Jul 22

Fear or Love

Fear or Love

 

Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.                Acts 9:31 NRSV

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.                                                 2 Corinthians 7:1 NRSV

 

In an earlier devotion (65) I wrote about a correct understanding of the fear of God. I said there that it is not the fear of punishment (what John is talking about in 1 John 4:18) but rather a way of living. It is to live with a correct understanding of reality and of your place in it. It is to live carefully and responsibly, in the knowledge that your life is a gift, and that you are accountable for what you do with it.  It is really important to recognize that this is not an Old Testament Idea (obey God because you are afraid of him) that is replaced by the New Testament idea (obey God because you love him).

As the scriptures above show, the fear of God and the love of God go together. Many of my former students remind me of something I have frequently said in class: “If the little God who lives under your bed loves you, that is not particularly good news; but if the God who could fry you alive by looking at you loves you, that is good news.” To have stood at the foot of the Cross and realized what is actually taking place there – that the Eternal, Infinite God, Life itself, is dying for us – should definitely not diminish our awe of God and our determination to do nothing that would hurt or displease him. Rather it should move us to a new dimension of that determination. It should determine us, in the words of the Apostle, to “perfect holiness in the fear of God.”

 

Jul 16

Righteousness, or righteousness?

Righteousness, or Righteousness?

…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.                        Philippians 3:9 NIV

In 2017 we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, beginning with Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. In many ways, that whole movement has centered around the question of righteousness. Is our acceptance by God dependent upon our righteous behavior, or not? Luther, as so many others before and since, was in despair over his inability to find peace with God although he did everything he knew to live according to every standard of righteousness the Church set forth. Then he came to grips with verses like the one quoted above: righteousness is not the result of our efforts, but the result of faith!

What a relief! He could stop struggling to be good enough for God, and simply trust God through Christ for his righteousness. This is good news. When our behavior not only falls short of what others expect of us, but more than that, of what we expect of ourselves, we can rest in the sufficiency of God’s grace. Ahh!

But is our “righteousness” simply a matter of judicial record? Does God simply account us as righteous because of Christ so that our actual behavior is of little or no importance? This is where a good deal of Protestant thinking has gone in recent years. Surely the truth, as is the case in so many instances, is between the two extremes. Does our acceptance by God depend on how righteous we are? No. But are people in whom the Holy Spirit dwells expected to live righteous lives? Yes!

The issue is: how do I live a Christlike (righteous) life? Do I do it through my own effort? That can only produce pride and bitterness. Or is it the result of dependence on (faith in) Jesus? In that case the result is humility and gratitude. The whole issue is the one of relationship. Righteousness is not the goal – intimacy with Jesus is –  and righteous behavior is the happy, and maybe even inevitable, byproduct.

Jul 10

I Will Praise You

I Will Praise You

 

O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way?

2 How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

5 But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me.

6 I will sing to the LORD because he is good to me.                                             Psalm 13:1-2, 5-6

 

About half of the psalms in the Bible are in the form of a lament. This form has four characteristic features: direct address to God (such as, “O my Lord”); complaint (“why have you forsaken me,”); petition (“come quickly to my aid”) and a vow of praise in the future (“I will praise you in the great congregation.”)

There is a very profound truth in this form, as seen in Psalm 13. That truth is that complaint and faith are not mutually exclusive. Too often, we have been taught that if you have “real faith,” you will always “look on the bright side,” and will never allow circumstances to “get you down.” So, if when you face real difficulties, you become  down and depressed, and feel as though God has turned his back on you, the obvious conclusion is that you have lost your faith in him. Too often the result of this kind of thinking is that we try to deny what we are really feeling and to pretend to something that is not so. That is not faith; it is only pretense!

What these 75 or more psalms do for us is to give us the permission to be real. To be subject to emotional highs and lows, and to be affected negatively by negative circumstances is simply part of the human condition. To be honest about them is not necessarily a sign of a lack of faith. It is simply to tell God what he already knows, believing that he is big enough to accept it!

But if the psalmists are conscious of the reality of what they are going through and their feelings about that, they are equally certain that God is going to respond to their cries and that the day will come when they will be able to tell everyone what a great God he truly is. Nor is there a hint of emotional blackmail here. There is no “if you answer my prayer, then I will give praise to you.” Praise is simply a certainty. Although it is not true in all cases, in many psalms this vow is stated with completed action verbs. We don’t have such a verb form in English, so we must put it in the future tense. But for the psalmist the praise is already given; it is a “done deal.”

This is faith: the confidence that in spite of the reality of feelings of abandonment and rejection by God, of inexplicable and undeserved pain, he who has proved himself faithful in the past is still at work and that praise for his wonderful grace is a foregone conclusion.

Jul 02

Slaves to Sin or to Righteousness

Slaves to Sin or to Righteousness

 

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.                  Romans 6:15–18 ESV

 

The apostle Paul is unmistakably clear in his treatment of sin in Romans chapter 6. He says in a variety of ways that there is no place for intentional sin in a believer’s life.  One of his arguments is seen in the passage above. Now that we don’t have to worry about fulfilling the law, does grace give us permission to excuse our intentional sinning, saying “I can’t help it.”? Absolutely not. In fact, it is grace that makes life without intentional sin possible.

He says that one of the problems with sin is that it is addictive; give it place and it will gain control of you and draw you back into its coils and chains and make you unable to live the life of Jesus Christ. If you continue in sin, he says, the lordship of your life will belong to the enemy and not to Jesus Christ. You can no more be partially sinful – we’re talking about intentional sin here – than you can be partially pregnant. Who rules your life? It is the master whose command you cannot help but obey. But “God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart the form of the doctrine to which you were delivered and having been set free from sin, you became slaves to righteousness” (Rom 6:18). Notice that he does not say “set free from sin’s condemnation” or “sin’s guilt,” but “from sin.”

But someone says, “Then what about chapter 7? Surely Paul is saying there that he is unable to stop sinning.” While opinions about this differ, it doesn’t make sense to me that Paul would directly contradict himself from one chapter to the next. So if he is not contradicting chapter 6 with what he says in chapter 7, what is he saying? I think he is speaking out of his experience as a Jew before his conversion, addressing a possible response of some persons to chapter 6. They would be saying, “Oh, ok, Paul, you have convinced me. I need to quit sinning and I will just go ahead and do that.” To such an idea Paul is saying, “Oh no, that won’t work. I tried for years to stop sinning, and could not do it.” In other words, he is setting us up for chapter 8. Yes, we must stop sinning (chap. 6); but we can’t do it on our own (chap. 7); we can only do it by letting the Holy Spirit loose in our lives (chap. 8).

Jun 26

A Royal Priesthood

73   A Royal Priesthood

 

Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.”                                    Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

But you are not like that [i.e. stumbling over Christ], for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.                                        1Peter 2:9 NLT

 

At the very outset, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when Yahweh was preparing his people to receive and accept his covenant, he gave them a vision of what he wanted for them, and indeed, for all his people forever, as Peter recognized. That vision involved a status, a character, and a function. First, they would be his “special possession,” a phrase that speaks of the way he views each of us who hear his voice and give our hearts to him. We are dear to him, like an engagement ring to a bride; something to be treasured and protected and delighted in. Don’t ever forget that; you are not his employee, or worse, his tool. In all his world, you are priceless to him, not because you are useful, but because you are.

But besides a precious status, Yahweh envisioned a particular character. That character reflects his character. Who is he? He is the transcendent sovereign of eternity; the holy king. To belong exclusively to him, the holy king, means to share his distinctive character: God’s people act like he acts as his royal emissaries in the world.

But are we only emissaries? No we are much more than that; our function is to be his royal priests. But what does that mean? What is a priest, particularly in the Biblical context? It is to be a mediator, a go-between, someone who brings sinful people to a righteous, but forgiving God, and someone who brings a forgiving, but righteous God to sinful people.  We are to be windows through whom the world can see God as he really is, and through whom the life-giving rays of heaven’s Sun can shine into darkened lives.

For much of its history, Israel only remembered the first of those three. May we, as those who have not stumbled over Christ, not make the same mistake.

Jun 17

The Destiny of the Servant

The Destiny of the Servant

 

My servant will be successful; he will be high and lifted up; he will be greatly exalted…. Therefore I will assign a portion among the mighty, and he will divide the spoil with the strong….      

Isaiah 52:13; 53:12a [author’s translation]

 

The fourth of the so-called “Suffering Servant Songs” begins at Isaiah 52:12 and continues on to 53:12. When we recognize that fact we discover a very interesting phenomenon. We are used to the descriptions of suffering, degradation, loss, and injustice that characterize the Servant in 53:1-11, and as a result easily overlook the surprising statement in 53:12a. But when we recognize that the poem begins in 52:13, and we see how it begins, we are prepared to realize the significance of that closing statement. In fact, the poem begins and ends on a note of triumph. This is the destiny of the Servant. In spite of all the tragedy and loss – no, because of the tragedy and loss, his mission will be totally successful. [The Heb. word has the connotations of wisdom, prudence, effectiveness (prosperity), and success.]  In the end, he will be in the place of the Victor.

How could Jesus leave heaven for a cow-stall? How could he lay aside the robes of divine glory, and wrap himself in a towel? How could he who had been ministered to by angels take the lowest place? He could do it because he knew who he was! He could do it because he knew how the story ends! On the one hand, he lost everything, and he really did. He was not merely masquerading as a limited, fragile, dying human. It was real.  But at the same time, he knew that he was the Lord, the Prince of Glory. He was armored against the temptation to feel sorry for himself because he knew the destiny of his servanthood.

You and I need that same sense of destiny. Why should we scrabble for position and power in this world, as though this is all there is? Why should we work so hard to protect ourselves and our rights, when we know the end of the story? “Blessed are you when all men revile you and persecute you for my name’s sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” Believe it, and take the lowest place, knowing that the destiny of the servant is triumph.

Jun 10

What Cup?

What Cup?

 

 You will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, a cup of horror and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria; you shall drink it and drain it out, and gnaw its shards, and tear your breasts; for I have spoken, declares the Lord GOD. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because you have forgotten me and cast me behind your back, you yourself must bear the consequences of your lewdness and whoring.”                                                                         Ezekiel 23:33-35 ESV Thus says your Lord, the LORD, your God who pleads the cause of his people: “Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more.

Isaiah 51:22 ESV

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and aknelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”…. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.                                                             Luke 22:41-42, 44 ESV

 

Have you ever wondered about Gethsemane? Agony? Sweating like drops of blood? What was it about what Jesus was facing that would evoke such terror and revulsion? Yes, the humiliation, the beating, the death on the cross, all the things that were facing Jesus in the next twenty-four hours were terrible to contemplate, but what about all those people down through the ages who faced equally terrible deaths with a song on their lips? Why didn’t Jesus “bear up” better?

 

The answer is in the word that is repeated in all three of the passages above, the word “cup.”

It is a word expressing the experience of consequences. This world that our heavenly Father has made is one of cause and effect. It is not possible to live in defiance of the way in which the world is made, whether physical or spiritual, and then escape the consequences of our actions. Oh, yes, we personally may escape them for a time, but there will be consequences, and someone will experience them.

 

Those consequences are pictured by the Hebrew prophets as a cup filled to the brim with the most ghastly brew: all the hatred, all the tragedy, all the loss, all the missed opportunities, all the petty nastiness stemming from our determination to have our own way. And we will drink it; those consequences can no more be escaped than can the loss of fingers when we unthinkingly reach across a running circular saw for something on the other side.

 

Yes, the “cup” must be drained. But suppose someone else – Someone else – were to drink it for us? The “cup” could be taken out of our hands, and put into his. Now all of a sudden the agony of Gethsemane makes sense. Jesus was not agonizing over the circumstances of his own death, terrible as it was. He was agonizing over the hideous thought of having to drink the devil’s brew in our cup, the cup of all humanity: all the hurt, all the grief, all the terror, all the evil of all time, and in the end, for him who is Life alone, the Death of us all. Who in their right mind would willingly do that? Only one who was motivated by a bottomless love, a love for his Father whom he lived to please, and a love for the poor, pitiful creatures whom he had made for love.

Jun 04

Find Us Faithful

Find Us Faithful

 

See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.                            Isaiah 40:10 NIV

 

The LORD has made proclamation to the ends of the earth: “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your Savior comes! See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.’ ”                                                                                Isaiah 62:11 NIV

These words, some of them duplicates, were probably intended for the Judean exiles in Babylon (40:10) and then for those who returned from exile (62:11). But they raise questions. “Reward” for what? “Recompense” for what? Are they being rewarded and repaid for having gone into exile? But they richly deserved that. Moses had told them more than 800 years earlier that this is what would happen to them if they broke the covenant, yet they had done it repeatedly throughout that whole time. God had been incredibly patient in deferring justice that long. So reward for what?

I suggest two things are in play here. On the one hand, although the Assyrians and Babylonians were Yahweh’s instruments of discipline, they did not see themselves in that way. They arrogantly assumed they were able to do these things simply because they were bigger and tougher, and they carried out their attacks with no mercy and no sense of responsibility for their actions. So the day of recompense came: the great cities of Assyria and Babylon got their due, and they are no more, while Jerusalem has existed, and sometimes even flourished, for all the intervening years.

But I think there is another matter. Not all the Israelites and Judeans who suffered the terrible tragedies of conquest and exile deserved what happened to them. They were genuinely righteous and faithful, and yet they were swept away in the maelstrom too. Nevertheless, they and their children were those who refused to say, “Oh well,” and with others of their people consent to become good Assyrians and Babylonians (the purpose of exile, after all). No, they smuggled out the Scriptures; they refused to give up on Yahweh (Daniel?); and they dared to believe the unbelievable, that God would deliver them from the grip of great Babylon. These are the ones, many of whom never lived to see their beloved land again, for whom the reward came to another generation. These are the ones who were being repaid for a faith that would not stop.

 

What about us? The song says, “Let all who come behind us find us faithful.” Will another generation be rewarded and recompensed for our faithfulness? May it be.

May 27

I Know You By Name

I Know You By Name

 Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, 1Ch 3:7

And the LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” Exodus 33:17 NIV

 

I was recently reading devotionally in 1 Chronicles. In my reading each day, I look for something in the chapter that particularly speaks to me. The chapter for that day was nothing but names, and very strange names, at that. As I came to the end, I thought to myself, “Well, so much for that! There’s nothing in there that says a thing.” I understood why those names were important to the Chronicler. He was establishing the continuity between those desperate people who had come back from captivity in Babylon with their whole history back to Abraham, and beyond him to Adam. Yes, he is saying, despite that awful tragedy, we can still know ourselves to be the people of God.

 

But, I thought, why does it matter to God? Why put those interminable lists into the canon of Scripture for all the rest of us to read down through the ages? Then I heard a whisper, “I know you by name,” and it dawned on me that God likes rehearsing all those names. They were people whom he knew, and knows. We are not just momentary bubbles on the surface of an endless ocean, here for a moment and then gone without a trace. No, each one of us is, I was going to say, cataloged, but better than that, known, in the fathomless mind of God. There will never be another Nogah, or Nepheg, or Japhia, and God delights in knowing each of them with everything that makes them who they are, talents and foibles alike. Do you feel like a cog in a machine, or a cipher on a page? Don’t; God delights to know you by name, and will do so through all eternity. He can never forget you; your name is written on his heart.

May 22

When Tragedy Strikes

When Tragedy Strikes

 

I create the light and make the darkness. I send good times and bad times. I, the LORD, am the one who does these things.                                                                                                                  Isaiah 45:7 NLT

 

The verse above, especially as translated in the King James Version (“I make peace, and create evil”), has created a great deal of concern for many people. Does God really cause moral evil in the world? No, he does not. The rest of the Bible is very clear on that issue. Moral evil is in the world because of our first mother and father’s choice, and it continues to be because all of their children choose to do it. But, the possibility of making a choice for evil is in the world solely because Yahweh permits it. We must never say that evil is caused by Satan. To do that is to set Satan up as the equal of Yahweh. That is never the case. There is one God alone, and all things exist as they are because of him alone. Satan may tempt us to do evil, but he can only do that because God permits him to do so.

So what is this verse actually saying? When tragedy strikes, we have to avoid two extremes. On the one hand God never chooses a family, for instance, and says, “Those folks have had it too good for too long. I believe I’ll send them a tragedy just to even things out.” Never! But on the other hand, neither does he say, “Oh, I wish I could prevent Satan from putting that tragedy on those good people, but this time he is just too strong for me. I’ll get you next time, Satan!” Again, never! Whatever happens to us comes through the hand of God alone.

In this regard it is important to think about levels of causation. Yahweh is the ultimate cause of all things; so if bad things are in the world it is because of God (“bad” is a better English equivalent of the Hebrew word, since that word covers everything from moral evil to misfortune). But, God is not the immediate cause of bad things. That is, he does not choose to bring bad things into our lives.

So this is what we may know. Yahweh is Sovereign in the world, and if tragedy comes my way as a result of the fallen-ness of the world, it will not come without his knowledge or his permission. He did not send it, but he did permit it. That means that since he allowed it, he is Lord over it, and can work through it – or because of it – or in spite of it – for my greater good. He is Lord!  In that confidence we can face whatever comes, not somehow, but triumphantly.

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