The Lord Is My Portion

I cry to you, O LORD; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living” (Psalm 142:5, ESV).

The seventeenth century author, John Donne, wrote, “No man is an island…” His point was that every other human being enriches us and their loss diminishes us to some degree. Another way of saying this is that no one is sufficient in himself; we all seek some kind of refuge because ultimately we cannot stand alone.

The writer of this Psalm was David, long before he became king. He was running for his life and took shelter by hiding in a cave. This happened twice in the Scripture (I Sam 22 and 24). In the first incident, he was fleeing from the king of Gath; in the second he was fleeing from Saul. We cannot be sure which incident this arose from, but it is immaterial. David knew his resources were insufficient. The men that were with him were a comfort to him, I’m sure, but they were no match for the thousands that either enemy could bring against them. David felt overwhelmed; he needed a Refuge.

The Refuge he found was in the God of Israel. It wasn’t that he disdained or didn’t appreciate those that supported him; he just knew that if he were to be delivered, the God he worshiped would have to step in to do it. In both cave episodes, David sees a marvelous deliverance. The first was the provision of a pagan king who sheltered his parents; the second was the shame that Saul experienced when David could have killed him but did not. Other people surrounded David in both places, but his trust was in the God of Israel, not in human deliverance.

We in this generation have lost that spirit of genuine trust in God. The terms, “faith” and “trust,” are often interchangeable in the Scripture — trust is an active expression of faith. But our society has substituted a nebulous “belief” for active trust. Perhaps it’s because we have grown accustomed to having a safety net beneath us. If everything seems hopeless, our savings or our government or our family or someone else will step in and bail us out. David didn’t have the government as a safety net — indeed, it was the government that was pursuing him!

At least part of the reason we have lost that trust in God is that the government (or any other refuge) is gullible — we don’t have to be completely honest with them. We don’t have to admit our sins and our failures; we don’t have to declare our fears. In short, we don’t have to make ourselves vulnerable. But we do with the God of Israel. He expects humility and honesty when we come before Him, not excuses and justifications. He is certainly willing to forgive, but most of us fear that our deliverance will be conditioned upon some loss of face before others. That may be a legitimate fear; He may demand it. But the rewards for truly trusting Him are well worth any humility we might experience.

In another Psalm, David put it this way, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7, ESV).

Like Christ in His Sufferings

“That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10, ESV).

“O to be like Thee…” is the cry of an old hymn that is seldom sung any more. Yet it reflects the idea that the goal of the Christian life is “Christlikeness,” being like Jesus. Paul spoke of the intense longing he had that Christ “should be formed” in the Galatian believers (Gal. 4:19). The formation of Christ in the believer was so important to him that he likened this intense longing to childbirth. In Romans 8 Paul told his readers that God’s plan from the very beginning was that His people would be “conformed to the image of his Son” (29).

The old hymn (and most popular opinion) would have us believe that Christlikeness in the Christian makes us “full of compassion, loving, forgiving, tender and kind.” If we have been conformed to His image we are active in “helping the helpless, cheering the fainting, seeking the wandering sinner to find.”

Now I hope my readers understand that I agree with the sentiments of this great old hymn, but there is another side to Christlikeness that Thomas Chisholm doesn’t overtly address in his hymn — the sharing in His sufferings. Alongside compassion and forgiveness, Paul also rejoiced that he could suffer as Christ suffered (Phil 3:10), that he could “fill up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24). It’s hard to imagine that Jesus’ sufferings lacked anything, but Paul seems clear that there is a certain amount of suffering that His followers would experience in this life.

Often when we think of Christ’s sufferings, we focus upon the “Passion Week” those six intense days that culminated in the physical pain of His crucifixion. But the Old Testament gives us some indication that there were other times when Messiah suffered mistreatment and misunderstanding, and that He felt these sufferings keenly. Several of the Psalms are recognized as Messianic Psalms and give us hints into the emotions our Lord experienced.

The disciples recognized the Messiah’s zeal for the house of God when He drove out the moneychangers (John 2:17). This reference comes from Psalm 69:9 and the succeeding phrases and verses describe the anguish of our Lord as He bore “the reproaches of those who reproach [God].” He “wept”; He “made sackcloth [His] clothing, [He] became a byword to them” and was “the talk of those who sit in the gate.”

I find it very comforting to see the expressions of how Messiah felt when His prayers seemed to fall on deaf ears (see Ps. 69:19-20, 29). The Father’s ears were not deaf, as we all know, but Messiah felt that they were, at least for a time — just as I do sometimes.

The Scripture speaks of the ebb and flow of life between suffering and comfort. Peter reminds us that “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). Suffering is not permanent, even if it seems like it for a while. But it is a necessary component of being like Jesus.

Restore Us Again

Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us! Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation. Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land (Psalm 85:4-9 ESV).

These days, whenever I see the word, “restore,” in the Scriptures, I take note. Our nation, which began well, has drifted further and further from the God of Israel. The drift has come to the point where many in our society deny the Christian roots of our nation. One political party even removed any reference to God from its platform a few years ago.

We are not the first nation to drift from the Truth. It has been a problem since the day that Joshua led Israel to conquer and settle the land Palestine. On numerous occasions in the book of Judges Israel drifted from the Lord, cried out to Him when their enemies humbled them by oppressing them, and the Lord delivered them. This pattern happened repeatedly throughout the 900 years when ancient Israel lived in the land of Palestine. Finally, after many warnings, God carried off half of the nation (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) by the hand of the Assyrians. Even then, the Southern Kingdom of Judah drifted away just 200 years later.

Yet God never gave up on His people. Just before Judah met its end in the Babylonian Captivity, Jeremiah the Prophet declared, “Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: ‘If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever’” (Jeremiah 31:35-36 ESV).

The United States of America cannot claim the promise that God gave to His ancient people, but individuals who are His can be secure in His promises. Yet many of us long for the preservation of our Christian heritage here in America so that our children and grandchildren will have the same opportunities to prosper and know Him. But this will only happen if the Lord restores our land. Political solutions are insufficient.

The psalmist explained in this passage what God’s people need to do if we would see the Lord restore our land — “hear what God the LORD will speak,” and “let them not turn back to folly.” The Lord will not restore our land until and unless His people listen to what He is saying to us through His Word. He will also not restore our land until this nation turns away from its “folly,” those sins that we have condoned despite the clear dictates of the Scripture. This is called “repentance.”

The Issue in the Church Should Be Truth

“ . . . the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15)

I often listen to talk radio in my car — that probably puts me in a certain demographic! This morning as I was driving the hosts (one man and one woman) were discussing what they were looking for in a church. Throughout the conversation the qualities they looked for in a church typically began with the statement, “I want a church where I feel______” or “I feel a church should ______.” What was conspicuous by its absence was any mention of truth.

Admittedly I completed my drive before the conversation concluded, so truth may have been mentioned later, and I hope it was. However, what I did hear is quite typical of a postmodern society in which truth is marginalized in favor of feelings. 

 Postmodernism is a philosophy which has denied the existence of absolute truth, but it has become the prevalent worldview of many in our society. Words can mean what ever we want them to mean. For example, law can be twisted to imply intent when the text of the statute does not include it. The definition of marriage can be redefined to include homosexual unions when the writers of our laws never had this in mind.

When absolute truth is ruled out, the Scripture is no longer authoritative (identifying the insidious nature of this current philosophy). As a society we have called sin, “moral error” or “a mistake” or “estrangement,” all of which it is, but these terms serve to water down the concept. The use of the term, “mistake” or “error,” recalls a test in school where a single mistake did not constitute failure. Biblically speaking, however, sin condemns us to hell — any sin, no matter how small, no matter how few. And according to the Apostle Paul, “All have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). Likewise he said we were all “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Only the Atonement of Jesus can deliver us, if we understand sin biblically; but if it has a different definition, many remedies can be considered to be correct (and many are in our world).

When absolute truth is ruled out, Paul’s description of the character of God, that He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), is meaningless. How can people come to know the truth when truth cannot be known?

When absolute truth is ruled out, “every man does what is right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Solomon tells us in Proverbs that “There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death” (14:12). Without truth, there is no measuring line. The prophet used the picture of a plumb line (Amos 7:7-8). Until we return to the position that the truth is more important than how we feel, that the church is the repository of truth, our nation will continue to languish and, ultimately, implode.

I have no problem with looking for a church that has compassion for the poor or prompts us to think about the troubled world in which we live or demonstrates that they care for our needs, but unless truth is the first quality that we seek, everything else will be a band aid solution for our fractured society.

God’s Full Revelation

“For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:46-47, ESV).

The Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures form the complete revelation of God’s direct communication to the men He created. This truth is under-emphasized in our day. Some strains of theology today suggest — if they don’t teach outright — that the New Testament has replaced the Old Testament, even that a Christian doesn’t need to read the Old Testament. Such teaching is wrong.

The New Testament is truly the final recorded Word from God, and it contains the essential teaching about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but it doesn’t make the Old Testament obsolete. Jesus Himself observed in the passage quoted above that “[Moses] wrote of Me.” Therefore to appreciate the singular intent of God in this world, it is important to understand the Old Testament as well as the New.

Someone who is a true basketball fan doesn’t merely tune into a game for the last 2 minutes of the game; he arranges his schedule to watch the whole game. A lot happened in the game before the last two minutes. Similarly, a lot happened in our world to bring us to Jesus. We can’t fully understand the New Testament until we have a grasp of the Old.

For example, why did Matthew begin his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus? It was because of the promise given to King David that Messiah would come from his descendants. Without this knowledge, the first few verses of Matthew (and a portion of Luke’s Gospel as well) would be merely a long list of often-unpronounceable names that have no relevance to life today.

The Old Testament records the ways God has tried to communicate His Truth to men from the beginning. Sin had entered this world and God was/is intent on redeeming men despite it. Beginning in Genesis 3, He promised to send a person who would crush the serpent who had tempted men to sin. That person would become known in Jewish writings as “Messiah” and would be “a prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15).

The list of hints, prophecies and pictures of Messiah are contained in almost every book of the Old Testament. Messiah Jesus didn’t just appear on the scene one day; He was the fulfillment of a long, remarkable plan of God to redeem men.

This is why our church has celebrated Passover for the past several years. This Jewish feast was intended by God (through Moses) to help His people to recognize Messiah when He came. Sadly it just became a ritual handed down from generation to generation. Happily, though, some of us have seen the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Jesus, and it has enriched us beyond measure.

Striking the Rock

8 “Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. …11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank. 12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ” Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” (Numbers 20:8-12, NASB, emphasis added)

It is a great temptation for believers to obey halfway — to give an appearance of obedience when, in fact, we are disobeying. As with Moses, there are always consequences to our disobedience.

The holiness of God demands our complete attention. Isaiah tells us that the person God esteems is the one who is “humble and contrite of spirit and who trembles at [His] Word” (Is. 66:2, NASB). It’s not enough to just hear God speak, we must pay attention to the details.

When I was probably 12 or 13, my mom sent me to the grocery store on my bicycle for some hamburger buns. I had only heard “buns” so brought back hot dog buns. Our burgers that evening had to be shaped long and thin to fit the bread!

Like most men I sometimes have trouble listening to the details of my wife’s instructions when something is needed from a store. Happily cell phones can now keep me out of trouble as I can call for clarification.

The busy world in which we live lures us into the same inattention to detail with God’s Word as I experienced as a young teen and still experience as a husband, yet — if He is really holy — there is no excuse for my failure to give Him my full attention. What distraction could possibly be as important as the Word of the eternal God? That’s why Isaiah trembled when God spoke (66:2).

But Moses’ inattention, however, wasn’t due to the busyness of his world — it was due to his anger. He was frustrated that the people he was leading were constantly complaining. Nothing was ever right with these people, and he had had enough. Sometimes our failure to obey completely is due to our own self-righteousness and sin, and this is far more serious than a mere distraction. Mis-shaped hamburgers are no big deal, but Moses was prevented from entering the Promised Land because of it.

Do you “tremble at [God’s] Word”? When He calls you to tithe, do you interpret this as merely “give’” and give a token amount? When He calls upon you to “renew your mind” (Rom. 12:2), do you listen to Christian music rather than turning it all off so you can read the Word? Are daily devotions a once-a-week event? “The LORD God of Israel declares…‘those who honor Me I will honor’” (1 Samuel 2:30, NASB).

Not Empty Words

For [the Law of Moses] is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess (Deuteronomy 32:47, ESV).

There are many types of literature that I pass by when I go to a bookstore. I care little for romance novels or science fiction; I have little interest in cooking (my interest is just in the eating!) so cookbooks and nutrition guides are easy to ignore. My real interest is in the ideas that drive us to do what we do, so I peruse books on philosophy and theology and classic literary stories. The rest are just empty words.

Many people today view the Bible as a large book of empty words. The stories coming from ancient times don’t seem to have any relevance to their lives today, and they can’t imagine how a 2000—4000 year old book could be relevant in an age of such advanced technology. Sadly I am talking about people who claim to be Christians.

Biblical theology claims that the God that created us has revealed Himself to mankind. He has not left us to wonder if He exists or what His will is; the Bible asserts forthrightly that its words are the very Words of God. (There are some who choose not to believe that the Bible is God’s Word, but there is no question that the claim to authority is made in the text.) To read those claims for oneself, a person merely needs to turn to the end of the third chapter of Paul’s second letter to Timothy and read into the first few verses of chapter four. Jesus Himself told us that the words of Scripture will never pass away (Matt 5:18).

If, as Biblical theology also claims, the realm of this God is our everlasting destination, and this space-time existence is only temporary, it seems logical to figure out how He has communicated to men through the ages and what He has said to them. For all our advanced technology, after all, we are still just created people — even as they were in every other age. We must also understand that the Bible’s 66 books claim to be the complete revelation (Heb. 1:1—2:4); don’t be fooled by the claims of some that God added an addendum (see Gal. 1:6-9).

This understanding is the rationale for Moses’ statement that the Law God gave him was not an “empty word, but [our] very life” (Deut 32:47). It is relevant to us today, just as it was when it was written, even though we have to filter the ideas through our changed culture. An initial reading may take us through parts that are difficult to understand (we might even describe them as “boring”), but with some understanding of ancient cultures those difficulties can be overcome — by any normal adult. Some parts are understandable even to preschool children. We simply must begin with the understanding that these are not “empty words.”

Many years ago I decided for myself that if these are indeed the words of God, nothing is more important than for me to understand them, so I began to read the Bible cover to cover each year. No decision has had a more profound effect on my life than this one.

My Fundamental Flaw

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV).

I had a rough week last week. I learned that I am diabetic. For all of my adult life I have been healthy and whole, generally speaking. My back surgery in high school limited some of my activities, but not significantly. A dozen or so years ago I learned I had high blood pressure, but that was attributable to some OTC sinus medications, which I have cut out. I could stand to lose a few pounds, but no one would consider me to be significantly overweight.

I was really shocked when my doctor informed me of my diabetes. In fact, I was in denial for a couple of days. I considered myself to be a healthy man that had an occasional illness. In fact, I haven’t even had a major cold or flu for a couple of years. How could I have this fundamental flaw in my body? Yet multiple tests confirmed the diagnosis. Instead of viewing myself as a healthy man with an occasional illness, I must now consider myself to be a flawed individual, seeking to control my symptoms.

Americans (in fact, all mankind) today face the same issue as I do — to view ourselves as fundamentally flawed rather than generally whole. Like me, the society is mostly in denial. How could we be the biggest and best, the richest and most technologically advanced, and have a basic flaw to our character? Yet, the evidence should convince us, like the additional tests did for me. Justice is what the vocal minority opines it to be rather than an objective standard in our society; we (taxpayers, that is) continue to fund the barbaric practices of the abortion rights lobby that would make Attila blush; and, contrary to the most basic natural knowledge, we have declared the legality of same sex marriage. Yet we go on believing that the problems in our society come from outside ourselves — we’re good, the environment is not.

Biblical Christianity is the only religious system that views mankind as basically sinful, instead of basically good. All others — even the pseudo-Christian groups — mask the evil in our hearts by suggesting that a certain combination of good works will overcome any moral deficiency in us.

Several years ago, after one of the school shootings in our society, I heard a local radio personality interview a mental health professional. As they deplored the violence the host asked his guest, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (echoing the book by the same title that was popular at the time). The underlying assumption was that we are good people, and that bad things happen to us from outside ourselves. Jesus was clear, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19, ESV, emphasis added).

The Founding Fathers of our country lived in an era when the foundational tenets of the society were Biblical. A generation before the Revolution the Colonies experienced a religious event known to historians as The Great Awakening. The moral courage that was required for them to put at risk their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” came from the Great Awakening. (Do you think any of our current crop of politicians would put their lives and fortunes at risk? Most are there to make a fortune!) The writings of Washington, Adams, Madison and Jay are steeped in a Biblical worldview, a worldview in which they understood that the human heart is “desperately sick” as Jeremiah noted (above).

To this condition the Bible declares that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus is the answer. The Apostle Paul declared that “[that sacrifice] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16, ESV). Many have been tried, but no other solution will work.

I now recognize the fundamental flaw in my body, leading me to significant changes in my lifestyle. Assuming I get this under control, it may not affect me as it does some other people. But I can never look at a restaurant menu from the perspective of a healthy person again. Until and unless the people of our society change their perspective, the problems we face will continue to spin out of control, as surely as the blood sugar of us diabetics.

The Pursuit of Truth

O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent (Jeremiah 5:3, ESV).

These ancient words are profoundly contemporary.

We live in a world where expediency is more desired than truth. Americans (especially) have always had a pragmatic bent to them. We like to use phrases like “like a well-oiled machine,” “We’re clicking on all cylinders,” and “now we’re cooking with gas” to describe the aspects of our lives that are going well and progressing. When things aren’t going so well, we assume that the machinery is somehow wrong.

This mindset is wonderful for overcoming obstacles that are physical in nature — we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and figure out where the machinery is deficient. But not all problems are physical in nature; sometimes things don’t go well because we have failed to pursue the truth that the Lord is trying to communicate to us. He is — at least according to Christian orthodoxy — continually revealing His will to men.

Such was the case in Jeremiah’s day. God brought judgment because the people resorted to idolatry. They didn’t listen to His Word or His prophets or the Laws that their ancestors adopted. Instead, they chose to worship false gods and were surprised when they were “struck down” and “consumed.” They didn’t need better mechanics — they needed to repent.

Repentance is not preached much from America’s pulpits any more — to our detriment. Repentance is how we get right with the God that created us and how we stay in a right relationship. We usually define repentance as an act of turning from sin to Christ, and this is a proper definition. It implies, though, that this is a one time action. Contrition is a related word, but implies that the repentance is a “state,” an ongoing expression of repentance.

The price of repentance/contrition is often too high for us as Americans. Like the proverbial “average” student in school we assess what is the minimum amount of work to get by and we do that. For many of us it’s enough that we put on a show of repentance even if we have not really done so in the integrity of our hearts. Repentance involves real sorrow for sin; it involves the true admission guilt; it involves a lifestyle change that begins in our thoughts and carries through to our actions. It doesn’t mean perfection; but it does mean honesty. When David repented, he stated, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being (Psalm 51:6, ESV).

The people of our day are much like the people to whom Jeremiah was preaching in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of his prophecy. They are harder than rocks; they refuse to repent (5:3) because they have ignored the truth for expedience.

Intellectual Honesty

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11, ESV).

I first read this passage shortly after I put my faith in Christ. I was a student at a theologically liberal, liberal arts college affiliated with a mainline Christian denomination. The Religion/Philosophy department at that college had a disdain for those of us who held an evangelical faith, who believed that the Bible was indeed the revelation of the Living God. In their minds we were not “intellectually honest”; we were silly enough as to believe that Moses did part the Red Sea, Noah did preserve the human race on an ark, and Jesus did rise from the grave.

On the day that I first read this passage, something unusual happened that I have trouble explaining. I was captivated by the text; it filled all of my thoughts for a period of time; I sensed that God Himself had met me in that hour. Since that day the Judeo-Christian Scriptures have had a special place in my thinking.

I knew that what I had experienced was just the opposite of what I was being taught at my college. I also knew that I didn’t have the intellectual and academic background to take on the professors and students that scoffed at what they would call “psychological or religious experiences.” They would dismiss my experience as the result of the previous meal’s pepperoni pizza, even though I knew it was not. I held on to this tension and the question of “intellectual honesty” for several years until I discovered the writings of an evangelical author — Dr. Francis Schaeffer — who had himself wrestled with these same issues.

As is often the case, the open disdain these students and professors had for the Scripture drove me to consider it more deeply. I wanted to know the truth. Is there a God that is outside the realm of humanity, that created men, before Whom we would give an account? Is He still active in this world? How can I know Him? This was the time that I discovered the reality of God’s words to Jeremiah, “you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (29:13, NASB).

Is it “intellectually honest” to believe the Bible? The answer is an unqualified, “YES!” The lack of intellectual honesty is really on the part of those professors and clergy who deny the Bible. They are the ones who draw their salaries from the gifts of people in the pews of these mainline churches who still hold to the authority of the Bible, at least to some degree. The people often have not yet discovered that these professors don’t believe that the God described in the Bible even exists.