Clean Hands and Pure Hearts

Today’s reading is Psalm 24.

We’ve decided to lay down our tools for building our own personal hill. We’ve decide there really is a hill to climb. But we are still left with the question of who actually gets to climb it. The God who “dwells” on this hill owns everything because He created it all. Surely, not just anyone can make their way into His presence. A similar question was asked in Psalm 15. Almost every bit of that qualification list had to do with the worshipers relationship with others. This list, however, seems to give the other side. This one is mostly about our relationship with God. The four qualifications: 1) Clean hands. 2) Pure heart. 3) Worship God only. 4) Honest; though, considering the list, this is probably more about not profaning God’s name (see Leviticus 19:12). Isaiah seems to have these same principles in mind in the context of Isaiah 59:3. God doesn’t listen to the worship offered by those with defiled hands. Paul makes this same point in 1 Timothy 2:8 when he points out men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger and quarreling. While this statement demonstrates prayer with uplifted hands was a norm for Christians in the New Testament, his main emphasis is those uplifted hands were supposed to be clean. Perhaps the most pointed allusion to this passage is often overlooked by commentators and search engines (maybe because the Greek words aren’t the same as those in the LXX for Psalm 24:4). In James 4:8, James says sinners need to cleanse their hands and purify their hearts. But, contextually, this was part of drawing near to God so He will draw near to us. This is part of submitting ourselves to God and resisting the devil. It is part of humbling ourselves before God. And the pure heart actually means to be single-minded, which, of course, means our mind doesn’t go after other masters. We don’t become friends with the world or with false gods. But here is a fantastic principle we need to grasp. The person of Psalm 24:4 is not the sinlessly perfect person who has brought his/her own righteousness to lay out before God. After all, who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?” (Proverbs 20:9). Rather, this person is blessed with “righteousness from the God of his salvation” (Psalm 24:5). If we humble ourselves before God, He will exalt us (James 4:10). In other words, even the clean hands and pure heart are not made that way by our own strength, but are made so by the strength and grace of God as we resist the devil and draw near to the Lord. Who can ascend the Holy Hill? The one who resists the devil and draws near to the Lord. The one who seeks the face of the God of Jacob. Why the God of Jacob? Because Jacob was the one who sought the Lord’s blessing and simply would not let go no matter how much it hurt and how much it cost him until he got it (see Genesis 32:22-32). In other words, we were wrong in the beginning. Anyone can climb this Holy Hill. That is, anyone who really wants God more than he or she wants anything else. What do you want?

Tomorrow’s reading is Psalm 24.

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The Lord Tests

Today’s reading is Psalm 11.

David doesn’t believe the foundations are destroyed, and he refuses to destroy them by abandoning them. But not all of the foundations can be our favorite. It won’t surprise me if this one falls at the bottom of our favorites list. However, it is one of the foundations. The Lord tests the righteous. In other words, when the counselors tell him the jig is up, God must not be on his side anymore, he needs to toss his uppity morals and righteous principles out the window because they obviously aren’t doing him any good, David responds by saying, “Don’t you know the Lord tests His people?” There are obviously going to be bad times. God lets us into the crucible, sometimes He even puts us there. Why? Because He fell asleep on the job? No. Because that is precisely where we need to be. It is actually for our good. Like gold or silver in a crucible, God sends us through the fires so the slag can rise to the top. That is the only way it can be skimmed off. The question is when the slag rises to the top, will we let God skim it off, or will we cling to it, defending it, acting like it isn’t that bad, like we can’t be blamed for what we do while in the fires of testing? Deuteronomy 8:16 tells us God provided manna for Israel while they wandered in the wilderness in order to test them, to do them good in the end. Certainly, when the devil tempts us, his goal is to make us fall. However, when the Lord tests us, His goal is to expose us, refine us, and grow us. Walking through the fire is not a time to abandon the Lord, it is a time to rely on Him even more. The Lord tests even the righteous. It’s one of the foundations. Don’t abandon it.

Tomorrow’s reading is Psalm 11.

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The Most Joy

Today’s reading is Psalm 4.

Today’s question is simple, but challenging. What brings you joy? For some, it is large crops. That, of course, represents success, prosperity, feasting, partying. How many folks assume that if all that is in line, then God must be on their side. But David knew better. God brought David joy. Certainly, we are going to see psalms in which David is sad, even despondent. But when David was full of joy there was only one place it came from. It came when he was fully convinced God was with him. He didn’t have to have a bumper crop to know God was on his side. He didn’t have to have some kind of physical, financial prosperity to know God was on his side. He simply had to have faith. Back to our question. What brings you joy? Money? A promotion at work? Passing a test? A new car? New clothes? A great meal? What brings you joy? If all these things were taken away, could you have joy? If all these things were taken away, would you have joy knowing God is still with you? What brings you the most joy? May it always be God. Then you can have joy no matter what else happens.

Next week’s reading is Psalm 5.

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Count Blessings, Not Sheep

Today’s reading is Psalm 4.

Maybe Irving Berlin was on to something (or Bing Crosby or Rosemary Clooney). When you’re struggling to sleep, instead of counting sheep, count your blessings. This psalm contrasts the person who is angry or agitated while in bed and the one who is able to both lie down and go to sleep. What seems to be a key? Is it life circumstance? Is it warm milk before bed? Is it deep breathing? The psalm begins with a plea for God to hear the prayer, but the second statement is, “You have given me relief when I was in distress.” That is, David, in the midst of his present distress, is able to sleep because he remembers how God has acted on his behalf during previous times of distress. That is, he counted his blessings. He not only mentions those previous times of blessing, but also talks about the joy he has in his heart because of the Lord’s presence with him. When trouble and stress are keeping you awake, spend some time recounting how God has already been taking care of you. Then put yourself in God’s hands for the night and go to sleep. What if that doesn’t work? Keep counting until it does.

Tomorrow’s reading is Psalm 4.

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Finding Paul

Today’s reading is Acts 24.

Tertullus made a scathing case against Paul. “We found Paul a plague. We found him stirring up trouble all over the world. We found him causing riots. We found him ringleading a sect. We found him profaning the temple.” But then Paul gets to make his case. “They did not find me like that at all. They didn’t find me disputing with anyone or stirring up trouble. They found me purified in the temple, without any crowd or tumult.” This gives us the other side of what we spoke about yesterday. We need to be found the way Paul was found. Granted, the purification he is talking about is a ceremonial one according to the Law, but we should be found purified in Christ. While we may, as Paul often did, debate and reason with others, we should not be found merely disputing. The difference? Reasoning with others is trying to work out what is right, disputing is trying to prove I’m right. Trouble followed Paul around. As we pointed out yesterday, that is what happens when we live faithfully. But today, we see clearly it wasn’t because Paul was purposefully trying to cause trouble. It was because Paul was living and teaching the gospel and that was more than enough exposure of the Jews own sins to handle. Between yesterday and today, I hope we see the balance. We don’t stir up trouble on purpose, but if trouble isn’t following us around, we need to make some changes. Folks will make all kinds of accusations against us, claiming us arrogant, self-righteous, trouble-making, pot-stirring jerks; and if any of those accusations are true, we need to make some changes.

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Making Myself Look Good

Today’s reading is Acts 23.

“Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen.”

Wait! What? Is that how it happened? Nope. The tribune had simply noticed some trouble, mistakenly thought Paul was the cause of it, arrested him, and was going to then interrogate him unlawfully. Only then did he learn Paul was a Roman. What is going on here? Claudius is lying. Well, we might not like to think of it as lying. Rather, he is rearranging the facts. He is manipulating the story to make himself look good. Here is the amazing thing. It should not surprise us at all if Claudius fully believes this account of the events. Before we throw him completely under the bus, we need to know that this is how memory works for all of us. We all look back and remember our own involvement in every situation in the best possible light. We make ourselves look good not only in our reporting of events but in our memory of those events. In other words, it may not be that Claudius is lying, he may truly not remember the events as they actually happened. And this drives home a really important point for us. We need to do our dead level best in every moment to actually behave the way we want to remember that we behaved. We may lie about how we behaved. We may even begin to believe our lies. But God knows the truth.

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Vows and Oaths

Today’s reading is Acts 23.

I wonder if the would-be assassins of Paul died of dehydration a few days after Paul made it to Caesarea. They should have. That is how serious taking vows is. Ecclesiastes 5:2, 4-6 says, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few…When you vow a vow to God, do not delay in paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” That paragraph really speaks for itself. These guys spoke hastily. They made a rash vow. Of course, it wasn’t simply because they didn’t pull off their mission, but also because God was on Paul’s side. It is a lesson for us today though. Be careful what you vow.

Tomorrow’s reading is Acts 23.

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Whitewashed Walls

Today’s reading is Acts 23.

Paul borrows a picture from Jesus as he rebukes the man who ordered him struck. “You whitewashed wall!” Jesus’s picture was a little more stark. He claimed the scribes and Pharisees were whitewashed tombs. Tombs that had been painted white, shining in the sun, clean. However, underneath the painted wall was rot, corruption, filth. This is a picture of hypocrisy. Paul brings up this same kind of imagery. If you’ve ever purchased a house, you may know about “whitewashed walls.” That is, you may know about walls that look good because they have a nice veneer of paint over them. But as you start working with the wall, you discover behind the paint is a rotten wall. It won’t hold nails. Won’t hold your pictures. You can’t lean things against it. In fact, it may collapse under the weight of the house. Again, a picture of hypocrisy. The priests were acting like they had a right to judge someone based on the Law, but by having Paul struck before being lawfully condemned, they were not following the Law. That is hypocrisy. We must contend with this in our own lives. How easy it is to judge ourselves by our intentions, while judging all others by their actions. We know we meant to do what was right, we want to do what is right, so we overlook our slips and faults and even outright sins and wish others would as well. However, the moment someone else steps out of line, we want condemnation brought down on them immediately. Whitewashed walls. The solution, of course, is not to ignore the sins of others. Rather, the solution is to not ignore the sins of ourselves.

Tomorrow’s reading is Acts 23.

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In All Good Conscience? Really?

Today’s reading is Acts 23.

With a straight face, Paul told the Jewish council, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” Wait?! Isn’t this the guy who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen? Isn’t this the guy who chased down Christians and put them in prison? Isn’t this the guy who cast his vote against Christians and led many to their deaths? Yep. Good conscience, huh? Absolutely! Because when he did those things, he really thought he was pleasing God. He really believed that is exactly what God wanted from him. His conscience wasn’t a very good guide during those days, was it? This must be a lesson for us. A good, clean conscience is not our guide. “I’m okay with that,” doesn’t mean God is okay with that. Just because we are certain what we are doing is right with God, doesn’t mean it is. We can have a good conscience and still be lost, separated from God. What we need is the Word of God! Yes, we can train our consciences by God’s Word and our conscience can become a guide. However, let us never assume that because we have a good conscience about something it is obviously the right thing to do. Let us always compare our conscience to God’s Word.

Today’s reading is Acts 23.

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All Things to All Men

Today’s reading is Acts 21.

What is Paul doing? Offering sacrifices? Isn’t Jesus the only sacrifice needed? We have forgiveness of sins now, we don’t need to sacrifice, right? Yet, here he goes helping with the vow offerings of these Jewish men. And, before we say something foolish, please recall from Numbers 6:14 that sin offerings were part of the offerings given in these vows. We simply need to understand that these early years were a time of transition. As Jews were becoming Christians, they continued to honor God based on the Law as they learned to honor God based on Jesus Christ. God, of course, helped bring this transition time to a close by removing the temple and therefore all sacrifices in 70AD by the destruction of Jerusalem. What we ultimately see in this passage is Paul living out his claim to be all things to all men. Whatever it would take to draw people to Christ and avoid putting obstacles in their way, so long as it wouldn’t cause him to violate Christ’s law, Paul would do it. May we love people and long for their salvation so much as Paul did.

Tomorrow’s reading is Acts 21.

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