Monday, December 31, 2012

Devotional Thoughts for the New Year: Don't Forget God Laughs

Reading: Psalm 2
As we step in to 2013, there are some things we are going to need to remember—some things we must not forget. One thing we are going to need to remember in 2013 is that God laughs. As our culture becomes increasingly hostile toward God and Christianity, our worldview is going to be tested. Our belief system is going to be tested. Are we going to become increasingly afraid? Does the church retract into a hole becoming the voice of doom?
Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? 2The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. 3"Let us break their chains," they say, "and throw off their fetters." (Psalm 2:1-3)
Psalm begins by describing the world in its hostility toward God. This hostility is not an innovation of the 21st century. It began in the garden of Eden. We see it expressed in the conflict between Cain and Abel. It reaches its zenith in the rejection and crucifixion of the Messianic King, God's Son, on the cross. It is nothing new.
How are we to respond? What are we to think when it seems that wickedness increases and godly efforts to stop it fail. What are we to do when the media undergirds and supports those who oppose truth and righteousness? When, “Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with destruction. Their throat is an open grave; with their tongue they speak deceit.” (Psalm 5:9) We must remember the next verse in Psalm 2. We must remember that God laughs.
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. (Psalm 2:4)
Why does God laugh? Is it because He has a great sense of humor? No (though I am sure He does). It is because the greatest efforts of the powerful in this world to rid the world of God do not worry Him in the least. In fact, they are humorous to consider. We get a glimpse into what seems so funny to God in Acts 4:25-28,1 where this psalm is quoted.
You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 26The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.”
27Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.
The greatest violence the world could do in its hostility toward God, in its effort to rid the world of God, was to kill God's Son. And so the king of the Jews (Herod) and the Roman government (Pontius Pilate) together with the will of the people crucified our glorious Lord. Yet, even in doing so, they were playing into the plan and purpose of God. That generation in all its wickedness could ultimately only do what God's power and will decided should happen. God was not in the least worried that His plans would be thwarted. In fact, all the clamoring efforts that seem so much like victory to Herod, Pilate and the people (or to the powerful of our own day), seemed humorous to God because He knew they were only accomplishing His will. In their effort to rid the world of God's restraints, they were restrained to doing His will.
This year, 2013, will bring plenty of opportunities to fear, as last year did. The economy of our nation looms over the fiscal cliff—whatever that is. As best I can tell it means our taxes are going up—everyone’s. Do I like that? Of course not. However, none of this is a surprise to God, and none of this will hinder God's plan to work everything out in conformity with the purpose of His will (Ephesians 1:11). The world will continue to be hostile to God and His people. This too is no surprise. In all of this we should not fear, because God laughs. His good and perfect plans are never thwarted.
Rooted in this confidence, we can then respond by praying for boldness to proclaim the truth into this hostile world. Then we are to boldly share the gospel, the glorious announcement Christ reigns. That God has installed His Son as King. This is what the apostles did in response to the hostility they faced (Acts 4:29-31). This is what we are to do.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1My friend Vance reminded me of this connection yesterday morning as we gathered to worship together at Gulf Coast Community Church.   

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Building of Ezekiel's Temple

Reading: Ezekiel 47–48; Revelation 21–22  
Ezekiel 47:1-12 describes a river that flows from the temple, the design of which Ezekiel just set forth. It starts as a trickling stream coming out from under a threshold of the temple. As it goes, it gradually becomes larger and deeper. After only 1000 cubits (about 1/3 mile) it is ankle deep. In another 1000 cubits, knee deep; another, it is waste deep; and still another... it is swimming time! This river is lined with trees on both sides that produce fruit wherever the river goes—the fruit provides food; the leaves provide healing. The river produces life wherever it goes—fish teaming as in the days of creation (Genesis 1:20-21), and fishermen hauling them in (recall the loads of fish Jesus created for the fishers of men) (Luke 5:5-11; John 21:5-8). Life happens everywhere the river goes.
In John 7, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the feast of tabernacles. On the last day—the most important day—of the feast He stands up in the temple and cries out...
"If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and 38let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, 'From within him will flow rivers of living water.'" (John 7:37-38 NET)
On that day the priest would take a pitcher of water from the pool of Siloam and pour it over the altar. It was anticipated that one day, when Ezekiel's vision was fulfilled, that the water would keep going—out under the threshold, growing and growing until the vision was fulfilled. Jesus is effectively saying, “I am that water of life. I am the river of life. It flows from within me.1 Earlier Jesus had already described Himself as the temple; now He is the river that flows from the temple (by the Spirit He would later give to those who believe; see John 7:39). The Pharisees didn't understand—they thought he meant a literal temple (“Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days”). They couldn't understand that He was the temple and the water would flow from Him to the world. (See also Revelation 21:22.)
Ezekiel goes on to describe the city around the temple—Jerusalem, presumably. The gates are named for the twelve tribes of Israel. But the name given the city will be, not Jerusalem, but “Yahweh is There.” (Ezekiel 48:36) Ezekiel is describing the temple and the city looking forward, prophetically. Revelation 21–22 describe it with similar prophetic imagery but from the fulfillment side—after Christ has come and we have a vision of how it is transformed. As always, the fulfillment is significantly better than the prophecy.
We know John is hearing about the “same” city because just as Ezekiel tells us the name will be, “Yahweh is There,” so John, as he sees “the Holy City, new Jerusalem,” is told “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.” And just as Ezekiel's new Jerusalem has twelve gates named for the sons of Israel, so John hears that the New Jerusalem will have twelve gates named for the sons of Israel. John hears an added detail: It has twelve foundations named for the twelve apostles of the Lamb. It also has a river flowing down the middle of it with the tree of growing on each side of the river bearing fruit that is healing for the nations (Revelation 21:2-3, 12, 13; 22:1-2).
John also tells us that the city is the bride, the wife of the Lamb. We know that the bride, the wife of the Lamb, is the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). So the city is the New Jerusalem, is the church, the people of God. This mixing of metaphors (city/woman) should not seem so odd. Isaiah 54:1-17 describes the people of God in their devastation as a once beautiful bride, now an abandoned, barren woman, and a once beautiful city, now a slum. Then Isaiah goes on to describe how the city will be made beautiful and re-inhabited; how the wife will be taken back by God and have more children than the wife never abandoned. Paul mixes the same metaphors as well (Galatians 4:22-29). (For more on these texts go to A Reconciled Marriage, A Re-inhabited City, An Amazing Love – Isaiah 54.)
As would be expected, the fulfillment outshines the prediction. The city as Ezekiel pictured it was 4500 cubits square (about 1½ miles square). John was aware of that, but in his vision the city is 12,000 stadia square—that's about 1400 miles square (Far exceeding the prediction). It reminds me of the scene in Revelation 7:1-9 when John hears the number of the elect: 144,000 from every tribe of Israel—12,000 from each tribe. He hears of a perfectly countable, Jewish, kosher group. But then he looks to see it and what does he see? A vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language, so large that it can't e counted. He hears of the restored Israel of God and when he sees the fulfillment, he sees the church. Ezekiel describes a restored Israel; but when John sees the fulfillment, he sees the church, the bride of Christ. This is the New Jerusalem, the city whose name is, “YHWH is There.” Jesus is the son of David who will build a temple for God and He is building His church (1 Kings 5:5; 8:19; Matthew 16:18).
I write this on Christmas morning, 2012. I can't help but recall the name given to Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. In Jesus Christ God is still with us, for He lives in us by His Spirit. He is the river running through the streets of the city. And though one day it will come in its fulness, God has already begun making everything new. If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation—the Israel of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15-16) Have you gone to Him to drink? Streams of living water flow from within Him.
Merry Christmas,
1I used the NET (New English Translation) above because it shows that by simply changing where you end the sentence, or add quotation marks (remember, no punctuation was in the original text) it changes the location of the river from the believer to Jesus. Traditional translations add punctuation that makes it read the the river flows from within the drinker of the water. I believe it is best understood to see the river as flowing from within Jesus and the drinker (the one who believes) as the one who is satisfied by the Spirit that Christ gives. This is far more consistent with John's Gospel and the theology of the book. (See also John 4:13-14)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What Will Be Reported About You?

Reading: 3 John  
What reports would you want to be given about you? Maybe there are some old friends you knew years ago from another city, and a mutual friend is traveling to see them. What might they report about you? John writes to a dear friend, Gaius, in his third epistle (letter); someone who, it seems, was converted years prior under his ministry. He has heard reports about this man—reports that tell him that Gaius' soul is doing well (3 John 2). What did he hear? What kind of report would tell John that Gaius' soul was doing well? What kind of report might John hear that would tell him your soul is doing well?
3It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth. 4I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (3 John 3-4)
Gaius was faithful to the truth—faithfulness demonstrated by his walking in the truth, and continuing to do so—even in the face of pressure to do otherwise (3 John 10). What does it mean that he was walking in the truth and faithful to the truth? Does it mean all his doctrine was perfect? Does it mean he could debate doctrine with the best of them? While doctrine is important, that isn't the point here.
If one were to speculate how John knew Gaius was walking in the truth, or what it looks like to be faithful to the truth of the Gospel, one might easily surmise that John knew Gaius was walking in the truth because he was loving the brothers. (For instance by thinking about 1 John 2:3-6 you could conclude this.) However, we don't have to speculate, since John immediately tells us how he knew.
5Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you. 6They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. 7It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. 8We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth. (3 John 5-8)
They were faithful to the brothers which they then described as love in their report to the church. John then describes it as showing hospitality (more literally, bearing up, or receiving into his heart) to these brothers that we may work together for the truth. What Gaius did in supporting these men who went to the churches teaching the truth was working together with them for the truth. They were loving the truth by supporting these men who taught it and they were loving the recipients of the truth through them. You might say they were loving the truth by living it.
Diotrephes, on the other hand, loved himself (3 John 9-10). He apparently felt threatened by other men who taught the truth. He did not want them supported, slandered them and retaliated against those who supported them by kicking them out of the church. What a contrast to Gaius and the love of truth he showed. Diotrephes has a very small world—small enough that he could be at the center of it. Gaius had a very big world—big enough that truth existed outside himself and was something he served, not something that served him.
What kind of report do you want to be given about you? Are you living for the truth? Do you live for the advance of the Gospel—something bigger than you and which you serve? Or, is the Gospel you have a very small gospel that exists to serve you? May the Gospel compel us to walk as Jesus walked—laying down our lives for the brothers.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Thursday, November 29, 2012

How Long, O Lord?

Reading: Revelation 5–6
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" 11Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. (Revelation 6:9-11)
The cry which these saints have as they await the vindication of God on their behalf is a common cry throughout Scripture. “How long, Sovereign Lord... until...”. “How long, O Lord, how long?” (Psalms 6:3; 13:1; 35:17; 79:5; 80:4; 89:46; 90:13; 94:3; Habakkuk 1:2; Zechariah 1:12.) How often have you wanted to cry out to the Lord, “How long, O Lord, how long must I put up with....?” Is that where you find yourself now?
There is something surprising in Revelation 6:10 in this familiar prayer. In every other case we have this prayer on the lips of those in this world, on this side of death. Yet here this cry is coming from the martyred saints on the other side of that great divide called death. No doubt they are ruling and reigning with Christ (Revelation 20:4), but they still await the day when all wrongs will be righted; when the wicked shall be dealt with rather than going on in their wickedness. It surprises me to see that they are still crying out, “How long, O Lord?”
Maybe it surprises you that you are crying out, “How long, O Lord?” Maybe you thought that because you have served God, because you have raised your kids a certain way, because you have (fill in the blank), that your life would be different: old age would have been kinder; your sacrificial living would mean that you had gotten ahead; your sacrifices for the work of the kingdom would have been rewarded by the Lord. Instead you see the wicked prospering, and the righteous suffering. “How long,” you ask, “can this go on?”
The preacher in Ecclesiastes observes this same fultility with which we too wrestle:
There is a futility that is done on the earth: there are righteous people who get what the actions of the wicked deserve, and there are wicked people who get what the actions of the righteous deserve. I say that this too is futile. (Ecclesiastes 8:14 HCSB)
All of creation longs for this frustration, this fultility, to be overturned (Romans 8:19-21). You and I long for it to be overturned. And it seems that the martyred saints still long for the restoration of all things that awaits the second coming.
I suspect, based on what I see as I observe the world today, that we will be praying “How long, O Lord?” prayers more and more in the days to come. We should not be surprised that the world hates us (John 15:8; 1 John 3:13), it hates Jesus. We should not act so shocked and horrified that it wants to stop celebrating “Christmas” as “Christmas” but would rather secularize it. (It may help to remember that it wasn't called Christmas in Paul's day.) I am not saying that I want these changes to happen; I am merely wondering what our expectations were—mine included.
How do we respond? What do we do if our lives seem to be a far cry from what we hoped? What if it seems that the wicked are prospering, and, though we have served the Lord, we are going backward? What do we do when the wicked continue aborting children, while those opposed get mocked? What can we do?
We can pray. We must pray. And when you pray, don't be afraid to ask, “How long, O Sovereign Lord, how long?” May the fragrance of that prayer rise up before the Lord continually.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Singing Songs While Captive

How the Gospel Transforms Vengeance to Love

Reading: Psalm 137; Acts 16
This psalm begins with the people of God captive in Babylon, instruments of worship hung on the poplars, no longer in use for the people of God were unable to bring themselves to worship. Their captors were asking for songs—songs of Zion. This provoked a question in the hearts of these captives: “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4) This question remains unanswered in this psalm; but it doesn't remain unanswered in the Scriptures. Paul knew how to sing the songs of the Lord while a captive in a foreign land.
22The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:22-25)
What had Paul discovered that allowed him to sing songs in this Gentile prison after a severe beating? How does his thinking compare to that of the captives in Psalm 137? What has changed for him since Psalm 137 was written?
In Psalm 137, the joy of the captives was linked to the condition of a city, a geographical location on a map: Jerusalem. To sing songs of joy while Jerusalem lay dilapidated seemed like betrayal (Psalm 137:5-6). Additionally, the captives could not forget what was done to their city by their captors, and they did not want the Lord to forget (Psalm 137:7). The psalmist wanted vengeance for what was done (Psalm 137:8-9). The psalmist seems consumed with these things at the time of writing. I can't say I blame him either. These are natural feelings considering the pains they had experienced.
Paul did not have these natural feelings. How could Paul sing the songs of Zion while a captive in a foreign land? It may help to recall that Paul was the captor before he was the captive. He presided over the stoning of the church's first martyr and, just as the Edomites had said of Jerusalem, “Raze it to it's very foundations,” so he had set out to “destroy the church [the city of God]. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” (Psalm 137:7; Acts 8:1, 3) It was in this state that the Lord Jesus called Paul. He asked, “Why are you persecuting Me?” He forgave Paul's sin and showed him how much he would suffer for his name's sake. Just as Paul persecuted those who identified with Jesus, now Paul would identify with Jesus and be persecuted.
Paul was in that Philippian jail because he was preaching the Gospel. He had been beaten. He could not forget the beatings—the wounds were fresh! However, Paul had been forgiven; Paul was now forgiving. Paul did not seek vengeance for he once was just like the very men who harmed him. Paul's joy was not tied to an earthly city, or an earthly temple. His joy was tied to Jesus, the real temple that was destroyed but raised up in three days! And the church, raised up in Him, was the city that brought Paul joy. In the midst of his suffering the church was being built. Suffering is no hindrance to the glorious purposes of God in the world. (Oh to remember that in suffering!)
Isaiah had prophesied that Israel would make captives of their captors and rule over their oppressors (Isaiah 14:2). Paul was doing this in that Philippian jail through the Gospel. Before the sun came up, the jailer was bowing before Paul in fear, and had been brought captive to the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:29-34). (See also Isaiah 45:14.)
What had Paul discovered? When interrupted on the road to Damascus and scales fell from his eyes, he discovered the Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Messiah. That is why Paul could sing the songs of Zion after a flogging in a foreign prison. The Gospel transformed Paul so that rather than desiring vengeance, he loved his enemy just as he had been loved. In what captivity are you called to sing songs of joy? Who are the enemy captors that you are called to love just as you have been loved?
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Missionary Work of God

Reading: Acts 13  
The title written over Acts 13:1-3 in my bible1 is, “Preparing for the Mission Field.” I think this title is a little misleading. I recommend titling it, “The Missionary Initiative of the Holy Spirit,” since what follows is far less about human preparation for the mission field than about the initiative of the Holy Spirit in mission.
2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. 4The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. (Acts 13:2-4).
This initiative of the Holy Spirit in mission doesn't end once he gets Paul and Barnabas on their way. What follows reveals that this whole endeavor of spreading the Gospel is entirely dependent upon the Holy Spirit. The prayer and fasting of the disciples in Antioch were less about preparation for the mission field and more about our complete inability to advance the mission of the Gospel on our own. They were about our utter dependence on God! And whenever we are prayerless, it reveals that we think we are not utterly dependent on God to advance the Gospel.
On the first leg of this journey, on the island of Cyrus, Paul and Barnabas had an opportunity to proclaim the message to Sergius Paulus, a government official. However, Elymas the sorcerer was right there persuading him not to believe (Acts 13:6-8). So the Holy Spirit empowers Paul to do a miraculous work that results in Sergius Paulus believing! (Acts 13:9-12) Without this work of the Spirit, Sergius Paulus would not have believed.
Their journey soon brought them to Pisidian Antioch where they went to the Synagogue and were shortly invited to speak. Beginning with the Old Testament story of Israel, walking them through the coming of Jesus, Paul proclaimed the Gospel to them. In this Gospel presentation, Paul highlights something that shows why we are so dependent on the Holy Spirit to advance the Gospel.
27The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. (Acts 13:27-29)
Paul points out something we also learn in John's Gospel. “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world2 did not recognize him.” (John 1:10) We might expand on that saying, “He came to Israel, to those who had the words of the prophets about the coming Messiah, and heard them every Sabbath and yet they did not recognize Him when He came. Not only did they fail to recognize Him, they rejected Him, sentencing Him to death by disregarding the very law which predicted Him. Although not recognizing Him, even unjustly condemning Him, they fulfilled everything it said about Him right down to laying Him in a tomb.”
How does this reveal our dependence on the Holy Spirit in Gospel proclamation? The people we share the Gospel with cannot recognize Jesus even though they were made through Him! The only thing they can do, apart from the Holy Spirit's empowering work, is reject Him, hate Him, and unjustly condemn Him (and those who preach Him).
Paul doesn't let this discourage him from preaching the Gospel. Paul knows that, just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2) awaiting God's creative word to be spoken, the Holy Spirit hovers over the sea of humanity working as the Gospel is preached to transform lives. So Paul preaches the Gospel. In this preaching, He gets to the core of the Gospel, the very nuclear reactor of the Gospel, by declaring forgiveness of sins and justification through Jesus Christ (for more on this see What is the difference between Law and Gospel? (part 3)).
38Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.”
This promise also gives us a clue as to why we are so dependent upon the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel with others when it says, “Through him everyone who believes …”. One must believe in order to partake of this benefit. How are we going to believe if we do not recognize Him and are so inclined to reject Him? In fact, the very next verse tells us, “that you would never believe, even if someone told you.” (Act 13:41) This reveals just how desperately dependent we are on the Holy Spirit for the proclamation of the Gospel to have any effect. Yet it also demonstrates exactly why we can have confidence in preaching the Gospel: their acceptance of the Gospel is beyond our pay-grade. That is the Holy Spirit's work!
How can anyone believe the Gospel then? What is it that made the difference between you, if you have believed, and someone else who has not? The Holy Spirit graciously opened your eyes. What will make the Gospel you preach effective in the lives of those you share it with? The Holy Spirit's work in opening their eyes to recognize in Jesus Christ the One through Whom they were made. This is why we read, “...all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48)
Because the missionary work we do can and will be effective when “underwritten” by the Holy Spirit, we must pray and we must preach. Pray and preach for the mission we are on is the mission of God! When rejected we share in the sufferings of Christ; when believed we observe first hand the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in opening eyes for those appointed to eternal life. Salvation is from God from beginning to end!
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1I am reading the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
2Ironically, in John's Gospel the Jewish nation is considered “the world.” “There is no difference, for all have sinned...” (Romans 3:22-23).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

When Eyes Fail Looking for God's Salvation

Reading: Psalm 12  
The Bible is no magic answer book. In other words, It doesn't just make everything better. It doesn't even promise to do that. In fact, the Bible makes plain that the walk of faith is just that, a walk of faith. Psalm 119: 123 describes what the walk of faith often looks like.
My eyes fail, looking for your salvation, looking for your righteous promise.
Yesterday1 as our church participated in 40 Days for Life at an abortion clinic in St. Petersburg praying, there were moments I felt as if we were up against a veritable Goliath in our stand against abortion—as if you could hear the enemy jeering at our inability to accomplish anything against this horrific scourge in our land. Psalm 12 describes a time like this, a time when our eyes may fail—that we feel completely spent in our ability to hope any longer for the Lord's redemption.
This psalm has a clear structure that can be described as A-B-C-B-A. The first verse (A1) corresponds to the last verse (vs. 8) (A2); verses 2-3 (B1) correspond to verses 6-7 (B2); and verse 5 stands in the middle (C) as what God is going to do about it! Seeing this structure can help us understand what God is communicating to us in this psalm.
First the psalmist describes the way things seem at times like this.
Help, LORD, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men. (Psalm 12:1)
What evidence is there for this? Corresponding to this vanishing of the faithful we find:
The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men. (Psalm 12:8)
While the righteous appear to have vanished, the wicked are highly visible. The psalm is not telling us that the righteous have literally been eliminated. We know the psalmist was still around. This is poetry. It is speaking from the perspective of the earth and sees how bad it looks. But the walk of faith is all about trusting God despite the appearances. This psalm describes what we face in our own country today: The wicked are freely strutting about because what is vile is honored among men.
Our culture honors sex; not sex in marriage as designed by God, but sex freely, often and on demand...and now underwritten by the government. So the Sandra Flukes of our culture unashamedly stand up and demand that the public subsidizes her escapades and the consequences thereof. Those who engage in unnatural relations demonstrate on parade floats caricatures of their immorality. (For more on that topic see A Gospel Response to St. Petersburg's Gay Pride Festival.)
Secondly, the psalmist speaks of the brick wall we seemingly keep running into:
2Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception. 3May the LORD cut off all flattering lips and every boastful tongue that says, "We will triumph with our tongues; we own our lips—who is our master?" (Psalm 12:2-3)
One strategy to attack the truth is to just keep saying the same thing over and over again hoping people will gradually begin to believe it. That is what we face in the abortion debate. What once would have seemed as absurd as corralling up Jews and sending them to concentration camps, now abortion is talked about as if it is a reasonable side to a discussion. Just last week, Vice President Joe Biden said,
My religion defines who I am. And I've been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And it has particularly informed my social doctrine. Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who — who can't take care of themselves, people who need help. With regard to — with regard to abortion, I accept my church's position on abortion … Life begins at conception. That's the church's judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews and — I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman.
Now let's think about that just a second... let's apply that logic to something very similar. His religion also says that murder is wrong, and that terrorist attacks are wrong. However, will he impose his church's position “on devout Christians, Jews or Muslims” that want to kill their neighbors? If a baby is a life (and he claims he believes that), then what is the difference? There is none. So I am perplexed as to how his idea of Catholic social doctrine has taught him anything about how to take care of those who can't take care of themselves. Surely his Catholic (and human) doctrine teaches him that these babies in the womb are unable to take care of themselves. The fact that they can't take care of themselves gives abortion advocates justification for eliminating them. (They call that not being “viable life”.) Who next will it be okay to kill? The elderly who can't take care of themselves? The disabled? Are these the kind of people we want in control of our health care?
However, corresponding to verses 2-3 and the lies that the wicked tell are verses 6-7 and the truth of God.
6And the words of the LORD are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times. 7O LORD, you will keep us safe and protect us from such people forever. (Psalms 12:6-7)
The lies that seem like a fire hose in our faces spewing from our culture today will not stand in the end. There is a flawless word that will triumph, not the lying lips as they suppose. Why? Because of what it is the center of this psalm.
5"Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise," says the LORD. "I will protect them from those who malign them."
There are none more oppressed in our society today than the unborn child. Today one in every two African American children is aborted. The number of children who have been eliminated through abortion is likely in excess of 60 million. It is injustice in every sense of the word. The Lord hears the groaning of the child in the womb as he/she burns and as arms and limbs are cut off (pardon the graphic but accurate description). The Lord hears and will arise to protect them.
Though our eyes fail looking for this deliverance, looking for this righteous promise to be fulfilled, we can rest assured that the word of the Lord will ultimately prevail. So we must continue to pray, we must continue to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:8), we must continue to rescue those being led away to death (Proverbs 24:11-12).
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1Written Monday, October 15, 2012.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What Do We Do When Another is Wronged?

Reading: Hebrews 13:1-3  
Have you (or I) adopted strange teaching concerning the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? (See Hebrews 13:9.) Early in the second century, Ignatius spoke of those who “contrary to the mind of God” come with “strange teaching concerning the grace of Jesus Christ” saying they “have no concern for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the mistreated, none for the prisoner, nor for the one who has been released from prison, none for the hungry or thirsty”.1 His appeal is rooted in this text.
Let brotherly love continue. 2Don't neglect to show hospitality, for by doing this some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it. 3Remember the prisoners, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily. (Hebrews 13:1-3 HCSB)
Verses 2-3 enlarge on what it means to let brotherly love continue. Love shows hospitality, which is literally love or kindness to strangers. If someone was a brother or sister in Christ, then there was a sense of being united. This seems to be an application of the words of Christ,
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me... (Matthew 25:35-36)
In light of Jesus' words in Matthew 25, we could paraphrase Hebrews 13:2 as, “for by doing this some have welcomed Jesus Himself as a guest without knowing it.” It is certainly true both ways. However, the rest of Matthew 25:36 (“...I was in prison and you came to visit me”) is addressed in Hebrews 13:3:
Remember the prisoners, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily.
How are we to identify with those who suffer? How are we to identify with those who are wronged? In context (see Hebrews 10:32-34) these are most likely those who are in prison either for their faith, or fellow believers falsely accused and awaiting trial. What are we to do when our brothers and sisters in Christ are mistreated and wronged? Do we stand idly by grateful that it didn't happen to us?
The literal translation of the second half of this verse is interesting. The translation I have quoted does justice to the expression in terms of meaning, but isn't quite as literal. Young's Literal Translation reads, “of those maltreated, as also yourselves being in the body.” That is a bit convoluted, but it reaches back into the Gospel itself. Earlier in Hebrews we are told that since we are flesh and blood, Christ shared in the same. As a result we have a high priest who is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 2:14; 4:15). Christ took on a body in order to identify with us. Having experienced human life he has the ability to sympathize, or to suffer with us (which is the root meaning of sympathize).
Now, as Christ has done for us, so because we too are in the body we are to bear each other's burdens; we are to act and think as if we are experiencing the mistreatment ourselves. Christ suffered with us; we are called to suffer with others. In doing so we join a long line of believers who have chosen to be mistreated with the people of God rather than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season (Hebrews 11:25-26, 36-37). Those who engage in this kind of brotherly love show that the world is not worthy of them and that they are looking for a better country, a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:14-16, 36).
How do we suffer with others? Visiting those in prison is one way. If they have suffered loss, absorbing some of that ourselves. If they experience injustice, speaking up on their behalf (Proverbs 24:11-12). Living this way will cost us. It will seem much like going to a cross and following Jesus. It will seem much like loving our neighbor as ourselves. And when we live this way, if we live this way, people will get a glimpse of the Kingdom of Christ come.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

1Lane, William; pg. 511, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 47b, Hebrews 9-13.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Psalm 107: A Meditation in Our Redemption

Reading: Psalm 107  
The Bible is the story of redemption; Psalm 107 is a snap shot of that story. This psalm begins by calling us to do something.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. 2Let the redeemed of the LORD say this—those he redeemed from the hand of the foe, 3those he gathered from the lands, from east and west, from north and south. (Psalm 107:1-3)
Psalm 107 is about God and it is about us; it calls us to respond to the loving, saving acts of God Who has redeemed us and brought us together as His people. It begins calling us to give thanks to the Lord, proclaim that He has redeemed us and gathered us from the ends of the world. It ends calling us to pay attention to the ways of God in redemption and how He saved us, and to ponder the Lord's acts of faithful love (Psalm 107:43). In the middle, is a description of how God in His mercy went about saving us, the redeemed, in our rebellion (Psalm 107:4-42).
Each of these redemption stories begins with a description of humanity as we are prior to the redeeming work of God. It describes the condition we are in when the Lord sets out to save us by His loving deeds. These groups of people represent each of us who have been gathered from the four corners of the earth (north, south, east, and west). Which one describes your story:
Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle, they were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away.” (Psalm 107:4-9) “Some sat in darkness and the deepest gloom, prisoners suffering in iron chains, for they had rebelled against the words of God and despised the counsel of the Most High.” (Psalm 107:10-16) “Some became fools through their rebellious ways and suffered affliction because of their iniquities. They loathed all food and drew near the gates of death.” (Psalm 107:17-22)“Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters.” (Psalm 107:23-32).
You have those who are lost and lonely; those who are in deep darkness and gloom, bound and captive; those who are living lives of folly and blatant rebellion; and those who are prospering in this life and making their mark on it. Which were you?
Psalm 107:33-38 gives an overview description of the common pattern God uses in redeeming each of these four people groups.  Verse 33-34 tell us how it starts:
He turned rivers into a desert, flowing springs into thirsty ground, 34and fruitful land into a salt waste, because of the wickedness of those who lived there.
As long as we think we can make it on our own we continue living lives independent of Him in our rebellion. Only when we realize that we are dependent upon God for even the river and spring that bring us water, and the ground that causes plants to be fruitful—for life itself—that we consider the hopelessness of our lost estate. So the Lord allows us to have life without Him (in part) as the waters dry up and we discover how dependent we are. We plant seeds and think we are producing crops; the Lord reminds us that He is the One Who does the producing.
Verses 35-38 describe what He does when we turn to Him, crying out to Him (Psalm 107:6, 13, 19, 28) in our desperation.
35He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs; 36there he brought the hungry to live, and they founded a city where they could settle. 37They sowed fields and planted vineyards that yielded a fruitful harvest; 38he blessed them, and their numbers greatly increased, and he did not let their herds diminish.
(Verses 39-42 restate this pattern using less poetic language.)
The redeemed are those God has gathered from every part of the world and every walk of life. He has not left us alone but placed us together with all those He has gathered into a church, a local gathering of the redeemed. Together we are to give thanks for His goodness; together we are to proclaim He has redeemed us from the hand of the foe, and gathered us from the four corners of the earth, and the “four corners” of life situations; together we are to ponder the glorious goodness of God's faithful love.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Friday, August 31, 2012

An Essential for Ending Abortion

Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:13-21  
The number of abortions performed in our nation can be radically reduced in one of two ways. First, if parents are not tempted to destroy the child in the mother's womb because of fear or shame, they won't abort it. Second, even when they do desire to destroy the child in her womb, if just laws prevent it. Some say you can't legislate morality. However, that is exactly what legislation does. It is immoral to get mad at your neighbor, pull out a gun and shoot him. The laws in our nation intend to stop that from happening. And for those who go ahead and commit that immorality, it punishes that immorality. As necessary as this role of law is to provide justice to those whose rights are being trampled, it would be much better if people didn't want to get a gun and shoot their neighbor. We all understand that.
On the abortion front there is much work being done in the pro-life camp in hopes that just laws are passed to protect the powerless unborn child. This is necessary action to stem the tide of such a vast social injustice. That said, the goal that we must pursue long after any laws are made to protect these children is that parents have no desire to destroy their child. How can that goal be reached?
Something Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison may actually be quite pertinent to this issue. It is in a section addressing the subject of suicide, but it is no less pertinent to the subject of abortion.
It is not the right to life that can overcome this temptation to suicide, but only the grace that allows a man to continue to live in the knowledge of God's forgiveness. (Ethics, pg. 172)
Since the very next subject he takes on is reproduction and abortion, adapting this statement to abortion is not out of line. Adapted it would read: It is not the right to life that can overcome this temptation to abort, but only the grace that allows a woman to continue to live in the knowledge of God's forgiveness. Two great motivators toward abortion are fear and shame. The knowledge of God's forgiveness is essential to overcoming either.
Why did Cain kill Abel? Because he was attempting in some way to cover up his sin. Abel was living right; Cain was doing wrong. Somehow it seemed logical that if he could just do away with Abel, everything would be okay. (Genesis 4:3-10) Often, an unwed pregnant woman is ashamed of the situation she finds herself in. What she is really ashamed of is the immorality that got her pregnant. And it often seems that if she can just do away with the pregnancy (which involves doing away with the baby), everything goes back to normal. Most women who have an abortion learn that they now have to cope with a new normal—a whole new kind of hidden shame. She too will need the cure that only the Gospel can bring. It is the shame of sin that often tempts these new parents to destroy their child in hopes that the shame will go away.
Sometimes the pregnant mother or the father who pressures the mother into the abortion is motivated by fear—fear of how they are going to make it; fear of the radical changes this will bring about; fear of how others will respond. The list of fears can go on. It is this fear that creates the environment in which the temptation to abort the baby thrives.
Whether it is fear or shame that is feeding the temptation, it is the glorious news of the Gospel that takes the power away from the temptation. How so? The Gospel announces God's forgiveness for sinners. The shame is forgiven.
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)
The message of God's forgiveness—that God is not holding people's sins against them because of the work of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21) is the means by which God calls people back to himself and reconciles them to Himself. To be reconciled means that those who were enemies are now friends. The unwed mother in her shame is now made right with God again. God accepts her fully in Jesus Christ. Jesus says to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11) This message has been committed to the church! We must proclaim it.
It is this same message that frees us from fear for there is no fear in love, for perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). When the prospective parents realize that God's love is available to them in Christ, they can run to Him free from fear, knowing that He will care for them. They can cast their anxiety on God for God cares for them (1 Peter 5:7). What a promise.
Whether there are ever just laws that protect that unborn or not, the work of the Gospel will not cease. We must do that work now as it is our most powerful weapon. This work will be just as necessary if the laws were perfect. For while you can legislate morality—indeed you must—you can't transform a heart by legislation, but only by the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. One vital way we can support the unborn child and the pro-life cause is sharing the message of Jesus Christ with the world.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Monday, August 20, 2012

Psalm 104: A Meditation on the Greatness of God

Reading: Psalm 104  
Last week I was hiking with my family in the mountains of north Georgia paying attention to a small stream beside us. All of a sudden the water volume in the stream more than doubled. I looked for a tributary, or some other source of this water, but all I could see was water coming out of the ground at the edge of the stream, evidently from a spring. My soul rejoiced in the greatness of God who waters the earth. According to Psalm 104 that is exactly what my soul should do in response to this spring of water. (See Psalm 104:10-12)
Psalm 104 is a meditation in the greatness of God with the goal that we worship God. It begins, “My soul, praise Yahweh! LORD my God, You are very great...”, and then begins considering evidences of God's greatness. I counted over 30 references in this psalm to God's activity reminding us of the greatness of God—how active God is in our everyday lives, how active He is in ways that often go unnoticed. That isn't to say we don't reap the benefit of His activity; we do. However, it often remains unacknowledged. We often do not stop to consider and return praise to God for the many ways He sustains us. Psalm 104 is given to help us consider God's activity and return appropriate credit to God for what He does.
Some key verses that help summarize this activity of God are:
He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work. (Psalm 104:13)
Man goes out to his work and to his labor until evening. How countless are Your works, LORD! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your creatures.(Psalm 104:23-34)
The land, or the earth, is satisfied by the fruit, the effect, of God's work. Man can labor for a day but must rest, but God's labor, God's work is unending; it is countless. Our work is only productive because God's work is constantly active. Do you think of God as active? Do you think of God as working? Often times, I think our view of God is that he made the world in six days and has been resting ever since. However, the scriptures indicate that he rested on the seventh day. He has been working ever since upholding all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3).
Part of what robs God of the praise that is due His name in our day is the same thing that robbed Him of the praise due His name in Biblical times: idolatry. Both now and then, people in rebellion against God attribute the works of God to inanimate objects (idols). Then they made statues which represented various gods (of the sun, or the moon, etc.). Each of these 'gods' were really personifications of created things. They were not the worship of the Creator (Romans 1:25). Today we do the same thing in our naturalistic, materialistic1 culture. We attribute the works of God who sustains all things to inanimate objects, such as “nature” or “the laws of science”. People refuse to acknowledge a personal God who created all things, but constantly attribute rational, personal attributes to inanimate things like nature (“mother nature”) because we can't escape the rational nature of the way the world operates.
Christians are subtly being influenced by this worldly culture. (At least I am; I need the reminder of Psalm 104!) One of the ways this might be seen is in a common definition used for “a miracle.” A miracle, some say, is an interruption in the normal or natural course of events. This definition seems to imply that it requires no activity of God for the “normal course of events” to continue as they do. That could not be further from the truth. James K. A. Smith describes Augustine's understanding of a miracle:
Augustine describes them as “extraordinary” actions that are meant to refocus our semiotic attention on the “miraculous” nature of the ordinary. A “miracle” is not an event that “breaks” any “laws” of nature, since nature does not have such a reified [material, embodied] character; rather, a miracle is a manifestation of the Spirit’s presence that is “out of the ordinary”; but even the ordinary is a manifestation of the Spirit’s presence. Augustine enjoins us to see nature as miracle.2
In our materialistic culture, whenever we see a rational, constant working that seems intelligent in its working and can be counted on we call it “a law”. But we can't see the law, we can't find the law, we can only say that it must exist because it is always there, always present. We credit an inanimate thing (a law) with what only an animate (in the sense of living and active), faithful Person (Lawgiver) can do.3
Though many are content to credit idols (nature, or other inanimate things) with the works of God, this usually changes when God ceases His works on their behalf.
When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. (Psalm 104:29 NIV)
The moment God hides his face—ceases to provide His faithful works on our behalf which sustain us in all of life—terror strikes us. No one in the middle of the ocean pleads with nature to save them and give them one more chance. No one in the proverbial foxhole prays to nature to protect them and get them home to their family. When we are angry about how things turn out, no one blames nature. They are quick to blame God for the bad, while not crediting Him for the good (Proverbs 19:3). Hypocrisy isn't confined to believers.
May Psalm 104 remind us of the many ways God is constantly working on our behalf and result in praise, glory and honor being given to Him through Jesus Christ.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1By materialistic I am referencing the idea that all that exists is the material, or matter. It is the denial of the spiritual.
2Smith, James K. A. (2010-06-15). Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Pentecostal Manifestos) (pp. 104-105). Eerdmans Publishing Co.
3For a much more eloquent discussion of this subject see Redeeming Science, by Vern Poythress, Chapter 1, Why Scientists Must Believe in God: Divine Attributes of Scientific Law. Crossway Books.