Superheroes

I think that American superheroes are dumb.  The grand majority of them are able to defeat evil because of wacky mutant powers, or because they were born on other planets where all people just naturally had wacky mutant powers, or, in the case of a small few like Batman and Ironman, because they have used their ridiculous wealth to construct technological gizmos that give them similar abilities to the aforementioned wacky mutant powers. I much prefer the Asian brand of superhero, who can accomplish ridiculous feats through the application of immense skill.  This is the essence of kung-fu: doing something so well and so often that the effects look miraculous to those with less skill.  And so Asian "superheroes" can run up bamboo trees and have sword-fights in the branches, they can throw knives that curve around buildings to hit their targets, and they can flit from rooftop to rooftop in such a way that they look almost like they are flying.  And a staple of the "kung-fu" - or more accurately named "wushu" or "wuxia" - movie is that the hero can defeat scads of bad guys using his martial abilities alone.

And I feel Biblically justified in my preference of Asian superheroes because the Scriptures themselves contain similar stories of martial acumen.  In 2 Samuel 23, for instance, the "mighty men" of David are described.  Listen to the descriptions of those three men that the Bible calls "the Three" of David:

These are the names of the mighty men whom David had: Josheb-basshebeth a Tahchemonite; he was chief of the three. He wielded his spear against eight hundred whom he killed at one time. (v. 8 )

And next to him among the three mighty men was Eleazar the son of Dodo, son of Ahohi. He was with David when they defied the Philistines who were gathered there for battle, and the men of Israel withdrew. He rose and struck down the Philistines until his hand was weary, and his hand clung to the sword. And Yahweh brought about a great victory that day, and the men returned after him only to strip the slain. (vv. 9-10)

And next to him was Shammah, the son of Agee the Hararite. The Philistines gathered together at Lehi, where there was a plot of ground full of lentils, and the men fled from the Philistines. But he took his stand in the midst of the plot and defended it and struck down the Philistines, and Yahweh worked a great victory. (vv. 11-12)

These guys were awesome!  You could literally make a whole movie about the event recorded in verse 8 alone, and it would be a summer blockbuster to be sure!  But notice this: that awesome scene that we have hinted at in verse 8 is all that we are ever told about it in the Bible.  That's the kind of thing that people would read, and yet God chose to only make a one-verse mention of the whole story.  Instead, He filled the whole of chapter 22 with some long poem; or maybe it's a song or something.  I mean, we don't want to read a song!  We want to read about superheroes!

That song in chapter 22 of 2 Samuel, though, is actually about the real Superhero.  You see, those mighty men were nothing but tools in the hand of the true Hero.  Verse 12 of chapter 23 shows the reality.  There in the description of Shammah, the third of the Three, we are told, "But he took his stand in the midst of the plot and defended it and struck down the Philistines, and Yahweh worked a great victory."  The same was also said back in verse 10 and the description of Eleazar's big victory.  God doesn't spend a lot of time in the Bible describing human victories because He is the one that brings them about anyway.  Therefore, He expends a lot space in His Word declaring just how awesome He is: He is the true Superhero!

Josheb-basshebeth (how's that for a potential name for baby boy?) may have struck down 800 men at once - a feat worthy of a good wushu movie - but, aside from being the one who actually gave Jo (can I call him Jo?) that victory, Yahweh once struck down 185,000 men in a single night (2 Kings 19:35).  Oh yeah, and there's that time that He killed every single living thing on earth except for the eight people He saved (along with some animals) in a boat (that He designed).

So I want to end this essay on superheroes with some quotes from that "boring" chapter that I mentioned earlier that stand as a tribute to my favorite Superhero: the One who has already saved the day.

Yahweh is my Rock and my Fortress and my Deliverer, my God, my Rock, in whom I take refuge, my Shield, and the Horn of my salvation, my Stronghold and my Refuge, my Savior; you save me from violence.  I call upon Yahweh, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. (vv. 2-4)

In my distress I called upon Yahweh; to my God I called.  From His temple he heard my voice, and my cry came to His ears.  Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the heavens trembled and quaked, because He was angry.  Smoke went up from His nostrils, and devouring fire from His mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from Him.  He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under His feet.  He rode on a cherub and flew; He was seen on the wings of the wind.  He made darkness around Him His canopy, thick clouds, a gathering of water. Out of the brightness before Him coals of fire flamed forth. Yahweh thundered from heaven, and the Most High uttered His voice.  And He sent out arrows and scattered them; lightning, and routed them.  Then the channels of the sea were seen; the foundations of the world were laid bare, at the rebuke of Yahweh, at the blast of the breath of His nostrils. (vv. 7-16)

He rescued me from my strong enemy, from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me.  They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but Yahweh was my support.  He brought me out into a broad place; He rescued me, because He delighted in me. (vv.18-20)

Promises, Promises

"O Yahweh, who shall sojourn in your tent?  Who shall dwell on your holy hill?  He who... swears to his own hurt and does not change." (Psalm 15:1, 4)

That statement is huge!  It runs through my mind almost every single day.  The one whom God allows to sojourn with Him - to walk in His presence - and the one whom He allows to dwell with Him is the kind of person who keeps promises.  And this kind of person doesn't just keep the easy ones, but even swears to his own hurt and still does not change.  If he finds himself locked into a really unpleasant commitment, he doesn't try to weasel his way out of it, but instead meets the obligation head-on and fulfills his end of the bargain.

It probably doesn't even need to be said that such a person is in rare supply these days.  In our culture, even the well-worded, highly important, and sacred vows of marriage can be tossed out of the window as soon as the relationship becomes even a little bit difficult to one or both of the persons who made these promises to one another.  We have even invented prenuptial agreements that are in effect in the event that the initial vows are broken - though I always wonder why the prenuptial agreement can't be broken just as easily.  Is it signed with a more special kind of magical ink?

God is so adamant about the inviolable nature of a promise, though, that He holds people to some pretty stout vows in His Word.  Many Bible students would think immediately about the rash vow of Jephthah in the book of Judges: how he promised to sacrifice to Yahweh the first thing that came out of his front door when he got home if God would give him victory in the battle (Judges 11:30-31).  Of course, if you know the story, you know that his only daughter came to meet him when he got home, and was the first thing to come out of his door.  Jephthah, however, did not back down from his promise.  What he had sworn to do was definitely to his own hurt, but he did not change.

Another interesting story like this involves the Gibeonites.  They were those crafty folk who approached the people of Israel in Joshua chapter 9 with great deceit, wearing worn-out clothing and carrying stale bread, claiming to be from a land far away, come to see the people of Yahweh first hand and to learn more about their great God.  As a matter of fact, though, they were people who dwelt in the land of Canaan, and they were just afraid of being destroyed.  But rather than ask God what should be done with them, Joshua and the Israelites quickly made a promise to live peaceably with them: a promise that God would expect them to keep.

Many years later, after the conquest of the land, after the period of judges, and in the time of King David, God began to smite the land of Israel with a great famine and drought.  When Yahweh was consulted as to why such a thing was happening (does anyone consult God these days to find out why hard times come?), He told them that they had violated that old covenant with the Gibeonites (2 Samuel 21:1).  Apparently, at some point in King Saul's reign, he had gone about trying to kill off the Gibeonites in order to give more of the land to the actual people of Israel.  And even though none of the people then living - King Saul included - had been around when that promise was made, God still held them to it, and backed it up with a famine!

But the way that particular situation was resolved is almost mind-blowing.  God was not pleased to send blessing on His people again until David had given the Gibeonites seven men descended from Saul for them to hang "before Yahweh" (v. 9)!  The children of the man who had broken a promise that he wasn't even alive to take part in making had to die because of that broken promise!  That immediately makes me think of the line in the Ten Commandments where God says that He will, "visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me" (Exodus 20:5).

God takes promises very seriously, and we should be glad that He does, because He makes quite a few of them Himself.  In fact, all of the wondrous Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ is built upon promises that God made that He would accomplish it.  He never promises anything lightly and does not change His mind.  And He expects us to be like Him in this regard, going so far as to even say, "Who shall sojourn in my tent, and who shall dwell on my holy hill?  The one who swears to his own hurt and does not change."  And make no mistake: He will hold us accountable to every single word that we speak.  Let us be the kind of people who can walk with Him and dwell in His presence.  Brethren, keep your promises.

What Is Forgiveness?

When I was a teenager, I can remember being forced to watch some video in church about a family who forgave a man for killing one of their children.  They went to him while he was in jail and simply said through the bars, "I forgive you."  The man did not ask for it, but the family gave it, and we were encouraged as teenagers to live out that kind of "Christian" forgiveness in our own lives. In a similar vein, a few years ago I sent a letter to a former pastor of the church that I was serving that had been wronged by the church.  I asked him if there was anything that the church could do that could show genuine repentance toward him and restore broken relationships.  He quickly blew off my idea by saying simply, "I forgave them a long time ago."  He forgave them, but they were not sorry.

The questions we need to ask ourselves are actually, "What does forgiveness truly mean?" and "Can there be forgiveness apart from repentance on the part of the one who needs the forgiveness?"

Forgiveness, at least in the way that the Bible speaks of it, is not a blanket covering stemming from the injured party to the injurer.  Rather, it is all about reconciling one party to another.  Forgiveness is not a declaration, but a restoration.  And there cannot be a true restoration until both parties are willing to move toward one another.  Thus, if there is no true repentance from the injurer, then no matter how willing the injured one might be to forgive, true forgiveness cannot take place, because the relationship cannot be restored.

This idea may sound foreign to some people.  As I said earlier, most of us have been taught through various means that our duty as Christians is to forgive those who hurt us, regardless of whether they seek it or not.  But what does the Bible say on the matter?  Jesus shows the process best when He says, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4).

This is the true, Biblical process of forgiveness.  There are four parts to it: the hurt, the acknowledgement of the hurt (the rebuke), the repentance, and then the forgiveness.  Most "Christian" forgiveness tries to jump directly from the hurt to the forgiveness - completely bypassing the rebuke and the repentance.  As a result, there is no true forgiveness - no true restoration of the relationship to the joy and closeness of what it once was.  In fact, in many cases, so many hurts can be 'swept under the rug' like this until eventually the relationship cannot continue at all and ultimately fails.  And the sad part of all of that is that one or both of the parties in that failed relationship may not even really know why it failed, because wrongs were never truthfully discussed.

By the way, it should be pointed out that God's own forgiveness works this way.  When we disobey God, that is the very definition of 'sin' against Him.  As sinners, we are desperately in need of God's forgiveness, so that we will not have to face His righteous judgment.  But He does not extend this forgiveness as a blanket over every human being in His creation.  He calls men to repent - repeatedly, and in both the Old and the New Testaments.  Repentance on the part of the sinner is a necessary ingredient in forgiveness.  He says over and over again that He will not grant forgiveness unless there is repentance: "If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow" (Psalm 7:12), "Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent" (Matthew 11:20), "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3), "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent" (Revelation 2:5).

So throw away whatever unbiblical notions you may have had in the past of forgiveness without repentance, and embrace the Scriptural teaching - both as the one who injures and the one who has been injured.  Make sure that if you wrong someone, you immediately seek their forgiveness by repentance and heartfelt apology.  Don't just expect them to issue some blanket declaration of your forgiveness because of the context of the relationship that you are in.  Your sin has damaged that relationship, and it needs to be restored.

Likewise, if you have been wronged, don't just sweep that hurt under the rug.  You may think that doing so is the "Christian" thing to do, but that hidden hurt will end up destroying the relationship in the end - especially if other hurts are added to the pile.  Instead, be sure to go through the 'rebuke' part of the process.  The one who has hurt you needs to know that the hurt has been done.  And you should expect a genuine repentance before the forgiveness can be completed.  If the injurer refuses to repent after the sin has been made known, then it is easy to see why true forgiveness cannot be accomplished.

It is true that a Christian should be "willing" to forgive anyone - and I believe that it is this willingness that most Christians confuse with the forgiveness itself - but we must understand that in order for the Bible's kind of forgiveness to take place, the relationship must be reconciled through repentance followed by restoration.

Heart Stealing

How could any man unseat King David and chase him from his throne in Jerusalem?  Knowing the character of that fierce warrior and mighty man of God, we would think that such a thing must be impossible.  David was so loved, respected, and feared that it must have taken a truly mighty warrior to remove him from the throne, right? Wrong.  All it took to send David into retreat was some emotional manipulation by his estranged son, Absalom.

Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way of the gate.  And when any man had a dispute to come before the king for judgment, Absalom would call to him and say, "From what city are you?" And when he said, "Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel," Absalom would say to him, "See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you." Then Absalom would say,"Oh that I were judge in the land!  Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice."  And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. Thus Absalom did to all of Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.

David's son Absalom accomplished his treachery against his father, the king, by lying to the people, by telling them what they wanted to hear, by setting himself up as the only one who could help them, and by disingenuous physical contact that tricked the people into thinking that this evil rebel really loved them and had their best interests at heart.  This strategy may at once seem very familiar to most of us - it has been used by almost every politician from that time onward.

My own concern in meditating on this passage, though, is how it intersects with the way that church leaders build their own support in their congregations.  Do these kinds of deceitful methods work in the church?  If so, should they then be used to arrest the hearts of the congregation, since it would seem to be a good thing to secure the love and support of the people?  The apostle Paul certainly doesn't think so:

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s Word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:1-2)

In the ways that ministers of the Gospel deal with their flocks, there should be no deceit, no cunning, no disgraceful, underhanded ways.  Instead, there should be only an open statement of the truth.

What is so sad, though, is how many in the church - just like in ancient Israel - can be turned aside from the truth by shysters who scratch itching ears and who are quick to give hugs and kisses, all while directing their path toward ruin and destruction.  Wolves always come to do their work in sheep's clothing.  If they didn't, then their prey would bolt at the first sight of them.  What God's sheep need to learn to do is to look for the seams in the costume and to smell the predator beneath.

One way you can tell a wolf is by looking at his I's - no, not his eyes, his 'I's'!  How much does he talk about himself?  Does he tell story after story about what he has done, or does he spend his time talking about what Christ has done?  Speaking of 'eyes', though, they can be important too.  True sheep keep their eyes on the shepherd.  Wolves watch the sheep.  Is he man-centered or God-centered?  When he prays, does he spend a lot of time praising God for His greatness and seeking His will and His kingdom, or does he 'keep his eyes down' and focus only on human concerns?

Perhaps the best way you can identify a wolf, though, is by his voice.  How does the man handle the Word of God when he 'preaches' it?  Paul told Timothy to "Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2).  In the passage I quoted above from 2 Corinthians, Paul says that the true man of God does not "tamper with God's Word".

So how does the man under examination handle the Word?  Does he open the Bible at all, or does he just tell stories and jokes and talk about statistics and steps to solve this or that problem in your life?  If he does open the Word, does he preach it - explain the intricacies of it and apply them - or does he just get the reading of it out of the way so that he can spend the rest of the time saying whatever he wants to say?  A true shepherd of the sheep - a true 'pastor' - should be able to say, "Thus says the Lord" after every sentence and paragraph that he utters.  And you should be able to test him in that way.  Take something he said and ask, "Did the Lord say this in his Word?"  If you can look back at the passage being preached, or a supplemental text referenced by the preacher, and see it there, then the man is doing his job.  If he's just saying a lot of things that have no basis in the text - regardless of whether they may sound good or not - then he is not "preaching the Word", he is saying what he wants to say.

And all of this is so important because, as Paul says in the verses following those cited earlier from 2 Timothy, "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths" (2 Timothy 4:3-4).  That way leads to destruction.  The wolf in the funny outfit wants to eat you, not be your friend - no matter how many times he gives you hugs and grips your shoulder while he shakes your hand.  Beware those who would try to destroy your faith with their deceit, and love and hold in high honor those who would renounce disgraceful, underhanded ways and refuse to tamper with God's Word, but who would commend themselves to your consciences by the open statement of the truth.

Despicable

When Jesus was asked, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" He responded, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment" (Matthew 22:36-38). The very most important thing that we are commanded to do is to love the God who made us.  And we are not just to assent to this love, as though we can simply decide that love for God is something that we possess, but we are to love Him with all of our hearts, all of our souls, and all of our minds.  Our affections should be consumed with love for Him.  Our spiritual natures should be delighted and satisfied in Him, drawing all of our strength from Him.  And our thoughts should be filled with wonder at all He has revealed as we are daily - even continually - fascinated with Him in meditation on what He has said and what He has done and all of who He is.

Needless to say, this command to love God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds is a rather difficult command to obey.  So many other things strive for the attention of our affections, our spirits, and our thoughts.  If we ever want to see how far we have "fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), we never need to look farther than this "first and great commandment".  It can condemn us every single day.

Sometimes, though, we grow so accustomed to the fact that we do fail in this area that we get comfortable, so to speak, with a lower level of love for God.  We know that we can't do it perfectly, but we convince ourselves that we are loving Him about as much as it is humanly possible to do.  And when we sin in other ways - break other commands of God - we would still hold forth that even during those times we maintained our love for God.  We just let the flesh get the better of us, or we became weak and succumbed to temptation.

I'm sure that's what King David would have said when confronted with his sin in his adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband.  After all, he was the "man after God's own heart"!  Surely there is a difference between caving to your fleshly desires and refusing to love God!

That's not what God said, though.  In fact, He put it a bit more starkly than that when He spoke to David from the mouth of Nathan the prophet.  He said, "Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife" (2 Samuel 12:10).

The Hebrew word that is translated as "despised" actually means very much the same thing as our English word.  It means that David held God in contempt, that he disdained Him, and that he felt a deep repugnance for Him.  In other words, it's pretty much the opposite of love and respect.

So in breaking God's command to not commit adultery, and in breaking God's command to not commit murder, David was also mightily breaking the most important command of all: to love his God with all of his heart, his soul, and his mind.  He showed contempt for God and His Law in his heart as he embraced another emotion - that of lust; and he disdained God in his spirit, squashing any conviction he may have felt and hardening himself against his own conscience; and he showed his disgust at having to be disciplined to think like God commanded him to think about the sanctity of marriage vows and the Law of God that protected them.  In the murder of Uriah, he also showed utter contempt for the image of God in man and allowed himself to order its destruction.

All sin is God-hating, pure and simple.  We might want to try to convince ourselves otherwise, but every time we disobey God's Law, we testify that He wasn't very good, wise, and loving to give such a command in the first place.  Each time we transgress against His revealed will, knowing full well that He sees us, and yet not caring in that moment, we give God the finger and dare Him to destroy us if He really is so holy as He says.

Jesus said it best and most simply when He said, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15).  That's what love for God with all of your heart, soul, and mind looks like.  That's why He said that such love was the great and first commandment.  Obedience to all of the others stems from obedience to the first.

So the next time your flesh tries to entice you to indulge in the transgression of God's Law - no matter what that may be - let your spirit remind you that you cannot love God and give in to that temptation.  Understand that you will be declaring how much you despise God as you carry out your rebellion against Him.  Hopefully, such thoughts will lead you away from the precipice and back toward the loving embrace of our holy God.

A Wise Sentiment

Joab is probably not anyone's favorite character in the Old Testament; he certainly isn't mine.  This commander of King David's armies is often a jerk, likes to take matters into his own hands for his own reasons, even when it is potentially disastrous, and has even been known to obey such wicked orders as, "Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die" (2 Samuel 11:15). And yet, there are some points in the story of David's reign where this too-violent Joab speaks as though he were the one who was the "man after God's own heart".  It is Joab who rebukes David for mourning over the death of his wicked son, Absalom, to the shame of all of those who fought valiantly against the usurper (2 Samuel 19:5-7).  It is also Joab who sternly warns David against taking an ungodly census of the Israelites in 2 Samuel 24 that would end up killing thousands.

But one of my favorite lines from the lips of Joab comes in 2 Samuel 10:12.  As he is organizing the placement of his troops in a battle against the joined forces of the Ammonites and Syrians, he says to his brother, Abishai, "Be of good courage, and let us be courageous for our people, and for the cities of our God, and may Yahweh do what seems good to Him."

I love that that statement for two reasons.  First, it acknowledges God's sovereignty and the fact that He "works all things according to the counsel of His will" (Ephesians 1:11).  It is as Job stated, once he had been duly corrected by God, "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).  Joab's wise sentiment is rooted in an understanding that God is truly on the throne of all His creation and that He has plan - a will - that He will not fail to work out.  Joab also knows that no human action can constrain that will of God.  In other words, we can't force Him to side with us or do for us exactly what we would like Him to do.  He will always "do what seems good to Him."

The second reason that I love Joab's statement to his brother is because it shows us the wondrous simplicity of our responsibility as human beings.  Notice that he doesn't tell his brother anything like, "Make sure you rout their western flank, or the battle will be lost!"  He understands - quite differently from almost everyone in our own day - that the victor in a battle is determined by Yahweh.  God can defeat a huge host of warriors at the hands of one man and his armor bearer, as He did in 1 Samuel 14.  He can also engineer events so that an army that is vastly successful one day gets hammered the next, as He did in the issue of Achan's sin at Ai in Joshua 7.  So what matters is not individual strategies or even the military skill and might of champion warriors.  What matters is what God wants to do.  And the most important thing that we can do in light of that fact is just simply to make sure that we are being the kind of people that God has commanded us to be.

One church sign that I saw on the way to work one morning put it like this: "Obey God's commands and let Him take care of the rest."  And that's it in a nutshell!  You and I are not the ones on the throne; we are the ones that should be on our knees in front of the throne.  Therefore, our place is not to dictate the events of history - whether that means thinking that we should be able to accomplish whatever we desire by our own hard efforts, or whether that means thinking that God has to answer our prayers in a certain way.  Instead, our role in all of these things is blessedly simple: just obey the King!

Obedience is very important to God.  And it is very important in the New Testament context of the church as well.  Some of Jesus' last and most important words on earth to His disciples, before ascending to heaven, were "...and teach them to obey all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20).  Our God has not made His commands hard to find or ambiguous.  The Scriptures are full of His laws and statutes and rules and instructions.  They are "more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb" (Psalm 19:10).  And here is the wonderful, freeing, most basic truth of a life of faith: just concern yourself with obeying your awesome God, and "let Him do what seems good to Him."

He Is Great

I heard a man recount the story of his conversion a couple of weeks ago, and it was impossible for him to speak more than a few sentences without breaking into praise again and again at just how great and awesome and majestic and holy and wonderful our God truly is.  And if you were to hear this man's testimony (I tried to get a copy of the audio, but they didn't record it), you would understand why he felt compelled to glorify God's Name like that. "I was not looking for God," he said on more than one occasion.  "I didn't care a thing about church...I wasn't even curious...I had friend that tried to tell me about Jesus for sixteen years and I never cared a bit."  He did finally go to church with his friend - "just to get him off my back" - but said that, even then, "I was bored and not paying much attention to what the young preacher said."

And yet at some point during that service, the man said that "all of a sudden it hit me like a lightning bolt.  I saw the filth and evilness of my sins before a holy God and simply had to scramble out of the pew and rush to the pastor and ask him how to receive the forgiveness offered in Christ."  He said, "I did not leave that church a changed man that day.  I left that church a new man!  God birthed a new person that day!  I went in not caring a thing in the world about Him - not seeking Him at all!  I came out in love with Him, having been given a new heart and a new spirit!"

The man's testimony of how God saved him sounds just like Ephesians 2:1-10, Romans 3:10-26, and Ezekiel 36:25-27.  In passages like those, we are shown how salvation must be a sovereign work of God in producing a new heart and imparting new desires because "no one seeks for God" (Romans 3:11).  If God doesn't "birth new people" by the power of the Holy Spirit, then they will never run to Him in faith.  That's why even faith itself is called a "gift of God" in Ephesians 2:8.  And there's just something about finally understanding God's sovereignty (the fact that He in in control of all of this) in this work that causes people to burst forth in praise to Him!

King David had a similar experience in 2 Samuel chapter 7 - in the passage that we call the Davidic Covenant.  It is there that God tells David of all of the amazing good that He is going to accomplish in building David a house - or dynasty.  And after God tells him all this, David breaks out in praise and thanksgiving, saying at one point, "Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have brought about all this greatness, to make your servant know it.  Therefore you are great, O LORD God" (vv. 21-22).

I see in David's praise of God's greatness there in 2 Samuel the same thing that I heard in the man's testimony a couple of weeks ago.  David understood that he was nothing before God got a hold of him, and that every good thing that had happened had all been God's doing.  He confessed that he understood that God had brought it all about "because of His promise and according to His own heart" and "therefore your are great, O Yahweh God."

When I talk with people about the doctrine of God's sovereignty - mostly in the context of ideas like election, predestination, and the new birth - I am often asked the question, "Why should any of that matter?  What difference does it make if I believe that God did it all instead of what I have always been taught?"  My first answer is always that what we believe about salvation ought to be only and exactly what the Bible says about it, and the Bible consistently and strongly teaches all of these doctrines.  But in addition to the simple concept of "the Bible says it, therefore I believe it", I also always point out this very effect that I have been writing about: people that finally come to understand how much God has had to be in control of their conversion (because of their own spiritual blindness, sin hardened heart, and enslavement to their fleshly nature) cannot stop praising Him for being such an awesome God!

In other words, accepting the Scripture's teaching regarding the sovereignty of God, and embracing it as the story of how God brought you to life, always abounds to the glory of the God who did it!  Truly, our God is a great and majestic and holy and perfect and just and compassionate King who pours forth His grace and mercy on His people and lifts them up so that they may have joy in His presence and sound forth His praises and His truth to the end of magnifying His glory and His fame and His worth to every corner of His creation.  To God be the glory!  Amen.

Portion Control

"Give us this day our daily bread."  (Matthew 6:11) I love praying that every morning.  You know why?  Because then you get to say, "Thank you!" to God at every meal for answering your prayer.  You ask for Him to take care of you, and then you get to watch Him work it out all day long.

You might say, "But I still eat three meals a day plus snacks even when I don't pray like that every morning."  That's true, but do you not believe that all of those meals are gifts of God as He provides for you through your job, through grocery stores, through farmers, through rain and seed and growth?  If you don't have a great sense of the awesome graciousness and sovereignty of God in providing for you, then you absolutely need to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread" each morning and then watch how He does it.

But I don't think that provision through physical food is ultimately what that part of Jesus' model prayer is all about.  Don't get me wrong, it is a prayer for our physical bread; it's just that we also need to remember that "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4).

When Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him in John chapter 21, each time that Peter responded in the positive, Jesus came back with, "Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17).  Jesus did not have any literal sheep; He had disciples: those who followed Him.  And He was not asking Peter to put physical food in front of those followers; He was telling him to give them the Word of God.

In a very real sense, the "daily bread" that we need the most is the Word of God - and we need it daily!

But here's something that hit me as I was praying about that and meditating on it recently: I need the 'food' of God's Word that sustains my soul much more than I need the physical food that sustains my body; God's Word does and should give me more delight than physical food, and yet the one that I overeat is not the most beneficial one, but the physical one!  I frequently eat more than I should, and I am not alone in that failing.  I have thought more than once how I need to exercise some discipline in what dieticians call "portion control" in my meals.  But here's the ironic thing: I exercise all kinds of portion control on how much of God's Word I take in!

I read three chapters of the Bible each morning.  That's just a little shy of what it would take to read the whole Bible through in a year, but it simplifies things so that I don't have to carry around some list telling me how much to read.  I very rarely ever read more than that.  I take one breakfast meal of God's Word in the early morning with the portions expertly carved out, and then I don't snack or eat another meal all day.  Meanwhile, I'm over here pigging out on all of this physical food that makes you fat and unhealthy!

It seems like what needs to happen - certainly for me, but probably for most other people as well - is that these two types of eating habits need to swap.  I should have trouble stopping at just three bites of God's Word.  I should get hungry for more later in the day and take little snacks of it here and there.  I should eat a big helping later in the evening as well, and go to bed with all of that weight still digesting so that my dreams might even be filled with holy thoughts.  And I should regulate my physical food as though it were really only necessary for my physical survival and therefore not to be overindulged.  I should thank God for providing it and then eat only as much as I have to in order to maintain a healthy physical life.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if, by the grace of God, we could make that switch, and rob our sinful flesh of one more of its weapons that it uses to destroy us, all the while strengthening the new heart and new spirit that God has put within those of us who are His people?  Amen, Father; help me truly learn that man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from your mouth.

Brotherly Love

"King David was a homosexual." That's what many in the gay community believe because of his strong loving friendship with King Saul's son, Jonathan.  Here's the way one website devoted to trying to reconcile homosexuality and Christianity puts it:

Many gays believe that Jonathan and David were same sex lovers, based on the way God presents their story in scripture and based on the Hebrew words used to describe their relationship...Scripture speaks in glowing terms of Jonathan and David’s loving intimacy, exchanging clothing, embracing, weeping together, hugging and kissing each other.

One of the main passages that is used to defend such a view is David's lament for Saul and Jonathan after they are killed on Mount Gilboa.  There David says of his closest friend, "I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women." (2 Samuel 1:26)

Well, one of the major problems here is that poetry is hard.  People go bat-crazy about poetic language in the Bible, either taking it too woodenly literal (which completely defeats the point of poetry) or else running to weird extremes with it.  Poetry is meant to be amorphous, exaggerated, filled with metaphors and similes and anthropomorphism and onomatopoeia and all of those other words that you never paid attention to in English class.  Poetry is meant to conjure up feelings through images, and this is often accomplished by using extreme comparisons.  Many Bible scholars, for example, have totally missed the point of passages like Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 and jumped to the conclusion that those texts must be about Satan, because no human king could ever aspire to the heights of glory like those passages portray, even though the texts themselves claim to be about human kings and kingdoms.

When we read that David claimed that his friend's love "surpassed the love of women", we need not - as those in the homosexual community have done - jump to the conclusion that David was saying, "Your sex was better than what I got with my wife."  That's what a fleshly mind wants to think when it is steeped in sin and looking for any kind of Biblical support that will lessen the guilt that it feels.  In other words, that is just purely an attempt to justify one's own sin through finding a similar example in David.

What David is actually saying, however, is that the love and dear friendship that he shared with Jonathan was of a more intense variety than he shared with any woman.  He was able to communicate more of his heart to his male friend than he ever was able to do with Abigail or Ahinoam or Michal or Bathsheba.  That shouldn't be hard to understand.  Many of us have experienced deeper camaraderie with friends of the same sex than we have with our significant others of the opposite gender.  So David is merely saying that he felt closer to Jonathan than he ever felt to a woman.  That's really not even that uncommon.

Rather than go the foolish route here and try to understand David's relationship with Jonathan in a way that is directly opposed to all that God has ever said about same-sex unions (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26-27), we should rather be encouraged to have this kind of close brotherhood (or sisterhood) with those who share the same faith in our awesome God and Savior, Jesus Christ.  The apostle John - the disciple Jesus loved - wrote frequently about this love: "Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is nocause for stumbling." (1 John 2:10), "For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another." (1 John 3:11), "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." (1 John 4:11)

In other words, genuine believers should try to cultivate the kind of love that David and Jonathan shared.  We ought not to be afraid to open up emotionally to our brothers, or be afraid to embrace, or be afraid to talk like this about our love for one another.  In fact, even our love for our spouses - if those spouses are also believers - should be in a very great sense "surpassing the love of women".  Believing men should love their wives as sisters in Christ, and the deep emotional and spiritual attachment that they feel in sharing the same Savior should surpass the physical bliss that they experience in sexual union.  This sentiment should not be rare or strange in the body of Christ, but it should be the norm.

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another."  - Jesus

Worthless

God likes to apply the term 'worthless' to wicked men in the Bible.  Even a quick search of an online or electronic Bible will show you a ton of passages (mostly in the Old Testament) where this word is used to describe a person or persons.  But in almost every case we see that these 'worthless' fellows actually have the exact opposite estimation of their own worth. Such is surely the case for Nabal (who I discussed in part yesterday).  His flocks had been protected by David and his men for an extended period of time while David camped in that land.  Yet, when David's men approached Nabal on a feast day to ask that he share something with them, he responded by saying, "Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants these days who are breaking away from their masters. Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers and give it to men who come from I do not know where?" (1 Samuel 25:10-11)  Nabal showed clearly that he found no worth in David, and yet the man's own wife accurately described her husband as 'worthless' (25:25).

The same word shows up again just a few chapters later in 1 Samuel 30:22.  In that story, the 'worthless' men are the ones that went with David to the battle against the Amalekites who had sacked their city, Ziklag, and then complained afterwards about those who did not go with them.  When the army had reached the brook Besor, two hundred of the men were too exhausted to continue on to the battle, so they had remained behind with the baggage.  So when the army returned triumphantly with much spoil, there were some who did not want to give the two hundred exhausted men an equal share of what they had taken from the enemy.

Now, that sentiment is in no way unique to those men in that particular battle.  Even most of us, as we read that story, find ourselves partly siding with those whom the Bible calls 'worthless'.  After all, why should these men get the same reward that I get when I put my life on the line to win the victory and they sat in the dirt rubbing their aching feet?  We'll be generous and give them their wives and children back, but that's it!  Next time they can actually help!

The difficulty that arises here that causes us to think along the same lines as those 'worthless' fellows is that we think about the battle in the same way that they thought.  They saw those who stayed behind as 'worthless' - not worthy of any of the spoil - because they believed that they were the ones primarily responsible for winning the battle: the ones who went out to fight it.  David saw it differently, however.  He saw the truth of it.  He understood that he took only four hundred men with him (30:10) against a force that were "spread abroad over all the land" (v. 16), and yet his company was able to slaughter this far mightier force for over twenty-four hours straight (v. 17) so that only four hundred young men escaped - the same number that comprised the entirety of David's force!

In other words, the victory did not belong to David and his four hundred men.  Only one person truly won the battle and that was God.  As David said, "He has preserved us and given into our hand the band that came against us" (v. 23).  Therefore, the spoil did not somehow belong only to those that fought - as though they earned it - but really to God, who had graciously allowed them all to share it.  That's why David demanded that the two hundred who were too exhausted to go down to the battle receive the same portion as everyone else: because he knew what grace is all about.

Jesus tells a similar story in the New Testament about a farmer who hires servants all throughout the day to work his fields, but at the end of the day he pays all the workers the same amount.  Those who got there early and worked all day got the exact same amount as those who came late and toiled for only an hour or so (Matthew 20:1-16).  In that parable, those who worked harder have the same kind of 'worthless' attitude as the men in David's company.  They begrudged the others an equal share of the master's reward.

The point is that in order to not be 'worthless' fellows ourselves, we must must first rightly understand that we have no intrinsic worth!  All of the strengths and gifts and good qualities that we possess were in fact given to us by our gracious God.  We did not produce them in our own strength.  And as we experience victories in life, we must not think that we somehow accomplished those things in our own power, but we must rightly understand that God does it all.  He sets kings on their thrones, works military victories according to His purposes, He builds up and He tears down, and He is the one that even gives us life and knits us together in our mothers' wombs.  So the irony is that if we find worth in ourselves - stemming from our own strengths and abilities and apart from God - then we are truly 'worthless' people. But if we see that the only worth in us is a gift from God and not of ourselves, we are then those who can be useful in God's hands.  In other words, we will have value to Him and true worth.

Ripe Justice, Ripe Blessing

King David is a fabulous character in the Bible.  He is the "man after God's own heart", the recipient of the Davidic covenant, a type of Christ, and certainly one of the most faithful and laudable persons in human history.  But there was a time in his life when all of that probably seemed very distant and unlikely. David starts well in the service of King Saul as a musician and armor-bearer, and even earns high praise as the one who saved Israel from the Philistines by single-handedly downing their champion, Goliath.  But that is where things start to go south for the brave, faithful youth.  One day, as the army is coming home, Saul overhears the women singing, "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands," and from that moment on there is great strife between David and the jealous king.

The years that follow on the heels of the split between David and Saul are frustrating.  David is pursued as a fugitive all through the wild places of Canaan: up hills and mountains, through the wilderness, and into caves.  On a couple of occasions, David even hides in the service of Israel's enemies - once going so far as to feign madness!

During this time, it is easy to imagine that a person so pursued would experience a large measure of depression, discouragement, and anger over his plight.  And yet, we consistently find David content to wait on his God to settle things in His own time.

On two occasions while Saul is chasing David down through the wilderness in order to kill him, David is given open access to his enemy to score a quick kill that would end the entire pursuit.  Both times, however, the faithful youth spares the life of his lord, citing as the reason both times, "Who can put out his hand against Yahweh's anointed and be guiltless?" (1 Samuel 24:6 & 26:9)

We see a more full description of what is going on in David's mind during times like these in the episode with Nabal and Abigail in chapter 25 of 1 Samuel.  There David and his men are slighted and dishonored by the foolish Nabal, but before David can descend of the man and his family to kill them all, the fool's wife comes to meet David with a large gift of food and with a humble apology and entreaty for David to stay his hand.  To this David responds, "Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from avenging myself with my own hand" (1 Samuel 25:33).  And later on, when Nabal's heart dies within him and he becomes as stone for ten days before finally dying completely, David rejoices by saying, "Blessed be Yahweh who has avenged the insult I received from the hand of Nabal, and has kept back his servant from wrongdoing" (25:39).

And we know that David had to feel this exact same way in all of his dealings with Saul.  Everything that Saul did to him was unjust (even giving away his wife at one point!), but David refused to put out his hand against God's anointed, knowing that, "As Yahweh lives, Yahweh will strike him, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish" (26:10).  And so, he was content to wait, but we must never imagine that the waiting was easy.  He probably thought, on more than one occasion, that the best years of his life were passing him by while he was hiding in caves or pretending to be insane in the court of the enemy.  But God knew the plans that He had for David, and ultimately David knew that God knew!

David was faithful to His God, knowing that "Yahweh rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness" (26:23).  He would later write songs that would declare the rich blessings of waiting on Yahweh to avenge and to bless in His own time: "Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!" (Psalm 27:14), "Wait for the LORD and keep His way, and He will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off" (37:34), "For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from Him" (62:5).

We all need a good reminder of these truths from time to time.  When we are treated unjustly - and the Bible promises that all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12) - we should not allow our enemies to rile us up to the point where we become guilty for taking vengeance into our own hands.  Let God take care of that.  He says, "vengeance is mine, I will repay" (Romans 12:19).  A true faith in the awesome supremacy of God will tell you that He can do it far better than you ever could anyway, so don't let your enemy get off easily by repaying him yourself.

In a similar vein, we can often serve God in faithfulness for a long time before we see bountiful blessing.  Oh, there are surely a myriad of smaller blessings all along the way, but I mean the big "fruit-bearing" kind of blessings that are unmistakable - even to the blinded eyes of unbelievers.  Once again, though, it is a true faith that has to see the "treasure in heaven" as being greater than immediate rewards here on earth.  Think on David's life and how long and how often he did the faithful things that he did before God established his kingdom.  Think on these things and take heart.  "Wait for the LORD and keep His way, and He will exalt you to inherit the land; and you will look on when the wicked are cut off."

Detention

In 1 Samuel chapter 21 we have one of the most puzzling stories in the Old Testament.  This is the one where David and his men come to Nob - which was apparently where the tabernacle had been set up in those days - and David asks Ahimelech the priest to give them some of the Bread of the Presence because they were hungry. The story is puzzling because we are left unsure as to who did the right thing here and who did the wrong thing.  David is the 'good guy'; he's the hero is so many of these stories.  Saul and his men are the 'bad guys.'  And yet here David does something that is forbidden for him to do: he takes and eats the Holy Bread.

You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephahshall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile,on the table of pure goldbefore the LORD. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the LORD. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. Andit shall be for Aaron and his sons, andthey shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due. (Leviticus 24:5-9)

This bread was reserved only for Aaron and his sons (the family of the High Priest); it was not lawful for anyone else to partake of it.  Jesus even points this out in Matthew 12:3-4: "Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him:how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?"

So is what David did excusable?  Is what Ahimelech did in giving the Bread to David and his men excusable?  Many say yes.  Even one of my great heroes, John Gill, says that pretty much anything is excusable when we're dealing with the preservation of life, and so of course this act is excusable.  I have to take issue with that, though.  Would it have likewise been excusable - it would still have been in the name of preservation of life - if David's men had not kept themselves morally pure on their journey?  As I cited earlier, Jesus said that what they did was unlawful.  The Law does not have some kind of "unless they're really hungry" loophole that suddenly makes everything okay.  Therefore, I think we have no choice but to see this act as a violation of one of the things that God called "most holy" (Leviticus 24:9).

If that is the case, then what follows makes a good deal more sense.  We are told that "a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before Yahweh.  His name was Doeg the Edomite" (1 Samuel 21:7).  Phrases like that always catch my attention.  From a human standpoint, a real villain enters the story at this point.  Here is the man who will rat out Ahimelech, telling Saul exactly what he did for David and his men.  And when Saul declares that all of the priests shall be killed for helping his enemy, no one but Doeg the Edomite - this very villain - will lift his sword to carry out the death sentence.  And yet we are told very clearly that this man was "detained before the LORD."

What could that phrase possibly mean?  Since it was the Sabbath day, it could mean that Doeg was "detained" within a Sabbath-day's walk of the tabernacle, unable to travel any further until the following day.  It could mean that he was there to fulfill some sort of vow and so could not leave until that was done.  Regardless of why he was there, though, the fact remains that his detention was a part of God's plan.

There's a reason why God's Name is evoked in that statement: "detained before Yahweh".  God had a purpose for his presence.  Whatever else we may guess about Doeg and his business, we know this much: it was he who got the priests killed, and it happened by his hand.  And so God was in the deaths of these priests.  The text never goes so far to tell us that they died because they defiled the holy things of Yahweh, but it is certainly not a big stretch given similar stories in the Old Testament (Nadab and Abihu come to mind, as does Uzzah and the ark).

All of these stories of deaths surrounding the violation of God's holiness ought to leave us with a healthy and profound fear of misusing any of God's "holy things".  This fear should really hit home for us in the area of worship.  Aside from the holiness of His own Name - which is protected by one of the Ten Commandments - nothing else seems more jealously guarded by God than His formal worship (of which the Holy Bread was only one part).  Oh, we must be so careful to worship our great God only in the ways that He has proscribed.  He does not want our innovation (He showed that with Nadab and Abihu), but only our obedience.  Let us strive to worship Him the way that He commands and leave all of our other ideas at the door.

What Really Matters?

It's really quite amazing when you suddenly realize that the books of 1st and 2nd Kings in the Old Testament seem to care very little about about the types of politics and events that fascinate people in our world today.  If there were any oil spills or mudslides or riveting debates between liberals and conservatives, we are not told about them.  This is noteworthy because of what the book actually does record in detail: the state of Yahweh-worship under each king. Any who have read this part of the Bible are familiar with the oft-repeated phrase, "And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.  He did not depart all his days from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin."  This is the way every single king of the northern kingdom is introduced.  And what is the great sin that keeps being pointed out?  Jeroboam had made two golden calves and told his people to worship those instead of going down to Jerusalem and worshiping there as they had been commanded.  So all of these kings are judged on the basis of whether those idols were permitted to remain.

The southern Kingdom of Judah is likewise judged on the basis of her obedient worship of Yahweh.  In fact, one of the kings, Ahaz (2 Kings 16) reigned for sixteen years and all we are told about his reign is what he did to the temple.  His claim to infamy is that he made some changes to the look and layout of the temple complex.

The story of Ahaz is extremely relevant to today's culture - and Christians in particular.  Remember, it seems that the only thing that matters in the judgment of a king in the Old Testament is how he treated the worship of the LORD.  So how did Ahaz treat this worship?  He went to Assyria and saw an altar there that he really liked, so he had someone copy down all the details and build an exact replica in Jerusalem for the LORD's temple (2 Kings 16:10).  He also made changes to the bronze sea and the portable basins because of what he saw in Assyria (verse 18).  And in all this, it is important to realize that Ahaz does not mean to worship a different god; he just wants to worship Yahweh differently - in a way more in tune with his tastes.

So many Christians want to do exactly that these days.  We are seemingly less and less concerned with what God said we ought to be doing and more and more concerned with what feels right or good or comfortable to us to do.  Ahaz wasn't given the freedom to change the worship furniture.  The fact that he is copying a pagan design is even more condemning.  And yet this is where the modern Western church is today also.  We are increasingly pulling more and more of our ideas about morality and our ideas about worship from the unbelievers and pagans.  We see it both in our churches and in our government.

There is only one solid place for true believers to stand: firmly and only on the revealed Word of God.  God has told us what is right and what is wrong.  God has told us how He expects to be worshiped.  He has revealed how the leadership of a church is to be structured and He has revealed how we ought to relate to and interact with one another in the body.  Yet there are still many who wear the title "Christian" or even "Pastor" or "Bible Scholar" who want to move the boundary stones in each of these areas.  They've been out there in the world and they like what they've seen.  They want to bring it back into the church and implement it there to suit their tastes.

We need to realize that our own desires, tastes, and preferences are often in league with the Enemy.  He has won them to his side.  The only sure test is the Scripture.  What does it say?  Do you not like it?  Which needs to change: your opinion or the Word of God?

The Stupidity of the Intelligent

The following quote is by Dr. J. Budziszewski from his article, "Escape from Nihilism", the full text of which can be found here.

I have already said that everything goes wrong without God. This is true even of the good things He's given us, such as our minds. One of the good things I've been given is a stronger than average mind. I don't make the observation to boast; human beings are given diverse gifts to serve Him in diverse ways. The problem is that a strong mind that refuses the call to serve God has its own way of going wrong. When some people flee from God they rob and kill. When others flee from God they do a lot of drugs and have a lot of sex. When I fled from God I didn't do any of those things; my way of fleeing was to get stupid. Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to commit. God keeps them in his arsenal to pull down mulish pride, and I discovered them all. That is how I ended up doing a doctoral dissertation to prove that we make up the difference between good and evil and that we aren't responsible for what we do. I remember now that I even taught these things to students; now that's sin.

It was also agony. You cannot imagine what a person has to do to himself--well, if you are like I was, maybe you can--what a person has to do to himself to go on believing such nonsense. St. Paul said that the knowledge of God's law is "written on our hearts, our consciences also bearing witness." The way natural law thinkers put this is to say that they constitute the deep structure of our minds. That means that so long as we have minds, we can't not know them. Well, I was unusually determined not to know them; therefore I had to destroy my mind. I resisted the temptation to believe in good with as much energy as some saints resist the temptation to neglect good. For instance, I loved my wife and children, but I was determined to regard this love as merely a subjective preference with no real and objective value. Think what this did to my very capacity to love them. After all, love is a commitment of the will to the true good of another person, and how can one's will be committed to the true good of another person if he denies the reality of good, denies the reality of persons, and denies that his commitments are in his control?

Visualize a man opening up the access panels of his mind and pulling out all the components that have God's image stamped on them. The problem is that they all have God's image stamped on them, so the man can never stop. No matter how much he pulls out, there's still more to pull. I was that man. Because I pulled out more and more, there was less and less that I could think about. But because there was less and less that I could think about, I thought I was becoming more and more focussed. Because I believed things that filled me with dread, I thought I was smarter and braver than the people who didn't believe them. I thought I saw an emptiness at the heart of the universe that was hidden from their foolish eyes. Of course I was the fool.

The Poor Thirty-Six

When we do something wrong, can others end up getting hurt because of our bad decisions?  You bet!  The number of fatalities each year caused by drunk drivers is testament to this.  But what about when we sin against God?  If you break His Law in such a way that it does not immediately spell injury to someone else (like murder), would God cause other people to suffer and die until you repented?  Be careful how quickly you answer that question. In the book of Joshua there is the well-known story of Israel's victory at Jericho, immediately followed by their defeat at Ai.  And most of us remember the reason for the defeat: a man named Achan had taken some of the forbidden spoils of Jericho that were to be totally devoted to destruction.  What we don't usually immediately consider, however, are those thirty-six men who died in the initial attack on the city of Ai (Joshua 7:5).  It is made clear to us that these men died because of the unrepentant sin of Achan (verses 11-12).  The sticky part of all of this is that those thirty-six men had no idea about what Achan had done.  One man sins against the Lord and thirty-six others who are unrelated to the sin pay with their lives.  Is this fair?

Some might be quick to point out passages like Ezekiel 18:1-4

The word of the LORD came to me: "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge'?  As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

Isn't what God is saying in Ezekiel 18 a direct contradiction to what He did in Joshua 7?  Not when we rightly understand the sentiment that God is countering by telling Ezekiel that Israel shall no longer repeat their proverb.  The Israelites of Ezekiel's day were not taking responsibility for their own sin.  They were wailing and complaining that they were being punished for their fathers' sins while they themselves were innocent.  That was not the case.  God does not pour out wrath on innocent people (except for when Christ became sin for us).  If a person dies, it is because he was a sinner.

The thirty-six men who died in Joshua chapter 7 were not innocent men.  They had not personally committed Achan's sin, but they were guilty of sin all on their own.  God was not unjust in deferring His righteous judgment on them until the moment when it best suited His purposes.  In that case, it served as a clear indicator to the people of Israel that there was sin in the camp.

God is certainly within His rights to work things out in this way.  Since "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and since "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), that means every single human being is on death row, so to speak.  And the Righteous Judge can enact the sentence whenever He wants.  The condemned may cry, "Unfair!", but they would be wrong.

The scariest part of all of this to me, however, comes when I think about the church.  How many like Achan do we have secreting away their sins in our congregations?  Worse, how many in our churches are guilty of sins that we know ought to be disciplined by the church according to Matthew 18:15-20 and yet we do not because we are weak and cowardly, caring more about what men think of us than God?  How many of our churches experience stunted growth - a jarring halt to the conquest of the world with the Gospel - because of all of the forbidden spoil in our midst?

Those Horrible Saturdays

For some reason I hate Saturdays.  It was not always so.  Saturday was the great free day; you could do whatever you wanted on that day.  It was a day to hang out with friends, explore a new mall, go see a movie, pretty much anything your heart desired.  Then I became a pastor, and while Saturday didn't stop being a day to try to do the things listed above, there is now one huge difference: I have to preach the next morning. What this means for our family is that all the fun stuff has to come to a crashing halt at about 8:00 PM so that my wife can plan her Sunday School lesson (she teaches the young children) and iron the family's clothes and so that I can attempt to get "re-attuned" to God after a day of pursuing other things and then go over my sermon for the next morning.

When I say that I have to "re-attune" myself to God, what I mean is spending a significant amount of time in prayer seeking God's face, reading a good portion of His Word in order to hear His voice, and then trying to relive all that I have studied throughout the week so that I can get to where I need to be spiritually in order to proclaim His Word the following morning.  In biblical terminology it would be called "consecrating yourself for worship" (Exodus 19:10, Joshua 3:5).  In the Old Testament, this action of consecration was seen as a necessary condition in order to see and experience the wonders of God's presence.

Now if that is the case, I want you to think for a second about what the Enemy has done in America by working it so that there are two days off on the weekends for most people.  Those who hate God use Sunday as their day to play the hardest, tempting those who would otherwise like to be a part of worship in a church somewhere to join them.  But even apart from this temptation, and much more sinisterly subtle, by having another day off right before the day of worship, Christians are encouraged to do everything but consecrate themselves for worship the following day.  In fact, we usually desecrate ourselves with an overabundance of worldliness on Saturday that it is impossible for us to indulge in on any other day because of our work schedules.

Now, as I said earlier, I never had the opportunity to even notice this before I became the pastor of a church.  I always played right up until I went to bed on Saturday night, not really ever thinking about the need to consecrate myself for worship.  And I know that I am not alone.

How much more of God might we experience in our worship services on Sunday mornings if the majority of our people actually made their hearts ready for worship on the day before?  How much more of God's glory might be evident in my sermons if I spent the entire day on Saturday consecrating myself for worship rather than just the last three hours of the evening?  What we all seem to be doing is wrapping the weeds of the world (Matthew 13:22) tightly about us on the very day that we ought to be digging them up.  And then we wonder why the church in America is so fruitless these days.

Be Happy or Die!

One of my three daughters has to be forced to eat dessert.  It's truly one of the most ridiculous things you'll ever see.  I'll sit there next to her with a warm chocolate chip cookie right out of the oven bending under its own weight in my hand, the chocolate stretching and oozing, begging her to take it and eat it, and she will start whining, "I don't want to eat it!"  And what's even more frustrating is that she loves chocolate chip cookies!  She has eaten them many times before, but there's still this ludicrous fight every time. Now, clearly I think that is a very foolish thing to do, but I must admit that I am guilty of something very similar - only my particular brand of stupid has more lasting and severe consequences than rejecting a cookie.  God says in Deuteronomy 28:47-48:

Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you.

I have found this to be the case over and over in my life.  I know what true happiness is.  I have tasted it many times.  I am most happy when I wake up eager to study God's Word in the morning, when I come before Him often in prayer throughout the day, when I delight to read what others have written about Him, and when I am being obedient to His commands.  It's not just good.  It's really good!  I love and delight in my job in these times.  I love and delight in my family.  I am just happy with pretty much everything.

At some point, though, I will entertain the lie that something else will make me happy.  This can be anything from video games, books, new hobbies, or whatever.  And the truth that masks the lie is that these things can be very enjoyable and can be a blessing from God when enjoyed in and through a relationship with Him.  That's not how it usually works with me, however.

Finding some enjoyment in such things, I start to ravenously pursue more and more until, somewhere along the way, I have lost sight of the One who is the source of all true delight.  At that point, I invariably find myself serving my Enemy in hunger and thirst and nakedness, lacking everything.  I've let myself fall into sin, I dislike my job, I'm unhappy around my family, and it's a chore to even get up in the mornings.  Down in this pit of despair, I look around and see all the things that I thought would end up making me happy.  They now form the walls of my prison.  And now, sadly, from this vantage point, returning to God looks hard and distasteful.

So I sit there whining while my Father holds out the delightful prospect of true happiness and contentment.  The whole episode has to look absolutely ridiculous to the heavenly court.  I'm sure any onlooking angelic beings think I'm a total moron.  I love cookies.  I even want the cookie that's being offered.  I just don't want to take it for some reason.

How long will we keep falling for the same old tricks and lies that lead us away from the only Person who can truly delight our souls?  And how long will we keep stubbornly believing that we have to stay in this pit once we've dug it for ourselves.  God, give us the strength and the wisdom to come back to You and to hold fast to your infinite delights.

Beware the One-Handed Woman!

The miscellaneous laws of the Old Testament are just awesome.  If you've never taken the time to read through a book like Deuteronomy, then you need to.  It's a real treat.  Not only is this where Jesus got all of the ammunition that He used against the Devil during His temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), but there are also some rare gems among the various laws. Now, I don't mean in any way to make fun of the law that I'm about to discuss, but it's one of those rules that makes me chuckle when I read it.  It makes me think of playground hi-jinks and people making funny faces.  I'm talking about Deuteronomy 25:11-12.

When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity.

I suppose you could say that I have an "immature" sense of humor for laughing when I read a law that mentions seizing someone by the "private parts", but so be it.  This is a funny picture in my mind.

The Law makes it clear, however, that this is in no way a minor offense.  Other cultures and religions have various situations in which a person's hand is to be cut off as punishment for an offense, but this is the only case in the Bible's Law that calls for this particular penalty.  But what makes it such a serious crime?  Why take such drastic measures against an action that seems rude but not overly injurious (other than that sickening pain)?

Well, I suppose you could say that since the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" law can't possibly apply here, something else had to be done, but I don't think that's it.  The true answer probably lies a couple of chapters back in Deuteronomy 23:1, "No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD."  In other words, the woman who reaches out to grab hold of her husband's enemy's "private parts" may end up permanently disqualifying him from participating in the worship assembly.

Sadly, there are a lot of men sitting through worship services in our churches today that probably wish that there was something to disqualify them from having to be there.  Men have become so effeminate in our culture that they abandon the spiritual headship of the home to their wives while they go out and do supposedly "manly" things.  In the Bible, however, faith and worship are extremely masculine pursuits.  One could make a joke concerning these laws that I've mentioned about what you have to have to be able to worship.

Worship of the Almighty Creator and King of the cosmos is at once our highest privilege and the most natural expression of our faith.  Worship is not our right.  God makes that clear by denying many people access to the assembly (Deuteronomy 23:1-8).  It is a gracious blessing to be able to draw near to God, even just to be able to sing with others about His greatness.  But this is exactly what the man who loves God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength greatly desires to do.  When something or someone is truly praiseworthy, we long to give the deserved praise.

Men who show little or no desire to be in worship ought not to kid themselves that they are genuine believers.  Disobeying the Word of God when it commands attendance at worship (Hebrews 10:25) is not a "cool" and "manly" thing to do.  It is a faithless and cowardly thing.  Real men worship God with all their hearts.  The rest may as well just go ahead and emasculate themselves (Galatians 5:12).

Double Crushed

Disobedience to God's Law carries two different penalties.  There is the human penalty applied for crimes with physical repercussions: theft, murder, adultery, etc.; but then there is also a divine penalty applied for sins of the heart: covetousness, faithlessness, dishonesty, and others. Justice absolutely demands this duality.  A government charged with enforcing the law cannot make decisions about what goes on inside a person.  Human law enforcement must concern itself only with outward expressions of disobedience.  So, the person who secretly worships a god other than Yahweh should feel no wrath from the magistrate, but if the same person openly offers a sacrifice to a false god, then such a person is to be put to death (Deuteronomy 17:2-5).

So, one side of this coin is that human government is to punish outward disobedience to the Law, and the sentence may only be carried out on the basis of witnesses (Numbers 35:30), further cementing the fact that heart sins may not be punished by the human magistrate, since there are no witnesses.  The other side of the coin, however, is that God looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  That is the purview of His justice, and we certainly ought not to think that the retribution He has in store for transgression of His Law in the inner man is inferior to that which the human magistrate can dish out.

The greatest of all commandments in the Law is actually a heart command: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:4, cf. Matthew 22:37).  A human court cannot measure this love within a person, and so has no jurisdiction, but God can and does, and He will pour out eternal punishment on those who disobey (Matthew 25:41-46).

This duality of punitive justice - civil and divine - is the reason why Jesus died on a cross and not some other way.  He was guilty of neither an outward disobedience to the Law nor an inner one, yet He suffered the consequence of both.  He was put to death by the magistrate - the highest form of human punishment for crime - and He was cursed by God.  The truth of the latter part of that statement is made clear to us from the Law itself:

And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.  (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

The hanged man is cursed by God!  So by being crucified, Jesus bore the wrath of a criminal against man and a criminal against God when He was neither.  This is the essence of penal substitutionary atonement.  Christ did not suffer the wrath of both forms of justice for His own sins, because He had none, but instead He did so for those who trust in Him (Isaiah, 53:4-6, Romans 3:21-26, Galatians 3:13).

This is the great truth of the Gospel: the sacrifice of the sinless for the sinful.  Accept no substitutes.

On Whose Authority?

Well, it's no secret that most people don't care very much for authority these days.  Even those who are actually in positions of authority don't really like to exercise the privilege - nay, the responsibility - of using that authority toward its intended ends.  Just this past Saturday, my family made a trip to Toys 'R Us where we witnessed a mother pleading at length with her four or five year old son for him to come down off of a display that he shouldn't have been on in the first place and then follow her out of the store - as if the parent/child hierarchy was one based on persuasion instead of command and obedience. Needless to say, I find such situations absurd and pathetic, but this seems to be the way our world is going.  Parents don't even feel like they have right to sternly rebuke and correct their children, and this most likely as a result of the parents' own distaste for authority.  There's a tremendous problem here, with its roots all the way back in the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden when they broke the very first command that was given to them by their Father.

And as a pastor, I struggle with the various notions of authority that are in the minds of my hearers.  Some believe that their own opinions are the most important source of truth in their lives.  When I present my case from the very words of God in the Bible, they judge God's declarations and instructions against their own "infallible" assumptions, and if the two don't match, God's Word gets rejected.  These know what they want to believe and are predisposed to reject anything that differs.  "Foolish" and "unteachable" are two words that come immediately to mind.  Others judge what they believe to be true by which preacher said it best.  If I say something that contradicts the teaching of a former beloved pastor, some are liable to cling to the previous teaching out of a sense of loyalty to the man even when the Bible passage in question is abundantly clear and my case for its truth is open-and-shut.  Few seem to have the mindset of "If that's what the Scripture says, then that's what I'm going to believe."

And almost nowhere can we see these various notions of authority in such disagreement as we can when we examine the so-called "church rules" that have been prevalent for the last hundred or so years in American fundamentalist churches: "don't drink", "don't smoke", "don't dance", and "don't gamble".  Thankfully, some of the emphasis on these Pharisaical legalisms is passing away.  You don't find too many folks anymore that vehemently decry the evils of playing cards or dice, but some of the broader categories still find a deep-seated conviction in many of our churches - especially among the elderly.

Now, believe it or not, I'm actually all for holding on to the old ways.  I, like some of the older people in our churches, am by nature very distrustful of anything new making its way into our church, and I always try to be on the lookout against sliding into the places that the Enemy would like us to be.  The fact of the matter is, however, that these "church rules" are the very "new things" that have come into the church.  We don't find these rules in the Bible (and it is very old).  In fact, in the Bible we find people gambling (Judges 14:12-13), but never any commands against it; we find God's people dancing (2 Samuel 6:16), but those who dislike it are cursed; we just don't find any teaching about smoking whatsoever; and when it comes to drinking, we find God at one point even commanding His people to drink wine or strong drink in celebration to Him (Deuteronomy 14:24-26), even though there are also commands to not get drunk (Ephesians 5:18).

This is where the issue of authority comes into play.  How are you going to decide what is right or wrong for you to do?  Are you going to decide based on your own opinions, laying new rules that the Bible doesn't give (like the Pharisees did) or ignoring the commands that the Bible does contain?  Are you going to decide based on what some favorite preacher said?  Or will you diligently search the Scriptures for yourself with a submissive and obedient heart, allowing God Himself to instruct you?  When we are judged, it will not be on the basis of our own opinions or any other man's; it will be on the basis of God's Law, so let's aim to please Him instead of ourselves.