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Archive for March, 2022

There were three crosses at Calvary. On either side of the central cross was a victim. Luke calls them “malefactors” or criminals. Matthew and Mark call them “thieves.” John speaks of them simply as “two others.” Tradition has called them Dismas and Gesmas. Dismas was the one who rebuked Gesmas and to whom Christ spoke a word of assurance. He is worth looking at closely.

It is entirely probable that Dismas and Gesmas had been Zealot patriots, who looked for a Messiah like a Maccabean warrior-prince. All Zealots sought a kingdom that was utterly different from the existing society of the day. Such men were misguided patriots who hated Rome. Their goal was to overturn the institutions that were maintained by both the political and religious institutions at the time.

The second fascinating possibility about Dismas is that he may have known Jesus before they kept their tragic rendezvous on Golgotha. He declared the innocence of Jesus, for he said, “This man has done nothing amiss.” How did he know that? And why was he so certain that it was true? More striking still, he is the only person mentioned in the four Gospels who called Jesus by His first name. It was when he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into your kingdom.”

What kind of kingdom did Dismas believe Jesus would build? Had he at some earlier time listened to Jesus and heard Him talking about the Kingdom of God? If so, had he turned away from listening to Jesus, as Judas Iscariot did at the end? I think that is a strong possibility. He could not see how all this talk about love and good will would ever drive the hated Roman tyrants into the sea. He wanted action. Then, as he turns his head, he sees the words attached to the cross next to his own: “Jesus . . . the King of the Jews.”

Gesmas, his companion on the other side of the cross of Jesus, had hoped against hope for clemency. He knew full well that according to the custom of the day that one condemned man would be released at the Passover festival – but the mob had already chosen Barabbas to be set free. Both Dismas and Gesmas hated not only their foreign executioners but their own countrymen who had ignored them. They heard the multitude railing at Jesus: “Aha! You were going to build the Temple in three days.” “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is so clever.” “What about a miracle now, Miracle Man?”

As Christians around the world celebrate another Easter, we look again at those three crosses. Something special happened to Dismas. He no doubt began to realize that violence and plotting and bloodshed could never usher in the realm of God. It was the rule of God that he wanted. A new revolution began to take place in his soul. And he cried out, “Jesus, remember me when You come into your Kingdom” (Luke 23:42). He knew that the three of them were going to die, but believed that Jesus would go on.

Jesus replied to Dismas by saying, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” What a fantastic promise! Look at Christ’s promise in this way: “Today . . . . Paradise . . . . with Me.” We learn from this that God cares for the least and the lowest and the lost. He will never forget even one of His children.

How do we know this to be true? Three days later the Sabbath the tomb where Jesus had been buried was empty. “Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty triumph o’er His foes; He arose a victor from the dark domain, and He lives forever with His saints to reign. He arose! He arose! Hallelujah, Christ arose!”

That, my friends, is what Easter is all about. And it is why Christians celebrate!

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“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound….” So begins one of the most beloved hymns of all time, a staple in the hymnals of many Christian denominations. The author of the hymn’s words was John Newton, the self-proclaimed wretch who once was lost but then was found, saved by God’s amazing grace.

But what exactly is grace? You may be surprised to learn that Jesus never used the word grace. He just taught it and, of more importance, He lived it. Furthermore, the Bible never gives us a one-statement definition, though grace appears throughout its pages – not just in the use of the word but in numerous demonstrations of it.

To show grace is to extend favor or kindness to someone who does not deserve it and can never earn it. Accepting and receiving God’s grace always stands in sharp contrast to earning it based on works. Every time the word grace occurs in the Bible, there is the idea of it being undeserved (see Ephesians 2:8). In no way is the recipient of grace getting what he or she deserves. Grace is extended simply based on the goodness of the heart of the giver. The late pastor and Bible scholar Donald Barnhouse expressed it this way, “Love that goes upward is worship; love that goes outward is affection; love that stoops is grace.”

The word “grace” is used in today’s world to describe many things: a well-coordinated dancer or athlete . . . good manners and being considerate of others . . . beautiful, well-chosen words . . . consideration and care for others . . . and various expressions of kindness and mercy. The thoughtfulness expressed by each of these reminds us of the kind of attitude and actions demonstrated by Jesus during the days of His flesh.

For example, when Jesus stood beside a woman caught in adultery, the Law clearly said, “Stone her.” Yet He said to those self-righteous Pharisees, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” What grace! Under the Law the Pharisees had every reason to stone her to death . . . and they were ready to do it. They stood before her with self-righteous anger in their hearts, but Jesus intervened by extending grace.

When His friend Lazarus died, Martha met Jesus on the road, and Mary, her sister, faced Him in the house. Both blamed Him for not coming earlier: “If you had been here, our brother would not have died!” He could have replied sharply to their accusation, but He refused to do so. He demonstrated grace. He loved children and treated them graciously. His stories of the Prodigal Son and of the Good Samaritan emphasized the importance of grace. The prayer of Jesus from the cross for those who had crucified Him, “Father, forgive them” demonstrated grace. He bore no resentment or bitterness. Instead, He demonstrated grace.

Hear Paul’s words to the Roman Christians, “Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). A troublesome barrier stands between every human being and God – we are sinners. Adam introduced sin into the bloodstream of the human race. No one is immune to the sin disease (Romans 3:23). And no human accomplishment can erase the internal sin stain that separates us from God. Only God’s grace can do that. It was accomplished on a Roman cross when He died for us.

By simply believing in Jesus Christ, by accepting Him as Savior and Lord, your sins will be forgiven, and you will be given the assurance of eternal life in heaven. That is what God’s Word teaches. It is why John Newton’s hymn continues year after year to be loved by so many Christians around the world.

It is also why God’s grace truly is amazing!

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A grief-stricken man threw himself across the grave in a cemetery and bitterly cried out, “My life, how senseless it is! How worthless is everything about me because you are gone. If only you had not died! If only fate had not been so cruel as to take you from this world! How difficult life is for me every single day because you are no longer here. How different everything would have been from the way it currently is!”

A minister, who had just completed the graveside service for one of the members of his congregation, happened to be nearby. He came over to try to console the man and offered up a prayer in his behalf. When he had finished his prayer on behalf of the obviously grief stricken man he said, “I assume the person lying beneath this mound of earth was someone of great importance to you.”

“Of great importance to me, you ask. You are absolutely correct,” the obviously deeply troubled man moaned. “The person buried below this mound of dirt was my wife’s first husband! If he had not died there would have been no way I could have made the unwise decision to become her second husband.”

It is the will of God that marriage should be a colony of heaven on earth – and it will be if the principles of Christ are practiced in all the relationships within the home. However, without Christ and without love, what was designed to be a colony of heaven can easily and quickly become a colony of hell on earth.

How can you get more out of your marriage? By putting everything you have that is worthy into it. Don’t expect to be happy unless you do everything in your power to make your mate happy. Don’t demand more of your mate than you are willing to personally give to the relationship. Don’t expect love to be returned if you do not invest love into the relationship. In other words, you have no right to expect what you are not willing to give. If you will consciously seek each day to be aware of your mate’s desires and needs, and will do your best to meet them, both of you can enter the sunset years of life together with joy.

A Kansas cyclone lifted one couple’s house, picked up the man and wife sleeping in it, and gently set it down in the barnyard. The wife was weeping slightly. “Don’t be afraid,” said her husband. “I’m not,” she replied. “I’m just so happy because this is the first time in 25 years that we have been out together.”

Success in marriage is more than finding the right person. It is also the matter of being the right person. Perhaps this is why Socrates once said, “By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you will become very happy; if you get a bad one, you will become a philosopher – and that is good for any man.”

Ogden Nash expressed some excellent tongue-in-cheek advice for couples who want to have a happy and successful marriage:

                        To keep your marriage brimming,

                        With love in the loving cup,

                        Whenever you’re wrong, admit it

                        Whenever you’re right, shut up.”

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Several years ago, I read the beautiful story of a mother who had lost her only child. Her grief was crushing. So intense was it that she could talk of nothing else. Therefore, she grew sadder and more despondent with the passing of each day. Gradually her closest friends avoided her.

But one evening, after a long day in town, this mother came home literally exhausted and threw herself upon a couch to rest. She soon fell asleep and dreamed that she died and went to heaven and there saw a beautiful procession of children, each carrying a lighted candle.

Brightening in her mood, she said to herself, “Perhaps I will now be able to see my child!” Sure enough it wasn’t very long until her child appeared, but the candle she was carrying was not burning. Surprised, the mother inquired, “Dear, why is your candle not lighted like the candles being carried by the other children?”

The child replied, “It was lighted, mother, but your tears kept putting it out!” At this point the mother awoke from her dream, and from that time on her grief was assuaged, and she began to experience happiness again. Her friends, of course, welcomed the change. She had spent the moments in each day focusing upon the daughter she had lost, but she now began to spend meaningful time and energy focusing upon the fact that in the truest sense she had only lost her daughter temporarily. She would be able to spend endless time throughout eternity seeing her in what the New Testament describes as “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1).

Every time I think of this mother, I remember the time in the 1980s when as pastor of Sanford’s First Baptist Church I entered the Moore Regional Hospital in Southern Pines, N.C., to visit a sick parishioner. Upon stopping at the hospital entrance desk, I was asked by the receptionist, who knew I was a minister, “There is a lady on the fourth floor who needs a visit by a Christian minister. Will you visit her?” I said that I would, and I went immediately to the room on the fourth floor. The lady had her stillborn daughter dressed in a beautiful dress in bed with her. She wanted to spend a few hours with the child she would never know alive in this world.

The drama of the situation filled my eyes with tears, for my wife and I had had twin sons prematurely born, one of whom lived for an hour and the other for half an hour. I could identify with this young mother’s pain. I would never see our twins alive on earth. But I will at the time of God’s choosing see Len and Glen in the Eternal City that is described in John 14:1-6. The pain and loss that Jessie and I knew in that hour was only temporary. I tried to encourage the young mother with the truth found in God’s Word.

In each of our hearts we all carry lighted candles – lights of hope, courage, ideals and worthy purposes. We try to keep them ever burning, to guide us in our decisions, in our hours of discouragement and when we lose our way. But there are still people in our world who keep blowing these candles out. The steadily hopeful and courageous, however, keep lighting them, again and again. Every time you express a destructive thought or say an unkind word against another, you blow out one of the lights in the consciousness of others. And no one but the cruelest among us would do that intentionally.

Encouragement is one of the greatest forces in this world. No light in anyone’s heart will be likely to go out who has been given meaningful encouragement by others. To live is not always the easiest task. God never intended for it to be so. That is why if we take care not to blow out the lights of hope, faith, ambition and firm resolves, as we feel them burning in the breasts of others, we can be assured that the light in our own lives will glow brighter also.

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“Hello, God!”

The tremendous advances that have been made in technology during my lifetime are almost beyond belief. Take just one area, for example – the telephone. People who had a telephone in their homes in 1931 when I was born had to be part of what was called a party line that connected four or five homes. Everybody had a different ring. Your call number might have been two long rings and one short ring. Someone else’s number might have been two short rings.

My grandfather would never have believed what is today called a smart phone – or the things you can do with them. You can access information from an endless number of websites around the entire world, make a video of your family in living color and accomplish a countless number of other amazing things. My mind began to humorously speculate what it would be like if in the distant future we could even talk to God on what then might be called a super smart phone. Put your mind into overdrive and join me in my speculation. Your phone rings, and you answer, “Hello!”

Not recognizing the incoming telephone number, you say, “To whom am I speaking?” The caller answers ‘God!’ Are you kidding me? The God who created the universe? . . . . Holy catfish! . . . What do I mean by saying ‘Holy catfish?’ It’s just an expression, honest to . . . uh oh . . . . What I mean is that I didn’t expect You to be calling me on the phone. In my job as a pastor here on the earth my secretary initially answers incoming calls and then lets me know over the intercom who is calling. You must have a lot of secretaries to initially handle the number of calls You obviously receive in heaven. You say You don’t . . . but that you do have a receptionist? I suspect that this would probably be Simon Peter’s job, but I’m just pulling your leg. . . Oh my goodness, that isn’t what I intended to say . . . . So, please forgive me.”

“I certainly thought more people would call You by phone than the number You say is true. . . .What? . . . . That this is the first time I have talked with You in several days . . . . God, You didn’t have to mention that, did You? . . . . Yes sir, uh oh, I mean, yes, Lord, You have every right to mention it. Let’s get back to why You don’t have a secretary. . . . You enjoy answering the phone? Really? . . . But God You could have any secretary You want. There are some very talented secretaries here on the earth. All You would have to do is zap up just any secretary You choose. . . . What? You don’t think that is very funny. . . . I thought it was . . . Ha, ha, ha, see, I’m laughing. But of course, You are right. Many secretaries, especially those who don’t even believe in You, would not appreciate my joke.”

“You say that You have no secretaries, but that You do have a bookkeeper. And that the books You keep show how much or how little is given by church members in our offerings to advance your kingdom on the earth . . . and how often we attend worship each Sunday . . . and if we have ever shared our faith with even one person? You say that when we do things we should not do and fail to do the things we should do are all recorded in your book? And that the Internal Revenue Service would be interested to know if the amount of money we report each year on a federal tax form as having been given through church offerings is an accurate figure!”

“Lord, I’m not sure that most church members are as aware as they should be that literally everything we do is recorded in your book, and that it will be made public on Judgment Day . . . that every person – whether or not he or she believes in You – will have to give an account of our entire lives to You . . . Also, Lord, should I mention these things in one of the articles I write for publication? . . .You say that I should? I will be glad to do that. Knowing that You have a bookkeeper and that we can now talk with You daily on our smart phones should improve our prayer life considerably.”

“By the way, Lord, I’ve got to cut this conversation short. Forgive me for doing this, but I’ve got to start doing several of the important things You asked me to get done that I have let slide by the wayside far too long.”

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