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Blessed to be a Blessing

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Let’s explore one of my favorite scriptures in Abraham’s story as God promises to bless him to be a blessing. We are going to discover that our blessings, like Abraham’s, are not just for us but are to be used to bless others. In the opening verses of Genesis 12:1-2, the Lord tells Abram, later to be called Abraham: “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Notice that God’s promise to Abraham is accompanied by a further explanation. The Lord’s blessing of Abraham is just the first step in God’s divine plan to extend blessing through Abraham to all the peoples of the earth.
No doubt God intended to bless Abraham and his descendants but never meant for his blessing to be exclusive. God’s selection of Abraham and his descendants out of the humanity who had strayed far from Him was a tactical move. God’s decision to call Abraham and later the setting apart of the nation of Israel was not the end itself, but a means to an end. What am I getting at here? God did not bless Abraham simply to bless Abraham. God did not establish Israel as a nation and bless them with a unique revelation through His word and presence to simply bless Israel. In fact, God has not blessed any of us who are part of His church to simply bless us. God blesses us to be a blessing. Blessings flow from God, but they should never stay with us. They come to us, then flow through us.
In seminary, I was able to sit in a class where noted missionary and missiologist Don Richardson spoke. He referred to these twin promises in Genesis 12:1-2 as the top line (“I will bless you”) and bottom line (“and you will be a blessing”). They remind us that everything we have received from God is ultimately to be used to glorify God, yes, bless us, and for the benefit of other people. These “other people” especially include those yet to receive Christ as Lord and Savior, in the hope that they will enter into a saving relationship with the Lord. So, again, we are blessed to be a blessing.
Here are some blessings, to name a few, for us to consider. First, think about comfort (2 Cor 1:3-4), forgiveness (Col 3:13), and love (1John 4:11). We receive these from the Lord so that, in part, we can share them with others. Next, consider justice and charity (Prov 27-28). We are to do good by using the resources and influence that God has granted us, to see justice prevail, and to offer charity to those in need. God’s blessings are not meant to be totally consumed by us. Paul writes, “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God” (2 Cor 9:11). A simple definition of generosity is blessing others from the blessings we have received from God. I wonder something. I wonder, using Don Richardson’s language if we’re in danger of being so focused on the top line – all good things God has given us – that we have forgotten the bottom line, and the bottom line is this: we have been blessed to be a blessing.
Let’s take a moment and focus on the greatest blessing of all. Those of us who know the Lord personally, who have received the gift of salvation, are called to share the good news with others in word and deed (Matt 28:19). The central task of the church, those who have received the blessing of salvation in Christ, is to share the good news with others in the hope that they, too, will receive the blessing of salvation.
The blessings God gives us are intended to be shared with all, beginning with the inestimable blessing of salvation in Christ, as well as all the other good things the Lord has given us. You might not think you have much to offer. You lay all you feel you possess on the table, and perhaps you feel lacking. But, I encourage you to consider what God brings to the table. What He brings to the table fills the table and overflows and continues unending. Remember, you, plus God, are always more than enough.
In all honesty, I know I have been greatly blessed in so many ways. I am a blessed man. If you, like me, are a believer, then whatever your circumstances, you’ve been given not only salvation but hope, forgiveness, and love. Those of us in Christ have been given everything that is eternally worthwhile. What is the Lord’s intention in giving us these things? God’s blessings are not meant to be totally consumed by us. We are blessed to be a blessing. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!

God Showing Up

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As I was preparing to share this writing with you, I pictured initially parents as they read my words. Then, as I began to look a little deeper at what I was sharing, I realized that this is for everyone. Like so many truths in God’s Word, they apply to a variety of people in various situations.
At first, I pictured parents because the account from Genesis I was studying concerns a mother and her child. In Genesis, we discover that God has promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations but has a barren wife. At his wife’s suggestion, he tries to hurry along with God’s plan by sleeping with her maidservant, Hagar. Sidebar, in the Scriptures, we find prescriptive actions and descriptive actions. There are prescriptive actions we are to follow. This is not one of them. What Abraham did was sinful, disobedient, and abusive to Hagar.
Now, back to Hagar. She becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, Ishmael. Due to Jealousy, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, wants Hagar punished for her part in having this child. Remember, it was Sarah’s idea in the first place. This results in Abraham turning a blind eye to Sarah’s harsh treatment of Hagar.
Fast forward a bit. As God had promised, Sarah gave birth to a son, Isaac. Unfortunately, this does not make the situation between Sarah and Hagar any better. It actually gets worse. This leads to Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael away.
Eventually, Hagar and Ishmael find themselves in a dire situation. We read in Genesis 21:15-16, “When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, ‘Let me not look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.” I believe any parent, and any person for that matter, knows what it’s like to feel despair, not knowing what to do. You feel alone, helpless, and hopeless. This was where Hagar was sitting.
Then, we read, “And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink” (Genesis 21:17-19). Hagar discovers she’s not alone. The situation was not hopeless because God, the Helper, was present and working.
There is so much that could be addressed from this account. However, I want to draw our attention to a few insights. First, on this side of paradise, life is not fair. Hagar didn’t deserve the way she was treated. She should have been able to expect more from Sarah and Abraham. However, we don’t always get what we deserve.
Second, in all of life, specifically in this parenting situation, we discover that life isn’t easy. Hagar wanted what was best for her son. She desired to protect him. But, unfortunately, there is only so much we can do. We are limited. This is painful when others and situations seek to harm our children. This is even more painful when our children make choices that hurt themselves. Hagar felt the despair many a parent, and generally speaking, many of us have felt.
Lastly, God is always present and working. We might not understand why He allows certain things and chooses to intervene when He does. We know we live in a fallen world that is not easy or fair. We know that we are often humbled by our limitations. The good news is God is present and working in this life and preparing us for eternity where life is not harsh, it is fair, and we will be without limit to experience the fullness of God’s joy and provisions.
So, what do we learn from Hagar’s experience to help us today? First, always look to the Lord. If you haven’t received Christ as Savior, start there in your relationship with Him. Then, acknowledge He is present and working. And know that your future is secure in Him. For us parents, we need to trust that God is more concerned and loves our children more deeply than we ever could. In truth, none of us are ever really alone, nor in despair (utter loss of hope), because God is with us and always at work (Matthew 28:20). Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!

Call of a Lifetime

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Abraham’s place in the “Who’s Who” in the Bible is altogether unique yet offers insights that are of great use to anyone’s faith journey. He stands out as a landmark in the spiritual history of the world. He’s chosen to be the father of a new spiritual race. Interestingly, he was flawed. In fact, there was nothing much about him that made him worthy of such a distinction but that he journeyed in faith. Although, if we were to be honest, we lack anything genuinely remarkable. However, like Abraham, we can embark on a faith journey with God marked by the extraordinary invading our ordinary lives.
For instance, look at Abraham’s calling from God in Genesis 12:1-9. We discover Abram, whose name will later be changed by God to Abraham, living his life like usual among his people. Then, God meets with Abraham and calls him to step out in faith. This faith journey will require Abraham to surrender three things (Gen 12:1). First, Abraham needed to leave his country (nation/city/citizenship). Scripture tells us that Abraham was a native of Ur, a city located in the region of Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia is credited with being the first known civilization in the world. Ur was a major port city and urban center located on the Persian Gulf. It was from this seaside city that God called Abraham. Having spent his life in a bustling city at the edge of the water, Abraham must have found a nomad’s life a big transition.
Secondly, Abraham needed to leave his family and his status in his clan. God’s invitation to Abraham challenged him to abandon the normal sources of personal identity and security: his family and country. To obey, Abraham must trust God implicitly; all human support is largely removed.
Finally, Abraham needed to leave his father’s house and the right of inheritance in the extended family of his father. Abraham may have been called from city life to remove him from temptations at home. Leaving behind his father’s house meant leaving behind everything that was familiar, including his religion of worshiping false idols. This new God, Yahweh, must have seemed very mysterious because he chose to communicate directly with Abraham. At the same time, the false idols of Abraham’s youth were understood to be distant gods who did not personally connect. This difference may have been one of the deciding factors in Abraham’s choice to follow God’s leading.
God’s call to Abraham was surely a test of his faith. We discover in Hebrews 11:8, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.” Abraham shows us that faith leads to obedience. In fact, this faith that leads to obedience is what’s necessary for the promised outcomes.
As we continue exploring Genesis 12, we come across verses 2-3, which read, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Much could be said here. Although Abraham is called to be a blessing to others, much rests on how they treat him. Those favorable toward Abraham will experience God’s favor; those who despise Abraham will know God’s displeasure. Notice, “in Abraham, all the families of the earth will be blessed.” The inclusion of all the families of the earth anticipates the spread of the gospel and salvation in Christ to the ends of the earth.
While still in Mesopotamia, Abraham received God’s promise that he would become “a great nation” of numerous descendants. Earlier in Hebrews 11, verse 1, we discover the definition of faith, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” “Faith” is certain of “things hoped for,” God’s promised blessings will be fulfilled. It is also confident of “things not seen,” God’s power and faithfulness in life today. Here’s the point. Abraham shows us that we grasp God’s promised blessings by faith. As you read through the promised blessings of God to each of us believers in Scripture, we realize that they are ours in Christ, but they are not activated in our lives unless we receive them by faith.
Lastly, as we read Genesis 12:4-9, we discover that Abraham “went, as the Lord told him” (Gen 12:4). This brief report of Abraham’s response presents his obedience as immediate and unquestioning. We even discover that the Lord once again speaks to Abraham (Gen 12:7). Abraham responds by building an altar. This is the first of a number of manifestations of God to the patriarchs. These appearances are often associated with divine promises. This altar, that is erected by Abraham, is placed as a witness, a mark of remembrance, and place of worship to God for His presence and promise. Abraham shows us that our faith can be a witness to those yet to receive Christ and encouragement to those who have done so. Looking upon this altar must have brought questions that people of faith were ready to answer. Also, there is something powerful about hearing someone else’s faith journey for believers. When God’s people saw these altars, they would be reminded of God’s presence and promises.
Ultimately the “offspring” of Abraham narrows down to Christ (Gal 3:16), whose dominion extends not only over the land of Canaan but over the entire world (Matt 28:18). It’s important to remember that, in Christ, believers are the offspring of Abraham (Gal 3:7, 29). When we receive Christ as Lord and Savior, not only can we embody these lessons we learn from Abraham but are grafted into the promise God shared with Abraham at the beginning of his faith journey. Soli Do Glory (Glory to God Alone)!

Vertical Momentum

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When we look at Philippians 2:5-11, Paul describes the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus Christ. When we speak of Christ’s humiliation, we address Christ’s life from the incarnation through His death on the cross, where he died in our stead, placing our guilt and shame upon Himself. Christ’s exaltation is seen from His resurrection, through His ascension, to His seating at the Father’s right hand (Session).
Indeed, the resurrection is a defining point in history. However, as important as the resurrection was, it was not the decisive redemptive event that would transform Christ’s stumbling disciples into Christ’s steadfast apostles. Nevertheless, the apostles never forgot the resurrection. Without the resurrection, all would be lost. But they could not live or serve in God’s plan as He intended with only the forgiveness of sins and the memory of Christ’s triumph over the grave. Having rescued them from sin and reconciled them to the Father, Christ was now prepared to equip them with His presence and send them out to be witnesses in the world.
We read of Christ’s ascension in Acts 1:6-11. Just before Jesus departed from them, Jesus told them to fix their attention on fulfilling His great commission (Acts 1:8). He had done enough, and they had heard enough to tell others everything they needed to know about Jesus. The ascension also anticipated that Jesus would end the Spirit-empowered era of the gospel preaching by returning to them. Jesus would return as He had left, visibly, bodily, and triumphantly.
Just as the resurrection of Christ gives us a firm hope that God will one day resurrect our bodies, similarly, the ascension affirms He will return to take us home. So often, much of the focus of the ascension is given to Jesus leaving His disciples, but more significantly, it was also the time Jesus returned to His Father. Think about it. The resurrection confirmed that Christ’s salvific work was completed, and this His work in heaven would be accepted, allowing believers to know that His access to the Father is the basis for theirs.
Jesus’ ascension allowed His Spirit to come in power. Jesus viewed the Spirit’s ministry as an essential extension of His own. Actually, we could say that Jesus continued His ministry through the Spirit. Before Christ’s death, Jesus had described the relationship between the believer and the Spirit as the Spirit “dwelling with you and will be in you (see: John 1416-17). God, the Holy Spirit, would abide with them and would be “in them.”
The Spirit’s goal is to magnify or glorify Christ in the life of believers. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was a once-for-all action that took place on Pentecost. As individual believers subsequently enter into a saving relationship in Jesus Christ, they are indwelt by the Spirit individually, entering a body of believers (the Church) indwelt corporately (1 Cor 12:13). We have the account of Pentecost recorded for us in Acts 2:1-6.
The cross and Pentecost constitute the two redemptive transactions. On the cross, Christ removed our guilt and shame. At Pentecost, the Lord equipped us with His divine presence through the Spirit, enabling us to function as designed and directed in our God-ordained purpose. It is important to note that Peter immediately preaches a message that fittingly and instructively was about Christ, not about the Spirit.  The Spirit enabled Peter for the first time to proclaim the truth about Christ accurately and, therefore, powerfully (Acts 2:14-36). Peter declared, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). For the first time since Adam sinned, God could be restored to human beings. Cleansed by the blood of Christ, He again assured His rightful place in human beings through the indwelling Holy Spirit. From Pentecost until Christ’s return, faith in Christ results in restoring the Holy Spirit to the human spirit.
Jesus entered heaven and sent us His Spirit. Jesus is now seated at the right hand of God. We call this Session, which literally means “seating. He sat down to show that he had secured salvation (Hebrews 1:3). From His seated position, Jesus is situated ideally to come to the aid of His own. Christ intercedes for us now, before the Father (Hebrews 7:25).
Let me speak a bit about Christ in you through the Spirit in you. If “you in Christ” defines the identity and source of every spiritual blessing for Christians, then “Christ in you” describes the provision of God, enabling Christians to be in daily life who they have become in Christ. Paul wrote, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Paul was not stating merely that you will go to heaven if you are a Christian. Glory is the manifestation of the attributes of God in their splendor. The Christian life is a manifestation of the restored image of God because of the restored presence of God. The Christian life, therefore, is the life of Christ lived out through a human being by faith. The Christian life is about Christ, His life, His attributes, His glory.
The Scripture speaks about “Christ in you” whenever it speaks about the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer. The Spirit’s task is to apply the ministry of Christ, to magnify Christ, to point to Christ, to teach about Christ – and nothing else! The Spirit and Christ are so united in purpose that “the Spirit in you” means the same thing as “Christ in you.” Christ always does the work that has made salvation possible. The Spirit always applies the work Christ does to our lives. Here it is in a nutshell. What the believer has become legally and positionally in Christ is the basis for what Christ through the Spirit becomes actually and practically in you now, and this is a journey.
I know we have explored a lot here together. We have looked at Christ’s humiliation, exaltation, and the impact his ascension and Session have on the lives of believers today. You may be asking, “How do we enter into this saving relationship with Jesus Christ and experience the benefits of doing life with Him?” Faith is the one requirement God ever places upon any human being. Christ proclaimed, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This life of vertical momentum (finding salvation and abundant life in Christ) is offered to all who believe. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!

Risen

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Why do we celebrate Resurrection Sunday? To answer this question, we need to go back to the beginning. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, we discover that the original couple rebelled against God, and sin enters the world and humanity. Human beings had sinned. God justly demanded payment for the penalty of their sin.
Here is a problem. Human beings are unable to satisfy the just demands of God. This problem is more sobering due to this reality. God cannot overlook sin because God cannot violate His word or character. Humanly speaking, it would seem that God was confronted with an irreconcilable dilemma. How could God be true to His own character and word concerning sin and rescue His created people, guilty of sin, unable to rescue themselves?
Here is God’s solution. God solved this seemingly irreconcilable dilemma through the unique work of the unique person – Jesus Christ. What was the unique work of Jesus? Jesus came to do one work, salvation. God worked through Christ so that He could “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Christ” (Rom 3:26).
Salvation requires divine action and human reaction. Unless Jesus was the unique person He was, He could not have done the unique work He did. God’s salvation is for all people, but it is found only in one person. Jesus Christ is salvation.
For us to truly understand the work of Christ in salvation, we need to understand His humiliation and exaltation (see: Philippians 2:5-11). Our Savior began His trek from the heights of undiminished glory of His divine identity. His descent into self-imposed humiliation began formally with the incarnation. Jesus took on flesh, that is, the flesh of our human race. He did not cease to be God but put humanity upon His divinity.
If the Second Person of the Trinity had not emptied Himself by “adding” a human nature to His divine nature, thus becoming the unique God/Man, human beings, you and I, could not have been saved. The virgin conception was apparently a theological requirement making it possible for the Messiah to be shielded from inherited sin as He entered into a sinful race of humanity. The Messiah needed to be separated from the sin of sinful humanity while still being a member of it.
We discover accounts from the life of Christ in the gospels. The gospels are not a biography of Jesus’ life but a recounting of certain historical facts about Jesus’ life in order to explain how what Jesus has done is good news for us. Jesus lived a perfect life of obedience to the will of the Father even in the face of the ignorance, scorn, and rebuke of sinful people. These people could never be saved from impending death apart from His faithful obedience to the Father. Christ’s life on earth is the perfect picture of the irony of unconditional love (see: Rom 5:8).
There is no reconciliation with God apart from the death of Christ. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21a, “For our sake he [the Father] made him [the incarnate Son] to be sin who knew no sin [on our behalf]….” Christ’s work in taking away our sin was an exercise in simple, yet profound, exchange. God legally placed the penalty of our sin upon Jesus Christ, who willingly bore it for our sake. Catch this. Our sin cannot be at two places at the same time. Since Christ bore our sin. We, who receive Him, are free of sin (see: John 3:16). Jesus paid the penalty of our sin on the cross. In fact, Jesus stated from the cross unequivocally, “It is finished!” (Jn 19:30). The Father sent Jesus and arranged for Him to die to rescue us from eternal death (see: Rom 3:23; 6:23).
Jesus took our guilt upon Himself and thereby removed that guilt from us. Jesus also bore our shame and thereby removed sin’s shame from us. The Scripture rarely mentions the humiliation of Christ without contrasting it with His exaltation. That is because Christ’s humiliation and exaltation must be viewed together to get a well-rounded understanding of the work of Christ. I have shared a piece of 2 Cor 5:21. Let me share the whole verse, “ For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ took our guilt and shame “so that” unrighteous people, who need to be forgiven of sin, due to being unrighteous, in Him, are made righteous; right with God.
The resurrection inaugurated Christ’s exaltation, the second phase of Christ’s saving ministry. Jesus never anticipated His death without proclaiming His subsequent resurrection. The apostles never preached the efficacy of Christ’s death without stipulating the resurrection’s triumph. In fact, no resurrection, no gospel – no good news! The resurrection is the linchpin that secured salvation (see: 1 Cor 15). Here is the gospel truth. The resurrection of Christ indicates that God’s plan for the salvation of the human race, you and me, includes our resurrected bodies (eternal life).
We began by looking at the problem all of us face due to sin. Then, we have looked at God’s solution – Jesus Christ and His salvific work. Indeed, the salvific work of Christ offers us a life like no other – the life we have been created to experience with God.
A genuine Christian is a person who has honestly surrendered their life to Christ. They have turned away from their sin and placed their faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross and have received the gift of eternal life, God’s extravagant love. Today, these words echo as accurately as when John wrote them, “ To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). In a genuine sense, believers have risen in Christ! Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!

Passion Week

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We are a day into Passion Week, which is the time from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday kicks off the week as Jesus enters Jerusalem in the triumphant entry (Matt 21:1-11). Also included in Passion week is Holy Monday, where Jesus cleansed the temple (Matt 21:12-22). Then, there is Holy Tuesday. On this day, Jesus was issued various challenges by the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 21:23-23:39). Spy Wednesday happened during this week. Here Jesus was anointed with spikenard during a meal (Matt 26:6-13). However, it’s called Spy Wednesday because it’s the day Judas conspired with religious authorities to betray Jesus (Matt 26:14-16). The next day, Maundy Thursday, is when Jesus celebrated the Passover with the disciples, known as the Last Supper. Jesus instituted communion on this day (Lk 22:19-20) and washed His disciple’s feet (Jn 13:3-17). Maundy is derived from the Latin word for “command,” referring to Jesus’ command to love and serve one another.
Passion Week is so named because of the passion with which Jesus willingly went to the cross in order to pay for our sins. First, Jesus chose to endure torture at the hands of Roman soldiers. Then, He carried His cross through the streets of Jerusalem to be crucified. Finally, He died and was buried. Then, we have Holy Saturday, where Jesus “rested” from His work of providing salvation. As Jesus died, He called out, “It is finished!” There was no further price to pay; sin had been atoned for, and salvation delivered to all who receive Him as Savior.
Passion Week culminated on Easter Sunday, also known as Resurrection Sunday, because Jesus was resurrected (Matt 28). His resurrection is most worthy of being celebrated (see: 1 Cor 15). In fact, Christ’s resurrection should be celebrated every day, not just once a year. The reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead demonstrates that we can indeed be promised eternal life as we receive Him as Savior and Lord. Now, that’s worth celebrating.
As we find ourselves in Passion Week, it would be worth noting this week’s events. Of course, much more occurred than even I have mentioned. However, what is most noteworthy is God’s profound act of love. In John 3:16, we discover these words, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
In John 3:16, we have the gospel in a nutshell. God gave His Son by sending Him into the world and by giving Him over to death. The good news is that “whoever believes in Him” has eternal life, which is life on a higher plane. The believer receives this life now and will enjoy it fully in the life to come, throughout eternity.
As we proceed through this week, keep in mind all that Christ willingly did and endured. Meditate on His love for you that was expressed on the cross. Consider the wonder and power demonstrated through His resurrection. He died for our sins and was raised for our salvation (Rom 4:25).
We have so much for which to be thankful. God does not merely say He loves us but demonstrated it by coming, living a perfect life, and dying on the cross. The loving sacrifice of Christ once and for all has paid for our sins.
We have so much to celebrate. We worship a risen Savior. He is preparing a place for us. He has given us the gift of His very Spirit that indwells us. We have life in Him today that will be thoroughly enjoyed as we enter into eternity with Him. In fact, to all who receive Him as Savior and Lord, this promise rings true, “He is with us always” (Matt 28:20). Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!

First Living

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I want to look at an example from the Book of Acts of a believer who knew what it means to make Christ our first love and His kingdom our first priority. If we were to pick an individual in the first century who would make a significant contribution to the expansion of Christ’s church, the individual we will look at more than likely would not have been one of them. At least, not before he came to Christ.
This man was born in Tarsus, the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia, in southeast Asia Minor. He was a strict Pharisee who was educated at the feet of the Gamaliel, an influential Pharisee, and an expert in the law. We first find this man in Jerusalem, where he was present and consented to the death of the Christian martyr Stephen. He then began a vicious campaign of persecution against Christians.
This man was on a mission to capture Christians in Damascus when he suddenly saw a blinding light and fell to the ground. He heard Jesus speak to him. He was then led by the hand to Damascus, where a Christian named Ananias met him. This man was cured of his blindness, believed in Jesus for salvation, and was baptized.
Upon becoming a believer, other believers were skeptical due to the whole persecuting Christians part of his life. But then, a man named Barnabas took Him under his wings. Later in Syrian Antioch, the church identified the clear calling of the Lord on this man’s life and sent him and Barnabas as missionary-church planters.
Of course, I am talking about Paul. He wrote 28 percent of the New Testament. He wrote 13 books of the New Testament, nearly half. Also, he planted at least 14 churches. Yet, he wrote of himself, “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:9-10a). Paul is not speaking negatively or poorly of himself. He knew what he had done, who he was while realizing who he had become in Christ.
The verse we are going to explore together is found in Acts 20. Paul has called the Ephesian Elders to meet with him. Paul had stayed in Ephesus 2 ½ years – longer than he had stayed anywhere else on his missionary journeys. He tells them that he is heading to Jerusalem, where he has been warned prison and persecution awaits him.
What’s at the core of Paul’s obedience? What’s at the heart of Paul’s decision to put Christ first? We discover the answer in verse 24: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). Paul expressly counts the cost and does it in terms of his life. Paul states the choice and his decision in the form of relative worth. In the face of impending prison and persecution, Paul makes his life of no value in the sense that he does not choose to preserve it at all cost. Rather, he chooses to pursue the Lord Jesus’s purpose for him: “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Paul calls this pursuit “finishing the course” or “finishing the race” and “the ministry.”
Here’s the point: No matter the outward circumstances, even if they include impending threats, our conduct should consistently fulfill our one calling as disciples making disciples, as those who love Christ above all else and make His kingdom first priority; this is first living. The Lord’s will for each of us is to become all He intends us to be. His grace is for our growth. We have been programmed for greatness. Sanctification means growing more and more into the likeness of Christ (His love, character, purpose, and priorities). For me, I understand that I am a work in progress. I’m not what I used to be; I’m not what I ought to be; but praise the Lord, I am on my way to becoming all that God intends me to be.
Imagine the urgency Paul felt as he looked into the faces of the Ephesian Elders, whom many he had personally been involved in their coming to Christ and growing in the Lord. Among them surely was a converted silversmith, who prior to hearing the gospel had made a living making images of false gods as part of Ephesus’ tourist industry that in part included one of the wonders of the ancient world, the temple of Artemis. There would have been converted Jews. Perhaps, leaders of the city who had received Christ. There were people who had been given peace in exchange for the broken pieces of their lives. There could have been transformed criminals, liberated leaders of the cults, and Roman officials who had made Christ king of their lives. We can picture all these people, new in Christ, being entrusted with the church’s leadership. Paul knew that as God had done in him, He would do in them. This is true for us as well.
I have been asked what my life verse is on several occasions. To be honest, I am not entirely sure, but a verse I aspire to is Acts 20:24: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” I do not have to survive; I have to know Christ and make Him known! I just want to thrive in Christ as one engaged in “First Living.” What about you? Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!

First Step

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I want to look at the first step to placing God first in our lives and with our finances in particular. Christ proclaimed these words, recorded in Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38). Here is the overriding principle we are going to explore together. If we are generous, God will repay us in the same measure.
I am so thankful to be a part of a genuinely generous church family. Crosswinds is a giving church, giving to one another, our community, region, and beyond. For some, this writing will be an encouragement to continue in generosity. For others, it will be a challenge to restart or begin a lifestyle of generosity. For all of us, may it lead us to commit to biblical generosity.
Interestingly, this call to commitment was presented by Paul nearly 2,000 years ago. We are going to explore 2 Corinthians 9:6-15. Let’s look at the text in context. Paul had sent Titus and two brothers to make sure the Corinthians had prepared their offering for those in need in Jerusalem so that he and they would not be ashamed when Paul arrived with the representatives from Macedonia. He now encourages them to be cheerful givers.
We are going to look at the principles of cheerful giving. Let’s begin by looking at verses 6: “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” There is a spiritual law at work in giving. The familiar farm illustration states both the positive and the opposite negative idea. The negative point emphasizes the truth that when a person makes it a habit to give only a little. Then, he or she can expect very little in the way of blessings. The positive point is that the personal rewards are great for those who habitually give generously. Paul is applying the “Law of the Harvest” to the sharing and giving of our material resources.
Paul continues in verse 7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Cheerful givers give generously and as they have decided in their hearts. Giving comes from making a choice – a purposeful and deliberate decision.
I am encouraged by these words Paul writes: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (v.8). Cheerful givers give because they love God and others. All of God’s blessings are available to us when we give cheerfully to His work because we become partners with Him. “As it is written, ‘He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever” (v. 9). Cheerful givers understand that their acts of generosity endures forever. The cheerful giver’s acts will bring eternal blessings to those who receive and to those who give.
Then, Paul reaches back and picks up on the theme of sowing and reaping, and in what sounds like a prayer and a blessing, writes: “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (v.10). Cheerful givers experience a multiplied ability to be generous. When we give ourselves and our money to God’s work, He multiplies the results beyond the expectations of natural cause and effect (see: Matt 14:14-21). Paul is reminding the Corinthians and us about the provident nature of God very much in the spirit of Jesus, who in the sermon on the mount told His followers not to be anxious about food or clothing or shelter because “your heavenly Father knows that you need all things” (Matt 6:32). Paul assures us of this: God will provide us with enough not only to meet our needs but also to help others. When anyone insists they are not able to give generously to the cause of Christ, they are contradicting these statements from Scripture. It’s important to remember God does not define generosity by amount, but sacrifice, not merely money, but our time, talent, (yes) treasure, and testimony.
Then, Paul addresses God’s purpose in lovingly giving to us: “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God” (v. 11). Cheerful givers understand that the purpose of God’s giving to us is that we, too, might be givers. Cheerful givers are blessed by God for their generosity. Those who experience the generous spirit of God’s people often, as a result, offer thanks to God Himself.
Paul concludes his thoughts on a cheerful giver by reminding us that giving has spiritual results: “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you” (vv. 12-14). Cheerful givers acknowledge their generosity is a blessing to others and brings glory to God. The gift from the Corinthians will not only supply the needs of the poor in Jerusalem but also will glorify God by causing those Christians to give many thanksgivings. Being cheerful givers proves our love for God and others. Paul makes it clear that what looked like a money-raising project was, in reality, a kingdom-building event. One of the things most needed in giving is the ability to look beyond the gift to what God will do with it.
Then, Paul writes this final statement in verse 15: “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” Cheerful givers understand that their generosity was ultimately exemplified by God through Christ. God’s “inexpressible gift” of His Son establishes the pattern and motivation for our own generosity (see: John 13:34-35). Here it is in a nutshell: Being a cheerful giver positions you to be blessed as a giver, to be a blessing to those who receive, and bring glory to God by advancing His kingdom. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!

First Fruit

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I want to write about what it means to give God the first fruits of our lives, our very hearts, and be challenged to do so? As we explore Christ’s teaching, we discover that Christ taught on many things. It probably would not surprise any of us to learn that He taught about the kingdom of God more than any other topic. What might surprise some is that second only to His teaching on the kingdom of God, Christ taught on money. Now, why would Jesus teach on money second only to the kingdom of God? Because money has the unique power to reveal the condition of the human heart.
Jesus taught: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:19-21). Certainly, these words of Christ can include our time, talent, and testimony, but most assuredly our treasure or simply stated our money.
Whether 1st century Palestine or 21st century Finger Lakes Region, money for many is the number one rival with God in the human heart. In our culture, everything we seek, directly or indirectly, is found in either money or Christ. We need to realize that money is the counterfeit. Here is the simple truth. Even if the church had all the money it could use, money would still have to be preached because money is a life-transformational issue.
Understand me. Money is not evil. It is not immoral to have possessions. In fact, one of the ways God blesses His children is through provisions. However, money presents each of us with a test that reveals the condition of our hearts.
Paul writes to his young protégé Timothy: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” ( 1 Tim 6:10). This verse does not speak against wealth. In fact, the love of money does not differentiate between rich and poor. Instead, the love of money is “a root of all kinds of evil” because it destroys faith.
All of us ought to answer a crucial question is whether we trust in God or money for our personal security? Money is not evil but does serve as a powerful test of the condition of our heart and, ultimately, our faith. This is why God calls us to the principle of first fruits. It’s not until we as believers understand our call to love God first, to place Him and His kingdom as our first priority, and embrace the foundational truth of His profound love and care for us, as well as, He is with us that we can live under the principle of first fruits.
What is the principle of first fruits? Believers are called to give the Lord the first fruits, a TITHE (10%). But unfortunately, teaching first fruits or tithing is often reduced to a mere message on personal belongings and income stewardship. Yes, this is part of it, but at its core, it’s a spiritual issue allowing us believers to live in empowered freedom and kingdom impact rather than being enslaved by our old walk and ways before coming to Christ.
The traditional and biblical means of funding God’s work as well as exercising faith in giving is through returning God’s tithe to the local church. Firstfruits (Tithing) is a biblical practice where a person returns a tenth of their income to demonstrate their trust in the Lord and, in doing so, support His work. The commandments found in the Old Testament dealing with tithing emphasize the amount (one-tenth…which is what a tithe means) of what is to be returned to Him (i.e., Lev 27:30-32). The Old Testament speaks of giving and specifically tithing in terms of amount and intricately spells out the process. The New Testament takes tithing and giving to a new level. The New Testament deals with tithing by emphasizing the heart behind the gift (i.e., Acts 2:44-45; 4:32).
The early church prescribed a tithe. They taught that it was an absolute minimum, which was to be given from one’s total income. This understanding of the tithe has been present in the church from its conception to this present day. However, let me be clear. Everything we have belongs to the Lord: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). Therefore, my giving of a tithe is a bare minimum because God is the true owner of 100% of my finance and possessions, and I am called to trust Him in all things.
When we boil it all down, firstfruits is about putting God first, trusting Him, and genuinely giving Him our heart. This releases the floodgates of God’s blessing on our lives (not always material, but far richer…peace, power, wisdom). Far more than a financial issue, at its core, firstfruits is a spiritual issue allowing us believers to live in empowered freedom and kingdom impact rather than being enslaved by our old ways of living before coming to Christ. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!

First Stewardship

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I want to look at what I call “first stewardship.” Stewardship is a responsibility delegated from one person to another, coming with authority to discharge the responsibility and accountability to do so. As God created people in His image, He made us stewards of His creation as well as with our time, talent, treasure, and testimony. Once we realize that God is our first love (Matt 22:37) and that God and His Kingdom are our highest priority (Matt 6:33), we understand what it means to be His steward.
You may ask, “What is at the heart of believers being able to put God first and as our highest priority, and, therefore, grow in our ability as stewards?” We will look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church
 to answer this question. The Apostle Paul stayed in Ephesus for nearly three years between AD 53-56, making it one of the most extended places he stayed during his missionary journeys. Ephesus was not a place friendly to the gospel of Jesus Christ – but Paul stayed the course, and a church thrived in the city. Paul had a deep love for the church in Ephesus. Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church was written around AD 62.
In Ephesians 3, Paul writes of the prayer he prays for them. What does Paul pray for his beloved Ephesian brothers and sisters? Interestingly, Paul does not pray for greater obedience among them, greater fruitfulness, doctrinal depth, or even the spreading of the gospel. This is not to say that these are not important. They’re very important. But, Paul prays for a strong foundation in Christ that enables and empowers our growth in the Lord and stewardship of our time, talent, treasure, and testimony. Paul prays that believers will know how much Jesus loves them (Eph 3:16-19). Paul realizes that it’s important not just to have the love of Christ but to know the love of Christ.
“Knowing” in the Bible is not merely cognitive. It is profoundly relational. For instance, sexual intimacy in the Bible is described as a man “knowing” his wife. I like how Johnathan Edwards illustrated what it means to know God in a biblical sense. Edwards explained that you can know the exact chemical makeup of honey or taste it. Both are ways we can “know” honey. But, only taste is the knowledge by which honey is experienced. If you have ever seen a child try honey for the first time, you’ll get Edwards’ illustration. Therefore, Paul is praying that believers would taste the love of Christ.
It’s fascinating that the ancient king and songwriter, David, challenges us with these words in Psalm 34:8: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” We’re challenged to taste or personally experience the Lord. We are called to come to the Lord and walk in His goodness. Indeed, knowing God is intellectual, but it is also more. It is also relational, where we realize that the love of Christ, with its “breadth and length, and height and depth” (Eph 3:18), is so expansive because God is boundless, endless, and without limits. This is who God is and how He loves you, me, and everyone else. The love of Christ is as expansive as God Himself.
If we are to grow in Christ and our being His stewards, we must embrace God’s love for us. Our growth in Christ, and as stewards of our time, talent, treasure, and testimony, will go no further than our confidence that God loves us, way deep in our hearts. Think about it. God created You to love you. We will delight in God only as far as we have tasted His love.
 How do we experience God’s love? We experience God’s love as we look to Jesus, being filled with His Spirit, walking with Him.
You might ask, “But how can God love me as messy as I am?” It’s our messiness that makes Christ’s love so awe-inspiring and transforming. God’s love is like a waterfall, and our failings, messiness, and lack of understanding are like a pebble. A pebble can’t slow the falls that make up Niagara Falls. I mean, every minute, 5.9 million cubic feet of water goes over the crest of the falls. This is just a tiny picture of the magnitude of God’s love for us.
When we boil down our lives, we realize that it is not our performance but God’s love at its core. The high point of our life is not our goodness but God’s love. The true destiny of our life is to dive deeper and deeper into the endless love of God – knowing Him and making Him known. We grow in Christ and in being His stewards of our time, talent, treasure, and testimony, as we embrace God’s love for us. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!