When John, who ran the biggest brothel in London, was sent to prison, he falsely believed, But I’m a good guy. While there, he decided to attend the Bible study at the prison for the cake and coffee, but he was struck by how happy the guys seemed. He started to cry during the first song and later received a Bible. Reading from the prophet Ezekiel changed him, hitting him “like a thunderbolt.” He read, “But if a wicked person turns away from [their] wickedness . . . and does what is just and right, . . . that person will surely live; they will not die” (18:27–28). God’s Word came alive to him and he realized, “I wasn’t a good guy . . . I was wicked and I needed to change.” While praying with the pastor, he said, “I found Jesus Christ and he changed me.”
These words from Ezekiel were spoken to God’s people when they were in exile. Although they had turned from God, He longed that they would rid themselves of their offenses and “get a new heart and a new spirit” (v. 31). Those words helped John to “Repent and live!” (v. 32) as he followed Jesus, the One who called sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32).
May we respond to the Spirit’s conviction of sin, that we too might enjoy forgiveness and freedom.
One summer, I faced what seemed an impossible task—a big writing project with a looming deadline. Having spent day after day on my own, endeavoring to get the words onto the page, I felt exhausted and discouraged, and I wanted to give up. A wise friend asked me, “When’s the last time you felt refreshed? Maybe you need to allow yourself to rest and to enjoy a good meal.”
I knew immediately that she was right. Her advice made me think of Elijah and the terrifying message he received from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:2)—although of course my writing project wasn’t anywhere near the cosmic scale of the prophet’s experience. After Elijah triumphed over the false prophets on Mount Carmel, Jezebel sent word that she would capture and kill him, and he despaired, longing to die. But then he enjoyed a good sleep and was twice visited by an angel who gave him food to eat. After God renewed his physical strength, he was able to continue with his journey.
When the “journey is too much” for us (v. 7), we might need to rest and enjoy a healthy and satisfying meal. For when we are exhausted or hungry, we can easily succumb to disappointment or fear. But when God meets our physical needs through His resources, as much as possible in this fallen world, we can take the next step in serving Him.
In the Middle Eastern country where they live, Adrian and his family suffer persecution for their Christian faith. Yet, through it all, they demonstrate Christ’s love. Standing in his church courtyard, which was pummeled by bullets when terrorists used it as training ground, he said, “Today is Good Friday. We remember that Jesus suffered for us on the cross.” And suffering, he continued, is something that Christians there understand. But his family chooses to remain in their homeland: “We’re still here, still standing.”
These Christians follow the example of the women who stood watching as Jesus died on the cross (Mark 15:40). They—including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Salome—were brave to stay there, for friends and family members of an enemy of the state could be ridiculed and punished. Yet the women showed their love for Jesus by their very presence with Him. Even as they “followed him and cared for his needs” in Galilee (v. 41), they stood with Him at His hour of deepest need.
On this day when we remember the greatest gift of our Savior, His death on a cross, take a moment to consider how we can stand for Jesus as we face trials of many kinds (see James 2:2–4). Think too about our fellow Christians around the world who suffer for their faith. As Adrian asked, “Can you please stand with us in your prayers?”
“What happened to you?” asked Zeal, a Nigerian businessman, as he bent over a hospital bed in Lagos. “Someone shot me,” replied the young man, his thigh bandaged. Although the injured man was well enough to return home, he wouldn’t be released until he settled his bill—a policy that many government hospitals in the region follow. After consulting with a social worker, Zeal anonymously covered the bill through the charitable fund he’d earlier set up as a way to express his Christian faith. In return, he hopes that those receiving the gift of release will one day give to others too.
The theme of giving from God’s bounty pulses throughout the Bible. For instance, when Moses instructed the Israelites on how to live in the Promised Land, he told them to give back to God first (see Deuteronomy 26:1–3) and to care for those in need—the foreigners, orphans, and widows (v. 12). Because they dwelled in a “land flowing with milk and honey” (v. 15), they were to express God’s love to the needy.
We too can spread God’s love through sharing our material goods, whether big or small. We might not have the opportunity to personally give exactly like Zeal did, but we can ask God to show us how to give or who needs our help. And
In 1979, Dr. Gabriel Barkay and his team discovered two silver scrolls in a burial ground outside the Old City of Jerusalem. In 2004, after twenty-five years of careful research, scholars confirmed that the scrolls were the oldest biblical text in existence, having been buried in 600
In giving this benediction, God instructed Moses to tell Aaron and his sons how to bless the people on His behalf. The leaders were to memorize the words in the form God gave so they would speak to them just as God desired. Note how these words emphasize that God is the one who blesses, for three times they say, “the
Ponder for a moment that the oldest existing fragments of the Bible tell of God’s desire to bless. What a reminder of God’s boundless love and how He wants to be in a relationship with us. If you feel far from God today, hold tightly to the promise in these ancient words. May the Lord bless you; may the Lord keep you.
“In moments where tragedy happens or even hurt, there are opportunities to demonstrate grace or to exact vengeance,” the recently bereaved man remarked. “I chose to demonstrate grace.” Pastor Erik Fitzgerald’s wife had been killed in a car accident caused by an exhausted firefighter who fell asleep while driving home, and legal prosecutors wanted to know whether he would seek the maximum sentence. The pastor chose to practice the forgiveness he often preached about. To the surprise of both him and the firefighter, the men eventually became friends.
Pastor Erik was living out of the grace he’d received from God, who had forgiven him all of his sins. Through his actions he echoed the words of the prophet Micah, who praised God for pardoning sin and forgiving wrongdoing (Micah 7:18). The prophet uses wonderfully visual language to show just how far God goes in forgiving His people, saying that He will “tread our sins underfoot” and hurl our wrongdoings into the deep sea (v. 19). The firefighter received a gift of freedom that day, which brought him closer to God.
Whatever difficulty we face, we know that God reaches out to us with loving, open arms, welcoming us into His safe embrace. He “delights to show mercy” (v. 18). As we receive His love and grace, He gives us the strength to forgive those who hurt us—even as Pastor Erik did.
On Christmas Eve, 1944, a man known as “Old Brinker” lay dying in a prison hospital, waiting for the makeshift Christmas service led by fellow prisoners. “When does the music start?” he asked William McDougall, who was imprisoned with him in Muntok Prison in Sumatra. “Soon,” replied McDougall. “Good,” replied the dying man. “Then I’ll be able to compare them with the angels.”
Although decades earlier Brinker had moved away from his faith in God, in his dying days he confessed his sins and found peace with Him. Instead of greeting others with a sour look, he would smile, which “was quite a transformation,” said McDougall.
Brinker died peacefully after the choir of eleven emaciated prisoners sang his request, “Silent Night.” Knowing that Brinker once again followed Jesus and would be united with God in heaven, McDougall observed, “Perhaps Death had been a welcome Christmas visitor to old Brinker.”
How Brinker anticipated his death reminds me of Simeon, a holy man to whom the Holy Spirit revealed that “he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (Luke 2:26). When Simeon saw Jesus in the temple, he exclaimed, “You may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation” (vv. 29–30).
As with Brinker, the greatest Christmas gift we can receive or share is that of saving faith in Jesus.
According to an old story, a man born in 270 AD named Nicholas heard about a father who was so poor that he couldn’t feed his three daughters, much less provide for their future marriages. Wanting to assist the father, but hoping to keep his help a secret, Nicholas threw a bag of gold through an open window, which landed in a sock or shoe drying on the hearth. That man was known as St. Nicholas, who later became the inspiration for Santa Claus.
When I heard that story of a gift coming down from above, I thought of God the Father, who out of love and compassion sent to Earth the greatest gift, His Son, not through a chimney but through a miraculous birth. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy that a virgin would conceive and give birth to a son whom they would call Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
As lovely as Nicholas’s gifts were, how much more amazing is the gift of Jesus. He left heaven to become a man, died and rose again, and is God living with us. He brings us comfort when we’re hurting and sad; He encourages us when we feel downhearted; He reveals the truth to us when we might be deceived.
How can you give the gift of Jesus today?
As the story goes, in 1763, a young minister, traveling on a cliffside road in Somerset, England, ducked into a cave to escape the flashes of lightning and pounding rain. As he looked out at Cheddar Gorge, he pondered the gift of finding shelter and peace in God. Waiting there, he began to write a hymn, “Rock of Ages,” with its memorable opening lines: “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”
We don’t know if Augustus Toplady thought about Moses’s experience in the cleft of a rock while writing the hymn (Exodus 33:22), but perhaps he did. The Exodus account tells of Moses seeking God’s reassurance and God’s response. When Moses asked God to reveal His glory to him, God answered graciously, knowing that “no one may see me and live” (v. 20). He tucked Moses into the rocks when He passed by, letting Moses only see His back. And Moses knew that God was with him.
We can trust that just as God said to Moses, “My Presence will go with you” (v. 14), so too we can find refuge in Him. We may experience many storms in our lives, as did Moses and the English minister in the story, but when we cry out to Him, He will give us the peace of His presence.