Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Wife for the War of Life

Reading: Ruth  
Choose a Wife for the War of Life, is the title of a message I did last year from Proverbs 31:10-31. The wife of noble character, the wife who was valiant and strong, who demonstrated the kinds of characteristics you would normally think to find in a war hero, is the kind of wife the wise man in Proverbs is exhorted to find—a woman who embodied the wisdom of the book of Proverbs! Ruth was such a woman (Ruth 3:11).
What made Ruth that kind of woman? Ruth trusted God through bitter times. Ruth's faith runs contrary to what we might expect because she was a Moabite.
The story begins with Naomi, whose name means pleasant, her husband and two sons, leaving the promise land to go to Moab because of a famine. After ten years in Moab, her husband and two sons die, but only after the sons had married two Moabite women. Naomi hears that the economy is better back in the land of Israel so she heads back encouraging her two daughter-in-laws to return to their families. She explains,
11Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—13would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD's hand has gone out against me! (Ruth 1:11-13)
In other words, this isn't going to be the easy route. There is a lot more promise in Moab for you than back in Israel. Here is the first place we see Ruth's trust in God, even through bitter times. Ruth was evidently not fixing her eyes on the circumstances, but on better and lasting possessions.1
16But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." (Ruth 1:16-17)
Ruth could not be persuaded. Hardship may lay ahead, but she was in for the long haul. Ruth's trust in God's sovereign care even in bitter times is demonstrated by her unflinching commitment to stay by Naomi and to stay committed to the God of Naomi. Her fear of the Lord made her as the noble woman of Proverbs who could laugh at days to come (Prov. 31:25,30).
Second, Ruth was a noble woman, a woman who embodied the wisdom of the book of Proverbs, because she had an active faith. A trust in God that did what He said rather than a pseudo-trust in God that sat around waiting for God to do something to feed her. Ruth did exactly what God had prescribed for those who were hungry (Deuteronomy 24:19-21). Ruth was an alien and Naomi a widow. In fact, it is interesting to note that Naomi didn't actually go with Ruth but sat at home in her “depression” (to use a modern term).
2And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, "Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor." Naomi said to her, "Go ahead, my daughter." 3So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech. … 5Boaz asked the foreman of his harvesters, "Whose young woman is that?"   6The foreman replied, "She is the Moabitess who came back from Moab with Naomi. 7She said, 'Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.' She went into the field and has worked steadily from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter." (Ruth 2:2-7)
Ruth was not afraid of work and she didn't hesitate to go do what was needed. God providentially guided her to the field of Boaz as she trusted Him enough to obey Him.
While Ruth's trust in God resulted in actively obeying his direction for her life, the third thing we see about her trust was that she patiently waited on God's provision. This is reflected in her willingness to take direction from her mother-in-law. It is made most clear, though, in what Boaz says to her.
10"The LORD bless you, my daughter," he replied. "This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. 11And now, my daughter, don't be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of noble character. (Ruth 3:10-11)
At the beginning of this story, she didn't pursue the easier path, but the path of faith. In the middle, she worked hard trusting in God's means of provision, and then she continued to live in faith not pursuing merely her desires but waiting on God's provision, God's way. When we get to the end of the story we find that she is richly rewarded. In fact, she becomes as the mother of Israel in a manner of speaking (Ruth 4:11, 17).
Because of her trust in God through bitter times Ruth is the woman of noble, valiant and strong, character. Ruth's trust didn't accomplish all this; Ruth's God accomplished all this. She was noble or valiant because the object of her faith was Rock Solid! Ruth was for Boaz a wife for the war of life; she is an example for women to follow.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1Ref. 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 and Hebrews 10:34. I use this language because it seems that Ruth fits the description we see of faith we see in Hebrews 11:16, 25-26 and that chapter generally.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When God Came Down

Reading Mark 1—2  
It is not unusual for us to think, “What would it be like if God came down and showed Himself to us?” Sometimes skeptics will scoff saying, “If there really is a god, why doesn't he just come down and prove himself to us?” He did! Isaiah longed for this day (Isaiah 64:1, 4), and he spoke of events that would precede its occurrence.
3A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. …5And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3, 5)
Mark's Gospel tells us what it was like when God came down. Quoting from verse 3 above, he tells us John the Baptist has come to prepare the way for the Lord. Of course, the Lord is Jesus. But notice that in the Isaiah text above the word “LORD” is all caps, meaning it was YHWH that was being prepared for. Right from the beginning, the Gospel of Mark informs us who has come in Jesus Christ: the God of Israel! What will it be like when God comes down in the flesh?
The next 47 verses come at us like the stars in Star Trek when the Enterprise kicks into warp drive. The word most often translated “immediately” is used once in every 3.5 verses on average. In the rest of the Gospel it averages only once in every 22. These verses present the “shock effect” of what it was like when God came down. What do we see?
First we see Jesus proclaiming the good news of God and calling men who were otherwise minding their own business to follow Him. He doesn't wait to call them; they don't wait to respond. How does He do this? He has authority over all men (John 17:2), so He can.
God has an authority unlike anyone had ever seen. He drives out demons, and they obey Him. Fever flees from His presence, He has authority over sickness and disease. During the day, during the night, it doesn't seem to matter.
Interestingly, His main focus is preaching. One might wonder why. If one has all this power, and can draw crowds and gain a following, why spend so much time and focus on preaching? He certainly wasn't being seeker sensitive (Mark 1:37-38). He was proclaiming the Gospel of God (Mark 1:14), which seems now to be “the gospel about Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1). Just as YHWH has always done, He reveals Himself in truth.
The pace continues coming at us. A leper comes up to Jesus. Stop! He is supposed to go to the priest, and the priest is to inform him whether or not he is clean. The priests could not actually do anything about leprosy other than diagnose. They offered no cure. But this guy knows he is unclean. He has already been diagnosed by the priest. So why go to Jesus? Somehow, this leper realized who Jesus was, for he said, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40) No one could do that. But Jesus did. And he was willing. So Jesus sent him to the priests who would confirm the healing power of Jesus. They would even be testifying to who Jesus is.
Then a paralytic is lowered through the roof. And Jesus tells the man, “your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:5) We aren't told what was going through the paralytic's mind at this point. Maybe he thought, “Good. I can't walk, but at least my sins are forgiven.” Or maybe he thought, “Do you think that is what I came for?” But we do know what the teachers of the law were thinking. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:6-7) Jesus poses a question:
9Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? 10But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...." He said to the paralytic, 11"I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home."  12He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!" (Mark 2:9-12)
It is a whole lot easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Why? Because you can't confirm nor deny whether or not the person who said it actually had the authority to do so. This is an invisible action. So, Jesus is going to now say the much harder thing to say, “take your mat and go home.” (Not so hard to say, except when saying it to a paralytic, of course.) Now this is verifiable. Either the man will get up, or won't. This 6th scene of Jesus' ministry in Mark reminds me of the 6th day of creation when, after making the lifeless body of man that just lays there, God breathed into it and the man comes alive. This paralytic “got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all.”
Arriving at the 7th scene of Jesus' ministry, the pace suddenly slows (Mark 2:13-17). The word “immediately” is noticeably absent. Now he demonstrates His authority to forgive sins, call men, and restore sinners into fellowship with God. He sees Levi, a tax collector, sitting at his booth doing what tax collectors do: collect taxes. Levi is sinning away, and Jesus simply looks at him and says, “follow me.” And Levi does just that. Then we find Jesus sitting and dining with “tax collectors and sinners”. Many followed him.
How is it that all of this is happening? The bridegroom is with them. The bridegroom of Israel, YHWH (Isaiah 62:5), was now with them (Mark 2:19). What would it be like if God came down? As you read the Gospels you are discovering just that. Mark sets out to show us what he discovered as he encountered God in human flesh.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Wisdom of Humility

Reading: Psalm 25  
Pride and humility are about where we go with our fears. That is what we learned in Isaiah 2—4 this morning, January 23, 2011—The Folly of Pride. In that text we saw the disastrous effects of trusting in ourselves, or trusting in man. There we see the shame and disgrace that comes as all that we trust in is brought low.
This evening I sat down to read Psalm 25 and there we see the wisdom of humility. This psalm shows us the wonderful outcome of trusting in God. It paints a picture quite the opposite of the one we saw in Isaiah. Whereas placing our hope in man's wisdom brings shame and disgrace, “No one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame” (Psalm 25:3).
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; 2in you I trust, O my God. Do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me. 3No one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame, but they will be put to shame who are treacherous without excuse. (Psalm 25:1-3)
What does it mean to put our trust in God? As we learned this morning in Isaiah, it is about where we go with our fears. Do we go to God and His truth, and trust in Him with those fears? Or, do we put our hopes in the lies that we tell ourselves, the lies that the world tells us? The person who trusts in God, desires to learn from God, to listen to Him. To place our hope in God, is to live according to His ways, and trust they are really the best.
4Show me your ways, O LORD, teach me your paths; 5guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.  (Psalm 25:4-5)
To trust in God brings about the obedience that comes from faith (Romans 1:5). But that doesn't mean those who trust in the Lord are sinless. Rather, since they trust God's ways they are in pursuit of them. Yet, they also know that He is merciful and has provided for our sin. The righteous, or humble, in the Biblical sense, are the sinners who have encountered the mercy of God and are being instructed in the ways of the God they trust.
6Remember, O LORD, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. 7Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O LORD. 8Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. 9He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. 10All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant. 11For the sake of your name, O LORD, forgive my iniquity, though it is great.  (Psalm 25:6-11)
In the psalmist we see a humble man who has been forgiven great iniquity, and is being taught in God's ways. The Lord is loving and faithful to him, as he keeps the demands of his covenant. What are those demands? Obviously, it wasn't sinlessness: these are not words penned by a man who thought he was sinless. It was trust. It was living by faith. The real people of God were always those living by faith. (This psalm reminds me of the truths we learned about Isaiah 3:10 this morning.)
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What's This Doing in My Bible?

Reading: Judges 19—21  
Do you ever read the Bible and wonder, “What is this doing in the Bible?” This is one of those sections. Yet, if we listen to the story, even this story of a Levite and his concubine points us to the Gospel. It helps if we read all three chapters together.

This section begins with a statement that we've seen before in Judges. “In those days Israel had no king.” And it ends with the same statement... completed. “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” This story reveals the desperate need that even Israel has for a Redeemer. (See also Judges 17:6; 18:1)
This wasn't the first time “everyone did as he saw fit.” That began in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve rejected God's rule over their lives and did as they saw fit (Genesis 3:6). The accounts in Judges 19—21 are a good lesson in how capable we are of running our own lives, of directing the kingdom of ME. They reveal how desperately we need to come under the rule of God.
Judges 19 relates the story of a Levite and his concubine from Bethlehem. She was unfaithful to her husband. One does not need to speculate as to whether or not she is representative of unfaithful Israel allegorically, because that doesn't really matter—the whole story is about just how far we wander from God when left to ourselves. Israel needed guidance. Israel needed the rule of God over her. This man travels to Bethlehem to retrieve his wife from her father's house after she has left him.1
After his father-in-law detains him for several days he finally sets out late in the day. And this is where the story gives us the unexpected.
11When they were near Jebus and the day was almost gone, the servant said to his master, "Come, let's stop at this city of the Jebusites and spend the night." 12His master replied, "No. We won't go into an alien city, whose people are not Israelites. We will go on to Gibeah." 13He added, "Come, let's try to reach Gibeah or Ramah and spend the night in one of those places." 14So they went on, and the sun set as they neared Gibeah in Benjamin. 15There they stopped to spend the night. They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them into his home for the night. (Judges 19:11-15)
Our Levite makes what would appear to be the right decision by bypassing a city of pagans and going to a city of Israelites. His thinking was biblical: “Let's stay amongst brothers.” But there was no hospitality to be found amongst those fellow Israelites. Quite the contrary, not only did the Benjamites fail to provide basic love of neighbor in hospitality, when another man, an old man from the hill country, who happened to be living there at the time, invited them in the Benjamites commit deeds that would exceed even today's standards of “shock factor.” The scene that ensues (Judges 19:22-24) is nearly identical to the scene that occurs in Sodom (Genesis 19:4-8). However the final outcome is even worse. In short, this man's concubine was gang raped and left to die.
In the accounts that follow we find the destruction of this whole town essentially, and the near annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin. Because of their sin, one of the whole tribes was about to be extinct. How true it becomes, “Unless the LORD Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.” (Isaiah 1:9) Benjamin will survive, but that is only the mercy of God. However, that is indeed true for all of us—unless the Lord saves a remnant by grace, all of us would perish. (For more on this, listen to The Lord Saves Those Unable to Save Themselves.
How often do we think we would do just fine if only we could make all our own decisions? Israel had no king, everyone did as he saw fit. It didn't work out so well. Of course, we discover when they get a king things go poorly too. There is only One King who can solve the problem of sin and transform a people. We must bow to Him.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1Since the text refers to him as her husband, and I don't know much about the cultural difference between her being his wife vs. concubine, I am simply referring to her as his wife. The text says she was unfaithful, so there was some kind of vow or commitment between them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How Powerful is a Promise?

Reading: Genesis 31—34  
Biblical faith is about where we turn with our fears! When Jacob left the land of promise and went to Haran in order to avoid the fury of his brother Esau, and to find a wife, he had a promise. It was a promise of grace (Genesis 28:3-4). Unlike the blessing given to Adam and Noah, “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28; 9:1), this was the blessing given to Abraham, “God will bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers...” (see Genesis 12:1-3; 17:2, 6).
This is a promise of grace because God is the decisive character. He will bless, He will make Jacob fruitful and increase his numbers. He is the one who will establish the covenant! Thank God it is on God and not Jacob. If it rested on Jacob to make it happen it would have been as unsuccessful as Adam's accomplishments.
In Genesis 31—34 we discover that the God who promised was also present and powerful. When Jacob left the promise land to go, he was told, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go...” (Genesis 28:15). Genesis 31 begins with God now sending Jacob back to the land. And what do we find? He needs to know that same truth now, just as much as he did then.
Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”
When Jacob left the land, he was fearful as he fled Esau, whom he feared, and fled to the unknown. He left the land, he left his parents, he left all that was familiar and went to a strange land with strange gods, and with only a promise. He had plenty of reasons to be afraid. He needed to know God would be with him. Now, twenty years later, God is telling him to return. Now he has to face the fear of Esau, the one who was bent on killing him. So God reminds Jacob why he need not fear. “I will be with you.”
God's presence matters when we are afraid. Knowing His promise, and knowing His presence are vital when we face our fears. Living in a fallen world, we are going to have fears. Biblical faith is about where we turn with our fears. Do we turn to what others can do for us? Do we try to implement the philosophies of the world? Do we look to credit cards and money to rescue us? Is it the government's job (either to provide our needs, or our freedom)? Or, do we turn to the Living God who has promised to be with us and promised he will bless us and make us fruitful? What do we trust in when we are afraid? Scripture repeatedly calls us, in differing words, to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
The God who promises, and is present, is also powerful. We see that in this reading in a few ways. First, God had prospered Jacob even though Laban repeatedly deceived him and tried to cheat him. In chapter 31, we see a contrast between the power of Laban's idols, and the God of Abraham, the fear of Isaac. The God of Abraham was with Jacob, and saw his hardship, and his hard work, and even rebuked Laban when he was in pursuit of Jacob (Genesis 31:42). In contrast, the idols of Laban were not only powerless to prevent Jacob from obtaining the wealth of Laban, they were powerless to keep themselves from being taken, and powerless to reveal to Laban that they were right in the room under his daughter's seat!
Now Jacob isn't really a picture of faith and trust. But that's okay, remember how grace works. It isn't Jacob's faith that will win the day, it is God's grace. So when Jacob approaches the promise land we read, “In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well.” (Genesis 32:7) But, faith isn't about our strength, it is about our weakness. And Jacob's faith is seen in Genesis 32:9-12. Jacob prayed. In his fear and distress, he turned to the Lord and clung to a promise. His prayer ends with, But you have said, 'I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.'”
Just as we saw in Abraham's servant, and Isaac, (see How Vertical is Your Life?) here, Jacob also prays because of what God had promised to do. And while the events that follow don't reveal that Jacob is convinced yet of God's answer, they do show that God is powerful enough to conquer Esau's bitterness, and powerful enough to conquer Jacob's doubts!
This section ends with an odd story about Dinah and the Shechemites. But it leaves us seeing the need for trusting God with our fears once again. After Simeon and Levi had slaughtered all the men of Shechem, Jacob is fearful that they will be destroyed.
Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, "You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land. We are few in number, and if they join forces against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed."  But they replied, "Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?" (Genesis 34:30-31)
The life of faith is one of constantly needing to be reminded that God's promises are true, that God is present with us, and that God sees all and is powerful over all. We can trust in Him, and go to Him in prayer, casting all our anxiety on Him for He cares for us!
How powerful is a promise? As powerful as the God who stands behind it!

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why Would a Loving God...?

A Question I Received From a Friend  

Why would you say that a "Loving God" created such "Wicked people" that "Only a few" find the "Straight and narrow path" back to God? I am sincere in getting a truthful and accurate answer. … It seems like the only answer I can come up with so far is that because He is God.
The Answer I Sent Him

… Here is my attempt at answering your question, which is a variation on a question that many have asked over the centuries of human history.
Your question: Why would you say that a "Loving God" created such "Wicked people" that "Only a few" find the "Straight and narrow path" back to God?
Well, the fact that He is God is ultimately the best answer. Job had questions for God, and in Job 38—42, God basically answers with a long, "I am God... and you are not."
But, frankly, the question is wrong. The question is a human construct that presumes that God must answer to us as judge. We say, God must primarily be loving... that is the standard of judgment. And therefore, the question, "Why...a loving God would create..." a world in which it seems that less people are loved, presumes that we know what the right outcome ought to be, and that He is subject to our test. Second it is wrong because it blames God for creating wicked people, for which He cannot be blamed. In doing so it falls into the trap of the serpent's logic in Genesis 3. Thirdly it is wrong because it presumes that any find the way to God. Reality is that none find their way to God.
So, before I attempt to answer the question as it is, let me explore briefly why the question in wrong, adjust it properly, and then attempt to answer it as effectively as I possibly can.
First, to say that God is loving, or God is love, is true enough. However, we run into trouble in two ways in that statement: 1) God is love, but God is Holy, and righteous, and all powerful. He is Creator, Redeemer, He is pure and spotless. And certainly He is not subject to our evaluation, but we to His. The question presumes that God is love over Holiness, righteousness, etc. God's love is a holy love and is not a human love.
This leads to the second way we get into trouble with the statement. 2) God is love, but when we say that we cannot mean, "Love is God." As if, what we humans call love, or love as we define it, is God. John tells us "God is love..." (1 John 4:8) but then immediately tells us how He revealed love to us, and what love is. He revealed it:
"This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him." (1 John 4:9)
So God revealed what love is to us by sending His Son that we might live through Him. Then he defines love in the next verse:
"This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4:10)
So love is defined not first in us, but first in God and in His sending of His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. So, we would not even know what love is apart from God sending His Son to redeem us from our sin. So, when we define God as a loving God, we are defining Him as the God who would send His son as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of people who did not love Him first.
Second it is wrong because it blames God for creating wicked people, for which He cannot be blamed. In doing so it falls into the trap of the serpent's logic in Genesis 3. The serpent's logic in Genesis 3 that I am referring to is found in the words of Genesis 3:5
For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The logic of that line is something like this: God is holding out on you... the problem with everything is rooted in God. And the problem with blaming God for creating wicked people is that it is just that: blaming God. Since by the question, "why would a loving God..." may well presume the God revealed in Scripture, then it would be important to acknowledge that Scripture indicates that God did not create wicked people, but that they were "very good". In fact, it isn't God's fault that we have a fallen world. It is our fault. God is the One who said, "Don't eat or you will die." Had we listened to Him to begin with, we wouldn't be in this mess. The serpent is the one who said, "No, you won't die, you'll be better off." And yet, for thousands of years we have continued to point the finger at God and listen to the serpent. Go figure.
Paul spoke to that objection to God, but essentially didn't answer it, because he didn't seem to think it needed an answer. His answer was simply:
19One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" 20But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'"  21Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:19-21)
I think we could summarize that with your first answer: Because He is God He can do as He pleases. On the other hand, He is free from blame. Again I refer to Paul's earlier argument in the book of Romans:
3What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness?  4Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: "So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge."  5But if our unrighteousness brings out God's righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.)  6Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world?  7Someone might argue, "If my falsehood enhances God's truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?" (Romans 3:3-7)
Thirdly this question was not quite strong enough, for it may well have ended with, “that none can find the 'Straight and narrow path' back to God?” I believe the biblical picture is one in which every human is blind and running in the other direction. No one seeks God. No one understands. (See Romans 3:9-18.) In fact, salvation only occurs because God sovereignly opens the eyes of wicked sinners who hated him, and gives them a heart that loves Him. While we were objects of mercy, God made us alive and gave us the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:1-9). Paul, on the road to Damascus, was not looking for the narrow way. He was looking to persecute Christ by persecuting His church. But he was blinded physically, and his eyes were opened spiritually. And he was then sent to open blind eyes. God finds us, in his mercy. (See this quote from Mark Webb.)
So, now to the question: Why would a Loving God (defined as a God who would send His Son as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of those who do not love Him) create people who would reject Him—though He had loved them and placed them in paradise—a people who would submit themselves to a serpent's lies, though they had been given authority over the serpent? And why would this God go ahead and become one of them in order to suffer the result of their rebellion and make a way that they could be saved anyway... through the gift of eternal life, and then require that the only way back to Him is by believing in His Son whom He sent to die for them? And finally, why would He, after they even reject His Son and crucify Him, go ahead and graciously and sovereignly give some faith to believe in Him, opening their eyes so that they might see and believe?
Answer: Most likely because He is loving. And because He is glorious, and the most wonderful thing for us to know is Him. And in order to know Him, He had to create a world that reflected His power, His holiness, His hatred of sin, His love of the weak and helpless, His mercy to the undeserving, and His power over the unsubmissive who haughtily exalt themselves above Him. And if knowing Him is the greatest possible good, since He is the greatest possible being in existence, then He must make Himself known in order to be Who He is: a Good God! Good, defined by Who He is, not by our end of some negotiation...or the greatest possible number of creatures being happy at the end, even if none of them ever knew God as He really is.
But, I think we are still left with: Because He is God.
One thing I know for sure: When that day comes that we are before Him, and we see things with utter clarity, no one will be accusing God. Rather we will all be saying, "Holy Holy Holy...". So when we can see clearly, we will know that. And in the mean time, I will trust that those creatures who have eyes all around (Rev. 4), such that they see everything, must know something I don't... for they constantly say, "Holy Holy Holy..."
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Monday, January 10, 2011

How Job was Like Christ

Reading: Job 15-17  
Job's counselors ask a good question, even if sarcastically.
What do you know that we do not know? What insights do you have that we do not have? (Job 15:9)
Job knew something his counselors did not understand.  Job understood something his counselors had not conceived. That the righteous can suffer seemingly unexplainable woes that have nothing to do with their sin.
Job wasn't the first to introduce this concept. Abel was...unless, of course, we include God who was rejected in the garden after placing man in paradise. Then we have Joseph who suffered at the hands of his brothers untold cruelty in Egypt.
Job's counselors didn't have a category for this. Suffering, in their thinking, was the result of sin... personal sin committed by the one who was suffering. It was a simple formula: God blesses right living; God punishes wrong living. If the world was not already estranged from God, this may well have worked out. But in this fallen world, in need of redemption, that just isn't the case. Sometimes the wicked prosper, and sometimes the righteous suffer.
Job understood the tendency which his counselors had, to assume that disaster was the misfortune of the wrong-doer, when he says,
4I also could speak like you, if you were in my place; I could make fine speeches against you and shake my head at you. 5But my mouth would encourage you; comfort from my lips would bring you relief. (Job 16:4-5)
I think here we find some real wisdom for how to help the sufferer: let our mouth encourage them, let our lips comfort them and bring relief. Let us not jump to looking for causes (see Careful How You Use Your Theology).
Don't get me wrong. I understand that Job had sinned, as had Abel, and Joseph. But his sin is not the cause, or reason for his suffering. That is made clear in the first two chapters of Job. (See Job 1:22; 2:10). However, in Job we discover that not only is his sin not the cause of his suffering, it seems that his righteousness is the cause of his suffering.
Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” (Job 1:8)
Abel suffered because of his righteousness (Genesis 4:3-4); Joseph's sufferings also seem to be for righteousness' sake (Genesis 37:2). And both Abel and Joseph foreshadow (are a type of) Christ. Job also points us to the Savior in this regard as he suffered not in spite of his righteousness, but indeed because of his righteousness. Look at these verses which describe Job, and see how they also are things which could be said of Christ in His suffering (and in many cases are).
10Men open their mouths to jeer at me; they strike my cheek in scorn and unite together against me. 11God has turned me over to evil men and thrown me into the clutches of the wicked. (Job 16:10-11) Compare with Matthew 26:67-68.
16My face is red with weeping, deep shadows ring my eyes; 17yet my hands have been free of violence and my prayer is pure. (Job 16:16-17) Compare with Luke 22:41-44.
6God has made me a byword to everyone, a man in whose face people spit. 7My eyes have grown dim with grief; my whole frame is but a shadow. 8Upright men are appalled at this; the innocent are aroused against the ungodly. (Job 17:6-8) Compare with Isaiah 52:14; 53:3 and Matthew 27:29, 31, 41.
Job was suffering because of his righteousness, and the Savior, the Pure and Innocent One, was suffering because of His righteousness, and for our sin (and Job's as well). Job's counselor's may well be summarized in the mocking that Jesus received, “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, 'I am the Son of God.'” (Matthew 27:43) Let us make sure in caring for those who suffer that we not assume that it is because of their sin, and take an attitude of “Let God rescue him now if he wants him”. It may be that God has sent you and me to rescue them.
We too are called upon to live lives that can fill this role.
20But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:20-21)
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Let's Not Be Like Samson's Wife

Reading: Judges 11—15  
Growing up, I lived on a big lake out in the country with a lot of woods and occasional houses. One day, my friends and I were returning from a walk in the woods. As we walked along the road with woods on both sides, and houses out of sight, my peripheral vision picked up movement so I turned to see a large black animal coming out of the woods in our direction. Apparently my friends noticed it too, because at once we all gasped fearing we had a bear coming toward us. However, our minds quickly realized that we were dealing with a large, really large, black dog... that we had never seen before, and didn't belong to any of the neighbors. We weren't sure if we were any better off with a dog than a bear, but since there was no way to out run him, I decided to call him and see how he responded.
This dog quickly became my constant companion and was immediately named Samson because of his large, powerful frame. This worked out quite well for me because I never had to fear any other dog in the neighborhood. There was this one dog that had plagued me for years. Any time I would ride my bike near the house of its owners it would chase me for 2 blocks barking and snapping at my heels. (In the country, nobody kept their dog on a chain or leash.) Not long after Samson became my companion, their dog was discovered mysteriously dead, with its neck snapped. My closest neighbor had a dog named Sinbad, which acted out its name...always barking and chasing any passer by and snapping at them. He too ended up mysteriously dead. No one ever knew for sure what happened, but both events occurred the evening after Samson witnessed those dogs chasing me. About the only thing that scared Samson was an Arkansas thunderstorm, and then like a baby he would head for the basement whining.
Samson was a powerful deliverer for the people of God. And he provides a wonderful picture of Christ. In fact, I am persuaded that the Gospel reference, “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: 'He will be called a Nazarene.'” (Matthew 2:23) is referencing Judges 13:2-5 where the sterile mother conceives and has a son who is set apart to God from birth and will deliver Israel from the hand of its oppressors.1 This morning I wondered if Samson's wife doesn't also provide a picture of God's people—or at least a picture of the temptation we face, and a good example of what not to do!
First, she (sorry, I have to use pronouns, because her name is never mentioned) is chosen out of the Philistine country just as we are chosen out of the world. But think of the opportunity she has. She is now married to Samson, one of God's chosen. She could have been like Ruth and declared, “Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16) But instead, she still identified with the Philistines more than with Samson, her husband.
15On the fourth day, they said to Samson's wife, "Coax your husband into explaining the riddle for us, or we will burn you and your father's household to death. Did you invite us here to rob us?"  16Then Samson's wife threw herself on him, sobbing, "You hate me! You don't really love me. You've given my people a riddle, but you haven't told me the answer." "I haven't even explained it to my father or mother," he replied, "so why should I explain it to you?"   17She cried the whole seven days of the feast. So on the seventh day he finally told her, because she continued to press him. She in turn explained the riddle to her people. (Judges 14:15-17)
This is a basic extortion. Samson's wife had a choice: she could have trusted in her husband to deliver her and her father's household, or she could fear what her former people could do. She chose poorly. In the process, it appeared that it worked out for her, given that Samson was able to pay wager because of his great power. But think about it, that same great power was available to his wife to deliver her and her father's house. She feared the Philistines more than she trusted her husband.
As a result of this Samson headed back to his father's house, and his father-in-law gave his wife to Samson's best man. Needless to say, Samson wasn't happy, and when he took vengeance on the Philistines, they turned around and did to his wife and his father-in-law exactly what they had threatened at the beginning (Judges 15:6). Samson's wife missed the whole point of being married to a man like Samson: she had nothing to fear! But she feared anyway.
We too have nothing to fear, having been chosen by Christ, and married to Christ. He is our powerful deliverer. We can trust Him, when the enemy tells us we must revert to trusting in our flesh to fight with our spouse in order to be safe, or be mean to our children in order for them to do what they should, we can trust Christ and continue to love, and lay down our lives, and forgive and bear with others. We can overcome evil with good; we can trust that happiness and joy will come in obeying Christ not in pursuing the desires of the flesh. We can continue to trust that when we lay down our lives we save them. He has gone before us laying down His life for us. In fact, like Samson, Christ worked a greater deliverance in His death than in His life (Judges 16:30)! We have nothing to fear!
I did a previous post about Samson and these events titled, How Samson Making Fools Out of Philistines Points Us to the Cross.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

1 For more on the fulfillment of scriptures mentioned in Matthew's birth narrative, and how they fit, consider the message, When Weeping Turns to Dreaming, from December 26, 2010.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How Vertical is Your Life?

Reading: Genesis 24—26  
When we believe the promises of God, they produce a life of prayerful dependence. I am struck as I read these chapters by how vertical the life of faith is. Abraham had a promise that through Isaac the promise of blessing the world would come to pass (Genesis 21:12; 24:7). He believed that to be so true that even if God had to raise the dead to accomplish it, He would (Hebrews 11:18-19). But that didn't leave Abraham in a state of indifference to his own responsibilities and actions.
Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac with two absolutes: 1) You must not get him a wife from the daughters of the Canaanites, but will go to my country and get a wife from amongst my relatives; and 2) you must not take Isaac back there.
Great! Let's see, I have to get him a wife, and she has to be willing to come, sight unseen! We are quick to answer, “Yes, but culturally that was expected back then.” But as I read this chapter, I don't think it was as common as we think. While things were decidedly different compared to now, the intention of this account is that we understand what a difficult task this was... it was no easy task.  But because of God's promise, Abraham was able to assure his servant, “God will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there.” (Genesis 24:7)
So Abraham’s servant left and arrived in the town of Nahor. And He prayed. He prayed that God would give him success in carrying out this task. Indeed he asks the Lord to do some very specific things that would help him know that God was directing him to the right girl (Genesis 24:12-14). Before he finished praying God began to answer the prayer (Genesis 24:15-19). The promises of God and the promise of angelic support for the task didn't cause this man to question why he needed to pray, but rather motivated his prayer. He believed, therefore he prayed! (Just like David, Psalm 116:10, and Paul, 2 Corinthians 4:13).
Then Isaac, who has the promise, and now has a wife, also prays. Why? Because she is barren (Genesis 25:21). He didn't think, “Why pray? God already promised.” Rather, he believed, therefore he prayed! He trusted in the One Who made the promise and it was evidenced by his prayer. God heard that prayer.
Again we read in Genesis 26:25,
Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the LORD. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well.
The life of faith is a life of calling on the Lord—a “vertical life”. And in that place of prayer, we too need to pitch our tent, for there we and those around us will find a well of refreshing.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. (Psalm 46:4-5)
Many are the promises of God for His people. These should be the foundation of much prayer! May God increase our devotion to prayer and our refreshing from Him.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Monday, January 3, 2011

Careful How You Use Your Theology

Reading: Job 12—14  
Men at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping. (Job 12:5)
David Powlison, while not referencing this verse, describes the cure for and truth of this verse, respectively, in this statement, “Those whose lives overflow need to learn gratitude, humility, generosity—and alertness to the temptations of presumption, superiority, and pride.”1 My life has overflowed with God's bounty, and therefore I must beware of the temptation to have contempt for those whose lives are in the midst of scarcity and lack.
It is easy to piously pontificate toward those in trouble when things are going well for us. I'm talking about those times when we are quick to look for sin...not ours, but theirs. Of course, not ours, we aren't the ones in trouble, they are. So we assume they need our help. Job's counselors seem to be guilty of this. It isn't as if what they were saying was false—Job seemed to acknowledge the general truth of their counsel (Job 12:3)—it is that the application of the truth to the situation missed the point. Good prescription, but for the wrong illness.
Job's counselors seem to have a cause-and-effect view of suffering. It is as if they are saying to Job, “If you are suffering like this, it must be the result of your sin.” Yet we know from the first few chapters of Job that this is not the case. It is true that God, if He were so inclined, could find enough sin in any of us to justify any suffering we encounter... even if He forgot half of our sin (Job 11:6), but that is not why Job was suffering. They believed that if Job put away sin, then he surely would be delivered from his trouble (Job 11:14-16).
Job didn't seem to have any answers either for why he was suffering. And maybe that is one of the things we are to learn from Job: that the cause of suffering is often indiscernible. But we don't like that. When my oldest daughter was born with an unusual disease called microsia-anotia, meaning she didn't have an outer right ear, we immediately began to wonder about the cause. “Why did this happen?” is the nagging question. When my second daughter was diagnosed with a immunological disease which kept her in-and-out-of the hospital for a number of years, we kept asking the “why” questions.
Mostly, we were asking that in the sense of physical cause-and-effect. By God's grace we didn't spend a lot of time wondering about this being some form of punishment for sin. Christ bore the punishment for our sin. But after a while, even the search for physical causes still became frustrating and futile. Why do we do this? We want to assign blame for things. I think this can be easily corrupted by our sinful nature. Very often we do this on a spiritual level as well, going on a sin hunt in order to discover the cause of things.
At times that may be helpful, and we ought to do that with ourselves to some degree. But if we aren't able to discover it soon enough, it may be that there isn't a direct cause-and-effect relationship between our suffering and anything we have done. Job seemed to know that, yet what he may have missed was that he still needed to trust God. God's wisdom may not be known to us, but can be trusted.
And when we are comforting someone who is suffering, I think we should learn from Job not to always be trying to identify a cause. Sometimes we should just listen (Job 13:5). Sometimes we should just care, and pray. And we don't need to try and fix it for them, because most often, we can't. It it hard to be okay with that sometimes, but we need to be.

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

1David Powlison, from For the Fame of God's Name, Essays in Honor of John Piper, Chapter: The Pastor as Counselor.  And excellent resource.