Sunday, August 31, 2014

Is God Really Bothered?

Reading: Luke 18

The parable of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8) is often simplified into a teaching on how persistence in prayer will bring the answer we want, and I wonder if its real impact is altogether missed. Maybe that should be no surprise since the rest of the chapter in which it falls reveals that the disciples also missed its impact.

As I will show below, the moral to the story or the meaning of the parable might be succinctly stated as, “No matter how small or trivial your life may seem, God is not bothered by your continual appeals for Him to do something about your unjust situation.” Yet, the disciples almost immediately assume that Jesus will be bothered by people bringing their little babies to Jesus in order that He might lay His hands on them (Luke 18:15). Shortly after this, when a blind beggar is crying out for mercy from Jesus, the disciples rebuke him and tell him to be quiet (Luke 18:39).

Had the disciples been characters in the parable of the widow, there is little doubt that they would have been trying to hush the old woman, trying to persuade her to accept her situation, and explaining that the judge's inaction toward her is the answer that he has given. Sadly, this is far too often still the approach that some might take toward people who are continually asking for prayer that God might change the brokenness in their own lives... especially difficult, painful, and hard to deal with circumstances. Like Job's comforters, we think it is better to help them accept, “No,” as an answer rather than join them in crying out to God for help.

This widow has no leg to stand on before the judge. Widows were powerless in that society. Her husband left her with no life insurance policy. She has no power to hold over the judge; her life could not be more trivial from a human perspective. There is nothing within this widow that can draw the judge's attention. And even if there were, he couldn't care less—he neither fears God nor cares about man. But cry out she does. Why? Because she refuses to accept the injustice of her situation. She refuses to rest content with the world as it is. She believes something must be made right in this broken and fallen world.

The parable offers an alternative to just accepting the brokenness of this world as it is. It invites us to refuse to rest content with the injustice of this world. It invites us to go to God crying out for Him to transform the world as it is into the world as it ought to be. And God will answer our prayers.

The parable is not saying that we should keep praying because just like the unjust judge, God will also eventually answer if we are just persistent. Rather, the parable is saying that unlike the unjust judge, God who cares deeply about His chosen ones, God who is not bothered by our coming, but rather gladly invites us to come to him and is patient with our cries for mercy, is indeed working out justice for His chosen ones. God wants justice for us and is already at work even in ways we cannot see and do not yet understand. But at work He is in response to our pleas.

Part of the problem we have in understanding the parable is rooted in many English translations of the last part of Luke 18:7. MacDonald's Idiomatic Translation captures it well and helps us understand.

Nevertheless, will not God surely make things right for his chosen ones who call to him day and night—while being ever so patient with them? (Luke 18:7 MIT)

The idea is not about whether or not God will delay in answering, but whether or not God gladly hears us and is disposed to listen. If He is not patient with us, then we must be ever so careful not to burden Him with our problems. But that is not the case with God. We need not try to encourage people to just accept their circumstances and stop crying out to God. Rather we can join with them in prayer, interceding with them before the Father, because not only will he be ever so patient with them and their cries for mercy, he will be patient with us and our cries for mercy on their behalf.

Of course, this would mean prayer. This would mean actually doing more than mentioning it once in prayer because we told them we would pray. This would mean grieving with those who grieve and weeping with those who weep. And maybe for some there is another concern. Not that God will be bothered by the requests of those unwilling to be satisfied with the brokenness of this fallen world, but that we might be bothered with actually having to intercede as persistently with them as this parable calls for.

Is God really bothered? God is bothered by the fallenness of this fallen world, or the brokenness of this broken world. So much so that He sent His Son to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). However God is not bothered by your continual coming to Him and asking Him to do something about it. For those who are experiencing the brokenness of this fallen world, “No matter how small or trivial your life may seem, God is not bothered by your continual appeals for Him to do something about your unjust situation.” And for the rest of us, no matter how far out of reach justice and restoration may seem for someone, we should join with them in prayer to our loving Father whom we can trust is already at work and gladly hears our prayers.

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

I said, “You are gods”: A Mediation in Psalm 82

Reading: Psalm 82, John 10
God presides in the great assembly (ESV: divine council); he renders judgment among the "gods": (Psalm 82:1)
Psalm 82 begins in a way that seems a bit awkward to our Christian ears. Verse 1 could be rendered, “God stands among the gods, in the midst of the gods He judges.” Who are these “gods” he stands amongst? The context makes rather clear that they are those who stand in leadership over God's people, those who make judgments that effect the weak, fatherless, poor, and oppressed of God's people (Psalm 82:1-2).
"How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? 3Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. 4Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82:2-4)
Why does God refer to them as “gods”? Fair question. These rulers were called to dispense justice on God's behalf. All authority or rulership over people is delegated from God (Romans 13:1). So the rulers have a responsibility to represent truth and mercy on God's behalf. In effect, they were to represent God to the people. However, they were failing miserably. Calling them “gods” is a bit “tongue-in-cheek.” Now God was going to render judgment amongst them, and in fact on them.
5The “gods” know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. 6 I said, “You are 'gods'; you are all sons of the Most High.” 7But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler." (Psalm 82:5-7)
Then, in the closing verse of the psalm, it almost seems like a new idea is introduced in the conclusion out of left field. But it isn't out of left field at all.
Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance. (Psalm 82:8)
God rising up and judging is no surprise. It's the part about “why” he will rise up and judge the earth that may surprise. “For all the nations are your inheritance.” (The ESV reads, “for you shall inherit all the nations.”) It would have seemed more in keeping with the rest of the psalm if it had read, “Rise up, O God, judge of the earth, for the leaders of the people are oppressing the people.” And certainly, that is the reason which has been given throughout the psalm. But now, at the end of the psalm, it seems as if a new cause is introduced.
But it is not new at all. In fact, it is the very reason for the rest of the psalm. It all began with a promise to Abraham.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3)
"As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. (Genesis 17:4-6)
These verses introduce and repeat the promise: God called Abraham in order that through him he might bless the nations. God's plan for one man was the nations of the world. Then, in another place we get a glimpse into how God would reach the nations through him.
For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him. (Genesis 18:19)
How will God bring about this promise? He chose Abraham so that he would direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord. How would they be taught to keep the way of the Lord? “ doing what is right and just...” Follow the logic. God chose Abraham so he would train his children and household–which eventually becomes the nation of Israel – to keep the Lord way. The way they keep the Lord's way is by doing what is right and just. And when they do this, the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised—bless the world through him.
What does this have to do with Psalm 82? Everything. The leaders of Israel were given the charge, handed down in the covenant with Abraham, to do what is right and just. And if they had done this, showing God's compassion to the people and dispensing God's mercy, the nations would have looked on and seen the glory of God. They would be the light of God to the nations (Isaiah 51:4; 60:3). It is through this obedience that the nations could see the true nature of the God who chose Abraham and His mercy. But they failed to do so, and so God must judge them, for God will fulfill His promise and reach the nations.
When one reads Psalm 82 with this understanding, and then turns to the New Testament and reads John 10, it is easy to see why Jesus quoted from this psalm there (John 10:34). There he calls the then current Jewish leaders thieves and robbers who have come to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:8-10). They are just like those in Psalm 82.
Then, Jesus points to Himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). He is the Messiah who “with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:4) He will truly be the “son” of God in a way that no one else ever could be for He is the Son of God. The promise given to Abraham that all peoples will be blessed through him will be fulfilled through Jesus and His people (the church) walking out His justice and righteousness (love), as the light of the world (Matthew 5:14; Philippians 2:15).
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,


Sunday, August 10, 2014

What is Korah's Rebellion?


The account of Korah’s rebellion (Korah and 250 men rise up in rebellion against Moses and Aaron; the earth opens and swallows them in the end) is sometimes used as a defense of authority against anyone who might be questioning authority. This event may have some things to say about authority in the church, but it is not the primary point. In fact, the distraction to this issue of “Who’s in charge?” may prevent us from seeing the glorious truth that this story is really about.

We are told at the beginning that 250 prominent Israelite men, leaders in the community, representatives in the assembly, rebelled against Moses and Aaron. The claim, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?” (Numbers 16:3), is not a general complaint about their authority, nor a general complaint about how they view themselves as being better than the rest of the community. This becomes clear when we get to the end of the story. One might call this verse the moral to the story.

This was to remind the Israelites that no one except a descendant of Aaron should come to burn incense before the LORD, or he would become like Korah and his followers. (Numbers 16:40)

The rebellion, it turns out was about Moses (really, the Lord) saying that only Aaron and his descendants could burn incense before the Lord. Korah and the 250 leaders (who already had a level of authority in the community) were claiming everyone in the community is holy enough to offer incense before the Lord in the tent of meeting. This also makes a lot more sense out of Moses telling these men to come the next day and bring their censors and burning incense to let the Lord decide who was right and wrong (Numbers 16:6-7). And it explains why, after all was said and done they were to take the 250 censors they had used and hammer them into a plating to go over the altar to remind the Israelites that no one except a descendant of Aaron (a priest) could approach the alter to offer incense (Numbers 16:39-40).

Aaron had already lost two sons in the service of offering incense because they did not follow the prescribed way (Leviticus 10:1-2). In some sense, I am sure he would have been happy to turn this responsibility over to someone else. Serving as priest was costly. Korah and his followers seemed to think it was about privilege. Worse yet, they did not realize there was a problem–that they needed an intermediary between them and God. God is holy; they were sinful. Their incense would not be acceptable to God. Only incense brought in the prescribed way, through mediation and sacrifice, would be acceptable.

It may be that Christians sometimes miss the greater point of this story because of familiarity with the truths of the New Covenant clearly laid out in Hebrews. As believers in Jesus we are all invited to draw near without any fear of punishment (Hebrews 4:16; 7:19, 25; 10:19-22, 12:18-22). There is only one thing that makes the difference between these verses in Hebrews and Korah’s rebellion. The freedom with which Hebrews calls us to draw near to God in prayer (remember our prayer is incense before God–Revelation 5:8) is only possible because of our Great High Priest. It is not possible because Korah was right (“The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them”). Korah was wrong.

Aaron and his family showed us that we need a mediator. Jesus is that mediator. The reason the earth doesn’t swallow us alive (or some other version of God’s wrath) when we approach the throne of grace is because we come through Jesus Christ. We come by a new and living way opened through his death on the cross. (See the Hebrews verses listed above.)

Many today promote the idea that there are many ways to God. That is Korah’s rebellion. Everything but coming to God through our Lord Jesus Christ is ultimately Korah’s rebellion. If it were not for God’s patience and endurance, judgment would long ago have been poured out.

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

Today if You Hear His Voice: A Meditation in Psalm 95

Reading: Psalm 95

Imagine receiving an invitation to eat dinner with the President of the United States—pick your favorite president just to keep politics out of this. What would you do? You'd clear your calendar. Psalm 95 is an invitation from a king. Not just any king, “the great King above all gods...”.

A Voice Calling Us to Worship

Psalm 95 calls us to worship. The speaker is a fellow member of the people of God, presumably a leader of the congregation. The recipients of this call are the people of God—members of the community of God's people. It is an invitation to come and sing joyfully with songs of praise, giving thanks in His presence (Psalm 95:1-2).
The ground or basis of this call to worship is the greatness of our God.
(3) For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods. (4) In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. (5) The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. (Psalm 95:3-5)
This invitation is not like invitations which we are accustomed to receiving. We receive invitations to various events (weddings, graduations, etc.) with an R.S.V.P. request. It is optional. If you don't desire to come it is often hoped you might send a gift. Either way, your presence is requested, even desired, but there are no negative consequences for not coming. This invitation, however, appeals to the recipients not to brush it aside. There are consequences for not accepting this invitation.
God, “the great God, the great King above all gods,” the Creator of and therefore Sovereign over the sea and dry land (the whole earth), has invited you to come and worship. He has invited you to come and worship in a certain way: with singing and joyfully. Why? Is this invitation only for those who prefer to worship with singing and joyful noises, but not for those who prefer to worship quietly? No, because the greatness of who He is calls for this kind of worship—worship that speaks to the greatness of God from all—especially those of us who aren't naturally inclined toward this worship.
We are called to come and worship in a way that befits the King; in a way that doesn't belittle the greatness of our God. Worship is about God and His greatness; it is not about us. And since our God is great and above all, our worship should be joyful. (This does not mean there are never times for grieving before God. Even those ought to ultimately lead to joyful worship.)

Today If You Hear His Voice - Worship

There is something that I have often missed when reading this psalm. It is found in the relationship between the first part of the psalm and the second: the call to worship and the warning to heed the call to worship. It can be identified clearly when we see the logical connection of verses 6, 7c-8a, and 11.
INVITATION: (6) Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker...
WARNING TO HEED INVITATION: (7) …Today, if only you would hear his voice, (8) “Do not harden your hearts...
CONSEQUENCE OF REFUSAL: (11) So I declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest.'”
It helps to see that the Hebrew word for “come” in the invitation v 6 is the same as that for the word “enter” in v 11. In English it would be a little more awkward, but to emphasize the point we might read it, "Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker...'They shall never come into my rest.'" The call to come into worship, if refused, is met with the consequence of never coming into God's rest. That doesn't seem odd when we understand that God's rest is found in Him and in glorifying Him.
What does this mean? It means the people of God must take seriously the call to worship our God. The mission of God is ultimately about the nations rendering to God the worship due His name (see Psalm 96:1-3; 7-9). It means that in order to respond to God's invitation to come to Him, we come worshiping Him. It also means that to reject God's call to worship Him in joy is to harden our hearts. That hardening reflects hearts that have gone astray and have not known God's ways (Psalm 95:10).
Psalm 95 is both an invitation and a warning. This invitation and warning are captured in the book of Hebrews. The book of Hebrews reverses the order: it begins with a warning not to neglect such a great salvation (Hebrews 2:1-3), which is restated in the words of Psalm 95 (Hebrews 3:7-13) with an appeal not to allow our hearts to be hardened by sin's deceitfulness, and then appeals to us to draw near (come) and call on the Lord for his mercy (always a part of our worship) (Hebrews 4:16). This appeal to “draw near” and enter God's presence returns toward the end of the book (Hebrews 10:19-22). The writer of Hebrews applied the truths of Psalm 95 directly to those who considered themselves part of the community of faith in Jesus. This means it applies directly to us.
The Hebrew Christians had been around for some time; their faith was not as white hot as it was in the beginning (Hebrews 10:32-39). They needed to be reminded of this call to passionate worship of our magnificent God because of this salvation as great as that wrought by Jesus Christ. What about you and me? I need to be reminded. God is reminding me through Psalm 95. But I need more than a reminder. Today if I hear His voice, I need to respond in worship! Join me. Today, if you hear His voice...sing, sing joyfully, and render the worship due His name. Do not harden your heart.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,