The New Commandment

Most Christians are oh-so-familiar with Jesus’ familiar words about the first227062-20140710 and second greatest commandments, a teaching that occurred during His final week in Jerusalem, just days before the crucifixion:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31 ESV)

It is a beloved passage, one that many of us have taken very seriously. But how often have we considered Jesus’ new commandment, which was given a few days later on the eve of His crucifixion as He met in the upper room with the disciples?

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 ESV)

As I read this passage a couple of weeks ago, late on the Thursday night before Good Friday, I was struck by how many times I’ve seen or heard it—probably hundreds over the years—but have not really pondered very deeply its significance. This new commandment far exceeds what He had spoken about previously! This commandment is to love as He loves, but how often do I/we fall terribly short of that goal? His perfect love is the mark for which we must aim and the Love Chapter, as it is often called, provides a good ‘recipe’ for love.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a ESV)

Did you get that? God’s model of love is patient and kind, never jealous or boastful or proud or rude, doesn’t keep track of the offenses of others, is not happy about the wrongs of others and is very happy when truth prevails. But that’s not all; love never gives up or loses faith in others, it is always hopeful and endures hardships, and it also lasts forever. I believe that this example is only reflective of where Jesus’ love for us begins, because He was also willing to suffer and die for our sins. Anticipating his death the following day, he went on to say:

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13 ESV)

The thing is though, Jesus wasn’t just another everyday hero; you know, the kind we see on the news when a brave soldier saves others at the cost of his/her own life; or, as just happened this week, when a heroic lady at the Jewish synagogue shooting in Poway, CA threw herself into the line of fire, saving the life of her Rabbi and dying as a result. Yes, our everyday heroes do lay down their lives for their friends and that is a great love indeed, but Jesus took it a big step farther. When he willingly went to the cross, he took upon himself the punishment that was due to each of us for our sins; He died not to save our physical lives so we could thrive for a few more years on earth, but to make eternal life with God possible. Eternal life—that means unending life, living happily-ever-after forever and ever and ever—and that’s a whole lot more that anyone’s natural lifespan by a very long shot!

Considering Jesus’ new commandment to love as He had loved, I have to think that the love we think we have for others often leaves much to be desired. As we endeavor to become conformed to His image, we would do well to remember the last phrase of 1 Corinthians 13, …but the greatest of these is love. After all, this is how the world will recognize us as His disciples.

A New Year’s Prayer

2016On December 31, 2015, New Year’s Eve, I awoke from a vivid dream in which I’d been surrounded by others at the sort of conference center that one might find in a nice hotel. A pianist was playing nice background music from the lobby, catching my attention as she began to play a familiar tune. As I began to sing, many others joined in:

God bless America, land that I love
Stand behind her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above
From the mountains, to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America
My home sweet home

I’d sung the words as a heartfelt prayer, with my eyes closed. When I opened them there was a nice looking man standing next to me who I believe was the Lord, and He encouraged me to keep on singing. Today, as I welcomed 2016 during my quiet time, He directed me to Psalm 100 and Psalm 101:1:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

I will sing of steadfast love and justice;
to you, O Lord, I will make music.

May 2016 be a year in which we, His people, seek Him above all else and joyfully sing His praises, for:

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14

May God bless all who read this, whether you are in America or in any other nation on earth, for He is there. May 2016 be a year in which you encounter Him  and His sufficiency, His grace, and His mercy in every aspect of your life.

God’s Voice

BibleHow easy it is to take things for granted until, suddenly, they disappear—jobs, friends, health, finances, and on and on. Not long ago, I experienced this firsthand as laryngitis ravaged my throat and I lost the ability to talk. In a positive sense, perhaps it could be viewed as one way to guard my tongue and avoid saying things better left unsaid; but I could also seek out what the Lord might want to teach me. So I looked up scriptures relating to ‘voice’, and was impressed anew by the majesty and power of our God. Though He sometimes speaks so quietly we may miss His message, it’s not because he has laryngitis but because He wants us to listen carefully for His words. He wants us to tune out the things of the world and carefully heed His voice:

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.  And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1 Kings 19:11-13

The voice of God can be quiet and comforting—even conversational at times—but it can also be frightening. The incredible power and majesty of His voice cannot be fully described, but Elihu and David gave it a pretty good shot:

At this also my heart trembles and leaps out of its place. Keep listening to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth. Under the whole heaven he lets it go, and his lightning to the corners of the earth. After it his voice roars; he thunders with his majestic voice, and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard. God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend. Job 37:1-5

The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over many waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare and in his temple all cry, “Glory!”  Psalm 29:3-9

To heed God’s voice results in blessings, but destruction comes when He is ignored or denied:

If you will fear the Lord and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, it will be well. But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord, but rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand of the Lord will be against you and your king. 1 Samuel 12:14-15

As the prophet Samuel encouraged the people of Israel to obey God’s voice, so we are also enjoined to listen carefully:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years.  Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’  As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.  But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.  For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” Hebrews 3:7-15

From beginning to end, the Bible illustrates the voice of the Lord as creative, powerful, and true. In Genesis 1, “God said, ‘Let there be…” and creation of the heavens, earth, and all that in on the earth occurred; and in the last chapter of Revelation, He speaks of the end of the world as we know it:

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star…Surely I am coming soon.” Revelation 22:16,20

May we hear His voice; may we cherish the words He speaks; and may we agree with John the Apostle, “Even so, Lord Jesus, come.”

Aging Gracefully

page47colorThe righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God.  They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.  Psalm 92:12-15

During the last few weeks of her life it seemed that Sheba was sweeter than ever.  Time after time, even as we waited to cross a street, people would stop, roll down a car window, and comment on what a great dog she was.  And invariably, as practically every person we met on the sidewalk would pause to pet her and comment on her wonderful personality, that curly little tail would wag back and forth and those beautiful, big brown eyes would overflow with love.

Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  My prayer is that I will age as gracefully as my sweet little Pug, and that at the end of my days, my life will overflow with the Holy Spirit’s fruit, proving to the world that I am God’s and He is mine.

Fear’s Antidote

Sheba circleGod, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful…There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.  1 Corinthians 1:9 & 1 John 4:18

Sheba loves people and has no awareness that there are those who would abuse her, and even if she did I doubt that she’d be afraid because she knows that she belongs to us and she trusts us completely to take care of her.  As a result, she happily goes up to anyone and everyone she sees with no fear of rejection.  She also knows what behavior is expected of her and that she will be reprimanded if she misbehaves; yet she remains unafraid because she loves and trusts us.

Perfect love casts out all fear, and God loves us perfectly, so why are we afraid?  He’s not “out to get us.”  We don’t have to fear his wrath unless we disobey his commands; and even then, while we can expect a gentle reprimand, isn’t that what we need—what we want?  A master who loves us enough to correct us, to show us the right way to behave; yet a loving master to whom we can take our problems as well as our joys without fear of rejection.

As Sheba reflects our love for her by fearlessly loving others, so should we also reflect God’s love for us by loving even those who may seem frightening to us—those whose lifestyles are different than ours, those of whom we don’t approve.  Jesus himself reached out to the sinners of his day, even living and socializing with them!  They were the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the people who were looked down upon by the religious leaders.  He was criticized for it too.

Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus’ followers.  “What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?”  Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.” Matthew 9:10-13 The Message

What a role model! Lord, let me love as Jesus did—fearlessly!

Bitter Medicine

Sheba on PillowNot only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.  Romans 5:3-5

Like most senior citizens, Sheba has a collection of pills that she takes daily, medications and food supplements to maintain her health and relieve her allergies and arthritis.  These are very effective treatments, and as long as they’re consumed she moves around quite comfortably.  But Sheba doesn’t like her pills—apparently they taste bad—and if they’re given alone she won’t touch them. Added to dry dog food, she’ll eat all around the pills and leave them in the dish; every morsel will be gone except the few tiny bites that will keep her healthy and pain free.  So we disguise them with moist food, coating each pill so thoroughly that she never even realizes she’s eaten something that’s good for her.

Life typically hands us a lot of ‘bitter pills’, and we all endure unpleasant experiences that ‘taste bad’.  But amazingly enough, these hardships that we despise so much may be the very medicine we need—opportunities disguised as problems that God allows so that we can become stronger.  And when it all just seems too much to swallow, Take the old prophets as your mentors.  They put up with anything, went through everything, and never once quit, all the time honoring God.  What a gift life is to those who stay the course! You’ve heard, of course, of Job’s staying power, and you know how God brought it all together for him at the end.  That’s because God cares, cares right down to the last detail.” (James 5:10-11, The Message)

Hurry Up and Wait

 Kev & Sheba on Wade PorchBut do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  2 Peter 3:8-9

It seldom fails that Sheba decides it’s time to go outside at the most inconvenient times, and she is notorious for taking a very long time, sniffing everywhere for a place that meets with her satisfaction.  Now, Sheba may be deaf, but she’s not blind—in fact, she can probably see farther than I can.  So, though all I want her to do is hurry up and take care of her business, she’ll stop and gaze off into the distance if she catches sight of someone walking toward us.  Without moving, she’ll watch every step until they reach us.  Then she turns on the charm and usually manages to get the inevitable attention that she wants—few can pass her by without stopping to give her a pat on the back or a scratch behind the ears.  When they finally move on and turn the corner out of sight, she’ll get back to the reason we’re standing out there in the first place—and meanwhile I’m praying that another neighbor won’t decide to go for a walk so we can finish up and go back inside.

How often do we have an urgent task that needs to be accomplished—a purpose to be met—a destiny to be fulfilled by becoming all that God has called us to be; but we get sidetracked and let our attention waver toward other activities that appear more gratifying at the moment?  Unlike me waiting impatiently for Sheba, God is patient, and he waits lovingly and faithfully until we regain our focus and turn back to him and his agenda for our lives.  Then, he brings us back into his house where we are welcomed as “fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household…with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” (see Ephesians 2:19). I can’t think of any place I’d rather be!