Observations from today’s readings and today’s S-WOD, Monday, 17 January 2022:
Genesis 15:1, 2, 6, 8; Matthew 6:25 — “’Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’… But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless…. And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness…. But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’”…. Do not be anxious about your life….”
Faith is trusting God with today, and hope is trusting God with the future. Both faith and hope are grounded in love and complete confidence in the character of God. Today’s readings can teach us a great deal about faith, fear, failure, and God’s perfect faithfulness. God promised to be Abrams “shield,” to provide for him (“reward”), and to give him a future and a legacy through offspring Abram could not see possible in his old age. Abram faced a crisis of belief much like the one we all face – Will we trust God at is word to take care of us today, tomorrow, and into eternity, and will we confidently, boldly, and joyfully obey Him and serve Him with all that we are and all that we have, with great enthusiasm because we trust Him complicitly and love Him wholeheartedly?
Abram (Abraham) was chosen by God, not by merit but because of God’s grace. As we read Abram’s life story, we might be inclined to ask, “Why would God pick this guy?” Others might be inclined to ask the same about us. The fact is, we all fall short of God’s glory, and our lives reveal God’s grace, not anything special about us – “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8, 9) Abram’s life reveals times of great faith and times of great fear and failure. Abram’s story also reveals God’s faithfulness despite our unfaithfulness. Abram is included in the “Hall of Faith” of Hebrews 11, but just like us, his faith and his faithfulness (the fruit of faith), was far from perfect.
Abram was just like the desperate father who begged Jesus to heal his son and who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) Abram and this father were both believers who trusted in God but still struggled with doubt (fear). Don’t you often feel the same way? The good news is that they were also willing to be honest with God about their doubts and asked God to help them with their doubts. How about you? Are you praying to God about your unbelief?
Concerning believers’ doubt, John Calvin said, “As our faith is never perfect, it follows that we are partly unbelievers; but God forgives us, and exercises such forbearance towards us, as to reckon us believers on account of a small portion of faith. It is our duty, in the meantime, carefully to shake off the remains of infidelity which adhere to us, to strive against them, and to pray to God to correct them, and, as often as we are engaged in this conflict, to fly to him for aid.” We must trust God with our doubt while striving against infidelity, continually praying for His help.
The Bible calls us to be courageous in the Lord, which is triumph over fear by trusting in Him rather than ourselves or anything else.
- Psalm 27:14 — Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
- Psalm 31:24 — Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord!
- Daniel 10:19 — O man greatly loved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.
Courage (overcoming very real fear) is the evidence of our salvation and gives us the ability to do good – “You are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” (1 Peter 3:6). In fact, it takes courage to truly love – “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18) Think about it. It takes faith, trusting in God to overcome fear, in order to give, to forgive, to rest from work, to obey God over the world, and to face seemingly insurmountable obstacles so that the power of God can be revealed in our lives to others to His glory. “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
In doubt, Abram asked God for evidence of His promise. So, God told Abram to prepare for an ancient ritual known as ‘cutting a covenant,’ where the two parties of a contract, deal, or pact would cut animals in half and then together walk through the animal parts, essentially saying, ‘May I be cut into pieces like these animals if I don’t keep my promise(s) as I’ve stated in this agreement (covenant).’ (Genesis 15:9-11) However, in this case, God caused Abram to fall into a deep sleep, and only the Presence of God in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. (Genesis 15:17) God was saying, ‘Your confidence in my promise rests solely on my faithfulness, not yours. I am always faithful, even when you aren’t. Your salvation rests in my hands, not yours. Nothing can separate you from my love.’ (see Romans 8:31-39) We can have confidence in God’s grace, and that confidence should lead us to faithfulness.
Tomorrow we will see in Genesis 16, despite Abram’s direct encounters with God, where God told Abram to trust in Him rather than in Himself, Abram turns around and anxiously disobeys God, taking matters into his own hands by getting Hagar (not his wife) pregnant. As a result, God does not abandon Abram, and Abram is still blessed by God, but needless pain and suffering enters into Abram’s life which carried on and multiplied through the generations to this day. Some practical learning points are provided here: 1) We all doubt. 2) Our first response to doubt should be prayer. 3) Fear and doubt tempt us to take matters into our own hands and to make rash decisions rather than patiently waiting for God and His timing. 4) Faith often means waiting, waiting on the Lord. 5) While waiting on the Lord, simply obey what He has already clearly said in His word, and be faithful to what He has already given you as responsibility. 6) Be careful – while waiting on the Lord, those closest to you will often give you bad advice, but you are still responsible for your own decisions. 7) Fear leads to infidelity which causes needless pain and suffering. Faithfulness allows us to experience the fullness of God’s blessings without unnecessary sorrow – “The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.” (Proverbs 10:22)
Remember, Jesus taught us in Matthew, when fighting fear, we need to go on the offensive rather than the defensive and be proactive rather than reactive – “Therefore do not be anxious…. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31-33; compare with Matt 5:6) “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:34) Replace your anxiety with continual prayer and action. Stay focused on obeying God, knowing Him more and more each day, and making Him known more and more each day – one day at a time. The best way to prepare for tomorrow is to be faithful with today. Focus on making the most of the opportunities God presents to you today. “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15, 16) Joyfully, confidently, and gracefully, make today a masterpiece to God’s glory.
We will all doubt, but doubts need not result in defeat. When we have doubts, we need to be honest about them, take them to The Lord, trust in His provision, and obey through our doubts. Fear need not lead to failure or needless pain. But if we do fail, we need to trust in God’s grace and remember God’s promises in 1 John 1:9 and Romans 8:28, 29. God uses even our failures for good and to conform us to the image of His Son, Jesus.
Matthew 11:1 — “When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.”
Healthy churches are heavily engaged in discipleship, teaching believers how to follow and obey Jesus and how to subsequently teach others to do the same (multiplying disciples). Discipleship is a life-long process of growth for all Christians facilitated by meaningful relationships among fellow believers, guided by the Holy Spirit. Today and throughout this year’s readings, we will learn from Jesus’ example what discipleship should look like. An important part of our personal discipleship training is learning how to make disciples as Jesus did.
In our future readings, Jesus will give us the Great Commission – “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:18-20) Jesus commissioned His church not to make believers only, but rather to make “disciples” who had been taught to observe “all” of His commands. Teaching to this level is no small task – it takes much time, energy, and effort. Jesus demonstrated how to make disciples who, in turn, make disciples.
A military mantra for instruction is, “Educate; demonstrate; replicate; evaluate; and remediate.” This means, teach them; show them; have them do it; evaluate them while they do it, and coach them to higher levels of performance. Jesus appears to use a similar approach with his twelve disciples.
We observe in Matthew that Jesus begins his ministry by teaching and healing. Then, He begins explaining the cost of following Him (Matthew 8:18-21). In chapter 9, Jesus picks His disciples. Then, after much demonstration and teaching, Jesus sends out His twelve apostles in twos to likewise teach and heal. Chapter 9 of Mark records that, though empowered by Jesus to heal, the disciples fail in at least one case – “And someone from the crowd answered [Jesus], ‘Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute…. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” (Mark 9:17, 18) Jesus heals the man’s son and then quietly remediates His disciples, helping them understand what they needed to do differently – “And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.’” (Mark 9:28, 29) Next, Jesus continues to teach His disciples before going out with them again into the field. Jesus appears to repeat this general process over time much like a coach.
A few additional observations:
1) Jesus picked only 12 apostles. It is very difficult to truly disciple more than a small group.
2) Discipleship is much more than just classes and small-group discussions. In fact, most discipling is done ‘on the job’ and ‘in the field.’ Football players don’t get better at football by just talking about it, neither do disciples get better at spreading the Gospel only by sitting in small group with other Christians – both athletes and disciples need to practice under the watchful eye of a good, experienced coach.
3) Jesus didn’t send His apostles out until they were ready, but as soon as they were ready, He sent them out into uncomfortable, challenging situations. Leaders know “there is no growth in the comfort zone, and there is no comfort in the growth zone.” Who is encouraging you out of your comfort zone? Who are you encouraging out of their comfort zone?
4) Discipleship includes both successes and failures. You don’t get better at anything without making a few mistakes. As the adage goes, “Repetition is the mother of skill.” When the disciples failed, Jesus was there to coach them and send them out again.
5) Jesus sent His disciples out in twos. Accountability partnerships and peer-to-peer counselling are key. We interact with peers differently than we do with the teacher. We are usually more transparent with a peer and more comfortable failing in front of a peer. We are also usually more comfortable receiving assistance from a peer. And even is a small group we generally have greater accessibility with a peer. Two-man fighting positions are always more effective than a one-man fighting position.
- Proverbs 27:17 -- Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.
6) Jesus walked daily with a small group of disciples for years. Discipling others is a big, long-term investment that involves close, meaningful, fully committed relationships. Jesus knew His disciples better than they knew themselves. He continued to coach them, and He abandoned none of them, not even Judas.
7) The power of multiplication: Jesus’ plan to spread the Gospel to all nations started with a full-time investment in twelve. Yes, He preached to large crowds and reached out to many personally, but His primary commitment was in preparing His twelve to replicate His example and multiply. To highlight the power of multiplication, someone once asked, “Would you rather receive one million dollars in one month or a penny doubled every day for 30 days?” The answer to this obvious trick question is not so obvious – doubling a penny every day for 30 days results in a total of $5,368,709.12! To take the metaphor one-step further, if these pennies were people, one person would spend thirty days with two other people, rather than one person engaging a huge crowd of people only once in a month. Which approach would be most likely to produce real change in a person’s life? Unfortunately, we tend to give notoriety to the person who can attract a large audience but little credit to the person willing to faithfully disciple a small group for years. However, the disciple-maker produces lasting, powerful change in lives. Case in point – I bet you remember the name of your first or second-grade teacher. Why? That person taught you (and a small group of others) every day for nearly a year – teaching, encouraging, testing, and remediating you. We remember fondly those people who truly invested in us.
Who is discipling you, and who are you discipling? Who are you intentionally walking with as an accountability partner? Who has invested in your spiritual development in a positive way, and in whom are you investing? How committed are you to these relationships, and are they multiplying?
“Cross” Fit S-WOD (Spiritual Workout of the Day) — 17 Jan 22: Today, assess how well you are fulfilling the Great Commission of making disciples. If you are not being discipled and discipling others, take the appropriate next steps today.