Friday, March 31, 2017

three essential outcomes for a New Testament church

I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.
Romans 15:14

Paul wrote these confident words to a church filled with Christians he had never met. In fact, the rest of Romans 15 details his hopeful plans for traveling to Rome to visit them for the first time. There were evidently some people there who knew Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, but the book of Romans was meant to be Paul's first preaching of the gospel to them.

Even though Paul had never set foot in a meeting of this church, he was confident that three things marked the fellowship there already: goodness, knowledge, and competent caring instruction. These three marks of church health are still to be found in solid New Testament, gospel-centered churches even today. They are worth contemplating as much now as when Paul commended these characteristics to the church in Rome.

First, New Testament churches are full of goodness. The good works that result from the change toward holiness affected by our salvation and the focus of the gospel on God saving us in Christ will show fruit in what we do. God's holiness will be demonstrated to the world. As Jesus commanded, so we live, so that men may see our good works and glorify God.

Secondly, New Testament churches have spiritual knowledge. The gospel is the truth about salvation and Jesus Christ. The Word of God preached is the saturating influence on all we do or believe in the church. That knowledge changes us, even as it shapes our theology and our consistent message over the history of the church... at this point through multiple cultures around the world and across two millennia of world history.

Finally, biblical churches have members skilled in admonishing, helping, and instructing each other. This is much more than mere teaching. It involves directive care to apply the goodness and knowledge that marks the church to the real lives of the disciples in her midst. It is counsel and care that is the staple of any ministry of biblical counseling, as well as the outworking of church-based discipleship. It is disciple-making disciplemakers making disciples in the context of real life. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

weary... waiting... working

I am weary with my crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
Psalm 69:3

Sometimes there are seasons of sustained weariness in the life of a believer. I've known them with some regularity. I am familiar with David's description of a soul weary from crying out to God. Like an inconsolable child who cries himself to sleep in a fit, sometimes it is a soul tantrum of sorts that gets me in this season. And then the Holy Spirit of God uses the Word of God to confront my selfish fighting and lead me to repentance of a "want life" that is out of control.

But there are other times more in keeping with David's description in the sixty-ninth psalm. There are times of life defined by pain or loss. There are real times when we may suffer due to our faith's convictions. There are times when we will not understand why people treat us as they do and we cry out to God for relief, hope, and deliverance. And if those times extend into days and weeks of fervent prayer in the pain, our souls can be weary as we wait for God to work. It isn't always easy to trust God. Sometimes it really hurts, but God is still good, holy, just and loving, even as we wait. And often it is the process of waiting that He is using to work a new faith and confidence in us we never would have known without the weary wait.

I compare these spiritual seasons to my one experience with physical therapy a couple years back. The days I worked with a therapist to restore my injured shoulder were long, hard, and painful. An hour's therapy session was felt the rest of the day... often into the next day. Two months of regular physical therapy felt like an eternity. I did not enjoy waiting through the physical exercise and pain. But it led to healing. Because I waited and worked through the difficulty, I now have full use of my left arm. But the waiting and the working in weariness are not experiences I ever want to go through again.

Sometimes God wants me to go through a necessary spiritual workout of weary waiting while He works in me His good purposes. God is in those times and I will be blessed as I bear through them. I believe that even if the prospect of those times is never desired.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

giving: sharing the joy of God's abundance

And you shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.
Deuteronomy 26:11

This command to rejoice in the great provision that God gave Israel was given to the nation by Moses in the wilderness as Israel prepared to enter Canaan and take the Promised Land. God commands that the nation settle into the inheritance and that in the first years on their farms they bring a tenth of their land's produce to the tabernacle. This "firstfruits" offering was to express gratitude to God for giving them such productive land. It was used to provide food for the priests and Levites and was also distributed to the poor and needy among the nation. It was a gift of worship meant to bring joy to the giver of the gift and many others along the way.

This gift of the tenth of the crops was a blessing in a basket. It came to the tabernacle where the Levites then distributed the food among themselves (it was their only wage) and out to sojourners and poor families such as widows and orphans who lived in Israel. It blessed broadly when given cheerfully. It brought joy to the giver and helped many. God's good blessings are meant to be shared. That's why Israel was commanded to make this gift.

And with that same joy, I should give today. When I bring my gift to the Lord through the church, I hope to share in the joy of seeing God's gracious provision for my family shared with others. I bless the pastors and staff whose living is made possible by joyful gifts. I bless the poor and needy as the gospel goes forward and the church helps others in need. And we all then rejoice in the goodness of our God! That is the way I want my heart to give... with a firstfruits kind of vision and joy.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

choosing Barabbas

Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!”
Matthew 27:22

The crowd chose freedom for a thieving insurrectionist over the release of Jesus. In the mob-induced frenzy the irony is clear: they chose a man who violently sought political change over the Prince of Peace Who is King of kings and Lord of lords. They rejected the true King in favor of their own rule by force. The mob outside Pilate's governor's mansion wanted Jesus crucified. Yet this was God's sovereign plan.

Pilate knew well that Jesus was delivered over solely for the pride of religious leaders who wanted Him shut down out of their envy of Jesus (Matthew 27:18). Pilate had hoped that by narrowing the choices in their annual prisoner release program to only two very different choices, one clearly a societal menace, the other a man falsely accused, that the crowd would make the right choice and free Jesus. Pilate gambled and lost with a very wrong guess! The mob chose Barabbas.

Theologically though, this is no surprise for a couple of reasons. First, we usually underestimate depravity to our hurt. And the mob is worked up by the proud and jealous Sanhedrin to support their wicked plan. In this crowd, sinful humanity is exponentially compounded with increased depravity. And no good will come of it. The pull of the intense gravity of sin cannot be escaped. Secondly, the inevitability that Jesus would be crucified instead of Barabbas is a powerful first picture of substitutionary atonement. Jesus took the place of a murderous rebel on the cross... and in that way literally showed us what He was dying for. Jesus would die for the worst of sins and in the place of condemned people the Lord of heaven would give His life. The pain He suffered, the death He died, the immensity of the Father's wrath would all fall on very real sins that Jesus bore on that cross for all sinners. By dying instead of Barabbas, Jesus died for my sins, instead of me paying the debt and suffering the punishment. The love and mercy is profoundly real in the delivering death of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.

Monday, March 27, 2017

living sacrifice

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Romans 12:1

My Lord I offer to You... me
all that I am I give to You
my self wants it back
but I must go through
with offering the living sacrifice

I live in a body, Lord, as You did
when You lived and died for me
You know what I do in this body
I can't hide from what You see
so as I live, I'll be the living sacrifice

You have given life, Lord, to me
I live and breath and have my being
by Your grace and mercy I am strong
and from sin's control Your Spirit is freeing
me, so that I can be the living sacrifice

Holy and acceptable to God now
because of what Jesus did for me too
I have something precious, redeemed by Christ
to care for, love, and give back now to You
as I offer You my own life, the living sacrifice

Friday, March 24, 2017

atoned and indwelt

When iniquities prevail against me,
you atone for our transgressions.
Psalm 65:3

When penned by King David in this psalm, this fact was true. God atoned for sins through the sacrificial system that the next verse (Psalm 65:4) has clearly in view with its picture of the obedient, forgiven sinner enjoying the nearness of God in His house. This atonement came about by the death of a sacrifice so that sinners could know peace with God, enjoying the presence of God.

And that part is still very much the same today (the blessing that is), except now our own bodies become the temple where we can know God's presence and the atonement through the sacrifice offered by Jesus once for all. When our iniquities prevailed against us, Christ died to atone for our transgressions. And now with the Spirit Who raised Jesus from the dead living right inside us, we can know peace with God and the presence of God. Our Lord could be no more near to us than this!

Lord Jesus,
Thank You for providing that atonement because sin prevailed against me. I was beaten by sin. My iniquities won over me and doomed me from ever coming to worship my holy God. But You died for me so that my transgressions are atoned. And You rose again having appeased the Father's wrath against sin so that the grave has no power over me! There is no greater achievement among humankind for me to celebrate. And it is my greatest joy to trust Your saving work for me.

Holy Spirit of God,
You chose to make each believer a temple in which You dwell. I am Your place of presence. I don't have to look any further than my own life to know that Jesus has saved me and God is with me. May holiness fill me as Your temple. May I maintain with willful obedience and love and faith in what You have done for me so that Your temple is beautiful, majestic with Your presence, and dedicated to Your glory.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Law was hard.

And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.
Deuteronomy 6:25

As beautiful as the relationship of saving care was in the Old Testament, it was also deadly serious when it came to God's Law. God rescued Israel from Egypt and brought them into a fertile and wonderful land as their inheritance. He blessed them with His presence, with the means for worship of Him, and with the clarity of the thorough legal code. Israel under the covenant of the Law was bound to obey God and was promised clear blessing when they did so. Obedience to the Law brought righteousness before God and bountiful blessings from His hand.

God provided the measures for this righteousness in the Law. He also provided the means for it through all the clear commands. He established a priesthood, atoning sacrifices, proper worship, practices of holiness, and unique distinctives for His covenant people that set Israel apart as His chosen people, destined to bring glory to the name of their God. This was how God was making Himself known in the revelation of His Word, the worship of His people, and His provision for those in covenant with Him. It was really a beautiful work of God. It was also incredibly hard for sinners to obey all of it.

Each new generation had the serious responsibility of owning the story of the covenant, committing to it, believing God, and passing it on to the next generation. That's one of the features early in the book of Deuteronomy. It challenges parents to instruct their families well in the details of the Law and most importantly, in the "why" behind the obedience. They had to appreciate God's saving history of the nation, commit to obey the law in the present life of the nation, and to faithfully equip the future generation to do the same for the safety and prosperity of the nation. And in the duty hung the success or failure of an entire people group. When Israel failed God, this did not happen. When the people turned to God, it did.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

wavering courage and falling disciples

Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.”
Matthew 26:33-34

I, like Peter, would like to think of myself with a faith so bold that I would never turn from Jesus under pressure. I'd probably have said something similar as these men did under these circumstances. Jesus rightly predicted all His disciples would hide in fear during His arrest, trials, and crucifixion. And according to Matthew 26:35, Peter was not alone in his insistence that he would never fail his Master. All the disciples said the same.

But they did the opposite of what their bravado vainly boasted. They all fled at His darkest hours. Peter even adamantly denied knowing Jesus three times before the morning of the crucifixion arrived. Being a committed disciple facing death is probably easier said than done. Courage is cheap when it is advertised, costly and very rare when it is called into action. All the disciples would find their faith tested in this horrible time of failure.

I'm glad the gospels present this reality of the disciples falling away to us. It testifies to the veracity of the events. The disciples to a man experienced meltdowns of faith and that makes perfect sense with human nature. It squares with historical accuracy because most assuredly a legendary tale would have presented the future leaders of the church in a better light. They would not have been so frail. But the true events depicted with integrity for us show that Jesus was vulnerable before Pilate and the Jewish courts because His death was a necessary sacrifice at the very center of the drama for human redemption. The disciples were weak and wavering men because they needed to be redeemed! They experienced the trauma of unbelievable events. Their fear is actual because the events are recorded in the gospels with historical integrity. Jesus died for sin... even to forgive the sins of lack of courageous faith among His own followers.

If the men who saw Jesus heal the sick, walk on water, feed the hungry, and raise the dead had a faith that wavered even as they literally walked with Jesus, I am left to conclude that a disciple's faith is very hard. That is why we need Jesus to have done redemption completely for us, because we do not have the capacity. We are weak. We are broken. We need Jesus to have completed our redemption so that faith solely in His work credits us before God. There is no other way for people who fall away.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

pursue by faith

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written,
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Romans 9:30-33

With this simple exposition of Isaiah 28:16, Paul lays out the clear explanation of just why the Gentile world was turning to the gospel, even as Jews were tending to reject Jesus. Israel had been placed as God's light to the Gentile world. They had been given the Law, the Prophets, and the Savior Jesus Christ to share with the world. Yet they had neglected that faithful responsibility for the most part, caught up in the soul-destroying mess of legalism that instead rejected God's grace that had been poured out to them in Jesus. The gospel in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection was Israel's stumbling stone laid by God in Zion. The resulting works-based religion kept them from embracing the faith necessary to believe the gospel.

Works righteousness is shown to be a serious gospel killer. Paul's teaching was that it kept Israel as an ethnic group largely ineffective in pleasing God. They chose, as a group, to follow works-based righteousness rather than faith-based repentance, belief, and obedience from the heart. They failed at keeping the law by works. They could not accept Jesus by faith as long as they were caught in the trap of their works.

Jesus calls me to repent and believe the saving message of His atoning death for my sins. He calls me to believe that in His resurrection I have new and eternal life. And only after I have done this can I obey God's Word and live in the holiness provided for me in Jesus. I am called then to a life of faith-filled repentance and belief as I keep turning from sin to obey God's truth and be more like Jesus. Even then it is only possible because the Holy Spirit has regenerated me and empowered me to do so. I am a sinner, saved by grace, not by works so that I can only boast in Jesus!

Monday, March 20, 2017

under His banner

You have set up a banner for those who fear you,
that they may flee to it from the bow. Selah
That your beloved ones may be delivered,
give salvation by your right hand and answer us!
Psalm 60:4-5

The sixtieth psalm is this unusual mix of defeated pain and trusting strength. It is hard to understand it except to know that it must have been written on the heels of a very difficult episode in David's kingship. We get some clues from the heading. The superscription labels it a "Miktam" which is a song of teaching and it states that it is for "instruction". It appears to have been written around the events of 2 Samuel 8 in which David's general Joab secured a costly and great victory. But apparently before the victory, Israel was at a deep spiritual low according to this psalm.

The opening three verses depict God in His anger against Israel's sin rejecting the nation so that defenses were broken. Imagery of an earthquake is used to describe the demoralized nation. They are compared to dazed, traumatized war victims, staggering from the after effects of some nightmarish loss in battle. This sets the scene for the confident cry of verses four and five.

Though weak and traumatized, demoralized Israel could find help in the fear of the Lord. God's fighting banner still flew over the nation and they could run under its protection again. There, in worship and obedience to the Lord, they would be safe from the reach of the enemy's bow. And there they could rest in God again.

From the security of faith, David instructs the nation to pray for three things: 1) deliverance from the enemy, 2) salvation by God's strong right hand and 3) answers from the Lord for their repeated cries for help. They could only pray this confidently when they were close enough to God and His law to live obediently. In the shelter of His banner, they could find help.

The psalm ends in the confident assurance that God is in control of Gentile lands (Psalm 60:6-8) and while trust in man is futile, God will only lead the victory (Psalm 60:9-12). That is the faith that is rewarded.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Day of Atonement

...but you shall offer a burnt offering to the Lord, a pleasing aroma: one bull from the herd, one ram, seven male lambs a year old: see that they are without blemish.
Numbers 29:8

Once a year
in Israel's past days
nine animals died
so sin's guilt could go away
on the day of atonement

On that day
a bull was burned
on the altar of sacrifice
so guilt would be turned
on the day of atonement

A ram was killed
so that guilt would be gone
as the blood ran
down the altar, sin was atoned
on the day of atonement

Seven lambs were slain
without blemish and pure
so that the nation could be
forgiven and holiness restored
on the day of atonement

But it all ended on the day
when the Lamb of God was slain
on Calvary's cross
His blood was spilled to attain
complete salvation: our Day of Atonement

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

guilty of not being ready

Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.
Matthew 24:45-56

The one facet of the gospel story that makes the most Christians nervous is the reality of Jesus returning to earth. Even among evangelicals there is so much disagreement doctrinally on the particulars. Seminaries often find it best to teach a spectrum of theology on the subject and let students land on their own personal interpretations and theologies. Yet Jesus Himself gave thorough teaching on the end times and the fact of His Second Coming. He spoke of it lots to His disciples just before His crucifixion and resurrection. The repeated emphasis to the disciples throughout His teaching was that they needed to be faithful and ready for Him at His return.

But two millennia have gone by and the return of Jesus is hardly ever mentioned among Christians and rarely featured in our telling of the gospel story. Why is that? Are we embarrassed of this theological fact? Do we fear that proclaiming the doctrine of Christ's return will somehow make people think we are members of a weird doomsday cult? We don't want to look like Jim Jones or Branch Davidians, so we say nothing, and don't even look like Jesus in our preaching, Who spoke much on the subject factually and clearly. Really, the entirety of the gospel is subject to mockery by unbelievers, so why do we just pick out the Second Coming and only get nervous about the ultimate end of Jesus' salvation to rule the earth and restore the universe to wholeness?

It occurs to me that by neglecting the doctrine of Jesus' return, we forfeit the blessing that Jesus promises in this Matthew 24. To be a faithful servant, one must live as if the Master returns today. This is a wisdom the gospel prepares us to receive and instructs us to live. We need to be about our Master's business. We need to proclaim to the story of His life, His death and resurrection, saving offer of life to sinners, and His soon and imminent return to rule this earth. Jesus says He will be back again. He has kept every one of His promises and has been raised from the dead to give to His people all things. He is the truth. He will return.

Please forgive Your neglectful servant for being less than watchful for Your return. I will heed Your warning and hope in the promised blessing in my heart, words, and deeds as I seek to faithfully serve because You will be back.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

belonging to another

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.
Romans 7:4

Jesus, in His death and resurrection, changed forever how we relate to God's Law. We now belong to Him Who perfectly fulfilled the Law's demands, and through His sacrifice eliminated the condemnation of the Law that demanded our sacrifices for sin. In His resurrection we have new life so that we can have a life in Him that bears fruit pleasing to God. It isn't about my efforts to please God by keeping the Law. Now it is about having died to those demands in Jesus so that I can live in obedience to the Lord by His saving grace.

And the relationship with Christ is about much more than sheer duty to obey. I would fail at that. Paul says instead that we "belong... to him who has been raised from the dead". To belong to Jesus is linked to the marriage analogy Paul has been employing in Romans 7:2-3. When we come by faith to Jesus, the relationship is binding two hearts together like a marriage. We belong to Jesus in this new sense of being joined to Him. We are His, and no longer do our sins condemn us under the Law. We now know a new love perpetuated by repentance, receiving forgiveness, trusting Christ's work for us, and finding in His grace and mercy the capacity to obey and live in holiness through the Spirit's enabling. Jesus saves us and provides the means for us to truly bear good, holy, righteous fruit for God.

Lord Jesus,
Thank You, my loving Lord, for freeing me from the Law's demands so that through Your saving work and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit I may know a life pleasing to God. I am Yours. I am not my own for I was bought with the price of Your life's blood. And I belong to You. You love me. You saved me. You call me to know and follow You. And so I want to live as Yours so that good fruit might be shown in my life.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Real fear. Real faith.

When I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can flesh do to me?
Psalm 56:3-4

In the confidence of past deliverance David bravely sang out this prayer. He boldly trusted God in the midst of attack from people bent on his destruction. God was His strength even as enemies did their worst to attempt to wipe him out. David's fear was real. But so was his faith.

David does not dodge fear, he acknowledges it. He reports that there are situations where he is really afraid for his life. There is a real threat that this prayer is reporting. He is afraid. But even in that real threat, the choice was made to live beyond that fear and to "put trust" consciously in God. This is a deliberate action to not let the feeling of fear overcome David's faith. Instead, there is this very deliberate faith. Faith is David's chosen commitment to fight off fear and let God fight off those who are seeking his life.

David's faith is deliberate and there are two actions that accompany his choice of faith that help us understand how he could overcome the overwhelming feeling of fear. First, David worshiped God at His Word. He trusted God because of the Word of God. From scripture David learned about the faithfulness and protection God gave His people. From God's Word David drew faith to believe. He praised God for His Word and it gave him the capacity to trust beyond fear.

The second action is found in a rhetorical question: "What can flesh do to me?" David compares the all-powerful God to the limited strength of human foes. And there is no comparison. Man can only do what the Lord wills. And it is this limitation that strengthens faith. Man can only act, even sinfully, within the realm of God's sovereignty. Man cannot take David's soul, for it belongs to God. David's faith could confidently trust God Who rules all things, even the outcomes of human interaction. And so real fear's terror ended in real faith's trust.

Friday, March 10, 2017

God ends grumbling.

And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle?"
Numbers 20:3-4

Irrational complainers say really stupid things. Grumbling is usually dumb. For instance, in their complaining, the Israelites consider those who died in direct judgment by God as now better off than those alive in the wilderness. They are basically agreeing with past rebels and wishing they had joined them! They'd rather be dead sinners than live followers of the Lord in the desert of Sinai. This is a really moronic proposal to bring before God as they fought with Moses!

Their quarrel is with Moses as leader but really their rebellion is against God Who literally led them to Meribah with a pillar of cloud and fire. They don't like the prospective difficulties of living in the desert even though all the way up to this point God gave them manna and provided water and protection for their every need. When their current campsite has no easy water access, they immediately complain to Moses, even though God had led them to their current place in order to display His power.

There is no logic to complaining. The Isrealites just go on with their negativity and attack their leaders without thinking. They express two mutually exclusive complaints in their dangerous emotional grumbling: 1) Those who died already are better off even though they died in judgment on their sin. 2) "we are going to die now and we don't want to!" I'd have this incredulous reply to them: "So do you want to die or don't you, because you are saying both?!" It's hard to understand their complaints because the "insights" exclude each other! But really grumbling isn't logical. It's raw pain being expressed in complaint. 

Sadly though, this was the complaint that drew Moses into unbelief as well. He disobeyed God's command and struck the rock at Meribah rather than speak to it as God had commanded. That God gave any water at all is pure grace! Moses, by entering into the disobedient attitude of Israel was then denied the last victory of his leadership to bring the nation into the Promised Land. Complaining has serious repercussions. Divinely orchestrated circumstances arranged by an infinitely wise and holy God should not be lightly dismissed and disdained. God will end grumbling, sometimes punishing us even in His provision.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

more kingdom reversal

The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Matthew 23:11-12

In the upside-down kingdom
of Christ our Lord
the world is re-ordered
by His holy Word
Children teach us faith
as we truly believe
servants are the leaders
giving to receive

Christ's kingdom reversal
reflects in all we do
abandoning our works
to get us through
God dies for us
so we can live forever
His life in us
as we win by surrender

Turning our thinking on its head
makes everything again right
and we yield -- don't resist
abandoning power by our might
exalted by slavery
empowered by trial and pain
we have joy in the Lord
and heaven to gain

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

rejoicing in suffering

Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Romans 5:2-5

The path from suffering to hope described in Romans Five has some unexpected surprises along the way. It begins by rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. And that is truly our main hope in this world. It is worshipful. It anticipates the time when we are forever with the Lord in constant rejoicing. Many of the great hymns and gospels songs of old celebrate this sense of eternal hope.

But then Paul moves us from rejoicing with God to rejoicing in suffering. And that seems so contrary to the first type of rejoicing. What does it mean to rejoice in suffering? Paul reminds us to remind ourselves that this outcome of painful suffering can be good. Suffering produces endurance in us. And that endurance can be used by a faithful, loving God to show us new levels of His grace and mercy that we might not have appreciated if we had not first suffered.

That endurance then produces character in us... ultimately the character of Christ Who suffered all things for us on the cross. We think about His sufferings and we learn to see the joy in our own difficulties as we get to be like our Master and show Him to others. And then our character lessons from enduring trials lead to future hope to be like Jesus.

That great hope in Jesus, with Jesus, to be like Jesus is not a source of shame, but is our comfort and our strength. It brings us into a fresh awareness of God's love as His Holy Spirit comforts and strengthens us. What began in worship of the Father, through enduring suffering eventually made us more like the Son, strengthening us in our hearts through the nearness and personal work of the Holy Spirit. And because God is known so intimately in this process, we can rejoice in suffering.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

rebels in rubble

The righteous shall see and fear,
and shall laugh at him, saying,
“See the man who would not make
God his refuge,
but trusted in the abundance of his riches
and sought refuge in his own destruction!”
Psalm 52:6-7

All the ways that human souls seek solace and strength outside of God will come to ruin. This is because all our sinful efforts at doing good or caring for ourselves all fall short of the glory of a powerful, holy God. Those alternate means of self righteousness or attempts at self satisfying happiness seem to promise us much, but in the end they let us down. It's like trying to make a bomb shelter out of the ruins of a previous bombing. It can be attempted but it will not stand. You can't hide from destruction in the ruins of your previous devastation.

Those who trust God have three responses to this sad show of human endeavor that seeks to trust anything other than God. First we see it. And that is no casual observation. We see the difference. We know God and we know life without God and we thrive in seeking the Lord. We then easily discern the significance of the failure to seek Him. And so we are spiritually aware of what it means to seek refuge outside of God and it drives us to seek the Lord even more.

The second response comes from the seriousness with which we seek God after we see this. We fear when we seen others insisting on sheltering in the rubble of sin's destruction. We fear for them. We fear for our own souls because we can easily revert to such fruitless spiritual failure. And in our fear, we reach out to the lost, begging them to cease their own efforts at refuge in ruin and to come to the Lord! It is the fear of the Lord that calls us to persuade others to come to the safety, salvation, and security of the love of God in Christ known only in the gospel.

The third response described here is laughter. When the wicked person persists in their attempt at evading destruction in the ruined rubble, it is our final response. This is not ridicule being talked about here. It is a recognition of irony. And when hard hearts will not repent, it is the response of the righteous to be like God Who sits in the heavens and laughs, having rebellious sinners in derision for their useless wanton rebellion (see Psalm 2 for how that looks).

Monday, March 6, 2017

ministry & mentoring

This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more.
Numbers 8:24-25

This is God's retirement initiative for the Levites who served Israel and the Lord in the sacrificial system under the Law. They were to officially begin duties at the age of twenty-five and were to step down in mandatory retirement at the age of fifty after twenty-five years of service at the altar. Given ancient life expectancies being much shorter than today, this would constitute a full lifetime of service.

The work at the altar was hard. Slaughtering animals, cleaning that altar, offering sacrifices, keeping the grounds, all of these tasks wer demanding physical labor, and in the case of the priestly Levites, also spiritually demanding tasks. I'm sure for those who lived to see it, retirement was an anticipated relief. After all, the sacrifices for sin were a constant daily task under the Law and during the feasts and holy days the work increased exponentially. Their rest from ministry labor was well deserved.

One benefit from this requirement was that it kept the training for ministry among the Levites a high priority. It was structured. The service at the altar had a definite start of career and end of ministry. The older men would have been constantly mentoring the young Levites who would replace them upon retirement. This ministry mentoring would help ensure that the demands of the Law were kept a high priority among the priests and the Levites.

My main take away from this passage is to realize that investing in younger ministry training is important for me at this stage of my life. I don't face mandatory retirement (I can't really afford to anyway!), but I am approaching thirty years of professional ministry in 2018. That's a milestone not to take lightly. I'm approaching a finish line. It's time for me to make sure there are those to whom I can pass the torch, fan into flame God's gift in them, so that the gospel will burn bright in another generation of disciples around the globe.

Friday, March 3, 2017

no partiality

There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
Romans 2:9-11

God is not partial in justice or judgment. All sin must be judged. All sinners will be held accountable to Him for their sinfulness. And very quickly in the epistle to the Romans Paul makes an airtight argument for the universality of sin. No Jew can claim to be sinless on their own (chapter 2). No Gentile can make that claim either (chapter 3). Everybody sins and falls short of the standard of God's holiness and is therefore destined to receive judgment from God whose wrath against sin misses no sinner.

God is also not partial with His grace and forgiveness, choosing only to forgive just certain people. The requirement is repentance and faith and it is open for all people. He will forgive all who come genuinely to Him in repentance and faith. His grace is without any prejudice or partiality. His mercy is enormous and His grace is without distinction. All those who truly repent of sin and believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior are saved and will find the glory, honor, and peace promised here in this passage.

I thank You for such great grace to sinners. You call us to repent and believe in Jesus. And those who come to You in genuine repentance, forsaking sin, and in faith, trusting Jesus alone and not their own works, are completely forgiven. You call us to take this gospel without partiality to every human being because You want to let this good news be known. May Your church be like You so that the world might know Your glory and gracious love, O God!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

everything... and eternity

Truly no man can ransom another,
or give to God the price of his life,
for the ransom of their life is costly
and can never suffice,
that he should live on forever
and never see the pit.
Psalm 49:7-9

So... these disturbing words were in a worship song that Israel sang. Not the kind of stuff we put in song bridges these days to sing over and over raising our hands and closing our eyes. This is not a happy thought for mutual encouragement. It does not make for positive, encouraging, feel-good spirituality. But it is the truth. And sometimes the truth has painful, sharp edges that cut us with necessary surgery. After all, there is no good news for the gospel without first there being some bad news. And this is the really bad news: death awaits us all as the proper end to our sinful existence and we are completely powerless to stop that from happening.

Most of Psalm 49 is a morose meditation on this grim fact. It is an exposition on humanity's vain attempts at cheating death by wealth accumulation, seeking knowledge, or searching for human fame. All these fall desperately short of stopping the yawning grave from swallowing us all. But there is a vivid hope expressed for those who will trust God as their rescue.

The hope is expressed in verse 15: "But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me." And with that fact of faith firmly claimed, Psalm 49 ends with life affirming perspective. The righteous need not envy or fear the rich and powerful, for their end is death and all they gained comes to nothing. In the end they are like dead beasts. But not so the righteous. Those who know that God has ransomed them will be received into God's presence, losing nothing and gaining everything and eternity with the Lord. Amen!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

leaders and people

These are the people of Israel as listed by their fathers' houses. All those listed in the camps by their companies were 603,550.
Numbers 2:32

And with the figure at the end of this verse, we understand how the book of Numbers got its name. Man, that is a lot of people. And it was missing a substantial portion since the Levites were not counted. This is approximately only 91.667% of the people. It's a big number. I know I'd prefer not to be camping in a desert with that many hungry and thirsty people at once. But that was the task facing Moses as he led Israel.

Leadership is never easy. That will come out even more vividly in the book of Numbers as Israel is consistently complaining to Moses and to the Lord. There will be a series of divine punishments for their grumbling. And it was all complicated by their nomadic existence in the desert, and also by the fact that the slave memories of Egypt were still so recent for them. With a crowd that size, complaining could easily grow into a serious threat. Moses had quite a situation on his hands.

This is why leadership is intimidating. The faith necessary to lead people and the tests on that faith multiply greatly by the sheer numbers of the people. That is why Christians are commanded to pray for not only church leaders, but also secular authorities, whoever they may be, and with seriousness and spiritual focus. We should be quicker to pray for them than to complain about them. We should be first to talk to God about the hearts and lives of our leaders rather than to talk about them or to simply protest. There are times to point out corrupt laws and practices (Jesus did indeed call Herod a fox, which was not flattering), but we do so with a level of civil respect for their authority (after all Jesus said to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar). The balance is hard for those being led. It is also very hard for leaders, and we should understand this and pray for them.