The Simplest “Most Confusing” Chapter in the Bible

A thought occurred to me yesterday that I had never had before, and it was this: when the church at Rome read the fourteenth chapter, somebody was spitting mad at Paul for what he had written to them about meats offered unto idols. When we read Romans 14, we don’t feel the connection because meats offered to idols isn’t a thing for us. I would dare say none of us have even had the opportunity to purchase a meat which had been offered to an idol. It’s not a problem. And possibly because we have no connection at all to that situation, we claim confusion as our reasoning to missing the point of the chapter.

Yet the point of Romans 14 is quite simple: don’t unnecessarily be a stumbling block. Don’t use the position of your strength, your strong feelings, your rationalizations, your knowledge and understanding of a situation to cause doubt, insecurity, resentment, or contempt in someone else. Paul writes it from the position of the stronger supporting those who are weaker, but think about it—if we feel strongly about something, how many of us would be taking the stance that our position is the weaker one? But here’s the twist: some apparently felt very strongly against eating meats offered to idols, while others did not have strong feelings one way or the other, and didn’t see what the big deal was. And it was those to whom Paul was writing, because of another twist: some people have strong feelings about not having strong feelings.

Wait. What?

That’s right. Just because I don’t have strong feelings about something does not mean that I don’t have strong feelings about having strong feelings. (Worded differently, some people have strong opinions about not having opinions.) And that’s OK, at least until my strong feelings about not having strong feelings put me in opposition to someone who does have strong feelings.

Are you confused yet? If so, you’re not the first, and that is what has led many to throw up their hands in frustration at Romans 14, and ultimately miss the point: “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Romans 14:13). Whether it’s to eat meats or not, to observe days or not, or even to wear a mask or not, my strong feelings about something (or my strong feelings about a lack of strong feelings) are not worth causing someone else to stumble or causing division in the body of Christ.

Some Roses are Sweeter Than Others

Last year we had bought a hibiscus. When the growing season came to a close, there was some debate over how best to winter it. It ended up sitting in the garage for a couple of months, then it dried, withered, and wasted away. Finally, it got carried out back, dumped in the bushes, and forgotten, another victim of lack of proper care. Much to my surprise, around the first of June I noticed some new growth on the stalk, pitiful though it was. So, with nothing really to lose, I pulled it out of the bushes and set it on the corner of the garden where, if nothing else, it was get watered regularly. Lo and behold, 2 months later with it fully abloom, there are no signs at all that it had once been left for dead. I think it is safe to say that this little plant’s ability to survive—and thrive—had been grossly underestimated.

An actual photo of an actual bloom on the actual plant being discussed

This is about the forgotten flowers in Christ: how many of them have been underestimated by us? We think of those precious blooms, young and old, that we might have watched fall away, pedal by pedal, leaf by leaf, until they were out of sight, and all too often out of mind. Occasionally we might recall their former beauty and glory in Christ, but by and large they end up forgotten.

Jude wrote, “And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (Jude 1:22-23, NKJV). Jude, in essence, was saying, “Don’t underestimate those flowers!” Don’t underestimate the power of God’s love, His grace, and His mercy when it comes to reviving those blooms. But Jude rightfully points on in verse 23 that they must be in the right environment. If the flowers stay out in the bushes, they’re not going to survive. If the precious blossoms of the souls of saints stay in the fire, they’re not going to survive. Help them out of the defiled garments and into the light of the Son of God. Give them a chance.

We should not let our underestimation end in destruction. This is true of ourselves, of our families, of our neighbors, and even of our enemies. God has given immeasurable power unto salvation through the gospel: let’s spread that gospel. Let us ensure that we have the proper environment, then let us bring the flowers in, nurturing and loving them, and then watch them flourish.

Lessons from a summer evening….

Yesterday evening I stepped outside and was met with a deafening roar.  The cicadas were in rare form.  One was singing with all its might right above my head, and it had plenty of neighbors waiting to answer.  I know that these little insects are a source of annoyance to some, but the sounds they produce are music to my ears.  It is an absolute marvel of God’s creation that these tiny creatures can make such a powerful noise.  They don’t have vocal cords, they don’t have lungs, and they don’t rub their wings together (like crickets).  They have a special organ called a tymbal, which has a series of ribs that sort of pop when they flex their muscles.  (Picture the noise produced by playing with a bendy straw.)  When you put many of these popping sounds together you get the characteristic buzzing sound.  What is particularly amazing is that these little guys produce a sound that can travel up to a mile and a half!  Isn’t God amazing!  So, here come a few lessons from a summer evening.

Photo by Michael Kropiewnicki from Pexels

Lesson 1.  You are not a bug.  When the psalmist says, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (139:14), he means it.  As a human being, you are so much more complex—and capable!—than a bug.  God put special effort into you, so much so that Jesus said, “You are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31).  A bug you are not!

Lesson 2.  You are small, but not that small.  All we can do is speculate as to exactly why God made the universe as vast and grand as He did.  David had given it some thought and concluded this: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?” (Psalms 8:3-4).  In comparison to the cosmos, we are tiny, minuscule, insignificant.  And yet God knows you, knows where you are, what you are doing, and is even mindful of the very hairs of your head (Luke 12:7).

Lesson 3.  You make noise.  While the sound of your voice may not travel 1.5 miles across hill and dale, you have an impact.  You make a difference.  The world is not the same without you.  More importantly, the church is not the same without.  So make some noise.  Make some noise about Jesus.

“You make darkness, and it is night, In which all the beasts of the forest creep about” (Psalms 104:20).  Isn’t God amazing!

Biblical Ornithology

We are deep into summer now, and the time that fledglings have left their nests is long past, so this is not a super-timely topic, but isn’t God amazing?  Literally countless generations of birds have followed the same migratory and reproductive patterns to perpetuate their species.  Every spring they lay their eggs, those eggs hatch, they rear their young, and then the young leave the nest.  Sure, there are problems.  Poorly located nests, storms, and predators all took their toll, but the majority of those baby birds grew to maturity and are now out on their own.  From the time those eggs were laid, that was the objective of those parent birds—to get the kids out of the nest.

Photo by 42 North from Pexels

You have likely never thought of the church as a nest, but that is much like what it is.  It is a place be nurtured, to grow, to be fed, to be protected from the dangers of Satan and his world, and we should be ecstatic at having our children in such an environment.  The farther they are removed from the safety of the nest, the greater the chance that they will be overtaken and destroyed.  Injured, sick, maimed, or handicapped birds do not survive on their own.  When that fledgling is removed from its nest before it is ready, we would be honestly more surprised if it survived on its own than otherwise.  That is just the way it is.  Nor will our children survive spiritually on their own.  We make all kinds of excuses as to why this happens (and it happens way too frequently).  If we were ornithologists and were studying why this was happening among birds, we would be identifying problems and working to correct.  The base problem should be obvious: they need more nest time, so let’s keep them in the nest.

But there’s another side to this little parable.  That side dealt with leaving the nest too soon.  The other side deals with the birds that never leave the nest at all.  Sure, the nest is comfortable and life is easy, so why would I want to leave.  But if we stay with the analogy of the nest and the church, we need to get back to the objective of the parent birds—to get the kids out of the nest.  Are we leaving the nest to evangelize (Matthew 28:18-20)?  Are we leaving the nest to meet the needs (spiritual and physical) of those around us, in the church and out (Galatians 6:10)?  When are we going to leave the nest?

“How Hot Is It?”

It’s that time of year again when jokes start being made about the heat.  “It is so hot….”  “How hot is it?”  “It is so hot that the polar bears are wearing sunscreen.”  Or, “It is so hot that the cows are giving evaporated milk.”  Or, “It is so hot the Optimus Prime transformed into an air conditioner.”  I’ve got dozens more, but I will spare you.  The point is that we tend to measure things in extremes because extremes tend to grab our attention.

Jesus often used this same strategy.  He said in Luke 11:9-13: “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

From the jokes we may tell, the point should be obvious: it is hot.  From the examples Jesus used, the point should be just as obvious: God is good, so ask away.  What if we were to ask a different question?  “How good is God?”  “God is so good that He created everything.”  “God is so good that He gave you life.”  Or, “God is so good that He gave His only begotten Son.”  Now, if you read these and happen to think, “What’s so extreme about that?” let me please encourage you to stop and think about it.  Who else can do these things but God?  God did not do these things because He had to, nor did you do so because of a challenge or a dare, nor did He do them out of pity.  He did them because of love.  God is so good that David said, “Many, O LORD my God, are Your wonderful works Which You have done; And Your thoughts toward us Cannot be recounted to You in order; If I would declare and speak of them, They are more than can be numbered”—Psalm 40:5.

So go ahead and ask.  Ask big of God.  Ask plenty of God.  Ask often, and ask thoroughly.  How good is God?  He is better than we can possibly imagine.

Tech Pushback

Hey, I get it, we’re all tired of tech. Even the ones for whom technology has been a part of their everyday lives for years are tired of it now. Many people are currently having to figure out how to work from home, and truth be told, aren’t excited to have that part of their lives invading their home life. And for many, too, technology has become essential to maintaining their connection with church. For some that has not been any more challenging than turning on their TV or picking up their smartphone, but for others, it has been much more difficult, much more expensive, or just flat out impossible. We’ve been dealing with this for three and a half months now (feels much longer, right?), and the harsh reality is that the overall situation is not likely to improve anytime soon. And that means that like it or not, at least some of this technology is here to stay (for an extended time, anyway). But we have reached the point where we’re tired of it, we’re pushing back against it, but we still need it. So where do we go from here?

Go “old school” whenever you can. Sure, the sermon notes might be on the app with all of its convenience, but pull your Bible out—the physical, hardcopy book with paper pages! Ditch the tablet and pick up the Good Book to do your daily Bible readings and studies. (This method also ensures the only notifications you get while studying are from God!)

Learn a new (useful) tech trick. It is likely that the phone, tablet, computer, or even television that you are using has all kinds of features you have never knew about. Some of those tricks are really cool (like the tape measure and level), but utterly useless when it comes to our worship and service to God. Others, though, can make things easier (like creating shortcut icons). Exploring the technology that you are suddenly relying upon to access worship, Bible study, and even “virtual fellowship” can make your use of it more comfortable.

Don’t get too comfortable. Sure, “church” in your pajamas may hold a certain appeal, but everything needs its place. Worshiping from our living rooms is not the ideal! Bible study over the internet is not as effective as in-person. There is nothing ideal about this situation. But we cannot afford to allow the casualness to overtake our devotion.

Just do it. Tired of tech? Yeah, so are we. Technology, however, is providing opportunities to stay connected like no generation has enjoyed before. We’ve got it, so let’s use it the best we know how to do the most that we can do for the glory of our God.

A Little Campfire Story

Some stories, as you know, only get better with the telling.  This story relates to the Lads and Dads camping trip that several of us participated in this past weekend.  (Some names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

First of all, let me say thanks to Jared for organizing this event and to all who participated.  This was a great idea, not only an opportunity to get out into nature, but also one for spending time with others of “like precious faith.”  I love events where you don’t have to worry about what someone is going to say or how they might act.  These young men (and their dads) are the best of the best!  What a joy to spend time with them.

I was only there on Thursday night, so I freely admit that there may be some inaccuracies in my chronicles of what happened on Friday night.  But Thursday night was perfect.  The weather was perfect.  The food was great.  The campfire conversation was stimulating.  The stars were brilliant.

Cue the raccoons.

At sometime during the night, the stealthy procyonids began making their way through camp.  I heard them but didn’t get up because I thought that everything was secure.  They didn’t make a lot of noise, nor were they there long, and I soon drifted back to sleep.  The morning sun revealed, though, that the midnight marauders’ mission was not in vain.  They managed to get into one of the coolers and made off with pork chops and sausage.  The stories of Friday night, however, told a different tale.  According to the various reports of the eyewitnesses, they made 3 or 4 passes through the camp with their strength estimated to be somewhere between 5 and 32.  They knocked the lid off the metal trash can, turned on a radio and were dancing on the table, let the air out of car tires, opened the latches of the rubbermaid tote containing the food (but could not get the lid off because they were evidently sitting on it), but ultimately made off with nothing more than a bag of Chex mix.  No one slept on Friday night.

In Luke 11, Jesus talked about an unclean spirit going out of a man, only to return finding him clean and in order.  The spirit then returns with 7 others, and the Bible says “…the last state of that man is worse than the first” (Luke 11:26).  Sin and temptation may take a holiday from you, but Satan is always looking for the chance to return and wreak havoc.

Be ready.  Satan is ready to cue the raccoons.

Meeting Trials of Various Kinds

It seems like our nation has gone nuts: impeachment proceedings, coronavirus, racial imbalance, rioting, tyranny, economic meltdown, the list seems to go on and on. And if some or a lot of this can truly be attributed to election-year antics, that’s bad, because that means it is likely to get worse. But aside from making for depressing news cycles, there is something we need to remember: the tensions and resulting chaos is real. Real people are scared. Real people are being challenged in ways they never have before, financially, emotionally, and spiritually. Real people are hurting.

I was at a gathering of preachers several years ago when the conversation turned to a particularly divisive topic. A preacher for whom I have a great deal of respect stopped the discussion and made a statement I have never forgotten. Brother Powell said, “Brethren, sin is sin.” Whether we’re talking about murder, stealing, sexual immorality, racism, or rebellion, the problem always goes back to sin. And sin is always going to lead to fear, anxiety, heartache, and pain.

James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3, ESV). The “trials of various kinds” which cannot be overlooked are the ones that come into our lives tangentially. We didn’t go looking for them, we didn’t invite them home with us, but here they are. We “met” them, and through that meeting, they became a trial to us, and now they are testing us. Here are 4 things we can do to make it through:

Identify sin as sin. If something is a lie, don’t repeat it. If something is truth, do not fear it. But do not try to justify sinful activity in the name of expediency, political correctness, vengeance, or injustice.

Weep when you need to weep. See Matthew 5:4 and Romans 12:15. Trials are going to hurt. We need to understand that and acknowledge it. Mourn over the sinfulness of yourself and others, have a shoulder to be cried upon, and have your own shoulder ready for those who need it.

Look for steadfastness. James says it is coming, but we have to make it through the trials first, and in the process we are being prepared for whatever is coming next.

Count the joy. No, there is no joy in trials, only in the strengthening of our faith and the resulting steadfastness.

Our joy is in our God, who sees what we must endure, and has prepared something much better for us.

Falling Down Hurts

Falling Down Hurts

Oh, sure, there may have been a time when we could fall down and not even notice, but we all reach a point where we don’t want to fall down anymore because we know it is going to hurt. And when we have reached that point, the very thought of pushing someone else down or tripping them and causing them to fall is something we would not rationally entertain. Why not? Because falling down hurts. We know this to be true physically, and by and large we practice caution for the sake of others, but how do we handle this spiritually?

“Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.”  (Romans 14:13)

Paul spent all of Romans 14 making this point. He used the example of meats which had been offered to idols, but this is his point: resolve to not make your brother fall down. Sure, Romans 14 gives us a tight line to follow. You have to do what you know to be right, but at the same time not let what you are doing trip anyone else. And sometimes it gets tough. Really tough. That means that sometimes you have to refrain from doing things that you might have the right to do in order to keep those around you safe; sometimes you have to do what you have to do, but in as gentle a way possible. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride, your stubbornness, and your attitude to be the person that someone else needs you to be. Why? Because falling down spiritually hurts, too.

Think about it. If you trip someone and cause them to fall—accidentally, it is hoped—they fall, they feel the pain, they suffer the consequences. You might be apologetic, help them up, dust them off, apologize again, and part ways. You won’t be there, though, when they struggle to get out bed the next morning or can’t even tie their shoes because of being sore. Spiritually, the reactions and the consequences are much, much worse. If you cause someone to fall spiritually—please, pray it is accidentally—the possibility exists that you will never apologize, never help them up, and never dust them off. Why? Because you can’t see the spiritually pain you have inflicted. You may even think to yourself that it wasn’t even your fault and they should have known better than to have tripped over that. You won’t be there, either, when they can’t sleep at night because of the pain, nor will you be helping hold them up on the Day of Judgment when they must answer for their transgressions, the very ones you helped to cause. (Incidentally, they won’t be standing beside you, either, when you have to answer for your own transgressions.)

Falling down hurts. Don’t fall down, and don’t make anyone else fall, either.

So Who Did the Chiefs Play?

First, let me be clear that this is not a post about my-team-is-better-than-yours. While I am personally thrilled that the Chiefs won the Super Bowl, I feel obligated to include that Sunday’s game was the only NFL game I watched all year, and this would be as true from either perspective.

At some point on Sunday night, I got to thinking about all of the talent, skills, passion, and payroll that the two teams on the field represented. (This is true of any professional sport and any game.) And despite all of those wonderful things represented on that field, half of those players were going to go home as losers. Talented? Yes. Passionate? Definitely. Well-paid? More than they deserve. And yet despite all of that, losers. Because of that, the viewpoint of Super Bowl LIV will always be the one that the Chiefs won, and not the one that the other guys, whoever they were, lost. While the players and stakeholders of the losing team may lament the loss and ponder what might have been, there was only one place with a victory celebration so big that it was detected by weather radar. (That really happened.)

The world, our community, and the church is well represented with lots of intellect, talent, skills, passion, and a spiritual payroll that is out of this world (cf. Romans 6:23). Thanks to the bountiful blessings of a benevolent God, with the blood of Jesus, every person is a potential winner. The celebration in heaven boggles the imagination (cf. Luke 15:10). (Angels, however, are not detected by radar.) Your name can be in the Book of Life (Philippians 4:3), and a crown of life is of much higher repute than even a Super Bowl ring (cf. James 1:12; Revelation 2:10).

Inevitably, unfortunately, lamentably, on the Day of Judgment there will be those who lose. All of the intellect, talent, skills, passion, and money in the world cannot be used to obtain the victory in Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:57) unless you are IN Jesus. While the Bible never uses the word “loser,” isn’t that what being “lost” implies? And if Jesus says to us, “I never knew you, depart from me” (Matthew 7:23), that would mean that despite having been given the advantages, gifts, and privileges administered by Jesus’ coming to earth, we would be the other guys, the ones who aren’t recorded in God’s book of life, the ones pondering what might have been. The losers.