Old Testament Preaching

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I remember when I was a kid that I always assumed that everything we did in church came from the Bible.  But to my surprise, whenever I would pick up and read the Bible, I would find all kinds of stories of wars, poetry, and strange oracles that I couldn’t understand.  To be honest, it wasn’t much like what we talked about in church at all.  At one point, I really wanted to know if at least the things that we were taught about Jesus and the Gospel were actually in there, and so I just started reading - for about four hours a day - until I finally finished it.  To make a long story short, it is all in there, but the Bible is not some simple pamphlet giving easy instructions.  It is an ancient library, which for most will require something of a tour guide.

And thus we come back around again to that kid sitting in church listening to a preacher.  Why do we structure our worship around a sermon?  It is because we need the tour guide’s instruction, and that is his chief job while he stands in the pulpit.  He is to read the Scriptures and then give the sense of what he has read.  In so doing, he will pass along the teachings that God has left for us in His Word, but he should also be showing us that those instructions arise clearly from the text itself.

I find it fascinating that this idea is not a concept that comes only from the New Testament.  It goes way back into the Old Testament as well.  We see it with Moses proclaiming the words that he has heard from the Lord to the assembled people; we see it when the priests read the Law in front of the young King Josiah; and we see it very clearly detailed in the days of Ezra, as recorded in the book of Nehemiah.

“And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up...Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:5,7-8)

There are a couple of things that I note about this passage.  The first is that the people needed someone to help them understand what was read, even though the Book of the Law was written in their own language.  The Scriptures are concentrated - like frozen grape juice or dishwashing detergent.  Often what is needed is for the concepts to be opened up, explored, and applied in understandable ways.  This is the job of the preacher, and in Ezra’s day, it was the job of the Levites and Jeshua and Bani and Sherebiah and so on.

Haddon Robinson has articulated the absolute best definition of the word ‘preaching’ that I have ever heard.  In his book, Biblical Peaching, he defines his subject thusly:

Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.

The last statement of that definition - about the Holy Spirit first applying the concept to the personality and experience of the preacher, and then on to the hearers - is the most important part of the definition to me.  I can imagine that is how God was using those Levites and others on the day that Ezra read the Book of the Law.  They knew how to explain God’s instructions to the people, because they had already been wrestling with those commands themselves, and had no doubt been trying to live by them.  And when you think about it, anything other than this would be foolish - the blind leading the blind.  A preacher can’t adequately teach others to obey something that he himself ignores.

So people don’t just need a preacher to explain the historical, grammatical, and literary context of a passage to them.  That will not produce true understanding.  Unfortunately, this is where a lot of the preachers that I have heard park the bus.  They stand before their people and sound like they are reciting a commentary about the passage.  We don’t need that!  What we need is for the preacher to give the sense of what has been read through showing us how the Word of God has impacted his own life.  We need a model to follow.

The second thing I note about the passage above from Nehemiah is that the primary content of what was being explained is nothing other than the Law of God.  This is significant to me for a number of reasons.  First, the Law of God actually requires more explaining than many other parts of the Bible.  Second, the Law of God is one of the most neglected parts of the Scripture in today’s church.  And third, a good explanation of the Law of God is one of the most needed antidotes to the moral chaos running rampant in the world and in the church today.

Why has the world been so effective in pushing the homosexual agenda?  Why have so many ‘churches’ capitulated to the demands of this agenda?  I submit that it is because the Law has been long neglected in the church.  We have taught generations of people that it is just not important.  What about the flippancy of the world toward things like fornication and adultery, or how about the institutionalization of covetousness, theft, and the frequent dishonest use of weights and measures?  All of these things also stem from preachers not taking the time to explain the Law of God to their people.

The church is the great restraint of evil that God has graciously placed within the world.  So if we look around and see that evil has slipped its bonds and is running amok, then we have no one else to blame but ourselves.  And I believe what we desperately need in order to cram the evil back inside the box are people like Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites to stand before us and give the sense and cause us to understand the Law of the Lord.

Which Way is the Ground?

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I was sitting in an Arby’s, trying to eat a fish sandwich, with my ears completely unprotected from the all-out assault of country music blasting throughout the place, when I heard a most unfortunate song.  Luke Bryan’s “Most People Are Good” was released as a part of his What Makes You Country album at the end of 2017.  And - no doubt obvious from the title - the track conveys the artist’s belief that most people are good.  The chorus goes like this:

I believe most people are good

And most Mama's oughta qualify for sainthood

I believe most Friday nights look better under neon or stadium lights

I believe you love who you love

Ain't nothing you should ever be ashamed of

I believe this world ain't half as bad as it looks

I believe most people are good

Now, if we were wanting to criticize popular song lyrics, there would be an almost endless torrent of material to tear apart, but this song seemed especially egregious to me because of Luke Bryan’s reputation as a Christian (he has a song, “Pray About Everything”, and he grew up playing music with his church youth group), and because of another line in the song in question that claims:

I believe them streets of gold are worth the work

But I’d still wanna go even if they were paved in dirt

By referring to “streets of gold”, Bryan is pointing to a belief in what has been written in the book of Revelation. 

The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel's measurement. The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. (Revelation 21:16-18)

Bryan claims in his lyrics to believe in these streets of gold.  Now, he says that they are “worth the work”, which in itself is very troubling given what the Scripture teaches about salvation by grace and not by works, but that’s not the direction I really want this critique to take.  Supposedly, he believes in the reality of this heavenly Jerusalem depicted in the book of Revelation because it is written about in the Bible.  “Streets of gold” aren’t a part of the naturalistic evolutionary worldview and dogma, so he didn’t get that from the godless culture.  He got it from Scripture and Christian teaching.

But this is where so much of the song comes across as gross and contradictory.  If Bryan likes the idea of streets of gold from the last chapters of his Bible, then why does he write a whole song dedicated to a concept that the Scriptures completely contradict: namely, that most people are good?

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.  Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.  The venom of asps is under their lips.  Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.  Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.  There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18)

The above passage probably wouldn’t make a very good country song!  And yet this is what the Bible teaches about the supposed goodness of man.  And lest you think that maybe Paul goes a little over the top quoting all of these Old Testament references in Romans 3, remember how Jesus responded to the rich young ruler who simply addressed Him as “Good Teacher”:

“And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)

If Jesus reacted that way to someone flippantly calling Him ‘good’ (and He actually is good, because He is God - which was the whole point), then how do you think He would react to Luke Bryan’s song?

There’s another line of the chorus of the song that would be greatly offended by a direct confrontation with Scripture, and that’s the one that proclaims, “I believe you love who you love; Ain't nothing you should ever be ashamed of.”  Clearly, this is a reference to the current sinful revolution in our culture which tries to say that unnatural relations between two people of the same sex are to be accepted as normal.  The Bible makes a very different claim:

"If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them." (Leviticus 20:13)

"For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error." (Romans 1:26-27)

The Bible's message is always very consistent.  Not one person has been 'good' since the fall of Adam (except Jesus, of course), and homosexuality has always been "shameless", "dishonorable", and "an abomination".  If the Bible isn't your source of truth when it comes to these questions, then there's no reason for it to be the source of truth regarding something like the streets of gold.

Luke Bryan - like so many who bear the name of 'Christian' in vain - is picking and choosing what he likes from God's Word, while ignoring the rest and replacing it with the values of the godless culture around us.  Rather than imitate such a person, look instead to a man like Ezra, who made God's Word his intense focus:

"For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel." (Ezra 7:10)

This is the model for a faithful Christian.  We should set our hearts to study the Word of God as the ground and foundation of all truth.  And, once studied, we should "do it" - that is, seek to obey it in every aspect of our lives.  And finally, we should teach it.  Rather than write songs that confuse and contradict what God has said, we need to be intentional to faithfully teach others what has been graciously revealed to us.  The country music is optional.

Learn How to Party

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In the days of King Hezekiah - one of the best kings to ever rule over the southern kingdom of Judah - the king called the people to once again celebrate the Passover.  For some reason, the people had been neglecting the feasts of the Lord for a very long time.  Maybe the paganism of the surrounding nations had gradually influenced them to adopt more of their own customs and celebrations, or maybe the various kings who came before had neglected their God-given responsibility to make their own copies of the Law, and thus were unaware that they were commanded to celebrate these things, or maybe it just happened that over time the people stopped thinking that all of those feasts were important enough to justify making a long and expensive journey to Jerusalem.  More than likely all three of these things contributed to the long neglect of God’s feasts.

But the somewhat surprising detail in the story of this historic return to faithfulness is just how much the people all enjoyed participating in the celebration.

“And the people of Israel who were present at Jerusalem kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with great gladness, and the Levites and the priests praised the Lord day by day, singing with all their might to the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 30:21)

This is such a beautiful picture to me.  The people of Israel, who had been almost indistinguishable from the people of the nations around them for so long, suddenly found their faith and their joy when they were together in obedience!  It reminds us of the importance of not neglecting to meet together with the saints (Hebrews 10:25).  We need each other as we seek to live out all that God commanded.  This is a massively multiplayer game, not a single-player one.

This story of the renewed Passover also makes me long for the kind of thing that we see happening in Acts:

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers...And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42,46-47)

Christian joy, fulfillment, and - dare I say - happiness are really very easy to foster.  All it really takes is to meet together often - even in your homes - and spend time fellowshipping, eating, and discussing the apostles’ teachings.  This is the God-prescribed cure for loneliness, doctrinal decline, and lack of morals all rolled into one!  What is striking to me is how few churches actually seem to understand this.

Some modern churches reduce the number of meeting times under the false assumption that requiring too much of twenty-first century Americans will chase them all off.  They are so busy and have such short attention spans, after all.  Not to mention, the kind of churches that like to do this don’t really have much to share anyway.  Their doctrine is so shallow, it wouldn’t even get your shoes wet.

Other churches - more doctrinally robust churches - tend to swing the pendulum another direction.  Not understanding the value of true fellowship, they fill every single meeting with a formal program, or else prefer Bible studies to be the kind of affair where only one person speaks.  This kind of buttoned-up stiffness can choke the life out of a church just as surely as a lack of doctrinal purity.

So let’s remember the value of getting together regularly.  We need each other!  Our souls are fed by the worship and fellowship of our brothers and sisters.  And when we do get together, remember to take time just to catch up with each other - and get to know the newer faces.  God has built this spiritual house for the purpose of showing His glory as it is assembled weekly into the visible church for His worship, according to His command.  And if there is no time to pray honestly with one another, or to discuss the apostles’ teaching with one another, then look for ways to make happen, because in so doing there is great, soul-sustaining joy that is free for the taking.

Love and Hate

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Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).  Struggling with practical ways to live this out in a world full of vile and wicked deeds, modern Christians coined a well-known phrase: “Hate the sin and love the sinner.”  That seems to be the only way that we legitimately hate the things that God hates (like sin - Proverbs 6:26-29), and yet love as He commanded us to love.

The problem is that not everything I’ve just written in the last paragraph is exactly true.

Let’s start with the notion that God hates sin.  It turns out that it’s not really easy to find a passage in the Bible that directly says this.  There’s no doubt that God does actually hate sin, but if you look for a particular verse that says this you’re going to end up finding a whole lot of Scripture passages that say that God hates the sinner because of the sin.  Even that Proverbs passage I cited earlier says that God hates a false witness (not merely false witnessing) and the one who sows discord among brothers (not simply the discord that was sown).  And if you want a more direct statement, try Psalm 5:5: “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.”

So the Bible unapologetically makes the statement that God hates evildoers and false witnesses and those who sow discord...in other words, sinners.  That’s kind of embarrassing, isn’t it?  Maybe we should hide those verses!  But if we are going to keep them, then maybe we can say that it’s okay for God to hate sinners because He offers them the Gospel anyway (which is actually super-loving in spite of the hate, however that works), or because He is the sovereign potter and has every right over His clay to make a creature just for the hating (if you’re of a more reformed, Romans 9-reading bent).  At any rate, just because He does it doesn’t mean that we are supposed to.

But then we read the words of the ‘man after God’s own heart’ who wrote praise songs to God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that include lines like this one:

”Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!  O men of blood, depart from me!  They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain.  Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?  And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?  I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” (Psalm 139:19-22)

He also wrote a beautiful psalm that asked the question, “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?  Who shall dwell on your holy hill?”  And guess what one of the answers was?

“[A man] in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord.” (Psalm 15:4)

It doesn’t sound like David was “hating the sin and loving the sinner” when he said that he hates those who hate the Lord (this word ‘those’ refers to the actual people doing the hating of the Lord and not the hate itself), and loathes those who rise up against Him.  And he was writing very clearly when he said that the righteous man who could approach the Lord and dwell in His house must despise the vile person (not just the quality that made him or her vile).

I came across this idea again while reading through 2 Chronicles 19.  At the beginning of that chapter, Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, had just returned to Jerusalem after traveling to help Israel’s King Ahab in his war with Syria.  Jehoshaphat was a godly king, but Ahab was as bad or worse than all of the other wicked kings of the northern kingdom of Israel.  And when Jehoshaphat got back home - following the death of Ahab in battle - the seer Jehu came to visit him with a prophetic announcement:

“Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 19:2)

Now wait just a minute!  This just keeps getting worse and worse!  So the Bible says that God hates sinners (not just the sin), then some Psalms state that the hatred of the wicked person is a good quality in the man of God, but now God is actually exhibiting His wrath against His people when they “love those who hate the Lord”?  How can this be?!  We weren’t raised this way at all!

It would be helpful at this point to go back and more closely examine the instructions that Jesus gave in the Sermon on the Mount about how we are to treat our enemies.  Again, He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Let’s start by eliminating the easy part of this.  We know without a doubt that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31), so we can shorten the problem areas of Jesus’ instruction to just a couple of factors: 1) “You have heard it said...hate your neighbor,” and 2) “Love your enemies”.

First, where had the people heard it said that we should hate our enemies?  That’s actually not a statement that the Bible makes.  Very much the opposite in fact.  In Exodus 23:5, this law was given: “If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.”  That’s actually a direct command to love your enemy (the one who hates you) smack dab in the middle of the Old Testament Law.  When Jesus said, “But I say to you, Love your enemies”, He wasn’t overwriting the former law of hate with a new law of love.  He was correcting a misapplication of passages like Psalm 139:19-22 that had been twisted around to be about your personal enemies rather than God’s enemies.

You see, there’s actually a difference.  Your enemy is someone who has directly hurt you in some way.  Maybe they keep parking their car on your lawn.  Maybe they stole your TV.  Maybe they cut in front of you in line at the Golden Corral.  Such a one has offended you personally, and now you have to decide how to act toward him or her.  Jesus commands us to love this person, and repay their evil with good.  If they slap you on the cheek, turn the other one.

So what about all of that hate that we read about?  That was directed toward God’s enemies.His enemies are those who hate Him, and those who flagrantly and unrepentantly transgress His good and holy commands.

Now sometimes God’s enemies and our enemies are one and the same.  The God-hater living next door might let his dog relieve itself all over your yard.  But as far as his evil toward you is considered, you should repay his evil with good.  Bake that family a batch of cookies, and use it as an opportunity to share the Gospel with them.  In doing this, we imitate God who is merciful and gracious towards those who live in opposition to His commands, to those who do not love Him even though He gave them life.

But when it comes to those who organize God-hating marches, or those who run for public office on a platform of destroying any semblance of godliness in our nation, how are we to think about those people?  They are not our neighbors (in that they are not in geographical nearness to us), and they have not set themselves up as our personal enemies (they have not thrown bricks through our windows).  They have set themselves up as enemies of God, and our response to that should not be to rush to their side and offer them bottles of cold water when it gets hot outside (thinking that we may somehow tempt them to take a look at the Gospel).  We should not be offering to have them come and speak in our churches under the auspices of having ‘honest conversation’ or any such thing.  The godly and biblical response to enemies of God is a good and proper hatred.  We should not offer them aid (like Jehoshaphat did with Ahab).  In fact, we should work toward their downfall, publicly decrying their evils, working against their policy decisions, seeking to eliminate all of their influence from the society that God has put under our care, of which we are supposed to be making disciples.

To be sure there is a fine line here between showing love to our personal enemies and feeling hatred toward the wicked enemies of God.  But there is a line.  It would be an enormous mistake to discount the great amount of Scriptural witness on this issue.  If we do not see a line that needs to be drawn, then we will be self-destructively lopsided in how we deal with sin that confronts us.  Either we will be driven by personal vendetta and revenge against those who hurt us, or we will coddle the iniquitous as they destroy society around around us, mocking our God the whole way down.

Hold Fast

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Who is the most effective general to have ever lived?  Which battles saw the greatest number of casualties?  It might surprise a lot of people to find out that a somewhat obscure king from the southern kingdom of Judah a scant four generations after David holds the world record for greatest military achievement of all time.  In fact, in the list of battles by casualty on Wikipedia, this king is nowhere listed, even though many other ancient sources are.  I guess the Bible - the world’s most textually attested historical record (by far) - doesn’t count for the kind of people that make these silly lists.  At any rate, the king’s name was Asa, and he was a pretty good king.

Asa began his reign with a stellar performance.  He “did that which was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 14:2).  That is the typical praise for those kings of Judah who mostly walked in the ways that God commanded.  Asa was a little better than typical, though:

“He took away the foreign altars and the high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandment. He also took out of all the cities of Judah the high places and the incense altars. And the kingdom had rest under him.” (2 Chronicles 14:3-5)

In addition to this, he also faced down his very own mother, and took the idolatrous Asherah pole that she had made and chopped it to bits and burned the pieces (2 Chronicles 15:16).  Sure, he was the king, but it takes some zealous guts to rebuke your own mom like that - no matter how much she might deserve it!

And then comes the big story.  An Ethiopian named Zerah came out against Judah with an army of one million men, supported by an additional three hundred chariots (chariots being effectively the tanks of ancient warfare).  Now, Judah and Benjamin together were able to field over half a million men to meet this massive horde (for an idea of scale, just imagine that this army of Ethiopians was one hundred times larger than the army of orcs that fought against Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), but it wasn’t the strength of Judah’s arms that helped King Asa to win the day against the million man army.  Asa brought the issue to God:

“And Asa cried to the Lord his God, ‘O Lord, there is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude. O Lord, you are our God; let not man prevail against you.’” (2 Chronicles 14:11)

The next verse is striking: “So the Lord defeated the Ethiopians” (2 Chronicles 14:12).  In fact, the Lord defeated them, routed them, and the army of Judah pursued them and killed every single man of the one million that was originally arrayed against them.  Now take a moment and go look for the list of battles in world history, sorted by casualty numbers.  See any that get close to one million?  This is a world-record-setting battle, but all of the praise belongs to the Lord.  It was His victory, accomplished for His people, in answer to the faithful prayer of the king.

So Asa was a pretty faithful guy.  Look at that huge victory!  Look at all of those reforms that he made that started to clean up Judah and Benjamin from the previous years of slack adherence to God’s commands!  But sadly, his story doesn’t really have a happy ending.

“In the thirty-sixth year of the reign of Asa, Baasha king of Israel went up against Judah and built Ramah, that he might permit no one to go out or come in to Asa king of Judah. Then Asa took silver and gold from the treasures of the house of the Lord and the king's house and sent them to Ben-hadad king of Syria, who lived in Damascus, saying, ‘There is a covenant between me and you, as there was between my father and your father. Behold, I am sending to you silver and gold. Go, break your covenant with Baasha king of Israel, that he may withdraw from me.’” (2 Chronicles 16:1-3)

If it seems weird to you that the guy who had previously defeated a million men through his faithful reliance on the Lord later turned to earthly means to handle another threat, then you are not alone.  God even sent Hanani the seer to confront Asa over this strange change of heart:

“Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you. Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet because you relied on the Lord, he gave them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.” (2 Chronicles 16:7-9)

And the slide down into lack of faith doesn’t end there, sadly.  Asa took the rebuke very badly, and even started inflicting cruelty on his own people because of his anger, rather than humbling himself and repenting (contrast his response to David’s in 2 Samuel 12:1-13).  Then his life comes to an end in a very ignoble fashion:

“In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe. Yet even in his disease he did not seek the Lord, but sought help from physicians. And Asa slept with his fathers, dying in the forty-first year of his reign.”

What a pitiful way for this extraordinary life to end!  How could a person begin with such faith and zeal for the Lord, and then fall apart like this forty years later?  Shouldn’t the experiences of the early part of his life have shown him the value of trusting the Lord for all of his needs?

Ultimately, we don’t really know what happened to Asa.  Maybe after his huge victories, he got out of the habit of trusting God with his needs.  Maybe he thought that the smaller things in his life weren’t important enough to bother the Lord with them.  Maybe he just stopped meditating on the Word of God day and night, thinking that he had a pretty good handle on all of that stuff.

Whatever the reason for his downfall, his life should serve as a cautionary tale to those of us who are long in the Christian walk.  We should spend quality time daily bringing our needs, our longings, and our concerns before our Heavenly Father.  We should also spend time daily meditating on His Word, never content to stop drinking from that endless spring.  And in every season of our lives, we should trust Him to carry us through first and foremost.  There may be human or natural tangents, like doctors, medicines, or attorneys, but if our first hope isn’t in the Lord and His sovereign hand, then we’re in no better shape than Asa.  Gout, or cancer, or bankruptcy are merely tools in God’s hand to shape us into the likeness of His Son.  They do not exist outside of His control.  Thus, if we ask Him for help, and trust in His answer, no matter the final outcome, our lives will be victorious.

Wisdom Wanes

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The current world that we live in seems to value intelligence, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that it values education.The difference can be as narrow or as wide as the individual is capable of maintaining.Intelligence might be safely considered to be the sum total of your acquired knowledge and skills (actually I borrowed that definition from my iPad’s built-in dictionary just now, but it will work just fine).Sometimes that matters, but in a lot of cases - especially cases like the starting of a new job - education is a little more important, because we most likely have a tangible representation of just how much we have been taught: a diploma or a degree.

But while such faculties are indeed valuable to a person, and by extension to the organization that employs such a person, there is another quality that is far more valuable, and yet far more difficult to quantify: wisdom.  Once again, my dictionary defines the concept of wisdom as “the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment.”  So a person can have education, but fail to carry over all of that knowledge into what we might define as intelligence, and a person with intelligence can lack the wisdom to know how to use the knowledge and skills he or she has developed.

The complete picture of man’s knowledge, skill, and experience is like a big funnel with education at the top, intelligence and experience somewhere in the middle, and then wisdom forming the bottleneck at the bottom.  And if you’ve ever worked with other people, no doubt you have experienced a tragic lack of wisdom in someone who was supposed to have a lot of education - a person who seemed very intelligent - and yet who made bad decision after bad decision.  That is indicative of a great lack of wisdom.  Chances are, you are familiar with several people just like this.  And the problem won’t get better in the short term.

True wisdom is excluded from almost all educational establishments in the developed world today, because - as the Bible tells us - “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10),” and yet most of the elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, community colleges, and universities in the western world today begin with the assumption that there is no God; and if there were, He wouldn’t deserve to be feared.  So they go on trying to instill so-called knowledge in their students - the ‘knowledge’ that says that the universe created itself when an infinitesimal part of it decided to blow up, and all of the intellectual bankruptcy that goes along with that idea - with no hope of ever being able to pass on real wisdom to their graduates.  Real wisdom starts with the fear of the Lord.

We are told that Solomon, son of David, King of Israel, was the wisest man to ever live - except for Jesus the Son of God, of course.  And Solomon obtained his wisdom not through universities, or online courses, or Wikipedia, but directly from God - the only source of real wisdom - and he obtained it through a most curious means: he asked for it.

“Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can govern this people of yours, which is so great?” (2 Chronicles 1:10)

And God was pleased with Solomon’s request, because he did not ask for great riches or victory over his enemies, or long life, and therefore God gave him the wisdom that he had requested, as well as all of the other things too!

Solomon’s wisdom was so great, in fact, that the Queen of Sheba came all the way to Jerusalem - with an absolutely obscene amount of money - just to hear some of this famed wisdom for herself:

“Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to Jerusalem to test him with hard questions, having a very great retinue and camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones. And when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind. And Solomon answered all her questions. There was nothing hidden from Solomon that he could not explain to her. And when the queen of Sheba had seen the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, and their clothing, his cupbearers, and their clothing, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more breath in her.” (2 Chronicles 9:1-4)

It’s hard to imagine such a situation arising today.  We all seem to be so prideful about our own accomplishments and intelligence that we would almost never seek out those whom God has gifted with the ability to make wise judgments.  And yet we also live in a time when so many Christians wish that God would just give them the answers to tough decisions that they need to make.  Questions about which job to take, which person to marry, or which house to buy can bring many to a stumbling halt.  I’ve seen people open the Bible to a random page, hoping to glean some direction for a particularly difficult decision that they need to make, and there are whole study courses designed to teach Christians how to listen for the voice of God in helping make hard choices.

What we need is not some mystical experience where God whispers the right answer into our ears, but instead we need wisdom!  We need to be able to make the decisions ourselves, using our own God-given faculties, applying our own knowledge, experience, and good judgment.  But how do we get it?

We get wisdom the exact same way that Solomon did: by asking for it.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5)

We should not be trying to live out our days without regularly asking God for wisdom.  We already know from the story of Solomon that He likes it when His people ask for this, and this passage in the book of James tells us plainly that He gives generously to all without reproach if we but ask.

Ask for wisdom to make the hard decisions that come up in your life.  Ask for wisdom to understand the deep things revealed to us in the Scriptures.  Ask for wisdom about how to share the Gospel with your family, neighbors, and coworkers.  Ask for wisdom about how to exercise your spiritual gifts within the context of the local church where God has placed you.  We need all of this, and He has said that He will give it.

So don’t let anything hold you back.  Go ahead and ask for God’s wisdom right now.  There’s no reason to wait.

God of Darkness

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When you think of the place where God dwells, do you imagine it being a place of intense light, or thick darkness?  That seems like an easy question; after all, darkness is evil, and light is good - at least that’s what all of our movies have taught us.  Paul even tells us straight up in his first letter to Timothy that God absolutely dwells in unapproachable light:

“...He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” (1 Timothy 6:15-16)

But if you were to peruse a book or a blog article written by some silly atheist  devoted to finding every supposed contradiction in the Bible, you would certainly find that this question has a couple of wildly different Scriptural answers.  For exhibit B, take a look at what Solomon the Wise has to say about the place where God dwells:

“Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said that He would dwell in thick darkness.’” (2 Chronicles 6:1)

First, I think that this statement begs the question: where exactly did He say that?

Well, at the giving of the Ten Commandments, Moses “drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21).  We see the same description of the mountain in the recounting of the event in Deuteronomy 4:11.  But other than these descriptions - and plenty of references to God coming in the storm clouds in judgment throughout the prophets - there is not a direct utterance from God in the Old Testament using exactly these words.  The closest thing we have is from Exodus:

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.’” (Exodus 19:9)

So it seems pretty safe to assume that this is what Solomon was referring to when he said that “the Lord has said that He would dwell in thick darkness.”  After all, he was at that moment watching the cloud of the Shekhinah glory descend and fill the newly dedicated temple.

But which one of these is true?  Does He dwell in light or darkness?  Are the silly atheists right in thinking that this is a contradiction?  And if it’s not, then what glorious truth can we discern about God from this paradox?

To get to the heart of the matter, I think it’s very important to point out that - as Paul teaches us - God dwells in unapproachable light.  It can’t be approached - like, at all!  It is so bright and intense that we could not survive even beginning to move in the direction of its source (which is, of course, God Himself). When Moses asked to see this glory of the Lord, God had to hide him in a small cleft in the mountain so that only a little sliver of light could get in, and even then He only showed him His back as He passed by (Exodus 33:22).

Now if that’s the way God’s glory really is, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to conceive of why God would sometime need to dwell in thick darkness - like the darkness of a concealing cloud.  He appears this way to His people at Mount Sinai and in the tabernacle and the temple because this is the only way that they can survive the experience.  He wraps Himself in thick darkness in order to draw close - to have a relationship with His people.

That’s also what we see Him doing in the incarnation.  When Jesus was born, rather than showing up once again in a cloud, the second Person of the Trinity approached His people clothed as one of us: in human flesh:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:5-7)

Though much ink has been spilled as to exactly what Jesus emptied Himself of, the plainest answer is that He laid aside this lethal glory.  He did so in order to draw near to His people in the most intimate way possible - as one of us!

God’s wrapping Himself in the thick darkness of a cloud or in the lowly flesh of a man is a testimony to His astounding grace.  His full glory is unapproachable to us because we are fallen, we are lawbreakers, and our wickedness suffuses every aspect of our beings and our cultures.  What humanity became in the fall was something that is diametrically opposed to the shining and glorious goodness and perfection of our Creator - so much so that we could never, ever draw close to Him again.  We had no hope.  And He could have left us that way, but He didn’t.  Instead, He covered Himself in darkness and came to rescue us.

That’s not a contradiction.  That’s the Gospel.

What Exactly Does ‘No’ Mean?

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One of the interesting footnotes of history is that God’s original command to Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil got a little…distorted…as it made its way from Adam to his wife, Eve.  The specific command to Adam was simple enough:

 “You may surely  eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

A little later in the story, though, when the Serpent asks Eve about which fruit they may eat, she cites the command a little differently:

“We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Genesis 3:2-3)

Now we readers, six thousand years after the event, and with no further information, do not know where the extra ban on touching the fruit entered the picture.  It could have been something that Adam added when he related the command to Eve.  It could also have been something that Eve subconsciously added to the command in order to protect herself from even getting close to breaking the rule.  And it is in the realm of possibility that God repeated the command to Eve, but added the extra bit on the second time around.  This last possibility is highly unlikely, though, as it would indicate that either God or the recorder of Genesis left out an important detail when the command was given to Adam, only to suddenly remember it a few paragraphs later.  It seems almost guaranteed, then, that one of our first parents added this extra layer to God’s command as a hedge of protection against breaking the Law.

Men and women throughout history, and flagrantly within the pages of the New Testament, have repeated this same error.  Paul in the second chapter of Colossians shows the foolishness of trusting in your own man-made rules to protect you from breaking God’s commands:

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)

In light of this, how should we act when God tells us ‘No’?  The one example we have seen so far involves turning one prohibition into several.  Eve forbade herself from even touching the forbidden fruit in an effort to remind herself not to eat it.  The Jews of Jesus’ day had invented all kinds of rules around the prohibition to do no work on the Sabbath.  One well-known example was that a person was not to look in the mirror on the Sabbath because he or she might see a gray hair and pluck it, and thus do work on the day of rest.

I would submit that we should endeavor to keep the commands of God as simply as they are given.  If Colossians 2:20-23 cited above is true, and if all of Jesus’ anger towards those who held closely to their man-made ‘hedge of protection’ type rules was well-placed, then we would do wisely to memorize and keep God’s commands exactly as He has given them, without trying to protect ourselves by enlarging the territory covered by those instructions.  I say this not to provide an excuse for some to look for loopholes for favorite sins, but rather to acknowledge the fact that manufacturing our own protections to keep us from falling prey to sin only seems to cause us to trust in our own strength and wisdom instead of relying on God.

As a counterpoint to Eve’s reaction to God’s “No” in Genesis 2, I would like to look at another example of a Bible character responding to God telling him, “No.”

David was the kind of man who looked around at all of the material blessing that God had given him - treasures, wives, children, a kingdom, and a palace - and realized that while he was living in opulence, the ark of God was sitting off somewhere in a tent.  Not content with this arrangement, David immediately decided that he would build a house for God that would be even more spectacular than his own, as it should be.

The twist in the story comes when God is pleased with David’s desire, but still denies him the opportunity to build the temple.  When David recounts the story to the princes of Israel later in life, he says:

“But God said to me, ‘You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood.’” (1 Chronicles 28:3)

David’s response to God’s “No”, however, is remarkably different than the previous example.  True to God’s revealed will, David did not himself erect the temple, but he did practically everything leading up it!  A quick stroll through 1 Chronicles 28 shows us just some of what David accomplished in laying the groundwork for the temple:

  • He made the blueprints for the vestibule, houses, treasuries, upper rooms, inner chambers, and the space for the mercy seat (vv. 11-12).

  • He set up the divisions of the Levites and the schedule of service (v. 13).

  • He gathered all of the gold and silver necessary for all of the utensils, lamp stands, lamps, tables, forks, basins and cups used in worship (vv. 14-17).

  • And he gathered all of the gold and made the plans for the altar of incense and the chariot of the cherubim that was to stand above the mercy seat (v. 18).

And even as he did all of this in preparation for his son Solomon to build the temple, his heart was overwhelmed with thankfulness.  Listen to the way he praised God for allowing him and his subjects to freely give their treasures for the construction of God’s house:

“But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.”

David took God’s “No” and transformed it into a beautiful opportunity to pour out his own life - his time, his wealth, and his gifts - in service to God anyway.  Is that the way we treat God’s “You shall nots”?  Do we see God’s command to refrain from theft as a way to keep us poor, or as a loving opportunity to learn how to be content in all the ways that He has blessed us (not to mention preserving our relationships with our neighbors)?  Do we see His command to refrain from adultery as a jail cell designed to limit our sexual fulfillment, or as a glorious protection of the true joys that are found only in faithful marriage?

Applying this notion to Adam and Eve and their command concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, how could they have done differently and glorified God through the “No”?  Well, the fruit of the tree was for making one wise.  Adam and Eve could have pursued the wisdom of God through Him directly instead of trying to take the forbidden shortcut.  Everything that they gained through the eating of the fruit could have been gained through their close relationship with God - save for the destructive experience of sin itself.

So, instead of trying to build walls around God’s commands, as if He were a cruel taskmaster who will punish every sideways glance, trust Him as the loving Father that He reveals Himself to be, and treat His commands and His answers to prayer as the good gifts that they are.  With a heart focused on His glory, dare to prepare every facet of the construction of the temple, while still being faithful to leave the final building to someone else.  Look for God-glorifying opportunities within the boundaries that He has set for you, and thank Him continually for those opportunities.

Counting Sin

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Spiritual warfare is a touchy subject.  You’ll definitively find out some interesting things about people when you broach the topic with them.  You might find that one family believes that their house is inhabited by demons, another might claim to have been abducted by aliens, only to find out later that it was an actual demonic encounter, and still others - Christians, mind you - pretty much think the whole thing is so much poppycock, and that the only real “spiritual warfare” is an internal struggle with their own fallen natures.

And while there are truths behind each kind of response - if maybe not the full truth - the reality is that in the Bible’s narrative, there are some overt descriptions of ‘spiritual warfare’ that sort of fall all over a similar kind of spectrum.  And since these accounts are contained in the inspired and inerrant Word of God, we have to take them at face value.

One of the more colorful, if subtle, stories of Satanic influence comes in the twenty-first chapter of 1 Chronicles.  There in verse 1 we are told that “Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.”

I know what you might be thinking.  Or at least I know what I am thinking.  I have two pretty big questions about this account.  First, why is it such an evil act to count your people?  And second, how does this whole thing jive with what we are told in James 1:13-15 about sinful desires coming from our own wicked hearts?

Surely just counting people couldn’t be that bad, right?  We can imagine one reason why God might be angry at David for this: pride.  In counting his people, he was stoking his own pride in his nation and army, while at the same time relying more on the number of people at his back than on his God.

I have a bit of a problem with this explanation, however.  Even in our own family, we don’t punish our children for a wrong unless we have first taught them that the action in question is wrong.  We first give a warning - a law or rule if you wish - and then begin to punish for disobedience after the law has been laid down.  And we do this in our family because that is the way that God operates.

I’m not trying to suggest that pride and lack of faith had nothing to do with God’s reaction.  Joab seemed to understand that David was wrong to undertake such a faithless act.  But there is something else going here also that I think we need to consider.

David was not very careful when it came to obeying God’s righteous rules.  Kings were commanded in Deuteronomy 17:18 to make a full copy of God’s Law for their own reference, and ostensibly because making the effort to write them all down aids in memory.  The kings were then responsible to keep this law in its entirety.  David, however, had already shown in several instances that he did not have a very intimate recollection of what God had demanded, even though his heart was often said to be “after God’s own heart.”

Of course there is the massive sin with Bathsheba that we could point out, but there is also the more subtle - but still very deadly - oversight with the way the ark was carried on the way to Jerusalem that illustrates David’s somewhat lazy attitude toward God’s commands.  The ark was to be carried on poles by Levites, not on a cart drawn by oxen.  It was also to be coved with the various layers of the tabernacle so that it would not be seen.  Therefore, when Uzzah, David’s friend, reached out to steady the ark as it bounced uncovered on the ox cart, God struck him dead.  And David was upset about this.

Fast forward to the story of the counting of Israel in 1 Chronicles 21, and we are not told that David made any effort to obey the very strict commands of Exodus 30:11-16.  Listen to these instructions (emphasis mine):

And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them. This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: (a shekel is twenty gerahs:) an half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord. Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the Lord. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering unto the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls. And thou shalt take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shalt appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation; that it may be a memorial unto the children of Israel before the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls.

Reading back through 1 Chronicles 21 and the parallel passage in 2 Samuel 24, there is no mention of this offering being given.  It’s as if David has just completely neglected it.  What we do find mention of, however, is the plague that was promised in Exodus 31:12.

So I believe that what we have here is yet another lazy disobedience from a king that should have known better (if he would have made his copy of the Law).  And we also have here an unhealthy dose of pride, and a desire to lean on his own strength, and this is what sets Joab at odds with his king.  But I believe that it is super important to realize that God’s wrath is stoked by transgression of His Law, and David did in fact transgress the very clear instructions given about taking a census.

But what about our second question - the one dealing with spiritual warfare, Satan’s provocation, and how that all relates to James 1:13-15?  We know now that David’s act of counting the people came from his pride and his reliance upon man’s strength instead of God’s.  This sounds very much like what we read in that passage in James:

Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.

That seems like a pretty clear description of what happened within David, doesn’t it?  But the text says that Satan provoked him.  And to make matters worse, the parallel passage in 2 Samuel 24 says that “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’”

Now this presents quite a pickle!  Did God move David to commit this evil, did Satan provoke him, or was David drawn away by his own lust?  The Bible rather clearly - and seemingly contradictorily - tells us that all three are somehow true.  These concepts may be a bit too difficult to try to tackle at the end of an already lengthy article, but we can at least try to summarize the answer, and leave the proof-texting for a later essay.

We know that God is the sovereign author of all of history, and that there is nothing that comes to pass that was not written in His book before the foundation of the world.  David himself confesses this in Psalm 139:16.  We also know that the Devil is God’s Devil.  He created him, and He owns him.  Satan serves God’s purposes.  Recall the story of Job, and how God suggested that Satan test His servant Job (and then He set certain boundaries to that testing). When Satan operates in history, he is operating in God’s story, by His permission.

Tying all of this into James 1 shows us that God doesn’t make us commit evil.  He doesn’t compel evil actions from us.  He won’t and He can’t because He does not act contrary to His own nature, which is the very definition of good.  The passage does not, however, state that certain ideas that enter our heads cannot have an origin outside of ourselves.  Satan suggested to Eve that she should take the forbidden fruit, but it was her own lust for knowledge and power that drove her hand to reach out and take it.  Thus, she was responsible, the serpent was responsible, and ultimately the man was responsible because he had the Law clearly articulated to him by the Lawgiver Himself.

And that is also David’s responsibility.  He was commanded to make his own personal copy of all of God’s Law.  In that Law, there were strict standards for how a census should be taken, and stiff penalties for not doing it in the prescribed way.  God decided to test him, and so He appointed Satan to the task.  Satan somehow presented the idea to David that it would be good to know just how many men he had at his disposal, and David’s own prideful lusts did the rest - with the culmination being in the transgression of God’s Law.

So when it comes right down to it, our greatest weapon in spiritual warfare is exactly the one used by Jesus in the desert when Satan was sent to test Him: the Law of God.  Our Enemy desires for us to transgress God’s Law.  He and his minions know how to point our wicked hearts toward things that will entice us to do just that.  But if we know God’s righteous rules very well, then we will be well-equipped to fight back against this kind of deception.  

How well did David write in Psalm 19 (maybe sometime after he realized his error):

The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward. Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.

Three Little Words

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People express their feelings for each other in radically different ways.  I have seen movies and television shows where a son claims that his father never told him that he loved him, but that it was just always understood.  That seems preposterous to me, but I have friends and acquaintances that say that their own family life was very similar to that growing up.  Family members simply didn't say, "I love you."

That was and is certainly not the case in my family.  I was told that I was loved practically every five minutes.  I've carried on that practice with my own wife and children.  In families like mine, "I love you" is so frequently used that it really loses some of its force.  We use it in place of 'goodbye' when speaking on the phone.  We even use it to see if we've offended each other.  "I love you?" I might 'ask' sheepishly when trying to see if my wife is upset with me about something.

Now I definitely wouldn't tell someone living in a family like mine, where statements of affection like this are given very freely, that they are doing something wrong, and I'm certainly not going to change this in my own family, but I could imagine some legitimate complaints.  "You've turned love into something cheap!" someone might say.  Detractors would rightfully point out that it is very easy to tell someone you love them, but actual love is sacrificial.  It costs you something.  It's hard work.

It can be really complicated to try and figure out how to properly express our love for others - even those closest to us - but what kind of example does God set for us in this pursuit?  How does He express His own love toward His creation, toward His people, and toward those that have yet to come to Him in faith and repentance?

What we end up finding is that God uses action far more often than words to express His love.  And to be honest, His actions speak a lot louder than words when it comes to proving that He does in fact love His people.  He sends His servant Moses to publicly argue with Pharoah for the freedom of the Israelites.  And when Pharoah refuses to let them go, God shows up with ten astounding plagues upon the Eyptians to force the issue.  Then He parts the sea and escorts them across on dry land, drowning their enemies behind them.  After that, He feeds them with bread from heaven while they wander in the wilderness.  The Old Testament stories are full of these kinds of displays of God's power on behalf of Israel.  He tells His people in Jeremiah 31:36, "If this fixed order [sun, moon, and stars] departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever."  In other words, if the sun keeps rising every day, then you can rest assured that God still cares.

So if His actions of love have far more impact than a few measly words, then why I am so floored by a verse like Isaiah 43:4?  There God says, "Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life."  In this passage, God actually uses the very human-sounding 'three little words'!  When God uses them here in Isaiah, though, we know that He is not speaking flippantly.  At this point in the story, He has already carried His people so mightily and demonstrated His love to them so many times that no one should be able to doubt the sincerity of His words.

Maybe He didn't even need to say this aloud, but I am so glad that He did!  I am a student of the Scriptures, so I know of His amazing deeds on behalf of His people - all of which demonstrate His providential love - but I am also a human being, and I need to hear it (or in this case read it) spoken in such simple and earthly terms from time to time.  It gives all of His loving acts the proper perspective.  We are "precious" in His sight, and He really does love us.  We have been taught to trust Him when He speaks, and I am very glad to be able to trust Him when He expresses His tender feelings for His people.

This declaration of God's love doesn't ever come cheaply.  It is backed up by incredible acts of compassion, grace, and mercy - including the sacrifice of His Son (the exact imprint of His nature - Hebrews 1:3).  And He demonstrates this love over and over again before He ever simply utters the words.  That should reinforce the idea all the more in our minds as believers.  We are loved!

And we need to carry this message of love to the lost, but when we do, let's do it the way that God does it.  Let's give ourselves sacrificially to the cause of helping the poor and needy (James 1:27), and let's teach people about how awesome our God is, and about all that He has done - before we start verbally assuring them over and over again that God loves them.  There will be time for that later, when they have seen the evidence of it themselves in the way that we act as His hands and feet.

Conspiracy!

Was there a second gunman on the grassy knoll?  What happened to building seven of the World Trade Center?  Did the government know that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor ahead of time?  Why is there an Illuminati symbol on our dollar bill?  Could the Earth be flat?  Is NASA an organization devoted to deceiving the world?  What was the deal with that Gotthard Tunnel opening ceremony anyway?  Is CERN opening a gate to another dimension to attempt to destroy the world?  And who’s behind all of this?  Could it be the Nephilim?

Conspiracy theories can be kind of fun to explore.  One always leads to another, though, and the rabbit hole goes deeper and deeper as the patterns emerge.  If you chase the trail too far down, the world starts to look very dark indeed, and it’s easy to give into despair – or worse: Gnosticism.

Concerned citizens should be asking questions about why a 47-story skyscraper just collapsed on September 11, 2001 right across the street from the Twin Towers.  It doesn’t fit with the rest of the story that we remember from that day.  It’s not mentioned in any of the 9/11 Commission reports.  Most Americans have never even heard about it.  So what did happen?

As any conspiracy theorist will tell you, however, if you read enough about something like Building Seven, you will inevitably be led to conjecture about the entire 9/11 operation.  Maybe our government engineered the whole thing as a ‘false flag’ to start a war in the Middle East for some nefarious purpose.  Maybe that purpose was cooked up by the Illuminati, or the Trilateral Commission, or the Council on Foreign Relations, or the Freemasons, or some other conspiratorial group.  Once you get beyond that level of inquiry, the subject matter begins to get a lot more arcane.  Religious symbolism gets thrown into the mix, and you are likely to start crossing paths with New Age and neo-pagan conspiracy theories, which mingle their ideas with the larger narrative.  This is where the danger of Gnosticism comes in, threatening to overwhelm even the Christian worldview with an unending anxiety over big evil forces at work in the world.

The Bible is no stranger to the topic of conspiracy.  The word appears 14 times – 13 in the Old Testament, and a single mention in the book of Acts in the New Testament.  This should come as no surprise, because the idea of a conspiracy is very simple: some people get together and make plans that affect other people.  Sometimes this can be used for good, and sometimes for evil, but the reality is that it happens quite a lot.

If you just want to focus on evil conspiracies, though, there happens to be one that goes WAY back in the Bible’s story – like straight back to the beginning – when the serpent asked Eve, “Did God really say…?”  This conspiracy between the Devil, his fallen compatriots, and his followers to rebel against God literally runs all the way through history.  They even managed to conspire together to commit the most heinous act ever imaginable: the infinitely unjust murder of God in the flesh.

When you really think about it, this conspiracy of Satan and his minions is the backbone and the ultimate expression of all of the other evil conspiracies to ever rear their ugly heads throughout time.  So why is it, then, that so many Christians can rejoice in the fact that the resurrection of Jesus has crushed the head of the Serpent, and yet still get discouraged about all of the other ‘lesser’ conspiracies that get stirred up by this same defeated Enemy?

Make no mistake, we need to keep a watchful eye on the evil schemes of God’s enemies, and we need to try to fight them with truth and the Gospel where we can.  We have, in fact, been given special giftedness to do just that (Ephesians 6:12).  But the Bible also tells us that fear toward these conspiracies is not an option.

Isaiah 8:12-13 “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.  But the Lord of hosts, Him you shall honor as holy. Let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread.”

If you’re familiar with the New Testament book of Matthew, then this will no doubt sound exactly like Matthew 10:28.

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

In one very real sense, it doesn’t matter if these modern conspiracies are led by mysterious Nephilim, or if the human leaders are controlled by unseen spiritual forces, or if they’re just a bunch of greedy people who want to own and control everything.  Our reaction, and our plan to defeat them should be unchanged: we wield the Sword of the Spirit – the Word of God – in making disciples of all nations, and teaching them to obey everything that God has commanded.

There is also much encouragement to be found in Jesus’ own words in Mark 3:22-27.  In that passage, the scribes accused Jesus of being possessed by Beelzebul.  In the Lord’s rebuttal of their accusation, though, He tells them, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.”  All you have to do to see this infighting in action is to delve just a little way into the tangled webs of conspiracy theorists.  When you see these evil forces all working at cross purposes (and they do), then all you need to do is remember Jesus’ words that such division is just a sign of the ultimate defeat of the entire kingdom of Satan.

So don’t trouble your soul with such worries.  Our God is far greater and more fearsome than even the worst that the Enemy can muster, and He has already won.  Take your place as a brave soldier in His host, and carry the healing power of the Gospel to the lost sheep out there amongst the thorns.  We are well equipped to deal with all that is arrayed against us!

Inspiration

What exactly constitutes a “good work” like Paul speaks about in Ephesians 2:10?

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Yes, it is obedience to the Law.  You could also extend it to amazing and creative acts of moral good (like planting a church in an inhospitable place and seeing many come to Christ).  And since we are including things like that, could it also be extended to the writing of a song that convinced dozens of people to explore the wonders of the Bible?  And if that, then what about the writing of a book like Fahrenheit 451 that convinced a person like me that it would be good to memorize a huge book of the Bible like Matthew?

In other words, what I’m asking is if there might be a bridge between Ephesians 2:10 and Philippians 4:8.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Here we are encouraged to think on things that are pure and beautiful.  And in the Greek of this passage, Paul is using words that have more to do with ‘secular’ culture rather than religious culture.  He's telling us that there are good things worthy of our pondering even in sources other than just the Bible.  But could an unbeliever - or really even a believer for that matter - write a book or paint a picture or direct a film that we could ever rightly call a 'good work' in the Ephesians 2:10 sense?  Could Pilgrim’s Progress be one of those ‘good works that God prepared beforehand for [John Bunyan] to walk in’?  What about Robinson Crusoe?  How about The Martian?

Before you completely dismiss the idea, I would ask where we assume such works of man to originate from in the first place?  Perhaps some of man’s evil work is delivered by inspiration of demons or devils, or maybe it is just the fruit of a wicked heart giving birth to new combinations of evil.  But what about the good stuff?  What about the work of sin-enslaved unbelievers that can grab a hold of the heart of a believer and lift him up to want to serve his God more?  Can such a thing exist?  It does!

I had heard the song, ‘Masterpiece’ by Jessie J quite a few times before I ever really listened to the lyrics.  It has a catchy beat, and I found myself wanting to buy the track just because I always perk up whenever it comes on in some fast-food restaurant.  And, since I’m just naturally more interested in something that I spend money on, when I bought the song, I finally slowed down to pay attention to the words.

The song is about a woman who wants to be even more famous and respected than she already is.  She thinks of herself as incomplete, unfinished, but ultimately poised for great success in all of the ways that she has ever dreamed.  In other words, it’s exactly the kind of thing that sin-enslaved unbelievers pursue in this life.  They would foolishly sell their soul to gain all of this.

But that’s not what the song said to me.  I – like the singer or the songwriter (if they are different people) – certainly have felt like I have fallen on my face quite a few times.  My own past – especially with pastoral ministry – doesn’t really look that impressive to most people.  I would hope, though, for the sake of God’s kingdom, my family, and my own joy, that I am still working on my masterpiece – not as a way to be famous, but as an avenue to be useful to my Creator!  The song can literally bring tears to my eyes as I contemplate the hope of being and doing more for God’s service.  This is definitely something that I can ‘think on’ in the vein of Philippians 4:8.  So was this song a ‘good work’ that God prepared beforehand for the artist to walk in?  This morning I would have said ‘no’.  Now I’m not so sure.

The whole idea actually reminds me a lot of how we as Christians carry the Gospel as a treasure in jars of clay: our fallen human flesh.  There is gold contained within a very crude and common vessel.  Humans produce a lot of work like this.  If we’re being true to Philippians 4:8, though, we are to focus on the praiseworthy aspects of human creativity while essentially overlooking the dirt and grime in which it often comes packaged.  And the cool thing is, that’s the way God sees the good works that we do.  That’s how He can be pleased with us even though our feeble attempts at bringing Him glory are often couched in some thick human dirt.  Such works are still ‘good’ in His sight, though, because He put them there, and He has a purpose for them.

Pursue the Open Road

I recently read back through the book of Proverbs, and for some reason this time through I was especially struck by the often very funny imagery that is used by the various authors.  The one that made me actually laugh out loud was 26:10, "Like an archer who wounds everyone is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard."  That archer must be some kind of idiot!  I imagine him fumbling with the string, accidentally smacking a fellow soldier with an arrow as he draws it from the quiver, and then holding the bow improperly so that when he looses the string it hurts his arm and flips the arrow out in a random direction causing even more chaos.

Proverbs is not kind to fools and sluggards.  Of course, what would you expect from a book about wisdom, after all.  But as we laugh at the antics of the fool and shake our heads at the laziness of the sluggard, we also need to take these nuggets of wisdom as they are intended: as a warning.

In that vein, one of the proverbs that I highlighted as being something that I personally need to remember is 15:19.

"The way of a sluggard is like a hedge of thorns, but the path of the upright is a level highway."

Once again, there is definitely some humor in this statement.  You imagine the lazy fellow standing there looking at all of the thorns and shaking his head in frustration.  Maybe he bellows out a mighty sigh and then shrugs his arms and gives up.  It's funny because that's not actually what the road forward looks like, but only what he assumes it is like.  All this is just too much trouble, he thinks to himself.  I think I'll just go inside and do nothing instead.

The upright (non-lazy) person, though, sees nothing in front of him but a wide-open and fast-moving lane of opportunity.  It's important to realize that there may actually be some difficult obstacles ahead, but that's not how he thinks of it, and that's not how he treats this journey.  For him (or her), nothing stands in the way of successfully completing the task.

Now, some of the other proverbs about the sluggard seem like they are definitely not talking directly to me.  Proverbs 26:15, for instance, says, "The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth."  As far as I know, I've never been too lazy to eat!  When my hand goes into the dish, it definitely comes out again!

But I can't deny the applicability of 15:19 above.  There are many times when I get so bogged down in considering everything that can go wrong that I give up the journey before it even starts.  Isn't it true, though, that we also have to count the costs of an undertaking to be sure that we have the resources to complete it (Luke 14:28-32)?  Well, yes, we must be wise and diligent when it comes to any undertaking, but Proverbs reminds us that the sluggard will always see the road ahead as full of thorns.  This is then a warning.  As you count the costs, be sure not to see roadblocks that aren't really there.  Be courageous and prudent.  If you see that you have a habit of giving up before you begin then realize that you might be a big part of the problem.

I think that it is fascinating, however, that in this verse the writer does not contrast the 'sluggard' with the 'diligent' as he does in so many other proverbs.  In this particular case, he contrasts the sluggard with the 'upright'.  It is not mere diligence that causes the road ahead to be straight and clear.  Ephesians 2:10 says that believers are created by God "for good works, which [He] prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."  And I do not believe that these "good works" only have to do with preaching engagements, mission trips, Sunday school lessons and the like.  I believe that this refers to every good thing that a believer may do, which would include something so simple as working a job to provide for your family - because providing for your family is a 'good' thing (2 Thessalonians 3:12).

So what is the takeaway for Christians from a passage like Proverbs 15:19?  I think that we need to be conscious of sinful laziness that would cause us to give up or not pursue big important things that could be a benefit to us, our families, or even the kingdom of God.  We need to be courageous, diligent, and prudent.  But we need to also remember that while we work things out with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12-13) it is actually God who wills and works in us for His purposes and His glory.  He will give us the energy and the courage that we need to accomplish His purposes.  And instead of letting that fact serve as an excuse for inaction, treat it as a promise for success in action - as long as we work in accordance with His revealed will.

Asking for All of It

Throughout the course of our lives, we pray for all sorts of "big" things.  We might ask God to give us that job that we've been hoping to get so that our families could be better provided for.  We might ask Him to let that beautiful person fall in love with us so that we can spend the rest of our lives in happy fellowship with such a wonderful person.  We ask Him to miraculously heal others so that we don't have to stop spending time with them.  We might even ask for something as "small" as that amazing car that we want to drive.

Sometimes, though, we turn our attention to more 'spiritual' pursuits, and we ask God to draw us closer to Himself.  We ask Him to become more real to us, to fill our minds and our lives with love and devotion towards Him.  And when we pray for these things, it seems like we're not asking too much.  After all, don't we believe that God wants us to want fellowship with Him like that?  Aren't those prayers the kinds of things that He would rather us be praying for than some of those others - like a new car, or a pretty girl, or a better job?

Well, I'm not about to answer "no" to those questions, but I do think that we need to understand the magnitude of what we are requesting when we pray for God to give us more of Himself.  It may not sound like it at first blush, but what you're really asking for is actually the most valuable experience conceivable.

There was a time when mankind's first parents enjoyed an easy continual fellowship with the Almighty God in the Garden.  They were drawn closer to Him than we can even imagine.  He was real to them, and they had a love and devotion to Him that was as-of-yet unimpeded by any human sinfulness.  This was all exactly what they lost, however, when they disobeyed His direct command and ate that which they were forbidden to eat.

The story of the Older Testament of the Bible then progresses from that tragic moment through a series of events orchestrated by God to gradually draw man back toward Himself.  In that economy, however, a simple prayer of "Father, please give me more of yourself" wouldn't really go far enough.  To even draw near to the place where God had chosen to place His presence - the portable tabernacle in the wilderness wanderings, and later the temple in Jerusalem - required costly and bloody sacrifices and a series of ritual washings.  And that's not to even mention the fact that only a certain family could truly enter into the immediate vicinity of God's presence - and that only once per year!  Anyone desiring that kind of closeness to God would be looking at a very tall order indeed, and most would just have to settle for some degree of distance.

Why would there be so much difficulty involved in something that seems so noble, you might ask?  I mean, isn't it a good thing to want to draw near to God?  Doesn't He want His people to be close to Him?  To understand, we really have to get an accurate picture of God's holiness and man's sinfulness.

The Bible describes God as being 'holy' - often in triplicate just to impress on us how important this particular attribute is to His character!  To put it simply, this means that He is wholly different or set apart from everything else.  He is fundamentally different than anything and everything else.  One very clear and uncomplicated way to see this is in the fact that He created everything else that exists.  And so everything in the universe and anywhere else was created by Him and relies upon Him for its very being.  That is to say that literally everything is contingent upon God for its existence!  In contrast, God is the only being who is contingent upon nothing else for His existence.  He is because He is.  That's all there is to it.  See how different He is from everything else?

The holiness of God isn't simply about the metaphysics of existence, however.  It also refers to His moral perfection that actually gives definition to every single concept of right and wrong.  When we do something good, it is because we are acting in accordance with the 'good' as defined by God.  And when we do something 'evil', it is because we are acting contrary to His nature.  So we flit back and forth between good motives and evil ones, and all the while God stands as the very defining fiat of good.  That is very different from the way we operate.  It's like a completely perpendicular idea to that of our own moral nature.

In fact, this God to whom we would seek to draw nearer is so holy, so different from us in regards to the concept of morality that He cannot even look upon evil (Habakkuk 1:13).  This is the reason for His separation from man following the sin in the garden.  This is the reason for the secluded holy of holies in the tabernacle and the temple, filled entirely with the smoky covering of incense during those very brief moments when the one man in the entire nation of Israel was given permission to draw close once per year.

And that is the reason why it is such a tall order for us to ask to draw nearer to God - to feel closer to Him and to walk by His side.  We are stained with the filth of our own sin, and yet we seek fellowship with the most holy and pure Creator.  And to make matters worse, our sin and evil is not just a generic negative force clinging to us - as if it's just a part of who we are that we can't control.  It's not just that we've done some bad things in our lives that we are ashamed of.  No, the evil that we have done is only reckoned as evil because it is a transgression of God's Law.  He is the injured party in every single infraction.  In other words, when we ask to feel closer to God, we have to remember that we've piled quite a bit of disgusting disobedience between us and Him.

But the absolute wonder and glory of the Gospel revealed to us in Scripture is that God does allow us to draw near to Him!  He has issued a formal invitation through His Son Jesus to come right on in to the very holy of holies at the center of the temple, and He tells us that we can and should come in as often as we would like!  Hebrews 10:19-20 makes it clear that we have confidence to enter into the holy places through the blood of Christ, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain - that is, His flesh.  And so because of our Savior we are given the same dizzying privilege that was given to the high priest on the Day of Atonement: to enter directly into the presence of God.  But out position is actually much greater than his, for he could only go in once a year - and that with much preparation and sacrifice.  The astounding truth taught in the Gospel is that Jesus has made all of the necessary preparations for us.  His sacrifice was sufficient to perfect for all time those who are being sanctified (Hebrews 10:14).

So the way has been prepared, and the invitation has been issued.  We can in fact ask for all of it! We can ask God to draw us nearer to Himself.  We can ask Him to become more real to us, and to fill our hearts and our minds with love and devotion toward Him.  We can even presume to walk right into the holy of holies - the way to which has been opened wide for us - and call the God of the universe, 'Abba': 'Daddy'!

To close, let me return for a moment to the idea that we may feel pretty good about ourselves and our noble intentions when we 'merely' ask God to draw us closer to Himself.  Firstly, I hope that we can all see just what a huge request that turns out to be.  But lastly, if God has indeed taken such steps through the work of His Son to open the way for us so that we can enter right into His presence, then how are we to feel about ourselves if we don't often take advantage of the incredible privilege?  Our Father has given us the most precious gift that can be given.  Let us not ignore it by being so wrapped up in the temporary pleasures of this fickle world.

"Christian" Deism

Most people think of deism as a religious idea that was held by the founding fathers of the United States of America.  Guys like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are credited as believing that though the universe was in fact created by some deity, he has since moved on somewhere else and has left the world to continue on by itself.  Their god was the watchmaker that wound up his universe and then let it run on its own machinery. In their view, their god was not sovereign over his creation.  He was not the author of history, only the builder of the stage on which it plays out.  He was not intimately involved in what he created - very much the opposite.  He had left our universe behind and didn't really care about the people in it.  He didn't answer prayers or perform miracles.  It was just as if he really didn't exist, for all intents and purposes.

This view was popular during that time among the non-Christian thinkers because they had not yet invented a strong enough lie to cover over the truth that someone had created this universe.  Darwin and his notion that the variety of life on this planet can be explained through naturalistic processes rather than divine creation, coupled with James Hutton's ideas that the earth is much older than previously thought, didn't come on the scene until the middle of the 19th century - about 50 to 75 years too late for fellows like Franklin and Jefferson.

These days, though, there isn't much use for classical deism.  The God-haters have their fairy tale about nothing creating something and then that something becoming everything all on its own, so they don't need antiquated means of ignoring God anymore.  But that isn't to say that deism has keeled over and died.  In fact, it's still alive and well - and it comes to church nearly every Sunday!

The older deism eschewed organized religion as unnecessary, since the watchmaker had wandered off and wasn't listening.  The new deism inhabits organized religion like an epidemic, choking off authentic spiritual life and replacing it with a powerless social club mentality.  But though there are some key differences between the new and the old, when you get right down to the substance at the heart of both systems of thought, they are the same.

The primary motivation of the older deists was to remove God from the picture and focus on man and his activity.  And though it may seem counterintuitive to the idea of 'church' in general (after all, isn't that where people gather specifically for the purpose of a 'spiritual experience' or to commune with the divine?), we find practically the same trajectory in many churches in our day and age.

Tune into the sermons preached to some of even the largest congregations in our country on any given Sunday and you will find mostly entertainment and generic self-help.  Far from the focus being on Yahweh - the supreme Creator and Ruler of the universe - and on His infinite perfections and beauty, what you are much more likely to hear might be a list of steps to help you get out of debt.  Or maybe you'll hear someone telling you about the 'deep spiritual lessons' of the movie "Slumdog Millionaire".

The focus on man and his activity doesn't end with poor sermons, however.  Sadly, even the public prayers offered in most churches today are almost entirely man-focused.  Laypeople and preachers both spend far more time focusing on man's needs, or politics, or the success of the organization of the church than they do about the things of God - if He is ever even mentioned at all.  Contrast that with the way that Jesus taught His people how to pray:

  • Step 1: Acknowledgement that God is our Father and that His Name is holy (Matthew 6:9).
  • Step 2: Pray for the increase of God's kingdom (Matthew 6:10).
  • Step 3: Pray that God's instructions and laws would be followed precisely throughout the earth and that all of His good decrees would come to pass (Matthew 6:10).
  • Step 4: Ask Him to provide the very bread we need to get us through the day (Matthew 6:11).
  • Step 5: Ask Him for forgive us for our transgressions of His revealed will - admitting along the way that this is exactly how we must treat those who harm us in any way (Matthew 6:12).
  • Step 6: Ask Him to guide us away from temptations of our own hearts and the evil purposes of others that might seek to destroy us (Matthew 6:13).

When carefully examined, Jesus' instructions on how His disciples are to pray show a remarkably God-centered life and worldview!  Even our prayers should be chiefly concerned with how awesome our God is, and how important His kingdom, His rule, His Laws, and His decrees are for our own lives and for the lives of every living being in the cosmos.  We should be daily acknowledging that our every meal and breath comes from Him as a good gift.  In addition to all of this adoration, fealty, and thanksgiving, we are also to daily seek reconciliation for our sins and beg for His protection over us in this area.

Contrast this model prayer with what we so often hear in our churches.  Contrast this with the entire content of our worship: songs, prayers, sermon, and even fellowship.

The prevailing religion of the world around us is rightly called 'secular humanism': a focus on man apart from God.  Just as Paul described in Romans chapter 1, man has always tried to turn the world upside down and worship the creature rather than the Creator.  In older times, this came in the form of sun and moon worship, or gods who had the heads of goats, crocodiles, and eagles.  But in our day, the creature being worshipped by the pagan world around us is man himself, and I believe that the church has invited this thinking right inside the doors because the object of worship is just so wonderful and palatable: us!

And thus the church is effectively led back to the bankrupt heresy of deism.  God becomes increasingly distant in our worship, and man takes more and more of the center stage.  God may as well have wound up the universe and walked away for all of the attention He is ordinarily paid in our churches.  We need to recognize the trends, see the deadly pitfalls, and turn back to the God-centered worship that we see reflected in the pages of Scripture.

Let this serve as a warning:

Reform

Josiah and Hezekiah are almost everyone's favorite kings of the Old Testament, and rightfully so!  Both of these men were wholly devoted to God and to His Word, and sought to be obedient to Him in everything that they did.  And somehow the Bible says of both of them that "Before him there was no king like him, who turned to Yahweh with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him" (2 Kings 23:25, cf. 18:5). And what did they do that was so right in the eyes of God?  They smashed idols.  They tore down pagan altars, they removed the high places where the people in the land were disobediently worshiping Yahweh (remember that He had told them that they were only to offer sacrifices at His temple, not just any old place they liked), they put mediums and necromancers to death, and they re-instituted proper forms of worship that had been neglected, like Passover.  In short: they cleaned house - literally - because they cleaned God's House.

But before all of that could happen, something else was going on in Judah.  You see, for those kings to be able to clean house to the degree that they did, someone must have been out there dirtying it up!  When you slow down and really read 2 Kings chapter 23, and you find out all about the abominations that Josiah had to remove, it ought to be quite shocking.  There were vessels made for Baal and for Asherah and all of the host of heaven inside the temple (v. 4)!  Previous kings had actually ordained priests for the forbidden high places (v. 5).  There were houses for male cult prostitutes set up within the temple complex (v. 7).  There were pagan altars at the gates of the city (v. 8), pagan altars in the valley where people burned their children (v. 10), giant golden horse idols dedicated to sun worship at the gates of the temple (v. 11), pagan altars on the roof and in the temple courts (v. 12), and there were pagan pillars and poles and altars and shrines all throughout the land (vv. 13-14).  It just goes on and on!

And yet, if you would have asked anyone in Jerusalem which God that they served, they would have proudly declared that they were the people of Yahweh!  They had the temple of the mighty Yahweh in their midst!  They were His people - His possession!  But they had brought all of this other abominable crap right into the heart of His temple and had completely defiled His worship and provoked Him to wrath.  How could this be?

The answer: they had forgotten to closely obey the Word of God and had increasingly allowed the world to influence their worship.  The Book of the Law had lain hidden in the temple for generations before Josiah's officials found it and read it to him.  But other kings had heard the Word of God and yet they still allowed all of this garbage to go on in their land.  What was different about Josiah?  What made him so great was that he heard the Word like a child and embraced it like he would have as if they were instructions from a beloved Father.

The sorry state of worship in Josiah's day was sadly not unique to his time, however.  The grand majority of churches in our own day - even the 'conservative' ones - have started to look a lot different from the simple instructions given for congregations in the Bible.

Now, let me just pause right there and say that I hate legalism.  I think that it is the absolute worst danger to the health of any church.  We should rightly avoid telling other Christians to do things "our way" without a direct Scriptural command from God to do so.  I feel like I need to say this here in this paragraph before you get to the next one, because without this disclaimer you're most likely going to get pretty angry with me.  Just understand that I am right there with everyone else in the modern church, and I don't pretend to have all of the answers.

So permit me just for a moment to list a small selection of examples that I can see in the modern church (especially the protestant evangelical church) of where we have softened our resolve and discipline with respect to ideas and practices that are taught in the Bible.

  • We don't sing to one another in psalms, even though we are told to do so.
  • We have conceded to the world the naming of the days of the week after pagan deities.
  • We celebrate the birth and resurrection of Christ at special times during the year when we were not commanded to do so - and we often join this practice to a lot of other worldly nonsense.
  • We structure our worship services so rigidly as a sort of 'performance' that there is little to no opportunity for the kind of spontaneous worship that we see in passages like 1 Corinthians 14:26-33.
  • Our women don't cover their heads while praying or prophesying, even though the Scripture says that they should.
  • We create 'staff' positions like Youth Minister and Children's Minister and others without any Biblical warrant for doing so.
  • We put all kinds of people in positions of teaching authority without even seriously holding them up to 'deacon' (servant) standards - much less elder standards.
  • We will divide the body according to musical preference or Bible translation preference or age or whatever - flying in the face of the Scriptural importance of oneness and unity.

Now, this is a pretty eclectic list, and it certainly is by no means exhaustive.  Your own church might not participate in some of these things, and instead it may add others to the list.  But as I said, my purpose for pointing these things out is not to say that there is one and only one way of doing church 'correctly', but rather that when I look around at what has become 'normal' or even 'traditional' in a lot of our churches, I see us drawing closer and closer to the chaos of Israel prior to the reforms of kings Hezekiah and Josiah.

So what is the solution?  Step one is not to come up with a blueprint of the perfect church.  Step one is really just to open our eyes to the possibility that we may be overstepping some of our freedoms when we decide to do this or that in church.  Step one is being open to the fact that traditions may not be Biblical after all.  Then step two - I suppose - would be to read the Scriptures with a heart and mind that are willing to be taught, especially in this area of how we should worship.  After all, that's where Hezekiah and Josiah started, and it seemed to work out pretty well for them.

What Exactly Is "Heaven"?

"Are you sure that you are going to go to heaven when you die?"  "Do you think that my dad is in heaven?"  "Do dogs go to heaven?" We sure hear questions like this a lot, but why aren't more people asking questions like, "What exactly is heaven, anyway?"  It's as if everyone has already made up their minds about what heaven is - about where it is and what they're going to find there - that they just make a huge assumption in the "what" department and focus instead on the "how".

Well, we know it's gold, right?  And that it's in space?  No, wait, there are supposed to be clouds, so it can't be in space.  And when we get there, we're going to have wings and harps...no, that's in the cartoons; it's probably nothing like that...right?

When I was younger, I had the brilliant notion that "heaven" is probably just whatever you want it to be.  And that seems to work out pretty well with most people's idea that you can get into heaven pretty much any way you want to.  You write the ticket and you design the destination!  For my part, I wanted my "heaven" to be an enormous castle filled with endless libraries of books.  I wanted all of my favorite authors to continue writing my favorite fiction series into eternity (ahem...NERD!).  The greatest eternal existence that I could imagine was that of a consumer of other people's work!  I don't think it's possible for me to be so glad about being so wrong!

So maybe it doesn't make much sense to imagine a place called "heaven" being exactly what I want it to be, and maybe it's not too smart to think that I can decide how and why I arrive at this place, but what should I think about "heaven"?  Is there some authoritative source of information somewhere on the subject?

Most people have some kind of idea that heaven has to do with God, but many never move beyond that aspect of the deal.  When we do something that our conscience tells us is wrong, we feel guilty - like God is not pleased - and we subsequently feel that these actions may jeopardize our chances of making it to heaven.  Alternately, when we do something that we feel good about - something that makes us proud of ourselves - we think that these actions may commend us in some way to God, and heaven looks a lot more like a sure bet.

Once again, the problem with all of these notions is that they all come from our own feelings.  And though most folks like to decide a great deal of things based on what just "feels right" to them, we also have this nagging doubt that says, "What if I'm wrong?"

So let's look beyond ourselves for a moment and ask what the Bible teaches about "heaven".  The Bible is a book that claims to come from God (2 Peter 1:21).  So if God has something to say about what "heaven" is and how a person goes about getting there, we'll probably find it in the Bible.

The first thing that we discover that might be kind of surprising is that the word "heaven" in the Bible literally just means "sky".  The Bible uses the Hebrew word 'shamayim' and the Greek word 'ouranos' exactly the same way that we use 'heavens' in the plural.  The Bible doesn't contain phrases like, "How can I get to heaven?" or "By doing these things, you can go to heaven."  In fact, it hardly ever talks about "heaven" as a place that people go at all (except for a couple of brief mentions of prophets who saw the earth from high above during some important visions, and one other example that I will cite below).

So where did this notion of "heaven" as our eternal home come from anyway?  We can find in the Bible promises of eternal life to those who believe in Jesus Christ (John 3:16), but then we also see that people who believe in Jesus die just like everyone else.  So, did they get their eternal life in some other state somewhere else, or was that promise put on hold until a later date, or what?  Paul gives the best explanation in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God,who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

This is most likely where the common notion of "heaven" comes from.  If our body dies ("is destroyed"), then we have a house not made with hands "eternal in the heavens".  It is important to understand that this is not talking about a literal house that we are going to inherit in the sky, however.  It is referring to the fact that the true life of the believer is inChrist, and that during the time between when this physical body dies and when it is raised again incorruptible by Jesus, we will be "at home with the Lord".

According to the Bible, eternal life is not about a place (and certianly not a place of our own imagining!).  Rather, it is about a person: Jesus.  How many people do you think there are that either expect or desire to go to "heaven" who don't care the first thing about Jesus Christ?  And if a person doesn't really care much about Jesus - can't be bothered to come to a worship service, ignores the Bible, and spurns His commands - then what makes you think that person will actually wantthe eternal life that He offers?  After all, the Biblical notion of eternal life is full of exactly those things: worship (Revelation 22:3), learning more about God (1 Corinthians 13:12), and eternal sinless obedience (Romans 6:17-22)!

So rather than thinking of "heaven" or the "afterlife" as being whatever we want it to be, the Bible paints for us a much less "us-centered" picture.  Eternal life is not made-to-order.  Eternal life isJesus Christ!  He is "the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25) and "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6)!  Don't settle for a future hope filled with anything less than the God who created everything.  Castles full of stories cannot compare to the presence of the Author of all stories - and the Inventor of pleasure itself.  Set you faith on Him, and put your hope in Him, and trust Him to bring you home to where He is, and let that be what excites you most: Him.

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength."

Tangled Not

There's a great scene at the beginning of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation where Clark Griswold hands his son a giant knotted ball of Christmas lights and says, "You work on that."  And that moment is so funny because one look at that ridiculous clot of lights is enough to tell anyone that there is no chance of ever getting that particular mess untangled. Our family used to pray for a woman whose life's story was very similar to that titanic knot.  The lady had so much going wrong for her that there we literally couldn't pray for her anything more specific than "God, please just fix that disaster!"  There was just nothing else that we could say!  In our limited minds, there seemed to be no way to unravel all of the difficulties that she had landed herself in.  If she was going to get out of all of that, God was just going to have to graciously step in and set it right.

That's also the way that many of us think about the country that we live in.  This place is a mess!  Not only do we have two completely terrible candidates running for the presidency at this moment in time, but the whole governmental system here in the United States is built whole-cloth out of man-centered and unbiblical ideas.  Human government exists to uphold and enforce God's Law, but in our land things that should be abominations are not even crimes.  In other cases, minor transgressions are punished far too harshly, and some major transgressions aren't given near enough penalty.  Instead of rewarding the right and punishing the evil (Romans 13:3-4), the state eschews its most important God-given role to instead to to be the savior of the people, providing care for widows and orphans, feeding the hungry with welfare, healing the sick with healthcare laws, and numerous other things that were never given to the state to take care of.  And because the state handles so many of these functions, the church - the entity that was given much of that responsibility - neglects them.

Like I said, it's a mess.  The knot is twisted up so bad, I don't even really know where to start praying.  How do you pull one strand without tightening the ball somewhere else?  In fact, it seems so bad that we may sometimes think that even God would have to do a lot of work to straighten it out!  And because we think this way, we pray really small prayers - like, "God, please let this conservative candidate win the election so that this one small area might possibly get a little bit better."

The reality is, though, that solving the problem is actually nothing to an infinite and all-powerful God!  Think about it like this: the solution to all of the world's problems - and by extension, our own nation's - is the Gospel.  What men really need is to know the Truth about who rules the universe and they need the salvation from their sin that the Gospel provides.  And for that Gospel to transform this world, what is really required is for God's people to be obedient to preach it to every creature under heaven (Mark 16:15).  So we need believers to do what they're supposed to do, but God is the One who gives the courage and the energy to do so (Philippians 2:13)!  In addition, as we plant the seed of the Word, God has to give the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6).  It is the outpouring of His Spirit - which He controls - that removes hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).

And since God is infinitely all-powerful, for Him to pour forth the kind of energy required to solve all of the world's problems with the Gospel would not be difficult in the slightest.  The sun doesn't have to work to shine like it does.  Instead, it takes work to hold back those glorious rays!  What that tells me is that God is not frustrated by the current state of our nation or even our individual lives - to bring it down to a more personal level.  He must have all of these things exactly where He wants them, because it would be a release to just let His glory transform the universe into His image.

And of course, that is exactly what He tells us in His Word.  He says, "we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5).  He also says that "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of Yahweh; He turns it wherever He will" (Proverbs 21:1).  "He changes times and seasons; He removes kings and sets up kings" (Daniel 2:21).

God allows this giant knot to exist for His glory, but He can unravel it just by letting go and letting His power pour forth!  So when we pray for the situations that we are in, and when we pray for the nation and the world that we live in, be sure to remember that God doesn't have to work through these petty human-centered structures that we have set up.  Pray like Jesus taught us to pray: say, "Your Kingdom come; Your will be done!"  Don't settle for praying for anything less than that!  If you can't see how He could possibly do it, then don't worry!  That's just because we are all pathetically limited creatures!  But put your trust in His ability to make all things right rather than in some man to possibly, maybe, perhaps be able to make a little bitty change in what might be the right direction.

Needing to See

My eyes play tricks on me - or maybe it is my mind.  Likely it is both of them conspiring together.  In my work, I have thoroughly searched a piece of paper for a certain phrase and have not been able to find it, only to have a coworker point it out with a single glance.  I have triple-checked and noted an error in an address between two places where it was written, but then looked back again to see that there was no error after all. Moments like this are shocking and disturbing to me.  We rely upon our senses, and our minds' interpretation of that data, for practically everything, so we don't want to think that our input can be corrupted somewhere along the pipeline!

I have come to realize through all of this just how much I depend upon God's grace to be able to see the world as it really is.  I already know that my heart is traitorous, and now I am discovering that my mind and my eyes can be too.

I think about this in relation to an atheist that I came into contact with last year.  This man so completely hates the idea of God that he has devoted his entire Facebook profile to making belligerent statements against those who believe.  He ridicules the Bible and anyone who confesses to hold to its truths.  And as I think about him this morning, I understand that what he really needs is for the blinders to be taken off. He has been blinded by the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4) and he is dead in his trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), and the only thing that can ever change him is if God opens his eyes, removes the blinders, speaks into his mind "Let there be light", and brings him to life from the dead (2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 2:4-5).

But this man does not deserve for God to bring him to life in this way.  He has said so many blasphemous things against God and His revelation of Himself in His Word that he deserves to be dragged alive into hell, kicking and screaming and weeping.  But here's the clincher: so did I...No; so do I, and so do you.  This man's rebellious heart is no different from any other individual's in the history of humankind (except One).  Romans 3:10-18 tells us how it really is:

None is righteous, no, not one;  no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.  Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.  The venom of asps is under their lips.  Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.  Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.  There is no fear of God before their eyes.

That's not a description of only part of the human race - the people you don't like.  That's a description of the whole human race, and you and I are included in that!  This is what spiritual blindness looks like.  It's what a broken mind and perverted senses look like.  A person who is still living in that original human condition, inherited from our forefather Adam, just can't see the Truth, just can't hear the Truth, and just can't love the Truth.  It can be right in front of their faces and yet they miss it.  And we all know people - even loved ones - who have been exposed to the Gospel over and over again, but they just don't want it.  Nothing we can do will make them want it, either.

Thankfully, it's not all up to us!  We are commanded to tell the Good News, but we are not commanded to bring the dead to life.  That's God's work!  He can remove the blinders from any man, no matter how far gone.  Take the apostle Paul, for instance: he was trying to kill the followers of the Messiah and silence their message right up until Jesus said, "Let there be light" into his darkened mind.

This should be a profound encouragement to us, both in our struggle for the souls of our loved ones and every time we share the Gospel.  The Spirit blows where He wills (John 3:8) and has the power to make spiritually dead people be born again into life.  He can cause the blind to see His glory by graciously opening their eyes.  That's encouraging because that's work that we can't do!  If He chooses to illuminate the one to whom we are witnessing, then praise God; another brother or sister has come into the family!  If He chooses not to, then we can be confident that He has His own reasons for not doing it, and those reasons are wise and good and perfect.  That encourages me to share my faith more because the pressure is off of me.  It's easy to just tell someone about Jesus and what He has done and then leave all of the heavy lifting to God.

And for those of us who have had these spiritual eyes openened, we need to be continually thankful for His ongoing work of feeding our spiritual senses with Truth.  And we need to be conscious of the fact that He actually does this.  We can't trust our senses or our intellect to provide accurate information without the grace of God at work, but we can always trust our Savior to provide all that we need.

Good News for Fools

Most people who have read much of the Bible know very well how it can act just like a mirror.  It shows you who you really are - confronting you with your weaknesses and sins and exposing you before an all-knowing God.  You can't hide from yourself as you read God's Word.  This is a fearsome aspect to studying the Bible and ought to cause us to tremble.  It isn't "safe" to look into those pages! But just as we might fear to see our reflections in God's judgments, we also crave to see our reflections in the stories of redemption.  Any who have ever struggled with lust read David's story over and over again - as well as his confession and repentance in Psalm 51 - and delight to see how God actually forgives such heinous sin.  If there was hope for David, there might just be hope for us!  Those who struggle with outbursts of anger and regret over the same might read of Moses the murderer and rejoice that God decided to use him anyway.

So we look for reflections of ourselves for encouragement, even as we might also be fearful to see God's indictment of our sin in another reflection.  But one of the places that we might never think to look for encouragement is in any place where God has used the word "fool".

Reading through the book of Proverbs, one comes quickly to the conclusion that a "fool" is about the worst thing you can possibly be.  Even the Psalms declare that it is the fool who says in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1).  Fools are pictured almost everywhere as self-destructive unbelievers that are a plague upon everyone and generally make life miserable.  Well, that makes sense and seems like a just declaration...until I look around at my life and discover with surprise and horror that I have been acting like a fool.  Suddenly, those passages that describe and condemn the fool start to give me a sinking feeling in my gut.

There is hope in the Scriptures even for the believer that may feel like a fool, however!  In Isaiah 35, the prophet tells us of a "highway of holiness" that God will build through the desert places.  This "highway" is the way of salvation that Jesus Christ accomplished with His crucifixion and resurrection.  And at first blush, this highway seems daunting for the one who feels himself a fool.  We are told that "the unclean shall not pass over it" (v. 8), and suddenly our hearts sink again, because we rarely feel anything other than "unclean" when we look within ourselves.  The next sentence of the same verse, though, brings sweet relief!

It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.

I love that!  If a fool gets on the highway, he can't foolishly stumble off of it again!  This is very good news!  Of course, it's all contingent on exactly how a person gets on this highway in the first place.  There's nothing but more good news on that account, however.  The end of verse 9 and the beginning of verse 10 tell us that the ones on the highway are the "redeemed" and the "ransomed".  They are not "holy in themselves".  They are not "the deserving ones".  They are the ones that have been bought with the blood of Christ because they had no capital to purchase themselves.  They were bankrupt and worthless, blind, deaf, lame, and mute (vv. 5-6), but Christ's death on their behalf has purchased them and made them clean, given them sight, restored their hearing, allowed them to walk, and put words in their mouths!  He has done it, and as a result, His ransomed get to experience "everlasting joy" (v. 10)!

Most Christians are very much aware that they didn't secure their own salvation.  We know that we couldn't have done anything and that Christ had to do it all, but many of us - myself very much included here - often feel like we are making a mess of things after we have been saved and we wonder how God can remain patient with our foolishness.  Isaiah 35:8 should be a great encouragement when we feel like we are not worthy to remain on the "highway of holiness" that Christ has built.  Even the fools can't go astray!  But we also need to hear the correction that Paul levels at the Galatians in chapter 3 of that epistle:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Our life in Christ - our walk along the highway of holiness - did not begin with the works of our flesh, and our continued travel down that road does not depend on those works either.  The present, as well as the past, depends on the completed work of Christ and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.  That's where we need to put our trust.  That's where we need to find our feelings of acceptance: always in Him and never in ourselves.

Cheer up, fools!  There's hope even for us in Jesus Christ!