Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


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The Strength of an Ox

I was 21 years old, entering my senior year of college at Cal Poly. It was training camp. I had returned to playing football at Cal Poly after taking my junior year off. I had felt a clear call from God a few months earlier to return to football to be a witness for Christ on the football team and to all the athletes at Cal Poly. At the time, there was really no witness for Christ in that arena to speak of. All the scholarship athletes lived in what were called “the Jock Dorms” and it was a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah — a very dark place with a lot of bad stuff going on.

As training camp began, I was feeling pretty alone. I also felt overwhelmed with the task ahead of me, not only contributing on the field, but more so in my Christian witness. On both counts, the odds were stacked against me!

One day I came home from practice and noticed a scrap of paper someone had taped to my door at the dorm. I pulled it off and read the words,

Where there are no oxen, there is no grain;
          abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.

To be honest, at first reading I had no idea what this verse meant or how it related to me. But the more I pondered it, the more I began to see that I was that ox! Abundant crops come through the strength of just one ox! I believed then, and I believe today, that God was speaking to me through that obscure verse. He was saying, “I see you. I know you feel alone. I know you feel overwhelmed by the task. But I am with you and I will use you. Your efforts will result in abundant harvest for my kingdom.”

This was the encouragement I needed to keep on going. The results were exactly what God had promised. Within a year there were 40 athletes attending a bible study. Several of them came to Christ and are serving Jesus today. It encourages me to remember that it only takes one faithful man to make a big difference.

To this day, I do not know who left that note on my door, but I am thankful that they took the time to think about encouraging me. We all need encouragement, and there’s nothing more encouraging than a word from God.


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Prone to Wander

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.

Those words come from a line in an old hymn written in 1757 by a 22-year-old named Robert Robinson. They express an important biblical truth — we’re prone to wander away from God. Sometimes it happens without us even being aware of it. Psalm 119:10 says, With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. I’ve been thinking lately about why we’re so prone to wander. Four biblical characters come to mind, each having wandered for different reasons.

Abraham wandered because he failed to trust God in a crisis. God called Abraham to leave his home and travel hundreds of miles to arrive in an unknown land of promise. The first thing he did was build an altar to worship the God who brought him there. The journey was off to a great start. But no sooner had he arrived in Canaan that he encountered a crisis — a famine. This was his first opportunity in this new land to trust God. But instead we read, Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. There’s more going on here than Abraham running to the next town to buy groceries. God never told him to go to Egypt. He never consulted God about this. In the Old Testament, Egypt almost always represents a worldly response to a spiritual challenge. Instead of trusting God to provide in Canaan, he took matters into his own hands. The journey of faith isn’t easy. The moment you make a decision to follow God, you can count on something going wrong; some disappointment, setback, or temptation. God allows these things so he can meet us there and reveal his character and shape ours. So one of the ways to prevent wandering is to trust him when life throws you an unexpected challenge.

Solomon wandered because he made small compromises that set him on a bad trajectory. Another example is King Solomon of Israel. This guy was blessed with a great model in his father, David. Early on God offered to fulfill any request he made. Solomon asked for wisdom. God was so pleased that he asked for wisdom and not wealth that he gave him both. So he was not only the wisest man on the face of the earth, he was also one of the wealthiest and most powerful. But he wandered. It started when he made a small compromise: Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt and married his daughter.” That’s what kings did back then — they made political alliances thru marriage. But God had clearly said not to do that. We might say, “Okay, he slipped up. No big deal.” But a few chapters later it says this: King Solomon… loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter… As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God… All that started with a small compromise. Sin always has a trajectory. It almost always starts with a small compromise, a minor concession, a brief indulgence, but that can make a huge difference in your eventual destination.

Peter wandered because he was overconfident. Peter was one of the original apostles chosen by Jesus. He was the first one to discern that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. But the night before Jesus was crucified, something happened that forever changed Peter. At a meal with his twelve disciples, Jesus announced that he was going away.

Peter asked, Lord, where are you going?

Jesus replied, Where I am going you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.

Then Peter said,Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.

Then Jesus said, Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!

That very night, while Jesus was on trial, Peter denied three times knowing Jesus. It’s a classic case of overconfidence. One of the things that will make us vulnerable to wandering is thinking we could never wander! Because when we’re overconfident we let down our guard, and when we let down our guard, we’re sure to fall. We need to stay humble and dependent, knowing how prone to wander we really are!

Martha wandered because she was distracted with many things. Martha and her sister Mary were some of Jesus’ best friends. One night Jesus and his disciples were at their house for dinner. Here’s what happened: Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.You can understand why Martha is upset. They had to feed 16 people and her sister isn’t lifting a finger. But Jesus’ response may surprise you: “But the Lord answered her, Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her. It’s clear that Mary gets the high grade and Martha the low one. But why? It’s not that serving is bad and sitting around is good, but Martha was so distracted with serving she forgot about Jesus! Sometimes we wander from the Lord because we’re distracted with other things, even good things can become bad things if they cause us to take our eyes off of the Lord and stop listening to him, as Mary was doing.

What do you do when you’ve wandered away from the Lord? The first thing is simply to admit it. This sounds simple, but the further away you get, the harder it is to do. But you’ve got to admit it to the Lord. God just wants us to stop hiding and be honest with him. And when we do that, we can count on his grace. Ps. 51:17 says, A broken and contrite heart, you, God, will not despise.Second, take some time to reflect on what happened and why it happened. Do a kind of post mortem. What can you learn from it? How can you avoid making the same mistake twice? Finally, build some accountability into your life. Having others in your life that you give permission to ask you the hard questions will keep you accountable. As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.


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Is Grace Common?

Do you know what an oxymoron is? An example of an oxymoron is the phrase “jumbo shrimp.” With an oxymoron, the words that are used to describe a particular thing seem to be self-contradictory, or at least they are two things that don’t seem to go together. From this perspective, one might say that the phrase “common grace” is such an oxymoron. How can God’s grace be deemed “common?” Though God’s grace in one sense is commonplace, it is always something that He gives that is undeserved by us. That God bestows any grace at all upon us is an uncommon manifestation of His kindness. We don’t earn or deserve such benefits.

Common grace is a term used to describe the goodness of God to all people universally. Common grace restrains sin and the effects of sin on the human race. Common grace is what keeps humanity from descending into the depths of evil that we’d see if the full expression of our sinful nature were allowed to have free reign.

We’re totally depraved—tainted with sin in every aspect of our being (Rom. 3:10–18). People who doubt this ask, “How can people who are totally depraved enjoy beauty, have a sense of right and wrong, perform acts of goodness, know the pangs of a wounded conscience, or produce great works of art and literature? Aren’t these accomplishments of humanity proof that the human race is essentially good? Don’t these things testify to the basic goodness of human nature?”

The answer is no. Human nature is utterly corrupt. “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10). But common grace is what restrains the full expression of human sinfulness. God has graciously given us a conscience, which enables us to know the difference between right and wrong (Rom. 2:15). He maintains order in human society through government (Rom. 13:1–5). He allows us to admire beauty and goodness (Ps. 50:2). He gives tokens of His kindness on both the good and the evil (Matt. 5:45). All of those things are the result of God’s goodness to people in general.

Common grace does not pardon sin or redeem sinners, but it is still a sincere token of God’s goodwill to mankind in general. The apostle Paul said, “In Him we live and move and exist … for we also are His offspring” (Acts 17:28). That includes everyone on earth, not just those God saves. God deals with us all as His offspring, people made in His image. “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works” (Ps. 145:9).

Acts 14 contains a nice description of common grace. Paul and Barnabas were ministering at Lystra, and Paul healed a lame man. The crowds saw it and someone began saying that Paul was Zeus and Barnabas was Hermes. The priest at the local temple of Zeus wanted to organize a sacrifice to Zeus. But when Paul and Barnabas heard about it, they said, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them. And in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

That is a fine description of common grace. While allowing sinners to “go their own ways,” God nevertheless bestows on them tokens of His goodness and kindness. It is not saving grace. But it is a genuine manifestation of God’s love to all people.


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7 Takeaways from the Book of Joshua

We’re all familiar with the well-worn acronym TGIF. Personally, I’ve never been able to relate. Why? Because I’m a pastor and my work week is just ramping up on Friday. For over 30 years my Sabbath has been on Monday, so Thank God It’s Monday fits much better for my life. Monday is a day of rest and refreshment for me. Often you will find me down at my favorite coffee place on Monday afternoon just hanging out and reading a good book.

I also like to write. For this reason, I am calling this new blog TGIM. I hope to write a bit each Monday and share my musings. It may not be anything profound, but more and more I find God shows up in the ordinary. Here is my first blog post with a few thoughts on a recent sermon series we did in the book of Joshua last fall at CPC.

Our teaching team at CPC just finished a series we started back in September on the book of Joshua. It was called “Ventures in Faith.” Here are my seven take-aways from the book of Joshua:

  1. Leadership matters: Joshua was a great leader who God commissioned to lead his people. He led with faith and determination from start to finish. At the end of the book he dies and he is given the highest honor—being called “the servant of God.” In what ways is God grooming you as a servant-leader?
  2. God calls us into situations that are over our heads so we will trust in Him: Throughout the book of Joshua, God calls his people to be strong and courageous because God is with them and he will fight for them. Israel was in way over their heads but God came through when they trusted in him. What is God calling you to that seems way over your head?
  3. God works in surprising ways through surprising people: Who could have predicted that God would use the faith of a harlot named Rahab to help deliver his people? Who could have predicted that Israel would defeat Jericho by marching around the city blowing horns? Do you underestimate God’s ability to surprise you in how he works and who he uses?
  4. God’s faithfulness in the past should fuel our faith for today: Over and over again God rehearses his past faithfulness to Israel to give them a foundation for faith and obedience in the present and the future. He even makes them set up stones of remembrance so they won’t forget. How well do you remember God’s faithfulness to you?
  5. We must not compromise in our obedience to God: Israel had to learn this the hard way as they watched Achan and his family stoned to death because he disobeyed God’s explicit instructions and hid some of the devoted things in his tent. Are you compromising in your obedience God?
  6. Pursue unity through truth and love: I love the story in chapter 21 of how a misunderstanding between God’s people that could have ended badly was worked out by practicing both truth and love. Do you pursue unity through truth and love?
  7. It’s never too late: Who can forget Caleb, as an old man, asking Joshua to let him take more land and defeat the giants that remained there? Are you letting your age limit your determination to make a difference for God?

I’ve loved studying and preaching this book! For those of you who heard these messages at CPC from our teaching team, I hope you won’t forget either. If CPC is not your home church, you can find all the messages on our CPC website.


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Growing Spiritually Strong Families

How can you grow a spiritually strong family? This is one of the questions our church is exploring as we began a series last week called, Building a Home: One Room at a Time. We’ll go from room to room in a typical house and talk about things like parenting, marriage, siblings, children, communication and conflict resolution. In my reading this past week I found a helpful little handbook by Dennis and Barbara Rainey called, Growing a Spiritually Strong Family. They had ten tips for couples who want their families to grow deeply in the soil of God’s love:

  1. Sink your roots: The best thing you can do for your kids is develop your own relationship with Jesus through the classic means of grace, like prayer, confession, reading the Bible and cultivating deep relationships with other believers. It starts with you. You can’t pass on anything you haven’t fully bought into.
  2. Pray with your mate: This may be the hardest yet most significant thing for couples to do. Less than 8% of believing couples pray together regularly and only 3% pray together every day. If you do this, I guarantee it will change your marriage! It’s hard to be mad at each other and pray at the same time. Find creative ways to do this. My wife and I have some of our best prayer times on long walks, and we’ve seen some remarkable answers.
  3. Give your children you: The greatest gift you can give your child is yourself. Carve out time for them. When they’re in the mood to talk, drop everything and give them your undivided attention. Give them lots of bear hugs, kisses and pats on the back. Give them you!
  4. Eat right: Find a way to read and discuss God, Jesus and the Bible as a family. Make this a part of your everyday conversation rather than a once a week mandatory sit down. Find creative ways to spice things up like discussing a movie that touches on some area of biblical truth, throwing out questions with no easy answers or letting one of your kids lead a devotional.
  5. Set the course: Determine what your core values are as a family. What’s non-negotiable? One day one of our daughters announced she would no longer be going to church with us. Yeah, right! Lynn and I decided early on that church wasn’t a negotiable activity for our kids as long as they were under our roof. She wasn’t a happy camper but her resistance didn’t last long and today she holds that value in her own family.
  6. Romance your mate: Go on regular dates together. Study your spouse and know her well enough to know what communicates love to her. By the way, there’s a high likelihood it’s different from what communicates love to you. Don’t be afraid to show physical affection to your spouse in front of your kids. They may act grossed out, but deep down they’ll love it!
  7. Train your disciples: One of the best things our family ever did when our kids were young was take a mission trip to Mexico. Experiences like this stretch our kids’ faith and give them the thrill of seeing God use them to change lives. Each of my kids has traveled with me on ministry trips outside of the country and it’s been a great way to instill in them a vision for something bigger than themselves
  8. Fight the darkness: You need to be aware of the darkness in our culture and how it threatens your family. What kinds of movies and TV shows will you watch? Who will your kids date? By the way, I’ve found that just because other “Christian” families allow their kids to do something doesn’t mean it’s right for your family.
  9. Rest and refresh: Every family needs to make time during the week to set aside the work and the chores and just be together. God created the Sabbath not as a noose around our neck but to bless us. Try to set aside one day a week that’s different from the others in that it’s not about “doing” but rather “being.”
  10. Keep your covenant: Your marriage is the foundation for your family. It’s a covenant relationship you entered into before God who has made you one flesh. There is no room for the “D” word in your vocabulary.

 

I appreciate the Raineys’ wisdom. We have no guarantees that our kids will follow Jesus as adults, but I believe these are the kinds of things God uses to draw them to himself. My wife and I have had seasons where we’ve done many of these well, and not so well. Perhaps you to go down the list with your spouse and ask how you’re doing in each area. Decide how you’ll shore up those weak areas. Families are always a work in progress and sometimes we just need some markers along the way to help us measure how we’re doing.


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A New Devotional for the New Year

Over the past few years I have compiled devotions which have been taken directly from sermons written by Ray C. Stedman, pastor of Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California. The first set of devotions titled, The Power of His Presence, has 7,700 daily email subscribers. The second set of devotions titled, Immeasurably More, is set to begin tomorrow. 

These devotions seek to be true to Stedman’s commitment to book-by-book exposition. Each month a different book, or major portion of a book, is explored from beginning to end in bite-sized pieces, alternating from month to month between New and Old Testament books. Each selection is designed to be accompanied with an open Bible, as it includes a portion of Scripture to be read along with an excerpt from one of Stedman’s sermons on the same passage. Additionally, at the beginning of each selection is a printed verse from the passage that serves as the focal point of Stedman’s comments. A prayer at the end of each selection helps readers apply the lessons they have learned from that passage to their lives.

As a new year brings the start of new beginnings, it is my hope that these devotions will provide a spiritual diet for growing believers who desire to know more of the power of His presence in their lives. The following link will always bring you to the devotional for the day so you may wish to bookmark it in your browser. Give it a try to get started with today’s: Daily Devotional


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The Battle for the Baby

What really happened at the first Christmas? Revelation 12:1-5 takes us behind the scenes of the first Christmas and helps us to see what in reality was happening. We might call it “the battle for the baby.” Envision the scene in your mind as it unfolds:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. Rev. 12:1–5

The book of Revelation has fascinated and bewildered Christians for years. George Bernard Shaw saw it as the “curious record of the visions of a drug addict.” But this scene really has a very clear message about the first Christmas. To understand it we need to first identify the principle characters.

The first character is a woman. She represents the nation Israel. Throughout the OT Israel is depicted as a woman about to give birth. She was chosen as God’s instrument to bring the Messiah into the world. She was the womb through which Christ was formed and out of which he came and this was a great honor but also a great pain.

The second character is the dragon, who is pictured standing before the woman prepared to devour the baby when he was born. Later we read of the great dragon, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan. From the day he was born Jesus was the object of Satan’s vicious intent to destroy him or at least to keep him from accomplishing his mission. The impression we have here is that the baby doesn’t have a chance! How will the newborn baby possibly stand up to a great dragon with seven heads and ten horns?

The third character is the child that is born. A male child, a son, was born who is Jesus Christ. He will “rule the nations with an iron scepter.” This child is the One who ultimately rules, not the dragon. All that John tells us about Jesus is that he was born and then was snatched up to God and to his throne. That’s the shortest life of Christ ever written! Christ was born and 40 days after his resurrection he ascended into heaven, was seated at the right hand of the Father where he rules over his people and from where he will come again in judgement. The important thing is that the great dragon was unable to devour the baby. Satan tried and tried and tried in various ways to keep Christ from accomplishing the Father’s purpose in being the spotless lamb of God that would atone for the sins of the world by his voluntary offering of himself on the cross, but he failed.

This scene gives unique insight into the birth of Christ. This is a different picture than the typical manger scene you might see on the latest Hallmark card. In the quiet, peaceful barn among the cows and goats and shepherds and wise men and Joseph there was a dragon on the loose and his sole intent was to devour (lit. “eat”) the baby. We like to think of this baby as tender and mild but the fact is he is destined to rule the nations with an iron scepter. He will shatter his enemies like earthenware. The manger was a violent scene where great powers clashed and great things were at stake. It was Robert Southwell who wrote back in the second century:

This little babe so few days old 

is come to rifle Satan’s fold. 

All hell doth at his presence quake

though he himself for cold do shake. 

Do not buy into a “Hallmark Christmas”. The world wants to keep Christmas tame. Who can argue with a cute little baby lying in a pile of soft hay? The world likes Christmas as long as it’s safe, but it’s not safe. The coming of Christ was the focal point of a great battle, a battle that has been waged throughout eternity. The bottom line is that Jesus has won. The fatal blow had been delivered, one that would result in Satan’s complete demise. The joy and peace we celebrate at Christmas is the result of knowing and trusting in the victory of the One destined to rule the nations with an iron scepter!