When You Have Returned to Me

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And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” But he said to Him, “Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death.” Then He said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me.” (Luke 22:31-34, NKJV)

Jesus and the disciples were in the upper room celebrating the Passover. The conversation among the disciples turned to a lively dispute about who among them was the greatest of Jesus’ disciples. Amusingly, this was not the first time they argued about this topic. They argued about the same thing shortly after returning from their preaching  and miracle ministry to Israel (see Luke 9, esp. 1-11, 46-50). We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, comparing our works to others’ is a common way to measure success in the eyes of the world. However, God measures success much differently. God isn’t interested in how we “measure up” to others—He’s interested in the condition of our hearts, whether we’re willing to humbly yield to the loving others and serving Him (see Luke 9, esp. 23-26, 46-50).

Regardless, during the Passover dispute, Jesus interrupts and tells Peter, “I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” The implications are clear. Peter will fail the Lord in word and works. And when Peter protests, Jesus very specifically tells Peter when and how He will fail—by denying Christ three times that very night, before the morning rooster finishes crowing. Interestingly, even with such a specific word of prophecy, Peter lives out his failure exactly as Christ prophesied.

But Peter’s failure isn’t the only prophecy Jesus spoke. Notice, Jesus also said, “and when you have returned to Me.” Here we are reminded that Jesus, knowing our thoughts even before we think them, loves us unconditionally. And this great love impels Christ to keep us as members of His flock, in spite of all our failures and weaknesses. He loves us so much that He even invests Himself personally in prayer for us.

Thus, Luke 22:31-34 exemplifies that wonderfully comforting passage in Romans 8:35-39:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written:

“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So, when you find yourself failing the Lord over and over again, take heart. Jesus already knows every mistake you’ll ever make, yet He loves you still. And no matter how many times you sin—no matter how far you wander or how hard you try to mess things up—when you truly belong to His flock, having received His grace by believing in Him, then, He will always hold you tight, never let you go, and invite you with open arms to return once more to Him.

Made In God’s Image

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Gen 1:26-27, NKJV)

Every human has within their heart a deep, subconscious longing for eternity. The Scriptures declare that God made each and every human being in His own image—the image of the eternal God. Just a few verses later we read that God intended for the man and woman to live in the Garden, watching over and caring for the animals (Gen 1:28) and cultivating the ground (Gen 2:15), without any contract or conditions for that work to end. And in Genesis 3 we read that when the man and woman sinned against God, only then did God cast them out of that Garden, and one reason is so they could not eat from the tree of life and live forever (Gen 3:22-23).

Science says that humans are animals. They say this based on a combination of observable physical traits, biological drives, social norms, and genetic information. I don’t challenge those observations. But who developed the classifications? Humans. Which means those classifications are only as valid as the finite empirical evidence and soundness of logic from which those classifications are deduced.

Consider the following questions: where in the animal kingdom do we see groups of animals forming councils, writing constitutions, debating laws, and arguing about money? Where in the animal kingdom do we see groups of animals building hospitals, forming rescue services, and pursuing justice and equality? Where in the animal kingdom do we see groups of animals erecting exclusive boundaries, hoarding natural resources, exploiting the labor of others, and killing for any reason other than basic sustenance or debilitating sickness?

All of those things, good or bad, are uniquely human things. None of those things are animal things. Clearly, there is something unique about humanity, something not shared by any other living creature on the planet. What is it that makes humans uniquely human? It is that image of the eternal God written on our hearts, breathed into us by the eternal God Himself (Gen 2:7).

The Gospel of John explains the image of God in terms of light. Concerning Jesus, John wrote,

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men… That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world (John 1:4, 9).

Why did Jesus come? To bring the light into existence? No—the light already existed in Him. Jesus came to bring light to humankind. You see, every human has a darkness residing deep within their heart called sin. Sin is anything we do or don’t do that doesn’t line up with the standard of goodness defined by the attributes and actions of God. Humankind’s sinful rebellion against God began in the Garden when Adam and Eve thought they knew better than God and they rejected the instructions He gave them about what not to eat. And we see the outworking of that sin throughout human history in every evil action ever committed by humans. Humanism says people are basically good. However, history begs to differ, demonstrating time and time again how utter depraved the human race is when left to its own governance.

So, what are we to do with this desperate, unfulfilled longing for eternity? Go to Jesus. God loves us so much that, though we are sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). And his death on the cross paid the price of atonement for our sins with His blood. Not just once and having to be repeated annually, as the Old Testament rituals required, but once-for-all, as the Old Testament rituals looked forward to, finding their fulfillment in Christ.

For believers, our longing for eternity is satisfied in Jesus Christ. Because, as the Scriptures promise, when we believe in Him, we find life in His name (John 20:31).

Make God Your Resolution

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Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and tell him, ‘Thus says the LORD God of the Hebrews: “Let My people go, that they may serve Me. For if you refuse to let them go, and still hold them, behold, the hand of the LORD will be on your cattle in the field, on the horses, on the donkeys, on the camels, on the oxen, and on the sheep—a very severe pestilence. And the LORD will make a difference between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt. So nothing shall die of all that belongs to the children of Israel.” ’ ” Then the LORD appointed a set time, saying, “Tomorrow the LORD will do this thing in the land.”

So the LORD did this thing on the next day, and all the livestock of Egypt died; but of the livestock of the children of Israel, not one died. Then Pharaoh sent, and indeed, not even one of the livestock of the Israelites was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh became hard, and he did not let the people go. (Exodus 9:1-7, NKJV)

Many of us know the Exodus narrative. How God called Moses from birth to deliver the Hebrew people from their slavery in Egypt. How Pharaoh ordered all the male Hebrew babies killed, but Moses’ mother hid Moses in a basket in the river. How Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses and rescued him. So, Moses grew up in the Pharaoh’s palace, saw the bondage of his people, killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew, fled to the wilderness of Midian, and lived as a shepherd. Then, at Moses’ lowest, God spoke to him through the burning bush, and despite all Moses’ protests, God was adamant that He would deliver the Hebrew people through the leadership of Moses. And here, in this passage, we read how Moses, with Aaron’s help, is waging God’s war against Egypt through the plagues until Pharaoh finally lets the Hebrew people leave.

Tomorrow begins a new year. Many of us are thinking about resolutions. Maybe you want to lose weight, manage your money better, be a better mother, father, sister, brother, friend. Find a job. Get a promotion. Whatever it is, there’s probably something on your heart you’d like to see happen in the New Year. I’d like to suggest one additional resolution for each of us to make.

When God started the plagues in Egypt, they were a sign to Pharaoh about God’s power, an attack against Egypt’s God’s that would ultimately provoke Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people leave Egypt. But with some of the plagues, like the flies and the livestock, God adds another element: a difference between His people and Egypt.

Spiritually, we can look at Egypt as a picture of the world and the Hebrew people as a picture of the church. As believers, we live in this world, working alongside believers and unbelievers, providing for our households and improving our communities. But even though we live in and work among the world, God has called us to come out from the world, to be different—to come and worship Him.

Our worship offends the world because our world doesn’t understand God. But God doesn’t call us to change this world by Christianizing governments, arguing with skeptics, or slaughtering unbelievers. God instructs us to go and make disciples. He commands us to love Him and others with our whole being and to show that love by our actions toward others. And He describes those acts of love as being light in a dark place, salt to preserve the world (Matt 5:13-16).

As we begin this new year, I want to encourage you to let God’s invitation to His people—to come and worship—be your invitation as well. God wants to make a difference between you and the world, bringing His light into this dark world through you. But He makes that difference by changing your heart and renewing your mind (Rom 12:2). How does He do that? By His Spirit, through prayer, through the Word, through fellowship with believers, and through circumstances, day-by-day, moment-by-moment, as you yield your heart to His presence in your life.

Let God change your life. Let Him make a difference between you and the world. Let God bring His light into this world through you. Let God be your resolution this new year.

In Everything Give Thanks

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Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for You. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NJKV)

The ancient city of Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province Macedonia, making it a hotspot for Roman travel, trade, politics, and religion in the region. And when Paul preached in Thessalonica, he quickly encountered much hostility from local non-believers. After Paul left, the Thessalonians continued to experience similar hostility and persecution in the city. Against this backdrop of hostile daily life, we read Paul’s isntructions to the Thessalonian church.

Confession time. When God lets my life get uncomfortable, I get upset. Personally, my issue is anger. When life starts piling on the difficulties, even the small annoyances that I can usually shake off feel like red-hot iron pokers burning away sanity.

Maybe you’re like me and your issue is anger. Or maybe your struggle is with discouragement, doubt, and despair. Or, perhaps, when life closes in around you, you detach from the world and run away. Whatever your response, all of us at various times experience the pressures of life weighing heavily on us.

But imagine being a Thessalonian believer. You’re living in the center of a pagan world that worships their gods with gluttonous parties, drunkenness, wild orgies, and so forth. As a Thessalonian, you used to do those things, too. But now, as a believer in Jesus, He has set you free from those lifestyles of sin and you don’t do those things anymore. But your old friends aren’t ok with that. They won’t sell you food, clothes, or other necessities. They won’t socialize with you anymore. And if you start telling them about Jesus, they literally drag you and your family out of your house and beat you.

As a Thessalonian, your first pastor, Paul, and his ministry team were forced out of town by such hostility. But he has heard about your struggles and he has written you a letter, encouraging you to give thanks in everything. How absurd!

But Paul doesn’t say, “rise up and slaughter the offenders,” or “take them to court and squeeze every penny from them,” or “run for office and force Christian morals on society.” Those are the methods of men. They’re not our mission from God.

God’s will for us is to let Him transform our hearts and minds into the likeness of His Son, Jesus Christ. God’s mission for us is to go out, into all the unbelieving world, preaching the gospel and making disciples of the nations. Both God’s will and God’s mission require us to remember the single most important fact of every believer’s existence:

Jesus Christ died for our sins, saved us from death, and gives us eternal life.

It is this reality that enables us and impels us to be thankful at all times, in all things. One author explains the situation this way,

[Remember] Rom. 8:28, [how] all of which cooperate for good to God’s children and thus call forth our thanks to God. We need to learn this secret of the happy Christian life—thankfulness. If everything actually conspires to do us good, how can we do otherwise than always rejoice? [1]

Our thankfulness is not based on external circumstances. It flows from our relationship with Jesus Christ. When we begin looking at life through the lens of salvation, we see God working through the hardship in this life to make us holy. That holiness grows in us, making us more like Jesus, focusing our hearts toward heaven, filling us with joy, and turning our frowns upside down.


[1] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon (Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern, 1937), 358.

Be Anxious for Nothing

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Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, NKJV)

Pardon my bluntness, but sometimes life just sucks, doesn’t it? You make these plans and they seem so important, but as the time approaches one thing after another just starts tearing them down. You have these people in your life, people you care about so deeply, that you’re ready to do almost anything for them, but when you need them, they seem to let you down. Maybe it’s your job, or you just can’t seem to find or keep a job. Maybe it’s a loved one who has fallen on hard times, illness, or death. Or maybe your own health burdens you on a daily basis. Whatever your situation, I am confident that each of us, whether presently or in times past, has experienced these kinds of discouraging situations.

I believe these kinds of situations can, depending on the circumstances, qualify as what the Bible calls “anxieties,” or “cares.” The Greek word has a long history and it has a double-meaning, very similar to our English word “cares.” In the positive sense, it can refer to any kind of heart-felt motivation to help someone else, “caring” for someone else when they are sick, weak, or in some kind of need. In the negative sense, it can also refer to any kind of heart-felt need that goes unsatisfied, like if you are sick, weak, or in need, but you feel as though you’re alone and no one is helping you. Both kinds of “cares” are strong enough to demand our full attention. And therein lies the problem—for when we fix our eyes on the situation, we take our eyes off Christ.

But there is a remedy for that feeling of discouragement and despair. You see, that feeling comes from a false perspective. You may feel alone, but you aren’t alone. God is with you. So, Paul says, the remedy isn’t to focus more on the situation, but to fix your eyes of the Lord. And prayer is the single most effective strategy for doing just that. And if you are willing to go to God in prayer, Paul gives a promise—the Peace of God will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Paul doesn’t say might or probably. He says will. That’s not just a style of translation—that’s the literal rendering of the Greek. When we fix our eyes on the Lord, we can be absolutely sure that His peace will guard our hearts and minds from the efforts of the Enemy and the world to discourage us.

During the Last Supper, I think the disciples were feeling some anxieties. For at least a few days, Jesus had been telling them about how he would be betrayed and killed. He was going to leave them. In my mind I can imagine reclining at the table among the disciples, thinking, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Aren’t you supposed to be the King of Israel? But you say you’re going to die. And what’s this business about rising in three days?”

While Jesus and the disciples were talking after the meal, Jesus instructed them about many things, including peace. As John 14:27 says,

Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

The peace of God is a gift given to us by Jesus. It was made possible by the death of Jesus, which paid the debt for our sins and reconciled us to the Father. In this way, Jesus made peace for us with the Father (see Rom 5:10-11). And now, the peace of God can rule our hearts. But God does not force his peace on us. As Colossians 3:15 says, we have to let his peace rule our hearts. How? By fixing our eyes on the Lord through prayer. And how is this possible? Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Do Not Fear, Little Flock

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Then He [Jesus] said to His disciples, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds? And which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? If you then are not able to do the least, why are you anxious for the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith?

“And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind. For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things. But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.

“Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:22-34, NKJV)

Psalm 23:2 begins, “He makes me to lie down in green pastures.” Sheep are timid, fearful creatures. They aren’t strong or smart, they’re always looking for food and water, and they’re easy pray for predators. So, sheep are typically restless animals, rarely feeling sufficiently provided for and secure enough to lie down and rest. Instead, they wander about on edge, easily spooked and rarely satisfied with where they are.

A responsible shepherd meets the needs of their flock to address these issues. Such a shepherd ensures that the pasture land is well cared for, providing nourishing food and having ample water for the flock. They also protect the sheep from predators, fighting them off in defense of the sheep. And sometimes shepherds use music to sooth the sheep, drowning out strange noises and helping the sheep relax so they can lie down and rest. But, of course, the sheep have to recognize the shepherd’s protections and provisions and then choose to rest in the shepherd’s presence.

In Luke 12, Jesus instructs his disciples not to fear because the Father is such a good shepherd. He promises His Kingdom to every sheep in His sheepfold. God protects us from our Adversary—Satan and his servants—as well as the forces of the world that threaten to overtake us. The Father also provides for our every need. He created us, after all, and He knows that we need food, water, clothing, and so forth. So, Jesus tells us, we can rest in the protection and provision of the Father.

But, as Jesus explains, our ability to find spiritual rest depends on our intentional seeking for God. Jesus gently rebukes his disciples with the phrase, “O you of little faith.” God made the universe in such a way that our spiritual rest depends on us focusing our hearts on Him. If we focus our hearts on the physical challenges of this life, we are restless, wandering on edge, searching for safer, greener pastures. But when we focus our hearts on seeking our loving Father, He promises that we will find spiritual rest in Him as He provides for our earthly needs.

May we seek God and His Kingdom with our whole hearts, that we may find He will not only supply our earthly needs, but He will also give us rest.

The Fairness of the LORD

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If a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord GOD, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?

“But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die.

“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel, is it not My way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair? When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies in it, it is because of the iniquity which he has done that he dies. Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive. Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ O house of Israel, is it not My ways which are fair, and your ways which are not fair?

“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways,” says the Lord GOD. “Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord GOD. “Therefore turn and live!”

Ezekiel 1 tells us that Ezekiel was a priest and was taken captive during the Babylonian exile. At this point in Ezekiel, God is answering a false proverb common among the Israelites living in exile,

‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
And the children’s teeth are set on edge’? (Ezek 18:2)

The Israelite captives had a victim mentality. They were complaining that their hardship was judgment for the sins of previous generations. But God is rebuking their way of thinking and teaching them about how His righteousness works.

Israel believed that if they were “good” people—if they mostly obeyed the outward rules and regulations that God gave Israel through Moses—then God would look the other way when they practiced idolatry or fornication or other sins. But God was very clear that even the most upstanding citizen, if they sinned, they were guilty and deserved death. And even the most wretched sinner, if they repented, God was willing to forgive them and let them live.

It’s easy think the same way those Israelites were thinking. Have you ever thought, “I’m mostly a good person. I’m not as bad as that person over there. So God will excuse me when I do just this little bad thing.” Well, You can be the most upstanding citizen, obeying all the laws of the land and treating people with kindness. But you watch that show you know you shouldn’t, or you just have to have that car in your neighbor’s driveway, or you give in to drugs, alcohol, food, or other addictions.

God is clear that the righteous person who turns from righteousness and commits sin is guilty and deserves death. God is also clear that the sinner who repents and turns to God will find life. God doesn’t weight our righteousness and sin. There’s no balancing scale for the good and bad things we do. That’s ancient Egyptian mythology. That’s not biblical Christianity.

And that’s why Jesus came and died for us. Every one of us has sinned (Rom 3:23) and deserves death (Rom 6:23). But God loves us so much that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, who willingly died on the cross, shedding his own blood as a sin-offering to cover our sins once-for-all, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life (John 3:15–16).

But how can we be sure that Jesus’s death was sufficient to cover our sins? How do we know that He is God the Son and not just some well-meaning, first-century charismatic magician with delusions of grandeur? Because Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to hundreds of eye-witnesses, ascended to heaven, and now lives in the presence of the Father, offering intercession for us (1 Cor 15:3–7; Rom 8:34).

This is why we celebrate communion, or the Lord’s Supper—to remember the death of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and celebrate the free gift of salvation God gave us through Him.