Finishing What We Begin

I am very proficient at not getting things done. I have a number of video games at which I’m at something like 90% completion. I have two nearly finished novels sitting on my hard drive. I have a couple video projects for school lying around that are about two-thirds done, and I have more unfinished blog posts than I can count sitting in my MarsEdit drafts. I am an expert at almost finishing what I begin. I hope I fare better with my Christian journey.

Hebrews 12:1-2 give us some instructions on beginning that journey:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Too often, I defeat myself at the beginning of some task because I refuse to clear my proverbial plate of other distractions. I want to get this assignment done, but, in the meantime, I’m trying to juggle other deadlines. I know that if I would just lay aside everything else, and focus on my work one task at a time, I’d be getting somewhere. Likewise, we can’t run a spiritual race while being pulled in other directions by the world. We have to begin by setting aside all else and focusing solely on the cross.

Paul describes the process of this journey in Philippians 3:12-14:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Sometimes I think I’ve done all I need to do on a project only to find out I’m far from finished. Then I just want to give up. I thought I was done, but I’m not. I thought I had planned well, but I hadn’t. Our Christian journey is a lifelong commitment, and we have to undertake it knowing we will never finish it during our lifetime. There is no point at which I’ve arrived at perfection. We have to be willing to continuously press toward the goal of spiritual completion and the promise of a rest to come.

Finally, Paul expresses the peace of knowing he is close to finishing his journey in II Timothy 4:7-8:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

I’m quite terrible at beginning what I started, but our Christian walk is worth seeing through to the end. It’s the greatest undertaking we will ever endure, and it offers greater rewards than anything we can pursue in this world. It’s a challenging journey, but it’s far from impossible. We just have to lay aside distraction, keep our eyes on the prize, and endure to the end. We are promised so much in the next life, and the efforts we put forward and the sacrifices we make in this life will seem insignificant in comparison to an eternity with the Father. Let’s help each other finish this race we’ve begun.

Endurance

Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1).

Sporting events featuring displays of endurance are rarely as glitzy as their faster counterparts. It is much harder to keep the audience’s attention for a 26 mile race than it is for a 100 meter dash. Preparation and training for the two types of events are also entirely different. One cannot use the same strategy to win a marathon as he or she would in order to win a 100 meter dash.

Our life of faith is comparable to the endurance walk or run – a long hike or a marathon (cf. 1 John 2:6, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Hebrews 12:1-2). Those who burst out of the gate with an unsustainable pace tend to burn out (cf. Matthew 13:20-21). We are supposed to understand Christianity as the long haul – there will be ups and downs, moments of happiness and distress, peaks and valleys in faith and strength. That is why we must hike the path or run the race with endurance!

The key to any long-term hike or run is setting the appropriate pace. If one goes too fast, one will lose energy, and will not be able to finish. If one goes too slow, it is easy to get bogged down, and victory will be out of reach. God calls upon Christians to set their pace– not to attempt to grow or progress so quickly so as to lead to burnout, but not so slowly so as to lead to atrophy and complacency (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

While we are on the path, nothing is as important as the need to just keep going. Dory, in Finding Nemo, kept telling herself to “just keep swimming,” and that sustained her.

In previous days I did a lot of hiking, including 20 mile hikes. Yet few hikes were as memorable as one particular 10 mile hike. I and a few others had hiked ahead of the main group but lost the trail after a few miles. We stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up. When we did continue hiking I began to experience terrible cramping and pain. The rest of the hike was miserable, and I was not sure that I was going to be able to complete the hike!

It was by no means the longest hike I ever attempted. Had we just pressed on I probably would have been fine. It was the stopping and then trying to continue that caused the duress!

So it is in Christianity. It is imperative that we never stop growing – never stop pressing on to the goal (cf. Philippians 3:13-14). As in anything that requires endurance, very short periods of rest may be in order. But if we rest for too long, we will find continuing to be that much harder, much harder than it would have been had we continued progressing without fail.

We must run the race, or follow the path, with endurance. As long as we are in the flesh there is further to go. Paul was still striving, despite being an Apostle and a Christian for thirty years (Philippians 3:13). We must never believe that we have reached the summit of the faith. Growth is often painful. Growth often costs us. Growth may lead us to have different troubles than we had at the beginning. But God makes it clear that if we are not growing we are dying (cf. Revelation 2-3). Let us press upward toward the goal with endurance!

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and for ever. Amen (2 Peter 3:18).

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

Following Afar Off

And they seized [Jesus], and led him away, and brought him into the high priest’s house. But Peter followed afar off (Luke 22:54).

The night’s confused events were taking place rapidly.

They had all spent the night eating the Passover with Jesus, and they all knew that the time was near. Jesus had indicated that He would not drink the fruit of the vine again until the Kingdom had come (Luke 22:18). He had served His disciples and instructed them in many things regarding His imminent departure (John 13-17).

And then, in the garden, Judas had come with the band of soldiers. Peter felt that this was the time to act, and he cut off Malchus’ ear (cf. Luke 22:47-51, John 18:10-11). Jesus censured him for the move, and healed Malchus. All of the disciples then turned and fled while Jesus was led away (Matthew 26:56).

Soon after, Peter remembered exactly what he had told Jesus and what Jesus had said. Peter said that he would go with Jesus both to prison and to death (Luke 22:33). He could not abandon his Master now, and so he followed from afar.

The pieces were then in place. Peter sat with others and warmed himself by the fire (Luke 22:55). It was in this setting that his courage failed him. He had three opportunities to confess Jesus, and he denied Him three times (Luke 22:56-60). Then Jesus turned and looked at him (Luke 22:61). We can only imagine how Peter felt at that moment!

Thus Peter betrayed Jesus. It was really classic Peter, exhibiting the same type of initial brashness and then wavering as seen when he walked on the water and then began to sink (cf. Matthew 14:28-31). Peter as a man of little faith was exposed again.

That exposure was unnecessary as we can see. The disciples had fled, and Peter could have continued to flee. He could have waited out this tempestuous time away from the danger and would not have had the opportunity to deny Jesus. Yet Peter, as impetuous as always, followed Jesus into the danger zone, and, as usual, failed.

But would Jesus have really wanted Peter to flee and not experience the testing of faith? That is a much more difficult question. As much as Peter’s denials must have pierced Jesus’ soul, Peter was at least willing to suffer the danger of being near Him. The abandonment was not entirely complete, as it certainly was for some of the other disciples.

After Pentecost the day would come when Peter would again step forth into the danger zone, but this time he would not fail – he boldly stood before the Sanhedrin and confessed Jesus as the Risen Christ (Acts 4:1-23). Peter would be the one to stand and preach the first Gospel message to Jews (Acts 2:14-36) and Gentiles (Acts 10:1-48), and, according to tradition, follow his Lord and Master to death by crucifixion (John 21:18). All of this was because Peter was not one to flee but to be willing to, if nothing else, at least follow afar off.

There are many times in our lives when confused events take place rapidly. Times of distress and difficulty come upon us; many times we do not expect them. When our faith is tested, and we feel as if we are going to be bereft of our Lord, how will we respond? Will we be as many of the disciples and run away, attempting to avoid all the possible dangers? There is a time and place for that, assuredly, but not always. Or will we be like Peter, willing to follow even if it is afar off, willing to risk our livelihoods and our lives to follow Jesus?

Perhaps we will find ourselves in that kind of situation and we fail like Peter failed. We should then “turn again” and “strengthen our brethren” (cf. Luke 22:32), repenting and seeking to do better. Or maybe we will succeed and stand firm, proclaiming through our word and deed in distress and difficulty that we are servants of Jesus Christ. Then God receives the glory (cf. 1 Peter 4:11).

We have no reason to believe that Peter the Apostle could have been the force for good for the Kingdom that he turned out to be had he not been Simon the disciple who was willing to follow and yet failed. Likewise, we will never be the disciples of Jesus Christ we can be, and we will not be able to be the force for good for the Kingdom that we should be, if we never take the risk of following Jesus in difficult, distressing times. We might very well stumble and perhaps even fail; the flesh is weak even when the spirit is willing. We can learn from our failures and move on. And perhaps we will succeed and God will be glorified and it will be evident how wise it was to follow and not flee. But that day will never come if we always flee, never taking the risk, never being exposed to the danger.

What kind of disciples of Christ are we? Let us seek to follow Jesus, even when the times are difficult, even when the danger is evident, take the risk, and stand firm for Him and His Kingdom!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

Departed for a Season

And when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from [Jesus] for a season (Luke 4:13).

Jesus’ temptations by the devil in the wilderness are a famous part of His work and life. Even though Jesus was physically weak and hungry, He did not give into the temptation to turn stones into bread, to test God by falling, or to bow down to the Evil One. Instead, He refuted the Devil by quoting Scripture (cf. Luke 4:1-12).

The victory, however, was not complete. Luke provides a telling detail not found in the other Evangelists: while the Devil did depart, it was only for a season.

Even though Luke indicates that the departure was only for a season, neither he nor the other Evangelists ever explicitly relate another time in which Satan tempted or tested Jesus. Nevertheless there are many instances in the life of Jesus where we can find a significant temptation in which Satan was most certainly involved.

There is Peter’s rebuke of Jesus on hearing that He will die – “this shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Jesus speaks of Peter as “Satan” in response, indicating that he is focused on the things of man and not on the things of God (Matthew 16:23). It is not necessary to believe that Satan was personally indwelling Peter – Peter is motivated by his passion for Jesus and his mistaken impressions about the nature of His Messiahship and Kingdom and needed no devilish inspiration to come up with such a remark. Nevertheless, Peter was acting as the Opposer, providing a significant temptation for Jesus. Satan could have very easily said the same thing – “far be it that the Son of God should die for sinful men!”

Temptations also came when the time drew near. Satan may have been tempting Jesus while in the garden; without a doubt he was about to tempt the disciples (cf. Luke 22:39-46). While on the cross, the words of the people represented another similar temptation – “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God!” They may have said it in a mocking and derisive manner, but it is a temptation nevertheless.

Again, we do not know every point at which Satan tempted or tested Jesus, but we have great confidence that he did. Jesus was ultimately victorious – He died and was raised again in power – and the power of sin and death was broken (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

As Jesus Himself said, it is enough for the disciple to be like his master, and if the Master of the house was tempted by the Devil, then most certainly the disciples will also (cf. Matthew 10:24-25). We know that we suffer the temptations of the Evil One constantly (1 Peter 5:8)!

Let us learn from the example of our Lord. Lord willing, there will be times in our lives when we successfully overcome temptations to do evil or to avoid the good. When we do the will of God and not the will of Satan, God is glorified, and Satan is compelled to flee (James 4:7). Yet, as long as we live, the victory is not complete. The Devil will return at another season to tempt us again!

We must remember that the Evil One does not play fair. In overcoming one temptation we may fall prey to another temptation. On the other hand, even when we are weak, having fallen for a temptation or in distress and turmoil, the Evil One does not lighten up– temptations are sure to come (cf. 1 Peter 5:8). In good times or bad, in prosperity or poverty, in victory or defeat, the Devil has plenty of temptations available to cause us to stumble and, if we allow it, to lead us away from God.

This is why we must be perpetually on guard against temptation. We must always be clothed with the armor of God in order to resist the Evil One (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18), and if we ever slacken, we will find ourselves in sore distress.

When we are in that distress, it is good for us to reach out to fellow Christians and to be lifted up (Galatians 6:1-3, Hebrews 10:24-25). We must look to help lift up fellow Christians in distress, not with attitudes of superiority or arrogance, but humility and love, knowing full well that we may be the next ones that need lifting up.

Our conflict with evil is not one that any of us chose or would ever want to choose; nevertheless, it is ours to fight. We must stand firm against the Evil One at all times, knowing, as Jesus did, that temptations are sure to come at any moment. Let us stand firm for God no matter what and resist the Devil!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

Giant Killing

The story of David and Goliath is a familiar one. In I Samuel 17, Goliath poses a threat to the nation of Israel. He defies the armies of Israel. He defies the power of their God. For forty days, none rise up to face Goliath until David intercedes. Many tell him he is unable to overcome, even the king, but David places his trust in God. In his confrontation, David demonstrates faith and trust in God despite a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. His companions focus on the difficulty, but David focuses on God. His attitude contrasts from those who would shirk away or discourage him. Instead, David seeks to glorify God in facing Goliath, and he takes action. He meets his challenge with God on his side.

Facing Our Own Giants

We face giants in our own lives. We all come up against obstacles we perceive as insurmountable. These distract us from our service to God; they take our focus from Him; they derail our faithful service. We may be caught up in secular interests that consume our time and our energy. We may be consumed with desire and lust. We may be dealing with discouragement, or we may just lack purpose or focus, not knowing how to move forward.

I John 2:15 warns us against getting caught up in the things of this world, for all of it is temporary. Our time on this world is limited. Jesus, in Matthew 6, reinforces the temporary nature of this world, but we may be like the young ruler who is unable to simply let go of the power his possessions have over him. Luke 12:15 records Jesus warning us against covetousness, for our worth is not defined by our things. From here, Jesus tells a parable of a man who begins to trust in and focus on his material successes. He forgets all else in the face of his possessions, but that wealth does nothing to save him when his time expires.

Regarding our fleshly desires, I Peter 2:11 tells us these battle over our souls. Paul, in II Timothy 2:22, encourages the young Christian Timothy to replace those passions with faith, love, and peace. In Romans 13:11, Paul calls on us to wake up from the desires and immorality that might have guided us in the past. Rather, we should seek refuge in Christ, turning to Him to help us defeat that giant in our lives.

We may battle discouragement, but Isaiah 35:3 reminds us that God can strengthen and encourage us when we are weak or afraid. Acts 11:23 records a man named Barnabas who is well-known for his role in encouraging others. I Thessalonians 5:14 then reminds us that we should be fulfilling that same role. We should be looking for those who need encouragement, and, when we need encouragement, we should be able to know we can turn to one another for edification.

Finding Our Direction

One more obstacle is one of focus – or the lack thereof. Returning to I Samuel 17, David finds purpose in defeating Goliath. He discovers the rewards the king will bestow upon the one who defeats Goliath, and he also seeks to glorify God in removing the obstacle of Goliath. David sees a goal; he prepares for the upcoming conflict; and he runs toward his challenge. He identifies the giant in his life, but he does not hide from it.

We sometimes talk about what we should do, about what others should do. If we have the faith found in I John 5:4, if we have the trust we read of in I John 4:4, if we have the humble attitude we find in Philippians 2:5-8, and if we are able to put our faith into action as in James 2:15-18 – then we can rise up like David and face down the giants in our own lives. Philippians 4:13 assure us we can do all things through Him who strengthens us. David brings down Goliath with God’s help. We can face those giants in our own lives with Him.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Choosing Grace Over Harm

When the Philistines capture the Ark of the Covenant in I Samuel 5-6, disaster and misfortune follows it as they move it from one location until another, until the nation concludes they must return the Ark to its proper owners. It takes seven months for them to reach this conclusion, and death, rats, tumors, and boils follow the Ark this whole time. Why does it take them so long to decide they are finished enduring these hardships? Is it pride; stubbornness; rebellion? There is no knowing, but chances are that pride had something to do with it.

When we look into our own lives, we can recognize things that are harmful to us spiritually. We can identify things we hold onto regardless of the negative influence they have on our lives. It can take a long time to get these harmful influences out of our lives. Sometimes, we are no better than these Philistines – holding fast to something that is harming us more and more despite the damage.

Self Destructive Stubbornness

I Samuel 18 contains some of the first hints of Saul’s decline as king. He had made mistakes before this chapter, but this chapter shows a shift in Saul’s character, consumed with jealousy and bitterness. This animosity grows to the point of tearing apart his family and leaving his nation vulnerable. This hatred becomes a monster in his life, occupying his time and energy, and he allows it to grow in its destructive power rather than eliminating it from his life.

We know the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 where Abel offers God a more excellent sacrifice. In verse 5, Cain festers in anger; he allows bitterness to rot within him. God questions Cain in verse 6 regarding his bitterness and warns against the dangers of allowing these feelings to grow. He tells Cain it is within his power to rule over his rage and rid it from his life. Instead, Cain stoops to murder to fulfill his anger.

Turning Instead to Grace

The Philistines, Saul, and Cain contain three parallel events that illustrate individuals that hold onto something to their own destruction. In contrast, in II Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul speaks of an elusive thorn of the flesh. We do not know what this thorn is, whether it is a physical ailment, pangs of conscience, reminders of severed friendships; but we do know it wears on the apostle and gives him pain. He repeatedly pleads for its removal, but God responds that His power is completed in Paul’s struggle.

In times of anxiety or strain, we often draw closer to God and seek His power in our lives. Unlike Saul‘s and Cain’s circumstances, this is beyond Paul’s control, but, unlike those examples, Paul endures. Furthermore, God expresses the completion of His grace in the face of this trial. Time and again, we can see God’s grace alive in the life of Paul as well as in our own.

As a final example, we have Peter denying the Lord three times in Matthew 26:69-75. He weeps bitterly when he realizes what he has done, but Jesus has grace on Peter in John 21:15-19, and Peter does not allow this regret to eat him up. I Corinthians 15:3 records that Jesus appears to Peter even before this event. He is one of the first to Lord seeks out. What did that conversation look like? Why would Jesus seek Peter so quickly? Regardless, we know the man Peter grows into despite the pain his denial might have caused, and this is possible for Him because of Jesus’ grace.

There might be things in our lives we consider thorns. There may be things that hurt us spiritually and drag us away from God. Like Peter and Paul, though, we can press on to our goal, forgetting the things behind and reaching forward to the hope laid before us. We can be perfected in God’s love and grace if we are willing to put our pasts behind us and seek a future in Him.

lesson by Tim Smelser