The Gauntlet Has Been Laid Down

“Who of all the gods of these countries has been able to save his land from me? How then can the LORD deliver Jerusalem from my hand?” (Is 36:20).

             There is a fascinating story of deliverance recorded in the middle of Isaiah’s prophecy. The powerful Assyrian king, Sennacherib, had swept through most of the region we know as the Middle East on his way to world domination. He had cruelly carried the Northern kingdom of Israel into captivity and was poised (at the time of Isaiah’s writing) to destroy the Southern kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem.

             It was at this point that the Assyrians made a tactical blunder – or perhaps it would be better to say they revealed a false religious assumption. Sennacherib’s representative stood outside Jerusalem and challenged the God that Judah trusted in – the Assyrian army vs. the God of Judah. Of course, we have read the outcome (it’s recorded three times in the Old Testament!) and know that the angel of the LORD came and wiped out 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a single night, and Sennacherib limped home with what remained of his devastated army. Not long afterward, he was killed by two of his own sons while worshiping his false god (see Is 37:36-38).

             Our world seems destined for a repeat of this story. While we in America try to “tolerate” our Muslim neighbors, our leaders seem less and less willing to stand up to terrorist threats. We are supposed to allow a victory monument in the form of a mosque near the site of the 911 attacks because to deny it would be to anger the radical wing of the Muslim religion. If anyone else were to suggest this, our legal experts would call it “blackmail.”

            The constant cry of “peace in our time” that comes from every U.S. political administration concerning the continual Middle East crisis will ultimately end in the withdrawal of American support of Israel. Whatever happened to the principle of “to the victor belong the spoils”? Israel has been provoked, fought back and won each time, yet they are considered the aggressors and the watching world expects them to give in to the demands that they return the lands they captured. Ultimately the idea is to isolate them in the world and to bring about the same showdown outside the gates of Jerusalem that Isaiah recorded. Only this time it will take place a little bit north of Jerusalem at a place called “Armageddon.” But make no mistake, the rationale will be identical, “Whose God is really the true one?”

             I won’t pretend to know the day or even the year that these things will take place. America’s support of Israel seems to hinge on the strength of American Evangelicals who still believe in the God of Abraham, Moses, David and Isaiah, but that is waning. Perhaps there will be enough true repentance for God to stay these events for a generation or two. But there is no doubt that it will happen. The gauntlet has been laid down and God will not retreat from it. It is the final conflict of the ages.

The God of Small Details

Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul.  They urgently requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way. Festus answered, “Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong” (Acts 25:1-5)

                 As I read this passage (actually, from a couple of different translations) I get the very distinct impression that Governor Festus had no clue that the Jewish leaders were planning to ambush and kill Paul, if he had come to Jerusalem. Luke, the historian who wrote the Book of Acts, somehow knew this, and our English translations make it to read like a parenthetical thought.

                 Yet the Scripture in its totality is God’s Word and there are no extra ideas here, so the clear meaning is that God by His sovereign direction – even over pagan or secular rulers – preserved Paul’s life in this way. Certainly He could have protected Paul even if they had brought him to Jerusalem, but it is clear that the evil plans of those who opposed the Gospel were thwarted by His oversight of the small details.

                 That principle is true in our lives as well. Life has a tendency to “throw us a curve” at times, to interrupt our carefully laid plans. These interruptions may or may not divert us from our plans ultimately, but we can be sure that if we are completely His, they are not accidents. That’s why the writer of the Proverbs says, “The mind of a man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (16:9).

                 In the passage above, Paul had no control over the decision of Festus to conduct his hearing in Caesarea instead of Jerusalem, but it is comforting to realize that the Lord still is watching out for us by orchestrating the small details. Sometimes when He steps into our plans we also have no decisions in the matter, but at other times, He is seeking to prompt us to seek Him for some sort of wisdom. Either way, there is nothing that happens to us that He doesn’t at least allow. What a comfort that truth is in times of trouble and bewilderment!

The Gospel Yeast

Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”  Luke 13:20-21

                 This is one of the few times in Scripture where yeast is not compared to sin. Most often it is used to speak of the way sin changes the state of a person’s heart. But in this case, that change is a positive one. The Gospel (the kingdom of God) actually alters the very nature of human development.

                 I came to know Christ in college. To many around me, the changes that took place in my life were probably considered changes that came with maturity and human development, but I knew different. There was a significant difference between the “BC” person and who I became.

                 Though my life as sheltered and stable, I grew up with no real sense of personal value. Before I came to Christ, I had no understanding of why I existed. I was scared to try new things because I feared ridicule or that I would fail and people would think poorly of me. I’m sure it was not intentionally communicated, but I believed my personal worth was a function of some unique contribution that I knew was not in me. Had I embraced an Eastern mystical religion in those days, it would have fit my don’t-rock-the-boat demeanor. I wasn’t passionate about anything so that I would avoid being criticized.

                 But Christ changed that. His presence in my life began to permeate everything I was and did. That “small” decision to trust Him with my life suddenly impacted the whole of my life, just like the yeast did to the dough in Jesus’ illustration. I recognized the Bible as the source of Truth; I saw Jesus as the Ruler over the universe; I may not have had clear vocational direction, but I knew it was somehow connected to my relationship with Him. All the pieces of my life that had previously seemed so fragmented, now were brought into order by His presence, like a magnet does to iron filings.

                 But it makes me wonder about some of the people near me. Has their internal orientation changed because of their decision to trust Christ? (Has the Gospel yeast permeated their lives?) Rather, have they viewed Christianity as “fire insurance,” simply to keep them from hell? When small children (even my own) trust Christ, does the Gospel yeast so alter their lives that they will be true to it in the turbulent adolescent years and beyond? Certainly, I can never peer into the hearts of these near me, but He does expect me to inspect the “fruit” or see if “the dough has risen.”

Weeping Prophets

Although they say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives,’ still they are swearing falsely.” O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them, but they refused correction. They made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent (Jer 5:2-3).

             The indictment that Jeremiah levels against the people of his day could equally be applied to America today. Many in our society use language that suggests they believe in the Lord, but there is little evidence apart from their speech. When God corrected ancient Judah – perhaps through economic struggles or natural disasters – they did not repent. When He disciplined them, they acted like they felt no pain. At the very least, they weren’t changed by the painful trouble.

             This wasn’t merely a phenomenon among one socio-economic class either. The verses that follow the ones above indicate that Jeremiah discovered that it didn’t matter what the individual’s financial status was. Rich and poor alike hardened their hearts and refused to repent.

             But the real tragedy was that he discovered that even the political and religious leadership possessed the same unrepentant spirit.

             A cursory scan of the American Church will reveal a similar heart among our people. Churches are more concerned with full seats than they are with full hearts. Few churches will take a stand against sin for fear of offending the network of family and friends of the sinner in the process.

             It doesn’t seem to phase us that there are more and more natural disasters plaguing our country. We don’t seem to care that our politicians wink at the most sordid immorality. We are willing to justify anything in the name of “tolerance,” lest we offend someone. God, by definition, must love us and therefore put up with any sin we choose to embrace, so we’re not concerned about offending Him. Yet these things and the problems they create should cause us to fall on our knees to wail over the offense we have brought to the true and living God.

             The unrepentant spirit of his people created in Jeremiah a mournful spirit that led subsequent generations to call him “The Weeping Prophet.” That same spirit appears to be returning to those who grieve the aforementioned sins. It’s not a spirit of depression so much as it is a spirit of mourning over the low spiritual fervor of the American Church. We see how few people consult God through the Scriptures; people who pray appear to be the exception rather than the rule in the Church; few denominations are growing statistically, and those that are have only marginal increases. One of the few positive signs is that those that are earnest in spirit are beginning to revive the ancient spiritual discipline of fasting as a way of appealing to the God of Israel.

             The answer to America’s problems will not be found in an election – even if it is wildly successful to conservative causes. The answer – just as in Jeremiah’s day – will only be found in a people willing to fall before the Lord without any hint of self- righteousness, who will grieve and repent of the sins of this land.

 

The Object of Our Trust

Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12 Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest. (Acts 27:9-12).

             I certainly feel the frustration of the Roman Centurion in this passage. It seems that most of my decisions also pit the wisdom of professionals against the wisdom of revelation. Now, before I comment more about the revelation, it is important to note that the Centurion was not a believer at this point, so he did not have a Christian frame of reference and he didn’t have a clue that his only place in the history of the world was his intersection with the life of Paul the Apostle.

             Personally I can excuse the Centurion for this bad decision (hindsight is 20/20). What I have trouble excusing are believers in our day who operate a Church as if it is a business. Certainly there are some business practices that are proper to follow: financial accountability, organizational management principles and living within our means are just a few.

             But I have been in settings where the leaders ignored the example of our Lord Jesus and ruled by their directives rather than leading as servants. The secular business model took precedence over the revealed Truth of Scripture. An unbelieving Centurion might be excused; but these leaders should have known better.

             There are also times when a Church needs to consciously set aside a normal practice to obey Scripture. One example is that Scripture continually commands us to give. Think about: the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4); the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-22); the principle of sowing and reaping (II Cor. 8-9); and the explicit teaching of our Lord in Luke 6:38, “Give and it will be given to you…” These teachings are diametrically opposed to most business models. The Christian businessman may compare “faith” with “risk management,” but the object of his trust is different. The businessman trusts in an expected return on his investments based upon statistics; the Christian trusts in the faithfulness of the God he serves.

             As with Paul and the Centurion in Acts 27, our decisions always betray the object of our trust. It may not be evident immediately, but sooner or later it will become clear. This helps us make sense of the verse in Hebrews that says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb 11:6).

The Qualification of Leadership

This is what the LORD Almighty says: I took you (David) from the pasture and from following the flock, to be ruler over my people Israel (1 Chron 17:7).

 The contrast between what men usually consider to be the qualifications for leadership and what God makes leaders from is startling.

 By the time this was spoken to David, he had long ago left the pasture and the sheep. He had been on the run from Saul for 10-12 years. That period of his life had ended with Saul’s death and then David had to create a government and stabilize the country politically. Before he and his army began to subdue the surrounding nations, David turned his attention from the urgent to the important – establishing the people in the worship of the God of Israel.

 While he was considering this matter, the thought occurred to him that he should establish a permanent dwelling place for the Ark of the Presence. While it was not something that God had necessarily intended, He was so pleased that David’s faith was not merely a way of securing the blessings and creature comforts of this life that He promised that David’s line would never fail.

 Men tend to look upon pedigree and physical prowess in leaders; God looks much deeper. God saw in David a man of loyalty, gratitude and faithfulness. He was conditioned by his willingness to humble himself and take care of his father’s sheep. By observing in David a concern for the helpless condition of the sheep God recognized that he would also be concerned for the helpless conditions of the people in his kingdom, a concern that God shared because those same people were made in His image.

 God might have chosen David because he persevered as he ran from Saul; He might have chosen him for his military genius; He might have chosen him for his faithfulness to His cause. Certainly He rewarded these qualities. But He chose Him to be king because of the mercy he displayed for the helpless and needy – the same cause He Himself is given to. For God Himself is described as “a father of the fatherless and a defender of widows” (Ps. 68:5, et.al.).

The Rich Man and Lazarus

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

                “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

                “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'” (Luke 16:27-31)

 

                The text here comes from the story about the rich man and Lazarus. (Traditionally, the rich man’s name has been “Divies” because it is the term used in the Vulgate, the Latin Bible, for the rich man, but the name is not in Scripture.) Lazarus was a poor beggar who often would sit at the gate of the rich man’s home and beg. But he believed (apparently) and was rewarded with heaven while the rich man suffered in Hades. Jewish legend suggested that when a believer died he would go to Abraham’s bosom, so Jesus was using this idea to make His point, not necessarily condoning any truth to the legend.

                The rich man, while in agony, called upon Father Abraham to soothe his agony by sending Lazarus and when that was not possible, he asked him to send Lazarus back to his family that was still living so that they could be warned. Abraham explained that they had the Scriptures, but the rich man thought that someone coming back to life would more clearly convince them. But Jesus put the main point of His story in the words of Abraham, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced if someone rises from the dead.”

                There is a specific and a general application to this. The specific application is that the skeptical religious leaders would not be convinced when Jesus Himself rose from the dead. This is, at least in part, because to believe in Him would likely doom their careers within the Jewish Sanhedrin. These positions were acquired at great cost of time and effort. We might compare them to political careers in our day. Very few men are willing to risk their careers to believe in Jesus – then or now.

                The general application is that no matter how many or how stupendous the miracles, they will not convince the skeptic, unless they are convinced by the Scriptures. If a person will believe it will be because he chooses to listen to “Moses and the Prophets” (aka, the Scripture).

                This principle is really a major factor in the decline of the Church in our day. People have things backward – they want the miracles rather than the Scripture. It’s too hard and time-consuming for many to dig into the Scripture; we’d rather just have a quick, easy miracle, or some other “feel-good” entertainment. And there are always churches that will try to accommodate them. But Dr. A.B. Simpson had it right when he penned the verse, “Once it was the blessing, Now it is the Lord; Once it was the feeling, Now it is His Word; Once the gift I wanted, Now the Giver own; Once I sought for healing, Now Himself alone.”

The Storms of Life

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27).

I have always been a person who searches for people with spiritual integrity – people whose lives match their professions of faith. In this famous parable, Jesus calls these people “wise” because they practice His teachings. Often these people are easy to spot – they look you in the eye when you speak to them, they speak openly of Christ’s activity in their daily lives and their speech is seasoned with a healthy understanding of the Scriptures.

It is also usually pretty easy to spot most of the “foolish” people of the parable. Christ has no place in their conversation; there is little overlap between their Sunday morning behavior and the rest of their week’s activities. If they go to any sort of worship service, it takes the form of rote prayers and music, along with a quickly-forgotten homily from the preacher.

But while most of the population is pretty easy to assess, there are some who are good “actors.” For these the trials of life – the rain and the winds of Jesus’ parable – draw out the true assessment of their spiritual lives. In another place Jesus told His audience that the “rain falls on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45), in other words, upon all of us. How we respond determines what foundation our lives are built upon.

As a teacher I have often given my students “tests.” At least we called them “tests” publicly and for some they were. There were enough questions about whether they understood the material that they had to be tested. For others, though, they were more like “affirmations.” It was clear from my interaction in class that these students had a grasp of the material, and the examination instrument merely confirmed this in the minds of the students.

Whether the trials of life are “tests” or “affirmations” is ultimately known only to God and the individual who experiences these trials, but the point is that, deep within, each of us knows. As a teacher I had to have an objective score by which to assess my students’ progress which may not be available in this spiritual realm, but as the storms get stronger, the foundation will be revealed.

The Trust Fund

How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you, which you bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in you (Ps 31:19).

                Unanswered prayer is the grief of many Christians today. There are usually no answers to the questions of “Why does He delay to answer me? Doesn’t He see how much I am suffering?”

                 As one who has wrestled with these questions many times, I have taken great comfort in Psalm 31:19. It seems that the Lord has a “savings account” of His goodness toward me that I will one day be able to cash in. Perhaps a better illustration would be a “trust fund,” because it is an account that cannot be drawn from whenever I would like. Someone else determines when I will receive it.

                 To access this “trust fund” of God’s goodness to me I must exercise the same kind of faith that a child with a financial trust fund would exercise. It is only a matter of time before I will receive my store of God’s blessing. I must trust that the Word of the One that is managing this fund is true. The only difference is that the time for me is uncertain while the child will know when his inheritance will be given to him.

                 While I am waiting for the display of His goodness the verse tells me the two things I must continue to do: fear Him and take refuge in Him. These are not passive, but active verbs. “Fear” carries the idea of seeking Him wholeheartedly, rather than in just a perfunctory way. “Taking refuge in Him” is an admission of our own weakness and inadequacy.

                 Some believe that this verse suggests that the display of God’s goodness to us will be apparent to all at the Judgment, but my opinion is that the phrase, “in the sight of men,” is that it will be here on earth, not just at a later time. David had earlier stated, “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13).

                 The Lord has His goodness in store for those who trust Him. We don’t always understand why He tells us that we must wait, and it sometimes distresses us when people around us are looking for external evidence of His reality, but He has His purposes, and those purposes are perfect.

                 Spirit of God, descend upon my heart. Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move;

                Stoop to my weakness mighty as Thou art, And make me love Thee as I ought to love.

                Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh; Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear:

                To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh, Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

(George Croly, 1780-1860)

The Unseen World

In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house (Mark 3:27).

            Though most of us don’t understand much of it, the Bible makes it clear that there is an unseen world around us that somehow influences this world. This is Jesus’ subject in this passage of Scripture in Mark 3.

            The New Testament suggests a cosmology of angelic beings that exercise their power over various entities within our world. There seems to be a distinction in Paul’s mind between the various angelic beings that he describes in Colossians 1:16, “thrones or powers or rulers or authorities.” What exactly the various beings influence is unclear, but there is ample evidence to suggest that some of these beings influence individuals (for good or for bad) and some influence nations or perhaps, ethnic groups. In a vision the prophet Daniel describes one of these angelic beings as “the prince of Persia” (10:13), suggesting that his influence was over that whole nation or people.

             When Jesus was speaking in Mark 3, it appears that He was referring to this unseen cosmology because it was in the context of a discussion about Satan’s influence in this world. Satan is described as “the god of this world” in 2 Cor. 4:4, and the metaphor is changed to a house in Mark 3. But in both pictures Satan and his angelic majesties are in view and the reference to “the strong man” that must be bound is a reference to Satan or one of his demons. Jesus (and His body, the Church) are seeking to “carry off his possessions,” the people that are still under his dominion.

             The exact meaning of this statement, then, hinges on what it means to “bind the strong man.” Not only, it would appear, does the unseen world have influence over ours, but we in this world can exert some influence over that world as well, probably through prayer, fasting and other spiritual disciplines. In my opinion these disciplines are the means by which we become partners with Him in the work of the kingdom.

             I suggest that one of the ways we are to “bind the strong man” is by prayer for the people groups that are still unreached in our world. Satan is the one who has “blinded the minds of the unbelieving” (see again 2 Cor. 4:4). By “binding” him, then, we would release these people from the blindness so that they can see Christ and turn to Him.

             The Bible is clear in Matthew 24:14 that Jesus will return when the last person is reached with the Gospel. By binding Satan through prayer, we are partnering with Him in the great cause of world evangelization, and hastening His return.