Unanswered Prayers: John 5:1-15

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As we continue in the gospels looking at Jesus’ miracles, we now jump over into John’s gospel, and a miracle that only John chose to include. In this miracle, we discover something amazing about Jesus, about God, and we discover one possible reason why we may not see God’s help in our lives in a more visible way. In this unassuming but powerful passage, we can discover a clue to why we might not see many answered prayers in our lives.

Let’s read this miracle and focus in on what we can learn from what John tells us happened. Our passage is found in the gospel of John, chapter 5, and we will be reading from the Holman Christian Standard Bible. Starting in verse 1, John tells us that:

After this, a Jewish festival took place, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. By the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there is a pool, called Bethesda in Hebrew, which has five colonnades. Within these lay a large number of the sick—blind, lame, and paralyzed. [It is here that some translations add the last phrase of verse 3 and verse 4, which tells us that they were: —waiting for the moving of the water, because an angel would go down into the pool from time to time and stir up the water. Then the first one who got in after the water was stirred up recovered from whatever ailment he had].

After setting the stage in these first four verses, verse 5 begins sharing the details of our miracle:

One man was there who had been sick for 38 years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew he had already been there a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the sick man answered, “I don’t have a man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I’m coming, someone goes down ahead of me.”

“Get up,” Jesus told him, “pick up your mat and walk!” 9a Instantly the man got well, picked up his mat, and started to walk.

Let’s stop reading here to focus on what we can learn from what has just happened. While we don’t know how many people were sick around the pool that day, from a simple reading of this event, we see Jesus enter this place where there was a high concentration of sick people, He heals one man, and then He leaves. We might even conclude that Jesus left every other sick person present without healing them since John doesn’t tell us Jesus healed anyone else.

When reading this event, and concluding that Jesus likely left everyone else in their sick, diseased, or disabled state, we don’t see a very “Christ-like” character. We expect Jesus and God to be loving, and isn’t the most loving thing Jesus could do in this situation was heal everyone present? Healing everyone is loving, but healing everyone does not show us an accurate picture of God.

While we don’t like to think about it, there are some times when God chooses not to heal someone instead of healing them. We cannot know all the answers to why this is, but we can trust that when we are able to see the big picture from God’s perspective, we will understand. Some people choose to discount God’s love or His existence because of this dilemma, but this dilemma only is unsolvable when we see this life as all there is to live.

As soon as we frame our world today as infected with sin, and God’s ultimate goal as saving as many people as possible from this sin while also clearly exposing sin for what it truly is so it will never reappear throughout eternity, we can begin to see why sin might be allowed to persist a little longer. God’s ultimate goal and long-term plan is to end this world that includes pain, disease, death, and sin in order to recreate it as perfect and sinless where it will be this way throughout eternity – and God wants to fill this newly recreated world with His redeemed people. If God ends history too soon, then sin may reappear later, which would be bad. Also, if God ends history too soon, then He may lose one or more people who could have been in heaven with Him. God wants as many people as possible in the new heaven and new earth, and He wants sin gone forever, never to reappear.

However, while this answers why God may not always answer our prayers, this event hints at another reason we never actually see answers to our prayers. This hint comes in the additional details setting the stage for this event, and from the formerly disabled man’s reply. In this event, we learned that periodically, and perhaps even somewhat randomly, an angel would stir the waters of this pool and the first sick person into this pool would be healed.

With how John describes this event, we can conclude that everyone at this pool was focused on getting in the water when it had been stirred. The focus of their hope was not on Jesus but on being healed by the pool. Only the man who had given up hope of ever reaching the pool experienced a visit from Jesus who came to heal him. This detail helps explain why Jesus didn’t heal everyone at this pool, and this detail also tells us why we might not see as many answers to our prayers as we would like.

If we choose to pray as a last resort, or if we choose to pray and then look for resolution for our prayers from sources other than God, we shouldn’t be surprised when we don’t see God answer our prayers. If we constantly look for help from places other than God, it’s only logical that we won’t see God helping much in our lives. However, if we pray and we know that God oftentimes works behind the scenes through the lives of other people and through what we might call coincidences, then we are able to see His hand moving in many more places than we first are able to realize. This is why it is easier to look back on our lives and see how God has lead us in the past than it is to recognize how He is leading us in the present.

God wants to answer our prayers, but He also wants us to give Him gratitude, thanks, and love for being our Provider. When we are grateful to God for everything He has done for us, and when we open our eyes to how He often works, we will begin to see answered prayers, blessings, and evidence for His existence everywhere.

While there’s more we could talk about in this event, let’s wait until our next episode to focus in on it. Until then, as we come to the end of this podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

Always seek God first and decide today to live a life that is grateful towards God for everything that He is doing. If you struggle with how God could let evil persist in the world today, take this question to Him and let Him lead you to an answer. While I’ve shared some of what I’ve learned in this episode, I’m sure there is more to this answer than what we would have time to cover.

Also, always pray and study the Bible for yourself to personally grow closer to God each and every day. The closer you grow towards God, the more His character will rub off on your life and the better you will be at reflecting His love to the world around you. When we are reflecting God’s love in our world, we are living the best lives we can live in spite of the pain, sin, hurt, and hate that rages around us.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or abandon where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Year of Miracles – Episode 24: When Jesus heals one man in a place full of sick people, discover what this event teaches us about God, and why we might experience unanswered prayers.

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Flashback Episode — On the Same Team: Luke 9:51-56

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As we are approaching the half way part of the year, and our half way milestone in the gospels, one might think that we would be about half way through Jesus’ ministry. However, this thought is not correct, because as we approach the middle of each gospel, we learn that most of the gospels dedicate a significant percentage of their space focusing on Jesus’ final week leading up to the cross.

However, in our walk through the gospels for this year, we haven’t arrived at this point just yet. Instead, we come to a passage that may have happened several weeks leading up to Jesus’ final week, as He begins to make His way towards Jerusalem and towards the cross.

In this passage, we can get a picture of God’s character, and this picture challenges each of us regarding how we choose to react when faced with other people who are mean to us. Also found in our passage is a great example of a subtle issue that gets various groups of Christian’s pointing their fingers at each other rather than realize that we are all on the same team – especially regarding the issue found in this passage.

Our passage is found in the gospel of Luke, chapter 9, and we will be reading from the New Century Version. Starting in verse 51, we read that:

51 When the time was coming near for Jesus to depart, he was determined to go to Jerusalem. 52 He sent some messengers ahead of him, who went into a town in Samaria to make everything ready for him. 53 But the people there would not welcome him, because he was set on going to Jerusalem. 54 When James and John, followers of Jesus, saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven and destroy those people?”

55 But Jesus turned and scolded them.

At this point in our passage, most Bible translations either exclude a statement, or they include it with a note. The statement in question is this:

 [And Jesus said, “You don’t know what kind of spirit you belong to. 56 The Son of Man did not come to destroy the souls of people but to save them.”]

Then all translations finish this passage by saying: “Then they went to another town.

The reason I draw emphasis on this distinction between how certain translations vary in their recording of this event is because how people treat this discrepancy is very similar to one big theme found in the passage itself.

In this passage, we find Jesus traveling to Jerusalem, and instead of going the long way around to avoid passing through Samaria, He decides to travel through it. Samaritans and Jews had a very hostile history and they were among the most prejudiced people towards each other that we can find in history.

By this point in Jesus’ ministry, the disciples have already traveled through Samaria a number of times, so it doesn’t surprise them that they decide to go through this region again — however, this might be the first time that a Samaritan town has refused their presence.

The reason: Because Jesus was a Jew traveling to Jerusalem for a festival. Whether this town knew who Jesus was or not, they let their prejudice of Jesus’ ancestry get in the way of them experiencing what Jesus could do for them.

In response, because the town rejected them, two of Jesus’ closest disciples make the suggestion about calling fire from heaven to destroy “those people”.

This passage clearly shows prejudice of both sides, and each side believes they are justified in their actions or suggestions. Both the disciples and the Samaritans fall into an “us vs. them” trap – and if we are not careful, we too can fall into this same trap.

One way this trap has captured the spotlight recently is certain groups of people taking offence at modern translations for “removing” certain key verses or passages. This passage is one great example. The questionable phrase fits completely, and it even helps the dialog of the event. The statements in question give us a frame of reference for how Jesus scolded the disciples for their statement.

The trap for us today is falling into an “us vs. them” mentality because if we see modern translators removing text from the Bible, we might begin distrusting all modern translations because they have been “tampered” with. I recently read an article that focused on this issue.

While I cannot speak for all translations present in the world today, I will say that the majority of the translations that are well-known, modern translations have teams of people much smarter than I who are heartfelt Christian men and women. These people would be appalled at the idea that they are tampering with the text.

Instead, what we are discovering, is that as ancient manuscripts are being discovered and dated, we are learning that the early copies of the writings, including our passage for this episode, actually do not include any details about how Jesus scolded the disciples. Jesus very well could have said the statement in question, but when Luke wrote His gospel, he didn’t include it.

What happened at some point in the manuscript copying process is that a scribe, wanting to help make the idea clearer for those reading, pulled a similar teaching from John’s gospel, and he included it in our passage to help us see God’s character better. It is probable that the scribe looked at John, chapter 3, verse 17, which says “God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world guilty, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

No one on either side of the debate doubts the statements which were added on whether they align with God’s character. In this regard, we are all on the same team. Also, both sides of the debate want the most accurate translations of the Bible available and shared with others. This also makes us all on the same team.

Where we are left to debate is whether we should include the additional insights and cross-references that some well-meaning scribes included as they were copying the Bible. Most passages in question are included in other portions of the Bible. An example of this would be if Matthew included a detail that Luke didn’t. A scribe copying Luke’s gospel who also knows the event from Matthew’s gospel may have included Matthew’s detail in Luke’s version to help Luke’s version be better. In the early years of manuscripts, it was not as easy to compare between translations or gospels as it is today, so we can and should thank these early scribes for their work keeping the scriptures alive throughout the early parts of Christian history. This makes these early scribes part of our same team.

Prejudice doesn’t help anyone. The Samaritans miss out on Jesus because of their prejudice, and the disciples are scolded because they were prejudiced as well. Jesus modeled the right response at the close of this event. Everyone agrees that after scolding the disciples, Jesus and His followers “went to another town.

Not all towns in Samaria were prejudiced against Jesus, and Jesus uses this opportunity to teach His followers to not be prejudiced towards others even if they reject us. Instead, we should simply move on.

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

Be sure to model Jesus’ attitude in this passage. If other people hurt our feelings or reject us, we shouldn’t get mad or revengeful. Instead, we should simply move on. Know that we are all on the same team – especially those of us who have placed Jesus first in our lives.

Also, be sure to pray and study the Bible for yourself and trust that God has kept His message safe for the thousands of years of history we have been keeping track. If you are doubtful about a translation, the best place to go is to the original manuscripts in the original language they were written in. However, if you don’t know the original languages like I don’t know them, then the next best place we can go is to other translations. When we have lots of translations available in our own language, we are able to see a bigger and clearer picture of what the original said when we don’t know the original language of the text. By using lots of translations, God is able to keep His message alive and relevant for us living over 2,000 years later.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or doubt yourself into leaving where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Flashback Episode: Year 4 – Episode 23: When Jesus visits a town in Samaria and is rejected, His followers want to respond in a very cruel way. Discover what Jesus teaches them about their attitudes, and how we can fall into the same trap when comparing this passage from multiple translations of the Bible.

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The Threat of Tradition: Matthew 9:32-34

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Coming immediately on the tail end of the miracle we read about in the last episode, we learn about another miracle that Jesus did, and this miracle both prompts the praise of those present, as well as the ridicule of the religious leaders. In three short verses, we discover an amazing miracle, the people taking notice, and the religious leaders immediately discounting the divine nature of Jesus’ power.

Let’s read what happened then dive into what we can learn that is both interesting and applicable for our lives today. Our passage is found in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 9, and we will be reading from the New American Standard Bible translation. Starting in verse 32, Matthew tells us that:

32 As they were going out, a mute, demon-possessed man was brought to Him. 33 After the demon was cast out, the mute man spoke; and the crowds were amazed, and were saying, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.” 34 But the Pharisees were saying, “He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.”

When reading this miracle, one of the first things that stand out in my mind was that in most of the previous demon-possessed miracles, the evil spirits scream or cry out about Jesus being God’s Son or that they know who He is. However, this miracle is different, because this demon apparently caused muteness.

Perhaps the Pharisees saw this as an opportunity to claim what they decided to claim, namely that Jesus is simply one demon casting out another demon using Satan’s own power. After all, this claim only works if there isn’t a counterclaim being made. Imagine for a moment that the demon coming out of the man claims that Jesus is God’s Son, as many of the other ones had done, and the Pharisees respond by claiming Jesus is just another demon. In an odd twist, we’d be forced to logically side with the demons in their claim because the Pharisees claim would be less believable.

This scenario would be like a person named Bob telling you he is mortal enemies with a guy named Sam, while Bill standing in the corner counters with the claim that Bob and Sam aren’t enemies, but brothers.

In this situation, we’d be better off trusting the claim of those involved and rejecting the third party unless the third party has some strong evidence to back their claim up. In the case of Jesus verses the demons versus the Pharisees, the most logical conclusion is to accept that in this one instance, the demons may actually be truthful.

While Jesus doesn’t respond directly to the Pharisee’s challenge in this passage, they do make the claim again, and at that point Jesus does respond. While I haven’t looked ahead at our schedule yet, I’m pretty sure that event is coming up.

However, what does this mean for us living today?

In my own mind, this event challenges me to check my own motives when I want to claim someone or something is leading people towards God or away from Him. While there are clear examples of each, a gray area does exist where it is difficult to decide on. The example of a gray area is if we see someone who is believing one truth about God and one lie about God leading others to also believe the one truth and one lie. Is this person helping others, or harming them? Sure the new believer is being helped because of the truth, but the lie is not helpful, and, depending on the person and situation, if the lie is exposed as false, will that also negatively affect the close truth, leading to the newly converted person rejecting both?

I honestly don’t believe anyone aside from Jesus knows 100% of the truth, but I also know that the more certain we are about a specific belief, the more closed-minded we can become. I am very likely guilty of being closed-minded on certain subjects as well. Being closed-minded isn’t an issue if the belief is the truth, but when we cannot say we are 100% certain of all truth, then it would be better to remain open-minded, because God is more than willing to teach those who come to Him to learn His truth.

I will be the first to not judge anyone for bringing others to Jesus while believing both truths and lies. There are likely those who believe me to be an example of one such person. In this regard, I am happy to let God judge and sort out the details. However, I am also well aware that there are dangers in following anything other than the Bible. History has proved repeatedly that when the Bible is filtered through anything else, people are deceived and they give up on God’s truth. This is why I try to let the Bible teach as much as possible in these podcast episodes, and these blog posts and podcast episodes actually are ways I challenge myself to let the Bible teach me personally.

Tradition is only as good as it is grounded in scriptures. If a traditional belief or idea counters what the Bible teaches, then we must discard the tradition in favor of the Bible in order to have a clear conscience. The Pharisees were blinded to seeing who Jesus was because they had placed their traditional understanding of the scriptures ahead of a clear reading of it – and because they rejected Jesus in favor of their traditions, they couldn’t help but claim that Jesus was using Satanic forces to heal others rather than using God’s power. If they admitted Jesus was from God, then they would have incriminated themselves for rejecting Him.

The same thing can happen to us today if we filter our reading of the Bible through our tradition. If we only read the Bible looking through the lens of our tradition, we will miss, ignore, discount, or simply reject scriptures that teach the opposite. Those less trapped by tradition in this passage stood in wonder and amazement, saying in verse 33, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel”. These people were less focused on keeping tradition and more focused on paying attention to what God was doing through Jesus right in front of them.

Almost every tradition has roots in some scattered scriptural references. Many of today’s traditions began because of cultural pressure and compromise. Ultimately, traditions are never corrected because of pride. When rejecting a tradition in favor of a Biblical truth, expect pressure from others. Following tradition is easy, but tradition caused the people who should have recognized Jesus, namely the religious leaders who knew the prophecies and the scriptures the best, to reject Him instead. Tradition threatens us in the same way today when we don’t remain grounded in God’s Word!

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

Always seek God first and choose to focus on letting God’s Word be your filter for life. Intentionally push back against tradition until you are 100% certain it is Biblically centered. If there is even 1 verse or passage that does not support a tradition, then you cannot be 100% certain of it.

Also, intentionally pray and study the Bible for yourself in order to let the Bible be your guide and your compass. While other people can give you ideas to think about, their ideas are only as good as they align with what the Bible teaches. Ideas that run counter to the Bible are worthless from the perspective of eternity. As always, let the Bible be your guide and your filter for life.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or deviate away from where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Year of Miracles – Episode 23: When Jesus casts out a mute demon while some Pharisees are present, we discover a new angle on the previous demonic claims about Jesus when comparing it to what the Pharisees say about Jesus. This ultimately leads us into talking about the threat of tradition.

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Flashback Episode — Greatness in God’s Eyes: Luke 9:46-48

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If you have ever believed the disciples were somehow spiritually superior to you or I because they walked with Jesus, you probably haven’t read much of the gospel record. When reading the gospels, it doesn’t take too long to discover a point where the disciples behave in a way that shows their flaws.

Our passage for this episode focuses in on one such time, and when we look at Jesus’ response, we discover a profound idea surrounding God’s character and some things He values when looking at our lives. While our passage for this episode isn’t very long, don’t let its length deceive you from thinking it isn’t relevant. This passage might contain one of the greatest spiritual, and non-spiritual, truths in the entire Bible.

This episode’s passage is found in the gospel of Luke, chapter 9, and we will be reading it from the New International Version of the Bible. Starting in verse 46, we learn that:

46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”

In these three short verses, we not only see the disciples behaving like children by arguing about who would be the greatest among them, we also see Jesus step into their debate and reframe it with a concept that is quite powerful.

To set the stage for the big spiritual truth, Jesus calls a child over to Him. While we don’t know where this child even came from, or whether this child had been following Jesus from a distance, or if this was a toddler who was with his parents near Jesus, all of these details are irrelevant in the big scheme of things. Actually not knowing any details about this child is relevant to the truth Jesus is about to share.

The big idea Jesus wanted to illustrate in this passage is the contrast between where we think greatness is and where God sees greatness. While we see greatness as a stepping up and associating with people who are more important than we are, greatness in God’s eyes is the exact opposite. Greatness in God’s eyes has to do with stepping down and welcoming those who are unknown in Jesus’ name. It is when we welcome those into our lives who cannot do anything special for us that we welcome Jesus, and by welcoming Jesus into our lives in this way, we welcome God the Father, the One who sent Jesus, into our lives as well!

This is a huge spiritual truth, because in this first portion of verse 48, we discover the way to invite Jesus into our lives and hearts.

Jesus follows this truth up with a general principle that is both spiritual and non-spiritual, and while this truth doesn’t sound logical on the surface, it is actually very true. Jesus finishes verse 48 by saying: “For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” In Jesus’ statement, we are challenged with the truth that serving, helping, and welcoming the most outcast among us is where we develop greatness in God’s eyes.

While culture and society place a lot of emphasis on the people at the top being the greatest of any organization, company, or group that has a structure, the truth is that in any structure, the people who get things done are rarely high on the ladder of status. Those who serve well might be stars among their peer-group or team of employees, but they are likely still on the level of doing work rather than the alternate.

In this discussion, the alternate is the managerial group. While typical organizational charts place the managers “above” those doing the work, we would be mistaken to think that managers are more important than the workers are. A manager is only as good as the workers he or she has on their team, and this is true moving all the rest of the way up to the highest levels of management. While the top levels of management might look on the surface like they are important because they have greater responsibility and greater influence than the working group they are responsible for, the workers are still the most important part of the process.

While Jesus shares a counter-cultural truth about greatness in the last part of this verse, this truth is also very spiritual as well. When we look at this statement a little closer, we find the flaw present in the original sin and the self-focused attitude Lucifer had before being kicked out of heaven.

Jesus’ statement in this passage speaks to an eternal truth about God’s kingdom: “For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” Lucifer pushed back at the idea of serving and stepping down being significant for gaining greatness in God’s eyes. Many Biblical scholars point to a passage in the book of Isaiah as describing Lucifer’s character and focus. In Isaiah 14, verses 12-14 we read:

How you have fallen from heaven,
    morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
    you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
    “I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
    above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
    on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.”

In Lucifer’s mind, we see his desire to ascend higher than he was and to become like God. While this sounds ridiculous for us to think about, the principle in this attitude is where we will focus some time discussing. Jesus describes stepping down and serving as the path to greatness, while Lucifer is completely focused on stepping up and increasing his position in heaven.

Lucifer’s sin was pride – specifically a pride that focused on exalting himself above others. We could call this form of pride arrogance, and whether or not he displayed an outward form of arrogance when dealing with other angels, Isaiah’s prophecy and passage teach us that Lucifer’s heart was full of arrogant-pride that was counter to God’s path for greatness.

To contrast Lucifer, meet Jesus. Everything in Jesus’ life was aimed at stepping down and helping others. Jesus is God, and many Bible scholars understand that Jesus first chose to give up His divine form to become an angel (described at the angel Michael in parts of the Bible). When humanity was created, plans were made for Jesus to step down from His role in heaven and become human to teach us what God is like and to save us from sin.

When we read the gospels, we find Jesus loving and helping the lowest in society almost unquestioningly, and Jesus pushes back against the arrogant, religious elite. Jesus even stepped down so far that He took our punishment for sin when He didn’t deserve it.

Jesus models His statement the best, while culture leans towards a Lucifer-inspired model. Jesus modeled how to step down and serve the least among society the best – and Jesus has called His followers to model His life, His focus, and His character. Jesus has called each of us to step down and serve the least among us and when we do, we are seen as great in God’s eyes. When we welcome and serve others in Jesus’ name, we welcome Jesus into our lives, and God the Father with His Holy Spirit comes into our lives as well.

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

Seek God first in your life by serving others. As you move through life, pay attention to opportunities where you can serve others, and especially look for people who cannot repay you back for how you serve them. As God opens your eyes to opportunities where you can help others, know that when you serve and welcome others in Jesus’ name, you are serving and welcoming Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and even God the Father.

Also, as I always challenge you to do, pray and study the Bible for yourself, because in the pages of scripture, we can discover what God is like and we can grow a personal relationship with Him. While a pastor or podcaster can share what they have found that is fascinating and relevant to their own lives with you, only when you personally open the pages of scripture will you grow that personal relationship with God and learn His message for you!

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or drift away from where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Flashback Episode: Year 4 – Episode 22: In three short verses, Jesus shares one of the biggest spiritual concepts in the entire Bible, and in what He shares, we can discover Lucifer’s error, and how Jesus modeled how God wants us to live!

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