In 1983, Paul and Betty Neff lost four of their five children when a fire destroyed their home just days before Christmas. Six years later their only remaining son was killed. Through it all, the Neffs learned how Jesus can take our grief and make something beautiful.
by Nancy Justice
Betty Neff was 23 and a first-time mother when she dreamed she visited heaven:
"I was a young girl dressed in a flowing white dress, running barefoot through a soft grassy meadow. Flowers were everywhere, in bright, radiant colors.
"I came to a small hill and immediately recognized Jesus standing at the top. He wore a long, white robe with a blue sash draped over one shoulder and wrapped around His waist. I couldn't see their faces, but there were four children on Jesus' right side and a person the size of an adult on His left.
"I'll never forget Jesus' eyes—they seemed bottomless, as if they enveloped me. I kept running but started to trip several times. Each time Jesus was able to help me up without ever leaving the youngsters. And then ... I couldn't see Him anymore ... ."
It was a week before Christmas 1983. "Please, Daddy, oh, please! It just won't be the same without you there," Paul and Betty Neff's youngsters pleaded, hammering away at their dad's refusal to attend their Christmas play at church that afternoon. Paul, a 37-year-old, 222-pound ex-Marine who had fought some pretty tough battles in Vietnam, realized that in this case it would be easier to surrender.
"OK, I'll go," he announced.
Standing nearby, Betty, 36, watched and smiled. Her children—Gabrielle, 7; Amanda, 8; Christiana, 10; Jon, 11; and David, 13—were special; people around their small town of Grove City, Ohio, often said so. Each had accepted Christ and been filled with the Holy Spirit at an early age.
But Betty's pride was tinged with sadness. In recent weeks she had had difficulty explaining to the children why Daddy wasn't going to church. Her own understanding was wearing thin.
Just two weeks ago Paul had been out drinking again—this time coming home with his forearm in a cast from busting out a car window during an argument. Yet he remained a loving father. His favorite time of day was when he came home from work to play with his kids.
That Sunday afternoon, he and Betty sat in the back of the small country church and watched their youngsters help portray the Christmas story. Paul's fatherly pride was soon replaced with an overwhelming sense of conviction. There, amid little shepherds in bedsheets and wise
men in bathrobes, he found himself weeping silently and asking for God's forgiveness.
At home that night, Betty handed out homemade cookies and mugs of hot cocoa while Paul strung up lights on the Christmas tree and led the kids in Christmas carols. Betty couldn't decide which were brighter: the lights on the tree or the sparkles in her children's eyes. They were so delighted—Daddy was back in church!
After they had been sent upstairs to bed, the girls sneaked into their brothers' room. They listened to Christmas stories on the radio until they all fell asleep lying across the big double bed.
Paul and Betty had decided to live in the country so their children "would be one another's best friends." Their two-story, five-bedroom farmhouse, about 15 miles outside Columbus, sat on three acres of farmland and had a barn for the animals.
Explaining the reality of angelic beings in everyday life
by Ron Phillips
Angelic activity always increases at times of great spiritual breakthrough in the kingdom of God. Christmas was just such a moment in history. At the first advent of Christ, the earth exploded with angelic activity.
God sent angels to make announcements to all who took part in the birth of the Savior. Gabriel the angel appeared to the priest Zacharias and told him: "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John" (Luke 1:13). Soon after, Elizabeth was pregnant with the Messiah's forerunner, John the Baptist.
Gabriel was sent to Mary, Jesus' mother, to herald her as the woman chosen by God to birth His Son. Joseph was reassured of Mary's virginal purity by an angel who appeared to him in a dream. An angel directed the shepherds to Bethlehem so they could find the stable and manger where Jesus was. The same angel along with countless others serenaded above the shepherds' field.
Angelic activity increases when God releases the supernatural into the natural. And angelic ministry increases when our faith responds to the Word of God. Just as the first Christmas was a season of miracles, so it is now. You and I can learn to move on "miracle ground" where God's angels operate.
Angels Move on Miracle Ground
The point is this: Because Jesus reigns as King the kingdom of God has come. Therefore, we live today in a time of kingdom breakthrough. These are the last days, and angelic activity is increasing, bringing with it miracles from God. The reason for this rise in supernatural operations is twofold.
First, as we move toward the end, human options begin to dwindle. Our ingenuity has created a world that is rushing toward ruin and chaos. As this time approaches, God releases more angelic intervention to miraculously protect His people and promote His kingdom.
Second, for the last century the church has been experiencing the renewal and restoration of the Pentecostal gifts. Beginning with the Azusa Street Revival in the early 1900s and continuing to this day, a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit has been sweeping across our world. Conversions to Christianity in developing countries are reaching record numbers. Even the Islamic world is being powerfully impacted by the supernatural. Angels are appearing there even where there's no missionary presence.
As charismatic ministry is increasingly embraced, old divisions are falling away, and kingdom unity is spreading worldwide. The last-days church must be kingdom-focused if we hope to see a release of the supernatural, which includes miraculous angelic assistance.
It is essential for us to know how to be in a prime position to receive and activate this supernatural influence of angels in our world. One of the main things we need to understand is how the kingdom of God works in relation to us and our earthly realm.
There are certain kingdom laws in the Word of God that angels abide by, and if we are to benefit from having angels as our allies, we too must abide by those laws. Here are a few points to help us understand God's kingdom and make this connection between the kingdom laws and our angelic allies.
1. The kingdom of God dwells within us. If Jesus is Lord in our lives, then His kingdom has come through us (Luke 17:21). Yet we will only have full access to it and its resources when we are born again by the Spirit of God (John 3:5.) This access to kingdom resources requires a willingness to change (repent) and a submissive, broken spirit (Matt. 3:2; 6:33.) With the kingdom of God being present all around us through angelic miracles, with old walls between churches being broken down, and with miraculous conversions occurring in the Islamic countries, it is clear that we are living in a time of kingdom breakthrough.
2. The kingdom of God is also yet to come. We do not yet see all the aspects and inner workings of God's kingdom (Heb. 2:8-9). Its "fullness" is still to come because we are still waiting for Jesus to return. Jesus also confirms this in John 18:36 by saying the kingdom of God is "not of this world."
3. The kingdom of God intensifies through the Holy Spirit. In the letters of the apostle Paul, he calls the baptism of the Holy Spirit a guarantee of the powers of the world to come in the here and now! Furthermore, the powers of the kingdom are released at our sealing and anointing (2 Cor. 1:21-22; Eph. 1:14). I am convinced that many Christians are children of the kingdom but are not sons! All who are saved are children, yet the rights of sonship—which include angels, miracles, and signs and wonders—belong to those who have been baptized in the Holy Spirit.
4. The kingdom of God brings power and life into the world. Angels are a part of that realm we call the kingdom of heaven. When a church or a believer is willing to sell out to all God has, the angelic activity will increase exponentially! In a suffering, sad and dirty world we need this kingdom that is "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17) to be activated.
Let's look now at some of the ways angels impact our world with kingdom power.
How we can help people in our congregations move into the holiday season as ambassadors of God's love.
by Jack Hayford
I was wonderfully reminded of something recently—oh, the power of it!—something that could change your Thanksgiving and charge your Christmas this year—and I don't mean on a credit card! The reminder came while I was completing my book—a book with "blessing" in the title. I had almost missed including one of the mightiest truths about that word.
Briefly, the book is titled Blessing Your Children: How You Can Love the Kids in Your Life. It's an eight-chapter piece born of hundreds of counseling sessions and dozens of parenting-seminar presentations and is designed for teachers, children's workers and all who have a place of potential influence on a child's life, as well as young parents, providing them with practical guidance and biblical wisdom.
With four kids, 11 grandkids and having pastored a lot of people for a lot of years, I was pleased when a publisher asked me to prepare a parenting tool that would be something other than the usual—something that also would be useful for anyone who had kids in his or her life, whether or not he or she were parents.
This isn't a book review column, so I won't describe the other seven chapters, but the following is adapted from the chapter titled "Speaking Blessings Over Your Children." I've adjusted it to broader application here, at an appropriate time, with both Thanksgiving and Christmas facing most of the people in our churches with family exposures—sometimes delightful, sometimes otherwise. It occurred to me that such "blessing" may have a redemptively dynamic potential in such seasonal settings.
Blessing in prayer and conversation I can't help but think of times people have described to me the holiday difficulties of being among family or friends with whom certain strain exists. Sometimes the cause is related to painful issues from the past, and other times it's that unbelieving family members resent the believers. (Sadly, on occasion, this happens when believers conduct themselves unwisely at family gatherings, seeking to "scalp-hunt for God" rather than simply showing love and respect to family members and letting the Holy Spirit take it from there.)
I also remember the testimonies we have received through the years in our own congregation—stories of family members ultimately won to Christ by being blessed rather than by being made to feel either "less than" or "disapproved by" their believing relatives. The strategy: Carry warmly expressed and lovingly worded blessings into your holiday gatherings.
"Could I please speak a blessing of love over all of us?" is an offer that is hard to turn down. This can be done at either a personal or group level—and it can be done in conversation just as well as in a formal bow-your-head prayer. It can even be presented to the family as a toast, a gesture that can be offered with water in your glass irrespective of whatever anyone else has in theirs.
Preparing 'blessors'. To help people toward this means of touching their families—especially at holiday times—I have done some special teachings on "The Power of Blessing." It is always amazing how God has conferred a capacity for our words to cause things to happen, and it is within the broader scope of this remarkable truth that the privilege and the power of speaking blessings function.
What comes to mind when you think of Santa Claus? Probably jolly ol' St. Nick in his red suit, a snowy North Pole, a sleigh pulled by reindeer, gifts for Christmas or similar images. But there's more to "St. Nick" than just the nickname.
History tells us that an actual Christian saint by the name of Nicholas ministered in the fourth century. Mythologized and secularized though he has been, Nicholas' deeds of compassion were authentic.
Nicholas was born in the port city of Patara in Asia Minor around A.D. 280. When he was still young he came to faith in Christ, due primarily to an uncle who was a priest. When he was about 10 years old, a plague swept Patara killing many, including Nicholas' parents. His uncle placed him in a monastery, an act of kindness in those times.
At 19 Nicholas became a priest, and at 20 he became the bishop of Myra Lysia, now Demre, a city near Patara. He became known as a compassionate bishop who had a great love for the poor, disenfranchised and morally bankrupt.
Nicholas' acts of mercy soon became the stuff of legends. The most famous story regards his wealthy friend, a shipping merchant, who was reduced to poverty overnight. This man had three daughters of marrying age. In those days a young woman could not marry unless her father provided a dowry for her; without one, she was doomed to a lifetime of loneliness and poverty.
Nicholas had the resources to help his friend but knew the offer of such assistance would humiliate the man—who would never be able to repay the loan. The good bishop was jolted out of his dilemma when he learned the eldest daughter would sell herself as a prostitute to pay the dowries of her younger sisters.
Still, his plan would have to be done in secret so his friend would not be dishonored. On three consecutive nights Nicholas crept into town and dropped bags of gold where the family would easily find them. On the last night, he dropped a bag of gold down the chimney, where it landed in a stocking hung up to dry. After the third night, the daughters had their dowries, the merchant's family was rescued from poverty and the eldest daughter was saved from prostitution.
Nicholas was also a defender of the faith. He lived three centuries after Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, and church doctrine about the person of Christ was not yet fully developed.
A priest named Arius was teaching a heresy called Arianism, which stated that Christ was more than a man but less than God. To settle this, then-Emperor Constantine called a council of bishops at Nicaea. The result was the condemnation of Arius and his teachings and the development of the Nicene Creed, a Christian statement of faith.
It is believed that Nicholas was present at the council and became so enraged at Arius' denials of Jesus' divinity that he punched his jaw and sent him flying from the council hall.
Nicholas, who loved children, started a ministry akin to the original "Santa's workshop." He hired a cook and carpenter—the latter to supply wooden toys for poor children. He is credited with the original recipe for cinnamon rolls and gingerbread, invented as a comfort food for children.
Saint Nicholas is believed to have died in either 342 or 352, or some time in between, on December 6.
Should children be taught to believe in Santa?
The 12 days of Christmas mentioned in the carol by this name refer to the 12 days of feasting and celebration originally designated in the sixth century as a time to commemorate the incarnation of Christ. The 12-day period began on December 25 and ended January 5.
The carol dates to the 16th century when Roman Catholics were experiencing religious persecution in England. From 1558 until 1829 it was illegal for them to practice or express their faith in any form in public.
In fact, to be caught in public with any material about the Christian faith brought imprisonment and death. Out of this intense persecution, "The 12 Days of Christmas" emerged as a kind of coded message affirming belief in Christ and in the Bible.
Each of the 12 days represents some important aspect of the Christian faith that the disciple was to learn and adhere to. Below is the hidden meaning behind this clever Christmas carol.
First day: The "partridge in a pear tree" represents the birth of Christ on Christmas day. Christ is portrayed as a partridge because of the instinctual habit of mother partridges to pretend to be injured in order to decoy predators away from their helpless young.
Second day: "Two turtle doves" refers to the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Third day: "Three French hens" stands for the three virtues written about in 1 Corinthians 13:13: faith, hope and love.
Fourth day: "Four calling birds" symbolizes the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Fifth day: "Five golden rings" points to the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Sixth day: "Six geese a-laying" stands for the six days of creation and the affirmation that almighty God is the creator and sustainer of all things.
Seventh day: "Seven swans a-swimming" represents the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Romans 11: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving and generosity, leadership, and compassion and mercy.
Eighth day: "Eight maids a-milking" stands for the eight beatitudes Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 5), each beginning with "Blessed are": (1) the poor in spirit;
(2) those who mourn; (3) the meek; (4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; (5) the merciful; (6) the pure in heart; (7) the peacemakers; and (8) those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.
Ninth day: "Nine ladies dancing" represents the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23.
10th day: "Ten lords a-leaping" symbolizes the Ten Commandments (see Ex. 20:1-17).
11th day: "Eleven pipers piping" refers to the 11 faithful disciples. Because Judas Iscariot, the 12th disciple, betrayed Jesus, he is not included among the faithful.
12th day: "Twelve drummers drumming" emphasizes the 12 doctrinal points of the Apostles' Creed, which outlines the core beliefs of the Christian faith.
What Christmas carol is the most Christ-centered for you?