God Has a Dream

Topical Scripture: Judges 13:1-7

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Lately, the heavens have been especially eloquent.

In recent days, the moon and Venus have been the brightest objects in the nighttime sky. Though they are millions of miles apart, they seemed to nearly touch each other.

By the end of July, Mars will come closer to Earth than at any time between 2003 and 2035. On Sunday, the night sky will feature (from left to right) Venus, the star Spica, the planet Jupiter, the moon, the planet Saturn, and the planet Mars.

When we look at the sky, we are reminded of the omnipotence of our Creator and the finitude of our lives. And yet, our God loves us so much he considered our eternal lives worth the death of his Son. Even while ruling the entire universe, he still has a “good and acceptable and perfect” will for each of us (Romans 12:2).

Is his goal for your life the same as your goal for your life?

Years ago, I found this wise saying: “If you don’t have a goal, you’ll never reach it.” What’s your empowering life goal? Do you have a defining, catalytic purpose for your present and future? A “north on the compass” which guides your steps?

God has a dream for your life and work, your ministry and responsibilities. He wants you to know his dream and invites you to partner with him in fulfilling it. Let’s learn how.

Expect sin to lead to judgment (Judges 13:1)

The Judges cycle continues: “Again the Israelites did evil the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years” (Judges 13:1 (NIV)).

Who were the Philistines? Why did God use them to bring judgment against his people?

The Philistines were a sea people who migrated to the Mediterranean cost, settling from Joppa to south of the Gaza area. As this Maritime Plain was extremely fruitful, its inhabitants developed into a very significant nation and military power.

They originated on the island of Caphtor (Amos 9:7; Jeremiah 47:4), a location usually identified with Crete. Some scholars identify them as Indo-Europeans. According to Egyptian depictions, they were tall and Hellenic in appearance. They invaded Egypt during the time of Rameses III (1195-64 BC), but were repelled. They eventually came to southwest Canaan, where they settled.

Their chief god was Dagon (Judges 16:23). He was thought to be the father of Baal, the god of weather and rain. Dagon was represented as half-man, half-fish (dag means “fish” in Hebrew). Since the people lived on the coast and prospered by fishing, he was seen as the deity they had to honor in order to prosper.

Because of their expertise with iron works (cf. 1 Samuel 13:19–22), their armies would prove to be Israel’s most consistent and formidable adversary during the period of the Judges and into the reign of David (1 Samuel 17–18). They were still a problem for Uzziah and Hezekiah, three centuries later (2 Chronicles 26:3–7).

For forty years before Samson’s birth, the people suffered under their oppression (v. 1). This was the longest period of foreign occupation in the book of Judges. And it reminds us of the human propensity to return to sin again and again.

Scripture warns us, “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11). Yet we see this pattern again and again in Judges: the people sin and face punishment, then repent.

And we see it in our lives as well. Here’s the reason: according to Jesus, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). That’s why we must turn to God immediately, seeking his forgiving grace (1 John 1:9) and asking him to break the chains of sin that enslave us.

If we don’t, we may change our behavior, but we will not and cannot change our nature.

Only Jesus can give us a new heart. Only he can make us a new person. That’s why time with him is our best antidote to temptation. Charles Spurgeon: “We know of no cure for the love of evil in a Christian like abundant intercourse with the Lord Jesus. Dwell much with Him, and it is impossible for you to be at peace with sin.”

Are you dwelling “much with him”?

Expect God to work in surprising ways (Judges 13:2–5)

God wants to deliver his people from themselves and from their enemies. But he works in ways we seldom would anticipate or expect. If we limit his answers to our prayers to what we want him to do, we frustrate his providence and miss his omnipotence.

God’s story of redemption begins with a man named Manoah and his unnamed wife. He was “of the tribe of the Danites,” which had originally been assigned the coastal plain where the Philistines now lived (Joshua 19:40–48). When this territory “was lost to them” (v. 47), they moved to a region further north.

However, some apparently remained behind in their original land. Samson was descended from such a brave family.

Here was the tragedy that made his birth so surprising: His mother “was sterile and remained childless” (Judges 13:2). This was an unspeakable tragedy for a woman of their day. They did not understand the various reasons why a couple may not be able to conceive or know of medical options for such a problem.

So it was for Sarah (Genesis 11:30; 16:1); Rebekah (Genesis 25:21); Hannah (1 Samuel 1:2); and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:31). Many naively and unkindly attributed this painful condition to the judgment of God.

But not God: “The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, ‘You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son'” (Judges 13:3). God knows our individual need and specific problem far better than we do. Our prayer does not provide information he did not know, for “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).

God’s dream for this faithful couple was simple: “Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazarite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines” (vv. 4–6).

What was a Nazarite?

“Nazarite” translates the Hebrew word for “separated” or “dedicated.” Numbers 6 provides the requirements for those who would live in this unusual status: they were to abstain from anything that comes from the grapevine, never shave their hair, and refuse to touch any dead body. By these actions they would be set apart from normal life, both in activity and appearance, to be used completely by the Lord for his purposes.

Such vows were typically temporary in duration, with requirements to be fulfilled when their commitment was completed (Numbers 6:13-20). But Samson was to be “a Nazarite of God from birth until the day of his death” (Judges 13:7). Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:15) were similarly dedicated to God for their entire lifetimes.

Why were Samson’s parents specifically ordered to eat nothing unclean? The Mosaic law was specific regarding kosher dietary laws. All of Israel was to heed these restrictions. Clearly many did not, for this couple was specifically called to such obedience. They could transgress no command of God’s word concerning their diet and, by extension, their lifestyles. They were to set an example for their son, as we are for our children today.

Note that God’s command to Samson’s mother is clear indication that life begins at conception. If Samson would not become a Nazarite until he was born, why would it matter what his mother ate during her pregnancy? We understand the health benefits of such a diet today, but they had no such conception. This mother was asked to keep a Nazarite diet for the sake of her unborn son, because he “shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb” (v. 5).

Here’s the point for us: God can use people the world has abandoned to fulfill a purpose the world would not imagine. He used a barren woman to conceive a future deliverer of the nation. Her faithful obedience to his word and will led to the birth of one of the most remarkable men in all of Scripture.

Embrace God’s dream as yours

As a result of her obedience, “the woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the Lord blessed him, and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him while he was in Maheneh Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol” (vv. 24–25). “Samson” means “sun” or “brightness,” a hopeful prediction for their son’s future.

God has a similar dream for you today. Some evolutionists say that life began as a chance coincidence, with no particular plan or purpose at all. Existentialists say that this life is all there is, and life is chaos. Postmodernists say that truth is relative, and there is no overriding purpose to life.

Jackson Pollock’s most famous “drip painting,” titled “No. 5,” sold for $140 million. Mark Rothko’s most famous painting, titled “Orange, Red, Yellow,” sold for $86.9 million. Neither convey objective truth. Both ask you to decide what the paintings mean to you.

By contrast, God claims, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). Even though they were enslaved in Babylon, with no hope and no future.

God dreamed that Noah would save the human race. He dreamed that the childless Abraham would be the father of the Messiah. He dreamed that the shepherd Moses would give his laws to the world. He dreamed that the young shepherd boy David would be king of his people.

He dreamed that the fishermen Peter, James, and John would lead his global church. He dreamed that the persecuting Saul of Tarsus would take his word across the Empire. He dreamed that the imprisoned John would write his Revelation. And so it was.


God has a dream for you. For every day there is a dream. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, how healthy and prosperous you are or aren’t. If God had a dream of greatness for an unborn boy, he has dreams for you.

How can you know it?

First, choose his dream. Decide that you will do what he wants you to do. Decide that his purpose is your best purpose.

C. S. Lewis: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite you is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Second, ask to know his purpose. He will make his dream known to you if you want to know it. But he will give only what you will receive.

Jesus promised us: “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 the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7–8). However, we have not because we ask not (James 4:2).

Third, listen for his purpose. Your Father will speak to you intuitively, his Spirit with your spirit, if you will listen to his word and world. If you will take time to be still and know he is God (Psalm 46:10). If you will give his Spirit space to speak to your heart.

He will speak to you pragmatically through your circumstances, open and closed doors, opportunities for service which he clearly blesses. He will speak to you rationally, as you read his word and apply its truth to your life. Learn your spiritual gifts and find effective ways to use them. Love God with all your mind (Matthew 22:37), reasoning together with your Creator (Isaiah 1:18).

God wants you to know his dream, more than you may want to know it. When last did you ask God to reveal his dream and will for your life and day, and listen to his response?

Amy Carmichael:

Strength of my heart, I need not fail,

Not mine to fear but to obey;

With such a Leader, who could quail?

Thou art as Thou wert yesterday!

Strength of my heart, I rest in Thee,

Fulfill Thy purposes through me.

Will you make her prayer yours today?

I Am the True Vine

Topical Scripture: John 6:35

You and I live in a culture that separates Sunday from Monday and religion from the “real world.” We learned this heresy from the ancient Greeks, who had transactional relationships with their gods.

They offered their gods what their deities wanted in order to get what they wanted. But these were mean, capricious gods. You didn’t want a personal, intimate relationship with them. You made offerings to placate them, then went on your way.

The Romans adopted this approach to religion. When Christianity spread into the larger Roman world, many of its followers adopted the same mindset.

They eventually invented the concept of “clergy,” separating the religions leaders from everyone else. Then they constructed buildings so the clergy would have a place to work while everyone else watched. Then they developed a monastic mindset that measures spirituality by time spent in the building.

All the while, the “real world” outside the church recognized none of these values. You had to go along to get along. You had to make a living to make a life. So, you went to church on Sunday to please God, hoping he would bless you on Monday.

None of this is what Jesus intended for his followers. In our last “I Am,” he offers a metaphor that explodes our Western separation of the “spiritual” and the “secular.” Let’s see what he taught and why it matters so much to our souls today.

How do we become part of the vine?

Our text is part of Maundy Thursday and Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” with his disciples. The “I am” he states is simple and profound: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (v. 1). “I am” is emphatic in the Greek. The definite article, “the true vine,” shows that he is the one and only. But how is he a “vine”?

Our Lord and his disciples have probably turned off the road and into one of the temple courts for a while. Here they’ve come face to face with one of the most beautiful and powerful symbols in all Israel: the vine of grapes. A large vine of pure gold, fixed to the gate of the Temple itself.

The “vine” was Israel’s image of herself. She put it on her coins and used it constantly. As America’s image is the eagle, and Russia’s is the bear, so Israel’s was the vine. Over and over again in the Old Testament, this symbol was used for their nation.

However, the Old Testament also makes clear that Israel’s vine had degenerated. Her vineyard has run wild; her grapes are sour and bitter. The psalmist complained: “Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire” (Psalm 80:16). Jeremiah quotes the Lord: “How did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?” (Jeremiah 2:21; cf. Isaiah 5:7).

On the other hand, Jesus is the “true,” authentic and correct vine. Israel is the false and corrupted vine; Jesus is the true and right vine. Being “attached” to their temple or our church is not enough. Being an adherent of their religion or ours is not enough. We must be connected to the “true” vine, the only One who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). No other vine will do.

When we trust in Christ as Savior and Lord, we become his. We “shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16); we are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17); we “shall never perish,” for no one can take us out of Jesus’ hand (John 10:28). All this happens when we make Jesus our Lord.

To what vine are you attached today?

What is spiritual fruit?

It’s not enough to be in the vine—we are also supposed to bear fruit: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (v. 8). If we bear “fruit,” we are his true disciples. If we do not, we are not.

So, what is this spiritual fruit? How do we bear it? What happens to us if we don’t?

The vines of Israel, then and now, grow two types of branches. One bears fruit—the other does not. Those which do not bear fruit are immediately cut off, so they won’t burden those which do. Those which do bear fruit are pruned—cut back, disciplined as it were—so they will bear more fruit. This occurs each year in December and January.

Jesus’ point is clear: some branches bear fruit, while others do not. How do we know which we are? Here is the “fruit” God inspects.

One: Our lives glorify God. “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit” (v. 8a). Jesus told us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). When last did someone praise God because of you?

Two: We have the joy of Jesus. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (v. 11). When we are properly related to the vine, we bear the “fruit of the Spirit,” including “joy” (Galatians 5:22). We have joy which no circumstances can give or steal. How much joy is in your heart today?

Three: We reproduce spiritually, bearing “fruit that will last” (v. 16). A tree reproduces by bearing fruit—so does a disciple. We are to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We are to tell what we know, to give what we have. God measures the faith we possess by the degree to which we share it.

How do we bear spiritual fruit?

So, what do we do to bear such fruit? How can we be attached to the vine so that our lives glorify God, bring us joy, and bring others to him? Let’s learn Jesus’ imperatives, as they build one on the other.

First, admit that we need the vine: “apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5). Not something, but “nothing.” No matter our stock portfolio or educational achievements, or title or status.

When we moved to Midland many years ago, I was sent out to the front yard to clear off all the vines that had grown up on the walls of the house. I thought they looked just fine, but the landscape artist who lived inside disagreed. So, being the hired help, out I went.

I pulled at ivy and vines for hours, to little effect. Then a thought occurred to me: it would be easier to cut them off at the roots, then come back later. I did—a week later they were all dead. I didn’t have to pull them off the brick—I could brush them off. They had turned to dust. The branches couldn’t abide without the vine.

Admit that you need the vine, that you’ll shrivel up and die without staying connected to Jesus every day. “Abide” in him, choose to stay connected with Jesus every day, to “remain in me” (v. 2). A branch without the vine is Christianity without Christ. A branch in the vine climbs and grows to the sky.

Second, pray continually: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (v. 7).

How much do you pray? How often? Prayer is how we connect with the vine. We are never taller than when we are on our knees. We are never stronger than when we are surrendered to God in prayer.

Third, obey his word: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (v. 10).

Is there an area of disobedience in your life? Do you need to confess gossip, slander, anger, lust, laziness, pride? Are you giving the tithe to the Lord? Are you using your spiritual gifts fully in evangelism and ministry?

Last, love his people: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (v. 12). How did he love us? Unconditionally, absolutely, no matter how we treated him. Our Master says it again: “This is my command: Love one another” (v. 17).

You may not have the human ability to love all those God loves. There may be people in your family, community, or church whose words or actions have hurt you. You may find it difficult if not impossible to forgive. But your Father will help you. If you will abide in him, his Spirit will give you the grace to give others. He will lift the burden of your pain, heal the wounds of your betrayal, calm the fears of your frustration. He will love his people through you.


Your culture wants you to separate soul and body, Sunday and Monday. Your Lord wants you to abide continually in his presence in dependence, prayer, and obedience.

The choice is yours. But know this: the only way you and I will impact our lost world is by abiding in Jesus. The only way we can speak words that change lives is if he speaks through us. The only way we can love those who do not love us or our Lord is with his love.

But when we abide in him, he works in us and through us. And the world cannot be the same.

Many years ago, my church in Midland, Texas invited a retired Baptist missionary to Vietnam to speak to our annual missions banquet. He told a story I’ll never forget.

It had been a difficult day. People were not responsive to his work; churches were struggling; his car had broken down and he had to ride around town in a beat-up taxi. The heat was oppressive. He got home that evening to discover that a thief had stolen all his family’s furniture and belongings, leaving only their sofa in the middle of the living room.

The missionary collapsed on that couch in total frustration and prayed, “God, I can’t do it any longer. I don’t love these people. You have to get me out of here. I don’t love the Vietnamese anymore.” He sat for hours on that couch, praying and crying, angry and bitter. Around 2:00 in the morning, the Lord spoke to his heart and said, “You’re not here because you love the Vietnamese. You’re here because I love the Vietnamese.”

If you abide in the vine this week, someone will see your Father’s love in yours. This is the promise, and the invitation, of God.

The Key to True Peace

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:9

A friend sent me these first-grade proverbs. The teacher gave the kids the first half of the sentence, and they supplied the rest:

  • “Don’t bite the hand that . . . looks dirty.”
  • “If you lie down with dogs, you’ll . . . stink in the morning.”
  • “A penny saved is . . . not much.”
  • “Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and . . . you have to blow your nose.”
  • “Better to be safe than . . . punch a fifth grader.”

Even first-graders know that peace is valuable. And they’re right. It has been estimated that in the last 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, constituting 8 percent of recorded history.

Clearly, our world needs peace. Between the floods on the Gulf Coast, rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, and challenges with Iran’s nuclear programs, it seems that turmoil makes the news every.

Where do you need more peace in your life? With whom are you at odds today? Where do you need a relationship to be healed? Where do you need peace?

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God,” Jesus promises. The Hebrew word for peace is “shalom”: peace with God, self and others. Today we’ll learn from God’s word where we find such peace for ourselves, and then how we can give it to the person with whom we need it most.

Make peace with God

Where can you find peace for your own heart, soul, and mind?

The Bible says, “May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!” (Psalm 29:11).

Jesus promised us, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Later he said, “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).

Peace is one of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). It is the result of the Spirit’s work, not human ability.

Clearly, we cannot create peace ourselves. We can only receive it from God. How? Here are some answers from God’s word.

First, if you want peace, accept the love of God.

Actress Sophia Loren told USA Today, “I should go to heaven; otherwise it’s not nice. I haven’t done anything wrong. My conscience is very clean. My soul is as white as those orchids over there, and I should go straight, straight to heaven.”

Listen, by contrast, to the word of God.

The prophet said of Jesus, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5).

Paul added, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).

When we accept Jesus’ forgiving love by faith, we receive God’s peace: “Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1).

We cannot be at peace with a perfect God and live in his perfect heaven, unless we are made perfect ourselves. This is why Jesus died on the cross: to pay the penalty for our sins, to purchase our forgiveness. We can only be at peace with God by accepting his love, by making Jesus our Savior and Lord.

If you’re trying to be good enough for God—religious enough, moral enough, successful or significant enough—know that you’re not succeeding. Imagine what it would take for a human being to impress the God of the universe. But we can accept the atoning love of Jesus and be made right with God. This is the first step to true peace.

Next, if you want peace, obey the word of God.

Musician Paul Simon once told an interviewer, “The only thing that God requires from us is to enjoy life—and love. It doesn’t matter if you accomplish anything. You don’t have to do anything but appreciate that you’re alive. And love, that’s the whole point.”

Note the contrast between his statement and God’s word.

The Psalmist prayed, “Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble” (Psalm 119:165). God said through his prophet, “Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea;” (Isaiah 48:18).

God’s word gives the guideposts we need to live successfully. Herein are the signs which point us to our destination and keep us out of ditches and dead ends. These principles are for our good, and they give us God’s peace.

So, meet God every day in the Scriptures. Measure your every decision by his truth. Obey his word, and you’ll have his peace.

Third, if you want peace, receive the forgiveness of God.

Dwight Moody gave a Bible to a friend, but first wrote these words on its flyleaf: “The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible.”

When we obey the word of God, we judge ourselves in its light. We see ourselves as God does. The closer we are to God, the further away we realize we are. Then we seek and receive his forgiveness for our sins, and we have his peace.

God told the prophet, “There is no peace for the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22). He added: “But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud.” (Isaiah 57:20). And he warned: “The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made their roads crooked; no one who treads on them knows peace.” (Isaiah 59:8).

His word is clear: “Be sure that your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). So confess your sins to God if you want to have peace with him. He is waiting to forgive you, cleanse you, and set you free. He loves you that much. But you must ask.

Fourth, if you want peace, trust the will of God.

Advice from the Book of Job: “Agree with God, and be at peace; thereby good will come to you.” (Job 22:21). Paul agreed: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15).

Trust the will of God, and you’ll say with the prophet: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” (Isaiah 26:3).

Are you at peace with God this morning? Have you accepted his love? Are you obeying his word? Have you received his forgiveness? Are you trusting his will?

H. G. Wells was right: “If there is no God, nothing matters. If there is a God, nothing else matters.” He promises you his peace and tells you how to receive it. The decision is yours.

Make peace with others

Now, how do we give this peace we receive from God? How do we become “peacemakers” with others? With whom do you most need peace today? Think of that person and take these biblical steps toward the peace you need.

First, initiate pardon.

As we learned from the fifth beatitude, we are to choose not to punish whatever wrong has been done to us. God’s word instructs us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:18-19).

Later the apostle adds, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Initiate pardon. And you will be a peacemaker.

Second, seek reconciliation.

Jesus teaches us, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23–24, emphasis added).

If someone has something against you, whether you believe their anger is justified or not, go to them. Seek reconciliation. And you will be a peacemaker.

Third, choose peace.

Whether the person accepts your pardon or receives your attempts at reconciliation, choose peace. Give them to God and choose his peace.

The Bible says, “God has called us to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15). It exhorts us: “Be at peace among yourselves. (1 Thessalonians 5:13). Our Master tells us, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Romans 15:7).

God commands us: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God, and that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14–15).

When we have God’s peace in our heart, we can give it to others. And when we give peace to others, we find it in our own heart. As we love God, we love our neighbor. As we love our neighbor, we love God.

And then we “will be called sons of God.” Jesus does not say that we become sons of God—that would be works righteousness. But people will know that we are God’s children as we give his peace to them: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).


Is your soul at peace with those who matter to you? Would you seek peace with God, and with them? Your life will be forever different if you will.

Consider John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. He rode enough miles on horseback preaching the gospel to circle the globe ten times. He preached more than forty thousand sermons. You can buy more than ninety-five books containing his writings in English. He was clearly one of the greatest Christian leaders in history.

But his story did not begin the way it ended.

As a young man, Wesley went to America as a missionary but was not himself converted. He wrote in his journal, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh! who shall convert me?”

Then he encountered Moravian missionaries on board a ship bound for America. He notes in his journal that one day, the group had just begun to sing a psalm of worship when “the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans [Moravians] calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, No.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’

“From them I went to their crying, trembling neighbours, and pointed out to them the difference in the hour of trial, between him that feareth God, and him that feareth him not. At twelve the wind fell. This was the most glorious Day which I have hitherto seen.”

Wesley later testified that the Moravians’ peace contributed directly to his conversion.

Who will see the peace of Christ in you this week?

What’s Your Problem?

Topical Scripture: John 2:1-11

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

In the summer of 1994, the Associated Press reported a robbery which ended in a very unusual way. In Conway, Arkansas, Cindy Hartman was awakened by the telephone. As she started to answer it, she was stopped by a burglar. The burglar tore the phone cord from the wall and told her to get in the closet.

Cindy dropped to her knees to pray. She then turned to the robber and asked if she could pray for him. She told him that God loved him and so did she. She told the man that she forgave him for what he was doing.

How did this hardened criminal react? He fell to his knees beside her in prayer and asked her for forgiveness. He told the other burglar with him that they could not steal from a Christian family, so they unloaded everything they had taken. He borrowed a shirt from Cindy and removed his fingerprints. He then removed the bullets from his gun and gave it to Cindy. Not that she wanted it—she had all the protection she needed.

Webster defines a miracle as “an event or action that apparently contradicts known scientific laws and is hence thought to be due to supernatural causes, especially to an act of God.” Cindy Hartman would agree. How can we receive such help in our lives?

This week we are continuing our series on the miracles of Jesus. We all need the help Cindy Hartman found. Perhaps the burglar is in your house right now.

Where do you need the miraculous power of God in your life today? Keep that problem or burden in mind as we study together. It may be that at the end of our story, it will include you.

Invite Jesus to your home

Our text begins in a most inauspicious way: “On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee” (John 2:1).

Cana was a village so insignificant that its location has not been determined with absolute certainty. Most archaeologists identify it as Kefr Kenna, 3.5 miles from Nazareth, though other locations are also possible. If Jesus would perform a miracle there, he will do so anywhere, even where you live today.

Our story unfolds on a Wednesday afternoon, the fourth day of the Jewish week, at a wedding. This was the day for the marriage of virgins, as prescribed in the Jewish law.

The marriage ceremony was celebrated late Wednesday evening, following an all-day feast. Then the couple was led to their new home under the light of flaming torches, with a canopy held over their heads. For a week they wore crowns, dressed in bridal robes, and were treated and even addressed as a king and queen. In lives filled with poverty and hard work, this was a joyous celebration for the entire village.

Why did Jesus come? “Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding” (John 2:1b-2). Our Lord came because he was invited.

Jesus cared about the simple problems of simple people. He thrilled to fill their lives with his joy. He still does.

Call to mind that place where you need the touch of God for your life, your work, your family, your marriage today. Then make this simple decision: invite Jesus into your home. Ask him to join you at that place of need. He is waiting to come. In fact, he’s already standing at the door (Revelation 3:20).

Ask Jesus for help

Hospitality in the Middle and Far East was and is a sacred duty. Nowhere was such hospitality more mandatory than at one’s wedding.

The entire village was there. Families saved for years to provide for the occasion. To run out of wine would be a nightmare beyond contemplation. It simply wasn’t done. Such a failure could not be tolerated. If you invited friends and family to Christmas dinner but ran out of food to feed them, you would be embarrassed. If you were a bride or groom in Jesus’ day and ran out of wine, you would be humiliated for the rest of your life.

But this is precisely the catastrophe that occurred: during the feast preceding the marriage ceremony, “the wine was gone” (John 2:3a). And so Mary turned to her Son with the simplest prayer in all the Bible: “They have no more wine” (v. 3b). She quietly and simply put this problem into Jesus’ hands. Mary’s recorded words in Scripture are few; these guide us as we use our own to speak to her Son. We can give him our every need, with the assurance that he wants to hear and help.

But Jesus’ response didn’t seem to agree: “‘Dear woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My time has not yet come'” (v. 4). His words seem harsh until we step behind the English into the Greek used by John, and then the light comes on.

“Woman” is the literal translation of Jesus’ Greek word. Most translations carry it just this way; the NIV tries to soften it by adding “Dear,” a word not found in the original text. But such an attempt is well founded. For Jesus’ word was a great title of respect and courtesy. Augustus used it to address Cleopatra, and Odysseus used it for Penelope, his much-loved wife. Jesus made it his typical way of addressing women (Matthew 15:28; Luke 13:12; John 4:21; 8:10; 20:13). His title for her conveyed his respect.

As did his reply. “Why do you involve me?” was a Jewish figure of speech and meant here something like, “We are looking at this problem in different ways” or “we stand on different grounds.” It can be rendered so positively as to say, “The problem is taken care of.”

This phrase makes even more sense when combined with what follows: “My time has not yet come.” Jesus’ “time” refers here to the hour for public manifestation of his Messiahship. Later it will relate to his death and resurrection (John 7:30; 8:20; 12:23; 13:1; 17:1). In this setting Jesus means something like, “The time has not yet come for me to show the world my power, but I will solve this problem another way.”

When did you last ask Jesus to change your “water” into “wine” for his glory? When did you last trust him as fully as Mary did in our story? She didn’t tell her Son what to do or how to do it—she simply stated her problem and trusted him to solve it. And he did.

Jesus always gives us what we ask, or something better. He meets our need, in his own time and way. His answers may not come when we want them, or in the way we expect them. But our Father promises to meet all our needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19).

Here’s the simple condition: we must ask. Define that place where you need the help of God most. Are you waiting on God, or is he waiting on you?

Then do as he says

Mary is the overlooked hero of this story.

We have already seen her vital role in her Son’s first miracle. Mary was apparently the first to recognize the problem at hand, or at least the first to do something about it. She came to the right Person, in the right way. Now she responded to her prayer with the right action: “His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Mary had authority to order the servants, but none to order her Son. And she knew it.

So should we. Hers is exactly the right kind of faith: do whatever Jesus says. For he will always give us something to do. Our Lord has created a kind of divine-human partnership with his creation. As we work, he works. Our partnership began at the beginning: God created the Garden of Eden but expected man to till and work it. If our Creator made the fields, he could certainly have made them produce. But he did what only he could do and called mankind to do what we could do.

When we act in faith, our Father responds in power. Our faith does not earn his power—it positions us to receive what God already wants to give. But no one can put a gift into a clenched fist, not even the Almighty Lord of the universe. We must trust him enough to be willing to receive the grace he wants to give. Such faith does not earn but receive the miracle of God.

So it is here: Jesus will turn their water to wine, but they must fill the jars first. “Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons” (John 2:6). “Ceremonial washing” was vitally important to the Jews of Jesus’ day (see 2 Kings 3:11; Mark 7:3; John 13:4-10; John 3:25). It was the physical means by which they ensured that they were spiritually clean while living in this fallen world.

Before eating or entering into religious activity, they would wash their hands as carefully as any surgeon today: the hand was held upright, the water poured over it so that it ran down to the wrist. Then the hand was pointed down and water poured so that it ran from the wrist to the fingertips. Each hand was washed in this way, then each palm cleansed by rubbing it with the fist of the other hand. No Jew would think of eating without this ritual; thus the water-pots at the wedding feast.

The water-pots each held two or three “measures,” an amount approximating nine gallons (Josephus, Antiq. 8.2.9). Each pot thus contained about twenty gallons. By transforming this much water, Jesus created two thousand four-ounce glasses of wine. Using the customary dilution of two parts wine with three parts water, Jesus provided enough wine to last the entire wedding week.

How did he do it? “Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water’; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet’. They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine” (John 2:7–9a). When they worked, he worked. They did what they could do, and he did what only he could do.

To experience the touch and power of God, first we invite him to join us at the place of our need. Next, we give that need to him in simple faith. Now we listen for his instructions. He will guide us into the next step we are to take. He will lead us as we study his word, worship him, pray to him, and experience daily life. He will show us what we are to do, so that he can then do what only he can do.

His instructions may make no sense to us at the time. Providing wine for a wedding feast by filling ceremonial pots with water would not have been logical for anyone watching these servants or their Master. Faith is required to experience the power of God. Will you trust your greatest need to Jesus, and allow him to ask anything of you in obedience? Until we come to that place, we may not see his power. When we do, we will.

Expect the best

The servants took their water made into wine to the “master of the banquet,” the superintendent whose duty it was to arrange the tables and food. This wine taster “did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, ‘Everyone brings out the choice wine first and the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now'” (John 2:9b-10). And both men were astonished.

Now we are in position to assemble the facts which prove our story a miracle:

Jesus used ordinary pots of water which were in clear view of all. He or his disciples could not have exchanged the water for wine before this miracle, as would have been possible if the pots were in a closed and hidden room.

The pots were large and six in number, so that they could not have been brought to the wedding by the disciples without the notice of the crowd.

The pots were filled to the brim with water, so that no wine could have been added later.

Jesus never touched the water turned into wine, but only the servants.

The servants took this water directly to the master of the feast, not to an intermediary who could have switched it for wine.

The master of the feast, the resident expert on wine, pronounced it excellent.

Neither he nor the groom were drunk, and thus would know the quality of the wine.

Jesus did what his mother asked, and even more. She would have been happy with enough wine of normal quality to continue the wedding feast. He gave the wedding party enough wine for the entire week, and of excellent quality as well. When we give our need to Jesus, we must expect him to give us his very best, always.

What is that place of need in your life today? Know that God knows your hurt and is working to help. Do as he asks, then expect him to do what only he can. According to his purpose, in his time, and for his glory, he will.

A side note

I cannot conclude these sermon notes without stating that Jesus’ miracle should not be construed as condoning alcohol abuse or alcoholism. In his day water, wine, and a kind of beer were the only beverages available. Wine, with its fermentation, was typically the healthiest drink. It was commonly diluted, as we have seen, so that alcoholism occurred very seldom. And drunkenness was strongly condemned by the culture of the day: “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). The Bible warned: “Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper” (Proverbs 23:31–32).

Alcohol abuse in the first century could not lead to drug abuse, or to the death of innocents. Drunk driving was of course impossible. Alcoholism was far less common, and much less disastrous for society at large. Teenage drinking was not allowed. And so Jesus’ creation of wine is in no way parallel to the alcohol industry or alcohol use in our day.

Today, drunk driving is the leading cause of death among American teenagers. Alcohol use so often leads to abuse, and often to drug abuse as well. For these reasons, and to protect my witness, I practice total abstinence from alcohol, and would urge other believers to do the same. By law, no underage person must ever be permitted to drink alcohol. And parents should set an example of godly purity for their children.

Believe in the power of God

Here is how John summarized Jesus’ miracle: “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” (John 2:11).

One day God will turn all water into spiritual joy: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation 21:1–2, emphasis added). On that day we will drink from that cup which is “the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20; cf. v. 17). On that day we will receive the Lord’s Supper from the Lord himself, as the bride of our Groom. And that day will be joy indeed.

Meanwhile, we can trust God to turn our water into the “wine” we need, whenever we need it. Jesus Christ “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). What he did for the peasant wedding at Cana of Galilee, he waits to do for you and for me.

When next you have trouble believing that it is so, remember the words of St. Augustine: “I never have any difficulty believing in miracles, since I experienced the miracle of a change in my own heart.” If he could turn your sinful heart into his Spirit’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16) and save your soul from hell for heaven, what can’t he do today?

Working as God Works

Scripture: Matthew 9:1-8

Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer. It is also the end of hot dog season. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, hot dogs are consumed most often between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

I had no idea there was such a thing as the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, so I visited their website. There I learned the answer to a question that has vexed me for nearly all my life: Why do they sell hot dogs ten to the package but hot dog buns eight to the package?

It turns out, hot dog buns are baked in clusters of four in pans designed to hold eight rolls. In 1940, however, when hot dog manufacturers began packaging their product as they do now, they chose the ten–pack formula. Why the hot dog makers and hot dog bun makers cannot collaborate on this is beyond me.

By the way, the council estimates that Americans eat twenty billion hot dogs a year, averaging around seventy per person.

Labor Day is known for more than hot dogs, of course. It’s the annual day for us to honor the 160 million people who are either full or part-time workers in our nation. We celebrate their labor by giving them a day free from labor.

Here’s the good news: The God whom we worship today never needs a Labor Day off. Scripture promises: “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4).

When we go back to work on Tuesday, we can ignore the fact that he is working in the world, separating Sunday from Monday and “religion” from the “real world.” Or we can resist his work in the world, rebelling against the King of the universe as he works to extend his kingdom on earth. The best option, of course, is to join him at work. How do we partner with the God of the world in the work of our days?

Use your influence for God’s glory

Matthew 9 finds Jesus on his way back to Capernaum from Gadara, a region on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum is his adopted home town, where he lives in the home of Simon Peter.

This was never a large city, numbering 1,500 inhabitants at most. But it was one of the most significant towns in Galilee, for five reasons.

First, it was a thriving business center. The town stood astride the Via Maris, the international trade route connecting Damascus and Mesopotamia to the north with Caesarea Maritime (the major seaport in Israel) and Egypt to the south. Caravans made their way through its streets daily. A large number of coins and imported vessels from Syria, Phoenicia, Asia Minor, and Cyprus have been found here.

Second, Capernaum was home to a thriving fishing business. Nearby springs and the Upper Jordan River feed into the Sea of Galilee, making this part of the lake especially vibrant for fish even today. There was a large fish market here, exporting dried fish across the country. Peter’s home, the largest yet discovered in Capernaum, attests to the financial significance of this industry.

Third, Capernaum was a major agricultural center. Standing on the plain of Gennesaret, it enjoys abundant rainfall and a warm climate. Olives, dates, and citrus were grown here in abundance. Giant millstones and olive presses found in the area attest to its agricultural vitality.

Fourth, the city was an important political center. It was a major port of entry into the region of Galilee from the north, serving as a customs station and military outpost. A military garrison included a centurion and detachment of troops (Matthew 8:5–9) as well as a Roman bath with caladium, frigidarium, and tepidarium.

Fifth, Capernaum was an important religious center. The largest synagogue yet discovered in Israel was located on the highest point of the town. It served as Jesus’ “home church,” where he taught regularly and performed miracles.

Jesus grew up in Nazareth, forty miles to the west. He could have based his ministry in Jerusalem, the religious capital of Israel. But he chose Capernaum, one of the most influential cities in all of Galilee. He chose a place where he could reach Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slaves and free.

Paul did the same thing, choosing to begin his ministry in the West in Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of the district. He spent the most time in Ephesus and Corinth, two of the cultural centers of the Roman Empire. He spent several years in Rome itself.

In the same way, God has given us a Kingdom assignment that includes a place and a time for our lives. He wants us to use our influence for his glory. What resources, gifts, and abilities has he entrusted to you? How are you using them for his glory and our good?

Bring hurting people to the Great Physician

Our story continues: “And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed” (v. 2a). Luke gives us a clue as to the location of the house: “Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem” (Luke 5:17). This must have been a big house.

Since Simon Peter’s home is the largest yet discovered in the city, it seems likely that this miracle occurred there. Luke continues: “Some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus” (vv. 18–19).

This man obviously could not make his way to see Jesus, so his friends brought him. They climbed up to the roof, most likely a flat structure, and set aside the “tiles” there to make an opening. Then they lowered their friend down on ropes and set him before Jesus.

Our text continues: “And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven'” (Matthew 9:2b). Does this mean all sickness is associated with sin? Absolutely not. In fact, this is the only time in all the Gospels when Jesus associates sickness with sin.

The response from the crowd was disappointing: “And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming'” (v. 3). The paralytic most likely had not sinned directly against Jesus. For him to forgive the man’s sins was therefore something only God could do. The scribes considered Jesus’ claim to be blasphemous in the extreme.

So our Lord responded: “But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Rise and walk?” But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—’Rise, pick up your bed, and go home'” (vv. 4–6). He proved his divine status by his divine omnipotence.

With this result: “And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (vv. 7–8).

We are not surprised by Jesus’ power to forgive sins or heal bodies. We are not surprised by the religious authorities’ reaction and rejection of our Lord. But we should take note of the surprising initiative of the friends who brought the paralytic to Jesus.

They are the unsung heroes of our narrative. Without their work on behalf of their friend, the paralytic would not have been laid before Jesus. They did what they could, and God did what he could.

This is the divine-human partnership in a single text. Noah builds the ark, then God closes the door. Moses extends his staff, then God parts the Red Sea. Joshua and the priests step into the Jordan River, then God stops the flood. The people march around Jericho, then God destroys the city.

Peter preaches at Pentecost, then the Spirit falls and three thousand are saved. Paul follows God to Philippi, then the Lord brings the gospel to the Western world. John worships Jesus on “the Lord’s Day” while imprisoned on Patmos, then Jesus gives him the Revelation.

As we work, God works. If we seek to lead people to Christ in all we do, God will use all we do.

We can bring paralytics to Jesus in all kinds of practical ways. I know a CEO who has a Bible present on his desk where people can see it and who is known for praying before making decisions. I know a business owner who leaves Christian literature on tables where people wait for service.

One of our ministry’s board members uses his conference room for early morning Bible studies to which all are invited but none are required. Another member of our board uses his leadership position in a significant service club in Dallas to bring ministers before the group to pray before events and to speak when appropriate.

I once served on the board of a secular business that tithed its income to ministries. Not only did the leaders tithe from their personal income—the company itself tithed. From the gross, not the net. This was a powerful witness to employees, customers, and the community.

God has paralytics for us to bring to Jesus. If we will ask, he will direct us and use us for eternal good.


Where is God working on this Labor Day weekend?

Philip Yancey: “I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God moving geographically from the Middle East, to Europe, to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where he’s wanted.”

Do you want him to work as you work? Then ask him to use your influence for his glory. Look for ways you can make your faith public and your compassion clear. God has entrusted paralytics to you. Now he wants you to entrust them to your Lord.

One last point from our story: if you’re a paralytic, Jesus is ready to heal you. He’s ready to forgive your sins, to meet your needs, to redeem your suffering and show you his love. You can come to him today, knowing that he will never turn you away.

Last weekend, I got to be with all of my grandchildren. One had a birthday party (he’s now two years old), and the other two were invited. It was one of the great days of life. It’s been well said that being a grandparent is the only thing in life that’s not overrated.

We spent much of the day at a public park. And we spent every minute of that day watching our grandchildren. We were never more than a few feet from them. They never left our sight. We did all we possibly could not to let anyone hurt them or anything happen to them.

As I was playing with my granddaughter, loving her and loving every moment with her, the thought occurred to me: my Father in heaven loves me even more than this.

He loves you the same way. Bring your paralysis to him and your paralytic friends to him as well. As you work, he works. This is the invitation, and the promise, of God.