Service & Sacrifice

“This is real love – not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God, but if we love each other, God lives in us and His love is brought to full expression in us.”

– 1 John 4:10-12 NLT

The First Sacrifice

The first sacrificial offering recorded in Scripture is found in Genesis 4 when Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, gave an offering to God. Cain, who was a tiller of the ground, brought some of his fruits. Abel, who was a keeper of the flocks, brought the first of his flock and their fat portions. God looked with favor on Abel’s offering, but not on Cain’s. Why is that? The Bible is not clear on exactly why, but it is clear on a few important details that could help us to infer the reason. The first is that Abel offered a living sacrifice, a blood sacrifice. The second is that Abel brought the first of his flock and their fat portions. Cain simply brought from his fruits; it doesn’t specify that he brought the first or the best of his fruits. Therefore, Abel’s offering appears to be more sacrificial. Hebrews 11:4 tells us Abel offered the better sacrifice by faith. He was demonstrating a complete dependence on God’s future provision.

The fact that Abel’s offering was a living, blood sacrifice is important because a blood sacrifice is what is required for the forgiveness of sins. We see this as early as Genesis 3:21 when God made animal skins to cover Adam and Eve after they sinned and became aware of their nakedness. Adam and Eve had attempted to cover themselves with fig leaves, but it was not enough. Once again, the sacrifice of fruit paled in comparison to the sacrifice of blood.

In a sense, the fig leaves of Adam and Eve and the fruit offered by Cain represent our spiritual fruits and good works. They represent our feeble attempts at covering our own sins and earning our own salvation. Adam and Eve sowed the fig leaves together with their own hands. Cain tilled the ground with his own hands. Our fruit is good, our works are good, but it’s not enough. It is by Grace we are saved, through faith, not of works lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Life is in the Blood

God’s forgiveness requires the sacrifice of blood. Blood is the source of life in the human body. Without it, our bodies would stop working. It transports oxygen and nutrients throughout our body. It keeps our hearts pumping and our lungs breathing. It fights off diseases. It helps discreet waste. It clots up and scabs over to provide healing and protection. It is vital. It is essential. It is active. It is alive, and it keeps us alive. Blood is a symbol of life, and God is the giver of life. Salvation comes only through Him

Hebrews 9:22 tells us, “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” Leviticus 17:11 tells us the blood makes atonement for our souls. It covers us. In Exodus 12:13 we see that God required the Israelite’s to spread the blood of a lamb over the doorposts of their homes. This act of sacrifice served as a sign for God to pass over and not permit the final plague to enter in and kill their first born sons. Jesus was later recognized by John the Baptist as, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) and in 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul writes, “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed.” On the night of His death, Jesus and His disciples celebrated Passover, and Jesus foretold of His coming death. At that last supper, He took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to them, saying, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24).

Sacrificial Obedience

1 Samuel 15:22 says that obedience is better than sacrifice. In Genesis 22, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. In the end, God did not require Abraham to follow through with this command. God did not desire Abraham’s sacrifice, He desired his obedience. God only wanted to know if Abraham would be willing to give up what was most precious to him. God only wanted to know if Abraham would continue to trust Him even when it didn’t make sense. Abraham was willing. He was obedient. He continued to trust. Abraham obeyed God’s command because he trusted in God’s promise. Many years before, God had made a promise that Abraham would be a father of many nations, and Abraham trusted God to fulfill that promise. When Isaac asked his father where the lamb was, Abraham responded, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). And God provided, just as Abraham expected. Our willingness to obey will always be met with God’s faithfulness to provide.

Just as the Passover lamb was a foreshadow of the death of Jesus as our Passover Lamb, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son was a foreshadow of God’s willingness to sacrifice His Son. Jesus is our sacrificed Lamb, our sacrificed Son. He was obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). Jesus lived a life we could not live to pay a debt we could not pay. He is the spotless, blameless Lamb of God. He is the sinless Son of God sent to save us from our sins. We are like Isaac. We were bound and destined for death, but a provision from God took our place on the altar. Jesus was the ram in the bushes who took our place. He was sacrificed for us so we could be eternally freed from this life of sin and death.

Living Sacrifices

Because of Christ’s sacrifice, we are made alive. Our sins are covered. He made atonement for us. We are in right standing with God. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life (Romans 6:23). And because we are alive, we are called to be living sacrifices. Romans 12:1 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” So how do we present ourselves as living sacrifices? We do this through our service. We serve Christ by serving others. Our service is an act of worship. It is an active sacrifice.

God doesn’t need our service, but He desires it. As Dallas Willard writes, “Our need to give is greater than God’s need to receive.” Service is a vital part of our spiritual growth. We receive so much through our giving. Service is cleansing for our souls. It rids us our selfishness and arrogance, causing us to look beyond ourselves. It rids us of our envy and greed, causing us to look beyond the external and superficial. It rids us of our bitterness and resentment, causing us to look beyond the faults and failures of others. It broadens our perspective, expands our horizons, and softens our hearts.

Service is how we put our faith into action. It is how we put the love of God into action. Service should not be seen so much as a discipline, but as opportunity to show God’s love and share God’s love. We should approach every new encounter, every new meeting, with an openness to serve. How can I serve this person? How can I show love to this person? How can I show Jesus to this person?

Secret Service

We take service one step further when we keep it a secret. In earlier weeks we discussed the spiritual discipline of secrecy, of keeping things between you and God. Jesus teaches this on His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6. “When you pray, go into your inner room, close your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:17-18). And “When you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-4).

Sacrificial Service

In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard says, “The discipline of sacrifice is one in which we forsake the security of meeting our needs with what is in our hands. It is total abandonment to God, a stepping into the darkened abyss in the faith and hope that God will bear us up.” An offering isn’t sacrificial until it hurts us to give it. It is the same with fasting. Have you ever tried to make negotiations and excuses with your fasting? When you start trying to think of the reasons why you can’t give something up – that’s probably the exact thing you need to give up. It shows you’re becoming dependent on it. I can give up the chocolate and sweets, but I can’t give up my morning coffee. I can’t function without it. I can give up the binge watching shows on Netflix, but I can’t give up social media. I need it for my job, I need it to stay in touch with my friends and family. We make excuses when we know it’s going to cost us something, when we know it’s going to hurt us in some way. But it isn’t truly giving unless it costs us something – whether that thing be our time, our money, our comfort, or our pride.

In Mark 12:41-44, as Jesus was observing people giving their offerings, He noticed that the rich people were giving large sums of money, but it was a widow who put in two small coins that caught His attention. Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.”

That’s the kind-of sacrifice God desires. It’s not the giving that matters, it’s the heart behind the giving. Her giving was not calculated and thought out. She didn’t calculate how much she could give and still have to live on. She didn’t make excuses to justify what she gave. She didn’t give out of an overflow of what she already had, but out of the overflow of her heart. She gave out of obedience. She gave with a willing heart, fully trusting God to meet her needs. Her giving was an act of worship.

Let us, too, worship through giving.

Let us honor His sacrifice through our service.

Let us give of ourselves for others, because He gave of Himself for us.

Let this be our prayer:

img_6851

 

Fellowship, Confession, & Submission

What is Fellowship?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines fellowship as “companionship” or as “a community of interest.” In my life, fellowship has taken many different forms. In my family, fellowship has looked like birthday dinners, Sunday after Church lunches, Friday night game nights, and weekend trips to the Mountains. Growing up in youth group, fellowship looked like silly games, late-night lock-ins, and short-term mission trips. Then it started to look like grieving together, navigating loss together, and growing up together. In college, it looked like sitting around a bonfire sharing testimonies with strangers until those strangers started to feel like family. Fellowship to me has looked like Church on Sunday morning, but it has also looked like living room Church, car Church, sitting on a rock at the top of a mountain Church, and standing on a beach late at night Church. Fellowship to me is gathering together with people who share my faith. Fellowship to me is showing up for the people I love when they need me, and the people I love showing up for me when I need them. Fellowship tells me I’m not alone. Fellowship holds me accountable, keeps me encouraged, and gives me hope.

“Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.
– Philippians 2:1-2 

The Greek word for “fellowship” in this passage is “Koinonia” which means “communion” or “sharing in common.” As followers of Jesus, our common interest is Jesus. He is what unites us. He is the common ground that holds us steady through the highs and lows of life. Our backgrounds and life experiences may be different, our beliefs and feelings may be different, our personalities may be different – but Jesus unites us all, despite our differences.

I find it interesting that the word “communion” is used in the definition for fellowship. This is significant, especially considering that we are in the season of Lent right now. We are in the season leading up to Easter, leading up to the day we set aside each year to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. Communion is about sharing in the suffering of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 10:16 says, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” The beauty of communion is that we take it, and we give it. We pass it to our neighbor. We share it. In Matthew 26:26 at that first Lord’s Supper, “… Jesus took some bread, and after blessing it, He broke it and gave it to the disciples…” Communion is about being broken and poured out. Jesus gave of Himself. The bread represented His body, and He broke it and gave it away. The cup represented His blood, and He poured it out. That’s what Fellowship within the Church looks like. That’s what the Body of Christ looks like when we are following in the example of Jesus. It looks like giving of ourselves.

Why is fellowship important?

Fellowship is important because from the beginning of creation, God knew it was not good for man to be alone. Eve was created out of this need. She was created to be a helper for Adam. Bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, they became one (Genesis 2:18-25). God Himself exists as a Trinity – as three in One. In Genesis 1:26 He declared, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 tells us two is better than one, because when one of us falls there’s another to lift us up. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 tells us to encourage each other and build each other up. Romans 12:4-10 tells us we all have different gifts. The Church operates as a body. We need each other. Our differences unite us. Our differences make us strong. Our differences keep us moving forward. As Dallas Willard writes, “Personalities united can contain more of God and sustain the force of His greater presence much better than scattered individuals.”

What is the role of confession & submission in fellowship?

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

– Philippians 2:3-8

In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard writes, “Confession alone makes deep fellowship possible.” He goes on to say, “In it we let trusted others know our deepest weaknesses and failures. This will nourish our faith in God’s provision for our needs through His people, our sense of being loved, and our humility before our brothers and sisters. Thus we let some friends in Christ know who we really are, not holding back anything important, but, ideally, allowing complete transparency. We lay down the burden of hiding and pretending, which normally takes up such a dreadful amount of human energy. We engage and are engaged by others in the most profound depths of the soul.”

Confession involves the disclosure of our sins. It is humbling ourselves. It is being transparent with other believers about the areas where we fail and fall short. This is not the Catholic practice of confessing to a priest in order to receive penance for our sins. Only Christ forgives. Hebrews 3:1 tells us He is our High Priest, and 1 Peter 2:5 tells us we are “being build up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood.” We have direct access to God. He hears our prayers. Romans 10:10 says, “For with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” Our salvation comes through confession. Confession deepens our fellowship with other believers, and with those who are coming to new faith in Jesus, because it opens the pathway for us to relate to one another on a deeper level. When trusted believers and spiritual leaders know our weaknesses, they can pray with us and help hold us accountable. When we expose the sins of our past by putting them in the light of Jesus, then those who do not yet believe will begin to see His grace at work within us and they will be drawn to know Him as we know Him.

In submission, we yield ourselves to the authority or control of another. Fellowship is not only about surrounding ourselves with like minded or commonly grounded people who share our faith, but it is also about surrounding ourselves with strong leaders of the faith. It is about surrounding ourselves with spiritually mature people who can speak truth and impart wisdom to us. It is about allowing ourselves to be discipled and poured into so we can then go out and make more disciples and pour ourselves out for others. If we only ever pour ourselves out without ever being poured into, then we’ll become spiritually dry, empty, and burnt out. We have to find balance. Dallas Willard writes, “In submission we engage the experience of those in our fellowship who are qualified to direct our efforts in growth and who then add the weight of their wise authority on the side of our willing spirit to help us do the things we would like to do and refrain from the things we don’t want to do.”

How can we practice confession & submission in our fellowship with one another?

Galatians 6:1-2 tells us to bear one another’s burdens. This means to take it up and carry it. Our brothers and sisters can’t help us carry our burdens if they never see the load we’re carrying. They can’t know if we don’t tell them. We aren’t meant to carry this weight alone. That’s what Jesus is for. That’s what His Church is for. He has put people in our pathway to help us carry the load.

Hebrew 13:17 tells us to submit to our leaders because they keep watch over our souls. God has placed people in authority in the church to warn us against the sins that are trying to ensnare and entangle us. These people in places of spiritual authority are there to provide loving correction, to pray for us, to counsel us, to admonish us. We have to be willing to receive their words, because they may be only a messenger God is using to speak His Word to us, and their counsel may be what God is using to confirm His calling for us.

Ephesians 5:21 tells us to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” This word “subject” is a Greek military term which means “to arrange troop divisions in military fashion under the command of a leader.” In non-military terms, it means to have a voluntary attitude of giving in, of cooperating with others, of assuming responsibility, and helping shoulder a burden. We all have seasons in life where we are placed on the front line of the battleground, and we all have seasons of life where we are in the background helping nurse the wounds of those who’ve returned from the front line.

We are in a battle against sin and against the evil powers and forces of this world every day. We all have different roles to play, and different positions to hold. We will all be in different positions of spiritual authority at different points in our lives. Sometimes God will have us issuing the commands and speaking His Words to hearts who are hurting, and sometimes we will be the hurting heart that needs to receive a healing word or a firm command. In every time, in every season, we should always be humble in our confession, receptive in our submission, and faithful in our fellowship.

Why are confession & submission important in our fellowship?

James 5:16 tells us to confess our faults to one another and pray for one another. The word “confess” in this verse is the Greek word Exomologeō  which means “to say the same thing as another.” This type of confession is an agreement. It’s saying, “Me too.” This is why support groups, recovery groups, and addiction ministries are so important. When you’re confessing to someone who shares the same struggle, they can understand how difficult it was for you to say no, to turn away, and to resist the temptation. They can share in your sorrow because they know the pain. They can share in your rejoicing because they know what it took to get where you are. They will pray with you through the valley, and they will praise with you on the mountaintop.

Proverbs 28:13 says, “He that conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will have compassion.” In this verse, the Greek word for “confesses” is Yadah which means, “to throw, to shoot, to cast at or away” and it can also mean “to revere or worship with extended hands, to praise, to give thanks.” In this sense, confession is a way of casting our crowns at the feet of Jesus. It is saying, “This is who I am, in exchange for all that you are.” Our good deeds are filthy rags compared to His righteousness. Confession reminds us of this reality. It reminds us of our sinfulness, and therefore it reminds us of God’s righteousness. When we confess our sins, it humbles us and magnifies Him. It is an act of worship, an act of praise and reverence. This type of confession is also similar to casting out a fishing line. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus said. When we are honest with others about our sinfulness and God’s faithfulness, it is like bait on the end of a fishing line. This world is starving for a need only Jesus can satisfy. Let’s show them what He can do. Let’s show them who He is. Let them see Him in us. Let them hear the Good News in the stories we tell, the salvation we profess, and the message we proclaim. He forgives because He loves, and we know that loves because He first loved us. Let’s share His forgiveness by giving it away as freely as we received it. Let’s draw others to Him by being open and honest in the confession of our sins. When I think about the importance of confession, I think about the woman caught in adultery. I think about when Jesus drew that line in the sand and asked those who were without sin to cast the first stones. I picture those stones falling to the ground as each person turned and walked away. An act of confession – I am not without sin. I have no right to judge. And it left only her and Jesus. It left only her and the only One who could judge, the One who could condemn, but He chose not too. That’s what our confession does. It points to Jesus. It allows Jesus to do what He does best. It gives Him control. It gives Him the power to forgive us as only He can. It gives Him the power to unite us as only He can.

Fasting & Prayer

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose they will be heard for their many words. So, do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”

– Matthew 6:5-8 NASB

Prayer is personal and private. It is a conversation between you and God. Corporate prayer is important as well – praying collectively as a group is powerful and it is vital for our churches and communities to grow and thrive, but it can’t replace our time alone with God. We need to listen closely to the instructions of Jesus and heed his advice. It is just as relevant now as it was then. We need to enter into our prayer closets and get alone with God in a secret place. We need to examine the motivation of our hearts. Are we praying to be heard by others or to be heard by God? Are we repeating meaningless words, or are we being intentional with the words we are praying?

What is the purpose of prayer?

  • Communication – When we pray, we’re having a conversation with God. We’re talking to our Father. We’re talking to our Best Friend. It’s not intended to be impressive. We don’t need to overthink it or try to say all the right words. God knows what we need before we ask. He just wants to hear from us. He just wants to commune with us.
  • Submission – Prayer is about humbling ourselves before God. It is how we ask Him for a specific need or desire. It is how we confess our sins. It is how we honor Him and give Him reverence. We can’t take for granted the immensely undeserved gift it is to be able to enter His presence. We don’t need to physically bow down knees or lay prostrate before Him every time we pray, but we should be aware of the posture of our heart. We need to enter His presence with humility and respect, because He is God and we are not. He is worthy, and we are not. We need to surrender ourselves before Him.
  • Intercession – The Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t have the words to pray. Romans 8:26 says He intercedes for us “with groanings too deep for words.” We pray in the name of Jesus, because it is through the sacrifice of Jesus that we have access to God. We don’t need to make a blood sacrifice to enter His presence, because Jesus became our sacrifice. We don’t need a priest to forgive us of our sins, because Jesus became our High Priest. The veil has been torn. We can enter into the Holy of Holies because of Jesus. Jesus is our intercessor, and because of His intercession, we too can intercede for others. Have you ever considered that maybe you are where you are in life right this moment because someone at some point in their life interceded for you when you were far from God?
  • Transformation – The purpose of prayer is to transform us from the inside out. The purpose of prayer is to shift our focus from the object of our fear to the object of our faith. Our prayers are not intended to change God’s mind, but to change our hearts. When I pray, it puts things into clearer focus. My perspective changes because I am looking up instead of looking around. We are transformed by the power of prayer.

Jesus didn’t just tell us how to pray, He showed us how.

“Pray then, in this way: Our Father who is in Heaven, Hallowed be Your Name. Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”

Matthew 6:9-13 NASB

“Our Father who is in Heaven, Hallowed be Your Name.”

In the first two words of this prayer, Jesus shows us how to address God in prayer. We come to God because of the relationship we have with Him. We come to Him as a child coming before their Father. Prayers in the Old Testament often addressed God as Lord, but in the New Testament He is addressed as Father. Our relationship with Him is more personal because of Jesus. Prayers in the Old Testament often addressed Him as “The God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Abraham, etc.” but the New Testament refers to Him as Our Father. We are adopted children. We are prodigal sons and daughters. We are heirs to the throne. He is not only the God of the patriarchs; He is our God. He is our Father.

He is our Father who is in Heaven. With these words, Jesus shows us where our prayers should be directed. Our prayers are directed upward, towards the Heavens. Looking to Heaven allows us to reflect on the greatness of God. It humbles us and magnifies Him. Looking toward Heaven puts our thoughts into perspective. Isaiah 55:9 says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The inclusion of the phrase “Hallowed be Your Name” shows us that prayer should be entered into with a heart of worship and reverence. “Hallowed” means to be holy and set apart. His name is YHWH – a name too Holy to even be written or spoken in the Hebrew language. YHWH means “becoming one.” He becomes who we need Him to be. He is El Roi meaning He is the God Who Sees. He is El Shaddai, the Almighty God. He is Jehovah Jirah, our Provider. He is Jehovah Nissi, our Banner of Victory. He is Jehovah Shalom, our Peace. He is Jesus. He is Yashua which means “The Lord has become our salvation.” He is Immanuel, God with us. In Exodus, God told Moses, “I am who I am.” In the book of John, Jesus issued seven “I am” statements. I am the Bread of Life. I am the Light of the World. I am the Gate. I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Resurrection and the Life. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I am the True Vine. He becomes what we need. He is all that we need. He is the I Am, and His Name is Holy.

“Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”

Kingdoms represent royalty, power, and dominion. The Kingdom of God is a Monarchy. A monarchy can be trusted when the King can be trusted, and our King is worthy of trust. Matthew 6:33 tells us to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Jesus prays for God’s Kingdom to come – meaning it must move from one place to another. Jesus prays for God’s will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. It’s important that Jesus included this, because our human will is often in opposition of God’s will. Jesus Himself in the Garden before His death prayed, “If it be your will let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but your will be done” (Luke 22:42).

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

A prayer for bread is a prayer for provision and nourishment. Our physical well-being is an important part of our spiritual well-being. Pray for what you need, but know that it may not always look like what you think it should. When the Israelites were hungry in the wilderness and prayed for bread, God sent manna down from the sky. It wasn’t any kind of bread they had ever seen before. It was flaky and appeared like dew on the ground. The word Manna in Hebrew means “What is it?” because they had never seen anything like it before. But it was God’s provision, and it was exactly what they needed. God gave them enough for each day and told them not to store it up. They took only enough for that day, and trusted God to supply it again the next day.

Jesus prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He didn’t pray for a week’s worth of bread, or a month’s worth of bread, or five-year supply of bread. He asked only for today. In Matthew 6:34 He tells us, “Take no thought about tomorrow for tomorrow has enough worries of its own.” We should pray for daily provision, and trust for divine provision tomorrow. Jesus asks God to give us the bread. That tells us that God’s provision can’t be bought, and it can’t be earned. It’s given. It’s a free gift of grace.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

A debt is that which is owed. It is justly and legally due. Romans 6:23 tells us the wages of our sin is death. Your wage is that which is earned. When we work for sin, when we focus our time and energy on sinful thoughts and activities, then the payment we are due is death. A debtor was often tormented, thrown into prison, or sold as slave until the debt was paid. Jesus lived a perfect life. He was without sin, but He died to pay a debt He didn’t owe. God gives because He loves. As He loved us and forgave our debt, so should we love and forgive those who sin against us.

This is the only part of Jesus’ prayer that He expounds on later. In verses 14 and 15 He says, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” This tells us that we should pray with sincerity. We shouldn’t pray a prayer if we aren’t willing to do what needs to be done to make it a reality. We can’t pray for forgiveness if we aren’t willing to forgive. God knows our heart. He knows our intentions. Forgiveness is no easy task. It is so much easier said than done, but it can be done. We can forgive because we have been forgiven. True forgiveness is a powerful force of love. It is a powerful demonstration of the love God has for us.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Jesus covers past, present, and future needs in this prayer. The prayer for daily bread covers the present, the prayer for forgiveness covers the past, and “lead us not into temptation” is a prayer for the future. Jesus is asking for God’s leadership and guidance. He is asking for deliverance from the traps of the enemy. 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us God will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able to withstand. It tells us God will provide a way of escape. This is Jesus praying for that escape. If we pray for it, then we have to be willing to look for it. When we’re caught up in the moment and temptation is right in front of us, it’s easy to put blinders on to any escape sign God may be trying to direct us towards. That’s why we have to be alert, be attentive, and pray without ceasing. We have to always be watching for God’s leadership, and we can’t allow ourselves to get into situations that will try to pull us off the path He has us on. When we do fall into temptation, we have to know that true repentance means turning away. It often seems that we’re in an endless loop of prayers for forgiveness and deliverance. Once our sin has been forgiven, we have to turn away and not look back. We have to focus on where God is leading us so we won’t be led astray.

“For Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.”

Jesus opened the prayer with a heart of worship, and He closed the prayer with a heart of worship. In the beginning, and in the end, He acknowledged the greatness of God. He acknowledged the Holiness and reverence of God. By closing the prayer in this way, Jesus is closing the prayer with comfort, confidence, and peace in who God is and in what He is able to do. He is closing the prayer on a note of hope.

Jesus didn’t say if you fast, but when you fast.

“Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

– Matthew 6:16-18 NASB

Fasting as a Spiritual discipline is implied in Scripture. It wasn’t commanded, because it was already expected. Fasting should be a habitual, integral part of our Spiritual lives. Jesus was prepared for the wilderness because He had practiced the disciplines of study, silence, and solitude – but he fought and endured through the wilderness because He fasted and prayed. Fasting requires Self-Discipline, Self-Denial, & Self-Control. It’s a learning process. It is a way for us to exercise the power of our spirit over the power of our flesh.

What is the purpose of fasting?

  • Fasting starves the flesh to feed the spirit – The first ever temptation was a temptation to eat. Food is a foundational part of our humanity. Eve was tempted because it was pleasing to the eye. She saw it, and she desired it. Our fleshly desires are those human characteristics that instinctively draw us toward sin. We crave it. Fasting breaks up our habitual cravings and regular routines. On a regular day, we will eat 2-3 times per day without a second thought. When we fast, it redirects those thoughts and focuses them on God rather than on satisfying the needs of our flesh. Fasting and prayer move our fight from the physical realm to the spiritual realm.  Fasting from food is a way of feasting on God. We must be emptied to be filled. In Matthew 4:2-4, Jesus hungered in the wilderness. And when Satan tempted Him to turn some rocks into bread, He quoted Scripture saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the word of God.” In the next chapter, during His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:6, He declared, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
  • Fasting shifts the carnally minded to the spiritually minded – When our minds are set on carnal and fleshly things it leads to death, but when our minds set on the Spirit it leads to life and peace (Romans 8:6-7). The strongholds we face are a battle of the mind (2 Corinthians 10:3-5) and fasting allows us to take our carnal thoughts captive and replace them with positive, life-giving, spiritual thoughts. Fasting gives us a kick-start, a reboot, to cleanse our mind and focus our thoughts on things above.
  • Fasting strengthens us through weakness – In Psalm 109:24 the Psalmist said, “My knees are weak from fasting…” When our knees are weak, it puts us in a better position to hit the ground and pray. When our knees are weak, we’re more dependent on God and leaning on Him to hold us up and strengthen us. Without weakness, we wouldn’t know what it felt like to be strong. Without hunger, we wouldn’t know what it felt like to be filled. Our weaknesses point us to Christ. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 the Words of Jesus say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Our weaknesses demonstrate God’s strength.

In Matthew 17:14-21 Jesus encounters a boy with a demonic spirit. The disciples tried to drive on the demon, but they could not. Jesus cast the demon out, and afterwards the disciples came to Him asking why they could not do it. “Because of the littleness of your faith,” he said. “For truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible to you. But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” Fasting and prayer gives us the power to do what only Jesus can do. Fasting and prayer gives us the power to move mountains and drive out demons. It gives us the power to do the impossible in the name of Jesus.

2-Chronicles-7.14

 

Silence, Solitude, and Secrecy

In Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. In the original Greek language, the word for “led” in the first verse is anagō which means “to lead up” or “to bring to a higher place.” Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness. The wilderness was a higher place. I take comfort in that small detail of Scripture. I take comfort in knowing that when God leads me to dry, desolate, lonely, and solitary places it’s because He wants to take me higher spiritually. He wants me to reach new heights of Spiritual growth that only the wilderness can develop.

Think about a tree – the deeper the roots go, the higher the tree grows. But the deeper those roots go, the darker it becomes. That seed, when first placed in the ground, doesn’t know what’s yet to come. The seed doesn’t understand the purpose of being placed in the soil. The seed doesn’t see the tree it will become. There’s a saying I love that says, “Sometimes when we think we’ve been buried; we’ve just been planted.” It’s so true! Don’t negate those wilderness seasons of your life. Don’t lose hope in those dark days under the soil. There is a purpose yet to be revealed once you’ve endured this dark and lonely season.

In the wilderness, Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. After fasting forty days and forty nights, He became hungry. And then Satan came to tempt Him. What does it tell us about Satan that he came after Jesus had fasted, after Jesus was hungry? It tells us that Satan comes to us when we are vulnerable. Jesus may have been physically weak for lack of food, but He was spiritually strong. Psalm 73:26 says, “My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” We can be at our strongest spiritually when we are at our weakest physically because it is in those times that we are fully dependent and trusting on God to be our strength. Satan will choose to come against us at that very time, because it’s in those moments of spiritual strength that we pose the greatest threat to him and his demons.

Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. This number is significant. It’s a number we see consistently throughout Scripture. When God flooded the earth and saved only Noah and his family, it rained for forty days (Genesis 7:17). When Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai, he fasted for forty days and forty nights (Exodus 34:28). The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before reaching the Promised Land (Numbers 14:34). The number “forty” represents trials and testing. It represents a probationary period. It represents a time of preparation for what will come next. Consider the context of Jesus during this testing of His faith in the wilderness. Immediately before being led to the wilderness, Jesus was baptized. Immediately following His temptation in the wilderness, He began His public ministry. God leads us to wilderness seasons to prepare us for where He is taking us next.

Satan’s primary weapon of attack in the wilderness is deception. He deceives us by trying to get us to misinterpret God’s Word. He wants us to doubt God’s truth. He wants us to question God’s goodness. When he came against Eve in the Garden of Eden, he asked her, “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in garden?” When he came against Jesus in the wilderness he said, “If you really are the Son of God, tell theses stones to become bread.” His subtly is his strategy, so we have to be attentive. He wants us to question our identity. He wants us to doubt who we are and who God is. He wants to doubt that we truly belong to the family of God. He wants us to doubt that God truly is good and has our best interest in mind. It’s easy to be swayed by the lies of the enemy if we aren’t firmly grounded in the truth of God’s Word. We have to cling tightly to Word of God and hide His Words in our heart, because that’s how we endure the wilderness. We combat the lies of Satan with the truth of God.

When Satan tempts us, he also appeals to our selfishness and pride. He tempts with instant gratification. Why wait when you can have what you want right now? Why give to others when you can keep for yourself? With Jesus, he urged Him to feed Himself, to save Himself, to take the kingdoms of the world for Himself. With Eve, he told her she would be like God. Jesus is the only One who actually IS God, but He resisted the temptation to prematurely put His divinity on display. Jesus was not thinking about Himself. He was thinking about us and about our need for a Savior. He faced the same temptations we do, but He sinned not. He was more concerned with our eternal salvation than with His own temporary satisfaction.

The first temptation Satan tried to lure Jesus with was food. Food is not sinful. Hunger is a perfectly normal and natural desire. But there are times when we are tempted to satisfy a perfectly normal or natural desire in a wrong way or at a wrong time – and Jesus resisted that temptation. Satan was tempting Jesus to use His divinity to satisfy the needs of His humanity. Looking forward to the cross, Jesus knew He would be faced with this same temptation. He could have used His divinity to save Himself from the physical pain of the cross, but He didn’t. In the desert, Jesus hungered, and on the cross one of the last words He uttered was “I thirst.” His humanity was fully on display in both instances. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. He sacrificed His human life to offer us eternal life, and He defeated death to show us how to truly live.

Satan’s next lure was mankind’s attention and awe. Once again, the longing for human affirmation is not sinful in itself, but when we live for that longing it becomes sinful. When we live to seek attention and applause, it is both self-serving and short-sighted. Jesus could have jumped off the highest point of the Temple and saved Himself, but He was looking ahead. He was looking beyond Himself. He knew He was there for a greater purpose. Instead of making a spectacle of Himself by performing this great feat, He chose instead to begin His ministry as a relatively unknown Rabbi, the son of a carpenter, a friend of sinners. Instead of capturing the attention and awe of the people in single moment, He chose instead to be hated and rejected by the people He came to save. He chose the path no one else would have chosen, to fulfill a purpose no one else could fulfill.

And the final temptation Jesus faced was the temptation of earthly power and possession. This temptation appeals to our innate desire for influence and authority. We all want to make a difference in this world, and Jesus could have done immense good with the power and authority Satan gave Him, but Satan was offering something that was not his to give. Satan is the prince of this present world, but Jesus had come to save the world yet to come. In the book Anonymous, Alicia Britt Chole writes, “Jesus had come to suffer for sinners. Satan suggested that He sin to avoid suffering. Jesus had come to die for the world. Satan offered him the world without dying… He tempted Jesus to give up His soul permanently to gain the world temporarily… Satan asked Jesus to trade the eternal for the visible, which is something he still invites us to do every day.”

Jesus counteracted the temptations of Satan with Scripture. The exact verses He used were Deuteronomy 8:3, Deuteronomy 6:16, and Deuteronomy 6:13. When you go back and read these verses, you realize how important it is that these are the verses Jesus used. Deuteronomy 8:2-5 in particular is Moses reminding the Israelites that God led them through the wilderness for forty years – testing them, and humbling them. The fact that Jesus chose this Scripture reveals His knowledge of Scripture. He knew exactly what verse He needed to recall to mind to resist the temptation, to endure the wilderness, and to remind Himself of the greater purpose of God at work.

Jesus was prepared for the wilderness because He practiced cultivation in His hidden years.

I first heard this phrase “practice cultivation” in a letter I received from a 14-year old girl named Grace who lived in Kenya and it has stuck with me ever since. I received a letter from Grace via Compassion International, and in this particular letter she was telling me all about the crops her family had been planting and harvesting that year. Then she asked, “Do you practice cultivation?” The question was so simple and beautiful. My honest answer was no – I’ve never tilled up a ground, never planted a seed, never waited and prayed for rain, never worked dawn to dusk in a field, never sweated and labored to produce a harvest of food. When I get hungry, I usually get in my car and drive around a building for them to hand me an already prepared meal out a window. Or maybe, I’ll walk into a building with shelves lined with food that has already been labored over and is packaged and ready for me to take home and prepare. I don’t practice cultivation, and it pained me to admit that. In a sense, it felt like I was making a confession of guilt.

And then I thought about it on a spiritual level. Do I practice cultivation? And once again, my honest answer would likely be no. Not nearly as often or as much as I should. I go to church and listen to the Pastor, but then I go home, and what happens? Maybe I’ll get in a a good routine of prayer and study for a few weeks, maybe even a few months, and then it will dwindle away again. Maybe I practice cultivation, but I don’t do it well. To cultivate means to “prepare and use land for crops or gardening; to promote or improve the growth of a plant by labor and attention.” If you’re in a wilderness season of your life right now, a season when you feel lonely and God feels distant or quiet – till the ground. Start practicing cultivation. The wilderness you’re in is a gift, an opportunity to prepare and use the land. It’s a blank canvas. We practice cultivation by practicing spiritual disciplines. When you practice spiritual disciplines, you are making an investment in your future and in the Kingdom of God. You are investing your time and energy towards producing a harvest of spiritual growth that will feed generations to come. God wants to use you in this season.

One of the most eye-opening experiences I ever had when reading the Bible was when I read Jeremiah 29:11 in full context. Jeremiah 29:11 is one of my favorite verses. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” During this time, the Israelites were in exile in the wilderness and they were starting to get defeated and discouraged. They were losing hope that they would ever make it out alive. A false prophet came and told they would be free in two years. It gave them hope, but it was a false hope. They were being comforted with a lie. Then Jeremiah came with a word from God. He told them to get comfortable in the wilderness – to build houses, plant gardens, get married, and have children. He told them they would be there for another 70 years, and then God would come and fulfill His promise. This was a hard truth, but it was truth nonetheless. Imagine their disappointment if those two years had come and gone and they were still not free? They would have lost complete hope and trust in God’ promises. They would have wasted two years of their lives waiting for a deliverance that would never come. Instead, they were able to practice cultivation in the wilderness. They were able to live full, expectant, and hopeful lives for those 70 years.

When you think about cultivation, how is it that you cultivate a relationship? Relationships are cultivated through communication – by talking, and listening, and asking questions. Relationships are cultivated by spending time together – you pick up on the other person’s likes, interests, and personality traits when you are interacting with them on a regular basis. Relationships are also cultivated by establishing trust. Trust is established by a lot of little moments that add up over time. Trust happens when you show up and do what you said you were going to do. Trust happens when you follow through with your commitments consistently.

So, with that in mind, how do we cultivate our relationship with God? It’s simple: Communication, Spending Time Together, and Establishing Trust. Silence, Solitude, and Secrecy. We communicate with Him in our silence. We spend time with Him in our solitude. We learn to trust Him when He consistently shows up in the secret places and spaces our hearts.

Silence

Silence is an important part of the way we communicate with God because we learn in 1 Kings 19:11-13 that He speaks in a still, small voice. I once heard a message by Steven Furtick in which He talked about why God whispers – and that’s because you only whisper to someone when they’re close beside you. God is close to us. That’s why He whispers. It’s intimate. It’s personal. It’s between Him and us. Another reason silence is important is because faith comes through hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17) and we can’t hear His Words if we’re distracted by all the noise around us. When we’re silent in His presence, we’re more attentive. When we’re more attentive, we’re more receptive. God is speaking, but are we really listening? Can we really hear?

Have you ever noticed that we’re afraid of silence? Why is that? I think it’s because we don’t like being alone with our own thoughts. We always tend to fill the silence with music, tv, and mindless chatter. In our society and in our culture, we are never truly in silence. Even with no music, no TV, and no one around me talking – I can still hear the hum of the AC, the passing of cars outside the window, the ticking of a clock in the other room. To be in complete silence would be such a stark contrast from our daily lives that it would throw us into a state of shock and panic. As Dallas Willard writes in Spirit of the Disciplines, “Silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God.”

The quieter we become, the more we hear. When we get quiet, we listen better. The less I talk, the fuller my words become. We need to learn the art of thinking before we speak. That’s why practicing silence and getting into a quiet place with God, is considered a spiritual discipline. We need to embrace the quiet. Lamentations 3:26 tells us to “wait quietly for salvation from the Lord.” In Psalm 62:1, David writes, “I wait quietly before God for my victory comes from Him.” Isaiah 30:15 tells us our strength is found “in quietness and confidence.”

Solitude

Solitude is how we spend time alone with God. Jesus Himself would often withdraw to quiet, solitary places to be alone with God. Mark 1:35 says, “Before daybreak, Jesus got up and went to an isolated place to pray.” Matthew 14:13 says, “He left in a boat to a remote area to be alone.” In Luke 5:16 we are told that Jesus “often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.” And He invites us to do the same. In Mark 6:31-32 He told His disciples, “Let’s go by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” In Matthew 6:6 He says, “When you pray, go away by yourself and shut the door.”

Similar to silence, we tend to fear solitude as well. In fact, one of our worst forms of punishment in the Western world today is solitary confinement. Dallas Willard describes our fear of solitude by saying, “In solitude, we confront our own soul with its obscure forces and conflicts that escape our attention when we are interacting with others… It serves to crack open and burst apart the shell of our superficial securities. It opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all carry within us… We can only survive solitude if we cling to Christ there.”

Secrecy

Secrecy is not one of the well-known spiritual disciplines, but it is a discipline nonetheless. Secrecy is one of the ways we build trust and intimacy with God. Throughout the Gospels, have you noticed that Jesus often told His followers to “tell no one” of the miracles He performed? We see this in Mark 1:40-45 and Mark 7:32-37. Why do you think Jesus would say this? I don’t know the answer for sure, but one thing I do know is that when God heals us, our lives reflect it. Our testimony speaks for itself. Our newfound joy seeps out in our words and in our actions. Jesus wanted to be known for the message He spoke, not simply for the miracles He performed. He wanted people to follow Him because of who He was, not because of what He could do for them. He wanted followers of genuine faith, not superficial faith. After all, true faith is believing without seeing. Secrecy is an important part of our relationship with God, because if you’ve ever prayed a prayer that was only between you and God and then you saw that prayer answered, then you know how powerful that is. You can’t help but be amazed. It’s such a bolster to our faith, because it shows us that we are seen, and loved, and heard by God. We walk away from those moments knowing that only God could have come through in the way that He did because only God knew the true desire and plea of your heart.

There are countless times throughout Scripture when reference is made to a “secret place.” Psalm 139:15 says we are formed in the secret place. Those 9 months when we are hidden in our mother’s womb are essential for our growth and development. Psalm 27:5 tells us we are protected in the secret place. He shelters us in His Temple and places us up on a high rock where out of the enemy’s reach and safe from the storms around us. Psalm 91:1-2 tells us we find rest in the secret place. If we live in His shelter, we will find comfort and security in His shadow. In Exodus 33:20-23 we learn that it is in the shadow where we can experience God’s presence. Moses had to remain hidden in the crevice of a rock while God’s Spirit passed by – and still His face shown so brightly that everyone knew He had been with God before He ever spoke a word. As Dallas Willard writes, “In the discipline of secrecy – we abstain from causing our good deeds and qualities to be known… As we practice this discipline, we learn to love to be unknown and even to accept misunderstanding without the loss of our peace, joy, and purpose… Secrecy rightly practiced enables us to place our public relationship department entirely in the hands of God, who lit our candles so we could be the light of the world, not so we could hide under a bushel. We allow him to decide when our deeds will be known and when our light will be noticed.”

Be silent before Him.

Be still in His presence.

Dwell in the secret place.

In that stark aloneness – in that silence and solitude that only wilderness seasons reveal – build a house, plant a garden, and get comfortable. Practice cultivation in the wilderness. Practice spiritual disciplines. Lift your eyes, heart, and hands to the Heavens – and know that He is God. He is preparing you through this season. He is preparing you for greater things that are yet to come.

The Study of Scripture

When we come to Christ for the first time and experience His salvation, we become new creations. But as we learn, grow, and develop in our walks with Christ, we are being shaped, molded, and formed more into His image. Spiritual formation is a journey, a process of becoming more like Jesus.

We are formed through discipleship, through practicing spiritual disciplines.

At the root, the word “disciple” means to be a follower, to be a learner.

If you are a parent, why is it that you discipline your children? You discipline them to teach them, to train them, to help them become the best versions of themselves. Simply yelling at them and telling them not to do something “because I said so” is not true discipline, because they aren’t learning anything. True discipline is loving correction. True discipline is helping them understand why they should or should not do something that’s in their best interest.

“By discipline we learn – and whether as children or adults, without it we cannot grow into the kind of persons we ought to be. The word has come to mean the formation of habits and patterns of life, usually by repetition until they become a part of us.”

– Georgia Harkness, Disciplines of the Christian Life

Think about it this way – How do you become a great athlete, musician, or artist? It doesn’t happen overnight. It requires daily practice. It requires surrounding yourself with people who have the same goals and interests. It requires a lifestyle change. It requires making diet, exercise, practice, and training a part of your daily schedule and routine. It requires commitment – commitment both to your end goal, and to whatever it is that drives and motivates you.

“The Spirit of the Disciplines is nothing but the love of Jesus, with its resolute will to be like Him whom we love… A discipline for the spiritual life is, when the dust of history is blown away, nothing but an activity undertaken to bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and His Kingdom.”

– Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines

Spiritual disciplines are those daily practices of our Christian faith. They are the diet and exercise of our Spiritual development, and they are essential for our spiritual growth and maturity. They include:

  • Study of Scripture
  • Silence, Solitude, & Secrecy
  • Fasting & Prayer
  • Fellowship, Confession, & Submission
  • Service & Sacrifice
  • Praise & Worship

Why is the study of Scripture such an important discipline for Spiritual formation?

1) Jesus began His earthly ministry by reading from Scripture

In Luke 4:14-21, Jesus begins His earthly ministry by standing in the synagogue and reading from Scripture. Prior to begining His ministry, Jesus was baptized and then led into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And how did He combat that temptation? By quoting Scripture. These are the first stories we have of the adult Jesus in Scripture. At this time He is estimated to be around 30 years old, approximately 3.5 years before His death and resurrection. Prior to this first entrance into public ministry, the last we had seen of Jesus was when He was 12 years old and His parents found Him in the Temple listening to the religious teachers and asking them questions. The early years of Jesus were largely hidden from Scripture, but in each of these early stories, we learn that Jesus must have spent a majority of time in His hidden years studying and gaining a deep knowledge and understanding of Scripture. As His disciples, we should make it a priority to follow the example He set for us.

2) Jesus is the Word of God in flesh

John 1:1-14 tells us that “In the beginning, the Word already existed. The Word was with God and the Word was God” and “The Word became human and made His home with us.” Jesus is God in human flesh. Jesus is God personified and dwelling among us. If we want to get to know the characteristics of God, we do so by looking at the life of Jesus. And if we want to get to know Jesus, we do so by reading the Word of God. There is so much power in His written Word. It is how we come to know God, it is how we come to know Jesus, and it is how we come to know ourselves.

3) All Scripture is Inspired by God and Useful

“The inspiration of the Bible does not mean that God dictated it, word for word, and therefore that its truth is unmistakable. The word ‘inspiration’ means ‘inbreathing,’ and in the Bible we find the breath of God’s Spirit for man’s invigoration as it comes through its human writers. Those who wrote the various portions of the Bible had a great sense of what God was doing in human life and history; yet they had their own prejudices and points of view as well. Inevitably, these crept into the record, so that we have in the Bible what Paul called heavenly ‘treasure in earthen vessels.’”

– Georgia Harkness, Disciplines of the Christian Life

Jesus is the Word of God in flesh, and just as Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, so is His Word. It was passed down through stories and written down by flawed human beings, but every word was inspiried by the the divine Word of God. As Andrew Wilson writes, “I don’t trust Jesus because I trust the Bible, I trust the Bible because I trust Jesus.” Our faith should be rooted in Jesus, and backed up by Scripture. All Scripture is useful and purposeful for our growth and development, and all Scripture should be used to bring us closer to Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:15-17 says, “You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (NLT).

What are some study traps to avoid?

1) Don’t just accept something to be true because it’s what you’ve always heard

So many people are following the faith of their parents and grandparents, and don’t understand why they believe what they believe. Study the Scripture for yourself. Seek the truth, and you will find it. Your relationship with God is personal. You get to know a friend truly and intimately by spending time with them, not by listening to gossip about them. It’s the same with Jesus. We get to know Jesus by reading the Gospel and studying His life. When you listen to other preachers and teachers and leaders of the faith, always make sure what you are learning is supported and backed up by Scripture. A solid knowledge of Scripture will help you to not be led astray by false prophets who use the pulpit as a platform to share their opinions and worldview or make a profit.

2) Don’t feel obligated to read the Bible cover to cover

Reading the Bible cover to cover is a great Spiritual practice, but what is your motivation for doing it? If you’re reading just to read, you’ll miss the meaning and mystery behind the words. Read with the intention of finding Jesus there, not to mark it off your “to-do” list. Truly dwell in His Spirit and reflect on the words. Don’t rush through them. Allow them to soak in and transform you.

3) Don’t try to find a text in the Bible to justify your beliefs or actions

If you go to the Bible with that intention, you’ll probably find what you’re looking for, but you’ll also skew and misinterpret the words in the process. We read the Bible so it can transform us into the image of Jesus, not so we can transform Him into our image. We read the Bible to get to know the source of our salvation and find forgiveness for our sins, not to find justification for our sins so we can continue living life as we always have.

4) Don’t try to explain the mystery away

You will not understand everything in Scripture. As Aristotle said, “The more I know, the more I know how much I don’t know.” If there was no mystery to the Scripture, then it wouldn’t be miraculous. If we could explain everything in Scripture with scientific fact and human ability, then it wouldn’t be God. It wouldn’t be Holy, and Sacred, and Set Apart. Find delight and adventure in the ambiguity of Scripture. Find joy in the journey. Wrestle with the parts that confuse you, and use your questions to take you deeper into the meaning, and purpose, and truth behind the text.

5) Don’t take it lightly

Honor the Word of God and keep it Holy. It’s more than just a text. It’s more than just a historical document. It’s more than stories, and poems, and songs. People have died trying to keep this book out of your hands and out of your language. Other people around the world, even today, do not have the same privileges that we do. Don’t take that gift for granted. Don’t let it collect dust. Let it transform you. As the saying goes, “A Bible that is falling apart belongs to a person who is not.”

What are some study tips to practice?

1) Find an accountability partner

Find someone you can study with, share your questions with, and bounce ideas off of. Find someone who can share in your excitement of the Scripture, and someone who will hold you accountable to your study time.

2) Make Scripture a visible part of your daily life

Consistency and repetition is key for memorization. Memorization is important for when you need to recall verses to your mind and speak truth to yourself in times when you don’t have your Bible in front of you. Make it visible by putting it in places you see every day – on your phone screen, your computer screen, your bathroom mirror, your refrigerator, or the dashboard in your car. In Deuteronomy 6:6-9, the children of Israel were instructed to teach their children the words of God by talking day and night about them, binding them on their hands, wearing them on their foreheads, and writing them on the door posts of their houses as a reminder.

3) Set aside a fixed time to study

Make it a regular part of your daily routine. Choose a quiet time and place that works best for you. Get away from the noise and distractions for a while. Turn off your phone, prepare your heart, and sit attentively in His presence as you read and study.

4) Accompany study with prayer

Invite the Holy Spirit into your time of study. Seek Him. Worship Him. Ask Him to reveal Himself to you. Listen for His voice, and wait expectantly for Him to speak.

5) Focus less on technique, and more on the posture of your heart

Technique matters. How you study is important, but it’s just a means to an end. The end goal of why we study Scripture is to grow closer to Jesus and to be shaped more into His image. We read for formation, not just for information. The quality of our study is more important than the quantity of our study. Make the most of your time with Jesus by truly spending time with Him. Don’t rush through it. Take the time to listen, and respond, and allow yourself to be transformed.

6) View the Bible as a library of writings, not just as a singular book

We can’t read every book of the Bible in the same way. The Bible is a compilation of different genres, written by different authors, in different time periods, with different points of view. When we read the Bible with that perspective in mind, it truly comes to life and takes on the multi-dimensional shape that is representative of the Kingdom of God.

7) Study the passage within the full context

When reading a passage of Scripture, be sure to read the verses before and after. Get a Study Bible or read along with a commentary. When using a Study Bible, be sure to follow the references in the margins, read the footnotes after each passage, and read the introductions before each book. Learn as much as you can about the historical context, the geographical context, and the background of the author. The details will help make the difference in your understanding of the passage.

8) Pay attention to the details

Read slowly and carefully. Read out loud to help channel your focus if you need to. Pay attention to words and phrases that stand out to you. Ask yourself questions as you’re reading. Why did the author include this? Why did Jesus say this or do that? Where were they going? Where were they coming from? Study the words, the names, the cities and towns. Look up the definitions in the original language. Follow every rabbit trail that God leads you down. Every detail is there for a purpose. Every word was intentional and divinely inspired.

9) Make Jesus the center of your study

Everything in the Old Testament leads up to Jesus, and everything after the Gospels point back to Jesus. Read with that perspective in mind. He is the center of the story, and He should be the center of our study.

“So, if we find passages that seem somewhat dull and even boring, as we may in Leviticus and Numbers, or passages that seem a bit shocking by present standards, as in the polygamy of the Old Testament patriarchs or the cruelty of the wars of conquest, these things need not bother us. They reflect the human element in the Bible. What is divine about it is the message that comes to its climax in Jesus. Using Him as our standard, we can look at the rest with a fresh perspective.”

– Georgia Harkness, Disciplines of the Christian Life

10) Be sure to close the study with a time of reflection and response

Take it personally. Apply it to your life. If you have doubts or questions, ask God. If it compels you to worship, then worship. If it convicts you to make a change in your life, take action and make the change. Spend time in God’s presence once you’re finished studying. Don’t jump right back into daily life without allowing yourself the opportunity to soak in the truth. Feel what you’re feeling. Rest in the presence of His Word and be transformed by the power of His Word.

Canvas & Clay: A Study of Spiritual Formation

If I had a coloring book in one hand and a blank canvas in the other, and I asked you to choose which one you wanted – which would you choose?

If you asked for a coloring book, and I handed you a blank canvas – how would you feel?

I don’t know about you, but blank canvases make me nervous. They give me anxiety. There are so many options, and so much room for error. Coloring books are easy. It requires no thought. The lines are already drawn, and you just have to fill it in with colors. With a blank canvas, you’re starting from scratch. Every decision is up to you, and every mistake is your own making.

Have you ever felt like you asked God for a coloring book, and instead He handed you a blank canvas? Lysa Terkeurst talks about this in her book It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way. She describes the end of her marriage as feeling like all the perfectly drawn pages of her coloring book had been erased. She writes, “I opened the coloring book and someone had erased all the beautiful drawn lines. There was nothing but white pages. Empty spaces. Endless possibilities of fear and failure. Metaphorically speaking, my life was now a blank canvas.”

Why do blank canvases fill us with so much fear and anxiety?

I think we are anxious and afraid in these moments of our lives because we are under the impression that we are the artist, and therefore we we are in control of the outcome. We take the weight of that fear of failure on ourselves. We’re afraid of making the wrong decision – drawing the wrong line here, or putting the wrong color there. We’re afraid our bad decisions will mess up the whole painting. But that’s not our burden to bear. Will we make bad decisions in life? Yes, absolutely. But we’re not the artist. We are the canvas. We’re the paintbrush. We’re the color on the pallette. We are the method God is using to paint His masterpiece. And He knows exactly what He’s doing. He takes ALL things and works them together for good – as any masterful artist can and will. Broken pieces? He can use them. A wrong color here, a jagged line there – He’ll smooth out the edges. He’ll add light to the shadows. He’ll blend it together. He’ll make it beautiful. We might not be able to see the finished product yet, and it may get messy in the middle, but we can trust the process. We can trust Him because He knows what He’s doing. God is a creator. It’s what He does. It’s who He is. It’s the first characteristic we see of Him in Scripture. “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the earth…” The earth was void and formless. It was a blank canvas, and God spoke creation into being.

When God walked this earth in human flesh, He took the role of a carpenter – yet again, a creator. An artist. A skilled craftsman. Where once He took nothing and made something, now He took something and made something different. Where once He created, now He formed. He took that tree He had spoken into existence, and with His hands and a few tools He transformed it into a table or a chair. He took the splintered pieces of wood and smoothed out the edges. He cut it here, and added a nail or two there, until it started to take shape and become something useful and purposeful.

What is Spiritual Formation?

Spiritual formation is the process of being formed into the image of Jesus. According to Christianity Today, “To be formed spiritually means to engage in specific practices and disciplines with one clear goal: to draw nearer to God in Christ and so focus less and less on self.” In Isaiah 43:1 the Prophet Isaiah writes, “But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says…” The opening words of this verse are ones we would normally skim over and not give much second thought to, but it speaks a lot of truth in a few simple words. It tells us that formation is different than creation. It tells us that Jacob was created, but Israel was formed.

Creation happens instantaneously. At the moment of conception, life is created. But the formation of that life that takes place over nine months of growth and development in the womb. When we come to Jesus, we become new creations, but that process of becoming like Jesus – that’s a hard fought battle of strength and determination. That’s a wrestling match, and that’s what spiritual formation looks like. In the Old Testament, Israel was the new name Jacob received after his wrestling match with God. Jacob was the name he was given at birth. One name was given to him in a moment, the other was given to him after an all night battle.

To create means “to bring into existence.” When Jacob was born, he came into existence holding on to the heel of his twin brother, Esau. At that time, and in that culture, birth order was important, because it ultimately determined who received the blessing and inheritance of the father. Jacob’s name literally means “deciever” or “supplanter” because he came into the world trying to ussurp the role of the firstborn son. From the moment he was born, Jacob was trying to take what was not his to receive. And as he grew older, he continued to live up to the name that was given to him. Later in life, Jacob tricked and deceived Esau in a moment of weakness to rob him of his birthright. When their father was blinded in old age and on his death bed, Jacob deceived his own father in order to receive the blessing that was intended for Esau.

But in Genesis 32, Jacob found himself nearing an imminent encounter with his brother, and he was afraid that his past would catch up with him. He was afraid that the vengence of Esau would overtake him, his family, and all of his possessions. He sent messengers ahead of him to greet his brother with a gift of peace. He sent his family ahead of him across the stream. And there he waited, all alone. And that night a man came and wrestled him. The man wresteld him until daybreak. When the man could not overtake Jacob, He reached out and touched His hip so it wrenched out of socket. Jacob refused to relent. Even as daybreak broke, he declared, “I will not let go unless you bless me.” Then the man asked a question, “What’s your name?” When Jacob answered this question, He wasn’t just telling his name, he was making a confession. “I am Jacob. I am a deceiver.” And the man replied, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28 NASB). Afterward, Jacob named the place Peniel because he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (Genesis 32:30 NASB).

For the first time, Jacob received a blessing that was freely and conciously given to him. It was the first time he asked for a blessing rather than stealing one. He proved he was willing to fight for it. He proved he was willing to suffer for it and sacrifice for it. His battle was a battle to right the wrongs of his past, and he came out victorious, but not without scars. He left with a limp to keep Him humble and remind Him that the victory came only because of God’s mercy and grace. Lies and deception had been the joint and marrow of Jacob’s story, but now he was given a second chance and a new name.

He received this new name through wrestling. The definition of “wrestled” in this passage is “to grapple” or “get dusty” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Definition). This was not a boxing match where they were standing on two feet and throwing punches. This was a wrestling match where they were on the ground, rolling around in the dirt, stirring up dust. As I reflected on this, I was reminded of the creation of Adam in the very beginning of scripture. Genesis 2:7 says, “Then the Lord God formed man of the dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (NASB).

We are formed from the dust of the ground. We are formed through wrestling with God in the dust of this earth. We are formed when the breath of God touches the dust of this earth. Did you know that the word “Spirit” comes from the word “pneuma” which literally means “breath”? Did you know that in Hebrew, the name of God which we know as Yahweh cannot even be pronounced, but when attempted, simply sounds like the exhaling of a breath? That is how Holy His Spirit is, and our spiritual formation happens when His Holiness meets our humanity.

Think about this…. Adam was the son of God, created by God and breathed into existence by God. His name means “man” or “earth” and that is exactly what his name represents – the fall of man, this sinful world that we are born into. Jesus is also the son of God, His only begotten son. The word begotten means born. Jesus was not simply created and breathed into existence – He was knit together in His mother’s womb. He was formed, and His name means “God with us.” He is our salvation from the sins of this world. He is our deliverance, our redeemer. It is through Him that we receive the hope of eternal life. It is through Him that we are able to be made new and receive new names.

When God created the heavens and the earth, the word “created” used in the Genesis account means, “to cut” (Strong’s Definition). This is an interesting definition, but it makes so much sense when you think about it. Think about a chisel in the hand of a sculptor, cutting away the stone and bringing life to the beauty hidden within. The famous sculptor, Michaelangelo, is quoted as once saying, “I saw the angel in the marble, and I carved until I set him free.” God spoke creation into being. His Word is His chisel, and His desire is to set us free. His words literally cut through the darkness and bring light into the world. That’s how He creates. That’s how we are created – when His Word cuts through our darkness and chisels away at our hardened hearts. Hebrews 4:12 tells us His word is powerful and sharper than a two-edged sword, cutting between the soul and spirit, exposing our innermost thoughts. John 1:1-5 tells us the Word existed in the beginning and gave life to everything that was created. Our creation story is our testimony. What is your story? How did you become a new creation? (For a powerful demonstration of this, watch “God’s Chisel” by the Skit Guys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QCkBL2DfVg).

If our creation story is our testimony of salvation, then our formation story is the process of our sanctification. It is the process of being shaped into the image of Jesus. Formation is discipleship. A poem by Tquan Moore describes being a disicple of Jesus as being “covered in the dust kicked up by His stride.” It is following so close behind Him that you hear His every breath and cling to His every word. It is walking in His footsteps, and going wherever He leads. It is following His example – living as He lived and loving as He loved. So how are you being formed right now in your walk with Jesus? What are you learning? What questions are you asking? In what areas are you growing? What is challenging you? Do you have a mentor in the faith? Are you being a mentor? Who is pouring into you, and how are you pouring yourself out to others? Discipleship is about more than being a disciple, it’s also about making disciples. Formation is a journey, a process of moving from one place to another. It is a journey from who you are to who you want to be. This type of transformation requires sacrifice. Romans 12:1-2 says to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. It says we are transformed by changing the way we think. We are transformed from the inside out. After his transformation, Jacob walked with a limp, but that limp kept him humble and served as a visual representation of God’s victory over his sinfulness. Paul was given a thorn in his flesh to keep him from becoming prideful. Thorns are sharp, they pierce our flesh and expose the blood within, revealing our physical weakness. But Jesus wore our thorns, and His blood brings healing and cleansing. The pain we endure on this earth is temporary, but the purpose it serves is eternal. Keep the faith. Keep pressing forward despite the doubts, discouragement, and difficulties. Spiritual formation is not about perfection, it is about progress. It’s not about what we’re doing but about who we’re becoming.

When you start to doubt, just remember… He is the Artist and the Potter. We are the canvas and the clay. He is not finished with us yet.