Another Helper sent from heaven

This weekend the church celebrated Pentecost, the birth day of the church, when the Holy Spirit came with a sound like a strong wind and tongues as of fire that appeared on the heads of the disciples.  Acts 2 gives us the dramatic story of the disciples who were waiting in Jerusalem as Jesus had instructed them before he ascended to heaven.

Jews celebrated the corresponding holiday this week.  Shevuot (pronounced shuh-vot)reminds them of the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai.  It was the birth day of a nation.  After the Israelites had passed through the Red Sea (the Reed Sea), escaping from Pharoah and the slavery of Egypt, the Lord told Moses to prepare the people before he came down on the mountain to meet with them (Exodus 19).  The mountain shook, there was fire and smoke and a long blast of a trumpet.  In this first meeting with their holy God, these people were terrified.

In the calendar of feasts the Lord gave to Moses (Leviticus 23) this event is commemorated on the fiftieth day after the Feast of Firstfruits.  How does this correspond to what we know as Pentecost?  Let’s start with the first three feasts of the Lord and some adaptions that have been made to the calendar.

The Passover was to be celebrated on the 14th of Abib, the first month of their new calendar (Leviticus 23:4), recalling the deliverance out of Egypt. The week-long feast of Unleavened Bread was to begin the next day, the 15th, a Sabbath day.  A sheaf of the firstfruits of the barley harvest was part of an offering to the Lord on the 16th, which would be the day after the Sabbath.  Jesus, the Lamb of God, was crucified at the same time as the Passover sacrifices.  The day after the Sabbath he was raised to life as the firstfruits from the dead!   What came to be known as the Lord’s Day in the early church is our Sunday.  What we celebrate in the West as Easter is the day of the Lord’s resurrection–on the Feast of Firstfruits!

My Egyptian husband watched his fig tree very closely because the first figs to ripen were the sweetest and best.  Sometimes he was gracious enough to share one with me!  Firstfruits are evidence that the harvest is coming and the firstfruit offering to the Lord was a consecration of the coming harvest.  The resurrection of Christ is a promise of our future resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).  That’s sweeter than a first ripe fig, for sure!

The Lord told Moses to count out fifty days from the new grain offering and hold another celebration (Leviticus 23:15-22).   It was called the Feast of Weeks.  The name Pentecost is from the Greek word for “fifty”.  Think of a five-sided pentagon, and the word makes sense even if you don’t study Greek.  At this feast, another grain offering was brought as two loaves of fine flour.  We can see that the two loaves represent Jew and Gentile, sanctified (holy) to the Lord even though they contained yeast, an image of sin.  The Pentecost celebration of harvest was characterized by rejoicing and generosity, leaving unharvested portions of the field for the poor and foreigners to collect (Leviticus 23:22; see also the story of Ruth).

Acts 2 begins, “When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they [the disciples] were all with one accord in one place.” 

Those days of hanging out together, praying, repenting, worshipping, and waiting with expectation seems to have had its intended purpose.  They were all in one accord.  Finally!

Then all the action began with full audio and visual effects reminiscent of the fire, shaking, thunder and trumpet at Mt. Sinai. The disciples, and the world, were never the same again.  Men from all nations were present because of the festival and all heard the praises of God being spoken in their own languages. With boldness and power in the Spirit, quoting from a prophecy in Joel 2, Peter began to explain what was happening.  Three thousand people were added to the church that first day!  Though not terrifying in the same way as Sinai, the men who heard Peter were cut to the heart with the fear of the Lord.  God’s desire has always been to take hold of our hearts.

What was this promise of the Father and the baptism of the Holy Spirit that had such earth-shaking effects?  The Gospel writer Luke, also author of the Acts of the Apostles, recorded the promise made by Jesus before his ascension, tieing his two books together very neatly: 

“Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you, but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) 

“Wait for the promise of the Father which you have heard from me; for John truly baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5).

English: The Pentecost window at St. Matthew's...

English: The Pentecost window at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC. Franz Mayer & Co. of Munich, Germany represented by the studios of George L. Payne of Patterson, New Jersey 1966. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Promise of the Father, Baptism with the Holy Spirit, Power from Heaven

John’s gospel tells of the instruction and comfort Jesus gave his disciples before his death (John 14-16).  A large part of this was the assurance that they would not be left alone.  He would send them another Helper, just like him, describing what the Holy Spirit would do after Jesus had gone (John 14:16-18, 26).

“I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Comforter (Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener and Standby), that He may remain with you forever–the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive (welcome, take to its heart) because it does not see Him or know and recognize Him. But you know and recognize Him, for He lives with you [constantly] and will be in you.  I will not leave you as orphans [comfortless, desolate, bereaved, forlorn, helpless]; I will come [back] to you” (John 14:16-18, Amplified).

When Jesus ascended to heaven after his resurrection, he was seen briefly by Mary Magdeline, telling her to let his friends know that he was ascending to their God and Father (John 20:11-18).  As the true High Priest, he presented to God his own blood as the offering for our salvation, going into the heavenly tabernacle.  Appearing to his disciples and teaching them more about the Kingdom for about 40 days, he then ascended to heaven in their sight (Luke 24:51).

This ascension now seated him on the throne!  Our High Priest forever is also King forever.  The author of Hebrews described at length the superiority of Christ over the high priests of Israel and the superiority of his atoning work, so that the old system has been totally replaced.  The veil (curtain) of the temple that separated men from God was torn while Christ hung on the cross (Matthew 27:51).

“Now this is the main point of the things we are saying.  We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.  Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man” (Hebrews 8:1-2).

When I read Andrew Murray’s commentary on Hebrews, The Holiest of All,  I found a marvelous fresh understanding of Pentecost, although I had been haptized in the Holy Spirit many years before.  Murray writes, “Salvation prepares us for the true blessing–the revelation and power, the Holy Spirit revealing Him within our hearts.  Ascension and Pentecost are inseparable…  Pentecost pours into us the life within the veil.” 

This power was needed to transform believers into fearless witnesses.  I found a new sensitivity to the Spirit of God and new power to live a holy life.  The Lord would not ask us to be holy without giving us the means to obey such an impossible task!  The ministry gifts that are also given by the Spirit become “supernaturally natural” as we learn to serve the Lord in love, growing also in the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).

Salvation by faith in the work of Christ is our first baptism by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). Baptism in water is an act of obedience demonstrating publically our new life in Christ, now that our old life is dead, having been nailed to the cross (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12).

From his position on the throne, Christ could now pour out His very person and presence into us so we can participate with Him in His joy and ministry.  What Wesley called a “second act of grace,” this baptism is also received by faith as we not only receive Christ’s forgiveness, but also yield totally to his Lordship and seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  We continue to grow in faith and in sanctification, knowing that without the power of his anointing, we have little to show for the work we know he has called us to do.

WordPress provided these links to other articles on the subject of Pentecost.  I have enjoyed reading them, with their variety of devotional and theological approaches.  I hope you will read and comment on them also.  They are not all as long as mine turned out to be, but oh, what a wonderful subject!

Posted in God's Heart for the Nations, Gospel, Holiness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

On Earth As It Is In Heaven

When I say the Lord’s prayer and ask that God’s will “be done on earth as it is in heaven,” it makes me wonder what that looks like in heaven right now.  What are the angels doing?  What is my mother doing?  How about her sister and their parents?  Of course they’re doing God’s will, but aren’t we all curious about what it will look like for us some day?  And how does that translate to God’s will being done on earth?

Cover of "Heaven"

Cover of Heaven

Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven, has become a popular reference that is helping many correct their thinking about heaven.  It’s a great read, but pretty big (almost 500 pages). I listened to it on CD over a couple weeks commuting to work before concluding I had to have it in my library if only because of the thorough Scriptural coverage of every possible question.

Another little book became popular a few years later and became a must-read for anybody with questions about heaven.  This book is the sort that you will read in a couple days if you’re taking your time.  Heaven is for Real tells the story of Coulton, not quite four when he had an emergency appendectomy.  He later began to describe facts about the visit to heaven he made during the surgery.

Todd Coulton, his father and Wesleyan pastor, writes the book with Couton’s descriptions of Jesus, angels, and family members who had passed away before he was born.  “Nobody is old, and nobody wears glasses.”

He described details that are in the Bible but he could not have known them because he could not read yet.  He described past, present and future events that were sometimes disarming, like the war where his dad would be one of the men fighting against Satan.

“You mean I have to fight monsters with a sword?”  “Yeah, Dad, but it’s okay,” Coulton reassured him.  “Jesus wins.  He throws Satan into hell.  I saw it.”

He told his family that God is really, really big, and how much God loves us.  With the simple matter-of-fact faith of a child, the story has opened eyes and hearts.  My mother gave away as many copies as she could afford at the clinic where she spent many hours as a patient and as God’s messenger during her final years.  She knew heaven was real, and this was the perfect gift to put in the hands of a cancer patient who needed to be sure.

I think Mom is enjoying the beauty of heaven that is now her home until Jesus comes back to earth and sets up his kingdom with a renewed heaven and earth.  All that Mom was created to be is hers to discover and explore.  I am sure she is singing better than ever.  I could never sing “Happy Birthday” very well because we learned it from Mom, who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket!  No more!  I can’t be sad when I think of Mom not being here because I’m so happy about how happy she is!

Heaven is not about hanging out in the clouds with harps (unless that’s what you want to do, I suppose).  Worship is an attitude of awe and gratitude for God’s amazing love and greatness, with humble obedience to our all-wise Creator.

We can learn from an enlarged view of heaven about how to live our lives on earth while we look forward to the day of the Lord’s coming, and encourage others to be ready for that day also.

This is a week for recommending books, it appears.  Rose Publishing (www.rose-publishing.com) puts out some great Sunday-school resources.  Myth Busters has a chapter on Myths about Heaven with a great summary that is similar to Alcorn’s discussion but in 14 full-color pages, plus a leader’s discussion guide.

Look at Earth from the Heaven

Let’s finish with The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) from Eugene H. Peterson‘s The Message The Bible in Contemporary Language.

Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are.  Set the world right;  Do what’s best–as above, so below.  Keep us alive with three square meals.  Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.  Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.  You’re in charge!  You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty!  Yes, Yes, Yes.

On earth as it is in heaven.”   I hope that has a fresh ring to it next time you say that prayer!  May the Lord open our eyes and hearts to have the faith of a child.

Posted in Angels and Heaven, Prayer | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Who Can Stand in Times Like This?

With the terrorist attack in Boston and the apprehension of would-be terrorists in Canada, targeted at New York City, I have heard a few anxious voices.  “What is going on?  I wish I could move somewhere safe, far away.  But where?”  My neighbors who live in the US are about as safe as they can get in this world.  You who follow me from the UK or other points in the global blogsphere may have similar difficult questions.

Who can stand in such times?  We are not the first to be puzzled by the unexpected turns and tragedies of history.

The Son of Man introduced to us by the prophet Daniel gave hope to the nation of Israel that a glorious Redeemer and King would one day appear (Daniel 7:13-14).  When Jesus called himself the Son of Man it may have seemed he was crazy, perhaps, but surely this simple carpenter was not the promised Messiah!  He persisted throughout his earthly mission to prefer this above any other title for himself, his miracles giving testimony that he was not only the Son of God but also the Son of Man.

After the resurrected Christ appeared to his disciples and ascended to heaven, his Spirit was sent to them at Pentecost to confirm in fullness that their faith in him had not been in vain.  Even these faithful followers, though, were subjected to shame, persecution and often death as had their Master– a fate they accepted gladly by the working of the same Spirit which now empowered them.

The apostle John, the last living of the apostles appointed by Christ, exiled to the Isle of Patmos, worshipped his Lord.  He longed to strengthen the seven churches of Asia (modern-day Turkey) who were his flock.  He was given a glimpse into the heavenly realm in a way so as to exhort, comfort and teach, affirming that the Son of Man was alive in all his glory and was accutely aware of the needs of his church.

They needed strength to stand.

John had started his gospel linking Creation by God’s spoken Word (Genesis 1:1-2) to the living Word, the man Jesus (John 1:1-4).  The book he is given to write now that we know as The Revelation of Jesus Christ begins and ends with images to be seen, dramatic sounds and words to be heard.  They were written by a pastor with the anointed imagination and skill of a poet and the care of a theologian for the churches of his day and for us today.

Revelation shows us John’s vision of the glorious Son of Man who instructs him to write letters to each of the seven churches.  In chapters 4 and 5, John sees four living creatures and twenty-four elders around the throne intently worshipping the Lamb of God.  The Lamb now seated on the throne has been found worthy to open seven seals of the scroll that will unleash God’s judgment on the disastrous consequences of sin.  The seals begin to be opened in chapter 6, with disasters on the earth and in the heavens.

As the disasters unfold, all men great and small “hid themselves in caves and in the rocks of the mountains. [They] said to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb!  For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?‘” (Revelation 6:17)

We started this series as a study on angels and here is an interesting observation.  In all of these disasters, the angels and living creatures in heaven are not confused or disturbed by what appears to be total anarchy in the cosmos.  They are standing. Where evil is unleashed,  God is in control to accomplish His purposes.  The angels stand their ground.

Who else is standing?  Chapter 7 opens with four angels being given instructions.  Another angel joins the scene, declaring loudly, “Do not harm the earth, the sea or the trees until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” (Revelation 7:3)

As seals of judgment are being opened, God’s faithful servants are being sealed with protection!  There are multitudes from the twelve tribes of Israel (7:4-8) followed by countless multitudes from all nations (7:9).  There is a loud cry, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! “ (7:10)

John will be shown a few moments later that these are multitudes who came to faith in Christ even during the great tribulation.

At this point, however, none of the angels, living creatures, elders or saints are standing.  All have fallen on their faces to worship God!

“Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever.  Amen.” (Revelation 7:12)

Shall my anxious friends move to a place of greater safety?  Shouldn’t they move to the only safe place, to  the open arms of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ?  It has been said that the only safe place is in the center of God’s will, and his will is that every person be saved.  We are given the choice.

From the beginning of a creation that was good, to the endpoint in heaven which is good, why is the middle so full of tragedy?  Have we put our lives in the center of God’s will?  We are then sealed by the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of the future life promised to us (2 Corinthians 1:22).  We are not promised freedom from all danger but we are promised the presence of God Himself, the one who loved us enough to give His Son to pay the debt we could not pay (John 3:16).

Let us stand in faith to the end.

My thoughts have been inspired by Eugene H Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (1988, Harper Collins, San Francisco).

Posted in Angels and Heaven, Gospel, Revelation, Worship | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Angels in God’s service and our role of service

I began a few weeks ago to teach on the ministry of angels in the Bible.  I took a short break since my father’s wife of 30 years was taken to heaven, peacefully ending a battle with cancer.  I am thankful once again for the ministry of God’s angels, and  for the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit helping Dad through a difficult time.

Where did we leave off?  Angels announced the birth of Jesus, they celebrated him, they guided his parents to safety and they ministered to him at the beginning and end of his ministry on earth.  They announced his resurrection and they made significant appearances in the New Testament to assist the new church.  All that without ever getting to the book of Revelation that is full of angelic activity!

Our curiosity about angels has something to do with our curiosity about heaven.  My group looked at this in connection with a reproof from the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth when he learned that not only did they have disputes in the church, but they took them to the pagan court system.  “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:3)  He was incredulous!  Didn’t they have a wise person in the church who could settle a temporal matter?

The point of his question had nothing to do with judging (governing) angels, but Paul showed them the severe gap in their thinking about material and temporal things versus understanding the kingdom of God that believers will inherit.  1 Corinthians deals with many such temporal matters in the church.  If we look carefully at Paul’s exposition of the heart issues, we can avoid making our own misdirected conclusions about things that were part of the cultural environment they lived in.

Consider this also in light of the promise Jesus made to the apostles that they would judge the twelve tribes of Judah in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:28, Luke 22:28-30).  Jesus had to draw the men’s attention away from their present failure to think in kingdom terms.  His whole conversation with them on that last night was about serving.  To judge, to have a leadership role in the kingdom, is to be the servant of all.

Oh, the patience and wisdom of God!  In another fresh way, our fascination with angels has been used to point us to Jesus.  It is yet another exhortation to be mindful ot God’s preparation during our life on earth for an eternal life of joyful satisfying service.  What a future it will be!

A few words from Revelation are appropriate as we end here, and we will delve more into this fascinating book next time.  As Paul, like Jesus, felt it necesssary to exhort the believers to adjust their thinking, so the message of Christ to the seven churches of Asia includes reproofs and promises (chapters 2 and 3).  To the church of Laodicea, lukewarm and least to be praised, the great promise is held out, “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.  Let him who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”  (Revelation 3:21-22).

Revelation 20:4-6 gives us a glimpse of the saints who will reign with Christ.  “… judgment was committed to them.”  Read the context of this picture and you will find the path to this place of service and honor had taken them first through great persecution.

May we have ears to hear what the Spirit has to teach our hearts through the living word of God today.  I pray that you will hunger for truth and rejoice with perseverance for the honor of serving the King of glory!

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The ministry of angels in God’s service

I would love to write more about Resurrection Day (aka Easter), celebrated a few days ago.  I shared some posts from others (better writers than I) on Facebook.  So we will move on!

The request of my study group this spring was to understand more about angels. We started with a review of angels in the Old and New Testaments, who they are and what they do.  Let me give you some of the background we have been developing.

There are so many books about angels and so little Biblical truth!  The Greek word angelos means messanger.  Our image of angels may be influenced by mythology, artists of the Renaissance, or by Hollywood.  Some of the descriptions of angels in the Bible may surprise you, and I guarantee your mental images will be tweaked.

It turns out that this journey will lead us to the death and resurrection of Christ.  This is the centerpiece of all history and creation, so of course!

For by him (Christ) all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities, all things were created by him and for him (Colossians 1:16). 

“Praise the Lord, you his angels, you might ones” (Psalm 103:20); “You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly…” (Hebrews 12:22); “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7); “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25); “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:3).

Angels were created by Jesus, and the Bible has a lot to say about these mighty creatures!  There are over 300 references to angels in the Bible, so my review–or preview–can only scratch the surface!  Why were they created? The first few chapters of Hebrews give us some insight.

Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1:14).

The primary focus of the letter to the Hebrews (Jewish Christ-followers) was to point the readers to Jesus.  Whatever can be said about the awesome power and ministry of angels, Jesus is far superior in every aspect!  We quickly saw that our curiosity about angels needs to drive us in every instance to listen to the Savior and focus more on him.  We are exhorted, “Fix your eyes on Jesus!”

Our loving God created angels primarily to serve and protect us.  In spite of our disobedience and the presence of evil all around us, God’s provision for salvation through Christ includes provision for supernatural protection.  The condition is that we trust him, call on him and obey the God who has shown us his matchless love.

“For he (God) will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11-12).

The promises of God regarding his salvation were delivered by angelic messangers to Abram (Abraham), Moses, Ezekial, Daniel, and in the New Testament, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and to others.

“I am Gabriel.  I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.” (Luke 1:19), speaking of John who would be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth.

After Mary was found to be pregnant as the angel had told her, the angel was also sent to reassure Joseph.  Angels sometimes appear visibly in human form or as glorious heavenly messangers.  As in Joseph’s case, they sometimes appeared in a dream.

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afaid to take Mary home as your wife because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.   She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:19-21).

Joseph was also warned in a dream to take Mary and the baby to Egypt to escape from Herod (Matthew 2:13-14), and he was instructed again when it was safe for him to return (v. 19-21).

The Bible gives two specific encounters where angels ministered to Jesus during his wilderness temptation and in the Garden of Gethsemane.  After his baptism Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness and fasted for forty days.

Then the devil left him and angels came and attended him (Matthew 4:11).

They would attend to him again near the end of his earthly ministry.

He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond [his disciples]. He knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appearred to him and strengthened him (Luke 41:13).

At his arrest in the garden, Jesus chided his disciples that he could call to his Father and that twelve legions of angels would be dispatched.  This was not their fight.  Jesus would fulfill all that God had sent him to accomplish.  His sacrificial death on the cross was God’s plan from before the foundation of the world (see Revelation 13:8).  Neither angels nor men, evil or well-intentioned, could disrupt it.

On Sunday morning, however, angels were sent to deliver the message and confirm to Jesus’ grieving friends that he was not dead.  The gospel writers tell the story with emphasis on different details, but the testimony of angels as God’s messangers is a consistent part of their story.

Suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.  The men said to [the women], “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!  Rmember how he told you while he was still with you in Galilee. ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again'” (Luke 24:4-8).

The disciples were still in need of encouragement when it seemed the Lord who was just given back to them was leaving again.  What a roller-coaster of emotion these poor men and women had been on!

They (the disciples) were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.  “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10-11).

The Acts of the Apostles records several more encounters with angels that helped propel the new church forward, providing confirmation of God’s divine purposes, or delivering certain key characters in the script.

Cornelius, a Roman centurian, was visited by an angel (Acts 10:1, 3-6).  He did what the angel told him to do and sent for the apostle Peter.  Peter himself was given a vision from the Lord to go with the men, and the Holy Spirit was poured out on them as Peter and his companions had experienced at Pentecost.  God and his messanger angels assured the disciples of God’s intent that the gospel was for all people, Jew and Gentile.

The apostle Paul, whose ministry was primarily to take the gospel to the Gentiles, was rescued by angels more than once.  Though allowed to suffer many things for the sake of Christ (having inflicted great persecution himself on the early church before his conversion), Paul’s experience of angels was to confirm that he continue to preach the gospel to the end of his life (Acts 27:23-25).  Paul kept his eyes fixed on Jesus.

The author of Hebrews provides an interesting exhortation, reminding us that angels do still visit people.  Sometimes we do not realize it was an angel until they are gone!

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels (Hebrews 13:2).

The ministry of the Holy Spirit is always to direct us to Jesus.  Likewise, the ministry of God’s angels will always cause us to give our thanks and praise to Jesus.

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Is there value in learning the Apostles’ Creed today?

I mentioned in a comment after last week’s post that I was enjoying John Wesley‘s sermons.  Commissioned in the Wesleyan Church, we were taught Wesley’s doctrine and how to articulate it in modern language and contexts.  We were not required to read the original sermons, given the difficulty many people have with 18th century English.  I may be getting old, but I truly enjoy the richness of the language.

The next entry in the collection* I was reading was “A Letter to a Roman Catholic.”  Written in 1749 in Dublin, where Wesley was preaching and setting up groups, his letter sought to show his Catholic readers that Protestants were not the beasts they were thought to be, any more than his Protestant brethren had reason to condemn their Catholic neighbors.  In neither case was brotherly love being given place!

A passage of the letter lists some of the beliefs that Wesley believed were shared in common between Christians, asking at the end if these are not the common beliefs of Catholics and Protestents.  For the most part, he follows the order of the Nicene Creed, which I learned as the Apostles’ Creed.

I thought back to college days after I had moved from the Catholic church into evangelical circles.  As I prayed one day for a way to share Christ with a friend, I began to recite the Apostles’ Creed.  I had recited this all my life.  I quickly realized that I knew the basics of the gospel message better than I thought.  It was all there, hardwired, as it were.  I was a bit overwhelmed by evangelical friends in the dorm who could recite Scriptures from memory (who were a great example and inspiration to me) but I found that I had my own “memory cache.”

The young woman you met in my post last week, Amy, has two young sons.  I encouraged her to teach them the Apostles’ Creed so that the essentials of their faith were available to them when faced with questions, whether it may be their own doubts or the queries of others.

The small Wesleyan church we were part of did not make use of traditional readings.  They were a mixed group of Christ-followers from various backgrounds (Protestant, Catholic and unchurched).  We made bookmarks of the Apostles’ Creed and talked about it at one service, discussing the value of such a statement.  These are the things we agree on.  These are the things we believe as the people of God.

The early church wrestled with the formation of a creed because it was essential to define exactly what had been passed down to them from the apostles.  The creed was not written by the twelve apostles of Christ, but by those who carried the responsibility of handing down the body of truths they had received.

“Wrestled” is a good way to describe the driving forces of various church councils that were held (which you will see if you are brave enough to follow the Wikipedia links).  The versions of the creed used by Western and Eastern churches still have some variation.  Seeing that the canon of Scripture was not finalized until the 4th century, the Holy Spirit had His work cut out for Him.  I will pass along the Apostles’ Creed as I have shared it.  Yes, the final authority is not a creed but Scripture itself.  May God be glorified in our meditation on His wonderful works and His amazing love for us!

Take and use this if you see value in what may be another new thing to encourage your growth in Christ.

God bless you this week as you remember the Passion and celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ!

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.  He descended into hell, on the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  He shall come again to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic [universal] church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

*A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley. Selected and edited by Ted A. Campbell (Dallas:Tuckapaw Media, 2008)

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The family of God is one miraculous family

Paul spent a long season in Ephesus ministering to the churches.  Later he wrote them a letter while he was imprisoned in Rome, elaborating on the revelation that had been unfolded to him about the nature of Christ’s body, the church.

The superlatives in the first two chapters alone give you a sense of his excitement about this mystery.  A mystery in the Biblical sense is something that God has to reveal because it was hidden to people because of their (our) limited understanding.

It’s not that God was holding back on his people, but like a good parent, some things have to be learned by experience before a child can catch on.  Some things in the Christian faith are still going to be mysteries until we see Christ face to face.  Our confidence rests in the holy and loving character of God, the finished work of Christ on the cross, and the witness of the Holy Spirit.  We depend on the authority of Scripture to teach and guide us.  We are not left in the dark!

Ephesians begins with Paul’s excitement that the mystery of the church has been revealed.  “In Him (Christ) we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which he made abound to us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which he purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth–in Him” (Ephesians 1:7-10).

Paul elaborates further about the mystery revealed to him and to the apostles and prophets of the new church “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:5-6).  It was revealed to Abraham that his seed would be a blessing to all nations, but putting it all together didn’t come easily.  By the Holy Spirit, God has made it clear that we are indeed one family.

Paul starts an amazing prayer in Ephesians 3:14-15:  “For this reason [this means you need to read the previous chapters!] I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named…” [You need to read the rest of Ephesians 3 to soak in his superlative prayer!]

My focus in this verse is the Name.  All of God’s family – in heaven and on earth – carry the name of God who created them.  Men and women were created in his image.  Christ has purchased us and removed our guilt by offering his own blood to restore us to a place as sons and heirs of God.

“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him, that we may be glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17).

The angels who are ministering spirits and servants are called at times “sons of God”. Of course, Lucifer (Satan) and the fallen angels have already opted out.  Otherwise, God has promised to redeem ALL of his creation.  I read John 3:16 with a wider lens now: “For God so loved the world…” that is, all of his creation.  The “whosoever” in the phrase that follows obviously refers to humans who must choose to believe as God reveals himself.  However, God’s redemption is applied to the rest of God’s creation.  “The creation itself will also be delivered from the bondage of corruption [decay] into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

Who then are the children of God who will display this glorious liberty and glorify the Father now and in heaven?

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Paul appeals to the Ephesians to walk like Christ in love and humility, with gentleness and patience, guarding the unity of God’s family.  He echoes Jesus’ final prayer in John 17, a High Priestly prayer that His disciples will be one, just as He and the Father are one.

You will see that I honor God’s laborers in many “streams” in the family of God.  After a journey through various churches and traditions, from Catholic to Pentecostal, I am a minister in the Wesleyan Church.  I have written about faithful Christ followers in my family who are Catholic. I mention a local Evangelical Free Church (where I worship)and a Baptist Church below.  I will refer to a blog from a United Methodist pastor.  In the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition I think that makes us cousins.  What matters is that we are fellow Christ followers.  Yes, I know that other things matter, but the foundation of the unity Christ is looking for is that we love and honor one another.

Paul will continue in Ephesians to describe the practical walk of Christians as we grow to maturity.  He will describe how we are to stand in the battle against Satan and the powers of darkness (Ephesians 6:10-20).   Our greatest weapon is love, and the offensive weapon in the armor of God is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (v. 17).

If we are to guard our families and God’s family, we need to follow these instructions wholeheartedly.  What is the best way to equip yourself with this sword?

You can memorize your favorite Scriptures!

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has long been one of my favorite passages, to the point that I memorized chapters 1 and 2  some twenty years ago.  Difficulties with cognitive function in multiple sclerosis left me at times grieving that I could not even recall the words to Psalm 23 as I lay in bed like a lump.  The Lord restored much of that cognitive loss and I have worked diligently to commit the Word to memory again.  (Note to self: I need to work on Ephesians again.)

Grace EV Free Church in La Mirada, CA is using “Fighter Verses” from John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church to corporately commit key Scriptures to memory as a congregation  (www.FighterVerses.com).  The Fighter Verse app from the iTunes App store or Android marketplace can be downloaded to your smart phone.  Since I am a new iPhone user it’s on my new toy (um, phone) and I love the extra memorization helps (sing the verse, quizzes, etc.)

Another WordPress blogger posted helpful memorization tricks that he uses for large passages of Scripture.  See Teddy Ray’s (http://teddyray.com) post on Feb 9, 2013 under Catechesis: How to memorize lots of Scripture.  It is an inspiring exhortation about the why and how of Scripture memory.

If you want an accountability partner for what may be for you a new spiritual discipline, please write to me!

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A letter to a spiritual daughter

This letter is meant to model the New Testament epistles from spiritual fathers to their sons and daughters in the faith.  As a spiritual mother, I long for God’s children to grow in faith, hope and love.  Earlier posts were on my son’s birthday and my mother’s birthday (now with the Lord). Today is my birthday so this is dedicated to the “adopted daughter” who sought my counsel and fellowship ten years ago.  We grew together in ways I cannot measure.

To my beloved Amy and to the church that meets in R House and our brothers and sisters in San Diego.  From Deborah, a handmaiden of the Lord and a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

My recent visit was far too short but my heart was filled with joy at the love shown to me.  I long to spend more time with you so that the mutual encouragement of our fellowship will abound with praise to God our Father.

The fruit of our time together, and your earnest desire to serve the Lord, are evident in lives born into God’s family who are growing in the faith.  Continue to press forward in the place of service the Lord has given you grace to accomplish according to his good pleasure.

It was with great joy that we began to seek the Lord in His word together.  It is with great joy that I now recall the revelation we received in His presence through the Holy Spirit.  You have nurtured spiritual gifts of helps, administration, evangelism, encouraging, and intercession.  You have grown in grace as a wife and a mother, and your prayers for your  family and for others in the body of Christ are earning an eternal reward.

Daughter, you are precious to me and to the Lord.  May the Lord richly bless you as you continue in the obedience of faith.  Praise be to God who is infinite in wisdom and lovingkindness!

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Escorted to heaven by angels

My mom would have turned 84 today.  She went home to heaven last summer, a few weeks before her grandson’s wedding.  We thought she would rally as she always did, but she ended up with a front row seat and enjoyed more of the details than any of us did who were present.

Almeda Bernadette Fenn, known by her nickname “Micki,” was born in 1929.  She married Rick Russell, a design engineer who worked for Ford Motot Co. at the time.  I was the first of three children.  She had been an X-ray technician, but stayed home with us.  Like Maria from the Sound of Music, she was a mom to every kid who needed a mom, the consummate Girl Scout leader, lover of life and all that God created, a truly adventurous spirit.

Knowing Jesus since she was a child, Mom loved the Catholic Church but rebelled against anything that quenched the life of Christ.  She was miraculously healed of late-stage ovarian cancer in 1985, diagnosed just after her first grandchild was born (my son, Jeffrey).  She saw Jesus twice at her bedside during the grueling year of treatment.

Her doctor, a Hindu from India, wrote on her medical chart at the time of a later surgery, “Jesus healed Mrs. Russell.” It was an open invitation for nurses and doctors to visit with her and hear the miraculous story of her recovery.  Full of the Holy Spirit and a powerful intercessor, she experienced many other healings and has literally flown with angels. She will always be my hero.

Recent years were full of challenges that tested her faith and perseverence.  Medical mistakes and injustices kept her looking to the Lord for help and hope.  The final bout with liver cancer should never have happened to begin with, but it would become the last leg of her journey.

She was in Michigan and I in San Diego, and we talked frequently by phone.  When she reached 79, she sighed, “I don’t like feeling old.”  I tried to perk her up.  “Just think, Mom, it’s the Jubilee anniversary of your 29th birthday!”  When that didn’t even raise a chuckle, I knew she really was down.  I always depended on her ability to fight off the blues with a laugh, but it was getting harder.  From that time it became more and more clear that she was leaning on me more than I had always been able to lean on her.

Damage to her kidneys from the chemo years before meant that she needed magnesium infusions two to three times a week.  For more than ten years she had been a regular at the outpatient clinic at a hospital near her home.  This also meant that she had an ongoing ministry of encouragement to cancer patients and others who needed frequent infusions.  The nurses knew if a new patient was coming in, or somebody who would need some extra attention, and they would carefully arrange for them to sit next to Micki.

So many dear people left that clinic, and some who left this life, with an assurance that they were forgiven and loved by their Father in heaven.  Others were sustained by hope from her testimony of being healed of stage 4 ovarian cancer, and they walked into a new life being healed by faith and prayer.  She was called by some “the Jesus lady.”  She was loved by all, laboratory and food service workers, nursing staff and patients.

We prayed her through many hurdles in the final few years.  “We” included my church and all of these friends who had been touched by her life.  She was a fighter, and the three children my sister had adopted from Russia gave her a reason to fight, just us her first grandbaby had given her that reason many years earlier.

When she was moved into hospice, I had just copied pictures from Jeff’s engagement to his beautiful Michelle and sent a large stack for my sister to deliver.  They had talked on the phone with Grandma at Mother’s Day and Jeff stayed in touch with her.   She left me a message one morning.  I missed the call, but it gave me a last message that we later transferred to an mp3 file for Jeff.  Grandma was so happy with the photos and she carried on about the beautiful bride the Lord had brought to him.  I talked with her later that day, which turned out to be our last conversation.

The next morning I was awakened at 5 am by a call from the hospice nurse.  “Debbie, your mom is with Jesus.”

I was in Michigan a few days later to be with family and attend the memorial service.  Gale, the hospice nurse, had been Mom’s friend through church and working together at a pregnancy crisis center.  My sister asked Gale, a third-order Franciscan (a lay religious order) to lead the rosary at the end of the visitation time.  We asked her to stay and share with the family those last moments with Mom.

This is the first I have replayed the tape of Gale’s words in order to transcribe it:

“It was change of shift, and I was making my rounds.  Kelly was in with Micki and she called me.  Micki said she felt really, really sick.  She was up out of bed, so we got her back into bed.  I said I was going to call her family, but she held my hand really tight and said, ‘Please stay with me,’ so I sat with her.  You could see the changes coming over her, and it was just very beautiful.  She was looking off into space, and I said to her, ‘Do you see the angels?’  She just kind of nodded.  I said, ‘Jesus is there.  Would you like to go with Jesus?’  She said, ‘Oh, may I?’  I said, ‘Yes! You have permission!’  She closed her eyes and she was gone.  It was really beautiful.”

Family members asked a few questions.  Gale confirmed that the doctors felt it was a heart attack at the end.  She added, “We have known each other for a long time.  She was very special.  It was such a privilege to be there with her.”

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Day by day, step by step, choice by choice, yes by yes

This title is from a song by Julie Meyer, Kansas City International House of Prayer.

While mentoring young women, there are many times we need to encourage each other about the dailiness of life. “Take it one day at a time” is conventional wisdom that does not offer me much in the way of hope or strength.  The wisdom of God, that begins with a relationship with God in Christ, provides more specific direction.  Knowing where to begin is a good start:  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).*

Day by Day.  A relationship with the eternal God will last – how long? –  forever!  He is not in a hurry.  Each moment can be taken as a moment of eternity, with all of its promises and possibilities.  He does not change, so I am the one who needs to reset my speedometer.  When I wake up, I have today, and how wonderful it is that he is with me – all day!

Step by Step.  One blind step in front of a moving car could happily take me right into the Father’s arms or painfully into the hospital (still in his arms, to be sure).    My confidence in the Lord is that he orders my steps.  It is a delight when I see that the timing of seemingly random steps lands me exactly where I need to be.  It’s even more of a delight when I know that his heart has been expressed to another person through those steps.

I had no idea that my neighbor, Nancy, had received terrible news from her son, confirming that his marriage was breaking up.  The night before, I felt the Lord’s encouragement to try a recipe for bread pudding.  I couldn’t imagine how I was going to eat this beautiful dessert, and it turned out fabulous.  In the morning I passed Nancy outside at our mailboxes and said something – I don’t remember what! – about making bread pudding.  She squealed with delight that it was her favorite.  I promised to bring some over that evening.  I went next door with bread pudding and vanilla ice cream, thrilled that I had somebody to enjoy it with.  After her husband slipped back to the TV, she told me about her heartbreaking news.  I listened and searched for words of comfort.  “Well, the Lord knows your pain, and he told your friend to make your favorite dessert, and here we are!”  Oh, how he knows!  Oh, how he loves!

Choice by Choice.  The terrible reality of God’s love for us – most terrible for him – is that his children were given the power to choose whether or not to obey and demonstrate their appreciation for his infinite love.  One choice can make or break a marriage,  and so it is with our response to our Creator.  Choices are made in our independent, selfish way, withour realizing the hurt we inflict.

Yet God also chose before creating us to make a way for his children to be brought back to the life he created us for.  The Father would send his Son, Jesus, to share our humanity, and to pay the price that we owed for spitting on God’s holiness, trampling on his perfect love.  The cross of Christ was God’s idea.  It would be his pain, as well as his victory over the enemy of death, the consequence of our rebellion.

The Father chose love.  Jesus chose love.  The Spirit of God draws us to choose love and accept his amazing gift – the restoration of an eternal relationship with God.

Yes by Yes.  Our Yes to God is the choice to believe that he is not just great, but that he is good.  We say Yes, that Christ is both the pioneer and the completion of our salvation.  In this new life we say Yes to his daily instruction in the pathway of love.  I said Yes to the idea that I should make bread pudding without having any idea that there was a purpose for it.  It just seemed that my Lord thought it was a good idea, so I said Yes.

It is a life full of yes-by-yes moments that makes my life with Christ exciting and full of joy, even when there is deep pain.

“… looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2)  His endurance of the cross assured that I could enjoy eternity in his presence.  Moments of suffering are part of our lives on earth, but eternity begins the moment I yield my will to his.   I then receive the Spirit of God to guide and strengthen me, reminding me that there is much more to life than what I know right now!

“Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.  For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.  For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

* “What is the fear of the Lord?  It is that affectionate reverence by which the child of God bends himself humbly and carefully to his Father’s law.  God’s wrath is so bitter and his love so sweet that we have this earnest desire to please him, so that we will not sin against him (Hebrews 12:28-29).”   Charles Bridges, Proverbs (Crossway Books, 2001)

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