Friday, December 4, 2009

Six of the Twelve - Micah and the high places.

A girl I knew in college asked me to proofread a paper she wrote for class. The narrative told of a formative childhood moment. At a local market, she stuffed one of her mittens with loose birdseed out of a barrel. She wanted to give her parakeet a gift. Mom and dad caught her and explained the word "stealing". They brought her back to the market so she could return the birdseed and confess her crime. She described the event as if this naive theft were the worst sin she committed as a child. Knowing her, it may have been. Me, I would have written about cigarettes, porn, or doing whip-its at Bible camp. She took three ounces of birdseed from a barrel.

We may as well admit that we place sin in categories from tolerable to most heinous. The majority of people reading this, I assume, haven't burned down day-care centers or assassinated world leaders. But I'll bet you speed once in a while.

Micah addresses this issue of subtle sin in the first chapter. The book opens as a word of the Lord concerning Samaria and Jerusalem. According to David Stern, the Samaritans were "a mixed ethnic group descended from Jews deported by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.E. and other peoples ruled by the Assyrians. (They) followed a religion combining pagan and Jewish elements." After Solomon's reign, his kingdom split in two, Judah in the south and the northern kingdom of Israel. From this moment in 1 Kings 12, we read about the leaders of each kingdom. Of all the rulers in Israel, the region that became Samaria, not one of the kings lived in a way pleasing to God. They set up alters in high places that served the God of Abraham in word, but also allowed elements of idol worship. When I visited the city of Dan in 2000, my guide told me of how the kings and priests eventually worshiped a golden calf.

Micah 1:7 says of Samaria, "All her carved images will be smashed to pieces, all she earned consumed by fire. and I will reduce her idols to rubble. She amassed them from a whore's wages, and as a whore's wages they will be spent again." The people of Judah probably applauded this word concerning their hostile, idol-worshiping kinsmen. But remember that the prophecy also concerns Jerusalem, in Judah. Micah gives them equally hash treatment in 1:8-16. I mean, just check out the heavy imagery of verses 8 and 9 as he turns the focus from Samaria to Jerusalem. "This is why I howl and wail, why I go barefoot and stripped, why I howl like the jackals and mourn like the ostriches. For her wound cannot be healed, and now it is coming to Judah as well; it reaches even to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem itself." In verse 13, Micah expressly traces the line of sin from Lakhish in Assyria to Samaria to Jerusalem.

I remember reading Kings in my early twenties and noticing their track record with God. Israel consistently angered God, never serving Him. One king at least had this said in his favor, "He wasn't as bad as the other kings of Israel". But of all the kings of Judah, nine alone served God. Of those nine, only two removed the high places and banned idol worship, Hezekiah and his great-grandson Josiah. Ahaz, one of the kings ruling during Micah's ministry and Hezekiah's father, was especially evil. Unlike his God-fearing father, Jotham, he sacrificed one of his sons to Molech and made sacrifices on the high places. Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, was especially wicked. He rebuilt all of the high places and everything his father had destroyed. He also sacrificed his son to Molech like Grandpa Ahaz and got involved in a cult worshiping "the army of heaven". 2 Kings 23 details all that Josiah destroyed in his pursuit of holiness. It's a lot. Some of it very weird stuff. But like the last two God-fearing kings, his sons totally blew it. They ruled until Babylon seized Jerusalem and put the people into exile.

The overwhelming majority of men who led God's people led them away from God. Seven of the "good" kings, while not engaging in evil practices themselves, still tolerated idolatry in their kingdom. The other two good kings may have worshiped God but failed to raise their sons in righteousness. They didn't get high at Bible camp but they let their kids steal birdseed. This realization broke my heart.

And so Micah denounced them as well. In 3:11-12, he tells them, just because you claim to serve God doesn't mean your sin will go unnoticed. "(Jerusalem's) leaders sell verdicts for bribes, her priests teach for a price, her prophets divine for money - yet they claim to rely upon the Lord! 'Isn't the Lord with us?' they say. 'No evil can come upon us.' Therefore, because of you, Zion will be plowed under like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house like a forested height."

And yet Micah also gives hope for redemption. In chapter 4, God promises to restore the temple of Jerusalem where the people would again worship Him, rescued after their exile to Babylon. Yes, there is a messianic prophecy in chapter 5, where Micah tells of the Messiah coming from Bethlehem. But as I read this book recently, I noticed another messianic prophecy. This one far more subtle. In 7:9, the prophet says, "I will endure the Lord's rage, because I sinned against Him; until He pleads my cause and judges in my favor. Then He will bring me out to the light, and I will see His justice." Here, I saw a thread of the Trinity. God the father as one who demands justice for sin, and God the son as the one who pleads our cause and redeems us from darkness. As Paul said in Romans 3, Jesus justified us to satisfy His own demand for justice.

The book closes in 7:18-20 with a breath-taking prayer of praise. "Who is a God like you, pardoning the sin and overlooking the crimes of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in grace. He will again have compassion on us, He will subdue our iniquities. You will throw all their sins into the depths of the sea. You will show truth to Jacob and grace to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors since days of long ago."

We can easily beat ourselves up when we're convicted of sins both large and ignored. The truth is we all deserve to die for rebelling against God, the source of life. And yet He knew we couldn't be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2). Through Jesus, the one who throws our sin into the depths of the sea, we come to know that He alone makes us holy. In Him alone do we have hope for righteousness.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Five of the Twelve - Jonah and an unfair God.

David Bowie said it best in his role as Jareth the Goblin King in The Labyrinth. Jennifer Connelly complains, "It's not fair" when Jareth sets up obstacles for her to rescue her baby brother. Jareth replies to her protest, "You say that so often! I wonder what your basis for comparison is." When I first saw the movie, I cared more about seeing what muppet-like creatures would next appear. But when I actually heard Bowie's line for the first time, I realized how often I had said the words, "It's not fair" without having any context for fairness.

Connelly's character can annoy you with her complaining. As I read Jonah last week, I felt the same way with this runaway prophet. The opening verse sounds like any other interaction between God and His prophets. "The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai: 'Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and proclaim to it that their wickedness has come to my attention." Not too weird for God, right? How many other prophets were told to go and call cities out on their evil practices? Nearly all of them. But Jonah does something so strange we mainly hear his book in the form of a children's story. It's silly, cartoonish. Jonah tries to literally run away from God.

He buys his way onto a ship headed out to Tarshish, then considered the furthest point of the known world. A violent storm threatens to break the ship into pieces at sea and the sailors try everything to hold it together. Eventually, they think to themselves, somebody must have angered a god. The captain finds Jonah asleep in the bottom of the boat and wakes him. "What do you mean by sleeping?" he asks. "Get up! Call on your god! Maybe the god will remember us, and we won't die." When Jonah confesses his sin, he says to the sailors, "I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made both the sea and the dry land." I wonder if, as he said it, Jonah realized there's no escaping a God who made everything. If you can run there, He created it.

Jonah tells the men to throw him into the sea so that God will spare their ship. They oblige. Then the best part of the Sunday School story happens. God sends a huge fish to swallow Jonah whole. The prophet remains alive in the belly of the fish for three days. While in there, amazingly, the prophet sings out a beautiful song of praise to God. He tells of God saving him from Hell and certain death and proclaims, "Salvation comes from the Lord!" Then God tells the fish, "Puke him up on that beach over there."

When we read how Jonah goes to Nineveh, we might assume that he has learned his lesson. The truth is he still doesn't want to prophesy and only does so begrudgingly. How can we know this? Because of what happens when the people of Nineveh actually repent of their sin to God. Pagan people who know nothing of the God of the Bible are moved to humble themselves from the commoner to the King. Instead of finding joy and praising God for this, Jonah gets pissed. In an angry prayer, we learn the true reason for his flight to Tarshish. Jonah knew of God's mercy. He didn't want God to spare the people of Nineveh. He wanted them punished for their sins. Jonah is so pissed off, in fact, he prays, "please, just take my life away from me; it's better for me to be dead than alive!" Let's pause for a moment and reflect on the prophet's tantrum.

God's response is so wonderfully patient. "Is it right for you to be so angry?"

It appears Jonah isn't listening. He goes outside of the city and builds a shelter so he can watch the city destroyed, should God change His mind. As he sits, God causes a castor-bean plant (whatever that is) to grow up around the shelter, giving Jonah shade and comfort despite his angry vigil. Then, the next morning, God sends a worm to eat away at the plant and it withers. Now the sun and wind scorch Jonah, and the prophet again cries out, "I would be better off dead than alive!" It's not fair! It's not fair!

God discusses the significance of the plant with Jonah in a patient and loving tone, unlike the authoritative way He put down Job's complaints. "God asked Jonah, 'Is it right for you to be so angry about the castor-bean plant?' He answered, 'Yes, it's right for me to be so angry that I could die!' The Lord said, 'You're concerned over the castor-bean plant, which cost you no effort; you didn't make it grow; it came up in a night and perished in a night. So shouldn't I be concerned about the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who don't know their right hand from their left - not to mention all the animals?'"

And that's how the book ends. With God's rhetorical question. It's pretty safe to say Jonah finally heard God and saw the sinfulness of his attitude. Some Bible teachers believe Jonah wrote this book as an act of repentance. Like Jonah, we praise God for showing us mercy in saving our lives from certain death but stomp around fuming when He doesn't punish the people who actually deserve it. The fact is we all deserve it. Jonah knew it on the ship. The people of Nineveh knew it when they heard Jonah's prophecy. None of us deserve God's grace. But God still gives it to whomever He chooses. It costs us no effort. How could we not rejoice in His mercy?

Jesus name-dropped Jonah once or twice, referring to "the sign of Jonah". The Pharisees believed they deserved God's favor because of their behavior and lineage. They asked Jesus for a sign to prove He was Messiah, as if all the work of Jesus's ministry wasn't proof enough. Jesus tells them, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign? No! None will be given to it but the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea-monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the depths of the earth" (Matthew 12:39-40).

Salvation comes from the Lord. Only Him. Jesus fulfilled the sign of Jonah when He rose to life three days after His death. In His death and resurrection, Jesus offers salvation for us all, be we kings, commoners, sailors, or prophets. Because of this, it's silly for us to whine about God's fairness. Obviously, God isn't fair. He loves us in spite of our sin.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Four of the Twelve - Obadiah and a question of kingdoms

Perspective, for people like us, has limitations. We live within the confines of time and space. God, the creator of time and space, lives in eternity. Eternity isn't a never-ending sequence of moments, though. God exists outside of time and space. So, we can assume He sees all the points of human history, forwards and backwards, all at once.

Have you got all that? Read it again if you need to. It's important.

I want to make sure we keep this idea of eternity in mind as we study Obadiah. It's a short book. One chapter where God lowers the doom on Edom. At first glace, it sounds like the kind of thing one of the major prophets would have said as an afterthought. I suppose that's why so many Christians overlook Obadiah, or read him simply because his book falls on a certain date in the Bible-in-a-year calendar. But if all scripture is inspired by God and profitable, then why put it in there at all?

To understand the words of Obadiah, let's go back to the birth of Jacob and Esau in Genesis. In chapter 25, Rebekah becomes pregnant with twins. "The children fought with each other inside her so much that she said, 'If it's going to be like this, why go on living?' So she went to inquire of the Lord, who answered her, 'There are two nations in your womb. From birth they will be two rival peoples. One of these peoples will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger" (Gen. 25:22-23). Esau is born first, Jacob (later named Israel) comes second. The first story told of the brothers' relationship explains how Esau sold his rights as the oldest son to Jacob for a red-lentil stew. The word "Edom" means "red" in Hebrew and was given to Esau, apparently as a reminder of "how little he valued his birthright."

In chapter 27, we read of how Rebekah and Jacob trick the now-blind Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. Isaac blesses Jacob, saying, "may God give you dew from heaven, the richness of the earth, and grain and wine in abundance. May peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. May you be lord over your kinsmen, let your mother's descendants bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!" Jacob slips out of Isaac's tent just before Esau enters to find the blessing already gone. He weeps and begs his father to give him a blessing as well. Isaac says to Esau, "Here! Your home will be of the richness of the earth and of the dew of heaven from above. You will live by your sword, and you will serve your brother. But when you break loose, you will shake his yoke off of your neck."

In time, Jacob and Esau have children who birth generations becoming the nations of Israel and Edom. At the time of Obadiah's prophecy against Edom, it might have made the people wonder why Edom wasn't serving Israel as predicted in Genesis. Obadiah 11-14 tells of wrongs Edom committed toward Israel in the past. Standing by passively as other nations came in to conquer and destroy. Rejoicing over their disaster. Taking advantage of the calamity and looting Jerusalem. Killing those fleeing the invaders. I can see some wise man explaining how Edom broke loose and shook off the yoke.

But Obadiah's prophecy is forward-looking. God has more in mind for the nation of Esau. The second half of Obadiah tells of how God will bring judgment to Edom and restore Israel as the ruling nation. When God made these new promises, one had a choice to trust God's reputation or the pain of surrounding circumstances.

For those who believe in Jesus, we can see how God fulfilled his promises in the coming Messiah. Even though Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies, there are some prophecies He has yet to fulfill. For example, the prophecies of Jesus coming to judge the living and the dead? That hasn't happened yet. What about His return to earth to rule and reign as King. Obadiah points to this day when God reestablishes Israel in verse 21, "Then the victorious will ascend Mount Zion to rule over Mount Esau, but the kingship will belong to the Lord."

See? Perspective is important. We can have a few reactions to God's promises. One response shows pride when we trust in our understanding of God's promises more than the One who made the promise. This might foster an attitude of unbelief. Another response recognizes the eternal God instead of the temporal circumstance. When God tells of what's to come, we can have patience as He leads us toward the promise.

In the end, Obadiah's prophecy had little to do with the struggle between the Kingdom of Edom and the Kingdom of Israel. Instead, Obadiah proclaimed the eternal Kingdom of God.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Three of the Twelve - How God used a working man to dismantle the myth of bad things happening to good people.

I have always loved Amos as a character. Most prophets were recognized by the people and quite often had access to royalty. These prophets carried the title of Prophet, sometimes belonging to a small band, or guild, of prophets. In the first verse of the book of Amos, the text lays out a beginning unlike any other in the Bible. God gave prophetic words to a shepherd and farmer from Judah. Amos the shepherd then went to Israel, the northern kingdom, and began to prophesy. The name of my weblog sings of this idea. God uses the ordinary and unlearned to speak truth.

Amos 7:10-15 gives a good example of how the rulers in Israel felt about this blue-collar prophet. "Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent this message to Jeroboam king of Israel, 'Amos is conspiring against you there among the people of Israel, and the land can't bear all that he's saying. For Amos says: "Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will be led away from their land into exile".' Amaziah also said to Amos, 'Go away, seer! Go back to the land of Judah! Earn your living there; but don't prophesy any more at Bethel; for this is the king's sanctuary, a royal temple.' Amos gave this answer to Amaziah: 'I am not trained as a prophet, and I'm not one of the guild prophets - I own sheep and grow figs. But the Lord took me away from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, "Go, prophesy to my people Israel."'"

I like to imagine Amos as the classic John the Baptist looking-dude. Wild hair, hard features, uncommon clothes. It's fun to think of that kind of man walking around the streets of foreign cities talking about their coming destruction. But in actuality, Amos probably looked like an ordinary guy. It's more like a gas station attendant walking around the mall telling people of God's word. Not so romantic an image, but unusual all the same.

God likes to do this. He likes to take unexpected people and use them in unexpected places. I think this is why Jesus answered his critics in Luke 4:25-27, "But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian." And just like Amaziah in Amos 7, Luke 4:28 says, "And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things."

But what was it that Amos said that so offended the king and high priest? A lot of things, probably. Here's one. Consider the possibility that God does allow "bad" things to happen to "good" people. Consider even the possibility that God does these "bad" things Himself. In Amos 1, God tells of coming punishment for several cities and nations because of their crimes. These crimes include horrors like cruelty in war, exile, and ripping open pregnant women. I can see it now, the Israelites hearing this prophecy and enjoying numb feelings of self-righteousness. Then in Chapter 2, Amos says, "For Judah's three crimes, no, four - I will not reverse it - because they rejected the Law of the Lord..." And later, "For Israel's three crimes..." Suddenly those self-righteous feelings turn cold. Israel has been indicted alongside their neighbors, their enemies. God was against them all. Sure, Israel and Judah didn't spill pregnant ladies' guts, but their sins were equally deserving of God's wrath. They didn't follow His commands. They took advantage of the poor for business opportunities. They gave in to sexual deviancy.

The past few conversations I've had with unbelievers about God usually start with, "If God were good, why would He let bad stuff happen to good people?" In the Old Testament, who was better than the people of Israel and Judah? They were God's chosen people, set apart from the other nations, enjoying His blessings. But Amos calls them out on their wickedness. The fact is, we've all committed the "three, no, four crimes." Our sin deserves the punishment of death that God promised Adam in Genesis 2. If this is true, and we all demonstrate the wickedness of our hearts to some degree, why doesn't the truly good, righteous, and holy God kill us on the spot? Why do any of us still have the ability to live and breathe?

Amos knows of Israel's sin. He talks about it at length before a series of visions in the beginning of chapter 7. God shows Amos His plan to punish His people. Amos pleads, "Lord God, forgive - please! How will tiny Jacob survive?" Twice, God promises to stay His hand and show mercy. Eventually, though, God tells the prophet how He will soon refuse to overlook Israel's offenses. For the time being, God demonstrates what theologians call "Common Grace". Even for those who God knows will not come to repentance and saving faith, He still blesses both by providing good things and withholding bad things from them. This is much harder for me to understand: God gives good things to bad people. But as we see in Amos, it won't last. Paul says of those who will remain unrepentant in Romans 2:5, "But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God".

Yet for all this, God promises in Amos 9:8-11, "'Look, the eyes of the Lord God are on the sinful kingdom. I will wipe it off the face of the earth, yet I will not completely destroy the house of Jacob,' says the Lord. 'For when I give the order, I will shake the house of Israel, there among all the nations, as one shakes with a sieve, letting no grain fall to the ground. All the sinners among my people who say, "disaster will never overtake us or confront us," will die by the sword. When that day comes, I will raise up the fallen tabernacle of David. I will close up its gaps, raise up its ruins and rebuild it as it used to be.'"

Amos tells of a day when God will restore the house of David to its kingship, which we now see in Jesus as Messiah, the King who will come again to rule the earth. Jesus will shake the sieve of humanity separating the wheat from the chaff (Matthew 3:12). In Christ's kingdom, God will reestablish the people of Israel.

Common grace is all well and good, but it doesn't necessarily mean we have saving faith. God is good to everyone, but only those who put their trust in Jesus will stay in the sieve, so to speak. I know, in my heart, I have committed those three, no, four crimes. And I am so grateful to Jesus for paying the penalty for my crimes. I know that His grace, for me, is more than a mere demonstration of His goodness before the coming wrath. It's a taste of the joy I will one day experience when I am fully in His presence, secure, no more to be uprooted.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Two of the Twelve - Joel and the Valley of Decision

We all know people who wouldn't read a book if it didn't have pictures. Those of us caught up in intellectual snobbery have at one point or another sniffed at their simple view of *sigh* literature. I admit, I've laughed at a lot of people for enjoying what I call "airport books". The great thing about most snobs, myself included, is that we typically commit the same sins for which we condemn others. Our own sins most certainly find us out.

In the book of Joel, the prophet doesn't tell any story to give his prophecy context. It's the only occasion the Bible ever mentions him. No appearances in Chronicles or Ezra or anything. His book lays out straight prophecy. Three intense chapters and fini. As I read and re-read this book, I found myself wishing Joel wrote about the things happening in history around his prophecies. You know, zazz it up a little. Hosea marries a hooker, Isaiah walks around naked for a while, Ezekiel eats poop. That stuff'll keep you turning pages. Joel stands up to spout out some heavy doom then returns to his seat nearly invisible among the other prophets.

I wanted the book to have pictures.

After my last reading of his book, I finally understood that Joel didn't need to give historical context to his prophecy. God's words can apply to nearly every generation. Imagine the people are proud of their prosperity, and as Proverbs 3:34 and 1 Peter 5:5 says, God opposes the proud. Joel 1 tells of an agricultural disaster brought on by swarms of locusts and other bugs. This is the equivalent of our economy suffering from, say, a stock market crash or lack of natural resources. Like everything we built to make money and keep us safe failed in the end. Everything devoured and traumatized. The people suffer disasters meant to shock the coming generations.

In chapter 2, the picture takes the form of something much different and yet equally horrific. Instead of bugs, the picture becomes that of an ruthless, invading army. Then in verse 2:11, Joel shocks the reader by attributing the suffering to the One they'd least expect. "The Lord shouts orders to His forces - His army is immense, mighty, and it does what He says. For great is the Day of the Lord, fearsome, terrifying! Who can endure it?" God sent the affliction. God devastated the land. God leads the army of judgment.

I think a great number of people would readily agree with this. When troubles come, how often do you hear people blame God? "How could a good God allow something like this to happen?" I heard it after nearly every national calamity. Bombings, school massacres, hurricanes. Everyone was willing to blame God as if we were the good guys, as if our everyday sins didn't deserve condemnation and death. It doesn't matter how good of a person, or a Christian, you are. You could suffer from Younger Brother Syndrome or belong to the Older Brother Club and still have the same response. Affliction can cause you to wonder about God's justice and goodness.

The next few verses give a little hope to the reader. A little. Joel 2:12-14, "'Yet even now,' says the Lord, 'turn to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping and lamenting.' Tear your heart, not your garments (that is, an authentic act of repentance instead of a mere outward show); and turn to the Lord your God. For He is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in grace, and willing to change His mind about disaster. Who knows? He may turn, change His mind and leave a blessing behind Him, enough for grain offerings and drink offerings to present before the Lord your God."

How unsettling is this concept? Maybe God will show mercy and give you "enough". Think about this. If God saved the people from death but didn't restore their fortune, would that make Him unjust? I think not. If I deserve to die and spend eternity in Hell, I should be happy with the idea of having "enough". If God spared my life and instantly give me all the riches and comfort of the world, wouldn't I run the risk of turning back to my old idols of prosperity, worshiping the blessing instead of the One who blesses?

Just after verse 2:23, where Joel tells the people to praise God for giving them the "right amount" of rainfall, he says in verse 2:24-27, "Then the floors will be full of grain and the vats overflow with wine and olive oil. 'I will restore to you the years the locusts ate, the grasshoppers, shearer-worms and cutter-worms, my great army that I sent against you. You will eat until you are satisfied and will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has done with you such wonders. Then my people will never again be shamed. You will know that I am with Israel and that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other" (emphasis mine).

Listen to this, I firmly believe that God can use affliction to teach us how to truly worship Him. I'm not saying that God wants us to become gluttons for suffering and so compare Him to an abusive dad. But look at what God wanted the suffering to produce. He wanted to teach them how to seek Him in all circumstances so they would still worship Him as God, Him and nothing else, when He did restore their prosperity.

The outstanding picture of Jesus I see in this book happens in the Valley of Y'hoshafat (The Lord Judges). Verse 3:14 also calls this place the Valley of Decision. After God restores the fortunes of Israel, He calls the nations into this valley for final judgment. In Romans 2, when Paul describes God's coming judgment, he says in verse 16, "This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares" (NASB). Yes, Jesus came to save the world. Yes, God loves the whole world. But God also hates sin and must eventually execute perfect justice. Joel's "Day of the Lord" will come when God judges men through Jesus. Revelation 19 talks of Jesus returning with a sword, wearing clothes soaked in blood, striking down those who remain in the rebellion of sin. What an awesome picture. Like the cover of some brutal metal record.

But Justice isn't exactly synonymous with "punishment". Those who have accepted Jesus as Lord are justified. Joel 3 talks of God judging the nations for their wickedness and vindicating His people, calling Himself our refuge. God makes this promise in 3:21, "I will cleanse them of their bloodguilt which I have not yet cleansed." In other words, Joel tells the people "Don't freak out. God will cleanse you of your sin one day." That day came when Jesus died on the cross. When we accept this truth, it doesn't mean we haven't sinned, but rather it should remind us how Jesus cleansed us of our guilt. If Jesus will judge me as righteous because of His righteousness, then I look forward to the Day of the Lord in the Valley of Decision knowing exactly what I have decided.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

One of the Twelve - Hosea and wayward ways (an introduction)

Many of you already know this, but I love punk music. When I first heard "I Wanna Be Sedated" with all the speed and simplicity of my adolescent heart-rate, I knew punk music would resonate with me until the day I die. In my life con-Ramones, I've developed a tendency to love the generally unloved or overlooked. If you are so deep into underground or unknown artists you sometimes feel you scarcely relate to the general public, then I think you share this sensibility. Try not to get smug about it. It's just entertainment.

Maybe it's because of this sensibility I feel led to write about the Minor Prophets (in Hebrew Shneim-'Asar, meaning "The Twelve"). A good deal of Christians seem to overlook these books, vaguely recall them as a part of the Canon, or recite them only in patches learned for Bible memorization quizzes. It feels redundant to tell other believers, "Every part of the Bible is important." We should know this. And yet, I didn't know the main theme of many smaller books in the Bible. I found myself overlooking parts of scripture with little love or satisfaction in the text.

A few weeks ago, I met with a woman who at one time was on her way to becoming a minister in the American Episcopalian Church. She had met with disillusioning elements in her church's leadership and left some years ago. During our conversation on the purpose of Jesus's ministry on earth, I asked her, "How would you finish this sentence? 'The whole Bible is about _____.'" She blinked and said, "I know people who can quote most of the book and still not answer that question." The Holy Spirit must have given me the words to say in that moment because the answer surprised me as I said it. "The whole Bible is about Jesus. Even the 'boring' parts."

Over the next few months, I want to write a short summary of each minor prophet and explain how the individual books point to Jesus. Beginning in order, we'll start with Hosea and take the text from Stern's Complete Jewish Bible (with some translation).

It's okay to consider Hosea one of the more scandalous books in the Bible. Verse 2 of the first chapter says, "The Lord's opening words in speaking to Hosea were to instruct Hosea, 'Go, marry a whore, and have children with this whore; for the land is engaged in flagrant whoring, whoring away from the Lord." In the first three chapters, the prophet marries Gomer, a known prostitute, and has children with her. After a while, she leaves her husband and returns to her former trade. God tells Hosea to find and retrieve her.

A casual take on the story goes like this: God makes a covenant with a wayward bride and redeems her even though she proves herself unfaithful. When God displays His goodness and faithfulness, it will cause the unfaithful bride to tremble. The following prophecies make far more direct statements toward Israel, Ephraim, and, in particular, the priesthood. My friend the would-be priest might take some comfort in this.

Probably the most recognizable verse in Hosea comes from 4:6, "My people perish for lack of knowledge." The full verse in Stern's reads, "My people are destroyed for want of knowledge. Because you rejected knowledge, I will also reject you as priests for me. Because you forgot the Law of your God, I will also forget your children." My ordinary and uneducated take on this verse is that the church leaders had turned away from God's Torah, or Law, which was their covenant with Him as a people, not unlike that of a marriage covenant.

It wasn't just the individual sins (swearing unholy oaths, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery for example in 4:2) because all humans struggle with sin. It was their attitude as leaders toward God's commands in turning from the knowledge of His Law. They denied their covenant "husband" and became "joined to idols" (4:16). As further indication of God's anger toward the leadership, He says in 4:14, "I won't punish your daughters when they act like whores, or daughters-in-law when they commit adultery; because the men are themselves going off with whores and sacrificing with prostitutes. Yes, a people without understanding will come to ruin."

Much of the book tells of God's pain and anger because of His unfaithful people. What's worse, it appears as if the people have gone so far from God they are unable to help themselves. Hosea 5:4, "Their deeds will not allow them to return to their God, for the spirit of whoring is in them, and they don't know the Lord." Even though God is sovereign and in total control, never in surprise or having frustrated plans, He feels pain and anger in regard to sin. He knew from the beginning of man's rebellion in Genesis 3 that He would have to redeem us at a high cost. No one on earth could pay for the sins of mankind. We all have our own sins for which to account. Isaiah 59:3 speaks painful words of convictions, "For your hands are stained with blood and your fingers with crime; your lips speak lies, your tongues utter wicked things" (emphasis mine).

And yet in this same passage, God promises to fulfill His own plans for our redemption. "He saw that there was no one, was amazed that no one interceded. Therefore His own arm brought Him salvation, and His own righteousness sustained Him" (Isaiah 59:16). Further reading into the New Testament gospels shows how God the Son, Jesus, came to earth and died to pay the price for our crimes of unfaithfulness. In Isaiah 59:20, He makes a promise to redeem those who turn from rebellion of sin and put their trust in Jesus.

Hosea prophesies this promise of Jesus coming to redeem us despite our wayward ways in 6:1-2, "Come, let us return to the Lord; for He has torn, and He will heal us; He has struck, and He will bind our wounds. After two days, He will revive us; on the third day, he will raise up; and we will live in His presence."

I mentioned how some people consider Hosea a scandalous book. Inspired teachers such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Terry Virgo have echoed this sentiment and readily admit the scandal of Grace. We're the whores who know nothing of faithfulness. We don't deserve redemption and yet Jesus came to save us. Unlike Israel, led away from God by unrighteous priests, Jesus Himself has become our High Priest (Hebrews 3:1), leading us to the Father. We couldn't help ourselves. We were dead in our sins and transgressions (Ephesians 2:1) but our trust in the redemptive work of Christ on the cross gives us hope in the life He now offers. When we die to our old life of unfaithfulness, He will raise us up and we will live a new life in His presence.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Remember a few months ago when I lamented the end of my Systematic Theology group? Well it's back. Whereas most of these studies would start with things like scriptural authority or the character of God, we decided to start with the Holy Spirit. We have our reasons.

Since summer began, my church has seen the Holy Spirit move in greater power through miracles and spiritual gifts. People have learned how to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit and respond in obedience. Others have been healed of long-term, debilitating pains. Two people had their legs instantaneously grow during prayer, eliminating their back pain. At one Thursday night meeting downtown, the Holy Spirit showed up and kept us in worship and prayer the whole evening.

Naturally, some people have had questions. A woman at work asked me about my church and the Systematic Theology group. I told her that our theology is reformed, but we have charismatic expressions during worship. When she asked me to explain what I meant by "charismatic expression", I talked about the Holy Spirit working through people, speaking to us, healing people, and so on. She asked me if we believed in the Bible. I assured her we do. As I walked away, she spoke to the woman next to her, "I don't know about that sort of thing. I think it's dangerous."

I'd like to take this moment to assure you, the Holy Spirit is not "safe" in the way some Bible teachers might portray Him. He operates outside of our control and it scares many to see Him move beyond comfortable perimeters. Consider this story in Numbers 11:24-29.

"So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and stationed them around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again.

"But two men had remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the other Medad. And the Spirit rested upon them (now they were among those who had been registered, but had not gone out to the tent), and they prophesied in the camp. So a young man ran and told Moses and said, 'Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.' Then Joshua the son of Nun, the attendant of Moses from his youth, said, 'Moses, my lord, restrain them.' But Moses said to him, 'Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!'"

The Spirit of God supposedly only resided in the Tent of Meeting, where Moses and the priests went into His presence. So when the Spirit came upon two people in the camp outside of the church, away from the pastors' conference, it caused a stir. Moses, in humility, recognized that God wanted to put His Spirit on more than the accepted leadership. He wants to move in His people, the church.

Joel prophesied of a time when the Spirit would move as Moses wished. Joel 2:28-29 reads, "It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days."

Peter referred to this prophecy saying that God had begun its fulfillment in Acts 2:16-21. But this promise was not for a chosen few. Rather, for all mankind. This goes beyond God only using the Apostles, or the seventy who followed Jesus, or any other kind of restrictive explanation given by spooked theologians. Even as Paul taught the Corinthian church on how to use and recognize spiritual gifts (including the gift of miracles), he said in 1 Corinthians 14 to "desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy." This echoes Moses's hope that all God's people would have His Spirit upon them.

There are many passages where Paul teaches on spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14 and Ephesians 4:11-12) and acknowledges Holy Spirit activity in other churches (Galatians 3:5). A good portion of the book of Acts details how the church interacted with the Holy Spirit and the miraculous. I think it's important to remember that God inspired the authors to write these things in the Bible. Why would He do this? To convince those already saved in the church or to teach us how to use the gifts to glorify Him?

When the Holy Spirit moves in the church, it won't be for the glory of a man, a particular church, or even an experience. Jesus is alive and at work in the church. The miraculous testifies to those outside of the church and draws them closer to saving faith, so they glorify God. The miraculous also testifies to the church and continues to build our faith, so we also glorify God. And that's the point. We must glorify God in everything.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

In the Meantime, Write New Songs.

So, I realize some of you may have walked away from the last essay without much relief. In fact, my hope was to say, “Life is hard. We’re all frustrated. But God is good and He tells the truth. What can you do? Keep going.” Someone in agony just got a pat on the back. Waiting in trust can suck sometimes. I’m there with you. The question is, what do we do while we wait?

This is why I want to write an addition to Avoiding Ishmaels. Here’s the story. One day, soon after writing the endurance essay, I had a really great day of prayer. God and I talked for hours. When I got up that morning, on my break at work, hanging out at a coffee shop afterward, and in a prayer meeting at a friend’s house later that night. I loved it. I’m about to get super-vulnerable and let you in on part of this conversation. At one point, I asked Him, “Why has it been so hard to write songs lately?” By that time, I had only written four songs in the last year. For those of you who don’t know me well, this is unusual. Then a thought came to me, which is how the Holy Spirit often talks to me. “In the past, when nothing clicked, you would write something new and wait for the unfinished song to develop in its own time.”

If you don’t understand what that means, let me explain. On a few occasions in the past, I wrote a riff or a chorus that I liked, but everything I tried to put around it felt weak in comparison to the one good part. So I would write down or record the good part and move on to something else. Sometimes, it took years for that part to mature into a good song.

The thought in prayer continued, “For the last year, you have played the same riffs over and over until they develop. And so, you’ve only written four songs in the last year. These are good songs that please me, as I was pleased to give them to you. But you have ignored opportunities to discover other songs I wanted to give. This reflects your attitude spiritually. Imagine the riffs are promises. You were given several, and yet you keep pushing on the same handful, neglecting the others. When you find yourself waiting for some promises, pray and work on the others.”

He then reminded me of some specific promises and how I would in time have even bigger things to look forward to. “You focused so much on the old ones you missed asking about the new ones. Now, the promises I already gave are good and please me, but I want you to have more. So, with both songs and promises, ask for more.”

As I’ve thought of this over the past week and a half, I tried it out. I wrote a song. I had fun, recorded it, and sang it a few times to the house. It was easy. I felt like I learned how to write songs all over again and I’m excited to write more. Some of them will go on records, some will stay on Garageband. It doesn’t matter. I’m moving on to new songs while I wait for the others to grow. I have life to experience and a God to love and learn about. I have work to do.

This reminds me of the opening scene in the book of Acts. Jesus rises from the dead and presents Himself to people over the course of forty days. Beginning in Acts 1:4, “Gathering them together, He (Jesus) commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’”

Okay, so Jesus just made an enormous promise to his followers. Because of His death on the cross, he took away the sin separating them from God. The presence of God would soon come among them! But they were focused on another promise and kind of missed that. “So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’” The riff they kept pushing came from the prophets that Messiah would establish the Kingdom of God on earth and rule over the world. They weren’t happy with Rome and wanted Jesus to hurry up and become king already.

“He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’” Essentially, Jesus just told them, “Hey, don’t worry about that right now. We’ll get to that eventually. But I’m going to send the Holy Spirit to dwell in you so you can tell the world about me.” He was trying to tell them about another promise and give them work to do until He returns to set up His kingdom on earth.

They still didn’t get it. “And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.’” Two men, who many believe were angels, told the disciples straight up. “Listen, you’ll just have to wait!” Only then did they go back to Jerusalem and wait for the other promise. And when it came, as you can read in Acts 2, it was awesome. They praised God and told everyone about Jesus.

Like the disciples, we’re still waiting for Jesus to return. I’m still waiting for a foxy, Bible-reading, Jesus-loving lady to date me. We’re all waiting for something that feels centuries away. But I don’t want to stand around staring at clouds while I could be interacting with the Holy Spirit and sharing the Gospel. This is the lesson I am learning. Don’t give up on the old promises. Endure. But in the meantime, write some new songs.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Encouraging Endurance - Or, avoiding Ishmaels.

A pastor I know in Michigan once told me that he sat in the front row of his own sermons. My weblog’s description says that I write about what God teaches me through prayer. Very often, I feel like I’m exposing my own life in Jesus rather than teaching others how to live. For example, Ribs, Patience, and Trust. So I’m going to get a little personal here.

I believe that God has made several promises for my life. I’ve written all of them down and regularly read through them as I pray. He has fulfilled some of them and this encourages me to keep asking for the others. Even so, I have yet to see the other promises fulfilled. Sometimes, as I wait, I become frustrated and even despair. “Will these ever happen?” When I talk about it with other believers, I feel silly because I know in my heart God is faithful. The knowledge of God’s faithfulness, though, doesn’t necessarily make me feel better.

Certainly, you all have experienced this feeling. It’s easy to forget we serve an infinite God who lives outside of time, who created time and has sovereign control over it. Spiritually, we can grow weary in trusting and waiting. In that weariness, I have looked for distractions. Then the distractions become idols as I seek comfort from the frustration. God told me those promises to give me hope for things to come and I believe this is why the writer of Hebrews encouraged believers to endure in their waiting. Hebrews 10:36, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.” (NASB)

In The CJB (Complete Jewish Bible) translation, the word “trust” substitutes for the word “faith”. Trust implies that a person’s life demonstrates their belief in the truth. They have a confidence in what they know. Hebrews 11:1 describes, “Trusting is being confident of what we hope for, convinced about things we do not see.” The following verses describe how different men in the Old Testament trusted God’s promises and were called righteous. This lifestyle is so important, the writer says in verse 6, “And without trusting, it is impossible to be well pleasing to God, because whoever approaches him must trust that he does exist and that he becomes a Rewarder to those who seek him out.”

Of all the people mentioned in this passage, I like the one about Abraham best. Hebrews 11:11, “By trusting, he received potency to father a child, even when he was past the age for it, as was Sarah herself; because he regarded the One who had made the promise as trustworthy.” One could read this verse and think, “Yeah, Abraham. He must have really trusted God with the promise of a son.” But even Abraham and Sarah got tired of waiting at one point. In Genesis 16, Sarah pimps her Egyptian slave-girl out to her husband so they can have a child somehow, anyhow. Abraham doesn’t seem to put up much of a fight, which I find interesting.

So he has sex with his wife’s slave. Of course, this attempt to speed along God’s promise through their own wisdom turned ugly. Hagar, the slave-girl, becomes pregnant with a son named Ishmael. Only then does Sarah regret her actions. She complains to Abraham, who shrugs his shoulders and denies any responsibility in the matter. Sarah quickly comes to hate Hagar, treating her “so harshly that she ran away”. Craig Brown, pastor of City Church in East Nashville, noted how Exodus uses the same word for harsh treatment to describe Egypt’s cruel abuse of the Hebrew slaves. Sarah didn’t just say mean words and give cold looks. This wasn’t mere gossip with the other slaves to vilify Hagar. She beat the shit out of this poor woman, possibly to a point near death.

Looking at the story of Hagar this way, we might think differently of this righteous man of faith who’s trust stood as a testament in Hebrews 11. Instead of judging Abraham, though, we need to recognize this as a cautionary tale of what can happen when we fail to endure. It would do me well to remember what can happen when I try to take matters in my own hands because I’m frustrated and impatient.

When God appears to Abraham in chapter 17, he falls on his face in repentance. In no passage do I see where God punished Abraham for his sin (unless you consider adult circumcision punishment). What does God do? He repeats His promises. He encouraged Abraham to trust His promise and wait for the miracle.

In light of this, we can read that famous passage in Hebrews 12:1-4 with some new perspective. “So then, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (referring to the people spoken of in chapter 11), let us, too, put aside every impediment – that is, the sin which easily hampers our forward movement – and keep running with endurance in the contest set before us, looking away to the Initiator and Completer of that trusting, Jesus – who in exchange for obtaining the joy set before him (or promised to Him), endured execution on a cross as a criminal, scorning the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Yes, think about him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you won’t grow tired or become despondent. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in the contest against sin.”

Jesus, as our example, endured death on the cross because of God’s promises. He knew of the promises in the Old Testament where God would bring salvation through His Son, the Messiah. He repeatedly told His disciples that He had to suffer and die so God might fulfill these promises. During the beatings, mockery, unjust trials, shame, and crucifixion, Jesus could have called down angels and had them slaughter every offender. Yet He obediently endured and continued to trust the Father through it all.

Among the many things I believe God wants to give me, He has promised me a wife and children. A few years ago, I “grew tired and became despondent”. It pains me to say it, but I picked someone who I figured would say yes. We dated, got engaged, and I went on my merry way toward sinful misery. God, in His mercy, convicted me and I ended the relationship. Since then, I’ve continued on in trust, allowing Him to direct my steps toward a wife. But the path doesn’t always make sense and I must admit that I find myself again growing tired. I’m saying this partially to let you know of my own journey in trusting God. I’m also saying this because I need to sit in the front row of my own sermon. Abraham was 100 years old when God gave him Isaac as a son. I don’t think I’ll have to wait that long for God’s promise in my life, but shouldn’t I trust Him as if I did? Do I ever have a right to let doubt and weariness justify my own Ishmaels?

As an encouragement, I’ll end with James 1:2-4. “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (NASB) God uses hard times like these because it produces endurance. It makes us stronger, more able to handle bigger promises and the challenges involved. James tells us that endurance through these struggles will come to our good. In them, we will lack nothing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Just and the Justifier - A look at God's justice through the cross.

“As far as I know.... Jesus's death on the cross is the pinnacle, the foundation of Christianity. Supposedly believing that he dies for our sins makes us Christians, grants us eternal life. But how does it make sense? They say God comes to earth as man and he dies not because he has to, but because he wants to. And that act of humbleness washes away our sin... cleanses us from this sin??? Right? It just doesn't sound right. Sounds like magic. I don't know enough probably. But I don’t see how one of many men dying on a cross helps me or anyone else anymore. I just don’t get it. A guy comes to earth lives a humble yet miraculous life, does great deeds, is persecuted, dies on a cross, frees men from evil.

Tell me what you know.”

(A friend of mine sent me the above message on Facebook. I thought I might share my answer to him in the form of a non-intrusive post.)

Let me start by explaining why I appreciate your questions. First, I can see that you’ve asked these questions honestly. By that, I mean you didn’t ask questions in an attempt to confuse or frustrate, thereby “proving” Christianity as foolish. Some people use this approach as an attack and passive-aggressively disguise it as mere discourse.

Second, you at least recognize Jesus as a person who existed in human history. I can’t tell you how many people have debated this point with me, ignoring all of the historical data and presenting no opposing evidence. If you agree that Jesus was a man, then you’re halfway there, which saves me half the trouble of explaining this to you. Still, some other parts to your questions imply that you are uncertain of Jesus’s divinity. Explaining how Jesus is God would take another discussion, one I welcome, but for this response I want to focus on the significance of the cross.

Third, I appreciated the question of God’s motive in your message. Why would God choose to save us? Many people mistake the ultimate motive for salvation by saying it was purely because of His love for us. While John 3:16 clearly says God sent Jesus out of love for us, the motive goes much deeper. Psalm 115:3 says, “But our God is in Heaven, He does whatever He pleases.” While reading the book Desiring God by John Piper, I learned how God’s ultimate goal is to glorify Himself. So the purpose of Jesus’s crucifixion was to glorify God and please Him. Prophesying about the crucifixion, Isaiah 53:10 says, “But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief.” Knowing this helped me to understand the why behind the crucifixion, because scripture is also clear that we don’t deserve salvation and God is not obligated (whether out of love, goodness, or otherwise) to offer salvation.

You were right in saying this is the foundation and pinnacle of Christianity. I recently read in Death By Love by Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears (a book which I take much information from on this subject) “As important as Jesus’s teaching, kind deeds, and miracles are, surprisingly, it is Jesus’s death and resurrection that are emphasized in Scripture. Matthew devoted 33 percent of his Gospel to Jesus’s final week; Mark, 37 percent; Luke, 25 percent; and John, 42 percent. The rest of the New Testament builds on the reality and power of his death and resurrection, referring to the life of Jesus far less frequently.”

So why did God come to earth to die for our sins? Why was this the main topic of much of the New Testament? The cross, among other things, displays both His perfect justice and mercy. Justice is a massive theme in the Bible. At the beginning, God creates the world and calls it good. By chapter 3 of Genesis, man joins Satan’s rebellion and introduces sin to the world. From there, it seems, it’s a continuous cycle of stories where people sin and receive judgment.

Sin, essentially, is the same thing as crime. God set up law and order in the world when He created it. You and I have both sinned and committed crimes against His law. Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The punishment for these crimes is death. God said this in Genesis 2:16-17. Paul reminds us of this sentencing in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death”. We might not necessarily be killed on the spot when we break God’s law, but sin works out death in every area of our lives. Medical studies have proven angry, bitter, fearful, lazy, etc. people to have a higher likelihood of contracting disease. Lies, lust, jealousy, and resentment bring death to relationships. The examples just go on.

I’m not going to say my metaphors are perfect, but imagine that we commit these crimes and God the perfect judge rightly sentences us to a particular fine. Jesus, as perfectly innocent God, having no crime of His own to pay for, stands up and offers to pay for (or redeem us for) our crime. God the judge says that this would satisfy the court. This satisfaction of the law is called propitiation, and the legal declaration of innocence called justification. Because I accept Jesus’s offer, then I am free from the guilt and penalty of the law. If you don’t accept, then God will still hold you accountable for your crimes. He must demonstrate His law or else He would be an unrighteous judge, the kind we sometimes read about in the news and despise. Sadly, the just punishment is not a “fine” you could ever pay. It’s a death sentence.

Since “all have sinned”, nobody on Earth could pay for another’s sin. Everyone is guilty. It took God the Son coming down as a man, who could die, to live a life we couldn’t live and die in our place. I referred to Romans 3:23, but in addition to this look at verses 24-26. I’ll add some emphasis.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Before I finish, I want to touch on the point of eternal life since you mentioned it. The Bible tells of the eternal God who created everything including time. Eternity, as an attribute, means that He exists outside of time. He is not bound, as Cornelius Van Til says, by a temporal series of events. Otherwise He would have to wait for time to pass until His knowledge became complete. This is impossible in an omniscient God.

The eternal God existing outside of time can look at the whole of time at once. All of human history and mankind’s future are in His sight. The death of Jesus on the cross in history has immense meaning in the work of redemption. There are times that I still struggle with sin. But when I commit that crime against God, because I have put my trust in the work of Christ on the cross, God looks at the cross and continues to declare my forgiveness.

It does no good for God to merely “wipe the slate clean” when you accept Jesus as your Lord and savior. Clean slates have a tendency to get dirty again. However, the Bible teaches us about something called imputation. In this case, the word means an attribute of sin or righteousness is credited to all men by means of another. Paul best explains this in Romans 5 by saying God imputed Adam’s sin to all men born through him. Likewise, through Jesus, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to all who accept Him as their Lord and savior. By accepting Jesus in this way, not only does God legally forgive us of our sin, but He also considers us to have Christ’s righteousness.

This should astonish people. Every other world religion tells of a god requiring people to earn his favor by their good works and suffering. On the other hand, the Bible tells people how God knew of man’s inability to earn salvation. So He fulfilled the law by living a sinless life as a man, suffering, and dying on our behalf. Accepting this truth alone brings salvation and His favor. If sin brings death, and God forgives this sin in a person through Jesus, then the Christian has the promise of eternal life.

I know this might not have answered all the parts to your question and some of my points may have raised other questions. It’s hard to explain a whole doctrine within 2,000 words. But hopefully I’ve given you some understanding on why I believe in the significance of Jesus’s death on the cross.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Worthiness and Reward - Avoiding younger-brother-syndrome.

My friend Ken asked an old girlfriend and I the question, “Do you think you’re a good person?” I said, “Yes.” She hesitated before replying, “Well, it all depends.”

Ken asked me to explain my answer. I shrugged my shoulders and said matter-of-factly, “The Bible says I have died and risen in Christ, that I am hidden in Him. So God sees me as perfect and blameless. I’m good because Jesus is good.” Ken and his wife smiled and showed my girlfriend and I how the Bible explains Christ’s righteousness is given to us when we accept Him. My girlfriend got upset at this and went into a fury about how she knew her own sin and she didn’t think of herself as very good “on those days.” Then she turned to me, “I think you know it, too. You always have the right answer that’ll make everyone happy. You’re just a people pleaser.” We didn’t last much longer as a couple. Even so, she was partially correct at the time.

During that conversation with Ken, I truly believed what I said. I still do. I am not good on my own. But Jesus is good and I am in Jesus. He calls me good, so I am good. However, my attitude sometimes drifts from Christ’s righteousness to self-righteousness. Many of you have heard stories of God leading me to do strange acts of obedience that later become testimony of His goodness. After a certain time of service, I wonder when God will give me the big rewards. You know, a wife and family, a reliable car, or a best-selling book. That sort of thing. “If I do a good job for the Lord,” I’ll think, “then I should get the blessings I want.” It’s like I’m trying to do and say the right things to make God happy with me forgetting He is already pleased with me because of Jesus.

In Luke 15:11-31, Jesus tells a story. “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.’”

The first son, like my ex-girlfriend, knew how wretched he had been. He didn’t feel worthy to have the title of “Son” again. Whether she meant it this way or not, my Ex had essentially said the same thing. “I’m not good enough for Jesus to give me Grace, so I’m going to base my goodness on my merit and only accept His forgiveness.” She saw herself as a sinner-turned-servant instead of God’s princess.

On the other hand, there are times I pout because I don’t immediately experience all of the blessings I expect God to give His hard-working son. I’ll compare my experiences of blessings with others and begin to think somehow I’ve been snubbed. I’m not always in that state of mind, I’m just saying it happens.

People have a tendency to pick on the older son. What a crybaby, right? Can’t he be happy for other people? And we’re right to give this brother a hard time. However, we overlook the fact that the younger brother also had an incorrect view of his relationship with the father. He wanted to work for dad as a servant but didn’t get that far in his rehearsed apology. He said, “I’m not worthy to be called your son.” Then the father interrupted with gifts and joy.

The older son had a twisted sense of entitlement as if his work and obedience warranted blessings as wages. But the father told him, “No, everything of mine was always yours. What’s more, you were never apart from your father.”

Both sons needed the father to tell them, “You’re not my servant, you’re my son. You don’t have to earn my favor because you’re my son.” Does that mean the younger son wouldn’t maybe help dad clean up after the feast? Of course he would, sons do that to honor their fathers. Did the older son never see blessings and gifts from dad? He probably understood that he could ask for those blessings instead of passively waiting for them. Dad obviously liked blessing his kids.

I felt compelled to tell you this so that you might avoid two traps of the enemy. First, for the older-brother-club, be careful that you don’t worship and obey God for what He might give you. Worship and obey God because of who He is. The single greatest blessing He gave was the opportunity of a personal, intimate relationship with Him through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Scripture says in Galatians 3:26, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” As sons, we enjoy all of the Father’s benefits. A servant may have to earn favor, but sons have it as members of the family. “You are with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

For people suffering from younger-brother-syndrome, what would you have thought if the prodigal son insisted on taking the role of a servant and turned down all of the gifts the father gave? You’d call him an idiot. I think the father would have felt grievously wounded. Such a scenario wouldn’t have been an example of righteousness, but pride and stubbornness. When the younger son asked for his inheritance, this communicated that he wished his dad would just die and give him the money. This was intentional estrangement. If the son came back as a servant, he may have admitted his sin, but there would be no healing of the father/son relationship and the distance between them would still exist. This wouldn’t be a story of a homecoming but a boy continuing to demonstrate foolishness.

My second point is this. Younger-brother-syndrome can make a person accept a false attitude of unworthiness that despises the blessings of the God. James 1:17 says, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father,” and the rest of the Bible says you can’t earn any of them. But because of Jesus taking the penalty for the sin in your life, you are free to receive every one of those gifts.

So let God bless you. Don’t feel bad about it. And don’t, under any circumstances, sulk at your own party.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pride and Humility - Understanding how strength can become a destructive weakness

Many people in our church have committed to reading the book of Proverbs three times this summer. When I made this commitment, I also decided to change my actions and thinking when the Holy Spirit highlighted certain passages. The book promises wisdom to young men and I wanted my heart open to receive whatever instruction it offered.

Having read the book several times (dad would make me read through the whole thing as punishment whenever he heard me use foul language, which means I have some catching up to do), I expected to have one or two minor confrontations in what I would read this time. Certain passages about work and savings challenged the way I approached finances. Verses regarding family especially shifted my thinking from “something in the future” to “something I need to prepare for today”. Already, I see the benefit of living according to scripture.

A certain verse stood out during my prayer time one morning. Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” Being a man who frequently suffers from seasons of arrogance, many people around me had quoted “Pride comes before the fall”. It’s not as if I had never noticed the verse before, so I put it out of my mind as a simple moment of recognition, like when I come across old Sunday School memory verses.

Some time later, a friend of mine told me about how he had to discipline his daughter. “She’s a really great kid,” he said. “I don’t want her to feel punished because she’s bad. I want to encourage her with correction.” He asked her to read The Screwtape Letters so she might see some of the ways the enemy uses deception. We talked about Lewis’s point in Mere Christianity where Satan creates nothing and only perverts everything God already created. God creates strength, Satan turns it into brutality. God creates alcohol (believe it, people), Satan pushes for drunkenness. God creates sex, Satan develops porn. This reminded me of a Graham Cooke teaching where he talks about praying in “the opposite spirit”. The idea is that truth is stronger than lies, purity is stronger than impurity, and so on. So when a person is struggling with sin, pray for God to reveal who they are in Jesus and encourage them to live they way He intended. During this teaching, Cooke jokes, “Nobody ever thinks to themselves, ‘I want to be the worst Christian in history!’”

Then I remembered Proverbs 16:18. God has given us all certain gifts and talents. He gave Samson strength, but he became proud and used his strength for selfish purposes. The Bible specifically talks about David’s good looks in 1 Samuel 16. He was attractive, and he eventually gave into sexual sin in 2 Samuel 11. His son Absalom possessed great leadership qualities, but Absolom used his power over the people to incite rebellion in 2 Samuel 15.

Dad used to tell me that my greatest strength is also my greatest weakness. During that period of my life, I could easily detect this in others. A guy I knew in Michigan had incredible relational skills and powers of persuasion. At one time, he told me, it was his life’s mission to get as many people as possible on drugs. Particularly acid. Then Jesus got a hold of him and he became a pastor, using those same gifts for the Kingdom of God. A girl at my old church was an actress and model. She was beautiful and had the ability to capture people’s attention. For about a month, she managed to date two guys at the same time. The dudes were friends and eventually found out about the two-timing. Both confronted her separately and she convinced them that she had broken up with the other. I knew she could use her talent as a way to speak truth onstage, but it turned ugly when she used that talent for people-pleasing offstage.

In my younger days, I used to feel so justified by all these stories. I may have problems, I thought, but at least I’m not like them. The truth was, however, that I was a massive liar. I mean world-class. Half the fun of summer camp was seeing what preposterous story people would believe. At the age of 13, I told people I used much heavier drugs than the ones I actually tried. Supposedly, I’d been in several fights where I came out victorious when in fact I lost almost every one of those humiliating and lackluster scuffles. When I was 14, I told people about how I could have signed a record contract but turned it down. Once, I even convinced a small audience of people that my dad was black.

My strength and weakness were the same. I realized that I had the ability to tell a good story, a believable story. The enemy had used me as an effective tool to spread lies. I was so duped that I even believed some of these stories and many years after my reform had to remind myself, “Oh wait, I made that all up when I was a teenager.” There was a two-year period of time when I dabbled in something called “automatic writing”. I used to blank out my thoughts and write whatever came to mind. At first, the writing was interesting. Over time, though, I wouldn’t even think about what my hand wrote and the material became increasingly dark. It never occurred to me what evil voices I had allowed to speak freely in my mind. Toward the end of this experiment, I even saw some of the stuff I was writing, not necessarily understanding that I was writing the vision. The whole experience freaked me out so much that I stopped writing outside of school papers for a few years. In a perverse sort of way, I was even proud of my ability to keep from sinning by not writing.

God gave me these gifts to glorify Him but then I became proud when I realized the power of what I possessed. The enemy had me using my storytelling for sinful purposes. Automatic writing twisted a God-given gift and proved a counterfeit of my ability to hear His voice. When I first decided to repent of these things, I feared what would happen if I continued to use my gifts and stopped altogether. At first, I was in bondage to sin, and then I was in bondage to the fear of sin. Both prevented me from using the gifts God had given for His glory, and so both forms of bondage proved unrighteous. Pride in my abilities truly had brought destruction.

A similar verse in Proverbs 29 says, “A man's pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor.” This goes back to Xerox Copies. God is ultimate and so deserves all glory, honor, and praise. The gifts and talents we have make us proud when we think they originated within ourselves, but they can become powerful, kingdom-building tools when we recognize their purpose and source in God. If a Christian recognizes the truth of Galatians 2:20, having their identity in Jesus, then a humble attitude of his strength will bring honor to the One who truly deserves it.

In terms of sin, it can also bring freedom. Think about your struggles. To my friend who used to be the Apostle of Acid, God humbled him and put him in public ministry. That part of his life found redemption. After my life as a career liar and automatic writer, God told my dad to help him write his book. Now, years later, I find myself writing to God’s glory and telling stories to build people’s faith. Where I once feared I would sin using these gifts, I rejoice in the redemption I have experienced.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Give Us a Sign.

A man I met at work recently read Stark Raving Obedience. After a few minutes of conversation, he made it known that he believed in God and worked as a missionary. A week later, he handed me a slip of paper. “These are some questions I have about your faith,” he said. Since my shift had not yet ended, I told him that I would read his questions later and write my answers. I planned on writing him a note, but after I read these questions, I decided to write a post.

The note reads, “If God really speaks to you, some questions.

1. My middle name.
2. My father’s middle name.
3. My grandfather’s names (father’s father and mother’s father)
4. Grammatical use of “dad and I” & “dad and me”
5. Where did you get a story of a woman standing on her head?”

When this man told me he wanted to ask questions about my faith, these were not the questions I expected. However, this is not the first time someone has asked me to prove that I hear God speak.

I want to make it clear that hearing God’s voice leads to a closer relationship with Him. The purpose of this dialogue is to develop intimacy and ultimately for God to glorify Himself. When God tells me to pray for a complete stranger’s healing, it can seem strange at first. But when it so happens the stranger has an ailment or injury, I’m excited by the confirmation. Then, if we see healing occur at that moment (which has happened on a few occasions), God gets the praise and I learn to trust His voice even more.

On the other hand, for the man who wants me to recite his genealogy, what does he hope for? If I give him incorrect answers, does that supposedly prove God’s silence and my delusion? If I answer correctly, what would that accomplish? Would it bring him closer to God? To be honest, I don’t want to treat my conversations with God like a game of Mind Reader.

Some Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign in Matthew 12:38-40. “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’” A chapter earlier, they questioned His divinity and now ask for a sign as proof. Jesus refuses to perform tricks and says, in essence, that His death and resurrection will have to do. As if that weren’t enough, right?

Four chapters later in Matthew 16, the text tells us that the Pharisees approached Jesus with some Sadducees and again asked for a sign as a test. In fact, the text in Stern’s translation from the Hebrew says they did this in order to trap Him. Again, Jesus rebuffs them and repeats himself in verse 4. “‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.’ And He left them and went away.”

The Lord brought two things to mind as I thought of these passages in Matthew. First, Pharisees and Sadducees were theologically opposed to each other much in the same way that we see opposition between Armenians and Calvinists today. I had to laugh. Isn’t it funny how Jesus can bring people together? Even if it’s to oppose Him? Just a thought.

Second, I wondered how they intended to trap Him with their request. Jesus, as God, had the power to show them His divinity. Hadn’t He performed signs and wonders throughout His ministry? Then I remembered some passages in John. First, in John 6, Jesus miraculously fed five thousand people then told them to seek Him and not the sign. Most of the people didn’t like this rebuke. In fact, even the disciples found it hard to swallow at first. Then in John 7, the Jews question Jesus’s education as He teaches in the temple. He responds in verses 16-18, “So Jesus answered them and said, ‘My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me. If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself. He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but He who is seeking the glory of the One who sent Him, He is true, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.’” Now in John 8:12-13, “Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.’ So the Pharisees said to Him, ‘You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.’” In the following verses, Jesus explains how His relationship with the triune God allows the three parts to testify and glorify each other. They missed the point about His relationship with the Father, how He only said what the Father told Him to say, how He sought to bring glory to God.

I’m not Jesus. I don’t deserve the honor and glory and I shouldn’t do anything to seek praise due to Him. I want to point people to Jesus. I don’t want to waste time defending myself. When I read this man’s list of questions, I felt so much disappointment. Were these questions about my faith, I would have gladly answered them. But they seemed like a test of my truthfulness, sanity, and grammar. So, I respectfully decline to answer all but one of His questions. He asked where I got a story about a woman standing on her head. Fifteen years ago, a woman in a mid-Michigan church heard God and obeyed. My father came in contact with her through a friend of his, her pastor at the time. Since then, the story has grown legs and unfortunately suffered from a game of telephone. We are certain of the story’s accuracy as we tell it. If that isn’t convincing enough, we have fifteen more years of stories like hers.

I tell these stories in hopes that they will build people’s faith and come to understand more of the one true God who is both infinite and personal. Jesus forgive me for any other motive.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Miracles - Some questions on differing opinions.

Before I begin, I want to let you know that I’ll do my best to lighten up. The past several posts have dealt with issues that really messed with my faith. After a couple of months wrestling with scripture in prayer and discussion, I realize that I might have laid it on pretty thick. Ever tried to chew a peanut butter sandwich with a solid inch of Jiffy?

So I thought to myself, “I want to write about something fun, light. Enough with this heavy stuff for once.” For some reason, I figured miracles might make for an easier post. A breather. Everyone likes to hear about miracles, right? And as stories, they’re a snap to write. “Someone had cancer, people prayed, God healed the person.” Everyone applaud! “A single mom doesn’t have money to feed her kids and prays for provision, then money or an opportunity seemingly materializes out of thin air.” God be praised!

I’ve personally witnessed dozens of testimonies like the ones above. When someone gives a testimony of God’s power moving, God receives the glory. That’s how it’s supposed to work. But I’m going to tell you about a few instances where testimonies of miracles had a different effect.

Since reading 1 Corinthians 2:4-5, I’ve tried to change how I communicate Jesus with others, “my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” Instead of merely rattling off The Romans Road (which I agree is effective in certain situations), I’ve begun to share my testimony of God’s miracles and then offer to pray for people. If God moves (and He often does), then the person would see the power of Jesus for himself. They would have a harder time claiming that I cast a spell over them with “persuasive words of wisdom”. God be praised.

God healed my back of severe scoliosis after a church service in 1997. I mean, it was severe, folks. It’s a miracle I don’t have rods in my back. God has miraculously provided for my needs ever since I moved to Nashville. When people ask about my story, I automatically this stuff. Graham Cooke explained, “Your testimony is not what God once did in your life years ago. Your testimony is who God is in your life all the time.”

One night after an IKAIK concert, these girls invited me to hang out with them at another bar. They probably didn’t expect me to talk about God as much as I did, but that’s what happens when you ask about my life. I tell you about my relationship with Him. After about half an hour, a guy came over to our table and asked, “What are you guys talking about?”
The girl who invited me replied, “He’s talking about how lucky he is.”
“Luck,” I laughed. “I wouldn’t call it that.”
She said, “What would you call it?”
“God’s blessing,” I said.
She immediately responded, “Well I wouldn’t call it that.”

As I wrote out the notes for this post, a guy at work asked what I was writing. When I told him I intended to write about miracles, he asked, “which do you think it is, miracles or chance?”
“I think miracles are a part of God’s rational order,” I said.
“It’s all random chance,” he said.
I started laughing. He asked, “How can you believe in an ordered and reasonable God?”
“For one, I’ve seen Him miraculously answer my prayers.” I told him about how God healed my back. He then, whether on purpose or not, shifted the focus of the discussion. To me, the story of my healing is God’s power displayed. My co-worker’s only argument against it was to claim randomness, which no person in their heart can truly have faith to live by. A cook’s job requires a high degree of precision. If he were to apply his belief in Random Chance on cooking, chaos would burn his buns.

These stories might not surprise you. To be honest, they don’t surprise me, either. 1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Cornelius Van Til wrote extensively on the problems of explaining the Christian faith to those who don’t know Jesus because they have no context with which to give meaning to facts. I understand that without the Holy Spirit’s revelation, people cannot know God. Even so, I’ll continue to share my testimony, pray for people, and yeah, even reason with them.

My main concern here isn’t for people who don’t claim to know Jesus. I want to know how people in the church can claim to know Jesus but deny the miraculous today. In a piece written by First Fruits of Zion called “The Fingerprints of God”, the author writes, “As believers in a Divine Creator, we must learn to sharpen our sense of wonder to detect the inherent godliness that is infused into every particle of creation.” In one sense, a person can look at the world around them, recognize God’s order in creation, and praise Him for that miracle. Beyond that, though, I believe that God has control over every particle of creation. It’s not that miracles work outside the laws of reality, but rather God in His perfect knowledge of creation can work in ways we are sometimes unable to comprehend.

Did God ever give up this control? If God only does things that will bring glory to Himself, would cessation fit in with His plan? In this life we will experience hardships, pain, and suffering. We will pray to God and we won’t always see the result we expected. Does that mean God has somehow given up His sovereign control over creation? Does it mean that He decided to make the universe a dice game after the Apostles died? Replacing the miraculous with coincidence at any level, I think, would call God’s majesty into question. It allows for something to exist outside of His control.

Now, for the Christian, if you accept that miracles do happen today, what’s stopping you from asking for them? If you’re worried about pulling a Simon from Acts 8, then you’ve already got a good start. Your motives should be to glorify God and advance His kingdom. Are you worried that you might have to defend God if He doesn’t move the way you asked Him to? Well, He’s the one in charge. You don’t own the result of your prayers.

Think about this. Before Jesus sent out His followers in Matthew 10, He said, “As you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give.” Hebrews 2:3-4 reiterates Jesus’s pattern with preaching and miracles. The verse I quoted from 1 Corinthians 2 shows Paul and his companions demonstrating God’s miraculous power. In chapter 12, he even promises the gift of performing miracles to those in the Corinthian church.

I know I wanted to keep this light, but the seriousness of Matthew 11:20-22 kept nagging me. “Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.’” Why was Jesus so hard on His own people? Because they knew God and should have recognized the power of His Spirit when it manifested in miracles. But they denied it, called Jesus the carpenter’s son, and shrugged off the message of salvation He intended to send with His miracles.

This post doesn’t really have a final point. I never intended to write on why I believe in the existence of miracles. Like I said earlier, they happen around me all the time, so I know they exist. But the reactions I get from both cessationists and unbelievers seemed too similar to ignore. What do you all think about this? Do you have any stories that can only be explained as miraculous? Do you think God lost interest in surprising people? Let me know.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Be Holy – Some thoughts on punishment vs. correction

Somewhere around nine months ago, and once or twice since then, I’ve offered to answer any reader’s question in the form of a post. So far, Adam has been the only one to ask anything. It turned out to be a pretty good post, although I might explain the point differently now while using the same metaphor. Well, Adam, ol’ buddy, you wanted to know if I thought God still punishes us for our sins. I’m glad you asked…

For anyone who has read my weblog over the past few months, you know how I feel about God’s sovereignty. He’s perfect, self-sufficient, and ultimate. I talked about His glory as the sum total of all His attributes. I’ve written on how these things relate to us. In order to talk about God’s justice, I’ll have to make clear what I believe defines His holiness. Where God’s glory is everything about Him, His holiness is the perfection of His presence.

Throughout the second half of Exodus, God talks of making the Hebrews a holy nation and a people unto Himself. He instructs the people on how to build and use the tabernacle so that His presence might dwell among them. The people could come near God’s presence to worship Him in the Holy Place and God’s presence resided in the inner room called the Holy of Holies. What made these things holy? His presence.

Before God came to dwell among His people, He made a covenant with them, a contract that set up the rules of their relationship. In order for God to give them His presence, they needed to observe His law because sin separates us from Him. This, in itself, shows God’s graciousness. Man had previously proven himself to break covenants when Adam and Eve sinned in Genesis 3. The covenant given to Moses, much like the one given to Adam, essentially says “Obedience to the Law will bring life, disobedience will bring death.”

Some might object to the logic of this covenant because our relativistic society finds offense with anything so rigid. But for those who accept God’s perfection and self-sufficiency, its necessity becomes clear. Since He is perfect, His ways are perfect. Anyone who denies God’s law and goes his own way has challenged God and denied His sovereignty. They have given themselves over to idolatry not realizing how their idols will fail.

So, after God comes to dwell among the Hebrews, they continue to sin and break the covenant. God sometimes held back His anger in mercy, other times He punished their disobedience. But the people seemed to sin persistently. Even as God gave Moses the law (everyone clearly agreed to follow and obey God in Exodus 19), the people made an idol to worship. Moses told the people in Deuteronomy 9:8, “Even at Horeb you provoked the LORD to wrath, and the LORD was so angry with you that He would have destroyed you.” God loves His people and they continued to treat Him with contempt. According to the covenant, this brought death. Ezra 5:12 says about the sins of Israel, “But because our fathers had provoked the God of heaven to wrath, He gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this temple and deported the people to Babylon.” Why would God send an invading army to kill and destroy His own people? Because for Him to overlook sin would be the same as an earthly judge releasing a known rapist without penalty. It would be injustice for Him not to punish a lawbreaker. Paul writes in Romans 4:15, “for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.” It seems no one escapes this responsibility. Romans 1:18-19 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.”

History shows how man, on his own, will sin. We are incapable of true righteousness apart from God. And God knew this. In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abraham symbolically promising to take responsibility for the sin of him and his descendants. This covenant was fulfilled in Jesus, who never sinned and lived in perfect obedience to God. Yet He died in our place, sparing us the punishment demanded for sin (Romans 6:23).

Now the rules have changed. A person can be justified through faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Romans 3 explains this. The gift of salvation is given, not earned, through our faith in Jesus. But, as Wayne Grudem says in Systematic Theology, it isn’t enough for us to have the slate wiped clean in a legal sense. Adam had that advantage and blew it. Eventually, we would most certainly blow it. Nobody’s perfect, right? Then God did something so beautiful. He placed us “in Christ”, or as Colossians 3:3 says, “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Paul made this statement to support what he told the Colossians in chapter 1 verses 21-22. “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.”

The question was, “does God still punish us for sin?” In the case of those who have accepted Jesus, I ask, “how can God make us pay a penalty for sin when Jesus took our punishment on the cross?” The answer is, “He can’t, but better yet, He won’t. We’re hidden in Jesus and God sees us as perfect, blameless, and beyond reproach.”

However, this doesn’t mean life’s a gas from here on. Hebrews 12 describes God disciplining us as sons. Think about it, a good father doesn’t punish for the sake of rules. He disciplines in order to train his son to do good and avoid evil. The father does this out of love for his son. Again, in Revelation 3:19, God says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.” Another word for “discipline” is “correct”. Correction means taking something wrong and make it right. Proverbs 22:15 says that foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, and the theme of proverbs revolves around a loving parent talking to a son. God has used hard situations to reveal areas of anger, unbelief, etc in my life. As one of His foolish children, I need this correction.

Now, hardship isn’t limited to either punishment or correction. Sometimes it’s accusation or condemnation from the enemy. Revelation 12 says that Satan accuses us day and night. Certainly he wants us to believe that God’s correction is punishment. To agree with such a thought would deny the completion of Christ’s work on the cross.

More importantly, I think we need to see that Jesus never eliminated the law of sowing and reaping found in Galatians 6:7-8. There were a lot of mornings that I reaped hangovers after a night of heavy drinking. Would you call that punishment or the fruit of a seed? God set this in place to help us recognize the consequence of sin and encourage us to reap the benefits of righteous living.

There are Christians who think God changes how He feels based on their behavior. Consider this: if your behavior didn’t save you, does behavior un-save you? According to Scripture, we’re kept by God’s power, hidden in Jesus, where nothing can separate us from the Father’s love (Romans 8:39). Romans 8:1 is very clear that God does not condemn us, and we even have His promise of renewal in 2 Corinthians 5:17. Going back to the old covenant, God gave a command in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Think about that in terms of God’s presence and, as Graham Cooke says, it begins to sound more like a blessing than a stern rule. Through Jesus, God gave us the presence of His Holy Spirit, thus making us holy.

Fruit is important. What fruit comes out of the trials you face? If you are a believer who struggles with addiction, depression, impure thoughts, and so on, seek God’s correction knowing His love for you. Learn the difference between the accusing voice of Satan and the (mostly) gentle conviction of the Holy Spirit. One produces despair and a feeling of hopelessness, but godly sorrow is always meant to lead us to repentance and life.