Beneath the Juniper Tree


1 Kings 19:1-9a

Have you ever felt like giving up; like saying “that’s it, I’m done, I’ve had enough”? If so, you are not alone. At one point in his life, a very low point, the prophet Elijah felt exactly the same. Fleeing into the desert, he slumped beneath a juniper tree and begged God to end his life. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4)

How could Elijah sink into such despair? He was a prophet of God. His very name expressed confidence in the Almighty. Elijah.  אֵלִיָּ֑הוּ (’ê·lî·yā·hū) in Hebrew, meaning “My God is Jehovah.” In the name and power of Jehovah Elijah fiercely opposed the wickedness of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. At God’s command he prayed for drought, and drought came. He prayed for rain, and rain fell in torrents. During the drought, Elijah was fed by ravens at the Brook of Cherith; and later, he was fed by a widow in Zarephath, Phoenicia. As long as he remained in the widow’s home—a period of at least two years, her handful of flour and few drops of olive oil never ran out. Elijah even raised the widow’s son from the dead. Continue reading

Wrestling with God


Genesis 32:24-30

            Late that night, Jacob stood on the bank of the Jabbok River; troubled, frightened, sleepless. Those dearest to him—his wives Leah and Rachel, and his children—had, at Jacob’s insistence, already crossed the Jabbok, along with the servants, livestock, and possessions. Now Jacob was entirely alone.

Somewhere in the darkness Esau approached with four hundred armed men. Esau, the vengeful brother from whom Jacob had stolen the birthright twenty years earlier.  Esau, who had sworn to kill Jacob once their father Isaac was dead. Oh, how Jacob must have stood, sat, paced, wondered: “When will Esau arrive? What will he do? Will he kill me? Will he spare the women and children? Will he take those dearest to me to avenge what I took from him?”

Most of all, Jacob must have wondered about God. Yes, where was God amid all this trouble and uncertainty? Was God approaching? Surely God would deliver Jacob and his family. After all, God had been the One to set Jacob on this journey, saying, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” (Genesis 31:3) Continue reading

When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong


2 Corinthians 12:7-10

            “The more I learn, the less I know.” “For every two steps forward, I take one step back.” “I’m happiest when I am sad.” “I found graduating to be a bitter-sweet experience.” “Waitress, I’d like to order the jumbo shrimp.” Each of these sayings represents a paradox. A paradox is a statement or situation which appears to contradict itself, but is nevertheless true; as in learning more and knowing less; moving forward and backward; happy and sad, bitter and sweet, jumbo and shrimp.

Scripture also contains many striking paradoxes. For example, Jesus said in Matthew 10:39, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Jesus also said that in the kingdom of God the first will be last, the least will be greatest, and the exalted will be humbled. Each of these is a paradox.

On occasion, the apostle Paul used paradoxes in his writings. In 1 Corinthians 3:18 Paul wrote, “Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a ‘fool’ so that he may become wise.” Becoming a fool to become wise is a paradox. Continue reading

The Feeding of the Five Thousand


Matthew 14:13-21

            During His earthly ministry, Jesus performed many miracles. He healed the sick. He controlled the weather and walked on water. He cast out demons and changed water into wine. He raised the dead: Lazarus, the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow from Nain. Jesus performed these miracles not only to help and heal, to restore and liberate, but also to prove that He was exactly who He claimed to be: the Son of God and the only Savior of lost humanity.

And so, when beginning His ministry in Nazareth, Jesus announced, “The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Yet, the miracles of Jesus recorded in the New Testament are only a small percentage of all His miraculous deeds. The apostle John wrote in his Gospel Record, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:30-31)  John went on to say, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

Of all Christ’s miracles, however, only one is recorded in all four Gospels: Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, and John 6. And that one miracle is the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Why this fourfold repetition? Why is this miracle recorded four times, when the Feeding of the Four Thousand is recorded only twice; and when an astonishing miracle like the resurrection of Lazarus is recorded only once? Continue reading

When Feeling Down


Psalm 42

            Psalm 42 describes a believer’s struggle with heartache and depression. Three times the writer refers to himself as downcast: verses 5, 6, and 11. To be even more precise, the Hebrew word for “downcast,” שָׁחַח (SHA-CHACH), is actually a verb—to cast down; to stoop down; to bow down. Within the context of Psalm 42, the meaning is much the same as our expressions “I feel so down, so low, so depressed.”

In many respects, reading Psalm 42 is like reading a medical handbook on depression. Notice all the symptoms the psalmist experienced: sadness and weeping, sleeplessness and loss of appetite, brokenness and isolation, inner turmoil and physical pain, even waves of emotion. One moment the psalmist is hopeful, and the next he is despondent. In one verse he praises God, and in the next he pleads with God. First he lauds God’s faithfulness, and then he accuses God of forgetfulness. And all this within eleven verses. And yet, is the psalmist so different from us? In our darkest hours of heartbreak and depression, have we not done the same—praised and pleaded, lauded God and forgotten God? Continue reading

Conquering Fear


Isaiah 41:10-13

      “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” When President Franklin Roosevelt spoke these words on March 4, 1933, there were actually many things to fear. The United States was in the depths of the Great Depression. Millions of Americans were hopeless, homeless, jobless; living in makeshift shanties and standing in long, meandering soup lines.

At this same time, states in the Great Plains were suffering the worst drought in U.S. history; the so-called “Dust Bowl,” which severely damaged farming and food production, and displaced an estimated 2.5 million Americans.

Economic hardship led to rising crime. And so the 1930s witnessed legendary criminals like John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and Ma Barker. And to make matters worse, in 1933 Adolf Hitler became “der Fuhrer” or leader of Nazi Germany. The Jewish Holocaust and World War II were less than a decade away. Continue reading

Rest for the Weary


Matthew 11:25-30

            There are many personal invitations from God in Scripture. The invitation to worship: “Come, let us bow down in worship; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.” (Psalm 95:6)  The invitation to call upon God when we are in trouble: “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor Me.” (Psalm 50:15) The invitation to turn to God for forgiveness: “ ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.’ ” (Isaiah 1:1) The invitation to “repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:1) The invitation to “approach the throne of grace with confidence.” (Hebrews 4:16) The invitation to “cast your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)

Yet of all God’s invitations, I can think of none more personal, powerful, or precious than the invitation of Jesus Christ in today’s text, Matthew 11:25-30, “At that time Jesus answered and said, ‘I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. 2Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Continue reading

The Good News


Romans 1:1-7

            When I was a boy, there were only three TV networks to watch: CBS, NBC, and ABC. Originally, programming was aired in black and white. Back then, life seemed more black and white too. I still remember Walter Cronkite closing each news broadcast with the words, “And that’s the way it is”—and the familiar Huntley and Brinkley sign-off: “Good night, Chet. Good night, David. And goodnight from NBC news.”

Today, however, my news mentality is much different.  I no longer watch the news to learn what happened, but to learn what went wrong—what failed, what crashed, what exploded, what disappointed. According to one study, 61% of news coverage is bad news, while 39% is good news.  This is not surprising. Bad news is more captivating than good news. Media outlets actually prefer bad new, because bad news means a higher viewership. Higher viewership means higher ratings. Higher ratings mean higher advertising revenue. There is a well-known saying in the news business: “If it bleeds, it leads”; that is, it becomes the lead story. Continue reading

God’s Kind of Love


John 3:16-21

I remember this as if it happened only yesterday. My son Andrew, perhaps four years old at the time, climbed into the family car with crumpled artwork in one small hand and a Power Rangers backpack dangling from the other. “Daddy,” he said, “I learned a new song at school today. Wanna hear it?” “Sure I do,” I replied. “Let’s hear it.” And without any fear of forgetting the lyrics or singing off key, Andrew began, “I love you a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.” The song ended with my four-year-old son giving me a peck on the cheek and a hug around the neck.

Were you to ask Andrew, now twenty-five, about this preschool episode, he would likely say, “Nah, that never happened. Dad is losing his memory as rapidly as he’s losing his hair.” But it did happen. I could never lose or confuse a memory that precious. “I love you a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.”

Few words are more important than “I love you.” At times, just saying “I love you” is like pouring water on a thirsty, dying plant. Yet, for human beings, love has a variety of meanings. Love can mean a deep, settled, committed love; or it can mean essentially the same as “to like.” To complicate matters even more, there are different types of love. Parental love. Marital love. Romantic love. Brotherly love. Friendship love. Puppy love.

Scripture is overflowing with expressions of God’s love for us. But what kind of love is God’s love? What does He mean when He says, “I love you”? While the answer is given from Genesis to Revelation, nowhere is it more eloquently stated than in today’s text: “For God so loved the world.”

When we hear this phrase, “God so loved the world,” we almost immediately equate “so loved” with “so much.” God loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son. This is certainly true. However, a more literal rendering of the Greek Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον   is “in this manner God loved the world.” So John 3:16 is not a statement of the degree, but rather of the characteristics of God’s great love for us. What are those characteristics?

In answering, let’s begin with God’s language of love. Ancient Greek used three words to describe love, each with a different meaning: PHILOS, EROS, and AGAPE. PHILOS is the love of devoted friendship. Jesus used this word in John 13, saying to His disciples, “You are My friends, if you do what I command.” EROS, while not used in the Bible, is the love of romanticism and intimacy; and not surprisingly the source of our English word erotic.

AGAPE is the highest form of love, far transcending mere emotion to embrace deep, unshakable commitment. It is a complete love, not lacking in any area or resource. It is a determined love, incapable of letting go or giving up. It is a sacrificial love, willing to expend self in service to others. It is a purposeful love, focused not on want but on true need. As someone has said, ‘AGAPE is the type of love that recognizes everything wrong with someone and yet insists on loving that person anyway.” This is God’s kind of love. This, dear friend, is God’s great love for you.

And while there are scores of Bible passages that describe the characteristics of this highest form of love, AGAPE, one of the most endearing is found in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” Patient; that is God’s love. Kind, that is God’s love. Not self-seeking; that is God’s love. Always protecting and persevering; that is God’s love.

John 3:16 is one of the first Bible verses I memorized as a child. It is also one of the first verses I taught my own children. To this day, whenever I worry about their wellbeing, happiness, contentment, and safety—whether physical or spiritual—I remind them, “Remember John 3:16. Remember that ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” This simple verse encapsulates the entire Gospel. If you knew no other message from God, believing this message alone would bring you eternal salvation.

Despite the global scope of the message, “God so loved the world,” remember that Jesus delivered this powerful description of God’s love and salvation to one individual—to a man named Nicodemus who, as explained in the verses preceding today’s text, was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin; a man drawn to Jesus, but who still had doubts about Jesus; a man so worried and frightened about what others would think that he came to Jesus at night.

As Jesus so often did, He taught the great love of God to lost and confused individuals, not just massive crowds. Imagine yourself, then, as a Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night; worried, upset, concerned about everything from personal affairs to the affairs of the country. Perhaps you are facing a serious illness. Perhaps your marriage is in trouble.  Perhaps you’re in pain or lonely or in search of a job or struggling to pay bills. Perhaps you’re depressed or plagued by temptations or addictions; and more than anything else you desire to know the certainty of God’s love at work in your life; the certainty that God has not turned away from you or forgotten you, but rather loves you with all His infinite heart. Approach Jesus this way, like Nicodemus, and then listen carefully to what He tells you.

First, God’s kind of love is unconditional. “For God so loved the world,” Jesus said. The Greek word for world is cosmos; and it incorporates all the glitter, worldliness, and self-interest contained in the word cosmopolitan. What kind of a world did God love? A lost and condemned world. A world that hated Him, as Paul explained in Romans 1:29-30, “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

           This is the world God loved; a world that failed to recognize the long-promised Savior, as the apostle John also wrote in his Gospel: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:10-11)

My younger son Andrew once asked me, “Dad, if God knew Adam and Eve would sin, why did He create them?” And I answered his question with one of my own: “If God knew Adam and Eve would sin, why did He choose to save them, knowing that saving them would cost the life of His only begotten Son?” The answer is, God saved them because God loved them and the world to be born from them. When creating an entire universe was not enough to demonstrate God’s love, He sacrificed His own Son, Jesus Christ.

Is that the course we would take? Not a chance. I’ve switched phone companies over poor customer service. I’ve given up on people who’ve failed to meet my expectations. I’ve stopped patronizing restaurants where the food was cold, as well dentists who caused me too much pain.  If I had been God in Eden, I would have snapped my fingers, incinerated the first couple, and started over with a different Adam and Eve.

And yet, the Gospel brings us the amazing words: “God so loved the world” —this sinful, unworthy world and everyone in it. You. Me. Everyone. God’s kind of love is unconditional, meaning that it does not depend on us but entirely on Him. And oh how different God’s love is from human love. Human love looks for a reason to love in others. “I love because he is my child. I love because she meets all my needs. I love because he is so handsome.” Really? If that is true, how much will you love him when he grows old and wrinkled and his hair falls out?

God loves us for His own sake. Can you think of anything more comforting than that? Can you see why all the despised and rejected, the outcasts and notorious sinners were so overjoyed when Jesus proclaimed God’s love and forgiveness to them? Being saved had nothing to do with social status or nice clothes or good deeds or large bank accounts. Being saved simply meant trusting in God’s unconditional love, as revealed in Jesus Christ, “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Second, God’s kind of love is a love of action, commitment, and self-sacrifice. “God so loved the world that He gave.” He acted. He gave. And what did He give? The very best that He had to give, His own Son.

I find it both sad and amazing that so many churches today gladly talk about God’s love, but never mention a word about sin, accountability, sacrifice, or cost. “Oh, God loves you,” they say, failing to realize that the only way to fully understand the extent of God’s love is through the full extent of His sacrifice and the enormity of our sin.

“This is how we know what love is,” John wrote in his First Epistle: “Jesus Christ laid down His life for us.” (1 John 3:16) And let me say this: People who believe God’s unconditional love for them gives them a license to sin, to live in a way that displeases and dishonors God—immorality, drunkenness, abusiveness, indifference, vengefulness—demonstrate that they do not understand God’s kind of love at all.

Truthfully, nothing flows more easily from human lips than the words “I love you.” However, it isn’t enough just to say “I love you.” True love proves itself through action. Over the course of their forty-six-year marriage, I heard my dad and stepmother tell each other “I love you” countless times. But when I saw my stepmother sitting for four months beside my dad’s hospital bed before he died, or gently holding his hand, or swabbing his tongue with ice chips, or adjusting the oxygen mask, or bending through the network of tubes to kiss his forehead, there was no need for her to say “I love you.” I could see her love by her actions.

Does God say “I love you?” Of course He does. Many times and in many places. But He didn’t stop with mere talk. He proved that love in a way that should eliminate all doubt, all fear, and all worry. He gave His Son, Jesus Christ. He gave, not partially, tentatively, or regrettably, but completely and irrevocably. When I worked at the Lakeland Funeral Home as a Family Services Advisor, I used contracts that contained an “irrevocable clause” provision. People who signed the irrevocable clause were saying, “I will never change my mind about this purchase. I will never ask for my money back.”

When God sacrificed Jesus for us, He was signing an irrevocable declaration in the blood of His Son. He was declaring His love to be irrevocable. He was saying to each one of us, “You might feel alone, but I am always with you. You might feel lost, but I’ve saved you. You might feel unloved and unwanted, but no one will ever want or love you like I do. If you want proof, look at the cross. Look at the cross where I punished My Son so that I could save you.”

Third and finally, God’s love is an eternal love. The best we can manage as humans is the promise to “love, honor, and cherish until death us do part.” Even then, sadly, fifty-percent of all marriages end in divorce. What happened to the love? Human love is not eternal love. Human love is conditioned by human mortality. God’s love for humans, however, is eternal love. God’s love is eternal because He is eternal. “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” Jeremiah 31:3. “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him.” (Psalm 103:11)

Have there never been times in your life when you’ve thought, “How can God love me? How can God continue to pour out His love on me? I don’t deserve it. He’s helped me in so many ways over the years. He’s been there for me. Surely, He must be running out of love for me; especially given all the times I’ve accepted His kindness, and then turned my back on Him, pursuing my own desires—until I needed Him again.” Have you never said or thought such words? I have countless times.

The apostle Paul said similar words, too. One can hear the humility, the amazement, the gratitude in his voice when he contemplated how loving and forgiving God had been to him throughout his life. 1 Timothy 1: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst,” 1 Timothy 1:12-15.

God’s love for you is unchanging, inexhaustible, and constant. And this is important to remember for another reason. When we go through difficult times, our first thought is often, “God doesn’t love me very much. If God loved me, would this be happening?”

How wrong such assumptions are. God isn’t for us one day and against us the next. God doesn’t get moody or sleepy. God doesn’t love us a certain way today and a different way tomorrow. He loves us the same way every day. He loves us in our good times and is still loving us in our bad times. If God allows us to go through difficult times, it is only because He does love us. Isn’t that what the Bible says? “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those He loves, and He punishes everyone He accepts as a son.” (Hebrews 12:5-6)

Right now, this moment, no matter who you are, no matter what you are going through, no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done wrong, by God’s grace and Spirit commit your worries to the love of God. Go home knowing how much God loves you and trusting in this simple statement of Scripture: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”





The Gibeonite Deception


Joshua 9:3-15

            After forty years of wilderness wanderings, the Israelites, led by Joshua, finally entered the Promised Land to conquer and possess it. Cities fell, kings fled, nations trembled—not because of Israel’s size or strength or military prowess, but because of Israel’s God. As Joshua later reminded the Israelites, “You yourselves have seen everything the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake; it was the Lord your God who fought for you.” (Joshua 23:3)

And the victories were overwhelming. Mighty Jericho was destroyed, then Ai, then five Amorite armies—a battle in which God made the sun stand still, then the cities of Libnah, Lachish, Eglan, Hebron, and Debir, until thirty-one kings and thirty-one Canaanite armies were utterly annihilated.

Yet, amid these victories, a single incident occurred which would impact the Israelites for the next four centuries, from the time of Joshua to the time of King David and King Solomon. This event was the so-called Gibeonite Deception. Continue reading