Viewing entries tagged
Faithfulness

Which Way is the Ground?

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

I believe most people are good

And most Mama's oughta qualify for sainthood

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

I believe you love who you love

Ain't nothing you should ever be ashamed of

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

I believe most people are good

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

I believe them streets of gold are worth the work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold Fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Exactly Does ‘No’ Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.