A NEW WAY TO HANDLE PRODIGAL SONS

Neal Pollard

Deuteronomy was apparently a favored Old Testament book for our Lord.  It was this last book of the Pentateuch Jesus quotes each time He is tempted by the Devil in the wilderness (Mt. 4:4,7,10).  His writing on discipline (Mt. 18:16) and divorce (Mt. 5:31; 19:7) draw on Moses’ writings in that book, too.  It is interesting, considering Christ’s propensity to reflect upon the book of Deuteronomy, to see the instructions given under the old law in dealing with prodigal sons:

If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father
or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them,
then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders
of his city at the gateway of his hometown.  “They shall say to the elders of
his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he
is a glutton and a drunkard.’ “Then all the men of his city shall stone him to
death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear
of it and fear (Deut. 21:18-21).

Interestingly, these statements are found in the context of meting out inheritances to sons.  Notice, however, the way God chose to deal with profligate (i.e., wasteful and immoral) sons under the first covenant.  There seems to have been a perceived tie between rebellion toward parents and rebellion against God.  The worst case scenario for such a child was the death penalty, the men of the city hurling the rocks.

How shocking Jesus’ story might have been, seen in the context and in contrast to the law under which the Jews still served at the time!  As He so often did, Jesus points to a new way of divine dealing with mankind.  The Prodigal (i.e., wasteful) Son in Luke 15:11ff was certainly stubborn and rebellious, wanting free from the rule of his father.  Yet, the father allowed the son to depart.  The son lived in total dissipation and then longed to come home.  The homecoming he received from his father was totally unexpected.  He was joyfully, lovingly welcomed.  In fact, the hard-hearted, begrudging brother is depicted as having greater spiritual problems since he refused to follow the father’s lead.

We are all sinners (Rom. 3:23).  We all are in need of the Father’s grace and forgiveness.  We also are instructed, by the Father’s perfect example and the older brother’s wrongheaded response, about how to receive our prodigal brothers and sisters who want to come home!  Thank God that because of Christ, we have a new way to handle prodigals and to be handled as prodigals who come back to the Father!

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Coping With Thorns

Neal Pollard

Satan is the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10). He is the author of audacity, and he showed it first in Eden. He is at work today through temptation and suffering to try and dismantle our faith. He is a presence in our personal lives (1 Pet. 5:8). If there’s hurt, he’s happy. If there’s sin, he’s satisfied. He can’t force anyone to sin (Js. 1:13-15). He can’t make us fall away (John 10:28-29). But, he’s at work. Paul writes about something that has long mystified the Bible student, in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. In that passage, we have:

  • The reality of the thorn (7)
  • The reproach of the thorn (7)
  • The reason for the thorn (7)
  • The result of the thorn (7)
  • The response to the thorn (8-10).

Paul reveals Satan’s involvement in that thorn. This troubles me. I have never asked for a thorn in the flesh and I have no reason to think Paul asked for his, but he got one anyway. What do you do when you have a thorn in the flesh? Consider at least three things Paul teaches us in this powerful passage.

No one is immune from thorns. Who’s talking in this text? The great apostle Paul, a man God gave revelations, who’s preaching across the world, converting so many, and achieving name recognition for the best of reasons. If you ever thought anybody would be sheltered for doing right, it would be him. But Paul says there was given to him a thorn in the flesh. That makes me uncomfortable. I need spiritual lessons about God and myself, as Paul and even Job, who Satan was allowed to buffet, did. If a great Old Testament patriarch and great New Testament preacher had thorns to deal with, I know I am not immune.

Sometimes, God lets the thorn stay. We may have to accept that our given affliction may never come to an end as long as we’re on this earth. A recurring or chronic illness, constant adversary, or irreversible limitation may not be removed. I wish I knew why God told Paul “no” and why he sometimes tells us “no” when we ask for our thorns to be removed. But, even if we keep the thorn, God’s grace is sufficient and He can use that very thing to accomplish good through us for the Kingdom. God uses thorns to supply us with humility and grace. If our thorn comes and stays rather than comes and goes, God will use it for our good and to accomplish good if we will properly view it.

Thorns are growth opportunities. If we remain faithful to God through our thorns, we will spiritually grow. Satan is rebuffed and defeated, as he was with Paul and Job. But, for every Paul and Job, how many have let affliction and adversity destroy their faith? We know God’s power eclipses Satan’s. But don’t underestimate this enemy (2 Cor. 2:11; 11:14; 12:7). One of Paul’s final points in the letter is about God’s great power (13:4). Paul was weakened by affliction, but he could endure because of faith. God is more powerful than Satan and Paul’s thorn is but one proof of it. Lyte wrote,

As woods, when shaken by the breeze, take deeper, firmer root,
As winter’s frosts but make the trees abound in summer fruit;
So every Heaven-sent pang and throe that Christian firmness tries,
But nerves us for our work below, and forms us for the skies.

Is it a trial or a blessing in disguise? Doesn’t it depend on how we view it and what we do with it? Satan wants to use afflictions to destroy us, but God is greater. He can transform our tragedies into triumphs. Trust Him through the thorns. The roses will appear!

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When You Hit An Elephant In Enid

Neal Pollard

No, not Enid, Kenya, or Enid, India. Enid, Oklahoma. On November 4, 2009, a Wednesday night, Bill and Deena Carpenter were returning to their home from church services. Driving down the highway in their SUV, Bill at only the last second saw the 4,500 pound animal standing in the middle of the road. He attempted to evade the pachyderm, but the eight foot Asian elephant was too big to miss. The good news is that neither the humans nor the elephant were seriously injured. The massive mammal had escaped earlier that day from a circus set up at a nearby fairgrounds. It seems to me that there are a few important reminders to consider from this bizarre incident.

IT IS A REMINDER THAT SOME THINGS ARE OUT OF PLACE. Enid is an unusual place to (literally) run into an elephant. Elephants just do not roam our countryside in America. Some things are incongruous and not just elephants running free in Oklahoma. Worldly Christians, aimless shepherds, inactive deacons, scriptureless preachers, warring brethren, and the like are more out of place than an elephant on the lam in Enid!

IT IS A REMINDER THAT SOME THINGS ARE TOTALLY UNEXPECTED. When is the last time your friend or loved one warned you to be on the lookout for elephants on the loose as you drove home? You just do not anticipate the need for such a warning. Some things cannot be foreseen, can they? How many of our trials and difficulties came with clear, sufficient warning? Certainly some do, but many more do not! Furthermore, what a reminder that the second coming of Christ will not come with signs or prescient warnings (1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10; Matt. 24:35). The problems and adversities of this life often cannot be prepared for, but that coming, great, and unexpected day can and must be anticipated.

IT IS A REMINDER THAT EVEN THE BIGGEST ISSUES CAN BE MANAGEABLE. No doubt, Bill’s life flashed before his eyes. As he yelled “elephant” at the last second, he might have had time to think that this would be his last word. Mercifully, all parties escaped serious problems. What at first appeared catastrophic now makes for the story to end all dinner-party stories! How often do our looming problems seem overwhelming and utterly devastating only to pass like a storm with dark clouds and thunder but no damaging winds, rains, or hail? Too many times, we are so paralyzed by fear and worry over our personal challenges that we miss opportunities for spiritual growth and development (cf. 1 Pet. 5:7; 1 Cor. 10:13). We do not face a difficulty too hard for the Lord to handle.

No, you almost certainly will never hit an elephant driving down the highway this side of an African safari. Yet, you will be called to be salt and light in this world, a challenge that may make you awkwardly stand out at times. You will face the unexpected, both now and ultimately. You will also face supersized but surmountable issues in life. Do what you can to prepare, then leave the rest of it in the omnipotent hands of God!

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Mercy Personified

Neal Pollard

Anita Geurink relates the incredible story of locals finding and rescuing a little baby boy who was abandoned in a forest outside Maseru, Lesotho. Hours later, a freak hailstorm pounded the area, damaging windows and roof, causing flooding, and striking the very spot where the baby had just been laying. The little boy already had a name, but it took on great significance in light of these events. His name, translated, means “Mercy” (Anita’s blog post).

When we look over our lives, how many times have we experienced the generous mercy of our God? We do not know what all He has spared us from, how He has protected us, or how He has delivered us. For every instance where we have seen His generous, providential hand, how many times has it been at work behind the scenes unbeknownst to us?

The apostle Paul deals with a difficult subject in Romans 11. God’s sovereign choice, summarized at the end of this discussion, can be hard for us to understand or accept. Paul concludes, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (33-36). But God is neither cruel nor capricious. Paul characterizes Him as one who desires to show mercy to the obedient. The Gentiles received mercy through the rejection and disobedience of the Jews (30). But God still longed to show mercy to the Jews (31). He withholds His mercy only to those who persist in disobedience (32).

If only we can see ourselves as the little orphaned Lesothoan boy, vulnerable and helpless and in need of rescue, we will not harden our hearts against the kindness and mercy of God. Hosea seems to speak of a literal orphan who finds mercy in God (14:3), but the New Testament repeatedly speaks of us as spiritual orphans who received greater mercy, shown by His love, grace, and forgiveness (Eph. 2:4; 1 Pet. 1:3; 2:10; Jude 21).

By no means does God’s mercy exempt us from obedience. On the other hand, we should humble ourselves by remembering, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Ti. 3:5). You and I were more helpless than that abandoned baby in that forest in South Africa. He can enable us to overcome and do great things to His glory, but we must never forget that He does that! Have you thanked God for His “great mercy” today?

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What Do We Make Of God’s Second Chances?

Neal Pollard

We were living in Cairo, Georgia, and I was in the third grade. It was during a game of kickball on the playground and I was the “pitcher.”  A kid kicked it hard and I caught it.  As the ball hit me in the gut, I felt a sharp pain.  Something wasn’t right.  My parents took me that week to see the local doctor.  He thought it might be a hernia. Exploratory surgery in Thomasville instead revealed a tumor on my liver.  My parents and I flew to Atlanta, Georgia, where I was checked into Egleston Children’s Hospital.  Extensive testing there and Emory Hospital, the general campus for Egleston, led my team of doctors to the same conclusion. It was cancerous. They tried to prepare my parents for how slim my chance of survival was.  Even if their diagnosis was wrong, surgery and attending blood loss may well be more than I could stand. My parents maintained great faith, and my dad solicited prayers from congregations all over the place. Dr. Gerald Zwiren, who led a team of highly-skilled doctors, brought the news to my parents that I survived the surgery and later shared the oncology report that my tumor was benign. That was close to 40 years ago and to this point I have never had further complications. I certainly received a second chance.

Periodically, I ponder at length what I have done with that second chance. The scar I bear from that surgery has long since become invisible to my daily view.  I suffer no lingering consequences. That event is certainly not why I chose to become a preacher, as if to try and pay a debt to God for saving me. Sadly, despite His mercy in sparing me, I have sinned in ways great and small that reveal, in addition to all else, a failure to appreciate that blessing. Spiritually, whether as a preacher, husband, father, or Christian, I am saddled with the realization of how far I have to go.  With the help of His Word, His providence, and His strength, I continue to try to make the most of this extra time He gave me back in 1979.

All of us who are New Testament Christians face the same spiritual situation.  We suffered the terminal condition of lostness in sin. By all human calculations and efforts, nothing could be done to save us.  Yet, when we responded to His grace by believing, repenting, and being baptized (cf. Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38), He gave us all a “second chance.”  We passed from death to life.  More than that, God gave us a way to continually receive the benefits of the blood and grace of His Son as we strive to walk in His light (1 Jn. 1:7-10).  You may have messed things up badly in your life.  You may feel that it is impossible for God to love and forgive you.  Friend, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).  God is the God of the second chance!  His diagnosis is perfect, and His is the only one that counts!  Trust in the Great Physician.  He has never lost a patient who followed His prescription!

Picture of me (2nd from left) about a year after the surgery.

Mission Accomplished

Neal Pollard

Reader’s Digest tells the story of Walter Wyatt, Jr., an amateur pilot whose plane goes down in the Atlantic between the Bahamas and Miami, Florida.  He’s in the deep all night, fighting off bull sharks and feeling he will not survive.  He does live and a ship, the Cape York, rescues him after sunrise the next day.  He wearily climbs on board and kisses the deck.  He is saved, but he needed outside help to save him from the depths and from certain death.

So it was with us.  As the song suggests, we were sinking deep in sin and far from the peaceful shore.  Jesus lifted us, and He did so through Calvary.  Yet, He saved us from a fate infinitely worse than death by a physical predator.  Each Lord’s Day, we have the opportunity to remember this as well as He who rescued us.  As Paul once said, “Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:9).  In Hebrews two, we consider three important truths about the Man who saved us from death.

First, He is over us (Hebrews 2:1-10).  He is our Lord and Master.  He is over us by right of accountability (1-3).  In other words, we are reminded that each of us are accountable to Him.  We cannot escape if we neglect so great a salvation!  He is also over us by right of approval (4), namely God’s approval (cf. Matthew 17:5).  During His ministry, Jesus demonstrated His power to prove His identity (cf. Acts 2:22-24).  Further, He is over us by right of authority (5-8).  We read, “For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him.”  Then, He is over us by right of arrangement (10).  He is our Creator.  He made us.  He knows us.  Finally, He is over us by right of affliction.  By virtue of His passion, Christ has compassion.  For all these reasons, we see Jesus as One who is on a par with none.  Before He was in a manger or up on a cross, He was in the beginning with God and as God (cf. John 1:2).

Second, He is like us (Hebrews 2:11-14).   No matter how much we like or dislike a king or president, we may feel like he or she is unreal or unlike us.  We cannot relate to their lives, and we are certain they can relate to ours.  Yet, Jesus, though King of kings, is a Savior who is like us.  We are of the same family, the human family (11).  He associates Himself with us (11-12).  Then, He shared in our humanity to the fullest, to the point of experiencing death for us (14).  Nobody can rightfully say to God, “You don’t know what it is like!  You don’t understand!”  He is fully divine and became fully human, making Him uniquely able to relate to both the Father and humanity.

Finally, He is for us (Hebrews 2:15-18).  The last few verses serve as final pieces of evidence proving how Jesus is on our side.  He has done His part to take the fear out of death (15; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:19-20).  Of all created beings, He gives His aid to us (16).  He longs to be our High Priest (17).  He wants to help us when we are tempted (18).  Of all the Great Cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), who do you think is leading the cheers for those of us trying to make our way through this world and up to heaven?

A decade ago, I said a sentimental goodbye to the “Black Bullet,” my 1985 Chevy Custom Deluxe pickup which I traded in on a “new” 1992 Dodge Dakota.  I had to go to the DMV and transfer my tag and title.  They did not charge much for vanity plates, so I chose “PRCHNG1.”  This seemed clear enough to me.  As I picked up a number at the front counter,  I had my tags in hand and the receptionist saw them.  She said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to try that. I bet that’s so fun. Is it scary?” I was confused. She said, “Your tags. How long have you been parachuting?” PRCHNG1 stands for “Preaching One.” I thought it was clear, but apparently my fellow motorists had been concluding that I was in some airborne division or maybe purchased hand guns. This dear lady misunderstood me, my work, and my interests.

Let us not make that mistake with the Savior we pause to commemorate each Sunday.  He is over us—He’s our King!  He is like us—He’s our brother!  He is for us—He’s our friend!

Remember I Am Dust (Poem)

Neal Pollard

I read the words of David today
They were so full of hope and trust
They spoke of God’s merciful way
That He is mindful we’re but dust.

He knows that transgressions we commit
That His forgiveness is a must
His lovingkindness He gives those who try to quit
Because He knows that we are dust.

Like David, I’m glad God has not dealt
Just with justice toward my anger, sin, and lust
As exalted His nature, so His tender heart will melt
Because He’s mindful we are but dust.

Like a father pities his erring child,
He reacts with compassion, not disgust,
When we fear Him, we learn He’s tender and mild.
He is mindful that we are but dust.

So as I embark on this unique day,
I know God is holy, perfect, and just,
But He balances this with a most merciful way
As He dwells on the fact that we’re but dust.

How should I treat you, my fellow pilgrim
Who’s also driven by imperfection’s fierce gust?
May I see you as I’m seen by Him,
And remember that you are but dust.

Extend you grace and excuse your stumbles,
Be willing to forgive, forget, adjust,
Because David’s inspired truth forever humbles,
He is mindful that we are but dust!

Have We Misunderstood Grace?

Neal Pollard

Perhaps the subject of grace has been neglected in some pulpits and congregations.  Undoubtedly, it has been misunderstood and improperly taught since the first century (cf. Rom. 6:1; Gal. 5:4).  It is vital to properly emphasize and explain such a huge concept within the gospel message.  Why? Because of what it is—the completely free and undeserved expression of God’s lovingkindness and favor toward mankind, because of what it does—brings salvation (Ti. 2:11; Eph. 2:5) and comfort and hope (2 Th. 2:16), and because of what it cost to make available (2 Co. 8:9; Heb. 2:9).  Perhaps some try to restrict God’s grace, making the requirements of Christ more stringent than Scripture teaches.  If we forbid what God permits, we are distorting grace.

However, our age tends toward the other extreme.  Far more try to make God’s grace extend further than Scripture teaches.  This is not novel to our times.  From the time of the early church, some apparently wanted to make God’s grace embrace things it simply does not cover.  Jude contended against some who attempted to have grace cover excessive indulgence in sensual pleasure (Jude 4). By leaving Christ’s grace for another gospel, teachers contradicting the gospel message distort not just the gospel but also grace (Gal. 1:6-9).  Paul also contradicts the idea that continuing in sin, without repentance, is abiding in God’s grace (Rom. 6:1).  Passages like these serve as a warning not to make God’s grace cover what it simply will not.

Grace will not cover willful disobedience, a refusal to repent, a lifestyle or habit, or relationship that violates the expressed will of God.  Some in adulterous marriages defend the relationship, trying to hide behind grace. Some feed addictions, sure that God’s grace will sweep away the guilt of it.  Some refuse to follow God’s plain plan of salvation, claiming that they will ultimately be saved by grace on the day of judgment.  Such ideas and claims are tragic misunderstandings and ignorance of revealed truth.  The source of grace is Divine.  So are the explanation and terms of it.  Paul’s teaching is definitive when he says, “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2).  The life in Christ is a new life (Rom. 6:4), a life characterized by turning away from sin, lust, and unrighteousness (Rom. 6:12-13).

Let us never restrict God’s grace.  By the same token, let us never redefine it—especially to excuse or validate a lifestyle of sin.  How that disgraces and cheapens the act that brought grace, Jesus’ painful sacrifice.  May each of us grow in knowledge and appreciation of this great Bible doctrine!

DID CLAIRE DAVIS’ FATHER FORGIVE HER MURDERER?

Neal Pollard

Claire Davis’ father spoke at a memorial service honoring his daughter, an Arapahoe High School student shot by a classmate who was angry with his debate team coach.  In the course of his extremely emotional, but poignant talk, Michael Davis said, “My wife and I forgive Karl Pierson for what he did.  We would ask all of you here and all of you watching to forgive Karl Pierson. He didn’t know what he was doing” (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_24829368/). This young man entered the school with a shotgun, 125 shells, a machete and three homemade bombs (ibid.).  He ended his own life.  Despite all these facts, Davis says that he forgives Pierson.  Is that possible?

Some say that this is not Mr. Davis’ right nor is he able to do so.  I disagree.  Mr. Davis says that he did and I have no reason to disbelieve him.  His forgiving Pierson cannot effect the young man’s eternal destiny.  He does not have the power to absolve or wash away Karl’s sins.  Only the blood of Christ can do that.  But Mr. Davis’ incredible, magnanimous step is not only possible, it is vital.  Taking the step to forgive someone who has sinned against us is a crucial part of healing our own hearts and preventing ourselves from spiritual struggles like bitterness, anger, hatred, malice, and vindictiveness.

A heart ready to forgive is something that must characterize the Christian, for sure.  He or she may be hurt or violated in some way by a person who is impenitent and brazen.  While the Bible does not suggest that we allow ourselves to be hurt and sinned against repeatedly and without recourse or protection, God’s child eagerly hopes for the best and stands ready to extend forgiveness to others.

Mr. Davis is to be admired for his gesture.  It will not bring his daughter or even that young man back from death, but it may be key to his own mending.  Many who have been sinned against and have stood ready to forgive have found this to be beneficial to themselves.

The Father in heaven will not forgive those who are not abiding faithfully in His Son, but who doubts that He stands ready to welcome the vilest sinner who truly comes to Him?  That disposition could not be more worthy of our adopting.  Even in tragedies like that involving Miss Davis we can be reminded of the power of forgiving!

Are There Diamonds In Antarctica?

Neal Pollard

With the recent discovery of kimberlite on the east coast of Antarctica around Mount Meredith in the Prince Charles Mountains, there is considerable talk that much more may lay beneath the ice and cold at the south pole.  Kimberlite is a type of rock known to contain diamonds, named for Kimberly, South Africa, which lays not far to the north.  It is a rare rock, and the discovery of it in Kimberly led to a 19th-century diamond rush.

Despite the promise and prospect of diamonds in Antarctica, there will not likely be an onslaught of prospectors there.  There is the forbidding cold, isolation, and winter darkness, the meticulous restrictions forged by environmentalists, and how difficult it is to travel there.  For now, it is an interesting discovery.  Whether or not there will be diamond mining there in the future, time will tell (Alister Doyle, Reuters, 12/18/13).

Is it possible that an even bigger treasure is buried, not beneath ice or international treaties, but rather mounds of fear, indifference, and the like?  Paul says “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Co. 4:7).  The treasure is the message of salvation through Christ (cf. 2 Co. 4:2-6) and we are the earthen vessels.  God gets this treasure to the world through us.  But, far too many of us are burying this treasure like one man did in the parable of the talents (Mat. 25:25).  In a similar parable in Luke, a man hides his mina in a handkerchief (19:20).  In both parables, the application is the same.  God does not want us to keep this treasure hidden and inaccessible.

The soul-saving message of grace should not be buried.  We should not keep it in isolation, be cold or forbidding in any way.  God wants every person to have access to this treasure (1 Ti. 2:4), and He is counting on us to share it!