Finding Purpose

(The following article was written in early Jan 2021 and first published in The Exhorter on Feb 14, 2021, at the Cedar Park Church of Christ. Due to the historic winter storm of 2021 in Texas which began that day, the church was unable to meet, so chances are, some people never got a chance to read this one. Hopefully they’ll find it here. RTS, age 15)

These days, many people are experiencing varying degrees of depression. There are many reasons for this … post-holiday blues, cold weather, COVID restrictions, etc. But I believe that one of the most common reasons for depression, regardless of the day or season, is that people lack purpose in their lives. A lot of people lack purpose because of their worldly mindset, in which they think that this world is all there is, and that they must satisfy themselves with what is here and now before they die, even though the here and now is full of false happiness. Ecclesiastes 1:2-4 reads:

“‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun? One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever.”

These verses illustrate the vanity of life, because of its fleeting nature. However, despite the fleeting nature of life, many still seek fulfillment in it. There are many things that people seek to find fulfillment in, and they all fail in their own ways. The writer of Ecclesiastes discusses this extensively in the first few chapters of the book.

The book begins by noting that the writer is the son of King David, implying that his heritage allows him anything his heart desires. With this in mind, he discusses his numerous pursuits of fulfillment throughout his life. In Ecclesiastes 1:16-18, he states that he sought fulfillment in worldly wisdom, however that simply brought him grief, and he felt as though this was just as futile as trying to grab the wind. Clearly not one to be set back by this, the writer goes on try to find fulfillment in the pleasurable things of this earth instead. He states in Ecclesiastes 2:1-11:

“I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure’; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘Madness!’; and of mirth, ‘What does it accomplish?’ I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives. I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove. I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds. So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, For my heart rejoiced in all my labor; And this was my reward from all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.”

This concept is illustrated in Luke 12, where the Rich Man is seeking to find pleasure for himself by acquiring more material things. In verse 19, it says:

“And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’ ” He believed that he could be happy for the rest of his life if he stored up his goods that he had worked to obtain, without regard to the real Giver of all we have in this life. God had a different plan for this man’s life. In verse 20, it reads: “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’”

Once again, it is futile to seek after wealth or possessions to find pleasure. Things of this earth are all temporary, but the soul is eternal. As such, the only way to find true pleasure in this life is to find purpose in God! At the end of the book, after the writer of Ecclesiastes outlines everything in which he attempted to find purpose, he finds it in God. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 says: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Finally, we must always keep in mind what our end will be. Mark 8:34-38 reads:

“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

This illustrates that the only thing that really matters is our eternal salvation. Have you secured yours? Life is short like a vapor (James 4:14), and the end is unpredictable (1 Thes 5:2), so today is the day to find pleasure in godly pursuits rather than worldly pursuits.

Do Not Be Deceived

(The following article was first published in The Exhorter on Sept 27, 2020, at the Cedar Park Church of Christ. RTS, age 14)

I recently received an email that appeared to be congratulating me on a prestigious academic nomination. It gave a long explanation about my academic performance at school and said that I could be able to enter a national collegiate honor society. Unsure if this was a legitimate email, especially since it was in my spam folder, I showed it to my mom. She was fairly sure it was spam, especially considering it wanted $97 before deciding if I was actually worthy of inclusion, but she looked it up just in case. After getting feedback from other parents who have experienced the same “nomination” for their child in the past, it was clear. This was just a way to con families out of money for the sake of pride, trading something valuable (time and money) for something that only seemed more valuable (a sense of notoriety). Even if this were a legitimate award, it is not one that would be necessary for school or career advancement.

A similar scenario occurred in Genesis 3, when Satan tempted Eve to eat from the tree in the center of the garden. Satan made some very convincing points in an attempt to get Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Look at verses 4-5:

“Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Satan was telling the truth. The most convincing lies are those that are based in truth. It was true that Eve would “not surely die” if she ate of the fruit of the tree. Yes, she would die spiritually, of course, but in a moment of immediate pleasure-seeking, she was thinking in a physical sense and the truth was that she would not immediately die physically. Satan also said that she would become like God – another statement of “truth.” She would become “like God” in that she would know good and evil, but the deception was that she would not gain God’s power or likeness in any other ways. This form of deception is quite common today, creeping into the world around us (look at politics), our personal lives (ever told a little white lie?), and even in the church (denominational-like teachings).

How do we avoid such cleverly disguised, subtle deception? The first way that one can be alert for these kinds of falsehoods is to simply be well versed in the Bible. This is shown in 2 Timothy 2:15, where it reads,  

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker that does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

 We often do not know things that are mentioned in the Bible, or do not know them very well, because we either have not studied them enough, or it’s been so long since we studied them that we’ve forgotten. Being “diligent” means that we must continually build upon our Bible knowledge to gain more depth of truth. Lack of knowledge and understanding makes us more prone to being deceived by false teachers, even by those who deceive us unintentionally by not knowing the truth themselves. This correlates with Galatians 1:8-9, which reads:

“But even if we, or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.”

We must never believe something simply because we trust the one who said it. People are fallible. God and his Word are infallible.  Since the only source of true spiritual knowledge is the Bible, we should always look back to the Bible whenever we need to confirm something another person says. Consider 2 Timothy 3:13-17, which reads,

“But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

It is particularly important to always watch out for false teaching because it can subtly creep into your mind and deceive you to the point that you lose your salvation! This sobering reminder makes a firm point that false teaching should be avoided and watched for at all costs, because despite how close to the truth something may look, it may be a complete lie. The only way to know is to make Bible study the highest priority in your life and be watchful. That way, you are much less likely to be deceived by the false teachings and also be equipped to teach the Word of God to others.

As I mentioned in my introduction, inclusion in that so-called collegiate honor society would not be beneficial to me based on the outcomes that others have had with the organization. So, I will leave you with one final point about recognizing false teaching according to its outcome: Matthew 7:15-20,

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, you will recognize them by their fruits.”

What to Pray About

(The following article was written in early March 2020 and is scheduled for publication on May 3rd, 2020, at the Cedar Park Church of Christ. RTS, age 14)

Quite often in my Christian walk, I struggle to come up with things to pray about without saying the same things over and over.  When I say the same things a lot, it becomes “routine,” and I begin to lose focus.  I know I’m not alone, so I figured this was a good opportunity to teach myself and others at the same time.  It can be tempting to stop praying altogether when we become bored listening to our own prayers.  Fortunately, the Bible is full of ideas for improving our prayer lives.

But wait – does that mean it’s wrong to pray repetitious prayers?  Well… yes and no.  The Bible is pretty specific about that.  In Luke 18:1-8, we find a parable in which Jesus teaches about a woman who was very persistent, and then in Matthew 26:36-46, Jesus Himself prays three times in a row that God would not require the crucifixion that He knew was imminent.  However, in Matthew 6:7-8, Jesus also warns about praying vainly with empty words like the Gentiles did.  So, we see that our prayers can repeat the same things over and over, but only if done in the right way with a sincere and humble heart.  With that in mind, what SHOULD we be praying for?

First and foremost, we should be praising and thanking God!  The song Count Your Blessings comes to mind (a feat none of us can actually attain!), and of course, a wonderful example of praise can be found in the 8th Psalm:

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

Next, we should confess our sins and our anxieties.  Lay them all out for God, asking for forgiveness or help as appropriate.  This humbles us and causes us to rely on God’s mercy and grace. (1 John 1:9, Proverbs 28:13, 1 Peter 5:6-7, Mark 9:24)

There are many situations and people we should be praying for.  Some are specific to our lives today (like a family member with a medical need), and some are generic to everyone (like government).  1 Timothy 2:1-2 says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” It doesn’t matter who is in charge and whether or not we agree with their decisions.  We still must pray that God’s will be done through the actions of our government so that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life.

We should pray about other churches. A perfect example of this is in 1 Thess. 1:2, where Paul states: We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, In fact, each time Paul writes a letter to a church, he mentions that he has been praying for them! Not only should we pray for other congregations, but we should pray for those who are teaching and leading them so that they will be brought to a better understanding of God’s word and be able to spread the Gospel to more people. This is especially true for congregations like those in China where all the members are women, or churches that don’t have anyone qualified to lead as elders.

There are SO many other things to pray about. Some of these things have specific scriptures linked to them, while others are simply general principles. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to discuss them in depth, but here are a few to consider:

  • Wisdom (James 1:5)
  • Forgiveness (Psalm 6)
  • Healing (James 5:13-15)
  • Safety (Psalm 140:4)
  • Go through the informer/ directory
  • Visualize those who sit within two rows of your seat
  • The lost, whether never baptized or they’ve fallen away.
  • Your teachers/mentors
  • Your parents
  • Your children
  • The elders
  • Men we support
  • Engaged couples or newlyweds
  • The military
  • New converts
  • Peace of mind (Phil 4:4-7)
  • Important decisions
  • Widows and orphans
  • Ability, wisdom, and opportunity to teach others the Gospel

Ultimately, there are many, many people and things that someone can pray about. In fact, more ideas can come from reading through prayer hymns in our songbook. All you must do is start praying and keep it up.  Form habits and routines, and perhaps even keep a prayer journal, as you consider one last scripture, 1 Thess. 5:16-18: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Because there is always something more to pray about (again!).

Hospitality, Straight from the Heart

(The following article was first published on Dec 22, 2019, at the Cedar Park Church of Christ. RTS, age 14)

Hospitality isn’t just a bachelor’s degree for hotel managers.  Christians are commanded to show hospitality in Romans 12:13, which reads: “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality”.  Being “given to hospitality” – or being the type of person who regularly seeks to show hospitality to others – is a requirement of one who would like to be an elder someday. (Timothy 3:2) There are many, many examples of hospitality in the New Testament, from the saints at Puteoli (Acts 28) to the saints of Macedonia (2 Cor 8)

Traditionally, hospitality has meant “entertaining strangers”, or welcoming someone into your home for food or lodging.  Google defines modern hospitality as “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers”.  That sounds like fun.  While these are a good start, hospitality is so much more!

Let’s first take a look at one of the most widely-know examples of hospitality in the Bible, the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:

“… ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.  He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.”  Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’  He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise.’”

Obviously the priest and Levite are not good examples, but the Samaritan certainly is!

  1. As a Samaritan, he was considered scum-of-the-earth at that time. No one would dare help him, so why should he help others?  This entire story is outside the comfort zone of a Samaritan.
  2. He “saw him” and he “had compassion”. Noticing someone (like the priest & Levite did) and really SEEING someone (like the Samaritan did) are entirely different things.  Compassion is that inner drive that causes someone to truly WANT to help someone else.  He didn’t help out of obligation (refer to point number one).  He owed this man nothing.
  3. He rendered first aid, using his own supplies. He had a bit of oil and wine in his pack, but it was probably just enough for himself for his journey, and he probably planned to refill it for the return trip.  How did he bind the wounds?  We aren’t told, but it would likely be strips of cloth ripped from his own clothes.  He gave what he had, even the shirt off his back.
  4. He put the man on his own animal and carried him to an inn. That means he gave up his mode of transportation … his comfort … and he walked.
  5. When he got to the inn, he didn’t drop him off and walk away. The text says he cared for him.  He stayed the night, which means he was probably late for whatever appointment he was journeying to keep.  From the story’s description – multiple attackers who left the man for dead – it’s likely this man was knocked out, had open wounds, and had broken bones.  Perhaps he had a concussion and needed to be watched so not to vomit in his sleep and choke to death?  Someone needed to keep his wounds clean and re-dressed so they would not become infected.  He needed to be washed and re-clothed.
  6. The next day, he paid the innkeeper to continue the care of this man. The hard work had already been done.  This was just maintenance.  The man needed rest and food, and since he had been robbed when he was beaten, he had no way to pay for the services.  With the extent of his injuries, he probably needed help feeding and dressing himself for a few days.  The Samaritan, in addition to his supplies, his comfort, and his time, gave even more to help the stranger.  His first response wasn’t to throw money at the problem.  Money was the last thing he offered – and he offered it abundantly.  He gave what he had, and he promised to give even more when he returned… which means he promised to follow up on the man’s care as well.

How can we apply this example today?  We probably won’t have the opportunity to put an injured man on our donkey and go for a walk, right?  We can get out of our own comfort zones, though.

One way to show hospitality is to open up your home to others, even if the floor hasn’t been mopped and you only have a hodge-podge of leftovers to offer. This helps the ones you’ve invited, but it also encourages you with the bond of fellowship. In the beginning of the church (Acts 2:44-45), we’re told that they sold their belongings and distributed to those in need. If your house is too small to host a study or meal, go out to lunch or coffee.

Be helpful in everyday situations, both to Christians and to strangers. Carry a heavy load, mow someone’s lawn, donate money to toward a medical procedure, clean someone’s house, offer free babysitting to a young couple, make a meal, send a grocery gift card to a family who has lost a job, donate blood, tip well, and even clean up after your children in a busy restaurant.

Some things that you can do to be hospitable are much less obvious. Sometimes it simply means to pay attention to others around you. You can watch their moods and tell if something is wrong, which can often open the door to other opportunities.  Show up 10 minutes earlier to worship and stay 10 minutes longer so that you can greet more people.  “Greet” doesn’t just mean opening the door or saying hello.  It means, “How did your mom’s surgery go?”, or “I noticed your husband isn’t here today.  Can I sit with you and help you with your children during the sermon?”

Hospitality has much less to do with income and much more to do with effort.  It requires time and a willing heart.  Some final verses to consider are: Matthew 7:12 (do to others as you would have them do to you), Matthew 6:3 (don’t do things just to be noticed by others), and Eccl 9:10 (whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might).

Wealth, Power, and God

(The following article was first published on Aug 4, 2019, at the Cedar Park Church of Christ. RTS, age 13)

Wealth and power are very useful things to have on this side of eternity, but they can also be huge stumbling blocks. If you are educated enough to be reading this article, you have both wealth and power already. As I explain what I mean, I’ll also encourage you to use them for good.

Although people usually think about money when considering wealth, there are actually several types of wealth. The “money” type includes money and material possessions.  Other types include spiritual wealth (like the freedom of religion and the abundance of religious supply stores in America, for example), time wealth (we have more free time and opportunities than developing countries), and lastly, social wealth.

Social wealth includes all the resources available to meet your social and emotional needs, whether it’s friends, family, & co-workers, or phones, mail, & social media.  It somewhat equates to power of influence and popularity, and it can be used for both good and bad, just as the other types of power can be (but I’ll get to that in a moment).

In 1st Kings chapter 5, Solomon and Hiram, the king of Phoenicia, make a trade deal. Solomon uses his vast stores of food wealth to buy cedar, stone, labor, and many other resources from the king of Phoenicia. Solomon then uses these resources to build the temple in Jerusalem. This was a massive undertaking, unlike anything that the people had seen, and it is an example of how wealth can be used for God’s glory. Wealth is not inherently evil, although several New Testament scriptures warn about its destructive power (Mk 10:25; 1st Tim 6:10).

As I mentioned earlier, there are various types of power.  First, let’s look at coercion power, in which people are forced to submit to a person or group because of a threat to life or property.  An example of this is the ten plagues brought upon Egypt, beginning in Exodus 7. God used coercion to attempt to get Pharaoh to release the Israelites from Egypt.  Pharaoh thought of himself as a god on an equal plane with Jehovah, so he did not yield until he could no longer resist the destruction brought on by God’s plagues.

Another example of coercive power is seen when the government was against the spread of the Gospel in the first century.  The church in Smyrna was told, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev 2:10).  Even today, Christians around the world are faced with death because of their faith.

We must never give into coercive efforts to derail our faith, but we must also never coerce someone into doing something sinful, and we should never be a stumbling block to a weaker Christian.

Another type of power is reward power, which just means using a type of reward to get someone to do what you want.  This could be illustrated by an employer/employee relationship, or by God’s promises to help his people (the walls of Jericho didn’t fall down by themselves!), but it can also be something sinister like a bribe.  Judas was rewarded with 30 pieces of silver for his assistance in the arrest of Jesus.

On an interesting note, many of God’s commands are both coercive and reward based. If Noah followed the command of God, his family would be saved by the ark, but if he didn’t, they would die.  If we follow God’s commands, we will be saved by the blood of Jesus, but if we don’t, we will also die.

Probably the most commonly thought of type of power is official power. This is power you get when you hold a government office, become an elder, or own a company. Even teachers, parents, and babysitters have this kind of power. This kind of power can be very destructive, because people are often willing to blindly follow official powers.  Ephesians 6:1 tells children to “obey your parents in the Lord”.  In other words, obey all the time, unless they tell you something that is against God’s will.

Finally, a lesser-recognized type of power is the power of knowledge.  Some people have great knowledge in a specific area of study (like a brain surgeon), some have a lifetime of wisdom, and some simply know the WiFi password or the location of your car keys. Having people like this in your life is a blessing, but again, we must be careful who we follow.  An older Christian could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and an older child could influence a younger child to walk down the wrong path. (Mt 7:15; 1st Jn 4:1; 2nd Pet 2:1)

James 1:16-17 says, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

Wealth and power are gifts from God, and we should appreciate them greatly.  However, we must be cautious in how we use them. How will YOU use them?

Evangelism Is for All

(The following article was first published on May 19th, 2019, at the Cedar Park Church of Christ. RTS, age 13)

Evangelism is arguably the most important aspect in the life of a Christian. Evangelism, however, is not solely the responsibility of elders and preachers. A quick Google search gives the definition of evangelism as, “the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness.” Evangelism should reach all, and all Christians should take part in the effort.

Scripture commands evangelism.  In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gives His last words to his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (ESV)

God wants all people to be saved, and He is being patient with those who are still lost (2 Pet 3:9), but He won’t wait forever.  If we are to reach the whole world, we must start with the people we know and those we encounter during our daily lives.

Evangelism works as a chain. One person teaches another person, and then the person who was taught can now bring the gospel to other people they know. Each time you or I are presented with an opportunity and do not take it, we are breaking the chain.  How many others could have been saved down the line?

There are several useful strategies for evangelizing.  Here are just a few of my thoughts:

Talk to people who are already religious. In Acts 17, Paul notices the religion of the Athenians and begins to preach the gospel to them.  The “god” they did not know was “the God” of heaven, creation, and salvation.

Simply explain the plan of salvation to people.  In Acts 8, Phillip teaches the Ethiopian eunuch what he did not understand about Jesus. Phillip then went on to explain what he needed to be saved. If the people who we are trying to teach do not know what to do, how can they be saved?  We might not be as knowledgeable as Brother So-and-So, but if we have been saved, we can tell others what we did to become saved.

Use evidence from the Scriptures.  Scripture must always be used within context, and it is important to know how a verse was used at the time it was written. Who was the author, and who was the audience?  There once was a daily scripture calendar with a quote from the book of Matthew, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” It sounds inspiring, doesn’t it?  However, the quote came from chapter 4, and it was a temptation spoken by Satan to Jesus.  It doesn’t sound so inspiring anymore, does it? We must be careful when proving matters of salvation and authority.

Study the word yourself.  The calendar illustration brings me to my next point. Study habits are an absolute must if we are trying to teach others. Timothy was instructed in 1 Tim. 2:15 to be diligent in his efforts to “rightly divide” the word of truth.  Diligence implies an ongoing, concerted effort, not a one-time “open your Bible where it falls and read a few verses” type of study.

Keep on keeping on. In 1 Pet 3:13-17, Peter explains that we will be met with those who do not want to hear the truth, and that we must be prepared to answer those who question our faith. “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (ESV)

When religion comes up in casual conversation, seize the opportunity to teach. Often the best opportunities for evangelism come up at unexpected times. That is why we must be ready at all times! However, if we spring upon an opportunity like this, we may not recall everything we need to know. In that case, my personal suggestion is to arrange a time with that person to discuss whatever subject came up, and then do research on the topic before you meet again.  That way, you’ll be ready the next time the opportunity comes up with another person.  The more often we do this, the less often we’ll have to reschedule to have time to come up with the right words to say.  The best time to teach someone is always “now.”

Learn from others’ experience.  Is someone else already doing Bible studies with others?  Ask if you can tag along. Watching how a brother or sister teaches others can help you develop your own knowledge base and strategy for teaching as well. “…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Tim 4:2-4 ESV)

The greatest thing we can do in this life is bring a soul to Christ. No matter what personal suffering or even inconvenience it might cause, it will reap eternal benefits for you and for others.

Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?

(The following article was first published on February 3rd, 2019, at the Cedar Park Church of Christ. RTS, age 13)

The claim that Jesus was raised from the dead is the most vital point in the Bible. Without it, Christianity is a waste of time (1 Cor 15:12-19). It is important that we know why we should believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, because there are many theories that try to counteract the resurrection story.

One theory holds that the disciples of Jesus stole the body from the tomb. This is actually the oldest theory because it dates back to the time of the event (Matthew 28:11-15). However, this argument can be refuted by the fact that none of the disciples of Jesus defended him when he was betrayed (Matthew 26:56), and one disciple, Peter, even denied him three times (Matthew 29:69-75). The disciples were in hiding after He was crucified and were as surprised by his resurrection as everyone else.  The soldiers who were charged to guard the tomb knew that their lives were at stake, if anyone came to steal the body.  They were to protect it or die trying. Another refutation of the theft theory is that all but one of the disciples of Jesus were martyred (in various violent ways), maintaining that Jesus was in fact raised from the dead. If they had been lying, they would not have gone through so much suffering because of Him.

Another theory holds that Jesus played dead on the cross and then was put in the tomb. He recovered sufficiently enough over just a few hours that He could get out, find his disciples, and tell them to spread the lie that He had risen. This theory has many weak points. First, it does not take into account the true level of torture that Jesus would have gone through: the scourging, the lack of food and water, the time spent on the cross, and the sword in his side. In order to get out of the tomb, He would have had to wrestle off a significant amount of spices and wrappings (Luke 24:56), roll a heavy stone away (Matthew 27:60), overpower a group of armed Roman guards (Matthew 27:65-66), find the disciples’ hiding place, and get through a locked door. Overall, this simply does not seem possible for a crucified man to accomplish.  It would take only a quick Google search to find the work of modern doctors, who have explained the death of Jesus as fact based on the combination of both blood and water that flowed from his body when pierced by the spear. That only happens when a person is truly dead.

Some say that Jesus simply had an identical twin that no one knew about who took His place on the cross. Jesus would have then gone to the disciples after the twin was killed, and He would have made them think that He had risen from the dead. This is a very weak argument because Jesus would have had to go against His own teachings in order for this to work (besides the fact that the twin would have to have played along with the plot!). It also does not explain the empty tomb, which is a known fact from both Christian and secular historical sources.

A widely popular belief is that the women who were going to Jesus’ tomb got lost and went to the wrong tomb. When they found it empty, they thought He had risen.  This theory makes no sense, even when you take extreme grief into account. The women who were going to the tomb had just been there to prepare Jesus for burial on Friday night, and of course the tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers, so it would have been easy to spot on Sunday morning. This theory also does not account for the fact that the Jews could have easily destroyed Christianity by presenting the body to them. A body was never produced (even a wrong body!), so obviously this belief does not work.

The most popular theory of all is the legend theory. It states that Jesus was never raised from the dead but was left to rot on the cross. A short time later, the apostles decided that what happened to Jesus did not matter, but that they could spread the gospel anyway. This theory, in my opinion, has the most flaws. It does not account for the fact that the Jews claimed that the body was stolen, and the fact that the tomb was empty. The story is also hard to believe as a legend, because the apostles began preaching to people in the same city that the events took place. If it was false, anyone in the city could have exposed the apostles as frauds. Besides, the empty tomb was discovered by women. In those days, the testimony of women was not accepted. If the apostles were trying to make a legend, it would have been more likely that they would have used more reliable people, like themselves.

It is also notable that the resurrection isn’t “just a Christian story.” It has been told and believed by secular historians of the day like Josephus as well, and Jesus was so influential that the calendar of years starts over with Him.

The countless theories that have been proposed don’t hold water.  The only story that makes sense is the true story that the apostles told and recorded for us. If the resurrection really happened, then everyone should believe it.  Do you? If not, why not?  We should be willing to tell it to everyone and to die for it, just as the apostles did and so did many others since that time.

“And HE said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned…So then the Lord Jesus, after He had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven …and they went out and preached everywhere…” Mark 16:15-20

– Ben Smith

The Decision Spectrum

(The following article was published at the Cedar Park Church of Christ on October 14th, 2018. -RTS)

The decision whether to follow God or not is the single most important decision one will ever make.  The Bible gives us countless examples of people’s decisions regarding obedience to God and what became of them because of their decisions.  As with any other type of decision people make, there are a spectrum of answers to be had.  Let’s look at the ways that some Biblical examples have responded to God’s call of obedience and how we continue to respond even today:

NO – Some people respond to God by simply refusing to trust Him or to believe Him.  In the book of Exodus, Pharaoh was given many chances to obey God by allowing the Israelites to leave captivity.  Time after time, he refused until the death of the firstborns changed his mind.  That wasn’t the end of it, though.  When he let the people go, he didn’t do it from a heart of obedience, but a heart of frustration.  He later regretted the decision and chased after the multitude.  This decision resulted in even more death, because the Egyptian soldiers were swallowed up by the Red Sea after the Israelites had crossed safely on dry land.

In the New Testament, we are told that even the demons believe and tremble, yet they refuse to obey (James 2:19).  In Acts 7, when Stephen was preaching to those who opposed him, they hardened their hearts against the word of the Lord, and they stoned Stephen to death.  Disobedience ALWAYS results in death, whether physical or spiritual.  In James 1:15, we read, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”  Clearly “no” is always the wrong answer.

YES, BUT MY WAY – While most people agree that no means no, there are a wide variety of “yes” answers.  Each of us has our own will, and each of us desires to do things in our own way.  Looking first at the Old Testament, “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (Leviticus 10:1-2) As a result of their perverted obedience, God sent fire from heaven to take their lives.  In 1 Samuel 13, Saul also offered a sacrifice in an unauthorized way, because he did not wait for Samuel the priest as he was instructed to do.  Only priests could offer sacrifices to God.  Because of this, the kingdom was ripped away from Saul and given to David.  God requires obedience in His own way.

Looking at the churches of Asia in Revelation 3, Sardis was told in verse 1 that they looked alive to those who saw them, but God knew on the inside they were dead.  In verse 16, Laodicea was rejected because they were neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm.  Neither of these churches fully obeyed by doing God’s will with the right attitude.  “My way” is the selfish way.  God’s way is the only way.

YES, BUT MAYBE LATER“Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” (Prov 27:1) “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:34)

Our lives are filled with people, things, events, expectations, and worries that distract us from the will of God.  If we allow procrastination to rule our thoughts, there will never be a “good” time to obey.  The problem with procrastination is that we tend to forget to come back to whatever it was that we put aside.  We forget about God!

Moses made excuses to God in Exodus 3 hoping God would ask someone else to do the task, the Athenians in Acts 17 said of the gospel, “We will hear you again about this,” and Agrippa in Acts 26 said, “You almost persuade me to be a Christian.”  Each pushed aside the words which God wanted them to take to heart.

In the words of the song penned by Philip Bliss, “Almost cannot avail, Almost is but to fail! Sad, sad, that bitter wail, Almost, but lost!” We have no guarantee of tomorrow.  God told the rich fool in Luke 12 that his life would be required of him on the very night that everything was going perfectly for him.  He had seen so much success, and he saw nothing but more on the horizon.  God had other plans.

YES! – God requires obedience immediately, and He also requires it to be done with the right attitude.  When Abraham was told to leave his home in Genesis 12, he did.  In Isaiah 6:8, God said, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah replied, “Here I am! Send me.” In Acts 2, as Peter and the others spoke to the multitudes who had gathered, some were “pricked in their hearts” and obeyed immediately.  While Philip was teaching the Eunuch in Acts 8, the Eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” There was no hesitation.  They stopped the chariot, and he was immediately baptized.

What was the result each time a “no” or “partial” yes was given?  Ultimately, death and destruction.  Look at the “yes” responses, though.  They always led to blessings.  We have been blessed with the opportunity to live eternally in an unimaginable paradise.  Do you truly WANT to do ALL that the Lord requires you to do so that you can live there?  It’s your decision!

-Ben Smith

How & Why to Build Good Study Habits

(The following article was first published on July 8th, 2018, at the Cedar Park Church of Christ. RTS, age 12)

I’ve recently returned from summer camp where we learned lessons from Solomon and some of the kings of Judah.  Most believe that Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon later in his life after earthly pleasures had failed to bring him true happiness.  Toward the end of the book, he urges the young to remember their Creator now, before life’s challenges come and they no longer have their priorities or foundation in place.  So, young people, the article to follow is (mostly) for you.  If you’re not familiar with the lessons to be learned throughout Ecclesiastes, perhaps that should be your starting point for study?

Christians should have Bible study as part of their daily life. It is a necessary part of the Christian walk to grow in knowledge and wisdom (1 Timothy 3:16-17), so that you can use it to help others grow in knowledge and wisdom (2 Timothy 4:2), bring others to Christ (Matthew 28:19), and defend your reasons for belief (1 Peter 3:15-16). However, as I understand and often experience, it can be hard to incorporate Bible study into busy routines. Even so, we must “remember our Creator before the difficult days come” (Ecclesiastes 12:1), therefore it is important to study to gain knowledge. But how do we build good study habits?

Our first goal should be to make it a priority. If it is not a priority, study is not nearly as effective or consistent. We should always be aware of the Bible’s importance as a guide (Psalm 119:105), its value to make us aware of evil (Psalm 119:104), its value to keep us safe from evil (Psalm 119:101), and its value in showing God’s righteousness (Psalm 119:142). Truly, this shows that God’s word should be loved, cherished, and sought more than gold (Psalm 119:127)!

After we prioritize study because of the Bible’s value to our lives, we should begin including study in our daily routine. One way to include it is to study with our families as God instructed Israel to do (Deuteronomy 6:7-9). Studying with your family has many advantages. One of them is that you can set a specific time and be more likely to study every day at that time. Another advantage is that you have multiple people helping the rest learn instead of just one person studying alone. Studying in this way also helps families grow closer together and closer to God.  It helps families grow in knowledge together so that each family member can teach others.  It also helps encourage each other to remain strong, because everyone goes through times of weakness.

Another way to build good habits is to plan for what to study. It is not very effective to just flip around and read something at random, and although men have said a lot of great things in books, the Bible should still be at the core of our study. It helps to have a solid reading plan so that you know what to study from day to day. The Daily Bible Reading assignments from the ABC curriculum classes is an example of this. There is an assignment of daily reading so that you can read most of the Bible every three years. Other plans would be similar to that.  You can find daily Bible reading schedules in the back of your Bible or online.  There are many types to choose from.

If your goal is simply to read so that you can learn in a broader sense, perhaps you could read the same passage from several different translations, or you could read the same passage every day for a week so that it becomes more-or-less memorized.  That way, when you need to know something for a class or individual study with someone, you will have a pretty good idea what the Bible says on the topic and where to find it quickly to reference.  My goal this month is to read through the book of Mark 10 times over 20 days. (Ask me about Mark … I should be finished by the time you read this article!)

One way to have a very in-depth study of a passage is to study it as if you were preparing to teach a class or another individual. Read every detail, read reputable commentaries or topical books on the subject, and write down several points on your homework questions. Prepare as if you will be called on to teach, because we must be ready “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2), and you will get much more out of a class or one-on-one study that way.

Finally, remember the importance of prayer. The value of Bible study is immeasurable, and a deep knowledge of it can save your soul and the souls of others. If you do not have time for studying the Bible, you need to look at your life and choose something to drop out of it.  Anything that you put ahead of God is idolatry, even your time. (John 6:66-69) Pray for wisdom (James 1:5-8), and then seek it diligently (2 Timothy 2:15).

How to Be a Living Sacrifice

(The following article was published at the Cedar Park Church of Christ on April 1st, 2018. RTS, age 12)

As Christians, we must be a living sacrifice, as commanded in Romans 12:1-2 (ESV), where it says,

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

But what is a sacrifice, and how do we become one?

Vine’s Dictionary describes sacrifice as the act of offering something, which is usually a life.  There are many examples of sacrifice throughout the Bible, some of which were pleasing to God and others that were not.  Pleasing examples include: Abel’s animal offering (Gen 4), Abraham’s offering of Isaac (Gen 22), and when Jesus offered Himself (all four gospels).  Bad examples include: Cain’s offering from the ground (Gen 4), Saul’s unlawful sacrifice (1 Sam 13), and the offerings of the people in the book of Malachi (vs. 6-14).

What do the pleasing examples of sacrifice all have in common? They were all offered in faith, in the correct way, and they were the best that was available.  Look at the bad examples, though.  Cain’s offering wasn’t done in faith, Saul’s offering was done incorrectly, and the people in the book of Malachi were going through the motions with a lazy and cast-off attitude.

Each of these sacrifices involved a death, so what is a living sacrifice? Going back to the text in Romans 12:1, we are told to present our bodies.  Verse 2 describes how to do that by telling us to transform ourselves by the renewing of our minds. I can think of three easy ways to start the transformation process – study our Bibles (2 Tim. 2:15), pray about it (Js 1:5), and surround ourselves with other Christians (1 Cor. 15:33).

Romans 12:2 also says that we are not to be conformed to this world.  That means we cannot desire to be like the world.  Jesus said in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  Each day, I must compare what I want to do with what God wants me to do. Selfishness cannot win if I am denying myself of worldly temptations.

The only way to truly be a living sacrifice is to do it continuously.  If you’re continuously living in a sacrificial way, you will be rewarded.  This can be seen clearly throughout the Old and New Testaments (Is 40:30-31 and 2 Tim. 4:7-8), but especially in 1 Cor 15:57-58, But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

In short, put God first, and keeping on putting God first.