Read an Excerpt
3:16 The Numbers of HopeParticipant's Guide
By Max Lucado
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Max Lucado
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE MOST FAMOUS CONVERSATION IN THE BIBLE
SCRIPTURE FOCUS: John 3:1–12
LESSON OBJECTIVE: To discover that real life can only be found in a faith relationship with Jesus Christ and to commit to living within that relationship.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
Nicodemus had to visit Jesus in secret. After all, he was a prominent Jewish leader, a member of the Pharisees. This was the group that had investigated John the Baptist and was now building a case against Jesus. Nicodemus, however, abandoned his role as a prosecutor in order to seek personal answers. Nicodemus knew enough to make him wonder if Jesus really was the fulfillment of the prophecy that was central to the Jewish faith. His colleagues weren't convinced, but Nicodemus was intrigued.
Even though he was curious, Nicodemus reserved judgment. He misunderstood Jesus' words about the new birth. He couldn't seem to grasp the idea that life change is a God-thing; he believed that God could be found in keeping the law and doing the right things. Heaven—for Nicodemus, the Pharisees, and traditionalists—was something to be earned. Jesus offered what Nicodemus was seeking; Nicodemus just wasn't so sure about Jesus' plan.
Your doubts about a faith-based relationship might not be the same as those Nicodemus had. Maybe you wonder if God really cares for you as much as the Bible says he does. Maybe you question God's willingness and desire to intervene in the problems you are facing. For you, salvation might be nothing more than insurance against spending an eternity in hell; it has no present value. Nicodemus tried religion and found it empty. You might be in the same situation.
Nicodemus had religious credentials that he thought were enough. He worked for a religious organization, spoke the religious language, and participated in religious activities. He might not have been the best person in the world, but he certainly wasn't the worst. He was in good standing with God ... or was he?
Jesus told Nicodemus that being good wasn't good enough. Even being religious wouldn't make it possible for Nicodemus to understand what Jesus was talking about. Even though Nicodemus thought he had the spiritual life under control, he was missing the main ingredient—he had never been born again.
What does it mean if you don't remember being born again? It means you might be suffering from Nicodemusitis—the misconception that a person can earn eternal life. You don't earn it. You can't purchase it. You don't get into heaven as part of the family plan. This way of thinking might be new to you; it was new to Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was a professional questioner. He took everything literally. When Jesus said that a person must be born again, Nicodemus was quick to jump on the literal impossibility of such an idea. The Pharisees were good at that.
Some of us would make good Pharisees because we tend to overlook the spiritual significance of biblical instructions, choosing instead to nitpick the minutia. Like defense attorneys, we badger the prosecution's witness, hoping to poke holes in the testimony. If we can just find one loophole, then that instruction won't apply to us.
When Jesus suggested that Nicodemus needed to be born again, he implied something specific—Nicodemus needed to be born from above. Nicodemus was powerless; he had to allow God to do something in his life.
This conversation with Nicodemus leads to what many believe is the most important verse in the entire Bible. People who have hardly read a word of Scripture even know the words in this verse.
It is interesting to look at two contrasts in this verse: God—world; eternal—perish. This is the contrast that resonates throughout Scripture. The world's ways cause us to perish; God's ways lead us to eternal life. There is no other way to obtain eternal life. This single verse of Scripture offers several unbelievable truths—truths that we often find hard to grasp.
Maybe this is the first time you've thought about it in this way. Many of us read through that verse without thinking much about its meaning to our lives. Yet this verse sums up the very core of our faith. Without a thorough understanding of the truths in this verse, our faith will be built on a weak foundation.
Read John 19:38–42. Nicodemus was a changed man. He initially encountered Jesus secretly, but he later took a bold stand for Jesus in a society that was hostile toward Jesus and his followers. The disciples were in hiding when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus claimed Jesus' body and prepared it for burial.
Later, Nicodemus would be able to explain what it means to be born again. Not because he studied it, but because he experienced it. When it comes to your faith, are you studying it or are you experiencing it?
Chapter TwoNO ONE LIKE HIM
SCRIPTURE FOCUS: Isaiah 40:18–31
LESSON OBJECTIVE: To discover that God is in the midst of every detail of life—no matter how small—and to commit to trusting him in every situation.
"To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?" (Isaiah 40:18)
In the book of Isaiah, chapters 40–55 are directed to the Israelites in the early days of their Babylonian captivity. With the glory of David's kingdom and Solomon's temple existing only in their memories, the people lamented their situation. Why were the people in captivity? The answer to that question is a long one, but the generalized reason was their persistent rebellion against God. How had the people rebelled against God? For one, they had abandoned authentic worship in favor of idol worship.
Why would God's people abandon him and pursue worship of meaningless idols? Maybe they were bored or wanted change. Maybe the social pressures were too great. Maybe they got mad at God because he didn't deliver what they wanted according to their schedules. It sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Have you ever asked God, "Why me?" or "Why now?" You might have said it in a different way, but we all have wondered about God's timing and purpose for some events in our lives. Sometimes we aren't very good at connecting our actions with the consequences we experience. We repeatedly disobey, only to question God when we find ourselves square in the middle of the consequences of our disobedience.
Isaiah asks his audience to identify anything that was comparable to God. He specifically asks if God can be compared to an idol made by a craftsman, covered in gold, and adorned with silver. This was the type of idol worshiped by the wealthy in society. The poor people were left to carve their idols from wood. Each socioeconomic group in the culture had its own type of idol.
Maybe some of the Israelites thought God had forgotten them. They felt insignificant and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. We can relate, can't we? When life turns upside down, we must be reminded of the fact that God indeed is in control and that he cares for us.
The very presence of a moral code is evidence of God's existence and concern for every area of our lives. Right and wrong are wired into our makeup long before we understand what they are. People who refuse to acknowledge God have the ability to identify and publicize injustice. Why? Because God implanted that ability in us. The fact that we know what injustice is testifies to the fact that God exists.
The existence of a car forces us to believe there is an assembly plant and designer, even though we've never seen either one. When you turn on your television, you know that there was both an inventor and a manufacturer behind its creation, though you've never met the inventor nor toured the plant.
Can we accept these normal elements of life and ignore the existence of an inventor and a master plan? Only if we have predetermined to deny God's existence.
Read Isaiah 40:18–31. God was disrespected by his followers. They ignored the obvious and chose to worship inanimate objects rather than the living God. It was as if they were speaking about the artist while standing in front of his canvas, his paintbrush in his hand and his pallet still wet. In admiring the work, they complimented something that lacked the ability to create such a work of art rather than complimenting the artist. The artist would be incensed; God likewise.
In this passage, God seems appalled that the Israelites could experience all they had been through and yet turn to idols rather than the Creator. They knew the stories of the crossing of the Red Sea and David and Goliath. They had seen God do incredible things in their lives, yet they ignored him. Now they were whining because they were suffering the consequences of their actions.
The words of John echo through our deepest valleys ... "For God so loved!" We can hear those words when we are on the highest peaks. There is nowhere we can go to escape this undeniable truth. Creation proves it to be true. John didn't question God's existence; he stated it as a foundational, nonnegotiable fact.
There really is no one like God. Scripture is one of the ways in which God reveals himself. Nature is another. Evidence is all around us to prove that God is alive and well. Because he exists, we can be sure he is in control.
When we look back at the lives of some of the biblical writers, we understand that they wrote more from their experiences than their education. Several of the psalms reflect David's personal ups and downs. In the New Testament, we read about Paul's ongoing struggle between his old nature and his new nature. That's why God gave us his Word—so you and I will have a reliable source of wisdom for dealing with everyday life. God loves us that much and more!
Life at times appears to fall to pieces; it seems irreparable. But it's going to be okay. How can you know? Because God so loved the world. And,
Since he has no needs, you cannot tire him. Since he is without age, you cannot lose him. Since he has no sin, you cannot corrupt him.
Chapter ThreeHOPE FOR THE HARD HEART
SCRIPTURE FOCUS: Exodus 32:1–35
LESSON OBJECTIVE: To discover the sources of a hardened heart and to commit to renewing a vibrant relationship with God.
"I have seen these people," the Lord said to Moses, "and they are a stiff-necked people." (Exodus 32:9)
Three months after escaping Egypt, the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai (Horeb) with their memories of the spectacular crossing of the Red Sea. The miraculous crossing reminded them that God was indeed special, since the same sea that allowed their crossing on dry land swallowed up Pharaoh and his chariots. Their celebration on the eastern shore of the Red Sea was definitely a celebration of praise. They headed southeast toward Mount Sinai because Moses had been instructed not to head northeast through Philistia (Exodus 13:17). Through a series of miracles, God demonstrated to the Israelites his power and presence. Upon arrival at Mount Sinai, Moses ascended the mountain for instructions from God (Exodus 19). He was told to remind the people of what God had done on their behalf and what had happened to the Egyptians who opposed him. The people were in agreement—God had proven himself to them. In Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites. These instructions regulated the relationships between God's people and God and between God's people and themselves. God followed these instructions with regulations that applied to almost every area of life. Moses' extended stay on the mountain tested the patience of the Israelites who thought that their journey to the promised land would be a short one. Their memories of God's actions on their behalf faded and they began to grumble and complain.
A hardened heart is not uncommon today. It can happen to anyone, regardless of his or her personal or spiritual strength. A hardened heart is evidence of a spiritual problem. That's what happened to the Israelites; that's what happens to us. Describe the last time you experienced a hardened heart. What caused it?
The Israelites grew spiritually impatient. They didn't want to wait for Moses to return from his meeting with God; they didn't want to waste time on their way to the promised land. We have the same problem—we grow impatient when God doesn't do things according to our schedules. We get angry when we don't understand why the journey is taking so long. We begin to question God's love for us. We say, "Maybe God loves some people, but he obviously doesn't love me."
John 3:16 tells us that "God so loved the world...." That's an all-inclusive statement that we often overlook. The Israelites made the mistake of believing that God's love was limited to those he favored. We often conclude that some people have God's favor while others don't. We easily forget what God has done for us in the past and begin feeling sorry for ourselves.
The Israelites wanted a god they could see and touch; we can easily fall into the same way of thinking. They melted their valuables and fashioned a golden calf; we trade what really matters for modern-day idols—possessions, appearance, popularity, wealth, and even religion.
Read Exodus 32:1–35. The calf wasn't just a convenient image to worship; it was reminiscent of the cow and the bull that were part of Egyptian worship rituals. The bull also was part of the Baal worship of the Canaanite culture. The Israelites watered down their faith by including elements of other religious practices. Something they thought would strengthen their faith actually weakened it.
Why did the Israelites make such a tragic mistake? In a word, they were afraid. Being afraid isn't an offense to God, but how we respond to our fears can be a problem. When the Israelites were scared, they reverted to something in their past. Even though they had been slaves in Egypt, life back then was predictable. Like the Israelites, when we are scared, we seek out the most recent stability ... even if that stability is negative.
The end of the story of the golden calf is more tragic than its beginning. The people were permanently affected by their decision to turn their backs on God. According to verse 35, the people were plagued because of what they did.
The Israelites probably had a series of "if only" moments. If only they had remained faithful to God. If only they had resisted the urge to worship the golden calf. If only they had waited patiently for the Lord. If only ...
The bad news is that we often live with the consequences of our sins. The good news is that God is the God of forgiveness and restoration. We can be in a right relationship with God even after we have let him down. We can move forward, leaving the mistakes of the past behind us.
Read Psalm 71:14–15. Read this passage again as a personal declaration of your attitude toward life. By daily remembering what God has done for you in the past, you will become more and more resistant to developing a hardened heart.
Excerpted from 3:16 The Numbers of Hope by Max Lucado Copyright © 2011 by Max Lucado. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.