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Monday, September 28

STOP LIVING among the Thorns

Jesus repeatedly warned His disciples about the pitfall of getting caught up in the things of this world, and I can personally testify to how important it is that we put His Word into practice.
  "Jet set", “Rush hour”, “Rat race”, “Fast lane”, “Fast Food”... There are countless phrases we know and use to represent the familiar word pictures that only begin to describe this rapid pace of life we live in the Modern World. How about that familiar saying we use often as good advice, “Stop and smell the roses.” This one came about in reaction to the hurry and haste of modern living. It is meant to be a warning that we must not let the hustle and bustle of our lives cause us to miss that which is truly of value in this life. For instance, in the parable of the sower (sometimes called the Parable of the Soils), Jesus said, “And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word, And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful.” (Mark 4:18-19) In this excerpt from the parable of the sower, Jesus tells us that if we get caught up with deceitful riches, and fleshly desires, they will cause the Word of God to be unfruitful in our hearts. Observe carefully, however, that Jesus said this will only happen if we allow it. Sadly, all too many of us do.

           So in what ways are we causing God's Word to be unfruitful? According to that same Parable, the seed of God’s Word was sown among those hearts which were “among thorns.” Jesus also listed the symptoms of being among thorns in saying, “the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things.” Observe also that these three things operate like true thorns; They enter in. In other words, like a thorn that pierces the skin – bringing pain, perhaps drawing blood, and sometimes even injecting poison – worldly cares, deceitful riches, and fleshly desires pierce the heart. While not all thorns are poisonous, be assured that the thorns of which Jesus spoke carry deadly payloads!

            There is only one way to make certain we do not get caught in this trap of thorns, and that is to not be among the thorns at all. By spending time in God's Word, and maintaining our personal relationship with Jesus, the very things that have poisoned secular society will not have their way in our hearts and lives. Otherwise, investing our lives in the gain of temporary riches of this world will end up costing us the true riches. The Apostle Paul wrote about the struggle against the temptation of material wealth, "But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6:9-10) He continues with this instruction, "But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.” (1 Timothy 6:11)

            Note that the Apostle Paul did not write “money" is the root of all evil as many wrongfully suppose. Rather, it is "the love of money" that is the root of all evil. The attitude of the heart towards material gain is the source of evil, not the material wealth itself. According to Paul, the victory against the allure of riches begins quite simply: Flee! Of course, there is more to it than that. We are also told to “follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.” Thus, when we are following the Holy Spirit of Truth into all Truth, we are also to “follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.” Herein is the great and true wealth to be found, for it is the character of the Lord Jesus Christ! “For godliness with contentment is great gain.” (1 Timothy 6:6) Thus, in order to live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty, we must continually live in the sweet presence of Jesus Christ, with His Word growing ever more fruitful in our hearts. For it is only in that way that we can be transformed to be like Him.

            So how does this apply Today? What are the specific ways in which the Word of God is rendered unfruitful in our own hearts? In truth, it would fill more volumes than a large encyclopedia to completely answer these questions. Nevertheless, as overwhelming as the situation may appear, it is definitely not hopeless! Remember, Jesus said that without Him, we can do nothing; but through Him, we can do all things! He does not intend for us to face this on our own. Rather, as we faithfully follow after the Holy Spirit of Truth, He will teach us to recognize the thorns for what they are: Death! It then becomes our responsibility to make the choice to not be among them. Therefore, let us proceed with the help of the Holy Spirit into a closer examination of the thorns.

            Life Among The Thorns

            “Now it came to pass, as they went, that He entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard His Word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to Him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42) This oft-quoted passage of Scripture records an exchange between Martha and the Lord Jesus Christ. While Martha was rushing about the house trying to serve the guests, her sister Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard His Word.” When Martha demanded that Jesus rebuke her sister and order her to help with the serving, Jesus gently admonished Martha instead. He told her that she was “careful and troubled about many things,” unlike Mary who had “chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Thus we see an example from Scripture of worldly cares choking out the Word and making it unfruitful.

            To summarize, Martha felt that serving the guests was just as important as having the Lord Himself present. She did not recognize what the "true riches" was! Consequently, she was impoverishing herself. Moreover, she was actively seeking to deprive her own sister of the riches of God, as well - not that Martha was aware of this! She was careful and troubled about many things, and this is the reason she was blind to the Truth. Such is the way of the thorns.

           Turning now to more modern examples, we find people rushing here and there like Martha. Their lives are filled with jobs, schooling, ball games, activity practices, grocery shopping, laundry, TV shows, movies, church activities, ... and the list goes on and on. There is nothing inherently evil with those activities, but what matters is the attitude of the heart towards them. Do these activities flow out of our relationship with the Lord, or are they choking it? Are those activities filling our minds and hearts with stress, cares, troubles, anxieties, and worries that are choking out peace, joy, and fellowship with God? For, whatever we do, however small it may seem, we ought to be walking in His presence!

            We must be honest with ourselves in this matter. Where is the time spent at the feet of Jesus, listening to His Word? We must not fall into the trap of confusing most of today's church activities with the one thing that is needful! For today's church activities tend to cater to the "focus on works" like Martha rather than the "focus on the character" of God. For His purpose is to build the family of God, so that His Son “might be the firstborn among many brethren.” (Romans 8:29) Our close relationships with Jesus Christ and with one another are so essential to things operating in the way God designed them that Jesus made this special request of the Heavenly Father on the night before the Crucifixion. He prayed, “Holy Father, keep through Thine own Name those whom Thou hast given me, that they may be one, as We are.”(John 17:11) Jesus asked that believers be one in the same manner that the Trinity is One. That is the strongest possible relationship! Consequently, it should be plain that our relationships with others have vast eternal significance.

            So where is the time spent in building godly relationships? This is an area of grave deficiency within Modern America, but it was not always this way. The United States was founded by a generation that had experienced a Great Awakening, a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit, with attendant blessings in abundance. This was renewed by a Second Great Awakening a generation later. Since that time, the nation has gradually drifted away from God at a steadily-increasing pace, however confirmed at times by lesser awakenings. This deterioration can be described in terms of the thorns mentioned in the Parable of the Sower as the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things.

            During this decline, the nation has experienced the Industrial Revolution, the Technological Revolution, and the Information Revolution. While promising a better life and great plenty, these things that should have been blessings have all been used as insidious implements of destruction, aka the poison of the thorns.

            A simple, though prominent, example of this, is how the usage of the telephone has developed in our society. Before the advent of the telephone, families and friends frequently spent quality time together, especially during meals. They talked through their problems and rejoiced in each other's achievements. If someone in town was sick or had a need, the word would spread quickly until nearly everyone around knew about it. Neighbors truly behaved like neighbors, and did what they could to help out in any way that they could. All of this involved direct personal interaction and contact. Once the telephone became inexpensive and widely available, however, people began to use it increasingly, making it a substitute for face-to-face relationships, contrary to God’s design. “But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavored the more abundantly to see your face with great desire.” (1 Thessalonians 2:17) “Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.” (II John 1:12)

            Thus came the dawning of a new era of separation. Ironically, the world began to get smaller, while people began to drift away from one another. Other forms of communication, such as the internet, have followed the telephone, and accelerated the lack of personalization in our culture. Social networking online has become very popular, with billions of participants. Consequently, for many people, superficial relationships are replacing the tighter bonds forged by face-to-face fellowship.

            By no means are these the only examples of the choking power of the thorns. The misuse of radio and television, apart from the messages they might carry, are significant contributors to the decline of the bonds between family and friends. Televisions and music are almost inescapable in our communities. Many restaurants have multiple TVs so that at least one is visible no matter where a person looks. If that is not distracting enough, the constant flow of drivel from the Boob Tubes, plus loud music, makes personal interaction and conversation difficult, if not nigh unto impossible. As bad as all of that truly is, the situation deteriorates further when cell phones, I-phones, beepers, portable entertainment devices, and other such things are added to the mix. The hurried pace and continual distraction prevents reflection and close fellowship.

            More than that, the content of television, movies, and radio has steadily grown more and more poisonous since their inception. Sure, programming in the early years of these technologies might appear to us today to be extremely innocent but, rest assured that the men and women of God back then recognized clearly what was being done to the family unit and were appalled at this new war that was being waged against American households. Indeed, movies deteriorated so rapidly in the early twentieth century that Hollywood was forced to clean them up for a while. Yet that could not resolve the general decline of American society. For such problems are not resolved through mandated codes of conduct, but, rather, the hearts of the people must be changed. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.” (Matthew 23:25-26)

            As technology advanced, the new riches of radios and televisions became more readily accessible to the public at large, and thus made their way into homes across the country. Product manufacturers lined up to utilize this grand new means of advertising, to fashion their commercials to offer the allure of the lusts of other things. Indeed, in order to draw as many viewers and customers as possible, many shows and advertisers began pushing the envelope, pandering to the fleshly desires of this vast new audience. Hence, riding new technology, an age-old strategy and stronghold asserted itself in our culture; Sex sells! The attack of mass manipulation had begun.

            There are far more examples than this of what has happened to our nation since it began its decline. "Many indeed have run to and fro, and knowledge has increased." (Daniel 12:4) Highways, rockets, cities, malls, airports, computers, microwaves, and many other such things are testaments to that prophecy. While these riches of technology are not evil unto themselves, modern society has seized upon them, immersed itself in them, and become enslaved to them. Simply consider most people's reaction to the notification of a telephone call, text, social media post, etc! They have to immediately interrupt whatever they are doing, even a conversation with someone else, to take a look at it. Modern technology has become an amplifier for the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things!

            This, then, is life among the thorns, and the poison thereof renders the Word of God unfruitful in the lives of all that are afflicted by them. The results are wedges being driven between people, and increasing division where unity once came naturally as is essential. The worst effect is especially between people and their Maker.

            Many people wonder why so many miracles occur in third-world countries today, and no longer in America. In the past, this country has seen the visitation of the power of the Almighty, such as through Oral Roberts Ministries in the forties and the Miracle of Azusa Street at the beginning of the twentieth century. To find the answer, we need look no further than the thorns. They choke the Word; and the church in America has become ensnared by them. One symptom of the rampant growth of the thorns in the church is the multitude of new “easier-to-read translations" of the Holy Scriptures. In harmony with the modern “I want it now, drive-through window, microwave dinner” mentality, the church is seeking instant understanding in the Word of God. Yet, only Jesus can open our understanding of the Scriptures. “Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures.”(Luke 24:45)

            Thus, in attempting to do in human strength what only God can do, the accuracy and power in the teaching from God's Word is affected. The new, “easier-to-read” translations add to its destruction of the accuracy and power of the teaching of God’s word, both in print and from the pulpit.

            For instance, if you look up John 8:31-32 in some of these fancy new translations, you will find a verse that is terribly confusing. The trouble is the substitution of one word with another. In the case of the New International Version (NIV), the writers replaced the original word “make” with the word “set”. Here is how the scripture reads in the King James Version of the Bible, “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-32)

            What difference does this make? Well, consider what you would think if I had asked the question like this, "What difference does this set?" You see, these two simple, little words mean two completely different things. And the fact is that the original manuscripts of the Holy Scriptures uses the Greek word from "eleutheros" with the definition "to make free". In other words, from the beginning God has intended for that verse to be understood as, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

            Talk about the power in a seed! More often than not I hear people – thinking that they are quoting Scripture accurately – say, “the truth will set you free”, when that is just not true. To set someone free means that they are released immediately. To make someone free means that their heart is remanufactured over a period of time, if they are obedient to maintain their personal relationship with Jesus Christ and walk in His word. That is God’s way.

            The difference is that simple. “Set” means to release immediately and “make” means to remanufacture over time. In other words, to set a person free is to change their circumstances; internally they are still the same. To make that person free is to change their heart little by little, day by day into the image of Jesus Christ; their circumstances are incidental. To be made completely free is to be completely transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. That is both the conclusion of the remanufacturing process and the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

            Can you see how a believer might become disillusioned with God because of this one error? When a Christian living in this high-speed society, where patience has all but become a curse word, goes to church and hears from the pulpit that the truth will set him free from his bondage, and it does not happen, what is he to think? If you went to the altar expecting to be immediately released from your troubles, only to leave unchanged, what would your reaction be? Would you fall prey to the lie that God does not love you enough to answer your prayers?

            Many Christians live their lives today in a constant state of confusion and rejection, because they do not know the Truth! In other words, since the knowledge of the Truth is necessary for true liberty, then a lack of knowledge of the Truth is bondage. It is ironic that, in the Age of Information, billions of people are in bondage because they have been deceived. They do not know the Truth. Is it any wonder that God is not that real to them? Do not let that happen to you! Just because there seems to be a majority of people who are doing, or partaking of, something, it does not mean it is the right thing!

            “Seek ye the LORD while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall My word be that goeth forth out of My mouth: it shall not return unto Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the LORD for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55:6-13)

            This is a call to come out from among the thorns! This same message is found in the following passage of Scripture. “And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” (Revelation 18:4)

            I encourage you to not be distracted by the people rushing around you, nor to chase after material gain which can never satisfy. Rest in God. Enjoy your relationship with our Heavenly Father and with each other. Take pleasure in His wonderful creation all along the way.

            Finally... while "Stop and smell the roses" is good advice, it is far more important that we stop living among the thorns!

            Keep PRESSIN' IN!


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