February 1: God’s Ideas: More than Good
It’s exciting to see ideas take shape and then become reality. Even more exciting, though, is when God’s ideas take form. The Bible shows us these events repeatedly. As the reader, we’re given glimpses into what God is really doing—events the characters are unaware of. Or we have a hint all along that God is up to something unexpected, and that He will make good out of the evil that’s happening. The story of Moses is like this. God’s people are terribly oppressed, but they are many (Exod 1). And we all know there is power in numbers. When baby Moses comes along, we’re ready for something amazing to happen. It will be from this unassuming moment that God will do the least expected (Exod 2:1–10): He will help those on the underside of power. Our suspicion is confirmed when Moses is willing to kill for justice (Exod 2:11–12). Moses flees, and then God hears Israel’s complaints about the pain they’re enduring (Exod 2:23–25). He answers their cry by calling Moses (Exod 3:1–22). Moses is hesitant because he can’t speak well, but God will (as we thought) use this unexpected turn of events (Exod 4:10–17). Like Moses’ story, we see behind the veil at the beginning of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word … And the Word became flesh and took up residence among us, and we saw his glory … For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:1, 14, 17). God gave Moses His law, and He gave Moses the opportunity to guide His people from oppression to the wilderness and almost to freedom. But He gave Jesus grace and truth. And that’s the message of the testaments: from cry to freedom cry, from calling upon God to salvation, and from merely men guided by God, to God in a man guiding men. Our love for God should be every bit as great—and far greater—than the love shown by the chorus of people in Song of Solomon. We must say about our God, like they say about people, “Let us be joyful and let us rejoice in you; let us extol your love more than wine. Rightly do they love you!” (Song 1:4). We are called to see God’s work in our everyday life. We must recognize His story. He’s involved. Are we? Are you worshiping God with your entire being—seeing His workings in your everyday life? JOHN D. BARRY
February 2: The Problem with Power
Grasping for power is one of the easiest sins to fall into. At first it looks like ambition, then it looks like success, and then it quickly becomes about your success and your power. This can be costly—not just to you, but to all the people you hurt in the process. If anything is done for the purpose of power, it’s not worth achieving. And don’t let the snazzy word “influence” fool you; it’s just a synonym for the same empty desire. John the Baptist is an example of ambition; he is fueled by passion but constantly checked by God’s calling. He is firm in his words, confident in what he must do, but humble in his understanding of his relationship to God. He is not in it for himself, but for Jesus. When asked, “Who are you?” (a leading question, since many believed him to be the Messiah the people expected), he replied, “I am not the Christ!” (John 1:19–20). When further questioned, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” (the supreme prophet besides the Messiah), he says, “No!” (John 1:21). When asked again about his identity, he finally responds, “I am the ‘voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” ’ just as Isaiah the prophet said” (John 1:23). John affirmed his identity as prophet, but he assumed nothing. He didn’t even assume what ended up being the truth: that he was a type of Elijah, as Jesus would later say (Matt 17:12–13). When given the opportunity to reach for power, to be known as the Messiah, John said no. He would not claim authority that had not been given to him. And this is where affirmation can be a scary thing. Just because other people think you’re something special doesn’t mean you should go along with what they say about you. Doing so is dangerous. John the Baptist’s humility sets the stage for Jesus, and he ends up getting one of the greatest gifts of all: the chance to baptize Jesus. The road between affirming God’s calling and grasping for power is narrow and rocky. But when you’re on the right path, you will feel it in your bones, and the Spirit of God will affirm it. How are you grasping for power? How is ambition throwing off the alignment of your calling? JOHN D. BARRY
February 3: Wisdom Can Quickly Become Folly
What we need to hear and what we want to hear are rarely the same thing. Leaders who encourage honesty, allow for errors, and establish an environment of trust usually hear what they need to hear. A dictator, on the other hand, will never learn what they really need to know. People shield them or stay away from them; an environment of fear is only destructive. It’s with this point in mind that the story of Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh becomes even more intriguing. Pharaoh surrounded himself with people who would tell him what he wanted to hear (Exod 7:22), not what he needed to hear: “You’re oppressing the Hebrew people and they will rise up against you. And furthermore, we’re afraid of their God and we can’t really do what He can do. We’re small-time dark magic; their God is the big time.” Instead of speaking this truth, Pharaoh’s advisors went on pretending and conjuring up cheap tricks. Plague after plague hit Egypt, but Pharaoh’s heart remained hard. And this is where we don’t really know what happened: when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, was it already too difficult for Pharaoh to give in on his own accord? We don’t know the answer, but we do know that God ended up making an example of his foolishness. Even when water turns to blood, frogs appear everywhere—followed shortly by gnats and flies (Exod 7:14–8:32)—Pharaoh didn’t listen. Instead of turning to Yahweh, he turned to the same sources: his gods, his belief that he is a god (common for Egyptians), and his ill-advised counselors. And that’s the lesson: if you surround yourself with “yes” people, they will say yes, and you will be ignorant. You will lose, and you will end up on the wrong side of God. Who do you turn to for advice? Are your friends, mentors, and church leaders more apt to tell you the truth or say something that makes you happy? If it’s the latter, who can you turn to who will speak honestly to you about faith? JOHN D. BARRY
February 4: What Type of Savior?
It’s tempting to operate life on our own terms and only call on God when we hit a crisis. If we’re not busy studying how God has worked in the past and relying on the work of the Spirit in our lives, we can easily fall into the pattern of calling on Him to meet our desires rather than realizing that He is the first to deliver what we need. In John 2, we get a sense of what this was like for Mary and the disciples at the wedding in Cana. While Mary wants Jesus to save the day—and save the bridegroom from certain ruin and humiliation—Jesus shows her that He is no magician. His soft rebuke reminds her that His plan of salvation exceeds what she can perceive: “What does your concern have to do with me, woman? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). (This phrase seems derogatory to our modern ears, but it actually would have been normal language between a son and mother in the first century AD.) However, after doing so, He willingly and liberally grants her request. Those who were closest to Jesus didn’t yet understand the role He came to fulfill. This miracle, the first in a series in the Gospel of John, helped Jesus’ disciples believe in Him (John 2:11). But even throughout His ministry and the witnessing of other miracles, they would struggle to fully understand why He came. He constantly needed to remind and correct them. God knows our need, and He made a plan to meet that need. His glory was displayed at Cana, but His purpose for coming—for redeeming both us and them—would be revealed at another event that would confound human understanding: the shame and glory of the cross. He fulfilled that need. And today, we can go to Him for all of our needs. If it is in His will, He will grant it. How do you rely on Jesus to fulfill your deepest need? REBECCA VAN NOORD
February 5: Why Does God Punish People?
In regard to why a good God would punish people, I recently heard one homeless man wisely tell another, “You wouldn’t want to live in a world where God didn’t punish injustices and just freely forgave sin—without any request for someone to choose the salvation He offers back. Imagine a place where injustice was never punished and people never recognized their sin and need for salvation. That would be terrible and painful.” We all want justice to reign. For a good God to be truly good, injustice must be punished. This is why it makes complete sense that Jesus had to die. There must be a payment for the evil we inflict on the world and one another. Jesus’ death epitomizes God’s mercy and justice—and it all happened in one act. This also makes sense out of the Passover event (Exod 12:1–31). I usually hear this preached about as a saving act, which indeed it was, but it was also brutal: God kills firstborn sons in an act of justice against the people of Egypt for the suffering they inflicted on an innocent people. (It’s important to note that the plagues that came before Passover gave Pharaoh more than ample warning.) Following this, evil finally loosens its grip, and God’s people are freed (Exod 12:33–40). None of us truly wants to have justice fall upon us because we know that true justice would cost us our very lives. We have all done wrong against a good God, bringing evil into the world. Thus, we all deserve to be wiped out. Instead, God offers grace. But He does so only after the wages of our sin are paid with Jesus’ life. Jesus makes this incredibly clear: “For God did not send his Son into the world in order that he should judge the world, but in order that the world should be saved through him” (John 3:17). Jesus goes on to explain that salvation requires choosing God back: “The one who believes in him is not judged, but the one who does not believe has already been judged, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God” (John 3:18). Before we believe, we’re judged—we are regarded to be dead in our sin. After we believe, we escape that judgment. God’s faithfulness, shown in Jesus’ death and resurrection, allows for that. I want to live in a world of people freed in Christ through His mercy and grace; I’m sure you want to as well. Thus, we should no longer ask, “Why judgment?” but instead, “Why not?” In what ways are you misjudging God’s motives? How can you change that perspective? JOHN D. BARRY
February 6: Student or Scholar?
Sometimes we approach God with curiosity, but not with a spirit of humility. We enjoy participating in religious discussions, but forging the link between interpretation and application is difficult for us. We have certain expectations of who He should be for us, but we don’t think about how we should align our lives with Him. Nicodemus—a Pharisee, a leader of his fellow Jews, and a teacher of Israel—wanted answers from Jesus. He told Him, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one is able to perform these signs that you are performing unless God were with him” (John 3:2). Was Jesus a Messiah, like Moses or David, who would restore Israel? The scholar quickly became a student. Through His answers, Jesus showed Nicodemus that he wasn’t in a place to hold Jesus accountable. Rather, it was the other way around: Nicodemus needed to be challenged and transformed. He was a teacher of Israel, but he didn’t really understand Jesus’ teaching; his questions showed that he was hesitant to even believe Him, despite all the signs. We might be like Nicodemus, approaching God with off-par expectations. Jesus showed Nicodemus that he had to receive the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. In order to see the kingdom of God and enter into it, we need to do the same. Are you teachable? Do you approach God ready to learn and apply His words? REBECCA VAN NOORD
February 7: Bread from Heaven and Water from a Rock
For many years, I said that I believed God would provide for me, but I’m not sure I actually did. Somewhere inside I was still convinced that I was on my own. It wasn’t until recently that I felt convicted about this, and God began working in me to make the necessary changes. As I was dealing with this, I started contemplating what trust issues might’ve looked like for the ancients. Of nearly all biblical characters, Noah must have seemed the craziest to his friends. But I think Moses faced some of the greatest interpersonal struggles involving trust. Over and over again, the people Moses is leading blame him for all their problems. And they rarely give him credit for his good attributes. God is faithful, though. It’s Moses who sees bread come from heaven (Exod 16) and water from a rock (Exod 17:1–7). And this really puts it in perspective: if God is capable of this kind of deliverance, what am I so afraid of? It’s not my own strength that will empower me, and even if it were, what good is it? If I put my trust in my own abilities, how will I grow in my trust in God? Like Moses, I must be willing to be audacious. If God calls me to look to the heavens for providence, I must do it. If He calls me to strike the rock, I must strike it. As the Gospel of John says, “The one who comes from above is over all. The one who is from the earth is from the earth and speaks from the earth” (John 3:31). Let’s be the people who seek the one from above: Jesus. How do you trust in yourself instead of in God for your needs? How does this impede your relationship with Him and the work He wants to do through you? JOHN D. BARRY
February 8: It’s Standing between You and God
There is nothing more frustrating than being ordered around. Few people take to a drill sergeant. Although we like to cite the Ten Commandments (Exod 20) because they’re the norm, the rebellious part of our spirits has trouble with them. If we’re honest with ourselves and take them the way Jesus did (Matt 5–7), we’re confronted with the fact that we’ve all violated them at some point or another. (I don’t know anyone who has always honored their father and mother.) If everyone lived by the Ten Commandments, the world would be a peaceful place. But again, we’re rebellious. The Ten Commandments reveal something about us: we’re weaker than we would like to believe. They also reveal something about our place before God: it’s not good—not without Jesus’ saving act that redeems us from our sins. In John 4:1–26, we see Jesus confront a woman at a well who, like us, is a commandment-breaker. And because, as a Samaritan woman, she worships in a different place and in a different way than Jewish people, she is further frowned upon by the people around her. This makes Jesus’ remark to her all the more startling: “If you had known the gift of God and who it is who says to you, ‘Give me water to drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Jesus tells her that He is what she is searching for—not rules or justification for her lifestyle as a commandment-breaker. We commandment-breakers can live as legalists or attempt to justify our own decisions. Or we can do something entirely different and admit our need for the living water: Jesus. We can recognize that our religion or inability to keep commandments is not what matters most—what really matters is what God can do for us. We must acknowledge our weakness and need for Him. We must say, like the woman, “He [being Jesus] told me everything that I have done” (John 4:39). How is religion, self-deprivation, or legalism standing between you and God? JOHN D. BARRY
February 9: Speaking Up
Because we convince ourselves that people won’t accept our testimony about God’s work in our lives, we’re not usually ready to share it. We might prejudge their reactions or simply lack confidence. Soon, staying silent becomes a way of life. We become accustomed to the monotony and forget our calling in the world. But we’re called to action. Our words have power, and not because of our own storytelling talent or our ability to tap into others’ emotions. God can and will use our words to draw people to Him through His Spirit—perhaps without our even being aware of it. In John 4:27–42, Jesus uses a Samaritan woman with a tarnished reputation to bring Samaritans (people whom the disciples and the Jews looked down upon) to faith. Like the disciples, we have to realize the urgency of the good news. We have to show others that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. We are called to action. Verbalizing, with humility, what God has done for us is an important part of faith. We shouldn’t shy away from it or doubt that He will use it to bring others to Himself. This should bring us to a place of confidence and humility. And it should compel us to speak. Do you speak to others about your faith? How can you begin telling others about the work God has done in you? REBECCA VAN NOORD
February 10: Longing for the Ideal
Pastors avoid or over-interpret it. We’re often confused by it. But the Song of Solomon is in our Bible. Although we might stumble over the imagery (comparing a woman to a mare would hardly go down well in the modern world), we can’t help but be entranced by the idealism and the tender, rather racy relationship of the joyful couple. “ ‘Have you seen the one whom my heart loves?’ … I found him whom my heart loves. I held him and I would not let him go” (Song 3:3–4). Their relationship appeals to what is pristine and ideal—a picture of what God created marriage to be. The lovers physically delight in each other and woo each other with affectionate words. We might brush off this poem like other romantic poetry and literature—ideal, but hardly plausible in our world, which would take pleasure over love. We further deconstruct the purity of the Song of Solomon based on the reality we experience (or at least know about): the lust, sexual abuse, and promiscuous relationships that are rampant in our world (and more rampant than we’d like to think, even in Christian circles). Despite hesitations, we shouldn’t brush aside the fact that this book is included in the biblical canon. The Song of Solomon shows us that we were created for a different life—for an ideal. We were made by a God who is perfect and intended for us to live bountifully. This realization makes us thankful that we live in the grace that Christ bought. And through the Spirit, we can put to death the sins that entangle us. It can help us look forward to a time when all that is perverted is judged, and when we ourselves are made perfect, purified from all the dross. How does the relationship depicted in Song of Solomon help you understand what God intended for humanity? How does it turn you to Christ’s sacrifice? REBECCA VAN NOORD
February 11: God’s Will: It’s Confusing
It’s sometimes difficult to understand why God does what He does, or why He asks us to do certain things. God goes so far as to list precise materials and calculations in Exod 26 for the tabernacle—the portable temple the Hebrew people built for God in the wilderness. You can imagine the conversation: Nadab says, “Aaron, is it okay if I use leather for this curtain?” Aaron responds, “No, you know the rules. If God commands it, you have to do it. I don’t want another golden calf incident. I made that mistake once; I won’t make it twice.” “But there is more leather,” says Nadab. “I’m not having this discussion any longer,” Aaron says sternly. “Let’s just get the job done.” (“For an elder, you think he would know better,” Aaron says under his breath.) Aaron, in this fictional scene, is rightfully frustrated because God does know better. Most of us know the answer before we ask God, “Why?” But we ask Him anyway. God’s will can be confusing, and it’s for this reason that discerning it requires great prayer and a dedication to an ongoing relationship with Him. Trying to understand God’s will without that close relationship cannot only be detrimental to us, but also to others. We see this in the golden calf incident later in the exodus narrative (Exod 32). And isn’t this often the case? God knows what we need before we do; we just don’t always realize that He has already given instructions. Has God already given instructions for your current situation that you may not have realized yet? JOHN D. BARRY
February 12: Liar or Lord?
When Jesus made a defense of His healing on the Sabbath, He was upping the ante instead of defusing the situation: “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). For the Jews, such a claim was blasphemous. Not only was Jesus breaking the Sabbath, He was equating Himself with the Father and thus claiming to be God. He was presenting the people with a choice. Jesus provides compelling insight into His relationship with God. Jesus’ authority stems from His relationship with the Father, which is one of complete submission. In fact, He can do nothing on His own. Whatever the Father does, He does likewise. There is complete trust and openness—the Father loves the Son and shows Him all that He is doing. Both the Father and the Son give life. But with authority, the Father has also given the Son judgment. Jesus presents His audience with an ultimatum as He carries out God’s will on earth: “The one who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly I say to you that the one who hears my word and who believes the one who sent me has eternal life, and does not come into judgment” (John 5:23–24). His claims require bold acts—total faith or total rejection. He is not merely a prophet sent from God. How do you respond to Jesus’ claim? Are you completely and solely devoted to following Him? REBECCA VAN NOORD
February 13: The System
Religion is a tough subject. Jesus staunchly opposed religion for religion’s sake, yet He was a Law-abiding Jew. He recognized the value of worship, community, and discipleship, but not the value of religious constraints: religion can bind someone in tradition and be used for oppression. This knowledge makes it hard to understand why God set up religious systems in the first place. Their purpose is confusing. In Exodus 30–31, there are full descriptions of altars, taxes, basins, oils, incense, and the Sabbath. In the middle of this, we’re given a glimpse into what it’s all about in a scene where God places His Spirit upon two men so that they may honor Him with a creative craft. They will depict, in art, what it means to know God. Here we get a glimpse into the symbolic work at play. God is not building religion for religion’s sake—He is building systems to help people understand Him. They’re meant to be used for the purpose of knowing Him and nothing else. Religion is exploited in the narrative in the next chapter, where an impatient Aaron (the man meant to lead God’s people to Him) promotes the worship of another god. (The golden calf was a symbol of Baal, the chief god of a neighboring people group.) Here we are given another glimpse into something deeper, but this situation is not God’s will. We see what happens when people become impatient: they build their own systems, reaching out to something that can’t actually help them. And this is precisely what we do when we sin. We seek our own way, our own system, when instead we should be seeking God’s way and worshiping Him the way in which He has called us. Jesus confronts this problem with religion. “Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father! The one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have put your hope! For if you had believed Moses, you would believe me, for that one wrote about me. But if you do not believe that one’s writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:45–47). These words would have cut to the core of a highly religious, first-century Jew. Imagine someone claiming that the very way they worshiped and their very book of teachings actually testifies against them. Imagine losing the court case because the authority you appeal to is actually revealing the errors of your ways. Just a few lines earlier, Jesus provides His reasoning for this statement: “I do not accept glory from people, but I know you, that you do not have the love of God in yourselves. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me” (John 5:41–42). Jesus does not seek glory from a religious system—a system that both He and Paul acknowledge was failing because of people’s sinfulness and desires to exploit it. Instead, He’s in the business of relationships. We all have our failing systems, and they’re revealed as we seek Jesus. And when they’re revealed, we must let God work within us and our communities to destroy those systems. A creative act that leads to better worship, discipleship, or community is desirable, but an act that inhibits it must be destroyed. What systems have you and your worship community built that are keeping you from fully entering into relationship with Jesus? JOHN D. BARRY
February 14: When Things Don’t Go as Planned
I live in the world of projects. There are a few things I know for certain about them, aside from all requiring a budget and a schedule to have any hope of success. They will all take more time than I expect (at least 25 percent more), and they will all have problems. It seems that nothing ever goes according to plan. No one will complain, though, if the result, budget, and end date remain the same. There’s a biblical lesson here—Moses’ story is one of the best analogies for this. Moses had likely planned for the Israelites to enter the Holy Land shortly after leaving Egypt, but mistake after mistake (on his part and the part of others) kept this from happening. In return, he spent years (about a half a lifetime) wandering in the wilderness. In Exodus 33:1, we read one of God’s direct instructions, “Go, go up from here” (Exod 33:1), but Moses proceeds to argue with God, interceding for the people (Exod 33:12–23). Things aren’t going according to plan—for Moses or God. Finally, God gives Moses new instructions to solve the predicament the people have gotten themselves into: “Look, I am about to make a covenant. In front of all your people I will do wonders that have not been created on all the earth and among all the nations” (Exod 34:10). Here, in the middle of the debacle, God takes care of the problem with a promise. Over and over again, God makes promises; and unlike people, He keeps them. God performs marvels. We see this in the events in Jesus’ life as well. Jesus doesn’t just feed the people, He overturns their notions about where food comes from (John 6:1–12). Jesus creates marvels like nothing anywhere in creation—other than where God Himself has worked. Of course, this shows that Jesus is indeed God. We’re often waiting for a marvel, and we will truly see them when following the Spirit. But how much more often is God waiting for us to pay attention and see how He can take plan B and make it plan A—like nothing we’ve seen before. What is not going as planned in your life right now? How do you think God might use the thing that feels out of control to show how marvelous He is? JOHN D. BARRY
February 15: Searching for the Wrong Kingdom
Because of the signs He performed, Jesus drew large crowds. And because of His signs, those who followed Him decided that He should be king. It seems natural and fitting, in a way, that Jesus should be revered and honored among the masses. Why shouldn’t He be worshiped on earth like He is in heaven? But Jesus wasn’t interested in gaining glory and fame. He had no interest in the kingdoms of this world, as His temptation in the desert demonstrates (Matt 4:8). This scene reveals both His character and His mission—He was seeking His Father’s glory and following His will. “Now when the people saw the sign that he performed, they began to say, ‘This one is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ Then Jesus, because he knew that they were about to come and seize him in order to make him king, withdrew again up the mountain by himself alone” (John 6:14–15). It also reveals something about human nature. Although the crowds wanted to make Jesus king, they weren’t necessarily looking to revere Him. They were looking out for themselves. They wanted to install a new kingdom—one brought on by force and political revolution. They wanted their immediate physical needs met, but they didn’t necessarily consider the great spiritual revolution that needed to take place within. Following Jesus shouldn’t be something we do because it’s somehow convenient for us. Following Jesus requires all of us—and it will often look like a life of sacrifice, not ease. The Jews who followed Jesus were challenged to accept Him, not as a prophet or a Messiah, but as the Son of God. The same crowd that followed Jesus obsessively, looking for signs, was eventually confronted by teaching that shook their understanding of this Messiah and what God expected from them. Do you follow Jesus for reasons of your own? How can you follow Him for the right reasons? REBECCA VAN NOORD
February 16: Wit, Wordplay, and Euphemism
The Bible is a passionate book. It’s about a God who is impassioned for His people and who ultimately sends His Son to die for them so that they can be saved from themselves. And it also portrays the passion seen in romantic love. Song of Solomon 5:1–4 is full of wit, wordplay, and euphemism. It’s dramatic, like a play. The man is full of zeal for the woman he loves, and the woman is excited to see her man. And this isn’t a Michael Bolton ballad or Kenny G song. There is haste. There is anxiety—you can almost hear the heart palpitations. This isn’t the stuff for the unmarried, and it is definitely not the stuff for kids or teenagers. This is true romance as God designed it. The woman says, “I slept, but my heart was awake” (Song 5:2). She may be asleep, but her love for the man is not. That is both the type of love we must have in marriage and the type of love we must have for our God—never sleeping, always wide awake. Jesus makes a similar contrast between subtle love (or necessary love) and real love: “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and they died. [God provided them the manna shortly after the exodus (Exod 16).] This is the bread that comes down from heaven [being Jesus and His message], so that someone may eat from it and not die” (John 6:49–50). What fills our minds and keeps our hearts awake at night says who we really are; we will dedicate ourselves to what we care most about. Let us dedicate ourselves to love of family, others, and Christ. What are you wrongly in love with right now? What can you do to refocus your love? JOHN D. BARRY
February 17: Finding Sustainment
Following Jesus isn’t like developing a crisis-aversion system. So often, it’s tempting to treat our faith in this way—relying on Him when things get tough or when others expect us to do so. But He wants us to rely on Him continually. After Jesus miraculously fed the crowds, He told them that He was the bread of life. But they were fickle. They wanted evidence—another sign. Instead of feeding their transient desires, Jesus delivered hard teaching: “The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me and I in him” (John 6:54–56). For the Jews, this teaching would have been shocking and strange—drinking blood was forbidden by Old Testament law, and He was speaking about His own body. They followed Jesus because they wanted a sign, a prophet, or a Messiah. A sacrifice was not part of their plan. But a sacrifice was exactly what they needed. Forgiveness and eternal life were discarded by some, but not by all. Simon Peter’s simple confession is actually quite stunning in the midst of all the confusion: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–69). The disciples didn’t put hope in a transient sign—in one meal. And although they didn’t always understand Jesus’ teaching, they recognized that He was the true bread of life, and they relied on Him for sustainment even when His teaching seemed strange to their ears. How are you challenging yourself to accept all the teachings of Jesus—not just the ones that are easy? How can you put your hope in Christ and look to Him for continual support? REBECCA VAN NOORD
February 18: Dwelling in the Wilderness
The book of Leviticus can feel distant, abstract, and even absurd. Its opening chapters discuss odd offerings made at the tent of meeting, where God met His people when they were wandering in the wilderness after the exodus. Yet, the book signals an appreciation for all things: animals, crops, and the general need for peace—both between people and between God and people. In Leviticus, we also find the setup for the entire Gospel of John; Jesus’ life is cast as an offering to make all people one with God again. We find the background information for Isa 53, where the Suffering Servant dies and is resurrected on behalf of God’s people. Much of the Old and New Testaments require a general understanding of Leviticus. Not only do these ancient rituals show the need to appreciate the entire created order, they also show how much we should appreciate a faith that doesn’t require all these rituals. Leviticus shows the distance between God and His people. The amount of work required to get near Him is enormous. And it’s not because God wanted it that way, it’s because a holy (set apart) God cannot come near the unholy. Holiness rituals were required for Him to interact with His people—a temporary way for people to reach Him. Just as God camped in the middle of His people in the wilderness, today He wants to set up His tent in the middle of our lives. And this is precisely what we witness in the beginning of John’s Gospel when Jesus “dwells among us,” which literally translates as, “took up residence among us.” God dwelled among His people in the wilderness, just as He dwells in our lives today. Are there areas of your life you don’t want God to dwell in? What could you change to invite Him in? JOHN D. BARRY
February 19: Ancient Words, Future Hope
Atonement is appealing because we all have relationships we wish we could reconcile. The 12-step program involves forgiving and forging renewed relationships when possible. But the story with God is different. There’s an acute awareness that we can’t fix things with our Creator; we need someone or something else to do it for us. Jesus is described as the atonement, the sacrifice, and the perfect offering. But what do these terms actually mean? In Leviticus 5:14–6:30, we learn what it means for Jesus to be a guilt offering: He takes the guilt of the people, incurred through their sinful acts, and takes it upon Himself. He becomes the “ram without defect from the flock” (Lev 6:6). Jesus takes the stage as the Suffering Servant in Isa 52:13–53:12, fulfilling the events it prophesies. Isaiah 53:10 reads, “If she places [the servant’s] life a guilt offering, he will see offspring, he will prolong days. And the will of Yahweh is in his hand, it will succeed” (my translation). When He is arrested, Jesus understands that He is on His way to die at the hands of His own people (the “she” in Isaiah is “Jerusalem” or “Zion”). Matthew notes, “But all this has happened in order that the scriptures of the prophets would be fulfilled” (Matt 26:56). Jesus acknowledges it by saying, “the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners!” (Matt 26:45). This echoes Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of suffering, and acquainted with sickness, and like one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised, and we did not hold him in high regard.” Leviticus seems archaic until it is put into this perspective. The oddities of this ancient book give us a connection to Jesus. He is the fulfillment of all Israel hoped for. Isn’t this the same in our lives? At first it might seem like the events are somehow disconnected or distant from God and His works. But upon a second glance—in retrospect—we see they’re a foundation for hope. In what areas of your life do you need to connect with God’s work? What does the interaction between ancient law, prophecy, and Jesus’ life teach you about God and His work in our lives? JOHN D. BARRY
February 20: Danger in the Sphere of Influence
Leadership is like a bright spotlight; when the heat intensifies, it’s difficult to conceal the areas where we fail. But that’s where true character is revealed. The Pharisees didn’t fare well with the pressure of authority. We can see why Jesus had such compassion for the masses by observing the Pharisees’ behavior in John 7. After Jesus claimed to be the source of life and ratcheted up the conflict, the Pharisees became angry. Sensing that their authority was slipping, they judged Jesus before they had a chance to give Him a hearing. They intimidated Nicodemus, harshly rebuked the captains, and cursed the people: “this crowd who does not know the law is accursed!” (John 7:49). Those who hold positions of authority have great influence—a reason why bad authority can be so detrimental: “Not many should become teachers, my brother, because you know that we will receive a greater judgment” (Jas 3:1). But influence isn’t relegated to leaders, supervisors, or pastors. Anyone who has a measure of influence over others should carefully consider how they use that trust. When we have earthly teachers who let us down, we can turn to God, our heavenly teacher. For those who were under the heavy hand of the Pharisees, Jesus’ words must have been as refreshing and soothing as the water He spoke of: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let him drink, the one who believes in me” (John 7:37–38). How are you using your authority to lead others to Christ? How can you seek out forgiveness from those you may have harmed? REBECCA VAN NOORD
February 21: Grace among the Graphic
“Then he slaughtered the burnt offering, and Aaron’s sons brought the blood to him, and he sprinkled it on the altar all around; and they brought the burnt offering to him by its pieces, as well as the head, and he burned them on the altar” (Lev 9:12–13). There are graphic scenes like this throughout the Bible, especially in Leviticus. But they act as a reminder of what sacrifice looks like and what it really means. Even though Jesus would ultimately make the greatest sacrifice of all—laying down His life for the sins of others—He did not hold people’s sins against them. Although Jesus understood that He would be brutalized like the animals sacrificed during Aaron’s day, He chose to forgive people. When a woman “caught in adultery” was brought before Jesus, He did not sentence her to death, as was demanded by the Jewish authorities and laws of His time. Instead, He said, “The one of you without sin, let him throw the first stone at her!” (John 8:7). And Jesus says the same to us today. Only those without sin can throw a stone or cast judgment on others—and that’s none of us. We shouldn’t use this as an excuse, though. We shouldn’t say, “What happens between you and God and between you and others is up to you.” Instead, we must call each other forward to follow Christ. Jesus has forgiven us, but this doesn’t excuse our sins. Similarly, we can’t use Jesus’ graciousness as an excuse to continue sinning. We must remember grace and offer that grace to one another. Indeed, we must not judge, but we must not excuse sin in the process. In being gracious both to ourselves and others, we must remember why we have the ability to do so: Jesus died the brutal death of a sacrifice. It was His body that was torn apart and His flesh that was flung. (It’s just as harsh as it sounds.) I don’t say any of this to make us feel guilty, but to remind all of us of the price Jesus paid for our freedom. Jesus died so that we could be one with God, not so that we could continue to sin against the God He unified us with. As Jesus says at the end of this scene, after everyone had left, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). In what ways are you misappropriating grace? JOHN D. BARRY
February 22: The Light of the World
“I am the light of the world! The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). While some of Jesus’ “I am” statements confused the Jews, the “following the light” imagery would have been familiar. God had led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness with a pillar of fire so they could walk at night (Exod 13:21). They couldn’t deflect or misunderstand this claim. Jesus used this imagery to show the Jews that He offers clarity and meaning in a dark world. He offers life, grace, and spiritual awakening to those who are lost in the darkness. But the Pharisees couldn’t comprehend the light; they misinterpreted Jesus’ claims and fumbled around in the darkness and the details (John 8:19, 22, 25, 27). When we’ve elevated ourselves in the darkness, it’s hard to humble ourselves in the light. Even when we have inklings that tell us there is a better way, we don’t want to sacrifice our own pride. We prefer to be contrary and comfortable—to dwell on the details and exert our own opinions. But if we never call out the darkness, we’ll never experience the flooding of light. Are you calling out the darkness in and around you? REBECCA VAN NOORD
February 23: Freedom
“Even though I know it’s wrong, I sometimes think, ‘If I hadn’t accepted Christ, I would have so much more freedom.’ And then I venture down that road and realize just how terrible it is. It takes me to a very dark place.” This deep, heart-wrenching statement by a friend made me realize there are countless people who probably feel this way about Jesus. And what if, unlike my friend, they hadn’t figured out the latter part of this statement? They were probably walking a road closer to legalism than the road Christ envisions for our lives. Or they could be so far from actually experiencing grace and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that they have yet to see how incredible a life lived for Jesus can be. Jesus promises freedom: “Then Jesus said to those Jews who had believed him, ‘If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ ” (John 8:31–32). What we often gloss over in this passage, though, is that Jesus is speaking to believers. If you haven’t begun to fully trust in Jesus, the thought that He gives us freedom is difficult to understand. Someone could ask, “Isn’t He creating a system that forces us to live a certain way?” The answer is no: Jesus is setting up what will be a natural response to His grace. The context of this verse also makes me wonder if someone who hasn’t yet truly sacrificed for Jesus, beyond just a simple tithe, would fathom what freedom with Him looks like. The Jews Jesus is addressing would have already been experiencing some sort of social ostracism for their belief in Him—they would have understood that sacrifice brings spiritual freedom. This concept isn’t easy to grasp, but in the simplest terms possible, Jesus frees us from religious systems and gives us the Spirit to empower us to do His work. This Spirit guides us and asks us to make sacrifices for Him, but those sacrifices are minimal compared to the eternal life He gave us through the sacrifice of His life. These sacrifices don’t become a system with Christ, but something we strive to do because we want to. That’s the freedom of the Spirit. Have you experienced freedom in Christ? How can you seek the Spirit’s presence so you can experience more freedom? JOHN D. BARRY
February 24: The Day of Atonement
When it comes to the cost of sin, the average person probably thinks in terms of “What can I get away with?” rather than “What does this cost me and other people emotionally?” These calculations aren’t made in terms of life and death, but that is literally the case when it comes to sin. The Day of Atonement is a beautiful, though horrific, illustration of this. It takes three innocent animals to deal with the people’s sin: one to purify the high priest and his family, one to be a sin offering to Yahweh that purifies the place where He symbolically dwelt (the holy of holies), and one to be sent into the wilderness to remove the people’s transgressions (Lev 16:11, 15–16, 21–22). After the blood of the first two animals is spilled on the Day of Atonement—demonstrating the purification of God’s people—the final goat demonstrates God’s desire to completely rid the people of their sin. “Aaron shall place his two hands on the living goat’s head, and he shall confess over it all the Israelites’ iniquities and all their transgressions for all their sins, and he shall put them on the goat’s head, and he shall send it away into the desert” (Lev 16:21). The Day of Atonement symbolized God’s desire for His people: one day, sin would no longer stand between God and His children. Like the goat, Jesus lifts the people’s iniquities (Isa 53:12). He fulfills this prophecy, becoming the ultimate ransom; no other sacrifice is ever needed. As the author of Hebrews says, “For the law appoints men as high priests who have weakness, but the statement of the oath, after the law, appoints a Son, who is made perfect forever” (Heb 7:28). He then goes onto say, “And every priest stands every day serving and offering the same sacrifices many times, which are never able to take away sins. But this one, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb 10:11–12). The price of sin may be great, but Christ has paid that price. In what ways do you take Jesus’ sacrifice for granted? What can you do differently? JOHN D. BARRY
February 25: The Fear
We often don’t realize that we’re guilty of fearing others. At the time, it can feel definite and look legitimate. Fearing others can also take the form of a meticulous house, staying late at the office, or passing anxious, sleepless nights. When we hold someone else’s opinions higher than God’s, we suddenly find our world shaky and imbalanced. Jesus’ healing of the blind man reveals that the fear of people is not a modern concept. The Pharisees had a stranglehold on Jewish life: “for the Jews had already decided that if anyone should confess him to be Christ, he would be expelled from the synagogue” (John 9:22). The blind man’s parents were victims of their mission, but they were willing victims. Even within the ruling ranks, though, opinions were divided, but the fear of people still ruled (John 9:16). John reports elsewhere that “many of the rulers believed in him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess it.… For they loved the praise of men more than praise from God” (John 12:42–43). The blind man is the antithesis of all this. Perhaps, marginalized at birth, the opinions of others didn’t hold as much weight for him. Under interrogation, he is bold, quick-witted, and over-the-top incredulous. He is enraged that the Pharisees do not accept the basic facts of the story: “I told you already and you did not listen! Why do you want to hear it again? You do not want to become his disciples also, do you?” (John 9:27). While he has yet to confess in Jesus, he knows what he has experienced—he was blind, and now he sees. And as far as he can tell, only one sent by God could perform such a miracle. Fearing people involves holding their opinions higher than God’s. At its heart, though, it’s an inflated opinion of our own selves—self-protection or self-esteem. But the blind man was willing to proclaim the truth about the Son of Man who healed him—physically, and then spiritually. He was willing to give up everything. How are you guided by the opinions of others? How can you make decisions that are aimed at bringing glory to God? REBECCA VAN NOORD
February 26: Patiently Waiting
Delayed gratification is a foreign concept to our natural instincts. Our culture doesn’t encourage patience or contentment; we would prefer to have our desires met the moment they arise. The woman in Song of Solomon tells us that she is delighted in her beloved. She praises his attributes and tells of the wonders of their love. But throughout the poem, at seemingly random moments, she also warns the daughters of Jerusalem about love: “I adjure you … do not arouse or awaken love until it pleases!” (Song 8:4). This is not the first time she has “adjured” them to wait and have patience: the same refrain is found elsewhere in the poem, and it acts like an oath (Song 2:7; 3:5). Although the elevated poetry glories in love, delight, and fulfillment, it also warns about immediate gratification. The woman urges us not to force love. It is something that must be anticipated and protected, not enjoyed before it’s time. It doesn’t feel natural to wait and anticipate, but in many ways, staying faithful and being hopeful characterizes our faith. Waiting doesn’t mean we’re not bold or risk-takers. It means we’re faithful to God—we’re waiting for things to happen in His time. We know God has something planned for us that is beyond our expectations. How are you patiently waiting and anticipating? REBECCA VAN NOORD
February 27: Reality Can Bite
Reality shows are all about people who are known or want to be known—they have celebrity syndrome. The root cause of this obsession is probably, like most things, a disconnect from our Maker. As people disconnect from the God who made us, we seek affirmation from other sources. And as wrong as this desire may be, our culture makes it feel like second nature. The Jewish people Jesus spoke to also felt displaced. They were a people who had lost touch with their guide—their shepherd. Jesus is the answer to their call. Echoing Ezekiel 34:11–24, He says, “I am the good shepherd, and I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” But Jesus goes one step further by adding, “and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15). Jesus promises that He will know us, and by echoing the very words of God, He is claiming that He is the God of Israel—He is the way God will know us. He offers the affirmation we’ve been looking for; He essentially says, “I chose you.” But lest we understand this passage only to be about Jesus fulfilling what God had promised to the Jewish people, He remarks, “And I have other sheep which are not from this fold. I must bring these also, and they will hear my voice, and they will become one flock—one shepherd. Because of this the Father loves me, because I lay down my life so that I may take possession of it again” (John 10:16–17). Jesus came as our good shepherd, as the one who guides us back to God. When we have the urge to obsess over those who are known to the world, or when we desire to be known ourselves, we can be assured that Jesus knows us. He knows you, and me, and He was still willing to die for us. In what ways are you seeking to be known by people or obsessing over those who are well-known? What can you do to change that? JOHN D. BARRY
February 28: Neon Gods
Idolatry seems archaic. Who worships idols anymore?
We all know that in other countries, traditional idol worship of gold and wooden statues still goes on, but we often forget about our own idols. What does all our furniture point toward? Why do we care who is on the cover of a magazine? How do you feel if you miss your favorite talk show? If we’re really honest, what do we spend the majority of our time thinking about?
Idols are everywhere, and most of us are idol worshipers of some kind. When we put this in perspective, suddenly the words of Lev 26 become relevant again. The problem that is addressed in Leviticus is the same problem we’re dealing with today.
Leviticus 26 and its harsh words against idolatry should prompt each of us to ask, “What are my idols?” and then to answer with, “I will end my idolatry.” And if the temptation is too great with these things present in our lives (like the TV), we should say, “I will exile them from my home and presence.”
It’s not put in these terms often enough, but it should be. The “noise” of idols is keeping us away from God, and even more so, our worship of the noise is doing so. Likewise, our obsession with possessions and celebrities is standing between God and us.
In their song “The Sound of Silence,” Simon and Garfunkel described the same situation in modern culture: “The people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made.”
What neon god are you worshiping? And what are you going to do about it?
JOHN D. BARRY