March 26 – Teaching Tuesday

By Gretchen Potma

“Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” Matthew 25:13

As we walk with Jesus to the cross, we come to Tuesday, a day of confrontation and teaching. Jesus spends at least part of the day in Jerusalem at the temple, sparring back and forth in dialogue and questions with the Pharisees and telling parables to the people; then later in the day on the mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, he tells his disciples about what will happen in the future, both near and distant.

If you count forward from the triumphal entry on Sunday, and backward from the crucifixion, almost exactly in the middle is this time of teaching where Jesus, seeing his departure from the disciples coming closer and closer, takes time to give them as many details as he can reveal about his return. In that sense, it’s a powerful, almost climactic moment, even though it is mostly overshadowed by the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Churches have traditions of Maundy Thursday services, remembering Christ serving his disciples both in washing their feet and serving them the last supper, and Good Friday services, remembering Jesus’ last words on the cross, and of course, celebratory Easter services remembering his resurrection. What if we also had a Teaching Tuesday service? It might need to be an all-day service because Jesus had a lot to say on that day. I tried to find out what percentage of Jesus’ teaching recorded in the gospels took place on that day. I didn’t come up with a number, but just consider that Matthew, Mark, and Luke each have 2 to 3 chapters focused on Jesus’ Tuesday teaching. That is a lot of red letters! It brings to mind the phrase “drinking from a fire hose”!

Imagine being one of the disciples (either one of the 12 or one of committed men and women that also followed Jesus around). You start the day off with the incredible tension of confrontational trick questions that Jewish leaders use to try to trap Jesus into saying something worthy of death. We are very familiar with all four questions posed by the crafty Pharisees and Saduccees: Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar? Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Which commandment is the greatest? We don’t often stop to realize that these questions came one after another in the same scene of the drama. The disciples must have been holding their breath and sighing with relief every time someone approached Jesus and was sent scurrying away. Each question and each response from Jesus, whether follow-up question or pointed parable is so much to think about, so full of implications for a disciple of Jesus. And then comes Jesus’ slam-dunk question for the Pharisees “Whose son is the Christ?” that finally shuts them up. The Jewish leaders are quiet but still listening, as Jesus really gives it to them with seven statements of woe or judgment. There’s no doubt who he is talking to. He calls them hypocrites, he calls them vipers, he calls them blind, he calls them fools! Maybe as a disciple you are thinking, “Way to go, Jesus, finally someone is calling them out!” while judging the distance to the nearest exit if things get ugly. Jesus isn’t ready to leave the temple yet. He stops to notice the widow putting her small coin in the offering and praises her publicly. Finally, to your relief, Jesus starts to make his way back to Olivet for the night. You’re exhausted from the drama and he certainly must be also.

Apparently, he had a lot more that he still wanted to say to his disciples, and to us as well nearly 2000 years later. I was wondering why he did so much teaching so near the end of his life. Maybe it’s like that tendency a mom has before leaving her children with a babysitter to write lots of instructions and think of last-minute things that she needs to say to the kids, or the person who is coming to the end of their life making sure all those final things have been said to their loved ones. The disciples probably weren’t even wanting to hear all this as they are realizing their time with Jesus was coming to an end just as he’d already told them more than once. When we think of teaching about the end times, we usually think about the book of Revelation, but Jesus made sure we have here in Matthew 24 and 25 basically all we need to know about it. Most important, he has gone away, but he will come back! That is reassurance! That is hope! He wants us to know it could be any day at any time. Does that cause butterflies in your stomach from anticipation or from apprehension? Jesus’ parable about the bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom shows us how to soothe our stomachs: be prepared and keep watch. His parable about the talents reminds us to work while we watch for his return. His parable about the sheep and goats reminds us that the work we are to do while we watch and wait is to serve others. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!

March 24 – Palm Sunday: Five groups of people

By Mark Potma

John 12:12-19

12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out,“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,

15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion;behold, your king is coming,sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness.18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.19 So the Pharisees said to one another,“You see that you are gaining nothing. Look,the world has gone after him.”

Do you remember a time when you were in the middle of a big crowd? Maybe it was a massive celebration where the crowds swelled with excitement and enthusiasm. Perhaps it was a demonstration where you could feel the tension and anger in the air.

Of all the events that we read in the four gospels about in Jesus’ life, there was really only one public “rally”, a massive demonstration calling for Jesus to become King of Israel. Jesus wasn’t really big on rallies and demonstrations or whipping up crowds; it just wasn’t his way. But this one needed to happen – it was a fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy more than 500 years before the birth of Christ. So Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey and received the praise and adulation of the masses as they shouted “Hosanna!” and waved palm branches.

Jesus realized very well that such a huge crowd would have severe consequences. But Jesus knew the task that awaited him and therefore he did not avoid the huge crowds on his way into Jerusalem. Instead, he went straight through the middle of them as they laid down their cloaks before him on his way toward the gates of Jerusalem.

Let’s take a closer look at the various groups of people who made up this sea of humanity. Can you find yourself there in the crowd? Which group do you most identify with?

1. The pilgrims (v 12-13)

It was Passover, and Jews from all over were making their way to Jerusalem to commemorate their miraculous escape from Egypt centuries earlier. They truly believed that if God did it once he could do it again, and free them from the shackles of Roman oppression. So they shouted, “Hosanna!” – literally, “Save us now!” They wanted a king, and they wanted one now! But Jesus wasn’t riding on a horse as a conquering king to solve all their political woes; he was there riding on a donkey to save them from their sins and to prepare a way for them to be reconciled to God. The pilgrims didn’t get it, and we too often see Christ as the answer to our most urgent needs.

2. The disciples (v.15-16)

Oh, those poor disciples! They completely missed the unique meaning of that day. Three years they had walked and talked with Jesus, but they were still immature, slow to understand, and often fearful. They bickered and were jealous; they denied, betrayed, and doubted; they were often confused and ineffective. That’s why Jesus told them a few chapters later that it would be for their own good that he leaves them. They would receive the Holy Spirit who would fill them, lead them, counsel and help them, and strengthen their faith. How long have we been following Jesus and still we fall into the same patterns of our life without God? We need the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives!

3. The witnesses of Lazarus (v.17-18)

The third group in the crowd was there because they wanted to see a miracle even greater than the last one they saw – the raising of Lazarus from the dead! In every crowd there are those who are looking for the sensational. They saw Jesus feed the 5000, cast out demons, calm the sea and walk on water, and they started to base their faith on the miracles that Jesus did and not on Jesus himself. Their desire was not for Jesus alone, but for the experiences and adrenaline of the supernatural. We know that some of the same people in the crowd who shouted “Hosanna!” didn’t get what they wanted and a week later shouted “Crucify him!” Do we ever find ourselves turning away from God when we don’t get what we want?

4. The Pharisees and religious leaders (v.19)

The fourth group that we meet in the crowds are the Pharisees and religious leaders of the Jews. They were against Jesus from the beginning and now their hatred for him is only intensifying. They were selfish hypocrites and cowards. Wait a minute – before we criticize them some more, we need to realize that in some ways our lives may be quite similar to theirs. They realized that faith in Jesus as the Messiah would result in discomfort and sacrifice. They would have to deny themselves. They might even lose their jobs or their loved ones might make fun of them. This is why Jesus said just a few verses later that when a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it bears much fruit (v.24). It’s true Jesus was speaking of himself, but he’s also talking about us. If we want to truly live, we need to die to our selfish desires and be born again – only then can we produce much fruit for eternal life.

5. The Greeks seeking Jesus (v.20-26)

Even though the Triumphal Entry is found in all four gospels, only in John’s account do we find the account of the Greeks seeking Jesus. John emphasizes that Jesus is not only the Messiah, but the Saviour of the whole world! Who were these Greeks? Just curious tourists who stumbled upon a crowd celebrating some Jewish festival? No, they were God-fearing Greeks who wanted to worship the one true God and they desired to see Jesus. I love their openness, their sincerity, and their desire. Others said, “We want to see a miracle!” but the Greeks said, “We want to see Jesus!” Others said, “We want to stop Jesus!” but the Greeks said, “We want to stop and talk to Jesus!”

There were five groups of people in the crowd that day. During this holy week before Easter, let’s examine our hearts and ask ourselves the question: Where am I? Which group do I belong in? Let’s pray that we would not only seek Jesus, but that we would truly find him and stay close to him.

Mark and Gretchen Potma are missionaries with TEAM in the Czech Republic, planting churches in one of the most atheistic countries in the world. They have four young adult children.

March 2 – Insiders and Outsiders

By Gretchen Potma

Ephesians 2:11-22 (MSG)

It was only yesterday that you outsiders to God’s ways had no idea of any of this, didn’t know the first thing about the way God works, hadn’t the faintest idea of Christ. You knew nothing of that rich history of God’s covenants and promises in Israel, hadn’t a clue about what God was doing in the world at large. Now because of Christ—dying that death, shedding that blood—you who were once out of it altogether are in on everything.

The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody.

Christ brought us together through his death on the Cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.

That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.”

This passage is describing how both Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to God through the blood of Jesus Christ alone and not only that, how they are reconciled to each other. I really like the way this passage is paraphrased in The Message because it brings the concepts much closer to our context when it describes “the circumcision” and “the uncircumcised” as “insiders” and “outsiders”. Those terms strike a chord with me after living half of my life in other countries. I know what it feels like to be an outsider, especially in the early years of our life in the Czech Republic. There were a lot of things I “didn’t know” — like how to tell the nurse at the doctor’s office that I was there for my appointment when the door didn’t open from the outside and the sign on the door said “Don’t knock!”. Often, I “hadn’t the faintest idea” what the punchline was that everyone at the small group was laughing about. I “hadn’t a clue” why that clerk was angry with me. I often felt “out of it altogether” because of language and culture. If you’ve ever felt like that, felt like a stranger and alien, you know that words like “in on everything”, “no longer strangers”, “belong”, and “home” sound really attractive.

As I’ve thought about that passage, I’ve realized that our job as missionaries is to willingly become cultural outsiders so that others can become spiritual insiders. The Message paraphrases Paul as saying in Ephesians 3:1, I’ve “taken up the cause of you outsiders,” and goes on to say in Ephesians. 3:6: “The mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives (what I’ve been calling outsiders and insiders) stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is accessible and welcoming to everyone, across the board.” (MSG)

Even after living for years in the Czech Republic, I still often feel like an outsider, but the place I can easily feel at home is at church among believers, while a Czech unbeliever can easily feel like they are in foreign territory, listening to a foreign language when it comes to anything having to do with the church, or the Bible, or God.

Here is what one commentator, Albert Barnes, wrote about the phrase from Ephesians 2:12 which we are used to hearing as “without God in the world”: “Greek “ἄθεοι“atheoi” – “atheists;” that is, those who had no knowledge of the true God. (The pagan) lives, and feels, and acts, as if there were no God. He neither worships him in secret, nor in his family, nor in public. He acts with no reference to his will. He puts no confidence in God’s promises and fears not when he threatens; and were it announced to him that there “is no God,” it would produce no change in his plan of life, or in his emotions.…And, if so, what is man in this beautiful world without a God? A traveller to eternity without a God! Standing over the grave without a God! An immortal being without a God! A man with no God to praise, to love, to confide in; with no altar, no sacrifice, no worship, no hope; with no Father in trial, no counsellor in perplexity, no support in death! Such is the state of man by nature. Such are the effects of sin.”

That is such a sad, but fitting description of the vast majority of Czech people—God just doesn’t figure into their lives and worse, they are hopeless, fatherless and alone. This is becoming a more and more accurate description of Canadians and Americans, as the culture around us continues down the same road to losing any knowledge of the Bible or the biblical foundations of our countries that post-Communist, post-modern Czechs have already travelled.

Whatever our nationality or ethnicity, those of us who are insiders in the kingdom of faith (and especially those of us who have spent our whole lives in the kingdom), can find ourselves increasingly separated and on opposite sides of a wall used to keep us at a distance from those who have no knowledge of the true God. We consider them to be outsiders who will always remain outsiders. I’d like to suggest to you that our job as believers is to remember (or imagine) what it feels like to be an “outsider” spiritually, so that we’re motivated to show people who are far away how satisfying it is to be at home and at peace with God, to belong and to no longer be strangers and aliens to God’s kingdom. We need to take the first step to bring them near and help them learn what it means to be an insider with God. This month before Easter is an excellent time to be asking the Holy Spirit to show us what that step will be, and to give us the determination to follow through with it. What can we do in our neighbourhood and at our church to welcome outsiders so that they can be new bricks and stones in the temple God is building? Here is one suggestion: https://www.goodseed.com/what-are-christmas-and-easter-all-about.html
We need to each take up the cause of a spiritual outsider, even if that means feeling like an outsider in some way ourselves, or giving up some familiar ways of doing things, in order to show them that they, too, will find the most fulfilling sense of “at homeness” and belonging only in a personal relationship with Jesus.

February 19 – Church planting: pitching tents for the joy of all people

by Mark Potma

The thought of pitching a tent can evoke wistful memories or a certain nostalgia about camping trips in the past, or perhaps excitement and adventure while preparing for an upcoming trip. Often it involves travelling to new places, getting used to different surroundings, and honing skills that are not part of our everyday lives. For many people in Bible times, and for some people groups around world today, the tent is a primary or secondary dwelling and a means of existence. Living out of a tent can also represent for some a rootless, exhausting, and sometimes even homeless existence. Church-planting missionaries like us know firsthand what it means to be sojourners and exiles in this world (1Pe 2:11). Even though we do experience God’s lasting presence in our hearts and in our church fellowships, we know that we are still only pilgrims on this earth.

Perhaps we can give Jabal credit for inventing the tent; after all, he was the father of those who live in tents and have livestock (Gen 4:20). For the patriarchs, the tent was not only a dwelling; it was also a place to meet with God. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each pitched their tents at the same places where they erected altars to worship the LORD (Gen 12, 26, and 33). Made from the skin of sheep or goats, their well-worn tents foreshadowed a future glorious hope: Abraham went to live in the land of promise … living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Heb 11:9-10) We can all relate as we often groan in the temporary, earthly “tents” of our bodies, longing for our permanent, eternal home in heaven (2 Cor 5:1)

The place where the LORD met with his chosen people was in a tent: The cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle (Ex 40:34). When the cloud or pillar of God’s presence moved, the twelve tribes surrounding the tabernacle packed up their tents and belongings, only to set up camp once again as they journeyed to the Promised Land. Meanwhile, only the priests were allowed to enter this mobile house of worship, and later the temple, on behalf of the people. But our Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, or “pitched his tent among us” (Jn 1:14), has prepared the way for us into God’s very presence: Through the greater and more perfect tent, he entered once for all into the holy places… thus securing an eternal redemption. (Heb 9:11-12).

As we plant churches in the Czech Republic, and as church planters around the world establish new local express-sions of the Body of Christ, we are “incarnationally “pitching our tent” among the people that God has called us to serve. This involves learning the language and culture, living among them, sharing the good news of Christ with them, inviting them to begin a relationship with God, and then gathering them together to grow in faith. The spiritual “tent of witness” (Acts 7:44) may initially be the church planter’s living room or a rented facility in the target area, and often involves moving several times to accommodate for size, financial needs, or other external conditions. God wants his church to have great expectations despite any adverse circumstances. Sometimes this means enlarging the existing “tent” and at other times it involves pitching new “tents” in the regions beyond (2 Cor 10:16).

Perhaps the most well-known proclamation in the Scriptures about tents is the word of the LORD in Isaiah 54:1-4. The barren woman is promised even more children than childbearing women; her offspring will spread to the left and the right; they will possess the nations; and the desolate cities will become populated. God is getting ready to do something that will simply amaze us. As we fulfill Christ’s Great Commission call by winning worshippers from all nations, God is saying to us, “Get ready!” How do we do this?

Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. (Is 54:2)

God wants us to get ready for the “ingathering” of a vast multitude of new brothers and sisters from all nations, tribes, peoples and languages (Rev 7:9) into the family of God. Let’s enlarge the place of our tent and stretch out the curtains! Let’s reach new regions, plant new churches, make new disciples, and train new leaders – don’t hold back! With a bigger tent comes longer cords – praise God for the rope-holders in supporting churches like LSA who intercede on behalf of new tent-pitching initiatives around the world. Lengthening the cords, holding the ropes through prayer and support, is what allows this gospel advancement to continue. And by pounding our tent pegs even further into the soil, by strengthening our stakes, we are trusting in the rock-solid promises of God and the foundational truths of Scripture as we see Isaiah’s prophecy being fulfilled before our very eyes. Are you ready?

Mark and Gretchen Potma are missionaries with TEAM in the Czech Republic, planting churches in one of the most atheistic countries in the world. They have four young adult children.

February 16 – Love is Hopeful

  • By Gretchen Potma

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proudor rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 

Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

I Corinthians 13:7 NLT

I think everyone would agree that these verses about love are beautiful. Who doesn’t read them and desire to experience love like that? Who doesn’t read them and realize they fall short both in loving and being loved by any human like this ideal?

We most often think about these words in the context of marriage, and I’d like to tell you a true-life story about three marriages in their last days. (This isn’t meant to leave out single people because you and society also benefit when marriages stay strong through love like this, so keep reading). The first two married couples are my parents and my husband’s parents. Both of our moms were caregivers for their husbands for many years. My dad had Parkinson’s disease and my husband’s dad had Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t need to describe for you the care required and the patience and faith and hope and endurance that our moms needed in those circumstances. They stuck with the hard jobs they had been given until our fathers passed away and neither of them have any regrets. They loved with a triumphant fortitude; “not with dumb resignation but with holy joy; not only with the absence of murmur but with a song of praise.” (William Barclay)

The other marriage is that of an older couple we became acquainted with several years ago. In fact, they were the same generation as our parents. When we met them, they were warm and outgoing, eager to talk about their children and grandchildren, to share stories from their past, their community and church involvement over the years, the trips they took together, the house and hobbies they shared. Not much different from our parents’ lives. They seemed like a couple not planning to do anything but live out their lives together. They were genuinely interested to know what we meant when said that we were missionaries and we worked on finding ways to tell them more about Jesus. During the last few years, while we were in Prague, things changed for them. We heard that the husband had some severe health difficulties and her existing health problems got worse. Adult children even moved in with them to help out. After we returned to Windsor last summer, I had a couple of opportunities to talk to the wife, outside of course. She wanted me to know exactly where things stood with her and her husband. Health issues had taken a toll, as well as years of unresolved hurts and misunderstandings and she was done with it. In her loneliness, she had found someone else through an online game she liked to play. She traveled to meet him and then she went to live with him for a few months and now was making plans to make a permanent move to another city. “It’s weird, Gretchen,” she said, “the way life has turned out. I never went looking for it, never thought this would happen.” She had come to the conclusion that her husband never really loved her during their 60 years of marriage, at least not in a way that met her need to feel loved (and she made sure I knew he was an awful grump to live with too) and now not even the grandchildren really needed her. So, she was wrapping her marriage and going to someone who would hold her hand and call her sweetheart. Enough of loneliness and heartache, that was not how she was going to live the rest of her life.

The conversation was a shock. I did my best in the moment to tell her without being judgmental that God wanted her to feel loved, but that her new friend’s love, as good as it felt now, would someday fall short too, but God’s love would last. I spent a lot of time in the following weeks pondering what to say that might help her stick with her marriage, but I only saw her once more before she moved away a few months ago and the conversation was about her cataract surgery rather her marriage or her eternity. A few weeks ago, we were surprised and saddened to learn that she had passed away suddenly in her new city.

But, I can tell you what I pondered and hope that I can encourage someone to not give up, to not lose faith, to have hope and to endure. What would keep me going if I were in the same situation? What kept our moms going during the last years of their husbands’ lives? It has to be the hope of heaven and meeting Jesus. The world and even this lady’s own children applauded their mother that she was “true to herself.” It’s true we can easily imagine that her last days on earth were happier with the new man than they would have been with her cranky old husband, but as believers, we have the hope of far greater satisfaction and eternal happiness that outweighs the temporary pleasures of earth.

God motivates us to feel and to do what we should by calling to our minds (Lamentations 3:21) the way he has shown love to us in the past and his promises of future love, near and distant.

We look back and are motivated to love as we see how God has loved us in forgiving us through Christ (Ephesians 4:32).

We look forward to the next day and are motivated to love by the promise that He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).

We look forward into the distance and are motivated to love and to do what is right because our reward is great in heaven (Matthew 5:12) and we will be rewarded at the resurrection for our costly love (Luke 14:14).

February 1 – A Mist That Appears

James 4:13-17

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

It’s rather funny now to think about the email I sent out in the beginning of March 2020. It was an invitation to a combined Sunday gathering on March 15th of all seven locations of our church in Prague, Czech Republic, with a service at 10 am, potluck lunch at noon, and an annual meeting at 1 pm. A few days later we had to cancel those plans, and plenty of other plans in the ten months since then. How many of your plans, meetings, and trips were changed in an instant? It’s a striking reminder of the truth of the words we find in James 4:13-17.

Among the people that James was writing to were businessmen, builders, and financiers. They could be heard to say in verse 13: “Let’s spend some time in this place! Let’s make some money in that place!” Does that sound like anything we might do? We plan our trips. We expect to arrive at our destination. We schedule a certain amount of time to be away. We choose what we’re going to do while we’re there. And we expect certain results from our time away.

But wait – is it wrong for us to travel? Should we not try to plan ahead? Is it a sin to make a profit? Certainly not. It’s just that an important perspective was missing from all of these plans. When we have the proper perspective in place, it changes everything. We need a proper understanding of our life, and we need a proper understanding of God. Then we see everything in a different light. Then we have gained the proper perspective.

James describes our life as a mist or vapour that appears and then vanishes again (v.14). When King Solomon uttered his famous words, “All is vanity!” (Eccl. 1:2) it had the same meaning in Hebrew – everything is a mist or a vapour. Life is so fleeting and elusive; it’s really just a breath and then it’s gone. Why should we ever want to pin our hopes on this life? We need to realize that our life is so much more than just what we can experience with our five senses. Ultimately, we should always live our lives with the perspective of eternity in mind. Only what’s done for Christ will have eternal value.

Our life is such a precious gift from God. Job realized this when he said, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) Whether we live or whether we die is ultimately up to God. James reminds us of this truth in verse 14: “If the Lord wills, we will live.” Every heartbeat is a gift from God. Our next breath is by His grace. Our internal organs continue to function by God’s sovereign will. We were created to glorify God with our lives!

Not only are our lives in God’s hands, but our plans as well. So how should we preface our plans, our travels, our business proposals, our decisions? James gives us the answer also in verse 14: “If the Lord wills, we will… do this or that.” All of our plans should always subject to the will of the Lord. The people described in verse 13 gave no thought to their lives in light of eternity, and they gave no thought to God as the sovereign Lord of the universe. They were consumed with themselves.

James concludes in verses 16-17 with some strong words for those who give no thought to the fragility of life and the sovereignty of God. Boasting about our plans, dreams, goals and aspirations, without considering the shortness of life and the greatness of God, is what James calls arrogance and evil boasting (v.16), and when we know what we should do and we don’t do it, the Bible calls it sin (v.17). In Proverbs we read, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. (Pr. 27:1)

For me, the last ten months has been a distinct reminder how utterly dependent on God I truly am for my life, my breath, and for my future. Let’s receive every new day as an amazing gift from God. Let’s lay our heads down at night in gratitude to God for the day he has given us. Let’s praise Him for the life he is allowing us to live and the body he has given us to glorify him. Let’s count the cost, let’s seek God’s will, let’s set a course, and let’s rejoice in every step of the journey as we follow Christ our Saviour every day.

January 29 – What Did I Say?

James 4:11-12

“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbour?”

In James 4:11-12, James brings up these two touchy topics of speaking evil and judging others. For most of us the first topic seems clear enough: speaking evil is wrong! But for many of us, the second topic, judging others, is not quite so clear. Is judging others the same as speaking evil? Or is it in a different category? Can we be guilty of one and not of the other?

Here’s what’s clear: slander, gossiping, lying, and verbal attacks are not what should come out of a Christian’s mouth. The ninth Commandment tells us not to testify falsely against our neighbour (Ex 20:16), and Jesus told us that we should treat people the way we want them to treat us (Mt 7:12). Then Jesus went on to say: that’s the Law! James says in this verse that speaking evil against one another is the same as speaking evil against the very law of God.

Here’s what’s not so clear: “Don’t judge others.” Jesus also warned us not to judge; otherwise, we’ll be judged. (Mt 7:1). So often we hear this Bible verse twisted from “Don’t judge others” to “Don’t judge me!” Not all judging is wrong or sinful. In fact, Jesus told us not to judge by appearances, but to judge with right judgment (John 7:24). And the Apostle Paul calls for judgment when sin has crept into the church (1 Cor 5:12).

When faced with challenging moral issues, we should not stay neutral. We should take a stand. We should be ready to defend our convictions, follow God’s commands and live honourable lives. “Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Pr 31:9) So when should we “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) and when should we be “slow to speak” (James 1:19)?

We are so often fooled by outward appearances, but it is God alone who judges the heart (1 Sam 16:7). We so often love to pick out faults in other people when we’ve got even bigger problems of our own! (Mt 7:5) Our sinful human nature is so prone to selfishness, pride and hypocrisy that we can so easily cross the line and sin by judging others.

When have we crossed the line? When has judging others become a sin? Obviously, when we use slander, gossip, lying, and attacks to judge others, that is sin. It is also wrong to think that we can judge because we ourselves are above the law (Rom 2:12). We condemn ourselves when we do the same things that we judge others for (Rom 2:1). We should never try to become the enforcer of God’s law, thereby usurping God’s authority.

Missionaries like us, working thousands of miles from home, with people from a different ethnic group, speaking a different language, need to be especially careful. Our task is not only to learn a new language; we need to also learn a new culture! And it can be so easy for us as missionaries to be judgmental of mannerisms, customs, or even national characteristics that are different than our own. Over the years, we have learned how important it is to be careful not to pass judgment on the citizens of our host country, whether they are not yet believers or whether they belong to the household of faith.

So let’s not be quick to condemn, criticize, or be harsh with our words. We don’t have the right to pass judgment on a fellow servant (Rom 14:4). Judging is such a dangerous mine field that if we can’t be sure about someone’s motive, we should avoid judging them altogether. The point of verse 12 is clear: There is only one lawgiver and judge, and that is God. He’s the one who is able to save and destroy. When we put judging in that perspective, as James says, who are we to judge our neighbour?

Let’s take some time to do a personal inventory of the times when we have passed judgment upon someone through our words or actions. Any regrets? If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that the times that our judging of others crossed the line into sin far outweigh the times we acted righteously and brought restoration. Let’s resolve to speak graciously, by the Holy Spirit’s power, to encourage and build others up as we minister to them (Eph 4:29).

January 27 – Humility

James 4: 6 – 10

“But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

James is a wise and also compassionate shepherd, so after a string of probing questions, he has a list of ten commands that show how to move forward rather than staying stuck feeling bad about ourselves. But notice first that these ten commands are sandwiched between two promises which he draws out of the Old Testament: God gives grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34) and God will lift us up (Job 5:14). Undoubtedly, James is remembering that Jesus also promised that whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matt. 23:12). When God makes a great demand, he gives great grace so that we can do it.

We can group the commands into three characteristics: godly humility (submit to God, resist the devil, come near to God, humble yourselves), godly purity (wash your hands and purify your hearts) and godly sorrow (grieve, mourn and wail). If you’re trying to put on those characteristics without God’s involvement, they will be just an ugly counterfeit. I read Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield when I was in high school. I don’t remember much about the story except the man named Uriah Heep who was always claiming to be “umble”, but he was probably the most distasteful character in the book. Purity that is not from God reminds us of Pharisees, and sorrow without God’s touch looks more like self-pity. Even as I was writing this, I had an incident where my over-reaction to an unwanted question turned into an apology that sounded like humility, but was more like a cover-up for continued indignation mingled with self-pity for good effect. I’m thankful God showed it to me and kept the situation from escalating.

Just as grace comes from God, humility and purity and sorrow are initiated by God because they come as responses to His greatness and His glory. Practically speaking, this is always going to involve reading His word and obeying what it says and talking with Him in prayer. Our responses to other people are a lot more likely to be godly when our minds and hearts have been intentionally engaged with God. And even in the times (which happen more often than we like) when we are less engaged and more just going through the motions, it’s better to be defaulting (including on our screens, radios, phones) to God’s words than to the world’s. Before James started giving people advice and diagnosing their problems, he had spent a lot of time in the Scriptures and a lot of time with Jesus. His words, even his short and pointed one-liners, had the weightiness of God behind them. They didn’t come across like a bumper sticker slogan or a meme, a zinger, witty comeback. Before saying (or posting or forwarding) something, we would do well to pause and think first about whether it is wise or merely clever.

In the church where I grew up, there was an older gentleman whose words always made you listen and stop to think. He had been a pastor and missionary and served as a consultant evaluating Christian organizations. I remember someone saying that pearls of wisdom rolled off his tongue. At that time, there were a lot of Christian “bumper sticker” slogans going around such as “Keep lookin’ up.” As Mr. Bower was going out the door after church, he would often say good-bye with the encouragement to “Keep looking down,” and coming from him, you knew it wasn’t a slip-up. He would go on to explain, “Paul wrote in Ephesians that as believers we’re seated with Christ in the heavenly realms, so keep looking down!” And seeing how he (and his wife) lived and hearing his words, it wasn’t hard to picture him there.

Here is a prayer written by Warren and Ruth Myers in the book 31 Days of Prayer that sums up James 4:1-10. “Holy Father, enable me to live out what You have already done deep within me. May your Spirit of holiness empower me to grow in righteous thinking and living. I pray this also for believers in my church and neighbourhood. Make us quick to confess our sins and rely on You to forgive. Make us clean and pure in every part of our lives. Deliver us from the evil ways we used to cherish when we didn’t know any better. May we feed daily on Your holy Scriptures, letting you use them to cleanse our lives and remove our blemishes and wrinkles and defects. I worship before You as the God of peace and well-being who is committed to making us holy. I count on You to do this day by day, giving us grace to cooperate with you.”

January 26 – James Quotes Jesus

Today, I’m excited to introduce you to two more devotion writers – Mark and Gretchen Potma. Mark and Gretchen are church planters who minister in Prague, Czech Republic. They are currently on home assignment in Windsor (Mark’s home town), living with their four young adult children. LSA first sent a summer team to help with their English camp in 2008 and has been partnering with them ever since.

Mark and Gretchen will be taking us through chapter 4 of James. The next two days are written by Gretchen. (Mark will do the final two days.) – Audrey

James 4:1-5

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?” 

You might have started to notice by chapter 4 of James that there are a lot of commands and not as much explanation of doctrine as there is in some of the other epistles. Maybe it’s starting to feel like a “to do” list that you can’t ever get done. It might be helpful and heartening to think about the context and setting for the letter. Picture that you are a new believer in Jesus, in the first century, meeting with other believers. You want to know how God wants you to live and how to handle different problems that have come up in your fellowship. Perhaps there have been some tensions between the richer and poorer people in your congregation, or discussions about the church’s responsibility to take care of widows and orphans, or what to do about people whose tongues are stirring up trouble. Looking at the first few verses of chapter 4, it’s obvious there has been some quarrelling going on in the churches scattered around. Where would you turn for help?

It’s worth repeating that James was a pillar of the early church in Jerusalem, with the apostles like Peter and Paul coming to him for advice and approval. He would have been respected by those who were receiving this letter as a wise elder. It’s also worth thinking about where his wisdom came from. We can assume from his background as a Jew in the first century that he would have been memorizing the Old Testament Scriptures all his life. He was Jesus’ younger brother, and even though we know he didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah all along, he would have spent a lot of time with Jesus and we can imagine that he heard him teaching many times (And just a side comment, we can also imagine the regret he must have felt for all the time he wasted not listening to Jesus with the ears of a believer). Do any of the words of James sound like something Jesus said? When you read James does it sound like he had spent time with Jesus?

On the subject of fights and quarrels in the church, James writes, “You desire and do not have, so you murder”. Remember what Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount? “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Matthew 5: 21 – 22)

James writes, “You do not have because you do not ask”. What did Jesus say? “Ask and you shall receive.” (Matt. 7:7)

James warns that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matt. 6:24)

James says to “resist the devil and he will flee from you.” Do you think he might be remembering what Jesus told him about his forty days in the wilderness? And when James writes those pessimistic-sounding commands “Be wretched and mourn and weep,” does it help us swallow them a little more easily to think of Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”? Matt. 5: 4)

One commentary on the book of James (TheBibleProject.com) points out that the goal of James isn’t to teach new theological information, but “to get into your business and challenge how you live.” We’ve already felt that in the first three chapters. His frequent rhetorical questions make us—or should make us–stop and look in the mirror (and not at once forget what we are like):

Verse 1: What is causing quarrels and fights? In my home and extended family, in my church or Bible study group. There are plenty of possibilities for differing opinions these days.

Are my desires at war within me? I want to stand up for truth as a Christian, but I also don’t want my neighbours to think badly of me.

Verse 4: Do I really comprehend that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Media choices and how I use my time are obvious areas of soul-searching with this question.

Verse 5: Has it sunk into my inner being that the Spirit which God has made to dwell within me jealously yearns for the full devotion of my heart? James used the word adulterous purposely. The commentator William Barclay wrote, “It reminds us that to disobey God is like breaking the marriage vow. It means that our relationship to God is not like the distant relationship of king and subject or master and slave, but like the intimate relationship of husband and wife. It means that when we sin, we break God’s heart, as the heart of one partner in a marriage may be broken by the desertion of the other.”