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Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Great Key to Changing

During my seminary years, I had a friend named Mike who was a full-time firefighter and a fairly new Christian. Mike and I went to a weekly men’s prayer group on Friday mornings, and I remember one Friday morning Mike was lamenting how he would go on this two week canoe trip to Canada with a bunch of his friends. He loved to go, but he explained it had gotten harder in recent years.

You see, on the trip, he was around people who didn’t care about Christ and their language revealed it: they would swear and worse, take God’s name in vain. He wanted to know if he should challenge his lost friends to stop taking God’s name in vain.

On one level I thought it would be good, because the Bible says “God will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” So there’s a sense where you want to warn people.

But in the end I recommended he keep his mouth shut about the swearing and just tell his friends the gospel. Once they became Christians, the swearing, maybe not immediately, some Christians still struggle in this area, but eventually, the swearing would take of itself.

Or take the area of abortion. As a non-Christian high-schooler, I remember thinking that abortion was no big deal. I don’t remember arguing about it with anyone, but I might have. After all, it was a woman’s right; it’s her body, blah, blah, blah.

Then I came to Christ, and I just knew. I just knew. I don’t remember reading anything on the topic (other than the Bible), or hearing anyone speak on it, though this might have happened. But I think I just knew internally that abortion…was pure and simple murder. Evil.

Now Paul the Apostle understood the concept I’m illustrating with these two examples, and there is a phrase that expresses it in Romans that starts the letter and ends the letter.

I’m talking about the phrase, “obedience of faith.”

We see it in Romans 16:26…and Romans 1:5:

…through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, Romans 1:5 (ESV)

The NIV is helpful to understand what Paul means here:

Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. Romans 1:5 (NIV)

Something happens when people place their faith in Jesus as Savior – they start to obey. Oh, they’re not perfect – none of us ever will be this side of heaven – but when we believe in Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit and everything changes.

Obedience comes from faith.

The Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel expressed it this way:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. Ezekiel 36:26-27 (ESV)

Here is one of the great keys, parents, to getting your kids to obey you: preach the gospel to them. Here is the key to helping your friends change: preach the gospel to them.  Here is one of the great keys to overcoming sin in your own life: preach the gospel to yourself.

It is like Paul once wrote to Titus:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, Titus 2:11-12 (ESV)

Do you see it? Better than the pointing finger, better than the law, better than any other method you might use – try the “method” of the Apostle Paul – the grace of God, which trains us to say no to ungodliness.

For obedience comes from faith.

Monday, March 23rd: Romans 2

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Karma?

250px-My_Name_Is_Earl_title_screenThe T.V. show “My Name is Earl” ran from 2005 – 2009.  Its premise was stated by the title character in the opening sequence:

“You know the kind of guy who does nothing but bad things and then wonders why his life sucks? Well, that was me. Every time something good happened to me, something bad was always waiting ’round the corner: karma. That’s when I realized that I had to change, so I made a list of everything bad I’ve ever done and one by one I’m gonna make up for all my mistakes. I’m just trying to be a better person. My name is Earl.”

Karma.  It’s an ancient idea, and yet as the T.V. show illustrates, quite modern as well, so modern that even many Christians today still buy into it.  It was certainly a prevailing worldview when Paul found himself shipwrecked on Malta and tried to build a fire:

When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” Acts 28:3-4 (ESV)

Do you see it?  Paul had been bitten by a poisonous snake; therefore Paul had done something to deserve it.  They called it “justice”, but they really meant Karma – the principle of causality.  If bad things happen to you, it’s because you did bad things.  If good things happen to you, it’s because you did good things.  By the way, Karma is not to be confused with the law of sowing and reaping, which is biblical (Galatians 6:7) – some positive behaviors really do (in general) cause positive outcomes, and some negative behaviors really do cause other negative results, i.e. if you eat donuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner…you will end up looking like a donut. That’s not Karma – it’s just poor nutrition.

Anyway, the idea of Karma is different – the negative thing happening to you stems from an unrelated negative behavior – Paul’s viper could never have been caused by a supposed murder.  Karma is really not hard to understand, and somehow, the idea of it is even harder to escape.  Even Jesus’s disciples seemed to buy into it:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  John 9:1-2 (ESV)

But Jesus straightened them out – it wasn’t that anyone sinned, but that God wanted to glorify His name.

The great problem with Karma is that it’s just not true – it isn’t in fact the way that the world works.  And beyond that, Karma can only lead to one of two outcomes: First, if something negative happens to you, believing in Karma causes a deeper despair than the negative event alone. How could it not? Apparently, Karma says, your cancer diagnosis stems from the way you treated that kid in the third grade.  You were already feeling scared and upset over the cancer.  Now Karma allows you to add guilt. In short, Karma piles on.

And of course, Karma also leads to another outcome.  When good things happen to you, you get proud.  You got promoted at work because you worked hard, and also because you’re a great gal. You got an inheritance from your great aunt Sally because you are a cut above the rest in so many ways.

Pride or despair, two inevitable outcomes of Karma.  There is no middle ground.

But the biblical worldview is that bad things happen because of the fall of man, because the ground was cursed.  All of us suffer in this world, and some of us far more than others, but not based on whether we were decent to the other kids in middle school.

In contrast to Karma, there is a wonderful principle that under girds all of the Christian life.  It is called grace.

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t a perfect friend to all the other kids in grade school. Not as bad as some, not as good as others. Beyond that, unlike Earl, I will not begin to list my faults and failures.  For I can say that if I were to truly be paid back for all my sinful thoughts and actions, I wouldn’t want to get out of bed tomorrow. So I have no reason for pride.

But because of His love, I have no reason for despair either. When things go wrong in my life, for whatever reason, I know that I am deeply loved by One who is molding me into the image of His Son, even doing it through the consequences of a broken world. And when things go well, I know I don’t deserve it – it’s certainly not Karma – but I am living under the smile of a good and gracious Father…who loves to give good gifts to His children.

“You see one day over 30 years ago, I realized that I had to change, so I took the list of everything bad I’d ever done and one by one, I asked Christ to pay for my sin on the cross. Now I’m trying to live each day in light of His grace. My name is Roger.”

 

Get ready – on Friday, March 20th: Romans 1

 

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Can Christians Lose Their Salvation?

I don’t like to use the phrase, “once saved, always saved”, even though I basically believe the idea behind it. I don’t say it because the Bible never says it like that. Instead, I prefer expressing this truth as the reformers did: they used a more biblical way of saying it: “the perseverance of the Saints.” In other words, it is as Jesus said, “…the one who endures to the end will be saved.” If you are a true Christian, you are in Jesus’s grip (John 10:28) and you will persevere in the faith. However, if you are not a Christian, even though you might show some signs of being one now, you will not in the end continue following Christ.

This is not just a matter of semantics. It is really, really important. Here’s why: again and Stormy sea under dark skyagain, I meet people who are assured of their loved one’s salvation because he or she prayed a “sincere” prayer to receive Christ in years past. Often it’s a mom or dad who has been taught “once saved, always saved”, and they take comfort that though their child has no interest in Christ, no desire to talk about spiritual things and no desire to come to church, in spite of all that, he or she prayed a prayer a long time ago, and so they must still be saved.

Well, it’s possible, of course – the Bible tells us that sometimes true Christians fall into significant patterns of sin, what is popularly called backsliding, but generally (and biblically), if there is no fruit, there is no salvation (Matthew 12:33).

So how does perseverance of the saints work, and why does a true Christian always remain a Christian? In other words, how are we to understand this truth? Well, there is a fascinating story in Acts 27 that demonstrates the believer’s security, and it has to do with what happened when the prisoner Paul and his ship came into a terrible storm on the sea. In the midst of the raging sea, Paul stood up and said (shouted, I’m sure!) this…

“Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. Acts 27:21-25 (ESV)

Do you see this promise? God told Paul that he was going to make it and nobody was going to die.  They were all given “assurance of their salvation”.

And yet, some time passed, and the storm continued. And then, as they neared land, some sailors thought to try to escape on their own in the life raft…

And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship’s boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go. Acts 27:30-32 (ESV)

Do you see what Paul says? He warns the soldiers who were holding him captive that if the sailors escaped, it would kill them all. But consider…that doesn’t make any sense in light of the earlier promise – why didn’t Paul put his feet up and think, “Well, it doesn’t matter if the sailors escape, God promised me that I would make it alive with everyone else.”

Ah, yes, God did promise that, but how was the Lord going to fulfill His promise?  Answer: through Paul’s words of warning keeping the storm-tossed ship afloat.

In the same way, if you are a true Christian, your salvation is absolutely guaranteed. God will keep you safe, but He uses certain “means” to do that. We will arrive at the safe shores of heaven only through many storms, and through it all, God keeps us safe as we listen regularly and closely to His words of warning in the Scriptures, and He keeps us safe as we faithfully go to church where we are reminded of the glorious gospel.  Moreover, He keeps us safe as we spend time in fellowship with other Christians knowing that we need their encouragement so our hearts are not hardened.  This is not a doctrine of works – it is that we must have faith in Christ today.  And “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17)

One of my seminary professors, Dr. Wayne Grudem, said that the key question to ask someone was not, “When did you pray to receive Christ?”, perhaps looking back five, 10 or however many years ago, but “Are you trusting Him today? Are you counting on Him and Him alone…today?” If you answer yes, it is a sign that you are a true believer.  And a mark of a true Christian is that he builds himself up in the faith – warning himself and others when “the sailors are escaping.”

In other words, we are assured of our salvation, but this does not mean it is time to put our feet up and live however we want.  Such behavior is actually testimony to no spiritual life at all.  He who endures to the end will be saved.

 

For Thursday, March 19th: Acts 28

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Why God is Light…

1 John 15 [widescreen]Have you ever wondered why the Bible repeatedly portrays God as light? A little story from the beginning of our marriage may help to answer the question:

After Diane and I tied the knot in May of 1992, we moved into our first apartment in Vienna, Virginia. It was a two bedroom place on the third floor (no elevator) of one building in a fairly large complex of buildings, and other than carrying groceries up three flights, it was a wonderful place to spend our first year together. However, not everything was perfect. The place had a “small” problem that was particularly noticeable whenever we came home and flipped the switch: yeah, the lights would reveal, you guessed it: la cucaracha. a.k.a. the cockroach.

I know what you’re thinking, and the Knowltons can be kind of messy sometimes, but in fairness to us, we inherited this problem from the previous tenants or the tenants previous to them, or whoever…either way, it was nasty. Now, of course, as anyone who has ever had a cockroach problem will tell you, you don’t get to see the problem for very long, because as soon as you turn on the lights, the little creatures scatter. Where they go, who knows, but it doesn’t pay to think a lot about it.

We reported the situation to management and as I remember, the exterminators were able to eradicate the problem, but only by coming around the whole complex every three months. And all in all, we managed.

Now, it’s interesting that when the Apostle John wants to summarize his message at the start of his first letter, he says, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” 1 John 1:5 (ESV)

That, of course, is not the summary we might have expected. How about instead, “This is the message: Christ died for your sins and rose again”? Or how about, “This is the message: Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved”?

Nope. “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” So why does John say God is light? Perhaps the answer comes two verses later when he goes on to say:

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 1:7 (ESV)

So…why does John say that God is light? Answer: Because light casts out darkness, like the blood of Christ casts out sin. You see, every single time a light goes on, darkness scatters. Every time. You might say that light has a way of casting out darkness, just like light once made the cockroaches in Vienna scatter. Light casts out darkness like a bouncer at a nightclub casts out a drunk guy picking fights. Light makes darkness and sin disappear.

Therefore, if you think about it, when Jesus shows up to Paul on the road to Damascus, is it any wonder that He appears as a light “brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13). In fact, Jesus is so bright, that His brightness causes Paul’s blindness (Acts 22:11). And so, it makes perfect sense: For Paul, the chief of sinners, on the road to capture and kill Christians, had a lot of darkness. A lot. And when Jesus showed up, His blinding light made Paul’s darkness scatter. That’s what light does – it has a purifying effect. It chases sin away. This is why God is light. He casts out all our darkness. And you and I have much darkness too.

Now one last thing: have you ever wondered how it will be possible to live in heaven without a single sin? Well, I’m sure there is more to it than just this, but one thing we know: in heaven it will never be night. That’s what John wrote in Revelation:

And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. Revelation 22:5 (ESV)

And for all of eternity, His glorious light, more blinding than the sun, will keep sin far, far away.

 

Tomorrow, Wednesday, March 18th: Acts 27

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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When Should You Share Romans 8:28?

I once heard of a Christian speaker who said that believers should basically not quote Romans 8:28 to one another. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (ESV)

Now obviously, there is a time and a place for everything. I don’t quote this verse when I’m going through the receiving line at a funeral. That just feels…well, insensitive. Like I said, a time and a place. But I don’t think this man was speaking of such extraordinary circumstances. I think he was thinking of more normal troubles. And I’m not sure why he said this – maybe he thought it was a cliché which is overused.

But if I understand him correctly, I heartily disagree. Of course there is a right and thoughtful way to use this verse, but Romans 8:28 is one of the most wonderful truths in the Bible, and as far as I’m concerned we ought to meditate on it and pull it out to encourage one another often.

After all, Paul knew exactly what he was talking about when he wrote it. This is the same man who, when we pick up with him in Acts 25, has been in prison for two years.

Now think about that for a moment – the apostle in jail for two years – and eventually it would be much longer. Of course, readers of the New Testament are used to the thought of Paul behind bars. There are all the letters he wrote from prison like Philippians, Ephesians and Colossians. So most of us never give it a second thought.

But if you really consider it, it’s one of the oddest ideas in the Bible. And here’s what I mean: if you were the Sovereign God of heaven, and you were moving your missionaries and saints around to accomplish your purposes like much loved chess pieces (if I may speak so crassly) why ever would you put a resource like Paul the Apostle in prison for years at a time?

But there he sits, year after year, “wasting away.” Except, that is, for Romans 8:28. You see, Paul knew good things were happening. After all, if you were wondering, his letter to the church at Rome was already written at this time. He likely had written the letter on his most recent journey, when he was in the city of Corinth.

And so it might be a strange idea for us to think of the Apostle in prison, but not so much for him. He understood that there was a God in heaven who knew exactly what he was doing putting this “valuable resource” away for that period of time.

God was molding him, and making him into the man he needed to be.

Just like he is doing for you and me in whatever we’re walking through today. And what hope there is in that – God is sovereign and loving and He is molding us into the image of Jesus. And therefore everything that we who love him walk through is going to work out for our ultimate good. I just think that we probably don’t meditate on this truth often enough.

And I definitely think it’s a truth we should not keep to ourselves.

 

For tomorrow, Tuesday, March 17th: Acts 26

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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The Blessings of a Trustworthy and True Bible

IMG_0425On a whim last Tuesday I threw a lunchtime party for elders and pastors at my house. Diane and the girls were skiing, so that made the place a veritable bachelor pad, and for the guys who could make it, my plan was munching on Jimmy Johns subs and watching the livestream of the opening message from The Shepherd’s Conference in California. This is the annual conference from John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, and the topic this year was of particular interest: the inerrancy of the Bible.

As it turned out, the conference was having trouble with the live stream that day, so we enjoyed subs and good discussion, and then watched another message from a different conference I had attended last year. It was great fellowship.

Now that the Shepherd’s Conference is over, the videos are available for free viewing, and I’ve been watching and enjoying. If you have a chance, I heartily recommend taking in one or two. Your faith will be built up in God’s inerrant word!

You see, there may be no more important topic for Christians today than the absolute truthfulness of the Bible. As one of the speakers pointed out, there are certain issues that come up in the church that we think about and wrestle through and then don’t need to deal with anymore, but inerrancy is one of those issues that continually comes up again and again and again. And there is a reason for that – Satan knows that he can do no greater harm to Christians than to place doubt in our minds as to the truthfulness of the Word of God. He’s been doing this for a long time…

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”

And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’“

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:1-5 (ESV)

So you see, since the beginning of the human race, the enemy has been seeking to cast doubt on the Word of God with questions to this effect: “Did God actually say…?” And notice how along with casting doubt on God’s character of truthfulness, the enemy also casts doubt on his character of goodness (in effect, saying to Eve that God wants to keep her from what is good). This diabolical method is utterly destructive to the Christian, for if we cannot be sure of God’s words (and God’s goodness), we cannot be sure of anything. As the singer Keith Green once said, “…all of the devil’s wicked lies – if you believe them, your faith just dies.”

The Apostle Paul didn’t believe Satan’s lies. Of course, Paul is most famous for telling Timothy that all Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16), but in Acts 24, as Paul makes his defense before the Governor Felix, he makes it very clear what he believes:

But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, Acts 24:14 (ESV)

“The Law and the Prophets” was a technical term that really meant all of the Bible (in that day, of course, the Old Testament). Paul was trying to show Felix that he was not as bad as the Jews were making him out to be – he was both a peaceful man (not stirring up riots like they accused him of) and more than that, believing the Bible just like they did.

And just like we should too, for this is not a trifling thing – I think about how lately we’ve been watching our culture take on a new course in the area of morality, declaring good to be evil and evil to be good. In fact, it’s breathtaking how fast it has happened. And apart from the Word of God, there is nothing that will keep us from plunging headlong into such destructive thinking and lifestyle.

But more than that, there is no other book that will light the path to heaven and show us how to redeem a lost culture. To paraphrase Peter’s words to Jesus in John 6: Where else can we go? These are the words of eternal life…and they are trustworthy, and true.

 

For Monday, March 16: Acts 25

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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A Mighty Fortress is Our God

Some years ago, through a generous grant by the Lilly Endowment, my family went on a Sabbatical overseas, spending almost two months in Scotland and then the better part of a month in the rest of Europe. It was most cool and we felt very blessed.  Now, Diane had a special request as we were going to spend so much time in Europe.  She wanted our family to spend a night in a very unique place.

Diane had a dream to spend the night in something that you see all over Europe but that you will never see in the States. Maybe never is too strong, but I can’t remember ever seeing one here. Of, course, I’m speaking of castles.  Castles are all over Europe.  And Diane had a dream that we would be able to spend a night in one.

And we did.  We found the youth hostel of Carbisdale Castle on Loch (the Scottish name for lake) Lomond.  It was supposed to be haunted which kind of added to the fun. FYI: we managed to avoid the ghosts.

I suppose that castles are all over Europe because in days long ago, battles and wars were part of everyday life, and they needed the protection that castles afforded. When France attacked England, England needed fortresses.  When Germany attacked France, France needed fortresses. When England attacked France…well, I’m sure you’re getting the idea. And of course it was more than nation against nation.  It was city versus city, or family versus family. My impression is that there was not a lot of peace; and all in all, it makes me glad to be living in our country in this time period.

Panoramic of Eilean Donan Castle, Highlands, Scotland.  We saw this beautiful castle among others on our travels.

Panoramic of Eilean Donan Castle, Highlands, Scotland. We saw this beautiful castle among others on our travels.

Ancient people understood the idea of castles and fortresses better than we do, and so the picture of a fortress is a pervasively biblical one.  And therefore, over and over again, the testimony of the Word of God is that God is a fortress.

David prayed, “For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;” Psalm 31:3 (ESV)

No one understood God as a fortress more than David, who fought so many battles and yet knew that he was safe in Yahweh’s protective shadow.

Well, I say no one understood this more than David, but then again there was the Apostle Paul.  He didn’t fight with a sword of steel, but the sword of God’s word, yet he did have the first kind of sword wielded against him. So Paul knew danger again and again, but again and again, God protected him.  That’s what we see in Acts 23, where 40 Jews make solemn plans to kill him, even determining not to eat again until the Apostle is dead. Yes, that called commitment, and if I were a murderer, I would definitely be motivated.

But, like a scene out of Downton “eavesdrop” Abbey, it just so happened that Paul’s nephew got wind of their plans, and warns the commander:

Now the son of Paul’s sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to tell him.” So he took him and brought him to the tribune and said, “Paul the prisoner called me and asked me to bring this young man to you, as he has something to say to you.” Acts 23:16-18 (ESV)

When the tribune hears, he makes plan to protect Paul:

Then he called two of the centurions and said, “Get ready two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea at the third hour of the night. Also provide mounts for Paul to ride and bring him safely to Felix the governor.” Acts 23:23-24 (ESV)

It was the great missionary David Livingstone who said, “I am immortal till my work is accomplished.”  How true.  And of course, Livingstone, like Paul and David the shepherd-King before him knew exactly why he was “immortal”: There was a sovereign, loving God who was watching over him, more beautiful and infinitely stronger than a castle in the Scottish Highlands.

For tomorrow, Friday, March 13th: Acts 24

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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