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!

Theology is Supposed to Help People

The following quote is by John M. Frame from his book, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.

"Objectivism" continues to be a danger in orthodox Christian circles.  It is all too easy for us to imagine that we have a higher task than merely that of helping people.  Our pride constantly opposes the servant model.  And it is all too easy for us to think of theological formulations as something more than truth-for-people, as a kind of special insight into God Himself (which the Biblical writers would have written about, had they known as much as we).  But no, theology is not "purely objective truth"; as we saw earlier, there is no such thing as purely objective truth, or "brute fact."  Our theologies are not even the best formulation of truth-for-people for all times and places; Scripture is that.  Our theologies are merely attempts to help people, generally and in specific times and places, to use Scripture better.

Hope for Sinners

Most Bible readers are very familiar with the many, many sins of the northern kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament.  That nation did not have a single godly king.  They were constantly whoring themselves to pagan idols and to the two golden calves of Jeroboam son of Nebat.  Their rulers consistently ignored the Word of Yahweh, delivered to them by such prophets as Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, Jonah, and Nahum.  It was a despicable land full of rebellion, and yet God showed them mercy time and time again.

Now Hazael king of Syria oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz.  But Yahweh was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and He turned toward them, because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, nor has He cast them from his presence until now. (2 Kings 13:22-23)

I had to highlight the above passage in my Bible this morning.  Upon reading it, I was struck with the profound magnitude of God's mercy and grace: that His patience would yet extend to this spiritually adulterous people because of a covenant made long before.

Not only that, but this passage is especially encouraging to me because I am a sinner.  Just as the northern kingdom of Israel provoked God's wrath time and time again, so have I done.  At times it seems to me that there can be no patience left with God toward my sin.  And then I read of how God put up with these Old Testament sinners for generations upon generations because of a covenant made with some men hundreds of years before, and I remember that there is a greater covenant of which I am a part.

This New Covenant is spoken of often in both Old and New Testaments, but for the purposes of this hope that I am exploring, I want to look at just one reference:

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. (John 6:37)

The covenant that God the Father has made concerning me and concerning all born again believers was not simply made with some mere human.  He covenanted with His own Son - His Image, His glory, and the exact imprint of His nature (Hebrews 1:3) - to save those whom He chose and predestined to save (Ephesians 1:4-5).  Our names were written in a book from before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8).  He has given us as a bride for His Son, and all those whom He has given will come to Him, and those who come to Him He will never cast out (John 6:37)!

And so here is hope: not in our own ability to walk perfectly before the Lord, but in His ability to keep us in spite of our sin and to present us blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy (Jude 24).  He extends patience and mercy and grace and blessing not because of goodness in us, but because of His decision to save us and His covenant to do so.  This is the only hope that I have - the only hope that anyone can have - that we belong to Him and that He will not let us be snatched out of His hand (John 10:28).

Eyes of Elisha

One of the Hebrew words that was used to denote the prophets in the Old Testament can be translated literally as "seer" or "one who sees".  It is no mystery as to why a term like this would be used to describe the office of a prophet, since kings and commoners would seek them out in order to discover what the future would hold or what God would have them do.  In the story of the prophet Elisha in the book of 2 Kings, though, we get even more detail concerning what a prophet could see. In one well-known story in chapter 6 of that book, Elisha is staying in a city called Dothan (a situation with which I am currently sympathetic) when the army of Syria marches in and surrounds the city walls.  The king of Syria wanted Elisha dead for being able to see all of his troop movements before they even occurred and for telling such news to the king of Israel.  So it seemed as if the city of Dothan would be thrown down, and yet the seer was not troubled.

Early that morning, when Elisha's servant went out to see the commotion outside of the gates, he returned to his master in great distress saying, "Alas, my master!  What shall we do?" (2 Kings 6:15).  Elisha himself was calm, however, and simply prayed that God would open the eyes of his servant that he may see.  Apparently, Elisha's eyes were already opened, and what he saw gave him no cause for alarm.

The Lord answered Elisha's prayer, and the young man was able to see not only the Syrian army, but also a great force of horses and chariots of fire filling the mountains around the city, completely surrounding the smaller earthly force (v. 17).  Now the servant was able to see that his master's words were wise and true when he said, "Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them" (v. 16).

Many of us would love to be able to have our eyes opened in this way so that we could see the power and protection of God when we are experiencing trying times.  But the reality is that if we have been born again through the power and working of the Holy Spirit, we have had our eyes opened.  Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, "And even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the Image of God."  The ones who have blinders on their eyes are the ones who are perishing, not those who have been born again.  They cannot see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, but those who have been given the gift of faith surely can.  Paul says of believers, "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (v. 6).

If we are born again believers, our eyes have been opened; thus says God's Word.  And yet my guess is that probably none of us are seeing horses and chariots of fire wandering around the countryside.  I know that I don't see anything like that in Dothan, Alabama!  But let me ask you something: did Elisha actually have to see something like that in order to be assured of God's power and protection?  We are actually never told that he himself saw those flaming chariots - just the servant - although he certainly might have.  My point is that he didn't really need to see them.  Elisha knew what an awesome God he served.  He knew that his God was the Creator of the universe and the sovereign King over all history.  He knew that if God wanted him to live to see another day, that there was nothing that could stop that from happening.  He also knew that if God was through with him, then nothing could delay his departure.

This is the way that Paul talks about our eyes being opened as New Testament believers.  We have been given "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."  In 2 Corinthians 1:20 Paul says that all God's promises find their 'yes' in Christ.  We have absolutely no reason to fear anything that Satan or the world can marshal against us because our God has never left His throne.  He is still the one holding all the reins of history, and all of His forces are constantly arrayed around His children to accomplish all of His purposes concerning us.  Sometimes that means that He leads us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but it is only so that He can reassure us with His presence and conform us to the image of Jesus Christ.  At other times He gives us mighty victory over impossible odds in order to encourage us and fill us with an appreciation of His awesome wonder.  But at no point does He leave us alone and forgotten, and we should ever remember that.  Keep your eyes open to the fact that God runs the show and that He has your best interests always at heart if you belong to Him in Christ as one of his children.

Amazing Providence

Have you ever asked God to go back in time and fix something?  I sure have!  There are times when what I have been praying for has seemed so unlikely to ever come to pass because of other events that I know have already taken place that I just ask God to go back and change those events so that my request can be granted.  I mean, certainly God is powerful enough to do something like that.  He is the Creator of time itself, so why couldn't He just alter it a little? One problem with that request, though, is that it assumes that God has steered history in the wrong way - or at least not the best way - the first time around and that He is only going to get it 'really right' after I have asked Him to do so.  Or maybe it just simply assumes that God sits back and watches what we do with history - as if He is not the One writing every scene for His own purposes and glory - and therefore He should be open to the possibility of changing something that we have messed up.  Either way, though, there is a denial - however subtle - of the fact that God is all-wise, perfectly good, and totally sovereign, and it is distrustful - again, however subtly - that this all-wise and perfectly good sovereign God has done the right thing in allowing certain events to come to pass.

Now, those of us who have been truly born of the Spirit of God know that these things are not true.  We know that God is all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, totally sovereign, and perfectly good because He has told us these things about Himself in His Word.  We know that He directs all of history to tell His story the way that He wants to and that nothing ever happens that He has not perfectly planned for the ends that He had in mind; and again, we know this because He has told us these things are so in His Word.  It's just good to be reminded of these things sometimes when we begin to despair at the way circumstances are working out in our own lives.

So consider this reminder from 2 Kings 3.  In that chapter, the king of Moab decided to rebel against Israel rather than pay the tribute that had been previously demanded of him and his people.  Thus Jehoram, the king of Israel, sent word to Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, and asked him if he wanted to go to war against Moab with him.  Jehoshaphat agreed and they also talked the king of Edom into coming along with them to the battle.  But then these three kings made an error in their supply calculations, and suddenly their armies were left with no water to sustain them.  This was one of those moments where you would wish that you could go back in time and do things differently.  I'm sure they had to feel stupid and vulnerable, and they began to despair that the battle would be lost.

At this point, the godly King Jehoshaphat knew that they needed to inquire of Yahweh, to find out what He would have them to do.  Therefore they sent for Elisha the prophet.  And Elisha told them that God would work a fantastic miracle for them, filling the land with water without a single drop of rain falling.  At the same time, he told them that God would give them victory over the Moabites.

And this is how the whole thing worked out: God did indeed miraculously fill the land with water, which was exactly what the people needed right when they needed it, but the Moabites were not aware that this had happened.  When they woke up in the morning and went to look at the camp of the Israelite army, the sunrise caused all that water to look red like blood.  They thought that their enemies had slaughtered each other, so they ran down into the camp, not suspecting an armed force standing at full strength.  The Moabites were then cut down easily by the combined forces of Israel, Judah, and Edom, and when they fled the battle, the three kings and their armies followed them and conquered some of their choice cities.

Looking back over the entire story, we can see that God was engineering each event to perfectly provide for His people and to declare His own majesty and glory - for we can't read a story like that without marveling at how awesomely sovereign our God is!  And this should remind us that God works similar wonders in our own times of distress.  The thirst and unpreparedness of the armies of Israel and Judah was a part of God's plan to both provide for their victory and to cause them to see that He is awesome and glorious!  Why would we ever think that our own difficulties are anything less?  After all, the God who always tells the truth and who always keeps His promises has told us that He works all things for good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

Evil Mercy

Mercy: when teaching children, I like to tell them that mercy means 'not getting what you deserve'.  This is in contrast to justice, which means 'getting exactly what you deserve'. And the right to execute justice or show mercy belongs ultimately and totally to the One who sits as Judge over all the universe.  It is Yahweh, the Creator, who says, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy" (Exodus 33:19).  All of our own exercises of justice and mercy as human beings derive totally from His decisions in these areas. It is that last statement - that our exercise of mercy derives from His - that leads me to write on 'evil mercy' this morning.  A statement like that may sound nice and proper on the surface, but when carried out to its logical end, it can lead to some not-very-politically-correct conclusions.  For instance, what if God has not extended mercy to a people group or individual?  What then?  If the human exercise of mercy derives totally from God's extended mercy - since He is the Judge - then are we as humans to be unmerciful where He has not shown mercy?

In a word: yes.

Consider if you will a story from the book of 1 Kings.  In chapter 20 of that book, there is a story of King Ahab and the northern kingdom of Israel going to war against Syria, which was under the leadership of Ben-hadad.  Before the battle, an unnamed 'man of God' approached King Ahab and told him, "Thus says Yahweh, 'Because the Syrians have said, "Yahweh is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys," therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am Yahweh.'"  God was going to prove that He created, owned, and sat as High Sovereign over every inch of the universe through His victory over the Syrians, using the much smaller army of Israel as His tool.  He had "devoted to destruction" (20:42) the entire Syrian force, deciding to execute justice and withhold mercy.

Toward the end of the battle, though, Ben-hadad, king of the Syrians, took council with some of his servants, and they decided to put sackcloth around their waists and ropes on their heads and beg Ahab for mercy.  "Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings," they said (v. 31).

Now it is certainly not a bad thing at all to have a reputation as a merciful person.  Our God has a reputation of being a God rich in mercy, and we are to be like Him.  But that's just it: we are to be like Him.  We are to show mercy where He shows mercy.  But when He declares that there is to be no mercy for a particular people, person, or crime, then we need to withhold our own exercise of mercy in that event.

King Ahab did indeed show mercy where God had not: sparing the life of Ben-hadad.  And immediately upon releasing the enemy king, a prophet of Yahweh came to Ahab and told him, "Thus says Yahweh, 'Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life shall be for his life, and your people for his people'" (v. 42).  God judged Ahab for showing mercy where He had not extended mercy.

This is not the only case of this happening in the Bible.  King Saul did something very similar in sparing the life of Agag, king of the Amelekites, in 1 Samuel 15:8.  Because of this evil mercy where God had not shown mercy, God said that He regretted that He had ever made Saul king, and it was from that day that God began to remove the kingdom from Saul and give it to his servant David.

But what is the application of all of this for those of us living in the twenty-first century of the New Covenant?  Is there ever a situation in which we could be said to be guilty for showing mercy where God has not shown mercy?

Yes there is.  The application for us would be in the way that we execute justice for crimes committed.  We are not in a situation where we have prophets walking up to us and telling us to devote this or that people to utter destruction, but we have been told what God's just penalty for various sins should be.  We are told that sacrificing to and worshiping gods other than Yahweh carries the death penalty.  Other sins that carry the same judgment are adultery, homosexuality, witchcraft, bestiality, rebellion against one's parents, murder, kidnapping, being a false prophet, and even lying about your virginity.

The only one of these crimes that we in America still punish with the justice that God demanded is murder, and we don't even do that well.  Some states do not hand out death sentences for murder at all, and when those that do actually do so, it is rarely done in a timely enough manner to be considered 'justice'.

It is a very dangerous thing for a nation to consider itself 'more civilized' than God and extend mercy for crimes that the Judge declared were abominations against His very character.  We do not have that right, and we ought not to think of ourselves as merciful and loving when we do so.  It is simply and purely disobedience, and it shows that we care more about the creature than we do the Creator.  I am not advocating that individuals take God's Law into their own hands and carry out those death penalties that the state leaves unfulfilled.  That is never once commanded in Scripture.  I am merely declaring that for any nation to be obedient to the Lord and bear the sword of justice as it was intended - and thus receive the blessings of God - that nation needs to pattern its laws after God's perfect Law.  And we as Christians need to recognize this fact and help our leaders to make right decisions that bring our nation's laws more in line with His.

Basic Training

The stories of faithful kings in the Bible are fascinating and encouraging.  You read of men like David, Asa, and Hezekiah, and you watch how they put their trust in Almighty God to give them victory, and that's exactly what He does.  David put the entire Philistine army to flight by taking out their most skilled and armed and armored champion with a single sling stone.  Asa achieved what is probably still the single most deadly victory in the history of warfare, killing one million enemies in a single battle.  Hezekiah prayed to God for help during the siege of Jerusalem and God slayed 185,000 enemy soldiers during the night. The pattern seems simple: if you are the king, you stop trusting in man and put all of your trust and hope in God and then watch Him do amazing things.  For those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit and given the gift of faith, this complete trust in God does not really seem that difficult.  But for most of us - especially those of us who are pastors - when we trust God like this, we don't always get to see the big victory.  In fact, we often get pretty stepped on by the world when we hand it all over to God, and it can be rather discouraging.  Where's my victory?

Well, here's the problem: we're looking at the wrong Scriptural examples.  Sure, that was the way that God dealt with the kings of His people, but there are other faithful characters in the Bible's narrative who have a different experience, and we share much more in common with them.  Of course, I'm talking about God's prophets.

If the kings of Israel and Judah get to experience great victory over their enemies when they turn to God in faith, the prophets most often get the opposite result.  They are hated by almost everyone, killed for their testimony concerning God's Word almost to a man, constantly ignored, and almost always find themselves swallowed up in poverty, chains, pits, and prisons.  Sounds like a pretty good benefits package, eh?  Why are things this way?  Why the huge disparity between the experience of faithful kings and prophets?  Their God is the same God!  To try to answer these difficulties, I want to turn to the life of Elijah.

Elijah is really the first main prophet in Israel.  Moses was certainly a prophet of God, and Samuel is often considered the very first of that office after the people conquered the land of Canaan, but Elijah is the first of a series of prophets that dominates the rest of the Bible's story from that point to the end of the Old Testament.  And just thinking about Elijah calls to mind some amazing stories like the contest on Mount Carmel, the chariot of fire, the boy raised to life, and the jars of oil and flour that would not run out, among others.  Elijah is an enviable character, you would think, but we need to look closer at the details of his life.

In 1 Kings 17, when we first meet Elijah, he delivers the Word of Yahweh's judgment to King Ahab - something that would become a common occurrence - but then is instructed by God to go and hide himself on the east side of the Jordan river, by the brook Cherith, and there remain until God would choose to move him elsewhere.  It is there by the brook that we are told of how God fed Elijah by the ravens.  They would bring him meat and bread every day.  Now, that sounds pretty miraculous and special until you are the one who is having to live outdoors near a brook until it completely dries up (which probably took more than a few days) and eat from scraps dropped into your lap by birds.  They weren't bringing him takeout bags from Chili's, that's for sure.  This "miraculous provision" would probably be labeled "extreme poverty" by just about anyone who had to go through it.  That doesn't mean that it wasn't miraculous.  It just wasn't fabulous.

And Elijah moved from that place to live with a dirty, depressed widow and her son who only had a tiny amount of oil and flour to eat and nothing else.  Yes, God provided miraculously once again for His prophet, causing both jars to never run out, though their contents should have been used up many times over, but we need to keep in mind that it was just oil and flour.  Chapter 18 of 1 Kings begins with "after many days", meaning that this diet of oil and flour cakes served in a very small house in the midst of a years-long drought continued for a very long time.  Again, miraculous?  Yes!  Fabulous?  No.

We could go on, but we would just see more like this.  The story is the same for Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and all of the Old Testament prophets, as well as Peter, John, Paul, and yes, Jesus, in the New Testament.  So why would anyone ever want this job, then?  I will tell you that it's not because of earthly triumphs and blessings.  It is because of God.

It's true that the prophets of Yahweh didn't conquer nations and live in palaces, but they dwelt in the very presence of the Creator of the universe!  There is no amount of worldly treasure that you can hold in your hands that can compare with the treasure of the Word of God that we hold in these jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7).  There is no amount of fine food that can compare with "every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4).  To those who are called to proclaim God's Word, God does not give fabulous earthly kingdoms; He gives us a far greater treasure: He gives us Himself!  And to keep us from confusing which is the greater gift, He graciously prevents us from "having it all" so that we can see and appreciate His wonder.  This is the way that God makes us ready to stand in the most important place and role that a human being can stand: as a proclaimer of His Truth.  May we do so humbly and in full appreciation of the glory and honor of the post.

Convenient Worship

I think that King Jeroboam of the northern kingdom of Israel must be the patron 'saint' of the modern American church.  You remember king Jeroboam, right?  He was the one who came before Solomon's son Rehoboam to ask that he reduce the heavy burden of labor that Solomon had forced onto the people.  And after King Rehoboam denied the request, it was Jeroboam who led the rebellion of ten of the tribes of Israel, and who himself was crowned king of those tribes in the north. And Jeroboam hadn't been king very long before he started to see a potential problem for his kingdom.  The fact that the temple of Yahweh was located in Jerusalem would mean that a good many of his people would still travel down to the south in order to worship as Yahweh required at His temple.  He was worried that as his people traveled thus several times per year their hearts would gradually return to the southern king of Judah.  So, Jeroboam came up with a plan, and this is why I say that he must be the patron 'saint' of the modern American church.

First, King Jeroboam would make the pilgrimage to the place of worship more convenient.  Instead of the one temple down in Judah, now the northern king told his people that there were two new alternatives for worship much closer right there in the land of Israel.  He put one of these places in Bethel and one in Dan (1 Kings 12:29).  Now the people would not have to travel so far: a welcome change from the oppressive commands of old!

Second, King Jeroboam made some symbols that people could look at to focus their worship.  Instead of just a place to bring sacrifices and pray, now they had some beautiful golden calves to give their worship some meaning beyond simply bringing the offerings that God required.  Worshipers could focus their attention and finally feel like their god was a little closer to them.  This made the god easier to manage: less spiritual, invisible, all-powerful, and holy.  He became more familiar to them; they could finally understand the one that they worshiped.

Third, King Jeroboam removed the stringent requirements on who could and could not officiate temple service.  Yahweh had commanded that only the Levites could serve the temple, but Jeroboam saw the oppression in that and so he let anyone who desired to do so become one of the leaders of worship (1 Kings 13:33).  Gone now were all of the arguments of years gone by over who could be the special ones who serve the temple.  Now anyone who wanted an inside job with little heavy lifting could sign right up.  This was progress!

Fourth, King Jeroboam invented his own feast days (1 Kings 12:33).  Those others that Yahweh had commanded weren't as good as the ones that he could "devise from his own heart", so he set up new ones.  After all, what could possibly be wrong with inventing a new celebration of worship?  It all just adds to the experience!

Finally, he removed senseless restrictions on where people could worship.  Sure, he had already made the two temples at Bethel and Dan for convenience, but he also allowed the people to worship on any old high hill that they desired.  Yahweh had said that this was off-limits, but the new easier-to-understand gods that Jeroboam had made didn't care one bit!  If you want to worship over there on that mountain in your own way, why should anyone stop you?  The new worship is all about what makes you feel good about the experience!

Note as you read the chapters concerning Jeroboam in 1 Kings that there are no stories of any other sin that the man might have committed.  We are not told about adulteries, murders, covetousness, abortion, homosexuality, or any other 'low' sin that he may have been involved in.  Far more destructive than any of those things in God's eyes is what this king did concerning the worship of Yahweh: how he broke from the clear instructions that God had given in order to make things more convenient and to not have to tell anyone, "No!  You can't do that!"  And the pronouncement that we have in the Scripture concerning all of Jeroboam's changes was that, "this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut off and to destroy it from the face of the earth" (1 Kings 13:34).

Sadly, it is far too easy to see the many parallels between Jeroboam's great sins and our own in the modern American church.  We try to remove every obstacle we can that might keep lost people from coming to church (even though the gathered worship is for believers and not unbelievers anyway), but in doing so, we remove a lot of what God has commanded should be in there.  We are constantly about the business of reducing God down to a manageable size: something that we can comprehend and that exists only to serve us.  We loathe to tell anyone "No" in worship, and let just about anyone stand behind the pulpit, teach our children in Sunday School (which is itself one of those added-on things that has become a sacred cow in today's church), lead the singing, or whatever.  We invent holidays and celebrate them like we want to (when was the last time you saw a command in the Scripture to celebrate Christmas or 'easter' - named after a pagan goddess that Jeroboam was even credited as worshiping?).  Our worship is all about doing what you feel is right and what makes you happy - what gives you the 'warm-fuzzies'.

God has not refused to speak on the kinds of things that He demands be a part of His worship in New Testament times.  It isn't as if He only really cared about such things during the Mosaic Covenant.  He has purposefully given us many instructions all throughout the New Testament epistles on how we should do church, but tragically most of these get completely ignored in favor of "what we've always done".  Tradition and whim are not the determiners of what true worship should be - God is!  Let's covenant more faithfully to pattern our churches and our worship on what He has said and leave "the devices of our own hearts" outside the doors.

A Very Wise Fool

As soon as we hear the name, King Solomon, it conjures to our mind's eye images of gold and peacocks and splendid ivory thrones bedecked with lions.  His kingdom was - simply put - the most beautiful and extravagant place that the world has ever seen.  He built palaces: for himself, for his wives, and, of course, for God.  We are told that he had so much gold that silver was nothing; it was about as common as dirt.  He ate with gold forks and spoons, drank from gold cups, and dwelt in such opulence that it took away the breath of even the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:5). And Solomon received all of these gifts, as well as the most expansive kingdom that Israel has ever had, as a byproduct of one of Yahweh's blessings.  In 1 Kings chapter 3, the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream and tells him to ask anything of Him and He will give it.  But instead of asking for long life or riches or the defeat of his enemies, Solomon simply asks for the wisdom to govern God's people.  God is so pleased by the humble request that He tells the young king that He will give him wisdom and all of the things that he didn't ask for besides!

But if we think that Solomon's physical blessings were astounding, we should take a look at the fruits of the blessing that he actually asked for.  King Solomon wrote most of the Proverbs, as well as the books of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs (or Solomon).  We are told that his wisdom was unmatched from that time onward.  People came from far and wide just to listen to his wise and discerning judgments.  There is no doubt that the man was exceedingly smart, and yet I've got a picture of a crying LEGO jester at the top of this article and the title says something about a fool, so obviously something went wrong.

Well, something did go wrong.  Later on in Solomon's life he began to do some really bad stuff - really foolish stuff.  His father David had committed adultery and killed one of his own 'mighty men' because of a pretty face, but Solomon would do worse.  We're told in 1 Kings 11:4-8 that Solomon eventually began to turn from Yahweh because of his many wives, which he loved, and he built a high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, and for Molech, the abomination of the Ammonites, and that he followed after Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom, another abomination of the Ammonites, as well.  The smartest man in the world was committing idolatry!  How could this be?

It began, as all sin does, with simple disobedience.  Solomon did not suddenly fall off the wagon one day and start building temples for idols.  He had been living in opposition to God's instructions for quite some time before that, and his eventual descent into idolatry was as a result of not being obedient from the outset to what God had commanded of His kings.

Listen for just a moment to what God had commanded through Moses concerning Israel's future kings way back in Deuteronomy (before the people of Israel ever even made it into the Promised Land):

When you come to the land that Yahweh your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say,'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,' you may indeed set a king over you whom Yahweh your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, 'You shall never return that way again.' And heshall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this Law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear Yahweh his God by keeping all the words of this Law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

These instructions, handed down by Yahweh Himself, read like a road map of Solomon's sins!  King Solomon actually violated every single command given here concerning Israel's kings.  He acquired many horses (1 Kings 10:26), he got them all from Egypt (v. 28), it would be an understatement to say that he had many wives (11:3), and he certainly had excessive silver and gold (10:14-22).

Now, even though we're not told one way or the other, I'm going to hazard a guess that Solomon probably didn't follow the latter half of those instructions either: the part that tells the kings to copy the Law and read it daily.  Perhaps if he would have done so, he would have seen earlier the huge problems that he was getting himself into.

So here we have a case where the smartest, wisest, and most likely richest man the world has ever known goes horribly astray because he wasn't reading his Bible every day.  Instead of being like him and relying on our own good sense to get us through each day, we ought to be like another king - one toward the end of Judah's history: Josiah.  King Josiah is the one that found the book of the Law hidden in the temple and simply read it.  And when he read God's Law, he did not just hear the words and then try to justify himself by coming up with reasons why he didn't need to follow those commands of God anymore, or by somehow convincing himself that he was in fact being obedient when he knew he wasn't.  He just tore his clothes, confessed his great sin, repented, begged forgiveness, and vowed to be obedient to what he had read for the rest of his days (2 Kings 22:11-23:25).  Let's read God's Word like that - every single day - and let it keep us from walking foolishly, no matter how wise we may be.

Like Sand and Stars

Exactly how many grains of sand are there on the seashore?  Or how many stars are really out there in the heavens beyond even what we can see?  Could anyone really ever count either of these? Way back in Genesis 15, a man named Abram poured out his heart toward God, expressing his despair over having no children of his own - no heir for his household.  And in response, God told him to go outside and try to count the stars.  "This is how many offspring I will give you," God told him (v. 5).  Later in the story, in chapter 22, when Abraham showed that he was willing to sacrifice the one beloved son that God had given him in his old age - the heir through which all of those promises were supposed to come to pass - God told him again, "I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore" (22:17).

Certainly, since the time of Abraham, there have been many born into that physical family of people that we call 'Jews' or 'Israelites'.  The number continues to grow even to this day.  But when do you think that the promise could be considered to be fulfilled?  Is there a certain number that we are looking for?

Actually, we are told in 1 Kings 4:20 that during the time of King Solomon, "Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea."  The text clearly means to indicate at this point that God's promise had found fulfillment.  That shouldn't be surprising; many of God's promises were finding fulfillment during this time.  He had brought them into the land that He had promised to give them.  He had given them peace on every side.  He had chosen a place for His Name to dwell.  And He even brought about the fulfillment of the promise that He had made to David, saying, "Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my Name" (2 Samuel 7:13 - cited as being fulfilled in 1 Kings 5:5).

This period was a time of great physical fulfillment for all of these promises, but this was not to be the end, and would by no means be the greatest manifestation of the fulfillment of these blessings.  David had just taken a census of the men of Israel as one of his last acts as king, and though the number was large for a nation of that day - 1.3 million men who could draw the sword - it doesn't even compare to the populations of a lot of world cities today, and it certainly doesn't compare to the number of stars in the sky or grains of sand on the shore.  And even though Solomon was a great king, and the house that he built for the Name of Yahweh was pretty magnificent, both he: Solomon, and it: the temple, were nothing compared to what would be revealed at the greater fulfillment of those promises.

This is because God never intended the physical fulfillment to be the main point of any of those awesome covenant blessings.  When God spoke of Abram's 'seed' (or 'offspring') through whom all of the world would be blessed, He did not just mean a certain ethnic group descended from Abram's loins.  He meant - in the most glorious sense of His promise - a certain Man - a singular 'seed' - would come through Abram's family, and that it would be through this Man, Jesus Christ, that all the nations of the earth would be blessed.  And God meant that Abraham's spiritual offspring: those who shared the same faith in his Heavenly Father, would truly number more than the stars or the sand.  Likewise, when God promised David that his son would sit on his throne forever, and that He would build Him a house, He was not just talking about Solomon and the temple.  Rather, His larger picture included the coming of Jesus Christ and the building of a temple out of living stones (souls!) where His Name could dwell (1 Peter 2:5).

The ultimate fulfillment of all of this is of course through Jesus Christ.  He is the 'Seed' of Abraham and the 'Son' of David.  And His people are synonymous with His 'house': the congregation of saints (1 Corinthians 14:33), the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12), the bride prepared for the Bridegroom (Revelation 21:9).  And the number of that people will far surpass 1.3 million.  In fact, in Revelation chapter 7, we are told that the number will be 144,000, but that is not a literal number.  That is a number that figuratively represents the fulness of God's people.  Thus, that is the number that John "heard" described (v. 4), but when he turned to look (verse 9), what he actually saw was "a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"

Those old promises were about Jesus and they were about us - that is, those of us who have clung to Christ for salvation from the just wrath of God!  Isn't that exciting?  When you have read Genesis 15 and 22 and 2 Samuel 7, did you see yourself there in Christ?  By virtue of His righteousness and the Holy Spirit's regenerating work, we are made a part of that great family and a part of that great temple!  Praise be to God the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit for including us in all His promises!