otherwise. (I Corinthians 2:8) That is why Satan works tirelessly to cause the redeemed to forget their legal position in Christ Jesus. His strategy has always been to first keep human beings from drawing close to God in humility, accepting their Creator's forgiveness. Of paramount importance to the devil regarding those whom have already come to the Lord and accepted His salvation is to cause a proverbial wall to exist between God and man. This comes through the lies and deception of the enemy, telling us that we are unworthy of Christ's salvation and that we need to earn His favor somehow to be accepted in the Beloved. That spiritual separation that once existed before we knew the Lord is Satan's plan to keep us away from the Father's love. A contemporary example would be if Germans decided to once again erect a wall separating East and West Berlin. To do this, there would have to be some ludicrous understanding that communism is still in effect, and that German solidarity is some type of a myth. When we consider this, it seems silly to those of us with rational thinking. However, many make the decision to re-erect the wall separating themselves from the love of God. Then, we have to be reminded, once again, of the prisoner exchange provided on our behalf -- how Jesus loved the human race with an eternal love and walked that lonely distance to exchange His life for ours.

Whether it concerns our initial salvation, when we come to the Lord to accept His gift of redemption, or once we relinquish the deception that might keep us from His presence, then we are in the position to change our condition. Drawing close to our Lord is our responsibility -- God's promise of His closeness is then His promise to those who would do such. Only when we have given ourselves to Him in humble submission can He regenerate us according to His Son's image. THEN, we begin to see the promise of salvation manifested in our respective lives. Once we draw close to our Maker and He draws close to us, this catalyst causes the other elements of this verse to begin to emerge. We are then given the grace to set ourselves apart for God's purposes. The action verbs in this scripture are largely dependent upon the other. A chain of events begin to occur once we accept that we are no longer prisoners of an evil regime. We begin LEARNING to sanitize (or consecrate) our actions by TURNING our minds toward the things of God, while we inevitably YEARN for Him from our hearts. This exchanged life therefore allows us not BURN in our affections for the things of this world but for the things of the Lord.

This, beloved, is simply the normal Christian life -- a life that is sanctified and set apart for the Lord. And, it all starts by believing that He has provided this new life if we will but only accept it. We can continue to live behind the walls of doubt or selfishness. If we do, we will never experience the closeness that He desires for His children. The exchanged life is a fact, a reality that will not be changed regardless what lies the enemy tries to throw our way. Christ Jesus walked that lonely path to provide us His life in place of our sinful existence. None of us could have taken that walk between the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Darkness. Only One, the Perfect Man, Christ Jesus, was able to die for a race of people that He valued more than His own earthly existence. He has given us the power to become the sons and daughters of God by His magnificent gift. (John 1:12) It is therefore our responsibility to reconcile this fact and draw near to our Savior without doubt. While Satan would have us believe that we need to continue to try to exchange ourselves for our own salvation, Christ has forever smashed that lie by the truth of the Gospel. May we all seek only to walk together with our Lord and to never try to walk out our salvation through our own efforts.

Gracious Father, thank You for sending Your Son as the greatest example of a prisoner exchange ever known to mankind. We accept Your gracious substitution that will forever secure us a place of reconciliation to You. May we never doubt that the Man, Christ Jesus, gave His own life that we might be set free from the prison that held us in its eternal grip. We praise You! In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Everlasting Arms - April 12, 2015


Hebrews 10:31 - It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

What do we think of when we consider the Lord's "Everlasting Arms"? Many of us hearken to the chorus of that old hymn of the same name:

Leaning, leaning, 
safe and secure from all alarms
Leaning, leaning, 
leaning on the everlasting arms!

The first line of the first stanza declares, What a fellowship, What a joy divine ... which sets the tone of God's loving joy and security as we rest in the Father's arms. For truly, in his presence there is fullness of joy. (Psalm 16:11) If we know the Lord, it is our heritage as born-again, blood-bought believers to lean ever-so securely against the chest of our "Papa", knowing that He will cradle us in His love. In so doing, we know that He will protect us from all evil. Probably no scripture depicts this better than in the thirty-third chapter of Deuteronomy: The eternal God is a dwelling place, And underneath are the everlasting arms; And He drove out the enemy from before you, And said, "Destroy!" (Deuteronomy 33:27) The Lord is certainly our hiding place when the enemy of our soul besieges us.

While this is a wondrous word picture for the redeemed, we see the strength of those same loving arms manifested through His divine hands less approachable concerning those who reject Christ's salvation. The omnipotent strength of those mighty arms become formidable and terrifying instruments of justice to those who would spurn His great love. The figure of speech "to fall into someone's hands", in Middle Eastern culture, meant to succumb as the vanquished to one's conqueror. For the victor to place their foot on the neck of their captive was the most humiliating position for a defeated foe. (Joshua 10:24) At this point, they were totally helpless and subject to any sort of torture or death at the hands of their new masters. The Lord prophesied through His servant Moses regarding the future state of Israel after centuries of apostasy and idolatry. He stated that the day would come when Israel would be delivered into their enemies' hands much in the same way as He would deliver the Canaanites into Joshua's hands after Moses' death. (Leviticus 26:25) Then, God's chosen people would understand the terror first-hand they had centuries before inflicted when they conquered the land. His hands would become those horrific implements of their own destruction because they had forsaken God their Savior.

The children of Israel were not unique to apostasy. Countless others since the time of Israel's idolatry have followed in similar ways. During the early 18th century in New England America, there was a similar falling away from the faith and a subsequent correction. As more New Englanders moved from a rural to urban lifestyles, communities were often bereft of devout church-goers instituted by the Puritan way of life. People, in general, often became more interested in making money than observing the Sabbath and attending church. Because people were living in more concentrated areas, diseases such as Diphtheria were allowed to spread with rapid fluency. As thousands died from such outbreaks, many were driven back to the churches in a sort of desperation. Surely, the enemy had placed his foot on their necks and they were mercilessly held captive in the hands of sin and disease. During this time, revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards rose up with prophetic unction to minister God's pronouncement of their current situation in a two-fold manner. Number one ... that they were rebels of God and had acted with high treason against the Son of God and His eternal gift of salvation. Furthermore, they were nothing but insects before God that dangled over the flames of hell and were only kept from the eternal torment by the mercy of God. And number two ... that only through God's mercy and grace could they ever hope to be delivered from the deserved fate. In Edward's sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, he describes his congregation's present horror in the Almighty's hands, and their only salvation in His everlasting arms:
... The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.

... And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God.
Today, many are in the same lackadaisical mindset of those in ancient Israel, and, more recently, the Congregationalists of Edward's day. Salvation and eternal condemnation has never been nearer for any of us as it is at this very moment. Some may believe that their "fire insurance policy" is paid up and that they will never have to worry about the eternal flames lapping upon their eternal flesh. While salvation is a done deal for those who are truly saved, it is an uncertainty for those who choose to rest in the arms of this world instead of the everlasting arms. The scripture is clear that those who don't remain passionately in the arms of their Savior were possibly never truly saved. (I John 2:19) Beloved, we all have the choice to either lean upon the arms and the breast of God, or to embrace this adulteress world. The latter promises us to be thrown into hands that will terrify us when we step into eternity. We all have the chance to choose mercy and His perfect love in this life, so we will not have to partake in the judgment to come. May we all rest in His arms of love so we don't have to experience His hands of judgment in this life and the one to come.

Heavenly Father, we know You don't desire to terrify anyone. You desire that we all respond to Your great gift of salvation that You've most graciously given through the death of Jesus. May we rest in those everlasting arms in this life and the one to come. May you draw all who pray this prayer into that eternal relationship with You. In Jesus' Name, Amen!

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

Sunday, April 5, 2015

You Must Be Born Again! - April 5, 2015

John 3:7 - Do not be amazed that I said to you, "You must be born again."

From the dialogues of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, we are introduced to the mythological ruler of Corinth, King Sisyphus. Because of a series of dastardly events which the king cleverly engineered throughout his lifetime, he was assigned a fitting punishment in the land of the dead. Sisyphus was to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill with the belief that he would be free from his punishment once he was able to reach the summit. However, as he neared the top, the boulder would invariably roll back on the king and back to the bottom of the hill. Throughout eternity, Sisyphus must continue to work the large stone up the hill only to see all his efforts frustrated. This judgment of useless efforts and unending frustration would never have an end. While this is a mythological morality tale regarding how no one can redeem themselves once under the judgment of the demon gods, it is nonetheless a good analogy to point us to Christ and the significance of Him taking away our judgment through His gift of the new birth.

Before knowing Christ, we may have found ourselves not only amazed at much of the Lord's words, but also a bit irritated that much of His teaching seemed so unattainable. Or, possibly we considered Jesus' teaching superfluous, not really understanding His intent. Like Sisyphus, we believed we could roll this massive boulder (symbolizing our life) up this ponderous hill (depicting our redemption). As the mythological character, we often thought we were gaining while trudging up this steep incline. However, circumstances would too often dash all hope of conquest. Many continue through this life and never find hope to help them in their summit. Then again, a few do find liberty they so earnestly desire. Relief often comes in unexpected ways and through divine encounters. Like Sisyphus, Nicodemus thought he was doing an admirable job of conquering the hill. He undoubtedly felt the strength of the Law of Moses on his side, commending to him how he had lived a righteous life. But then comes Jesus, the fulfillment of the Law to show him otherwise.

Possibly Nicodemus was feeling a bit self-righteous when he came to the Lord that fateful night. Perhaps he was acting on a sense of conciliation as he mentioned to Jesus in the first two verses of John chapter three how his colleagues considered Jesus a great teacher and a man of God (John 3:1-2). However, Jesus' reply was like a blow to the stomach which knocked the religious wind right out of the Pharisee. When Christ told Nicodemus, "... unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” this invariably shook this master of the Law, challenging the very paradigm he had built his life upon (John 3:3). The rattled Pharisee then began questioning the Lord, not believing his ears. It was as if this Sisyphean had just realized he was never going to accomplish his task of redeeming himself through his own efforts. He suddenly came to the conclusion that this mighty boulder he had been pushing through life was large and mighty because of the weight of his sin. We know Nicodemus is dumbfounded and amazed, for the Lord tells him not to remain so, as our lead verse points out. Throughout the remainder of this glorious chapter, we see the Lord laying out to Nicodemus the way of salvation---that he no longer had to push his cumbersome rock up the hill. Jesus was telling him, through simple scriptures such as John 3:16, that He was the Rock and He would make that climb up Calvary's hill in his stead. All he had to do was to believe.

Like Nicodemus' amazement, we can also react similarly to a supernatural requirement that seems beyond our abilities. Once we understand we cannot save ourselves, self-redemption becomes a hopeless endeavor which only produces more hopelessness. The great desire of the flesh will always be to save itself through "good works" and possibly seeking the good of mankind. While this is noble, it is high treason to God without first becoming born of God's Spirit. Only then are we empowered to perform His goodness, not ours. We cannot continue pushing this enormous rock symbolizing a life weighed down by our shortcomings and sins, but we must believe He has already pushed it to the summit and has obliterated it with His resurrection. Beloved, to be born again has nothing to do with doing more for God, but BEING more in God. Without the being, there can be no doing that will have lasting value. May we all understand that He is the Rock who has redeemed us by removing the large stone from that tomb entrance nearly two thousand years ago. He is risen, friends, and He desires us not to live in a Sisyphean way but one of surrender through which we might always push through this life with victory!

Father in heaven, May we all understand how we cannot rely upon our own efforts to redeem us. There is salvation in only One, for He is the Rock who overcame the hill of Golgotha and rose from the dead to give us the power to live. Allow us all to be amazed at our inability to save ourselves, and our wonder at the love of Christ for doing so. May we all be born from above so that our lives will emulate our Father both now and forever! In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Whose Fool Are You? - March 29, 2015

I Corinthians 1:18 - For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Most of us in western civilization have either been the perpetrator or the victim of a joke or a gag on the first day of April. While no one is absolutely certain regarding how April Fools Day began, most relate it to the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in the late 16th century. The Julian calendar which had been used since the days of the Romans began around the first day of April which was in accordance with the vernal equinox or the arrival of spring. So, when Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar to begin on January 1, those who continued to insist that April 1 was the start of the new year were regarded as "fools." Supposedly, from this sprang the idea of making April 1 "All Fools Day" or April Fools as it is now most commonly referred. From this 500 year old edict to change the start of the new year, we now have a day in which jokes and foolishness reign supreme. All because of the supposed resistance of some to not submit to the obvious. They would forever remain symbols of man's foolishness to resist change.

A similar group resistant to change is the Flat Earth Society (FES). In a mostly tongue and cheek fashion, they challenge whether indeed the world is round since only a few have truly witnessed this phenomenon hanging in space as it does. Of course, with the vast amount of empirical data proving them wrong, they have removed themselves from a place of ludicrous ridicule from when they first began to a place of questioning the reality of anything that cannot first be experienced by anyone at any time. While "April Foolsters" of centuries past and contemporary FES members look foolish to us today, how much more foolish must we appear to God when we reject the overwhelming empirical data supporting Jesus Christ as the Savior of the World? Once the data was introduced for both a new calendar and a round orb, most of the naysayers were silenced out of respect for the conclusiveness of the facts. However, no matter how much proof the Christian community offers to the world regarding how Jesus is the only way to salvation, they refuse to believe. Of course, those of us who have come to a saving knowledge of our Lord understand that the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so they cannot come to a knowledge of the saving grace of Jesus (II Corinthians 4:4). However, for the sake of those who are appointed for eternal life, let us look at the facts.

While there are numerous specifics regarding the scientific and historical accuracy of Scriptures, I will present only only the mathematical proof due to the limited size of this writing. In his book Science Speaks, Dr. Peter Stoner applies the principle of probability to Jesus fulfilling just eight of the more than 300 prophecies in the Old Testament about Himself. (To see the particular prophecies Dr. Stoner uses, please access the following link: http://www.goodnewsdispatch.org/math.html) The odds are astronomical in scope! The mathematical probability of Christ fulfilling just eight prophecies is 10 to the 28th power. Or, for simplicity sake and to see the sheer size of the number, the possibility that Jesus could fulfill just eight prophecies as He did is a one in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 probability! If there is so much certainty regarding His legitimacy regarding prophetic and mathematical proof, we would be wise and not foolish to ascertain who Jesus said He is and to act accordingly. Since there is undeniable proof that Jesus is the Savior of the world according to fulfilled prophecy, is there another savior that others can worship and expect entry to Paradise? If we take scriptures such as John 14:6 which clearly state that "no man comes to the Father but through Me" then we must concede that Jesus is who He said He is and that He is the only way to salvation. Others such as John 8:24 and Acts 4:12 reinforce this fact. His credibility of proclaiming His own deity and His mission to this earth is undeniable by His fulfillment of Scripture. Therefore, we must believe all that He says about Himself, or we become those most to be pitied because of our foolish resistance.

While April Fools Day is a way in which our current society uses a little humor to lighten our daily loads, the origins of this annual day for pranksters has its roots in foolish resistance. While those original foolsters were probably tongue and cheek (much like the aforementioned flat-earthers), it makes no sense to defiantly resist the facts provided by the burden of proof. As Paul dealt with those in ancient Corinth who prided themselves in their great Greek learning, he referred to those who resisted the facts as foolish (I Corinthians 1:18; I Corinthians 1:27). Later, in I Corinthians 4:10, he tells the church in this great city how he has become a fool for Christ through the seeming foolishness of the gospel. We must ask ourselves: Whose fool are we? Will we continue to believe as we desire so we can live lives unimpeded by God? Or, will we finally submit to Christ and the preponderance of data which supports who He is? The simple fact is this: we will be someone's fool, whether Christ's or our own sensibilities. May we all submit to Jesus and the foolishness of the cross, for only in Him is our hope!

Heavenly Father, thank You for such a simple plan of salvation that all might accept Your Son. Thank You that all we must do is resist the foolishness of our own concepts of life and salvation and trust totally in You and Your wisdom. May all who read this come into an understanding of the wisdom behind what seems to many as such foolishness. Thank You for Your great gift to us. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Cast Thy Burden - March 22, 2015

Psalm 55:22 - Cast thy burden upon the LORD and He shall sustain thee; He shall never suffer the righteous to be moved. (KJV)

Any of us who have witnessed track and field events have probably witnessed the shot put throw. I remember throwing or "putting" a diminished version of the standard 16 pound put used in men's competition. In junior high, it was probably an eight to ten pound shot put, and by high school we used a 12 pounder. I was never really good at it, but I always marveled when someone could put some distance on their put. Today, the world record is held by a fellow that shot put over 75 feet. That is remarkable when you think about heaving a 16 pound ball of metal over 25 yards -- a quarter of an American football field in length! While this is an outstanding effort, it once again is a testament regarding human limitations. We just don't have omnipotent power to achieve superhuman feats of strength. (This is probably why superheroes are larger than life and emulated by so many!) Our limitations remind us time and again that we are mere mortals and subject to the frailty of human flesh. For those of us who know the Lord, our weakness only reminds us of the One who lives within our earthly bodies. We are reminded that truly, greater is He who is within us, then any other we might encounter, either real or imagined. (I John 4:4)

The implication of our lead verse gives us a word picture that we might liken to one who would attempt the shot put. By the time many of us are willing to acknowledge our burden of sin, the revelation of its enormity and ungainliness might leave us in despair to know how to deal with it. Fortunately, Christ Jesus our Savior knows that we cannot begin to handle the load of sin that we all must carry outside of His saving grace. When we trust in Him, He removes the weight of sin if we will only cast our burden His way. It matters not how strong we are in this effort. In spiritual reality, it is better that we are crippled with weakness. If we will but move toward the Lord to throw our sin upon Him, He will meet us with all the strength of the God-head to accomplish salvation on our behalf. But what about after salvation? Once we have walked with the Lord for a while, we might find that those familiar pains of carrying around an unneeded weight have returned. Some might easily equate their newly-acquired burden as sin needing confession and repentance. That may be the case if the Lord reveals this to a man or a woman's heart. In this case, we should humbly ask our Savior to cleanse us by His blood, knowing that He will graciously grant us forgiveness (I John 1:9) However, there is also the very real possibility that Satan, through our flesh (sin nature), has heaped upon us guilt for previously forgiven transgressions. In this case, we must stand on the word of God, knowing that Christ has removed our sin as far as the east is from the west. (Psalm 103:12) If we have truly cast our burden of sin, the Lord has flung our sin into the sea of forgetfulness, never to resurface in His mind or heart again. (Micah 7:19)

As redeemed, born-again believers, we are not allowed to carry a burden of sin. The only "burdens" we are to carry are the ones the Lord gives us in prayer for others. (Galatians 6:1-2) To hear a Christ-follower (a saint, if you will), speak about the heavy burdens they are carrying belies the true meaning of our burden of sin before we knew Christ. So-called burdens are often dressed-up disguises of unbelief and sin. We might say that we believe God will supply all our needs according to Christ's riches as stated in Philippians 4:13. But then we might tell others about our mountain of bills, or our broken down car, or our failing health in a spirit of "burdened" unbelief. Instead, we should first be telling God our problems, ending with a post-script in our prayers that we know He can meet all our needs. Then, if he gives us permission, we can take these faith-filled requests to others, allowing them to join with us in prayer to see these needs come to fruition. When we merely moan and groan about our supposed "burdens", we call God a liar -- declaring that He is not able to meet our needs as He has stated. However, if we will continue to cast our cares (not our burden, for Christ dealt with that when we trusted in Him), then we will see the heavens opened and God meeting and exceeding our expectations.

To cast one's burden of sin upon the Lord is the defining moment of every new believer. We are not meant to bear its weight. Neither are we meant to be able to set some type of world's record in how far we can throw it from our own spiritual self. That is what the devil would desire for every man, woman, and child. If the enemy of our souls can keep lost souls trying to "shot put" their sins continually away from them, then he has won. Likewise, if he can keep believers like you and me to attempt to either carry our sins once again, or to cast our sins off our shoulders and out of our hearts by our own power, then he has made us ineffective as children of God. Our only hope is the Great Anchor of our Souls (Hebrews 6:19), for without Him both our sin and our sins will weigh us down to the depths of despair. May we first cast off our burden of sin to the One who will grant us freedom from its unbearable weight. Then, may we always cast all our concerns upon the Lord, for He desires to be our care-bearer in the same way. He alone is the One who is ultimately our strength, beloved.

Heavenly Father, thank you for the power of Your might that has resolved both sin and anxiety for all those who would but trust in You. Thank you for allowing us to cast our burden upon Your Son, as well as all our cares. Keep us in Your continual peace as we trust in You. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Love Without Limits - March 15, 2015

James 2:8 - If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “ YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well.

All of us fall short of the mark when it comes to "loving our neighbor". For most of us, we find our love sometimes lacking when it comes to speaking rightly toward someone or possibly giving them a helping hand. Often, it is easier to criticize than it is to "Christ-ize" those with whom we are in daily contact. We might have certain individuals in our lives who are easy to love, because they love us. They give us what we need regarding overall acceptance. However, there may be others in our lives that are less than loving, often simply because they have a hard time loving themselves. People that are generally unloving toward themselves are more than likely unloving toward others. I state the obvious in order to understand both our current circumstances in the world in which we live, and the promise of a pure existence yet to come. To respond differently to those who may not like us, is to act in a way that is not consistent with this world's standards. There may be some who despise us because of a wrong they feel we've done to them once upon a time. (This may be true or understated.) However, their perception has led them to take up arms against not only us, but anyone else they feel has victimized them. Jesus tells us that our responsibility is to always respond in love, no matter our rightness or our "whiteness" in the matter. (Matthew 5:39) We may be totally innocent, but so was our Savior when they lifted Him up for our salvation. The Father's love which manifested itself within Christ's human body allowed Him to love those perfectly who brought about His death.

James, the half-brother of our Savior, quotes both Jesus and the Law of Moses in our lead verse. He tells us that we are to indeed love our neighbor with the same fervor that we love ourselves. Understanding exactly what James was saying is paramount to discerning his intent in this verse. Jesus spoke to those questioning Him about the greatest commandment, referring to the importance of loving one's neighbor as himself. (Mark 12:28-31) In this instance in the Gospel of Mark, the Lord is quoting from the Levitical law, using the Torah to affirm God's heart to those who questioned Him regarding the importance of the law. (Leviticus 19:18) Through this encounter, Jesus taught that the Greatest Commandment was inseparable from the second greatest charge. Without accomplishing a deep, passionate love for the Lord -- to love Him with all of one's heart, soul, and mind -- it would be impossible to love one's neighbor. Without God's love abiding within, love for one's self would be moot therefore aborting any true godly love for another. When I speak of love for one's self, I am not speaking of selfish, narcissistic adoration. I do refer to a love regarding who God has fashioned by the finished work at Calvary. To love one's self in a right way is to understand that the Holy Spirit dwells within and that we should be in love with God within our human bodies. He has come to dwell within the temple of our mortal frame, consecrating it for His purpose and ultimately for His glory. With that perspective, what is there not to love about God tabernacling with men? With a true understanding of His love for us, and "right-sized" thinking about the God who lives within us, it is little wonder that we don't love ourselves more. And, that is the key to love others more completely, beloved. Once we accept who we are in the Beloved, our Lord Jesus Christ, then we will experience the fulfillment of the "royal law" when we begin to lay down our lives for others, even as He did for us.

Surprisingly, few truly understand this. Otherwise, the church would be experiencing much more growth in the area of love. The barometer of wellness of a local body (and the Body of Christ at large) is how well we love. When we aren't loving, it tells the world that we're not loving what God has done and is doing in us, both past and present. To understand God's great love is to understand a deep, abiding sense of His presence which will ultimately be shed abroad in our hearts to others. (Romans 5:5) To comprehend His great love is a gift from above. We simply need to continue to ask for revelation of His love within until he fills us to such overflowing that our witness becomes one of continual charity toward both ourselves and others. (Philippians 1:9) For in reality, beloved, we are simply rehearsing for that day that when we will be enveloped forever in His love. That day when we step into eternity and experience the fullness of His love and of His presence will be the day that we love perfectly. No more will we feel disdain toward a mortal soul we once felt no empathy toward. In that Celestial City, we will feel nothing but unrequited love that will flow freely from the Source within us. No more will we experience anger or unforgiveness from those who once walked this earth. If we are truly Christ's, He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, knowing that we are indeed created from the dust, yet now to rule and reign with Him forever. Never again will there be an unresolved act of charity, for all will be resolved through Jesus. We will walk with Him, loving ourselves for what He has done in us and perfectly loving those that share that heavenly scene because He loved them likewise.

Self-love without God's love as the source is from this earth and demonic in nature. However, love that is given through revelation of what the Father has completed within us through the blood of Jesus is a wonderfully holy thing. We can rejoice in the knowledge of His love within us, for it will set us free to love others. If we don't accept ourselves, our love for others will fall woefully short. May we embrace God's view, as redeemed children of the King, with the understanding that His Holy Spirit dwells within all who know the Savior. Let us continue to draw close to Him, allowing Him to love us completely, giving us total permission to love ourselves and others. May His love abound within our hearts and may it find a place to dwell in all those whom we touch in our daily lives.

Heavenly Father, may we love You fully, may we love ourselves respectfully and humbly according to Your great revelation, and may we love others completely through Your divine understanding or who we are in Christ. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Good Shepherd - March 8, 2015

Psalm 23:4 - Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

Of all the story pictures in the Old Testament scriptures, possibly none evokes tranquility better than the six verses that make up Psalm 23. From the beginning of this Song of David to the end, we are painted a vivid portrait within our mind's-eye regarding this pastoral scene. Sheep led by tranquil waters and resting in lush grass create a peaceful motif for this most quoted scripture of both Testaments. However, some would imply that there is something less peaceful regarding the shepherd's intention in this psalm when discussing verse four. Throughout my church history, I recall various preachers sermonizing about this passage, using this metaphor of God's rod and staff in a less than comforting way. They meant well, I'm sure, when they conjectured a different meaning regarding the shepherd's intent. However, their interpretation comes across as wholly incompatible with the context. We should look carefully at the meaning of the shepherd's rod and staff to determine David's intent in this powerful psalm.

We've probably all seen pictures in books or bibles or religious displays depicting a shepherd with his flock. Common to us is the shepherd's crook, a long staff with a hook at the end. This enabled the shepherd to help guide his or her sheep, using the crook at times to gently "hook" the sheep by the neck and guide it back to the rest of the flock. Probably less known to us is the shepherd's rod. A rod in biblical times could be something as small as a foot-long club that shepherd's wore in their belt, to a four-foot in length weapon that might resemble a walking stick. Usually, one end was more club-like (as shown in the attached picture). While the staff was used specifically for herding the flock, the rod was a weapon or a tool, if you will, to provide safety for the flock. To understand the meaning and the use of the rod is to understand God's heart toward His flock. As mentioned, some preachers would lead us to believe that God would use His rod against His beloved sheep and lambs. Some have stated that shepherds in ancient Palestine would correct a lamb by breaking its leg and carrying it until the break had healed. Therefore, this would prevent the lamb, one day to become a sheep, from ever wandering away again. With full grown sheep, the implication is that the rod would be used to discipline the sheep with heavy blows to prevent it from wandering. In both cases, I believe this does not produce the result of "comfort" as the verse states. Animals are not stupid, neither are humans. Both know the difference of being treated with love that does not foster fear as a result. Can you imagine the trauma created to an animal's psyche by such a blatantly heinous act? There would be an indelible mistrust, no matter how much nurturing occurred after the fact. The same can be said regarding humans. If we knew that God was intentionally "beating us up and breaking our legs" we would always have the wrong sort of fear toward the Great Shepherd.

If, however, the rod was meant for something totally different, then it would cast a harmonious consistency with the rest of the psalm. Suppose that the rod symbolized protection from without, as the shepherd's staff meant protection from within? Imagine for a moment a good shepherd who wielded this one- to four-foot club, would he not meet any animal, robber, or stranger seeking to harm the flock with unbridled ferocity? Can we suppose that David, when bringing his resume' to King Saul regarding his ability to defeat the giant Goliath, didn't use one of these rods to club to death both the bear and the lion? (I Samuel 17:33-35) Artists throughout the millennia have shown this very thing as David clutched the beard of a lion and slew it with this club-like rod. So, how could one imagine that David could be referring to this war club in any other way as a defense for the flock? Just as the shepherd would keep the flock from straying with his staff, so he would keep the outer dangers at bay with his rod of defense. To use the rod for anything else would strike the wrong kind of fear in the hearts of his animals. Every time they saw it, there would be an uncertainty regarding when and where the shepherd would use it next. While the staff would comfort them, knowing that the shepherd would herd them lovingly by keeping them together, so they would also know that the other tool in their keeper's arsenal was to protect them from whatever might assail them.

The transliteration of the word "rod" in Hebrew is shebet, and is found dozens of times in the Old Testament. Critics to the reasoning I suggest might note that shebet is used in child-rearing scriptures such as Proverbs 23:13: Do not hold back discipline from the child. Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die. However, corporal punishment for a rebellious child is one thing -- the intent of a "sheep" to maliciously assert its own predilection is quite another. One acts out of a state of volition, defiantly choosing to disobey. The other is wayward merely out of a sense of misguided instinct. One might choose to deal with a wayward child in one way, and a wayward grown child in quite another. We are told that the father of the Prodigal Son merely let his wayward grown son make his mistakes and then return when he saw the folly of his ways. (Luke 15:11-25) While I am not naive to believe that the shepherd would not be forcefully rough at times to convince a sheep to stay with the flock, I likewise believe that a good shepherd would not inflict unnecessary brutality to convince a sheep of his authority. This, as has already been stated, would be counterproductive and would make the sheep ultimately mistrust and flee from this type of shepherding. (John 10:5)

Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John, the tenth chapter that He is indeed the Good Shepherd. He protects His flock and will not allow any to be snatched from His hand. (John 10:28) David gives us this dynamic portrayal of good shepherding in Psalm 23 whereas Jesus Christ completes the image in John's Gospel. The Lord has shown us through David's typology and through His own testimony that He is to be trusted to keep us from straying and to defend us against those who would seek to devour us. Even if we did stray, He compares Himself with the man in the parable of the wayward sheep. He would seek us out and rejoice when He found us once again. (Luke 15:3-6) Jesus is clear throughout His teachings that punitive discipline is not the order of the day when a lost sheep is found. What is clear is His love for us all and how He rejoices over our return. May we never see God being desirous to punish us through corrective measures that are not in line with His word. Neither the shepherd David nor the Good Shepherd would be complicit to this type of discipline. Know and understand, beloved, that the rod of his love is to protect us from all that would seek to harm us. In Him, we can truly be comforted and rest in His abiding grace!

Great Shepherd of our souls, may we always trust that you will lead us and guide us, first with your staff of life that leads us always in your word. And also by your rod, that protects us from the world and the devil that would seek to devour us. May your word comfort and lead us while the power of Your Name protects us from all evil. In Jesus' Name, Amen.Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick