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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.


Sometimes as a pastor I wonder what to expect out of the people that I preach to at our church.  Clearly, my job is all about studying the Word of God, spending time in prayer, and talking to other people about Jesus.  I do that full-time, but what level of spirituality ought I to expect out of the lives of those who work a secular job and who have not been called into the ministry in the same way that I have? I used to struggle with this question a lot back when I was discipling a group of high school and college guys.  What I witnessed in teaching those young men was that as soon as any one of them "got it" - developed a love for the Word of God, started thinking Biblically in every area of life, found a delight in prayer, and got over the fear of telling others about the Gospel - then that one would start talking about how he felt that maybe God was calling him into ministry.  And it's easy to see where that sentiment comes from.  That person who has discovered how awesome it is to love, obey, and walk with God looks around and doesn't see too many other "Christians" on the same path.  "So," they think, "maybe this is what it means to be called to be a preacher, because I guess only the preacher feels close to God like this...right?"

Most protestant denominations don't believe in break between clergy and laity like the Roman Catholics do.  We understand that the New Testament dissolves the priest class, or more correctly just includes all believers in that class (Revelation 1:6).  But if ever there was a time when a clear break could be made between priests and "normal folks", it would have to be in the Old Testament where only those of a certain family (the Levites - specifically the sons of Aaron) were allowed to draw near to God in spiritual service.  What is fascinating, then, is the level of spiritual depth and devotion that God requires of all of His people, regardless of tribe:

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? - Deuteronomy 10:12-13

Even in the Old Covenant, when the call to ministry was based on family blood and those who were not to serve in the temple knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt, all were called to a level of devotion to God that is far beyond what most folks in our churches aspire to today.  And I love the way that Moses phrases this requirement - not as if it is a Himalayan mountain to be climbed, but as if it is the least that we can do: "what does the LORD your God require of you but to..."  He knew that these were not burdensome commandments for those who truly loved God.  Rather, all that he says constitutes the logical outworking of a true encounter with the Lord.

If you can't at least begin to and aspire to conform to the requirements that Moses lists here: fear of God (the beginning of wisdom - Proverbs 9:10), love for Him (the first and greatest commandment - Matthew 22:37-38), serving Him with all your heart and soul (the reason He saves us in the first place - Ephesians 2:10), and keeping His commandments (the way we show that we love Jesus - John 14:15), then you better quit calling yourself a Christian.  The factory worker who truly loves Jesus better be serving the Lord his God with all his heart and soul even while he tends the assembly line.  The housewife better be delighting in her God and in His commandments even while she folds clothes.  All of us better be spending significant time in His Word and in prayer as if we really love this One that we claim has saved us.

"So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." - 1 Corinthians 10:31

The Mark of the Feast

So many people today miss the real danger of the message of the mark of the beast in Revelation 13.  They get all caught up in wondering if it's going to be a microchip or a bar-code tattoo that most don't realize they've already been marked. The beast's mark, which goes on the forehead and the hand (Revelation 13:16), is not referring to some technological means of physically marking someone.  This imagery of marking clearly represents a spiritual reality because those who receive the mark are judged for it by God and receive His wrath (14:9-10).  In fact, the great horror of the mark of the beast is that it goes in the same place that God's mark was supposed to go.

God commanded His people to bind His Law as a sign on their hand and as frontlets between their eyes (Deuteronomy 6:8).  The implication is that the Law of God would guide their thoughts (the mark on their forehead) and their actions (the mark on their hand).  And when this mark of God's Law is forfeited in favor of the mark of the beast - the adoption of Satan's rules and morality - then one has truly abandoned the proper worship of God, which is so wrapped up in obedience to His commands, and has decided to worship the Enemy.

The beast's mark is offered everywhere today.  Instead of godly parents teaching the laws of God diligently to their children and talking about them when they sit in their house, when they walk by the way, when they lie down, and when they rise (Deuteronomy 6:7), many send their children to a state-run public school where the beast has his opportunity to influence them for hours a day.  The television pumps metric tons of marking ink straight toward our foreheads and our hands.  The internet is the Devil's own tattoo parlor.  Even taking a leisurely stroll through a local mall is to be surrounded by legions of those who already bear the mark and who are looking for a fresh flesh canvas to cover with their way of thinking.

Our culture shows very clearly that its thoughts and its actions are not guided by God's Law.  No, it bears the competing mark - the counterfeit one - and it wants us to wear it too.

But the beast's mark promises only safety from persecution at the hands of others who bear it.  If you take it, you will "fit in", but that's as far as the benefits go.  Not so with God's mark.  Ultimately, God's promise of protection is far greater than the beast's, because His wrath is more to be feared than man's (Matthew 10:28), but His mark also carries other blessings.

God promises those who are obedient to His commands that He will love them, bless them, and multiply them (Deuteronomy 7:13).  He will bless the fruit of their womb and the fruit of their ground: their grain, their wine, and their oil.  He promises to bless their herds and their flocks.  He will not bring disease on them as punishment, as He did the Egyptians (verse 15).  They will be blessed above all peoples (verse 14).

The Psalms contain similarly glorious promises of blessing for those who obey.  The man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked nor stand in the way of sinners nor sit in the seat of scoffers will be greatly blessed (Psalm 1).  He who delights in God's Law and meditates on it day and night will be like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season (verse 3).  The Psalm even says that "in all he does, he prospers".

Our God is a feast for those who love Him and who obey His commands.  "Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!  Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him." (Psalm 34:8)

I couldn't stop thinking about this song this morning as I was meditating on all of this.

The Law of Liberty

"The most difficult concept to grasp in all the Bible is the interaction between Law and grace." That's what I used to tell everyone.  We grow up learning the Ten Commandments.  We are taught that rules are very important; we were always expected to obey some rules, no matter where we were.  But then we learn the Gospel.  We hear about God's grace.  We are taught that Jesus saved us from our sins and that salvation is not of works, but of faith.

What about the Law then?  What about those Ten Commandments?  Do I still have to follow them?  Some places in the Bible call one of the Commandments into question.  Romans 14 and Colossians 2 seem to indicate that obedience to the Sabbath command is a matter of personal conviction.  But then other New Testament passages make it seem like if I don't follow God's commands, I will end up forfeiting my place in the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:17-21, Colossians 3:5-6).  How are we supposed to navigate this difficult terrain?

Some Bible teachers foolishly simplify the issue: "We're no longer under Law, but under grace!" they exclaim, citing Romans 6:14 or Galatians 3.  By taking those words out of context, these teachers have created generations of antinomians (those who subscribe to no law) and worse: legalists (those who subscribe to their own law), to which I belonged.

The key to understanding Law and grace is not to arbitrarily decide which things are good for Christians to do and which are not.  This just leads us to become the same as the Pharisees, and certainly this has happened.  Many churches have replaced God's commands with their own: "Don't drink", "Don't smoke", "Don't gamble", and "Don't dance".  But when it comes to what God has commanded (the very things that Jesus in the Great Commission told us to teach - Matthew 28:18-20); in those things they will say, "We are not under Law but under grace."  No, the key to understanding Law and grace is to recognize the order and the function of each.

The Exodus is a great example of the place of Law and grace in God's people.  God did not first give the Israelites a Law and then promise to free them from Egypt if they obeyed.  To the contrary, He broke them out of their slavery first and then gave them the Law.  This is the same order with the Christian: God saves us quite apart from our own righteousness, and then commands us how to live.  Therefore, our salvation is not of the Law, but of grace.  We are, however, then expected to obey God's revealed will for our lives (His commands) in order to please Him and glorify Him before men (Matthew 5:16).

Also, to clarify these issues of Law and grace, we also need to understand the role of Law in society.  Christians frequently have a hard time looking at the Old Testament Law and thinking that it has to do with them because so much of it is to be enforced by the government.  This is the other key: much of God's Law is to be obeyed by the state.  We look at commands that say things like, "You shall not permit a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18) and we know that we are not supposed to go out killing witches, so we think that the Old Testament Law is no longer applicable.  That command is not for individual Christians (although it does teach individual Christians not to dabble in sorcery), it is for the government.  The nation/state is supposed to wield the sword of God's justice in punishing unrighteousness (Romans 13:4).

Armed with a proper understanding of God's Law, it does indeed become a "Law of Liberty" as James 1:25 calls it, because it frees us from wondering if what we are doing is right or wrong.  Truth is always what sets us free, not cloudy confusion.  So the Christian knows he has the freedom to dance or to enjoy God's gift of wine without becoming drunk because the Law never speaks against those things.  And to break the Law by killing or committing adultery is to go right back into slavery to sin, destroying our freedom.  The Law is a very good thing.  That's why so many of the Psalms praise it (19 and 119 especially), and that's why Moses can say of it in Deuteronomy 4:5-8,

See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?