But the Lord Made the Heavens

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Psalm 96 is a beautiful hymn of praise. It is both a call to give praise to God and a call to proclaim His glory, to tell people of all that He is and all that He has done. The psalmist begins by exhorting us all to sing to the Lord, singing a new song that will praise His name and proclaim His salvation (Psalm 96:1-2). He goes on to tell us that we should declare God’s glory and tell of His marvelous deeds, not just to some, but to ALL people (Psalm 96:3). The things that we know and believe to be true about God are things we should not keep to ourselves. We need to let the world know about them. And if we need reasons to do so, verses 4 to 6 supply them:

For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
He is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols,
but the LORD made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before Him;
strength and glory are in His sanctuary.

We need to praise the Lord and proclaim His glory to all people because He is great and worthy of praise more than any other gods. We need to praise Him and proclaim His glory because He is full of majesty and splendor, and His throne is established in strength and glory. As I reflect on these verses, one, in particular, stands out to me – verse 5. That verse tells us that all the gods of the nations are idols. In the NASB, it refers to all the gods of the peoples. At the time that this psalm was written, the psalmist was referring to pagan gods, the gods of the nations outside of Israel. But I think there is a very appropriate application to the world today.

What are the gods of the nations, the gods of the peoples today? What idols do people worship and put their faith and trust in? One modern idol is money. Another is celebrity: actors, musicians, politicians, and the like. But the one that really stands out to me is technology. Throughout the world, people put much faith and trust in things such as smartphones, computers, cars, modern appliances. People stand in long lines waiting for the release of things like the latest iPhone. In a very real sense, technology has become a god in the modern world.

But, here’s the thing. And all of these things are temporary. They either are replaced by the latest and greatest new technology or they simply cease to function in the way they were intended. The Hebrew word translated as idols in this psalm can also mean worthless, insignificant, things that are nothing. In fact, in the New English Translation (NET), verse 5 says that the gods of the nations are “worthless.” The thing that all of these modern idols of technology have in common is that they are all made by man. But, as verse 5 goes on to say, God made the heavens. The heavens were there long before modern technology and will be there long after it is gone. And one thing that we know to be true about the heavens is that they declare God’s glory and reveal His greatness (Psalm 19:1-2).

Psalm 96 is a great reminder to take our eyes and our focus off of the things of the world, the modern idols like technology, and look to the skies. When we focus on the awesomeness and the wonder of God’s creation, praise will follow.

Scripture quoted by permission. Quotations designated (NET) are from The NET Bible® Copyright © 2005 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. www.bible.org All rights reserved.

A Visit to the Hall of Fame (Faith)

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Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see. For by it the people of old received God’s commendation. (Hebrews 11:1–2, NET).

In Cooperstown, New York, fans of the game of baseball can find a museum dedicated to the sport. One of the main attractions of this museum is the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame pays tribute to players whose achievements in the sport of baseball stood out. They are players who have been considered the cream of the crop, the best of the best. By studying the lives of great players like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Tom Seaver, you can learn a lot about what it takes to be a great baseball player.

The Bible has its own Hall of Fame or “Hall of Faith” as it is called by some. It is a tribute to some of the great names of the Old Testament, those who are examples of faith in action. This “Hall of Faith” is found in the book of Hebrews. In 40 verses (Hebrews 11:1-40), the writer of Hebrews speaks of those people of faith and how they displayed their faith. Just as the Baseball Hall of Fame highlights players whose achievements stood out, Hebrews 11 highlights those whose faith in action, whose faithfulness, stood out. And, by studying the lives and faith of people like Abraham, Moses, Gideon, and Noah, you can learn a lot about what it takes to have a faith that pleases God.

Abraham demonstrated his faith when he left his home to travel to a land he had never seen, a land that was promised to him by God. Moses demonstrated his faith when he gave up the life of luxury he had as part of Pharaoh’s family, choosing instead to be with the people of God, the Jews, and lead them out of slavery in Egypt. Gideon demonstrated his faith when, as God commanded, he went up against an army of thousands with only three hundred of his own men. And Noah demonstrated his faith when, based on the flood that God told him would come, he built an ark in which to save his family from destruction.

Two things stand out with regard to the people we read about in Hebrews 11. The first is that they are all flawed, imperfect human beings. They had faults, and they had shortcomings. But, what they lacked in ability, what they lacked in character, they made up for in faith. And because they had faith and demonstrated that faith by their actions, God used them in mighty ways and, as it says in Hebrews 11:2, they received God’s commendation. The second thing that stands out regarding the members of the “Hall of Faith” is that the things they accomplished were things that they could not possibly have accomplished on their own. They accomplished them through the grace of God, who enabled them to do so because of their faith.

Is your faith failing? Do you feel that you don’t have enough faith to accomplish the things you feel God is calling you to do? Visit the “Hall of Faith.” The accounts of those whose names are found in those verses are sure to boost your faith and help you to see that, with God, nothing is impossible.

Scripture quoted by permission. Quotations designated (NET) are from The NET Bible® Copyright © 2005 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. www.bible.org All rights reserved.

Sticks and Stones…

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“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but  names will never hurt me!” This old adage, which first appeared in the early to mid-nineteenth century, has been used by children throughout the years in response to the mean-spirited taunts or name-calling of others. It was a way for children to deflect the hurt intended by those words by saying that physical harm (sticks and stones) was more hurtful than words, that physical harm could hurt while words could not. Of course, we know that is not true.

Words are powerful and have the ability to hurt just as much, and oftentimes more, than physical harm or abuse. Harsh words spoken by a husband to a wife can damage that relationship; insulting or demeaning words spoken by a parent to a child can damage a child’s self-esteem; and the bullying words of one child to another can even lead to self-harm by the child being bullied. Words, just like “sticks and stones,” can hurt in so many ways.

God’s Word makes it clear how powerful and how destructive our words can be. James 3:5 says that the tongue is powerful, despite that fact that it is just a small part of the body.  James then points out that just a tiny spark can set an entire forest on fire. That tiny spark can cause great damage. The same is true of the tongue, the vehicle of our words. The words that come out of our mouths have the capacity to give praise to God while at the same time cursing the very people that God has made (James 3:9). The words that come out of our mouths have the capacity to build others up and also to tear them down, to heal and also to hurt.

Proverbs 15 also talks about the power of the words that come from our mouths and makes it clear that, when we speak with words that are gentle, the results are much more desirable than when we speak with words that are hurtful. Verse 1 says that a gentle word, a gentle response, is able to defuse anger. A harsh, hurtful, or angry word, on the other hand, will just escalate a situation. It will cause a spark to ignite into a flame. Then, in verse 4, we read that soothing or gentle words are like a tree of life, while a perverse tongue, one that delivers words that hurt or tear down, will break the spirit of the person on the receiving end of those words.

Just as our lives should reflect the gentleness of Jesus, just as we need to live lives rooted in the fruit of gentleness, so should our words be a reflection of a gentle spirit.

Practice What You Preach

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The world is watching and waiting. Watching the way in which those of us who are followers of Christ behave and waiting for the first indication that the way we behave does not line up with what we preach. Those who do not share our beliefs are looking to see if we “practice what we preach.” They are looking to see if the ideals and the values we say that we have are reflected in the way in which we live. At the first sign that our behavior does not agree with the doctrine that we teach, the world is quick to pounce and look at us as hypocrites.

This is nothing new. In Titus 2:1, the apostle Paul wrote, “But as for you, communicate the behavior that goes with sound teaching.” In other words, the behavior of a believer must be consistent with sound doctrine. In the verses that follow in Titus, chapter 2, Paul goes on to list behaviors that are consistent with sound doctrine, first addressing the behaviors of older men, then older women. He moves on to younger women, younger men, and, finally, slaves. He mentions avoiding slander, excessive drinking, and stealing. He points to behaviors such as being temperate, dignified, sound in the faith, and loving our children. But there is one behavior that Paul mentions several times, self-control. We must all live lives that are self-controlled. (Titus 2:2-10)

Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). It is a character trait that should mark the lives of all believers. As we wait for the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we are called to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives. We are called to reject godless ways. But this is not something that comes easily to us. It requires the grace of God, the grace that brings salvation. Jesus gave Himself for us so that we can be freed from sin and from the lawlessness that comes as a result of our sinful nature. He gave Himself so that, when we accept Him as Lord and Savior and follow His ways, we can be a people who are purified, a people who truly belong to Him, a people who are eager to do good. (Titus 2:11-14)

We must seek to live lives that line up with the doctrine that we believe and teach, lives that are rooted in self-control. And that means relying on the grace of God and the help of His Holy Spirit.

Scripture quoted by permission. Quotations designated (NET) are from The NET Bible® Copyright © 2005 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. www.bible.org All rights reserved.

Treasuring Our Freedom

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For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity to indulge your flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13, NET)

Recidivism is the repeated or habitual relapse into something, such as a life of crime. It is the tendency of some who, after being set free from the crime for which they were imprisoned, return to their criminal behavior. The word recidivism comes from the Latin word recidivus, which means “falling back.” A study done in 2005 showed that in the United States, the recidivism rate for released prisoners was 76.8% within five years of their release from prison, with 56.7% being rearrested by the end of the first year after their release. These repeat offenders are living in bondage to their criminal tendencies, using their freedom to go out and do the things that put them in prison to begin with.

At 20 years old, Eugene Brown had been living a life of crime that culminated in his being arrested for bank robbery, for which he was imprisoned. After serving 18 years of his life in prison, Brown was released. Statistics were very much in favor of someone like Brown falling back into a life of crime, but Brown made a choice not to squander his newfound freedom. Brown had a love of the game of chess and he used that love of chess to turn his life around. In 2002, he started a non-profit organization called the Big Chair Chess Club. The goal of this organization is to help at-risk urban youth avoid the pitfalls that they face in life by developing an interest in chess. Rather than using his freedom to indulge in crime, Brown used it, with love, to help and to serve others.

When it comes to the desires of the flesh, to our sinful nature, all of us have been in bondage. Sin has held us captive, has made us prisoners. But Jesus Christ came to set us free from that sin. He died for our sins so that we would have freedom from the penalty of our sins. In Galatians 5:1, Paul spoke of the danger of falling back into slavery and told us that, since Christ had set us free, we must stand firm and not allow ourselves to become subject to sin’s yoke of slavery. We have been called to be free. But as Paul warned in Galatians 5:13, we must not use our freedom as an opportunity to indulge our sinful nature. We must treasure that freedom while avoiding the pitfalls of sin. We must use our freedom to serve one another in love. Our freedom should be used to live lives that are defined by helping others to find that same freedom.

(NOTE: You can learn more about Eugene Brown’s story in the 2013 movie, Life of a King, starring Cuba Gooding, Jr.)

Scripture quoted by permission. Quotations designated (NET) are from The NET Bible® Copyright © 2005 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. www.bible.org All rights reserved.

The Wisdom of Solomon

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King Solomon was wealthier and wiser than any of the kings of the earth. (2 Chronicles 9:22).

Solomon was the son of King David and succeeded him on the throne of Israel. Scripture tells us that King Solomon had more riches and greater knowledge than any other king on earth (2 Chronicles 9:22). Kings from all over the world came to Solomon to consult with him and to hear his wisdom firsthand (2 Chronicles 9:23). Those who visited Solomon brought him gifts of gold, silver, and many other things of value (2 Chronicles 9:24). To illustrate the wealth that Solomon possessed, 2 Chronicles 9:25 tells us that he had 12,000 horses and 4,000 stables in which to house those horses and his chariots. With all of his wisdom and his great wealth, Solomon became the most powerful king of his time.

Why did Solomon possess such great wisdom? Why did he become the wealthiest king on earth? How did Solomon become so powerful? The answers to these questions have nothing to do with Solomon himself and everything to do with his relationship with God. In the first chapter of 2 Chronicles, we read that after David died and Solomon took the throne, Solomon traveled to Gibeon, where the bronze altar made by Bezalel, son of Uri and grandson of Hur, sat in front of the Tabernacle of the Lord. Solomon went there to worship God by sacrificing 1,000 burnt offerings on the bronze altar. Solomon made his offering of worship and that night, God appeared to Solomon and asked him what he wanted. Pleased with Solomon’s worship, God told Solomon to ask and, whatever he wanted, God would give it to him (2 Chronicles 1:1-7).

But it was Solomon’s reply that pleased God even more than his worship. Solomon could have asked for anything, and God would have given it to him. He could have asked for gold, he could have asked for power, and these things would have been given to him by God. But, these are not the things that Solomon asked for. Solomon was young and inexperienced and now found himself reigning as the king of Israel, the earthly ruler of God’s people. So, Solomon’s request to God was, “Give me the wisdom and knowledge to lead them properly, for who could possibly govern this great people of yours?” (2 Chronicles 1:10, NET). The Hebrew word translated as “wisdom” is ḥoḵmâh, which refers to discernment and judgment while the word for “knowledge” is maddā‘, which refers to practical know-how in everyday affairs. Solomon wanted to lead God’s people well, and he knew that only God could provide these things for him.

Because Solomon’s request revealed an unselfish character, God granted Solomon what he asked for. In His reply to Solomon, God said, “Because your greatest desire is to help your people, and you did not ask for wealth, riches, fame, or even the death of your enemies or a long life, but rather you asked for wisdom and knowledge to properly govern my people—I will certainly give you the wisdom and knowledge you requested. But I will also give you wealth, riches, and fame such as no other king has had before you or will ever have in the future!” (2 Chronicles 1:11-12, NET). Solomon received his great wisdom and all his wealth because he sought the things of God first.

We can all learn from the example of Solomon. God knows all the things we need in life and we should ask Him for them. But Jesus taught that we must first seek God’s kingdom. When we seek the things of God first and seek to live righteously, God will supply all that we need (Matthew 6:33).

Be Good

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In the final scene of the Steven Spielberg movie, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, we see E.T. saying goodbye to Elliot, Michael, and Gertie, the children who cared for him when he was left behind by his spacecraft. In this tender and touching scene (which, I’ll admit, brings tears to my eyes), E.T. looks at Gertie, played by Drew Barrymore, and says, “Be good.” Just as Gertie was called by E.T. to “be good,” we, as believers, are called to “be good” by God.

God, Himself is good. There is no doubt about that. His goodness is proclaimed throughout Scripture. Psalm 34:8 tells us to taste and see that God is good. In Nahum 1:7, we read that God is good, that He is a fortress in times of distress and protects those who come to Him seeking refuge. And Psalm 145:9 says that God is good not just to some, but to all, and has compassion on all that He has made. God’s goodness is eternal (Psalm 23:6).

As God’s children, we are called to emulate God’s goodness (3 John 11). Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit, a characteristic that a follower of Christ should seek to cultivate (Galatians 5:22). In his second letter to the Thessalonian believers, Paul said that his prayer for them was that God would make them worthy of His calling and that through the power of God, they would desire goodness. We must never neglect to do good, generously sharing what we have with others. The generosity that we demonstrate by doing good for others is a sacrifice, an offering of worship, that God is pleased with (Hebrews 13:16).

When we display goodness in our lives, it will be evident in the fruit that we bear. We will be like a tree that bears good fruit (Matthew 7:17-19). That good fruit will show through the manner in which we treat others, our generosity towards others (1 Timothy 6:18), and through our words. And when we bear good fruit, the fruit that we bear will produce life as others are brought into God’s kingdom as a result of our actions or our words (Proverbs 11:30).

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