Stubborn as a mule

Ever dealt with someone stubborn?

I mean really stubborn, as in talking-to-a-brick-wall stubborn?

I’ve heard some folks describing themselves this way, as if it were something to brag about.

It’s not.

Or at least God never uses it that way. In fact, sometimes it’s translated with a word that creates an interesting image:

And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9).

“Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 33:3).

And then Stephen used it here to describe his audience:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51).

“Stiff-necked” reflects a beast of burden who’s refusing to lower its head to receive the yoke . . . the animal is stubborn, unyielding.

The image applies to us human beings as well.

It’s someone who is obstinate, unwilling to budge, unsubmissive.

Someone who won’t admit he’s wrong, who won’t say she’s sorry, who refuses to follow anyone’s guidance.

You don’t need to go far to find someone who epitomizes this trait, of course. The unpleasant attitude usually makes quite an impression.

But, like most things, the place to look for it isn’t at work or school, or at home in our spouses or kids.

There’s a bit of stiff-necked-ness in all of us, isn’t there?

Do you ever tell your spouse you were wrong?

Did you admit to your children that it was sinful yesterday when you lost your temper with them?

When deciding between God’s way and your way, do you always lower your head and submit to his yoke?

Unfortunately, stiff necks didn’t only exist in Bible times. There’s a stubborn streak in most of us.

Today—in your devotional time—talk to the Lord about it.

Ask him to help you see your struggles in submitting. Ask him to shine his light on that area of your life that you’re stubbornly keeping from him.

And then ask him to give you a submissive spirit . . . one that humbly lowers the neck to receive his yoke.

Beware of the dogs

At the risk of shattering your image of the Apostle Paul, I need to let you know that he wasn’t a dog-lover.

Our man’s-best-friend image actually hinders us from understanding how intense these words are:

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh (Philippians 3:2).

Along with most of his contemporaries, Paul viewed dogs as packs of ravenous creatures who roamed the countryside eating whatever they could find.

So, to put it mildly, referring to a group of people as “dogs” was not complimentary.

Apparently Paul is writing about a group of people who were trying to undermine his gospel preaching. Like scavenging dogs, they were coming behind him to shatter the faith of new converts who weren’t grounded in the faith.

They bragged about their obedience to the Law, but they were actually “evildoers.”

They took pride in their commitment to Jewish circumcision, but it was nothing more than mutilation of the flesh.

Perhaps you’ve heard of these false teachers before. Paul taught that salvation was by God’s grace, but these folks added a few more requirements.

It infuriated Paul.

Much of Philippians 2—and all of Galatians—addresses their errors.

Their modern-day contemporaries are those who undermine the gospel by adding regulations and traditions that make salvation a matter of keeping law instead of receiving grace.

If you find yourself worrying about whether you can measure up, you might’ve been influenced by this thinking.

If you start thinking God will save you because you’re able to follow law, perhaps you’ve been misled.

Don’t misunderstand—Paul preached obedience to the Lord’s law of liberty and never advocated “cheap grace”—but he strongly warned against making anything other than grace the ground of our salvation.

He described the distorters of grace with the strongest possible terms.

In your devotional time today, thank God for saving you through Christ, and ask him to help you revel in your awareness of and appreciation for this incredible gift.

Rejoice?

I suppose a certain level of anxiety is part of living on this side of eternity. I haven’t yet met the person—even in the family of God—who lives a completely carefree life.

Do you worry at times? Get stressed out?

I doubt we’re the first ones to struggle with it. It seems like every page of Scripture says something about it.

Take this one, for example. To one of his favorite churches Paul wrote: “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1).

“Finally” literally means “to the rest” and probably means something like “It follows then, that . . .” (R.R. Melick).

In other words, Paul seems to be saying, “Okay, because of everything I’ve already written to you, rejoice in the Lord.”

If there’s a command that’s harder to obey all the time, I don’t know what it is.

Humanly speaking, there’s a lot not to rejoice about.

A woeful economy. Increasing secularism. Spiritual apathy.

More personally . . . the physical effects of aging, health concerns, family worries, job uncertainty.

How do you rejoice in that?

I don’t think you can, at least not on the face of it.

Which is why Paul puts the last little prepositional phrase in there: “In the Lord.”

Rejoice in the Lord (3:1).

Rejoice in the Lord always (4:4).

More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:11).

Truth is, you’ve got to look at many things that happen through the lens of God’s sovereign will.

If you’re a disciple of Jesus, God has saved you, and he’s promised you he’ll work through you to accomplish his will.

We don’t have all the answers, of course, and I have no idea why God allows some of the stuff that goes on around us.

But when I take my eyes off of him, I’ve noticed that my stress and anxiety levels increase.

For today’s devotional thought, let me encourage you: Whatever’s going on in your life right now—whether internal or external—commit it to the Lord.

Rejoice in him today.

A hero you haven’t heard much about

You’ve got big names in Bible history, and then you’ve got Epaphroditus.

We know a lot about Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul. They’re the movers and shakers on the human side of God’s story.

But Epaphroditus?

He gets six verses.

But as one of my old Bible teachers used to say, they’re chock-full of meaning.

Try not to hurry through them.

I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me (Philippians 2:25-30).

Have you ever noticed that one little expression in there?

Oh, by the way, Paul writes, “he nearly died for the work of Christ.”

I suppose, if I were Epaphroditus, I’d think that was a fairly big deal.

Apparently the church at Philippi sent Epaphroditus to bring a gift to Paul in Rome, but somewhere along the way he got sick and almost died.

God helped him get better, and he completed his trip to Rome.

Another interesting thing: Epaphroditus was upset, not because he had almost died, but because the Christians at Philippi were worried about him. He cared for them so much that he didn’t want them to waste their time worrying about him.

That’s about all we know of him, but it’s enough to marvel at the kind of man he must’ve been. He had no idea that his story would be preserved in Paul’s letter for generations to come.

As far as we know, he never preached a sermon, never wrote a book, and never led a revival.

But he was willing to be used by God where he was to do what he could do to promote the work of Christ.

And he nearly died doing it.

Paul called him his brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier—pretty high praise from the plainspoken apostle.

Here’s a brief word of encouragement today.

We’ll never be a Paul or Peter or Moses, and maybe we’ll never have an opportunity to die for Christ.

But let’s do what Epaphroditus did—serve wherever we are however we can at whatever risk. At the end it won’t really matter if we made a big splash.

The only thing that will matter is, were we faithful?

They love one another.

Maybe you’ve heard about what some of the unbelievers were saying about Christians during the time of Roman persecution.

“See how they love one another.”

They were confused by some of the things that Christians believed, but they couldn’t deny their compassion.

That’s one of the neatest things about being in God’s family: people who genuinely, deeply, selflessly care about one another.

Apparently this attitude was embodied in Timothy, Paul’s protégé in ministry.

Read carefully what Paul wrote about him:

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also (Philippians 2:19-24).

I love this statement: He “will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.”

Paul wasn’t one to flatter, so Timothy’s compassion must’ve been real.

He could be trusted completely. Paul didn’t have to worry about any kind of personal agenda or self-promotion.

He genuinely cared.

Really, that’s what the church is, isn’t it?

In a dog-eat-dog world where people are often viewed as little more than stepping stones on an upward career path, the church is refreshing.

In a culture where so many relationships are guided more by “What can I get out of it?” than by true love, real selflessness is impressive.

Like Timothy, Christians are “genuinely concerned” for one another’s welfare. They feel pain when someone else hurts, and they smile when a fellow Christian rejoices.

I think that’s what’ll make our evangelistic efforts work. People don’t know—and don’t care—what we believe about various doctrines, but they’ll notice the compassion.

“See how they love one another.”

Churches full of Timothys are still doing God’s work.

Are you a Timothy?