Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Stairway to Heaven

Reading: Genesis 28
The story of Jacob—grandson of Abraham, brother to Esau, father of the twelve tribes, whose name became Israel—is often perplexing. He may well have had one of the most dysfunctional families in the Bible. Why does God's promise carry on through Jacob? Does his deceit put the promise of God at risk? When we arrive at Genesis 28, these, and more, are the kinds of questions that would be in one's mind because of the events of Genesis 27.
Does Sin Put the Promise at Risk?
In Genesis 27, at the prompting of his mother, Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for Esau. Once given, Isaac could not rescind it; Esau is left angry and ready to murder his brother Jacob. One might recall the account of Cain and Abel from the beginning of this book. Is Esau going to kill Jacob? Then, Rebekah sends Jacob away to find a wife from her brother's family. So Jacob is going to be leaving the land of promise. Is his departure from the land going to remove him from the place of blessing? And he is going to Laban, who appeared in Genesis 24:55, attempting to waylay the plan of God for Isaac's wife, Jacob's mother. Would Laban's bait-and-switch chicanery prevent Jacob from receiving God's blessing?
The Promise is by Grace
Isaac and Rebekah are sending Jacob off to obtain a wife because they don't want to have any more daughter-in-law problems than they already have (Genesis 27:46; 28:1-2). Isaac blesses Jacob again, reiterating the previous blessing, but also making even more clear that this blessing is the promise given to Abraham. Note the language:
May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. 4May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham.” (Genesis 28:3-4)
This promise is a promise of grace. Unlike Adam's blessing, be fruitful and increase in number...” which Adam, and subsequently Noah, failed to live up to, Jacob is given the promise that God Himself would bless him, make him fruitful, and increase his numbers. So Jacob departs for Haran.
Is There a Place of Promise?
On the way, he stops and sets up camp, using a stone for a pillow. It's no wonder he had such vivid dreams, he must have rocked and rolled all night. (Sorry, I couldn't help myself.) It is then that he had this dream of a stairway to heaven.
He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:12-15)
Where did God promise to put His blessing? He says, with you...over you wherever you go...bring you back…will not leave you...promised you”. The promised blessing is on the person, not the place, not the land he is leaving. God made His promises to people, His chosen people. Laban couldn't get in the way; location (being out of the land of Canaan) couldn't get in the way; not even Jacob's trickery could ultimately get in the way.
However, Jacob woke up and seemed to miss the point. His response is, Surely the Lord is in this place.... How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17) God's emphasis was on the person, and whereever he went; Jacob's emphasis was on the place and location. This transfer from God's gracious promise for his people to God's blessing on a place seemed to trip the Jews of the New Testament times up as well. They had come to believe the blessing was on the temple, the city, the land; they failed to see that the covenant was about God's mercy for the very people the leaders themselves were discarding.
Jesus reminds us, however, that God's promise given to Abraham is going to be on a person, on the seed of Abraham. Speaking to Nathaniel, Jesus captures a line from the beginning of Jacob's dream and in so doing tells us where the blessing of Abraham is, and how to obtain it. Nathaniel had just declared, Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” (John 1:49) Jesus said, I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." (John 1:51)
Jacob had awoken and declared, “This is the place of God,” thinking it was Bethel, which means house of God. Jesus is telling us there is a new Bethel, a new house of God, a new temple—and it is Him! The angels of God are not ascending and descending on a rock, or a place. They are ascending and descending on Jesus Christ. He is the place of God's blessing. He is the place of God's promise. All who are in Jesus through faith are heirs of the promise. He will be with, watch over, bring back to be with Him, all who trust in Him. If you trust in Jesus, you have the promise that He will never leave you nor forsake you until He has fulfilled all His promises to you. (See also Galatians 3:16, 29; John 14:2-3; Hebrews 13:5-6; Matthew 28:20.)
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How Would You Answer This Question?

Reading: Matthew 19  
Can you imagine what would happen if, following a sermon a person approached the preacher and said to him, “How can I be saved?” and the preacher answered, “Well, for starters, we have an offering for the needy and I need you to write a check for everything in your bank account”? First, I think half the church would follow the man out the door saying, “No, no, you don't have to do that. All you need to do is admit that you are a sinner, and then pray this prayer...”. Then, the pastor would be run out of town on a rail. But check out Jesus' unique approach to teaching the plan of salvation.
It begins in the Greek language with a word that means, look, see, or by implication, listen. This is captured in the old King James Version, “And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16 KJV) “Now” works, but possibly a little weak. Matthew wants us to pay attention to this story.
16Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" 17"Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments." 18"Which ones?" the man inquired. Jesus replied, "'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19honor your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.'" 20"All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?" 21Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 22When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Matthew 19:16-22)
A man—a good practicing Jewish man—evidently blessed by God, came to Jesus with a question: "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" As we see shortly, this man is already doing many good things. He is obeying the commandments. No one in the audience would have doubted the authenticity of his answer to Jesus, “All these I have kept.” And Jesus didn't debate the point, per se. Yet, he had this gnawing feeling that he was still missing something. "What good thing must I do?...What do I still lack?" (Matthew 19:16, 20)
Jesus first response speaks to where this man was rich: Not only in wealth, but he was rich in good works; or shall we say, rich in obedience. After Jesus tells him to obey the commandments, even listing several of them, the man claims to have kept them. And, on the level of how we expect people to obey them, he did. He was a good man by all external accounts; regarding legalistic righteousness, he was faultless (Philippians 3:6). Jesus is looking deeper.
Jesus' second respond brings us deeper into the situation, to what he lacks, to where he is poor. I believe he is lacking two key things. I believe we can accurately say that he lacked poverty of spirit, or littleness of spirit. The teaching of Jesus in this Gospel began with this statement, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) This rich, young man will be shown to not be poor in spirit. He has great wealth, but needs to see His great poverty and needs to see His great need of the Savior. Immediately preceding this account of the rich man, Jesus reminds us that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the little ones (Matthew 19:13-15) Jesus sets out to reveal whether or not this man is poor in spirit; whether or not he is a little one. And this is tied to a second thing he lacked.
If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor , and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
What else did this man lack? Apparently, treasure in heaven. I say that because Jesus, in response to his question, tells him how to get treasure in heaven. Evidently, his heart wasn't in heaven, but was on earth (Matthew 6:19-21) Jesus tells him to let go of all of it so he will have treasure in heaven, and then he will be able to follow Jesus—the source of eternal life.
This man went away sad; he wasn't a little one; he was a big one, high one. He wasn't poor in spirit, seeing his need of having a Savior; he was a rich and young one. We are often quick to point out that the real issue is following Jesus, not selling his possessions and giving to the poor. Let me point out two things:
  1. If I follow the sentence structure of Jesus' answer, it is the selling of the possessions and giving to the poor that translated into treasure in heaven, not the following of Jesus. (I am not here suggesting that we can have treasure in heaven without Jesus; I am merely drawing attention to what Jesus is saying in this answer, specifically.)
  2. When the guy went away sad because of his wealth, Jesus didn't stop him saying, “Okay, I've got a second deal, follow me, and we'll renegotiate your possessions later.”
You see, Jesus did not tell this man to do two things; He told him to do one thing. To follow Jesus, for this man, was to sell all and give to the poor. Jesus, has already done this. He left His heavenly wealth, emptied Himself, assumed the form of a slave, humbling Himself even to the point of death. Jesus was asking this man to do no more than Jesus Himself had done. Jesus was only saying one thing: “Follow Me.” In fact, Jesus was asking this man the same thing He calls us to do in Philippians 2:5-11. The call to follow Jesus is a call to have this same mind in us that He had, one of humbling ourselves, even emptying ourselves.
Salvation is not one thing, and conformity to Jesus is an optional extra. Salvation is all inclusive. It includes both justification and sanctification. Eternal life begins when we come to Christ and continues as we follow Him. Let us not go away sad!
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Monday, February 6, 2012

Isaiah's Bare Buttocks and Bare Feet

Reading: Isaiah 20–21
What do you trust in? In what do you place your hope for deliverance and help? Or, to ask it in the vernacular of Isaiah, “Are those on which you place your trust for peace and safety going to end up butt-naked and barefoot?” There, I said it. But not just me... it's in the Bible. I've heard of preachers going out of their way to make a point, or to illustrate effectively, but Isaiah takes the cake. Isaiah walked around Israel for 3 years butt-naked and barefoot (Isaiah 20:1-6). Why?
I think the answer might be said this way: Because we can't see things as they really are and need help. Or said another way, because we walk by faith and not by sight...so we need vivid pictures to help us understand unseen realities. Isaiah's original audience, Israel, was getting a message because they had not trusted in the Lord, but had trusted in Egypt for safety and security against Assyria. The message was clear: those you trusted in will have no ability to help you; they will be reduced to being captives led away naked. The picture is that of captives, stripped and chained, being led into captivity. If this is what happens to those in whom they trusted, those who were perceived to be so much stronger than they were, what will happen to them?
Why did the Lord have Isaiah write these words and preserve them for generations of God's people yet to come? I believe the answer is because we too will be tempted to trust in that which appears to be strong and powerful and not place our hopes in the unseen God. God's people are constantly tempted to believe that relying on what they see will be far more effective than calling on the unseen God in prayer. So we too are given a visual that tells us: Everything we are tempted to turn to instead of God, will end up butt-naked and barefoot, powerless to do anything for us.
But not all of Israel had ceased to trust in the Lord. In Isaiah 3:10, in the middle of a chapter which speaks about the judgment that will come on God's people because they did not trust, the Lord says, “Tell the righteous it will be well with them, for they will enjoy the fruit of their deeds.” Interesting words, because it seems evident that the whole nation will be going into captivity of some sort, so how will it go well with them? Will they be spared all the difficulty? No. Yet God promises that there will be a good outcome.
In a similar way, I believe Isaiah 21 speaks to those who do trust in the Lord. In Isaiah 21:2-4, Isaiah is given a day vision. He speaks of things that bring fear, things that bring anguish on Isaiah himself, and evidently will bring it on the people of God. The language of verse 3 brings to mind Romans 8:22-26.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. 26In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.
Isaiah seems to be the one groaning, as he instructs watchmen to watch. And they watch for what appears to be a very long time (Isaiah 21:6-8). But finally the rider comes, and the message is clear.
9Look, here comes a man in a chariot with a team of horses. And he gives back the answer: 'Babylon has fallen, has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the ground!'" 10O my people, crushed on the threshing floor, I tell you what I have heard from the LORD Almighty, from the God of Israel. (Isaiah 21:9-10)
The oppressed people of God, those crushed on the threshing floor, are given the message: Babylon has fallen, has fallen!” The repetition drives home the point. Deliverance has come. Babylon represents the power and might of the world. Babylon is the name that becomes associated with that which holds God's people captive. It is the world and its power. Babylon was oppressing God's people (or would be at the time this prophecy came to pass.) The New Testament uses this expression as well (Revelation 14:8; 18:2), and it may be rooted in this very text.
What is the message to God's crushed people? Keep your faith! For, even though it appears you are destroyed, it is not going to end that way. God delivered His people from Babylon; God can deliver you from your oppression. Live for what is unseen and eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). So the message of each chapter seems to be two sides of the same message: We are to trust in God and not in flesh or man; we are to walk by faith and not sight.
There is another visual God has provided through a prophet being stripped bare, in fact, the Prophet of all prophets. God demonstrated His love for us in the cross of the Lord Jesus (Romans 5:8). This visual should always remind us that no matter what things look like, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,