Years ago I lived in Fruitland, North Carolina. It was apple country, and several of my parishioners were growers. When I stopped by to visit one of them, his wife told me that he was in the orchard. So I walked out back to find him mercilessly cutting branches from one of the trees. Without thinking, I said, “You’re going to kill that tree!” He turned around and said, “You stick to preaching, and leave the pruning to me.”
This gentleman and I became friends, and it was from him that I learned about the pruning process. In order to produce an abundant crop of the best fruit, he had to cut as he did. It might look as if the tree was going to die, but new growth would spring from the wounds. Our conversations helped me to understand why the Lord sometimes acts as a pruning force in people’s lives.
To get a plentiful crop of spiritual fruit, our heavenly Father must remove anything that distracts or deters us from serving Him. The process is often painful. I know I’ve cried out, “More, Lord?” when He has taken the “knife” to me. But the result is always satisfying—I am a better, more accurate reflection of Jesus Christ after God cuts away a fleshly habit or worldly attitude.
Being loved by God does not mean we will be coddled—our comfort is not His primary interest. A grower must prune an apple tree to get a bountiful harvest. In the same way, God must sometimes let us feel pain so He can bring forth greater growth and more spiritual fruit.
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus was packed with symbolism. He compared salvation to a second birth and likened the Holy Spirit’s work to the wind. But then the Lord used an Old Testament illustration that might seem odd to modern readers—He said the Son of Man must be lifted up, just as Moses lifted the bronze serpent (Num. 21:1-9).
Nicodemus would have been familiar with the story: En route to the Promised Land, the Israelites once complained about going the long way around enemy territory. God responded by sending poisonous snakes into their midst. A bite victim would die unless he or she looked at the bronze serpent hanging from a pole in the camp. The statue was a symbolic representation of God’s presence among the Israelites as well as a reminder that He was their deliverer.
While we might not mix spiritual birth and a snake on a pole in one testimony, Jesus did so for a good reason. These metaphors describe related events. The Messiah was explaining that He must be lifted onto the cross as a sacrifice for all of mankind’s wrongs. A new birth is impossible unless somebody pays the price for our sinful condition. Those who look to Jesus and believe will be forgiven, saved, and born again.
Jesus’ message to Nicodemus becomes clear when we understand how the pieces fit together. The Savior is saying that He must die on the cross so that sinful human beings can be born again. Have you looked to Jesus Christ for salvation? He is the only way to new life.
Nicodemus would probably be welcome at any church today. He seems an ideal member—principled, knowledgeable, morally upstanding, courteous, and humble. However, Nicodemus had two big problems despite all of that outward religious appeal. He was blind to the truth and spiritually dead.
The man was lost. That is, he did not have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus adhered to strict Jewish codes and laws, so he was certainly religious. But the problem of the lost person is not attitudes, conduct, or even character. We can change and control those through sheer determination, and many folks do. What people really need is a change of condition. We come into this world with a sinful nature that is bent away from God.
Jesus explained to the observant rabbi that all his outward goodness couldn’t erase, replace, or change his nature. Instead, every person who desires to serve God must be born again. The Lord promised that if Nicodemus received Him as Savior, then he would enter into a brand-new life. His old sinful nature would be transformed so that he could have a real relationship with God. Instead of appearing to be a religious man, Nicodemus would be a true believer.
No one gets into heaven on the strength of good works and kind behavior. When we stand before God, only our condition will matter. In place of our old, dead “flesh” nature, we want to show Him the living spirit we received when Jesus Christ came into our life.
When God’s people humbly call upon His name, He releases awesome power. The Bible is packed with stories of His mighty intervention on behalf of those who cry out to Him.
Take Jehoshaphat, for instance. Today’s passage tells of the king’s faithfulness and reliance upon the Lord in a time of adversity: he received word that the Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites were joining forces to wage war against his kingdom.
Jehoshaphat admitted his fear but quickly reminded himself of God’s faithfulness to other believers in the past (v. 7). Confessing total dependence on the Lord, he gathered all of the Israelites to cry out to their Father. Through the prophet Jahaziel, God reminded them this was His battle, so they were not to fear (vv. 14-15). The people praised the Lord for His encouragement. And, amazingly, when they “came to the lookout of the wilderness, they looked toward the multitude, and . . . no one had escaped” (v. 24). All their enemies lay dead.
God worked in a more miraculous way than anyone could imagine—and He still exceeds our expectations today. Through such means as prayer, praise, song, and fasting, we can ask Him to reveal Himself. He is ready to respond when we bring heavy hearts and deep concerns to Him.
Crying out to God and asking Him to work in our lives requires humility and persistence. Though we are unable to succeed on our own, we frequently try. By allowing us to bring our concerns and desires before Him, Jesus lovingly helps us realize our dependence.
God’s Word contains commands about many things, from frequency of prayer and expressions of worship to relationships with other people (1 Thess. 5:17; Deut. 6:5; John 13:34). Surprisingly, though, there is no place in the Scriptures where the believer is specifically instructed to fast.
Yet the words “when you fast” (Matt. 6:16, emphasis added) show Jesus’ expectation that His followers would practice this discipline. And there are many biblical examples of godly people who abstained from certain activities in order to draw close to God.
Before we go further, it is important to dispel a popular misunderstanding. Fasting doesn’t serve to change God’s mind, speed up His answer, or manipulate His will. Instead, it prepares us to hear from Him by temporarily laying aside something that vies for our attention or devotion—such as food, sleep, or a time of intimacy with a spouse.
Denying ourselves in this way makes us better able to focus on Christ and hear Him clearly. His Spirit often starts by bringing to mind sin that needs to be confessed. In so doing, He sanctifies our thoughts—then He can use this precious time to intensify our desire for Him, reveal His Will, and grant understanding and peace. In essence, fasting binds us to Him in such oneness that we won’t ever be the same again.
Do you want to see God move in awesome ways? By removing anything that hinders your focus, you can fix attention solely on the Creator and cry out to Him regarding your needs. As you gain understanding about your Father and yourself, you will grow closer to Him.
Though some people use the terms happiness and joy interchangeably, there is a vast difference in their meaning. Both cause a pleasant emotional response, but the former relies entirely upon circumstance. As soon as difficulty arises and pain intrudes, a person ceases to be happy. On the other hand, joy is a gift from God that enables believers to find hope and peace—even when life seemingly falls apart.
At times, however, even Christians live joylessly. Sinful behavior, of course, is one reason. But there can be other causes, too, including regret about past failures, fear of future mishaps, or a pattern of discontentment that’s ingrained in one’s personality.
If you are a follower of Jesus but lack gladness, take a moment to remember who Christ is—and who you are in Him. To begin with, you are saved eternally, and your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. The love of almighty God is unconditional, and His indwelling Spirit will never abandon you. He understands everything that you face and promises to provide for your needs.
When you stop to consider the amazing blessings that are yours in Christ, gratitude will likely overwhelm you. Sadness concerning circumstances may still endure, but the joy of the Lord will carry you through even the deepest pain.
Amid the ups and downs of life, does God’s joy sustain you? Or do trials leave you hopeless and discontented? Our Father offers a higher way of living—not without pain but with strength to endure. Continually remember the vast treasure you have in Him and His promises.
Is your life exciting? Or do you, like so many people, find most days routine and tedious? Have dreams become disappointments? If so, you might feel tempted to give up hope. But God promises fulfillment that can’t be found anywhere else.
Joy is a gift from the Lord. It doesn’t depend upon circumstances but, rather, is found in Jesus’ unchanging character and promises. And that’s exactly where to find true strength and power to endure.
Years ago, I found myself being tested on this very point while working on a sermon about joy. A few days earlier, I had baptized a large number of people, and evidently, the repetitive motion had strained my back. There was no pain until midweek, when I tried to lift something heavy. Suddenly, I was dealing with severe backache. Almost immediately, the Lord brought to mind the message I was planning to present a few days later. Even though I complained and desperately wanted to be freed from the pain, I found I could be joyful in the Lord.
Philippians 4:4 tells us always to rejoice in Him. From this command, we know that even in the midst of hardship, we can purposefully choose to live with joy. This choice is possible for believers who are filled with the Holy Spirit and walking obediently (Gal. 5:22-23).
Consider your response to both good and bad times. Does a consistent joy in Christ give you strength? Or do you find emotional relief only in the midst of positive circumstances? Difficulty is inevitable, but God’s truth is able to sustain you. Rely on Him for emotional security.
God’s grace is revealed in His willingness to welcome anyone at anytime into His kingdom, even at the moment of death. The repentant thief who hung on a cross next to Jesus had absolutely nothing to offer the Lord—no good works, no faithful service. He couldn’t even be baptized. In his utterly helpless condition, the only thing he could do was believe. But that was all it took, because faith is the only way to be saved.
Although both thieves began their crucifixion by hurling verbal abuse at Jesus (Matt. 27:44), as the torturous minutes passed, one of them had a change of heart. His railing against the Savior turned to rebuke of the other criminal, and then to defense of Jesus, admission of his own guilt, and a plea for a place in Christ’s kingdom (Luke 23:40-42).
What was it that turned this mocker into a believer? Even if he himself had little prior knowledge of Jesus, the crowd’s taunts supplied him with the information he needed to be saved. Scornful onlookers accused Jesus of being exactly who He was: the King of Israel, the Savior of others, and the Son of God (Matt. 27:42-43). As the condemned man watched and listened, he turned in faith to the only One who could save Him: the One dying for him.
On the hill that day, one man died in his sin, one Man died for sin, and the other was saved out of his sin. There are only two responses to the inevitability of death. We can either accept or reject Christ’s substitutionary payment for our sin. How will you respond?
The thought of dying frightens many people. But believers have no reason to fear. Jesus’ empty tomb proves that there is life after death!
Unbelievers who dread their demise have two different approaches to life. One group piles up wealth, good deeds, or worldly success in the hope of passing it on to their children or to charity. They expect to “live on” in the memories of those who benefit from their hard work. But it is the rare person who’s still remembered a few generations later. And none truly live on.
The other group chooses to laugh in the face of death. Their philosophy is “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). Their existence seems pleasurable from the outside, but can you imagine a more futile way to live? God does not intend for us to go through life with such meaninglessness.
Here’s the key to significance: fulfilling our unique, God-given, eternal purpose. In this life, we do not labor to leave a physical legacy or waste our days pursuing pleasure. Instead, we help those in need, influence our culture, and reach out to the lost. And when a believer enters the heavenly place Jesus has prepared, he or she keeps on working for Him.
For the believer, death is not a fearsome end. It is the doorway to a new life of serving the Lord in heaven. Our days on earth are just the beginning of our existence. This time will seem like only a few minutes compared to an eternity spent in His presence.
In ancient Israel, the priests were continually offering sacrifices to atone for the people’s sins. Specifically, the high priest annually entered the most sacred room in the temple to prepare a sacrifice that would absolve the whole nation of sin for that year. This room, the Holy of Holies, was where God’s Spirit dwelled in those days.
Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection changed the process. He became the High Priest, and the sacrifice was His own life—an offering powerful enough to pay the sin-debt of all mankind.
Through Jesus’ one offering, He made holy any person who trusts in Him as Savior. He does not have to die every year. And unlike the Jewish priests who could enter God’s presence only once annually, Jesus sat down at His Father’s right hand, to remain in His holy presence forever. There, Christ continues the work of a high priest by interceding on behalf of believers when Satan accuses them.
God recognized that in our humanity, we’d remain weak even after being born again (John 3:3), so His rescue plan extends beyond pardoning our sins. He also sends His Holy Spirit to indwell every Christian. That means the Helper is always present to guide us in making wise, righteous decisions.
The Father’s redemption plan meets all of mankind’s needs. Jesus Christ offered a perfect sacrifice to cover our every sin, and now He continues to intercede on our behalf. At the same time, the indwelling Holy Spirit molds us into holy creatures while helping us to avoid temptation.
A great many people believe falsely in purgatory—a miserable place where people supposedly go after death. In order to advance to heaven, a person supposedly must either suffer long enough to make restitution for his or her sins or be prayed out by loved ones still living. The doctrine is an unbiblical lie, because purgatory is a thinly veiled second chance for people to get into heaven.
There is not a single verse with which to defend the false theology of purgatory. In fact, the very idea of a second route to heaven runs counter to God’s redemptive plan. Jesus Christ was the substitute for you and me, and His death paid our sin-debt. He obtained our eternal redemption with His blood (Heb. 9:12). If there is a place where people can go to suffer for their own sins—in other words, pay their own penalty—then God sending His Son to die makes no sense.
In John 14:2, Jesus told the disciples that He was going away to prepare a place for His followers. Nowhere in Scripture do we find any mention of a detour into misery where we “earn” a pass into heaven. The Bible says that believers are either at home in the body, or absent from it and present with the Lord. There is simply no in-between stopover.
I respect the right to believe as one chooses. However, I have a responsibility to present biblical truth. Those who reject Christ get no second chance after death. They are eternally separated from God. But whoever receives salvation is completely forgiven of all sin and guaranteed an eternity with Him.
Our culture is obsessed with longevity. While the desire for a lengthy existence of good quality is natural, it is also shortsighted. The Bible certainly does emphasize living a godly life now. But it also contains plenty of reminders that believers will remain long after this old world is gone.
There is no pill or diet that can extend our days on earth beyond the number that the Lord has willed. But there is a way to live forever in a perfect home with a flawless body, doing soul-satisfying work. When we believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son and trust Him as our Savior, we receive the gift of eternal life. Believers get to spend eternity serving and fellowshipping with the Lord.
Although we are promised a place in heaven, eternal life is not really about location. The real value of having a soul that never dies is that we are always in the presence of God. For those who reject the offer of everlasting life with the Lord, there is an alternative. We call it hell. The souls that end up there suffer a terrible fate—agony and complete separation from the living God. After death, there is no mercy or grace that can bridge the gap between hell and heaven. The matter must be settled while we are on earth (Heb. 9:27).
Eternal life is irrevocably linked to the person of Jesus Christ. As John wrote, “He who has the Son has life” (1 John 5:12). Reaching a healthy old age is a laudable goal, but nothing is more important than receiving the Savior and the gift of an eternity in His presence.
Negativity affects us both spiritually and physically. Even spending time with a pessimistic individual can take a toll. On the other hand, positive emotions—particularly godly confidence—can empower us to live fully, as the Lord intends.
Facing each day with the knowledge that our strength comes from Jesus will drive away doubt and anxiety. Yet many things can interfere with a healthy outlook. For example, we often allow wrong advice and negative attitudes to drain us. Sin, too, will keep our hearts from finding full confidence in God. And sometimes false guilt creeps into our minds and robs us of assurance.
Instead, we can purposefully develop confidence in almighty God by maturing in our faith. Meditating on the Word, drawing near to the Lord in prayer, and choosing to believe Him are all ways to strengthen our relationship with Him. The more our friendship with the heavenly Father deepens, the more unshakeable trust in Him will become.
As Christians, we have every reason to live with assurance—we have the very presence of God living within us (Phil. 4:5). But in addition, we also have His peace (v. 7), His power (v. 13), and His provision (v. 19).
Our world is full of distrust, fear, and uncertainty. Don’t allow yourself to listen to negative messages, which can make you lose the confidence God gives His children. Instead, focus on the truth in Scripture and the glory and victory of Jesus. Let His perfect love cast out your fear (1 John 4:18).
Our world emphatically proclaims the importance of self-esteem, which is a favorable impression of oneself. Surely, we are told, an individual who values himself highly will accomplish much. Yet Scripture tells us that true confidence flows, not from self, but from our identity in Christ.
In God’s Word, we learn that Paul experienced this appropriate assurance. He expressed certainty regarding the message and ministry God gave him (Gal. 1:15-17; Rom. 1:16). The apostle was also sure of eternal security in Jesus (Rom. 8:37-39). What’s more, today’s passage shows that Paul stood firmly on his belief that He could do anything in God’s will because Jesus was living through him.
The Holy Spirit is the basis for our confidence—not positive thinking, right circumstances, or the ability to think highly of ourselves. Even in the midst of difficulty, we can live with boldness because the Spirit of the living God dwells within our being and enables us to follow Him.
Of course, we have a role too. The Spirit directs us and strengthens us, but we are responsible to listen, obey, and diligently follow His guidance each day. We can have assurance in an unstable world because almighty God provides everything we need to live triumphantly.
Are you facing situations that make you feel inadequate or insecure? Search the Bible for descriptions of His character. Realize that this sovereign, almighty God—the Beginning and the End—lives inside of you. Find your confidence in the one who is your Creator, Redeemer, and Friend.
The Bible teaches us to walk by faith, having full confidence in God. Yet many people are burdened by doubt. Even believers, who have been saved by faith, can waver in their trust.
For example, there are Christians who back out of their commitment to a ministry. Though originally led to serve in this capacity, they may question whether they have the necessary ability. Lack of assurance is also displayed when financial concerns lead a believer to stop tithing.
Doubt started in the garden of Eden when Satan introduced a question in Eve’s mind: Wouldn’t eating the forbidden fruit bring special benefits? And to this day, the Deceiver still whispers lies that can cause Christians’ trust to falter. He will utilize any of the following to erode our confidence in God: ignorance of Scripture, temptation to sin, feelings of guilt, a stronger focus on circumstances than on Christ, and the negative viewpoint of others. All of these inhibit the ability to see truth clearly and to stand firmly upon it.
While a doubter is characterized by negativity, uncertainty, and instability, a believer with full trust in God walks in absolute confidence—decisive, dependent upon the Word, and capable of enduring, even when circumstances seem gloomy.
The Christian walk should be characterized by faith, not doubt. Have you prayed for something but questioned whether the Lord would answer—or disbelieved He would actually do something He promised in Scripture? Resist doubt, and take hold of the unshakeable confidence God offers.
Like the father of the Prodigal Son, our heavenly Father will not force us to remain with Him. If we ignore His guiding Holy Spirit and insist on following an ungodly path, He’ll let us go our own way. Examining the parable, we learn what happens if we move outside of God’s plan.
1. Our fellowship with the Father is significantly affected. The wayward son was no longer in close contact with his dad; their relationship was not as important to him as it had been. If we wander and make ourselves top priority over the Lord, we will also experience a disconnect with our heavenly Father. As Christians, we cannot move off God’s chosen path without first closing our mind and heart to His truth and His call on our lives.
2. Our resources—time, talent, and treasure—are wasted. The son squandered his money on frivolous things and ended up worse off than the laborers at his father’s house. God has bestowed spiritual gifts and material resources to build His kingdom, and He’s also provided His Spirit to offer guidance. Pursuing our own plan wastes what He has given us.
3. Our deepest needs go unmet. Chasing after dreams that are outside of God’s purposes will lead to discontent. Only in Christ can we find true fulfillment.
A great weariness will overtake us if we live apart from God. Poor choices can result in lifelong regrets, but they don’t have to dictate our future. The heavenly Father will welcome us with great joy and love when we repent and turn back to Him. Have you wandered away? He’s waiting for you.
The Prodigal Son’s journey away from home began with a desire. Perhaps he wanted to leave behind some of the restrictions that come with living under a parent’s roof. Or maybe he wanted more money to pursue life’s pleasures with friends. Whatever the case, his desire gave birth to self-deceptive reasoning which assumes, There’s no harm in what I am doing. I deserve this. That thinking led to a decision—to prematurely ask for his inheritance—and to his departure, both from home and from everything he had been taught.
A Christian who has turned away from God follows a path similar to the prodigal’s. It begins in our minds with a craving for something other than what we have. The longer we allow the idea to linger, the stronger our desire to have it. When we cling to a yearning that is outside of God’s protective will, then we likewise deceive ourselves and find ways to justify what we want. We will base decisions on our faulty reasoning and move away from the Lord to fulfill our self-centered dreams.
Like the wayward son, we may enjoy the pleasures of the world for a time, but ultimately, we will find ourselves without the essentials we need—unconditional love, security, and a meaningful purpose for living.
We have an Enemy who seeks to divert us from the Lord’s will, a world that places desires above God, and “flesh” tendencies which prefer pleasure over obedience. To avoid self-deception, make Scripture your basis for living—and adjust your thought life and choices accordingly (Rom. 12:2).
Our desire as Christian parents is to help our children mature into godly men and women. We want them to believe that God has a plan for them and that they are accountable to Him.
I remember teaching my children from a young age about these important truths, because I wanted biblical principles to shape their thinking and their choices. After explaining about God’s will, I told them they were accountable to the Lord for their behavior—as well as to their mother and me. If kids believe their only accountability is to parents, then when they are apart from Mom and Dad, they are likely to think that they don’t have to answer to anyone.
When my children objected to my decisions, I taught them to speak to their heavenly Father about it. Over time, they developed the habit of talking things over with Him. This training became very important in their teenage years. Instead of giving a quick no to some of their requests, I said, “Find out what God wants you to do. Whatever you two agree on, I will accept.” I knew this was risky, but I had to trust the Lord and give my children the opportunity to practice what I had been teaching them—that they are accountable to God.
Training in godliness begins before children establish a personal relationship with Christ. We should continue the process by modeling righteousness all through life. Kids need to know about the Lord’s plan for them and their accountability to Him. They also need parents who speak their name to God.
From a young age, children observe the behavior of the significant adults in their lives. What a wonderful opportunity to influence the next generation for Jesus!
How do we train children in godliness? We start by investing our time in their lives. Boys and girls need their parents and others to spend quality time with them. Whether it’s through outdoor activities, reading together, or quiet conversation, we can be modeling Christian living.
Listening closely is another part of raising our sons and daughters. To influence them toward righteousness, we must know what they are thinking—in other words, what’s important to them and what bothers them.
Protecting children through discipline is another aspect of godly parenting. When done with love, this will help them understand the wisdom of God’s boundaries and the importance of self-control.
Admitting our mistakes is also necessary, as transparency helps children draw closer to parents. If we seem perfect, kids will find it harder to confess their mistakes to us.
Perhaps the most important aspect of training is unconditional love. My mother consistently loved me both when I had success in school and when I didn’t. Because of her steadfast care for me, I tried to do what she would find pleasing.
Raising a godly child takes the cooperation of believing parents and family, Christian teachers, and born-again friends. Look for opportunities to spend time with children, listen to their hearts, and demonstrate Christ’s love for them. By modeling godliness, you may influence a life for the Lord.
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