Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Brothers Means Brothers

In 1 Corinthians 16:13, Paul exhorts the readers of his epistle to "be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong".

In the whole epistle of 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses the recipients as "brothers" 28 times (as in 1:10, "I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree..."). By a glance at my concordance, I see that Paul addresses his readers in this way, in all his epistles, around 98 times.

The Greek word translated "brothers" is adelphos, which does in fact mean "brother". The ESV footnotes, though, remark in every instance that it could also mean "brothers and sisters". And yep, they even do so in 1 Corinthians 16:13 (right after Paul has told these brothers and sisters to "act like men")!

Though I don't know all the reasoning behind my favorite Bible translation's notes on this, I don't think earlier generations of Christians were too worried that the apostles unabashedly looked to the men of the church to provide leadership for their churches and families. Paul and the other apostles simply understood that this is God's design. Yet men have always been tempted to avoid this responsibility and accountability, and women have always sought to take it upon themselves.

More and more as a Christian woman, and as an older Christian woman particularly, I ponder the Bible's teachings on men and women in the church. Women have a vital role, to be sure, in the church, just as we do in the home and in the world. But I often wonder--what would happen in the church if we women prayed more and talked (and taught) less? (Ouch.) What if we women determined to excel in the task of teaching the Bible assigns us--that of training (or receiving training) in godliness for marriage and parenthood and the home (Titus 2:3-5)? Wouldn't the men of the church be strengthened and encouraged by this? Might it not have the effect, especially through our prayers, of seeing men begin to take more seriously the roles God means for them to have?

Paul tells the brothers he addresses to be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, and be strong. I've seen so many Christian women, myself included, very tempted to step up to this plate because of the seeming absence of men who will do so. But it is no accident, and not simply a cultural thing, that the apostles address their instructions mainly to the men of the church. Though Eve fell first (1 Timothy 2:13-14), it was for the man God came looking in the garden (Genesis 3:9). Surely God will be most glorified, and homes and churches will be most helped, if we recognize that "brothers" means brothers.

Monday, October 3, 2011

On Waxing Eloquent Without Knowledge

Comments on Acts 17 from author Michael John Beasley:

"Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man" (Acts 17:29).

The primary verb in this statement is opheilomen [we ought]. This is a word that speaks of one's debt to another, and in the case of man's relationship to God, it refers to our divine obligation towards the Lord who is the Creator and Despot of everything. What Paul states here is... that men are not at all free to entertain thoughts about God that He Himself has not revealed. Implicitly, Paul is indicating to us that it is Scripture, and Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) that must be embraced in order to have an explicit revelation of the One who is, Himself, the exegesis of the Father, Jesus Christ. 

When men wax eloquent regarding their own philosophies and subjective feelings about God's nature, they are violating their divine obligation towards the One who created them. Ultimately, man's lack of freedom to think of God as he wishes mirrors the principal commandments found within the Decalogue [Exodus 20:3-5].

(From  Altar To An Unknown Love: Rob Bell, C.S. Lewis, and the Legacy of the Art and Thought of Man by Michael John Beasley)

Why, In Particular, Me?

(An excerpt from an essay on the Banner of Truth website. It talks about something many Christians struggle with: the secret, and often difficult providences of God. You can read the whole thing here.)

There are Christians here who are asking ‘Why?’ They have been walking through a dark valley. They have fallen into a fearful pit. They are being overwhelmed with trials and tribulations and they are not coping very well with them, but they are coping much better than I would if I were experiencing the pain of their providences. I am thinking of child abduction, a car accident, cancer, a genetic illness, a birth deformity, the violence of wicked men, war and religious persecution, the death of our loved ones. 

I was listening to the testimony of Joni Eareckson Tada speaking of her initial suicidal despair when she realised as an 18 year old that she was paralyzed from the neck down for life. She longed for a friend to help her commit suicide, and then one day a fellow teenager came and sat with her. His name was Steve and later he went to the same theological seminary that I went to. She asked him why God had done this to her if God were all powerful and all loving. Imagine as a 19 year old being asked by a paralyzed, beautiful, despairing girl that question. But God helped Steve to answer her. 

He spoke to her of the cross of Calvary where the Son of God was nailed. He also couldn’t move. God allowed wicked men to do that to his Son, and out of it God brought deliverance and eternal life to billions. Steve planted those seeds in Joni’s anguished mind and said no more. God gave him that wisdom. We know, many years later, that out of Joni’s life multitudes have received hope and blessing. Her example and teaching have been life-transforming. But why her in particular? . . . why you in particular? . . . is a secret thing.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Guess What? We Get To Enjoy Things

Ecclesiastes is a comforting book for the Christian, or should be. It can seem different from other books of the Bible (and of course it is) but its message is the same as the whole message of the whole Bible. Like Proverbs, it offers unique insights for gaining true skill in godly living and thinking. For it is a God-breathed collection of Solomon's observations concerning those things in life that are futile, vain and a "striving after wind"; on those things in life that are meaningful and eternal; and on the blessings God has given us in this difficult and fallen world (honest work, the ability to trust and know God, peaceful sleep and freedom from worry). The conclusion of all these observations is to "remember your Creator in the days of your youth... fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). We need this book. It is as necessary for our training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16-17) as any other book of the Bible.

I love it in part because being inclined to want to worry about tomorrow and miss the blessings of today, it corrects and reproves me in a unique way for doing that. One of my favorite passages:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart (5:18-20).

These verses come to me as "good news from a far country" (Proverbs 25:25). They are refreshment to my soul, because I have also tended to struggle against accepting my "lot". Even though I profess to believe strongly in the doctrine of a good and wise Creator's providential guidance of my life, my worry and dissatisfaction have often given the lie to the claim of my lips. In addition, I've kept myself so often from the simple enjoyments God so kindly provides.

There are many problems, vexations, sorrows and difficulties in life. There are problems in society and problems in the Church. We should do all the good we can while we have opportunity. Yet these problems always have been, always will be, until the King returns to at last subdue this planet's mad uprising against his good Rule and to take up his throne on a New Earth. Until then, the good news from the far country, the gospel of Christ, gives me rest. It means that because he has given me the gift of knowing God, fearing God, being made right with God and believing God, I can find enjoyment in all the toil with which I shall toil (and I must toil!) under the sun the few days of life he has given me. I won't much remember the evils of life because God keeps me occupied with joy in my heart--if I take this good news seriously.

Yes, Ecclesiastes is a rich book. It describes the reality that is, both the weary futility of a life lived pursuing vain things and the great potential of life when one closely follows the true words of the Preacher. Its truths, when embraced, give rest in the present and hope for eternity to come. Live a faithful life now in the humble fear of the Lord; don't miss and disdain the comforts and joys of the lot in life he has provided you; and wait patiently for the great things to come, for "better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit" (Ecclesiastes 7:8).

Monday, August 29, 2011

Three Leaps For Joy

"An evil man is snared in his own transgressions, but a righteous man sings and rejoices" (Proverbs 29:6). 

I am musing on this verse from my morning's reading in Proverbs. First of all (I muse), it should be noted that the righteousness of this righteous man is not his own but is a gift. This man's righteousness was received; in the Old Testament and today, this imputed righteousness is the free gift of God, bestowed because of his lavish mercy, on un-righteous former transgressors! The righteous man of Proverbs 29:6 has been declared right with God through faith in Christ's atoning work. He is a humble man, grateful and astonished at the grace given to him in Christ.

So this happy man, though beset by many afflictions and trials, goes singing and rejoicing on his way. The evil man, in the meantime, is the one who loves and clings to his sin. He believes that to give it up and put his trust in this Jesus would be the ultimate folly. Ironically and tragically, the very sin he clings to constantly proves to be a snare and a trap to him. He becomes entangled and ensnared. There is no song in his mouth and no rejoicing in his heart. Declaring in his heart that for him "there is no God," he sadly becomes the ultimate fool (Psalm 14:1).

Reading of the other man, the righteous man, I was reminded of Christian in Pilgrim's Progress. Though afflicted by temptations and trials on his journey to the Celestial City, Christian and his companions could often be heard singing and rejoicing as they went. Here John Bunyan describes the way Christian came to be relieved of his heavy burden of sin, declared clean and right before God, and the glad song he sang about it:

    Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go, was fenced on either side with a Wall, and that Wall is called Salvation. Up this way therefore did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.

    He ran thus until he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below in the bottom, a Sepulcher. So I saw in my Dream, that just as Christian came up to the Cross his burden loosed from off his Shoulders, and fell from off his back; and began to tumble; and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the Sepulcher, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.

    Then was Christian glad and lightsom, and said with a merry heart, He hath given me rest, by his sorrow; and life, by his death. Then he stood still a while, to look and wonder; for it was very surprizing to him, that the sight of the Cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks.

    Now as he stood looking and weeping, behold three shining ones came to him, and saluted him with Peace be to thee: so the first said to him, Thy sins be forgiven. The second stript him of his Rags, and clothed him with change of Raiment. The third also set a mark in his forehead, and gave him a Roll with a Seal upon it, which he bid him look on as he ran, and that he should give it at the Celestial Gate: so they went on their way. Then Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing.

Thus far did I come loaden with my sin, 
Nor could ought ease the grief I was in, 
Till I came hither: What a place is this! 
Must here be the beginnning of my bliss? 
Must here the burden fall from off my back? 
Must here the strings that bound it to me, crack? 
Blest Cross! Blest Sepulcher! blest rather be 
The Man that there was put to shame for me.

Three leaps for joy!

(Text from Oxford World's Classics 2003 The Pilgrim's Progress)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reading In Matthew

I love the gospel according to Matthew. It's my favorite of the gospels (because it's the one I'm reading right now!). In it, as in all of the gospels, the mighty deeds of the Lord Jesus Christ are recorded. In Matthew, a very long discourse of the wise words of the Lord Jesus are also recorded. It begins in Chapter 5, verse 2, "And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying...".

He opened his mouth! The fountain of life was opened up to those disciples up on the mountain. His words came out, instructing them, surprising them. "You have heard it said... but I say...", and such things as that. He had come to set them straight about what makes men right with God. The traditions they'd been taught had obscured God's true plan. Those disciples' world was beginning to get turned upside down, as happens when Christ's words and deeds are comprehended by faith in the human heart.

The sweetest thing I got from my reading in Matthew this morning was really two things: the comfort, hope and reward of heaven for these temporary sorrows and suffering we endure (Matthew 5:3-11); and the great way our Lord gets across the fact that the righteousness that pleases God is not based on anything done "before other people" (Matthew 5:20-6:16). All human pride is laid low here, for who can manifest such genuine humility and sincerity as Jesus commands? Only someone to whom another's righteousness has been given as a gift--the free gift of  God through his Son.

"You therefore must be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect," Jesus said (Matthew 5:48). Thanks be to our heavenly Father, then, that he sent this perfectly righteous One to do what we are not able to do. He perfectly fullfilled all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17) on behalf of all those who will believe in him and thus receive the free gift of his very own righteousness, procured for helpless sinners through his death on the cross.

What a wonderful Savior.

Sermon On The Mount wordle (click for a bigger image)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Change

I changed the name of my blog. It comes from Psalm 71:20-21:

You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
 will revive me again;
 from the depths of the earth
 you will bring me up again.
 You will increase my greatness
        and comfort me again.

Psalm 71 speaks to me of God's sovereignty and goodness in both making us see many troubles and in reviving us again. It speaks to me of our great hope in the coming of Christ and in the resurrection from the dead, comforted then forevermore! It speaks to me of God's great faithfulness to his pilgrim people as we sojourn on through a difficult landscape, and of the hope I have that even though I'm growing older, God isn't through with me yet! Until the last breath I can speak with is done, I hope I am still praying, trusting, and proclaiming this way:

 O God, from my youth you have taught me,
    and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
 So even to old age and gray hairs,
    O God, do not forsake me,
    until I proclaim your might to another generation,
    your power to all those to come. Psalm 71:17-18

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Spurgeon's Fifth

"A Call to Prayer and Testimony" was preached by C.H. Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London on February 8th, 1891. His text that morning was Isaiah 62:6-7: "On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the LORD in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth". Here from that sermon is Spurgeon's fifth reason not to rest:

Above all, let us never rest out of despair. The feeling does come over you sometimes—"What is the use of our labor? So little comes of it. What is the use of protesting for the truth? The churches will not hear you. You only earn ill-will, and are ridiculed as an old fogy. What is the use of being earnest about winning souls? Men are indifferent. The present engrosses thought—social questions are pressing. Everybody pines for sensationalism or amusement. What profit is there in keeping to the old way?"

That spirit creeps over the child of God like the cold of the Arctic regions, numbing him and tending to send him into the sleep of despair. The evidence of this evil power is found in the tendency to restrain prayer before God. From this may our God rescue us! Come, my brothers, I do not know who among you is going to sleep; but I would like to shake the man who is so benumbed, and wake him up; and I hope that, in your turn, when you see me benumbed, you will shake me also, and wake me up to diligence in prayer. Let us awake this morning, and begin again.

We must not, will not, yield to slumber. There is small cause for fear, and no cause for despair. Our cause defeated? Not a bit of it! All will come right yet. God waits; but he waits that he may be gracious unto us. His time to favor Zion will come, and the good old cause will win the victory. The work of the Lord is in a greater hand than ours. He will not fail nor be discouraged. "Men ought always to pray, and not to faint"; and when they feel that they are fainting, they should resolve to pray with double earnestness, and faintness will yield to joy.

(You can read the whole wonderful thing here.)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Christian Braggarts

Peace and mercy to Christian braggarts:

"But far be if from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God" (Galatians 6:14-16).

Peace and mercy only to those whose boast is in what God has done through his Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Spilled Milk/ Freely Justified

Our small world was not secure, disturbed by unhappiness at home, and finally divorce. My older sister and I had our maternal grandmother, our Granny, who for a few years was saddled with the daily care of us (and didn't really seem to mind). One day, waiting at her house for our mother to pick us up after her workday, a fiendish plot developed in my mind. As the time grew near for her to arrive, I asked Granny for a cup of milk. She poured one for me. I held it til my mother arrived. Then with impeccable timing, the moment she walked into the house and into the kitchen where I stood waiting, I turned the cup upside down and deliberately dumped that cold, white milk all over my Granny's clean kitchen floor.

I remembered that maneuver recently as I am trying to think, more deeply, maybe, than before, what it means that I've been justified before God by one act of righteousness, that act of the one Man, Jesus Christ: namely, his death on the Cross for sinners. Grace reigned through that righteous accomplishment, a grace that leads to eternal life. When he acted for me in this way, I didn't know him... I didn't even care about him. Yet he died for me and through that sacrifice, has reconciled me to God. No goodness of mine could have accomplished this right standing with God, for all my goodness was no better than filthy rags in his sight. He has attached no strings to this gift of complete and utter reconciliation with himself. I don't have to perform, I cannot perform... he did all the performing, all the accomplishing. I've been justified, made right with God, by his sheer grace, alone. And that same grace has removed every shred of condemnation for every misdeed, now and forever.

Maybe a child's act of dumping milk on the floor before a poor mom's tired, astonished face illustrates the need for such grace. Maybe I was being bad to see if someone else's good could overcome the wickedness I was hatching in my heart. (Maybe I was just being bad!) In any case, moms and Grannies are only human, and imperfect. But perfect God came in the flesh, that one Man, and did what no one else could do.

"For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die--but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life" (Romans 5:6-10).

I need to understand this grace much better, for there is still the immature girl in me, lacking a grasp on the hugeness, the implications of God's one-sided, unilateral act through his Son of rescuing and justifying me, a real sinner; reconciling me, truly and forever, to his good and holy Self. I still want to dabble in guilt over spilled milk. But reading slowly and thoughtfully through Romans 4-8 (with help and encouragement from the good Doctor) is making me think better of it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

It Is Not Glorious

"It is not good to eat much honey, not is it glorious to seek one's own glory. A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls" (Proverbs 25:27-28).

Self-control is a good thing in the Bible. Paul instructs Titus to urge the older men, the older women, the younger women, the younger men, and finally everyone, to live "self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age" (Titus 2:1-14). Self-control is self-denial (denying one's "self" ). It's so often painfully counter-intuitive to us.

Honey (or pizza or homemade ice cream on a hot summer day) is good and when we sit down to eat it, we want to eat our fill and more. Yet to do so is used in Proverbs as a metaphor for seeking one's own glory. It is an indulgence to our flesh. In the end, the result of indulging our fleshly desires will be the same as a city overcome and overrun by an enemy, the sad remnant of its former glory being its crumbled, broken-down walls. That city is no good anymore. It no longer offers a safe place to live and work; its former industry, its warm homes and friendly neighbors are now a thing of the past. The city is no good to anyone anymore.

To biblically exercise self-control is to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus. It means saying "no" to many indulgences that the world takes for granted as being ok. It can mean saying "no" to indulgences in food, but the emphasis of Scripture is on saying "no" to "ungodliness and worldy passions" (Titus 2:11-12). It  means denying our hearts the "right" to cling to bitterness or anger or lust. The reason for this self-control, this self-denial? We are people who are waiting for something better, a prize that we may forfeit if we indulge in these things. The prize is "our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:13-14).

It is not glorious to seek one's own glory (to indulge our worldly desires). However, it is glorious to live as those anticipating the soon appearing of another's glory, that of our great God and Savior, Jesus. When he comes, all the self-denial we are called to will seem a small thing. It will be seen simply as the reasonable way to have lived in light of the greatness of the reward. In this way God's people, the church, will remain the light of the world, a city set on a hill, zealous for good works until he appears.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

That Your Trust May Be In The Lord

"Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge, for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, if all of them are ready on your lips.

"That your trust may be in the Lord I have made them known to you today, even you" (Proverbs 22:17-19).

At first glance it may not seem apparent how making the words of the wise, their instructions and warnings, known to our children leads to their trusting the Lord. But here's what occurs to me: the trust in him comes because the root of wisdom and knowledge is the fear of him (Proverbs 1:7). Fearing him leads to trusting him.

So it's maybe like this: the moral commands of God in the Bible are ones we dare not fail to keep, but they are also ones we quickly learn we are not able to keep. This immediately brings about a crisis, a dilemma. The fear of the righteous Judge wells up. The consequences promised for our immorality, our lack of holiness, are fearful. We are undone.

But then good news appears. The Lawgiver and Judge has also become our merciful Advocate. In fact, our only rescue will come from the One who is holy and will judge our sins accordingly. He appears; we cling to his saving promise in hope and faith. There is no one else to rescue us from the consequences of our moral failure. We are saved by the Judge himself.

This is how Proverbs teaches fathers to appeal to their sons. The parents' own fear of the Lord leads to an urgent appeal to their children to incline their ears, hear (really hear) the words of the wise, to apply their hearts to knowledge. In doing so their children will learn, as the parents have learned, both the fear of the Lord and to trust the saving work of Christ on their behalf.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Prayer and Listening to God Part 6: The Myth Of The Still, Small Voice

(This is Part 6 in a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here for Part 1).

I've been writing on the topic of prayer and listening for God's voice because it's an important doctrine to get right. Many people today believe that we should expect to hear God speak to us apart from his voice in Scripture. They teach that we should be "tuned in" to God's inner leading in order to learn his will for a decision we must make, for instance. I don't believe the Bible teaches this at all, and that in fact, it teaches something far better.. This is the sixth in a series of articles explaining why. So far, here's what I've talked about:

Part One: A lot is at stake in what we believe about prayer and listening to God (the way we view Scripture, for starters). Every Christian needs to understand his own position on this.

Part Two: The Bible itself teaches what biblical prayer is and what it isn't. The Bible teaches that prayer is our speaking to and making requests of God. I'm trying to make the case that the Bible does not teach that we are to listen for his voice (apart from his word) as part of prayer or at any other time.

Part Three: There is a history about how we've come to believe that listening for God's voice in prayer is taught in the Bible. It is a belief that has been infiltrating conservative, orthodox Christianity over the past 50 or 60 years. It's largely based on misuses of Scripture.

Part Four: Though we are not to listen for God's voice in prayer, we do enjoy fellowship and communion with God in the ways the Bible teaches. Thank God for His Spirit, the Spirit of truth!

Part Five: There is a correct and fairly straightforward method (though not always easy) of interpreting Scripture (2 Timothy 2:15). Taking care to read the Bible in context will help us get the right meaning and purpose of biblical texts.

This sums up where I've gotten to so far. If you haven't had a chance to read those articles, it might be helpful to do so before reading this one. As promised, I'll now offer an example of  a misinterpreted text. The misuse of one simple phrase in this passage seems to have been the cause of a lot of misunderstanding about prayer. It all has to do with the concept of the "still, small voice." The story is in 1 Kings 19:9-18.

... he [Elijah] came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He said, ‘I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts...

And he [God] said, ‘Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.’ And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’

The "low whisper" (as the ESV translates it) was indeed a sound Elijah heard, just as he'd heard the wind, the sound of rocks splitting and breaking, and the roaring of the fire. But the low whisper was not words God spoke to Elijah. (Notice that God did speak words,  both prior to and after the sound of the low whisper. But the low whisper was not verbalized communication. Elijah heard the words God did speak next and responded to them, like one does with words, and they are recorded for us.) The low whisper, though, was not words, and seemed to serve as a metaphor of God's dealings with his prophet and as a revelation of His ways.Here's what I mean.

The great wind, the earthquake, and the fire all testified to God's awesome, even fearsome power. They seemed to reveal something about the God who governs all things, who shakes the earth and who is a consuming fire. Elijah cowered in terror before these demonstrations! But when Elijah heard, at last, the low whisper, he wrapped his face in his cloak, signifying his meekness before this awesome God, and took courage to step out onto the mountain. The still, small voice (maybe better translated "sound" from the Hebrew) was not God speaking to Elijah, and this passage is not mean to teach us to seek a similar experience. But the passage is meant to teach us something true about God-- that he is compassionate, merciful and kind, as illustrated by his gentle dealing with his repentant prophet.

Arthur Pink, an esteemed teacher and preacher in the 20th century, comments on the passage:

It evidenced afresh the kindness and tenderness of the Lord, who would assuage Elijah’s disappointment and cheer his heart. Where the soul is reassured of His Master’s love the servant is nerved to face fresh dangers and oppositions for His sake and to tackle any task He may assign him. It was thus also He dealt with Isaiah: first abasing him with a vision of His glory, which made the prophet conscious of his utter sinfulness and insufficiency, and then assuring him of the remission of his sins: and in consequence Isaiah went forward on a most thankless mission (Isa. 6:1-12). The sequel here shows the Lord’s measures were equally effective with Elijah; he received a fresh commission and obediently he discharged it.
More could be said, but maybe this will suffice to illustrate the need for care in using this passage, and this phrase, to teach that we should listen inwardly for God's voice. The passage in 1 Kings 19 is certainly meant to instruct us, but not to teach us to listen for a message from God. Rather, it teaches us important things about God's dealings with men, and about His character and his ways. It's also a historical narrative, important simply for that sake. The history in the Old Testament is the heritage of every believer, and we should be well acquainted with it!

Next time I'll talk a bit about a couple of other ideas along this line: how the ideas of "feeling led" and "having a peace" about decisions (and such) have been used in ways the Bible doesn't use them! Eventually, I'll try to tackle this whole concept of listening for God's voice from a positive angle. God does speak! And he does guide us. The truth about that is very reassuring... and freeing.

The Scathing Good News of the Gospel

In Luke chapter 3, John the Baptist has begun to preach. He said things like this to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him:

"...You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father', for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire...

"I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I... will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

And this is how Luke characterizes such fiery preaching:

"So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people" (verse 18).

Only God makes such scathing indictments good news to sin-weary people. May all God's preachers faithfully preach thus.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Proverb a Day

Proverbs 22:17-21

"Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise... that your trust may be in the Lord, I have made them known to you..."

It's easy to think of the book of Proverbs as merely a loose collection of pithy sayings designed to give us practical wisdom for living. I think a lot of people don't quite know what to do with the book. Many Christians have a vague sense of guilt about both Psalms and Proverbs; they believe and accept that both are God's inerrant, and inspired word, but find "getting" the books difficult and therefore boring.

This is unfortunate, because in reality both books are so useful and helpful (of course! 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Understanding the purpose of the books--the authors' mindsets and intentions in what they wrote, and therefore God's intent on inspiring them--helps in drawing one into God's purposes in the wisdom literature of the Bible.

Proverbs tell us that its bottom-line purpose is to instruct its students in the fear of the Lord. The warnings of Proverbs, whether about strange women, too much wine, the temptations of wealth, or hanging out with the wrong crowd, are the admonitions of a loving father warning us away from the edges of the cliffs and toward the healthy fear of the Lord, keeping us on safe paths that lead to life as we traverse the pilgrim way. The warnings are intensely practical because this is where we live. Young men do fall prey to sexual temptation and snares; alcohol does entrap people; immoral and profane people do corrupt the simpleton who keeps company with them for leisurely pursuits.

The Proverbs are like the Law, in that they reveal two ways to live. Fear the Lord, believe the words of this book, and live. Ignore these words, indulge yourself in these ways warned against, and die--perhaps an early, physical death--and risk the loss of your soul.

I've had the habit for several years now of reading the corresponding chapter of Proverbs to the day of the month (thus a quote from chapter 22 today). I can't know, in this life, how life-altering it has been to do so. Nowhere except in Proverbs will one find a warning like, "The wisest of women builds her house, but folly with her own hands tears it down" (Proverbs 14:1). Those words have brought me up short many a time in my own folly. It's not pretty sometimes; I wish I were a much more gracious doer of God's word and sailed through life with always pure motivations; but honestly, sometimes I just need a brutal warning to bring me skulking back from the edge of disaster. I ain't so great. But the words of the wise, they are.

Read the Proverbs. The one chapter a day habit is a good one and over time, will start to do its work in your thoughts and affections. God designed it to work like that.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Must Christians Always Experience Joy? Part Two

One way to help in thinking about the Bible's commands to rejoice are the differences between the seasons of rejoicing and weeping we experience as individuals, and the Church's rejoicing.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:16, Philippians 3:1 and Philippians 4:4, Paul exhorts the church to rejoice. The command is plural; it is the duty of the whole body of Christ to always rejoice in the Lord. The basis for this corporate rejoicing of course, just as for individuals in the church, is the grace and hope brought to us through the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Church, as the body of Christ, is meant to keep these truths always central and prominent to guide her pilgrim journey on the earth.

But as individual members of Christ's body and of one another ( Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 12:27), the Bible recognizes we will not always be rejoicing (Romans 12:15). Sometimes as individual members we'll bear a heavy load (Galatians 6:2). Sometimes as individual members we'll suffer and feel no cheer (James 5:13).

Notice that the response to those who weep and have no cheer is not a pep talk, necessarily, but to be with them in their distress. Those who suffer remain joined to the Church's continued rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2), yet the Bible tells those who are able to to turn and weep right along with those who weep, even as with the whole body they continue on, rejoicing in hope.

It's an antimony, to be sure, how a real acknowledgment of the suffering and cheerlessness of individuals goes right along with rejoicing in hope. We don't always see the Church acting in her assigned role of rejoicing in hope even as she's turning to weep with those who weep. Our wrong understanding of what biblical rejoicing is based on keeps us from being able to do this well, perhaps. The point of my post from yesterday (that I maybe didn't make so well) is that the Scriptures make room for individual members of Christ's body to have seasons of difficulty in which they may not experience feelings of joy; and that the biblical response of the always-rejoicing-in-hope Church is to weep right along with them.

If the body of Christ, filled with the Spirit and with the words of Christ (Ephesians 5:18 and Colossians 3:16), continues faithfully in rejoicing in hope and in weeping with those who weep, then sufferers will be helped and encouraged to rejoice in hope as well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Must Christians Always Experience Joy?

I came across a great book, "Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have To Do" (love the title) by Phillip Cary. I ordered the book after reading this review, in hopes it would prove useful in counseling and in helping women to think soberly about such things as "how to know God's will." I'm sure it will prove useful in those ways, but thankfully, it's already proven very helpful to me, particularly the chapter entitled "Why You Don't Always Have to Experience Joy."

I needed to read these words, and be reminded of this truth, and see a few things in a new way. The kind of joy we like to tell each other we "ought" to feel has been a sort of rare commodity for me these days. More of "the silly grin" has definitely been wiped off my face. :)← (Yet look, there it is again, trying to make its appearance.) (Oh stop it!) You see what I mean. We often think that the joy the Bible calls us to is a perpetual bubbly (or wisecracking or giddy) fa├žade. Yet this can be a disheartening way to think. The real truth of the matter is much better, and much more satisfying.

Here are a few quotes from this chapter of the book so you can get a taste of it yourself. These words are good news to the suffering, the depressed and the afflicted, because their context is the gospel of Jesus. The good news, our hope, resides in what Christ has done on our behalf, not in what we can manage to drum up on our own. By all means read the review I linked to above, and order a copy here. You won't go wrong with this book.

"The idea that Christians are supposed to have a deep inner joy all the time is a terribly cruel notion. The idea itself is what's cruel: it turns people who wish to comfort the afflicted into tormentors. They want to help their suffering friends get the joy back, but in the process they insist their friends accept the underlying idea that it's not normal for the Christian life to include deep suffering of heart. So in addition to their suffering, their friends are wounded by the suggestion that their affliction is due to some failure in their Christian life--as if there's something wrong with Christians who have a cross to bear" (p. 139).

"The Bible makes time for this dark night, because it teaches that hope is a kind of waiting (see, for example, Psalm 25:3, 5, 21; Psalm 27:14; Psalm 37:7; Psalm 40:1; Psalm 130:6). Often it's a very active kind of waiting, full of labors like rebuilding a city in a land full of enemies (see Nehemiah 4:1-23). But it may also be a passive kind of waiting that includes suffering, a longing that arises in the midst of great affliction, where the only activity available to you is prayer, complaining to God. In the Bible, complaining to the only one who can rescue you is an act of hope. This is why complaint is one of the most important forms or genres of prayer, as in the many Psalms that cry out, "How long, O Lord?"... To pray these psalms of complaint is to realize that waiting in hope does not mean being content with suffering, as if there were something good about being in pain. But neither does it mean there's something wrong with people who suffer" (p. 141).

"Although we cannot understand all the glory that is to come, we do know [our story] is the kind of story where the happy ending makes the whole story good. We can see that already in the day we call Good Friday. We call it good because of what is revealed in the light of Easter Sunday, when the glorious resurrection from the dead of our Lord Jesus Christ changed everything in human history forever, including the meaning of the events on Good Friday. Not only the past, but also the future is different, as every cross we bear is different because of the cross of Christ. Our own death is different because of his resurrection from the dead. The whole universe is different because this man, who is God in the flesh, sits now at the right hand of God the Father at the center of the angels' unbroken hymns of praise. Everything in the world is already different, hiding a glory that is to be revealed when the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven" (p.155).

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Relevant Words From 1925

"The absence of doctrinal teaching and preaching is certainly one of the causes for the present lamentable ingnorance in the church. But a still more influential cause is found in the failure of the most important of all Christian education institutions. The most important Christian education institution is not the pulpit or the school, important as these institutions are; but it is the Christian family. And that institution has to a very large extent ceased to do its work. Where did those of us who have reached middle life really get our knowledge of the Bible? I suppose my experience is the same as that of a good many of us. I did not get my knowledge of the Bible from Sunday School or from any other school, but I got it on Sunday afternoons with my mother at home. And I will venture to say that although my mental ability was certainly of no extraordinary kind I had a better knowledge of the Bible at fourteen years of age than is possessed by many students in the theological seminaries of the present day.

"Theological students come for the most part from Christian homes; indeed in very considerable proportion they are children of the manse (i.e., their fathers are pastors). Yet when they have finished college and enter the theological seminary many of them are quite ignorant of the simple contents of the English Bible." ~ J. Gresham Machen, quoted in Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch, p.80

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Scope and Sequence

The Bible is a Book that tells a Story; it's the true narrative account of something God has done, is doing, and will someday bring to a grand fulfillment. Like any great story, reading it in bits and pieces, but never reading and understanding it from beginning to end, will not be satisfying. One won't get it fully. The story will be missing continuity; there will be gaps in one's understanding.

In the Bible the epic, true tale of God's plan of the ages is told in many different ways, using many different genres that include straight historical accounts, poetry, apocalyptic writing with scenes full of imagery and figures of speech, and riddles and parables. There are many stories within the story, like in Genesis 1-3 where we're given the whole reason for all that's to follow. All the different authors, different genres of writing, and stories within the story progress with seamless God-centeredness toward the final, amazing conclusion (with a tantalizing preview of the good that will be the next Story!).

"Scope and sequence" is an educational term that refers to the breadth and depth of a specific curriculum. The scope is how much will be taught of a subject over the course of a semester or year; the sequence is the order in which the lessons will be studied. The Bible, no differently than any "course," has a scope and sequence that takes precedence over any other study we will ever undertake. The scope is breathtaking, of eternal urgency, and of supernatural power and claim. The sequence, like any other true account, starts at the beginning and ends at the finish.

If you are a Christian, making a commitment to read God's story from cover to cover only makes sense. There are plenty of good reading plans available to help you; some good ones can be found here or if you want to simply keep a record of your reading, print out a handy record-keeping sheet here. Keep reading until you know you begin to understand. Keep reading until you begin to know the fear of the Lord. Keep reading until you begin to be ready for every secret thing to be brought into the light. And then keep reading.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Raised From the Dead

A microcosmic analogy (one of many in the Bible) of God's electing call:

"And He went up on the mountain, and called to Him those whom He desired, and they came to Him" (Mark 3:13).

No one can resist that call. God is mighty to save.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Bible's Rx For Unity in the Church: Truth and Love™ (Ephesians 4:9-16)

Active Ingredients                        Purpose
Sound doctrine, love                     Sin reducer

Other Ingredients Faith in the sufficiency of Scripture, the willingness to speak


Permanently relieves immaturity in the Church which comes from being carried about by:

  • Every Wind of Doctrine
  • Human Cunning
  • Craftiness in Deceitful Schemes
  • Falsehood
Promotes healthy upward growth of each member together into the Head of the Church

Pour Truth and Love™ liberally into large-sized container with spout, such as the human heart. Carefully tip spout in direction(s) needed, including, periodically, toward self. Refill container as needed, daily (at minimum) and hourly (if necessary). Be sure active ingredients remain pure. Do not use if out-of-date (prescription will be readily refilled upon request) .
More information including refills, warnings, motivations and encouragements for use may be accessed at Speaking the Truth in Love, Ephesians 4:9-16.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Vision of Jesus

Remembering Stephen's dying glimpse of the glory of God and of Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:54-60) encouraged me this morning. In a very real way, as we live out lives of martyrdom for the sake of his renown, we've been given the same view:

"For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6).

"But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:9).

But wait a minute, you might say--living out a "life of martyrdom"? Really? Yes. It's the calling of every disciple of his: "And he said to all, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me'" (Luke 9:23).

"Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day," said Paul, who had once stood by approvingly, guarding the coats of the men who were stoning Stephen (Acts 7:54-60).

As we pilgrim through this barren land, denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily, we need a sure view of the glory of God and of the risen, glorious Christ. With the eyes of our understanding we must comprehend, as surely as Stephen saw with his physical eyes, Jesus rising to stand, preparing to welcome with the crown of life (James 1:12) every cross-bearer for his sake into his heavenly kingdom.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Grieving the Holy Spirit: Watch Out!

"And He said to the man with the withered hand, 'Come here.' And He said to them, 'Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?' But they were silent. And He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand.' He stretched it out, and his hand was restored" (Mark 3:3-5).

"And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:30-32).

I think the idea of "grieving the Holy Spirit" may be a bit misunderstood in the American church. Don't we tend to have an image of Him sitting by sorrowfully, perhaps with dejected, downcast demeanor, wishing we would pay attention to Him and "let Him" do what He wants to do in our lives? Maybe our ideas area little better than that, but still, do we have the understanding that by grieving Him, the Bible means that we...gulp...make Him angry?

In the passage from Mark, Jesus' anger stemmed from His being "grieved at their hardness of heart." The passage from Ephesians shows that we grieve the Holy Spirit by our bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander and malice toward one another in the Church. In both cases we see two things: it is the arrogant and unloving treatment of one another that brings on this "grief," and this grief is His righteous anger toward our hard and ignorant hearts!

I see that I should not take Ephesians 4:30 as a verse taking up for, or trying to protect, some sort of defenseless, easily wounded or shy Holy Spirit. Instead I should see it for what it is, a warning! "Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God," for His anger is kindled by our hard, unloving hearts! Because He loves us, God's discipline will be sure to follow.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Difference Between "If You Will" and "If You Can"

There is a big difference in the Bible between those two things. One is pleasing to God; the other is not. In the last 50 or so years, it's become popular to say that including in our requests to God "If it is your will" somehow conveys a lack of faith. But nothing could be further from the truth. Two stories in the Bible--one about a leper, and the other about a boy's father--serve to illustrate this.

In Mark 1:40-45, a leper came to Jesus, imploring him and kneeling before him to say, "If you will, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, Mark says, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I will; be clean." And at once the man was clean of leprosy.

In Mark 9:22-24, the disciples had not been able to help a boy tormented by spirits. Jesus saw the crowd gathered and took things in hand. The boy's father told Jesus that for a long time, since the boy's childhood, this spirit had been trying to destroy him. "But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us," finished the poor father. "'If you can!'," returned our Lord. "All things are possible for one who believes." Immediately, Mark says, the father of the child cried out and said, "I believe; help my unbelief!"

The leper believed that Jesus could. This was pleasing to the Lord, and earned the leper no rebuke. But the father of the boy did not know if Jesus could. This is what earned him Jesus' rebuke in the form of repeating his faithless words back to him.

There are some things we ask God for that we know are his will to do. We know it's His will for His name to be hallowed, for His kingdom to come, for His church to forgive. We know it's His will for us to be sanctified in His word of truth and for believers to have love for one another. Those things are prayed "in accordance with His will," that is, in accord with what He has definitely declared, in his word, that He is going to cause to happen. We can pray in faith that those things will happen.

For other requests, such as for healing, for a specific new job, for a husband or wife, we cannot know His will. We make our requests for those specific things we want, because that's what he wants us to do; the faith that pleases him is our knowing that He can do whatever is his will to do. And it pleases Him when we express it in just that way, trusting him for how he will, in His compassion, answer.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Once Sorrowful, Now Always Rejoicing...Paul

Sunday at lunch after church the conversation turned to the apostle Paul. We were discussing how that before his conversion, he had been a very determined fellow and very efficient and effective in his wrong-headed zeal, but after his conversion he found himself weakened, laid low by God, yet used very mightily by him to accomplish his mission. God had told Paul, "My strength is perfected in your weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). In this way it was evident that it was God who was doing great things, not Paul. Paul liked it that way, too. He now gloried only in the Cross, boasted only in Jesus Christ, and this was the best thing that had ever happened to him, by far. In fact, in comparison, all the "success" he had known before was now, to him, only like so much rubbish (Philippians 3:8)!

Our conversation turned to the sorrow that Paul carried always with him over his terrible treatment of believers before his conversion. He had dragged many out of their houses into prison; he had brought grief and heartache to many a family and many a church; he had been an accomplice to, if not outright doer of, murder. When Stephen, the godly and spirit-filled deacon in the early church in Jerusalem, was stoned to death for his testimony of Christ, Paul (Saul in those days) had stood by holding the coats of the men who stoned him... in other words, giving hearty approval.

We then thought of a wonderful thing. Just before Stephen died, he saw the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the Father, waiting to receive this, his first martyr, into the heavenly realm. Stephen was so enraptured with this view of the risen Christ and the glories of heaven, I think it quite drew his attention away from the evil actions of the men who were about to take his life! Paul was standing right there, heard Stephen cry out in amazement at the vision, coldly watched as the angry mob carried out its grim purpose. And that, he thought at the time, was that.

But years later, this forgiven, weakened apostle had an amazing experience of his own. He was taken to heaven while still alive. There he heard things "that cannot be told, which man may not utter". The experience was so great, so glorious, that an affliction was given to him to buffet him about (even more than he already was!) to help him resist any sinful pride in this great privilege. Paul, who had stood by watching as Stephen died with eyes fastened on heaven, had now been transported there himself, to enjoy a brief foretaste of what Stephen had seen, and what Paul himself would soon be enjoying forever.

What did Paul see? What did he hear? We don't know because God said "No" on any reporting back about it. Paul is the only mortal man we know of who had this experience--a visit to heaven and return to this life, before death. (I'm sorry--no, glad--to say that we are to discount others' claims to this, like the "90 Days in Heaven" guy. Those stories just do not bear the weight of truth.) And how kind of God to grant his sorrowful-yet-rejoicing, always-bearing-in-the-body-the-death-of-the-Lord-Jesus apostle this wonderful experience. Paul, it may be safe to say, suffered more for righteousness' sake than any other except for the Lord himself. He was uniquely called to a life of hardship, sorrow, pain and loss. And so the Lord Jesus tenderly brings him to the dwelling place of God, just for a brief moment. He lets Paul take it all in, hear and see what no one has heard and seen and returned to tell about, soaking into his wearied soul, I'm sure, the glory to come, the unbelievable joy awaiting, marveling at the astonishing purposes and councils of the just and holy God, predetermined before the foundations of the world, all being perfectly executed by the willing and obedient angels.

And did he see his brother Stephen there? We don't know. As we were talking around the table, the wideness of this mercy and goodness of God to Paul sort of made us sober. Our eyes got big. What could we say? This was God's doing, this bringing his faithful apostle up for a taste of the good things to come, and to see first-hand the very things that his faithful deacon and martyr Stephen had seen on that day long before, that day when Paul had stood by, holding the coats.

Painting: The Conversion of Saul by Caravaggio

Friday, February 25, 2011

My Ideas Vs. God's

I've got my own ideas on serving the Lord. I figure if I serve on church committees, visit shut-ins, worship with the church on Sundays, feed the homeless, and do a fairly good job of taking care of my family, that I've probably done pretty well in serving him. If I teach some kind of class at church, even better! My ministry, my "using my gifts," is really important to me. What has God really called me to do? I wonder. Am I serving where and how he would have me to? Maybe I should consider taking on a new responsibility... it just seems like maybe I should be doing more...

Yikes! What if I found out that my ideas about serving the Lord weren't his ideas at all! (And if I really pay close attention to his word, I might find that out.) I've been teaching a class of women, but have I been striving to "love my husband and children" (Titus 2:3-5) as he would have me to? (Gotta study his word to find out what that really looks like!) Or, maybe I've been busy helping and serving in practical ways at church, running here and there to meet needs and devoting hours to various programs and functions, but have neglected sitting daily at the Master's feet with an open Bible to learn from him! (This was the "activity" that actually earned Jesus' praise and commendation in Luke 10:38-42.)

Just some things to chew on. We are busy women, but we are first and foremost disciples of the Lord Jesus. "Disciple" means "student." We're students of Christ; and yet how much time do we devote, like Mary, to sitting at his feet, Bibles opened to hear him speak, learning of him so that we can really know what our priorities in ministry should be? We can certainly go and do, hither and yonder; but never, never should we go and do in ways that undermine or harm our first priorities, our true ministries. This requires care, thoughtfulness, study and submission to God's word as his revealed will for us.

I've got my own ideas on serving the Lord... but I need to give those up, take Jesus' yoke upon me, and learn of him. His ideas are best.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Jesus Christ Has Come In The Flesh"

What does John mean in 1 John 4:2-3-- "By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God"? Does John mean that if someone can simply quote those words, then we can know that they are of God; that by virtue of their being able to quote them, we can then know that the words they continue to speak are from God, and that we can trust what they say? Actually, that's not what John means. He means something much more wonderful than that!

In John's Gospel, in John 20:30-31, after recounting three of Jesus' appearances to various disciples in various places after his resurrection from the dead, John says this: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." We become convinced that Jesus died and was raised back to life by this written testimony of his disciples, the apostles, that Jesus appeared to them after he rose. The confession of Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of God", is the Spirit-revealed knowledge that he died and came back to life, that he appeared to the apostles, alive, and that he still lives. It's the confession that all he claimed to be and all he claimed he would and will yet do, is true.

Such a confession, born of the faith of believing that the testimony of the apostles is true, is our life from the dead. John goes on to say of the apostolic testimony: "We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error" (1 John 4:6).

So, the "every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" is the same person as "whoever knows God listens to us". A true teacher (for 1 John 4:2-3 is about true and false prophets and teachers) is one who confesses what the apostles confess, who listens to the apostle's teaching, agreeing with and submitting to it as the very word of God. That teacher's confession will agree with the whole testimony of the apostle's written, recorded testimony of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, and with all that it means. That's what the confession of 1 John 4:2-3 is--more than rote words, it is simply shorthand for a radical, life-altering, supernaturally revealed and given faith!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Wise Reprover and the Listening Ear of Titus 2

Titus 2:3-5--"Older women... are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled."

Proverbs 25:12--“Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.”

1 Peter 3:1-4--"Likewise, wives... Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious."

What woman doesn’t appreciate a great hairstyle, nice clothes, and fine gold jewelry? Yet, such adornments pale in comparison to the beauty God is after. What God finds "precious" and "beautiful" in the feminine heart is something Peter calls a "gentle and quiet spirit." What such a spirit looks like is described in practical ways in the verse above from Titus 2. It includes having a heart that's being "trained"-- in loving one's husband and children, in self-control, in purity, in being a worker at home, in being kind, in being submissive to one's own husband. Note the idea of training as a key ingredient in attaining to this beautiful condition. Note the implication that we aren't born, nor do we go into marriage and child-rearing, knowing how!

Proverbs 25:12 lists two elements necessary for the kind of training that results in beautiful godliness: (1) a wise reprover and (2) a listening ear. It takes both to get the lovely result, comparable in beauty to gold rings and ornaments. Titus 2:3-5 supplies a New Testament identity to these two elements: the older women of the church (wise reprovers), willing and able to teach, and the younger women (listening ears), willing to be taught, and to change, so that "the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:7).

Becoming trained in this kind of beauty pleases God so much because it glorifies him. At stake is the reality of the gospel lived out before a skeptical world. Without this kind of grace and transformation in the lives of women, therefore in the lives of families, and therefore in the life of the church, the truths of God are in danger of being blasphemed (that's the meaning of the word translated "reviled" in Titus 2:5). The world sees the difference between our words of profession and how we actually live our lives.

So I ask you today, as I'm asking myself: as Christian wives and mothers, how are we doing in living this out? Do we really want this; are we willing to pay the price to become women who teach and encourage one another to become women with these habits, with these qualities, so precious and beautiful in the sight of God our Savior? Are we willing to submit to God's plain words and work out, in a practical sense, how all this plays out in our homes and in the church? Are we seeking to become both "wise reprovers" and "listening ears," or are we resistant to believing that these words of God could really apply in this way to us?

This is not an easy thing. God's words here, like all doctrine, are open to all sorts of misunderstanding and/or mischievous misrepresentation, especially in our day. But it's imperative, especially in our day, that we grasp its importance. It's not being dramatic to say that the lives of our children and the future of the church depends on it.

When we stand before God to give an account of our lives, he won't ask us how we did with our careers, our portfolios, our workout routines or our wardrobes. Instead, we'll be called to account for how we believed his word and tried to obey it. None of us will perform perfectly--thank God for his gift of righteousness, imputed to the believer through the atoning death of his Son!-but the desires of our hearts will be laid bare, and our failure to love what He loves will surely be cause for regret. I am praying anew, as an older woman, for the grace to be both a wise reprover and to have a listening ear, for the opportunity both to teach and to be taught, for that is the true Christian life. Will you pray about this, too?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Prayer and Listening to God Part 5: How "Rightly Handling" Makes All The Difference

(This is Part 5 of a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here for Part 1).

In the last article of this series, I took the opportunity to talk a little about the rich fellowship and communion we can enjoy with God in prayer. Prayer is not "one-sided;" we are not simply talking into the air! God is with us in our prayers. In today's article, as promised, I'll offer a hopefully helpful and interesting overview of Bible interpretation, and how it matters when it comes to the issue of listening for God's voice. In the next article, I hope to present some common examples of misinterpreted Scripture along that line. I was fascinated to see how this misunderstanding has come about in the church, and hope you will be, too.

Hermeneutics, of course, is the fancy word with a simple enough meaning: it’s simply the method of interpreting any text, including Scripture. Using the right hermeneutic is part of what Paul is talking about to Timothy when he tells him, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). There is a right way and a wrong way to “handle” Scripture, and much of this has to do with right and wrong ways of interpreting it. If we rightly interpret the Bible we are well on our way, with the Holy Spirit’s illuminating help, to rightly understanding it, teaching it, and obeying it.

The good news is that in many ways, reading and understanding the Bible is just not that hard. The Bible is literature, a collection of writings written in comprehensible genres like history and poetry. It's important to recognize that and to understand how those genres impact the message. This is done through using the grammatical-historical method of reading and understanding. (This is the exact method used in reading any literature.) Its aim is to discover the meaning of the passage: what the author intended, and what the original hearers were meant to understand.

Old Testament prophecy and the apocalyptic writings are challenging, of course, and require careful and prayerful study within their genre. And of course, the unregenerate man will not understand the things of God. That being said, though, the Bible has great clarity in its message, in that its meaning can be clear to the ordinary reader. Rightly gaining that meaning involves keeping in mind guiding principles like these:

Context is King

This cardinal rule of interpretation means that a verse in the Bible is understood in the context of the chapter it's found in, and a chapter of the Bible is understood in the context of the book it’s found in, and a book of the Bible is understood in the context of the overall message of the whole Bible. I don't mean to sound as if that's always simple and easy, because it's sometimes not. But that's why Paul told Timothy to work hard at rightly interpreting and teaching God's word.

Scripture interprets Scripture

All of Scripture, having the same Author, is in harmony with itself and never contradicts itself. Therefore, less clear passages are always interpreted in light of more clear passages. For instance, a New Testament passage that seems to say that all people will ultimately be saved must be interpreted in light of the many passages that tell us clearly this is not the case. The explanation is that “all” often means, especially with Paul, that both Jew and Gentile are included, or sometimes it refers to people from all different sorts of groups. Sometimes it just means, literally, all! :) The context usually provides the clue.

Descriptive passages do not teach us to expect the same

Descriptive texts are the narratives of the Bible--stories that describe events of certain times in redemptive history. Prescriptive texts are the teaching passages of the Bible that prescribe how we are to live and what we are to expect as Christians. In the New Testament, for instance, the Gospels and Acts contain a lot of narrative, while the Epistles contain mostly teaching. Narrative parts of the Bible teach important things, too, but they do not necessarily teach that the events they describe will happen again. They are historical. For instance, the story of Peter walking on water does not teach that we should expect to walk on water. This will become very important as we look at the issue of listening for God’s voice in prayer. It is to the prescriptive, the teaching portions of the Bible, that we primarily look in order to learn what to expect.

Next post in this series: the enduring legend of the still, small voice!

(Please click here for Part 6.)

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Epistles Give the Standard

"If I might summarize all these dangers, it is the danger of isolating a text or an idea and building up a system around it, instead of comparing Scripture with Scripture. It is the seeking of a short cut in the spiritual world... We must reject anything which is not based soundly upon the teaching of the Epistles. We must be very careful that we do not take an incident out of the Gospels, and weave a theory around it... we must realize that our standard... is to be found in the Epistles." ~ D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Knowing the Times, page 11

Picture: Apostle Paul in Prison by Rembrandt

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Beware Lest You Defend God!

You would think I'd have titled this, "Beware Lest You OFFEND God." But we need to be just as wary of defending him, lest we end up, in doing so, after all offending him. That's what Job's friends did. Here's the story.

In the book of Job, Job's "comforters," his friends who came to visit after all the disasters described in Chapter 1 had come upon him, didn't like the way Job was talking about God. They felt as if Job was accusing God of sending suffering his way without due cause, so they leapt to God's defense.

"God," they said, "always rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked in just the ways we describe. Therefore your suffering, Job, has come upon you due to wickedness in your life."

But Job refuses this view, instead pointing out what we might call the difficult providences of God. He speaks directly to God about it like this:

"What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment? How long will you not look away from me, nor leave me alone till I swallow my spit? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of mankind? Why have you made me your mark?" (7:17-20)

Now, these words of Job's must have sounded blasphemous to Job's friends, and they likely would to us, too. So they set about vigorously "defending" God (as we might). But the truth was, Job was on to something that his friends had missed. Job knew that God does not stand in need of misguided defense, as Job's friends tried to provide. Job was seeing and commenting on the whole thing in a more truthful way (although with limited understanding) than his three comforters. His view of God as the sovereign "instigator" of his suffering was spot on:

"But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind" (12: 17).

Even the dumb beasts, even the bushes, could have told Job's friends that God, the sovereign ruler of all things, had brought "all this" about! Duh!

What did God want to teach Job, and all Job's friends, about himself? He wanted to teach them that he is Ruler, and that he is good. That he is sovereign, and that he is merciful. That his ways are higher than ours and past finding out, yet that he is willing to draw near to us. Job wishes for an "arbiter," or umpire (Job 9:32-33) to "lay his hand on us both" (that is, on both him and God, should Job be allowed to bring his unhappy case before God for trial). The New Testament tells us that God did indeed send just such a Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 9:15, 12:24) to do what we weak and unrighteous people could never do: make us righteous by his own blood, and forever successfully plead our case before God the Judge! So we see that the God who sometimes sends affliction is the same God who sends mercy. And he does it all for his own purposes, for his own glory, and for those who are his, their good.

Puny man cannot accuse or defend God. Here is how Job rightly puts it to his friends who are so eager to "get God off the hook" :

"With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding. If he tears down, none can rebuild; if he shuts a man in, none can open. If he withholds the waters, they dry up; if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land... he makes nations great, and he destroys them; he enlarges nations, and leads them away...

"Will you speak falsely for God and speak deceitfully for him? Will you show partiality toward him? Will you plead the case for God? Will it be well with you when he searches you out?... He will surely rebuke you, if in secret you show partiality!" (Job 13:1-12).

And here is how God finally speaks to the issue, putting it this way to Job's friends:

"My anger burns against you [Eliphaz] and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has... my servant Job will pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" (42:7-8).

Beware of "defending" God! :)