The Last Commands

The last statements of both the Old and New Testaments are promises that God’s people draw great comfort from. In Malachi the last statement was a promise to send the forerunner to Messiah—a type of Elijah who would turn the hearts of families back to each other before the Lord comes. In Revelation the last statement is the promise that the Lord will come again.

Before each of these statements there is a command or a warning from which we deduce a command. These statements are strikingly similar: “OBEY THE SCRIPTURE!” (Mal 4:4) and “DON’T CHANGE A WORD OF SCRIPTURE!” (Rev. 22:18-19).

To many in Western Christianity today the Bible is just a book of proverbs and aphorisms. Its stories are metaphorical: David and Goliath is the story of every underdog; Daniel and the Lion’s Den describes every unjust persecution; the story of Ruth is the outline of every romance novel. To most today, they are not historical events but cleverly devised fables that must have had a tremendous press man.

When we divorce the Bible from its historical context, we do so both to our shame and to our peril. The last commands of both testaments remind us that the ignoring of the Scripture is a very present danger. It is to our shame because we have the history before us. For most of us the failure to understand what has happened in any historical setting is the failure of our choices. Late night comedians make much of the choices of many of our youth to understand pop culture over civics, geography, or history. Before we laugh too hard at our young friends who can’t explain the different contributions of Matin Luther and Martin Luther King, we need to be sure that we can distinguish between Joseph, the son Jacob, and Joseph, the husband of Mary.

Our failure to understand the history of the Scripture, however, is more important than merely avoiding embarrassment in Jeopardy—the Lord revealed Himself and His will through those historical events, writings, and pronouncements. To ignore them in favor of the latest sports statistics, movie trivia, or political controversy demonstrates our priorities. And the Lord takes notice. The Great Commandment calls upon us to love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, not our favorite sports team or pop musician. There is nothing wrong with following these entities, as long as we keep them in perspective.

The last commands of the Old and New Testaments to obey the Scripture strike a healthy sense of reverence (some call it fear) in the hearts of those that are truly Christ’s. They live their lives trying to please the One before Whom they will one day give an account rather than trying to make sure that people have the right impression of them. That’s why God warned His people through Isaiah, “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be,’ declares the LORD. ‘But this is the one to whom I will look (the NIV uses the word, esteem): he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.’” (Isaiah 66:1-2, ESV).

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).

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.

Signs of the Messiah

Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD, AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, ” GOD WITH US.” And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus (Matthew 1:22-25).

When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy prior to the consummation of their marriage, his first thought was to “divorce” her privately. (In that society an engagement was as binding as a marriage, so the term “divorce” is appropriate.) Much has been made, properly, about Joseph’s integrity in that he did not desire to damage her reputation any more than it already had been or would be damaged through the pregnancy prior to their consummation. So the angel had to meet him in a dream to prevent this.

Matthew included this incident in his Gospel to demonstrate the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah concerning the virgin birth of the Messiah. It was a well-known prophecy and needed to be documented if the Jewish people were to believe that Jesus really was Messiah.

Prognosticators in various fields — meteorology, economics, as well as religion — look for signs to determine the validity of a phenomenon. The National Weather Service has studied the weather conditions just prior to significant weather events so they can warn us when similar conditions exist. In the aftermath of a storm they will dispatch analysts to determine if a fallen tree or structure was the result of straight-line winds or the twisting of a tornado. Investment counselors observe the political and economic conditions when the stock market rises and falls to make the wisest decisions concerning our retirement funds. The religious prognosticators tend to be less accurate because the Scripture they consult was written in cultures and languages far different from our own.

Matthew is doing the same in this context. The phenomenon of Jesus’ ministry, especially His death and Resurrection begged the question, “Is/Was He the predicted Messiah?” Accuracy in assessing this was vital because the hope of the Jewish nation was at stake. If He were not the Messiah, they must continue to watch for someone else to fulfill the prophecies; if he were the Messiah, He was the King and needed to be obeyed.

Although the Messiah was predicted to come through Jewish ethnicity, He was not a Savior only to the Jews. Prophecies are abundant that describe His desire that ALL nations come to Him. Still, the evidence that Matthew drew together in his Gospel for his Jewish audience makes it clear that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah predicted by the ancient prophets of Israel. Therefore if a man rejects Him as Messiah, he must reject the Scriptures (or at least Matthew’s Gospel) as having any authority.

To Whom Much is Given

Thus says the LORD, “For three transgressions of Judah and for four I will not revoke its punishment, Because they rejected the law of the LORD And have not kept His statutes; Their lies also have led them astray, Those after which their fathers walked (Amos 2:4).

To a man, the Old Testament prophets preached a message of repentance to a people who said they trusted God but in reality followed after idols. Sometimes that message was a message of the tender love of God for his erring people (Hosea); sometimes it was a general call to repentance (Joel); and sometimes it was an in-your-face demand for repentance. That was Amos’ message; he wasn’t subtle at all.

The first two chapters of Amos’ prophecy pronounced judgment upon Israel and Judah and the nations surrounding them. The often-repeated phrase “For three transgressions of _____ and for four…” is a Hebrew phrase that communicates the same message as our English phrase, “The straw that broke the camel’s back…” Sin upon sin had piled up against these nations until God had to bring judgment for “the final straw,” which He names in each case.

As the judgments are pronounced for some very violent and egregious sins of the nations, similar judgments are pronounced upon Israel and Judah for much less sins – or so it would seem (see 2:4, 6). Most of us today would think it unfair that the same severity of punishment would be meted out against Judah who merely “rejected the law of God” as it was against those who “ripped open pregnant women” (1:13) simply to enlarge their borders.

To us in the conservative, right-wing movement of America, there is hardly a more vile sinner than the abortionist who employs procedures like “partial birth abortion,” except perhaps the lawyer or politician that legalizes such a procedure (and lives high off the proceeds of their actions). But in God’s eyes, there is no hierarchy of sins. The immediate consequences of the abortionist’s sin may be more apparent, but every vile consequence had its root in the first act of disobedience, the first act of justification.

Perhaps that’s why disobedience to God’s Word is a more significant sin than we in America would like to believe.

Called By God

And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. (Hebrews 5:4 ESV)

The “call” of God into ministry is an important event in the personal and professional development of those in ministry. Those who have diminished the authority of the Scripture dilute the importance of this because they see ministry as a “profession” and the decision to enter this field as no different than the decision to be a doctor or a teacher. Additionally, many today reject the notion that there is a God wholly other than we are Who has a will that He makes known to men. They see Him as an extension of ourselves or some metaphysical reality, not a spiritual Person as He is described in the Scriptures.

But for us who believe the Scriptures, the call of God into ministry is of vital importance. From a practical standpoint, the unusual stresses of ministry often require a clear and compelling sense that this is “what God created me for.” Those who make the decision to enter ministry without this sense often feel frustrated and unfulfilled because they are in themselves powerless to effect the eternal change that the Scriptures indicate is our job. In almost every other field there are more tangible benchmarks to give us a sense of fulfillment; in ministry, though, most of these benchmarks won’t be seen until eternity.

The verse quoted above suggests that this has always been the case – even in the Old Testament era. But how that call comes is not always the same. Personally I can point to a specific event in which the Lord clearly “said,” “I have called you…” I know others, though, whose call is just as compelling but who had no mystical “Voice.” They simply have obeyed the Scripture in Romans 12 which told them to “Present your bodies a living sacrifice…” (et. al.).

The Old Testament law identified the “first issue of the womb” as being the Lord’s possession. Many in that era understood this to mean that they were to enter the priestly service (interestingly, a high percentage of senior pastors in America today are firstborns in their families). Still there needs to be a sense of “call” somewhere in the experience of the minister.

When a Christian young person is considering his career decision, it would seem to me that professional ministry should be one of the considerations. At the end of Romans 11, Paul is carried into a doxology praising the infinite wisdom of God, and then writes, “THEREFORE, present your bodies…” (Rom 12:1, emphasis added). God has a wonderful ability to re-direct, if that is not His purpose, and He can call from other professions, but material entanglements sometimes prevent the young person from obeying. So it is better to pursue that at the beginning of the career search.

Whatever the circumstances of the “call,” it must happen for the ministry to be effective.

Wrestling Against Powers

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12 ESV)

As Evangelicals we believe this verse, but most of us don’t understand it. I can’t say that I understand it fully either, but I read something this week that offered a bit more insight.

In Daniel 10:13 there is a reference to the “prince of Persia,” evidently a spiritual ruler or authority that has some influence over the whole nation. Since it was in opposition to the angel sent to comfort and aid Daniel, we understand it to be a demonic power. To my knowledge this is the only clear Biblical reference to demonic powers that oversee individual nations, but I have no doubt about the veracity of this teaching. We just don’t have any authoritative supporting information.

But I offer an anecdotal reference. Just last week the German government sent armed law enforcement officers to a private home and removed the 4 children from the home. Their crime? They were homeschooling their children. In 1948 the international community responded to the abuses of the Hitler regime by declaring, “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (Universal  Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26, Section 3). But now the German government is  rescinding this without any protestation from the international community. (This information was shared by ParentalRights.org in a recent communique.)

It seems that the same spirit that oppressed Germany under Hitler has reared its ugly head again. Is it just me or does it seem odd that the same oppression is being perpetrated upon the same people 65 years after it was defeated and declared to be evil (or at least associated with an evil regime)? Could it be that there really is a conflict going on in the heavenlies that somehow effects us with real – sometimes dire – consequences, but about which most of us are oblivious?

Obviously, I believe the answer is “Yes!” I cannot explain how the conflict in the heavenly realms impacts our world, but I recognize that to make an eternal difference we need to drop the frenetic pace most of us keep and begin to pray more and fast more. If the real battle is in the unseen world beyond ours, we must learn to take the fight to that realm.

Worship and Fasting

 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3 ESV)

Many churches hold up the first century church as the standard to live up to, and they are correct. Some think that if they celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a certain way or frequency, they are following the first century pattern. Some think that if they preach from the Scripture they are following the pattern to the full. Still others imagine that if they experience the signs and wonders that accompanied the apostles’ ministry, they can make the claim to be the “true church.”

Few however in our day follow the pattern set by the Church at Antioch. We don’t know how regularly they met for worship and fasting; this incident in Acts 13 may have been the only time. But personally, I think it was a regular thing.

“Worship” here is mentioned because they were honoring His Person. Worship is not just a rehearsal of all the things God has done for us; it is extolling His virtues, praising His character. It’s the difference between saying to your spouse, “Thanks for the good meal” and “You are a great cook!” Both are appropriate in the right context, but  the praise goes to character. The Scripture speaks of “seek[ing] His face” (Ps 27:8) (who He is) versus seeking His hands (what He does).

“Fasting” is usually associated with an intense need. The incidents of fasting throughout the Scripture are usually connected with a threat to the well being of the nation or the individual. In this case (Acts 13:3) it seems they fasted for the purpose of getting the next step right as the Church was going forward.

As the Church in America becomes more marginalized in the society, many who are earnestly seeking revival are returning to these practices. It is not enough to merely acknowledge His provisions to us; we are being drawn to worship Him, to adopt His values, to wait for His voice. I heard recently a comparison of worship to an orchestra whose Composer and Conductor is the Lord Himself. Sometimes He calls upon our “voices” to play a supportive role; at other times to play the melody; still other times we are to remain silent.

But turning from this metaphor, He has created us in His image so that we can be His partners in the grand cause of world evangelization, “that the whole world may know that He is God.” Just as the Church in Antioch expressed their urgency through fasting, it needs to be revived in the Church again. We need to fall on our faces before Him that all men everywhere would repent and seek Him.

Take Hold of Instruction

Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her for she is your life (Prov 4:13)

Being instructed is hard. It rubs against our pride by forcing us to admit that there is something lacking in us, and everything in our society tells us that we are complete and adequate in ourselves, just as we are. There is nothing in us that requires instruction, at least not morally; men are basically good in themselves. If there is a flaw, society will take care of that through its Department of Corrections. The emphasis in public education upon “self-esteem” undermines real instruction. No longer does a student have to master a certain body of material; he is given passing marks so that he will feel good about himself. As a result of this unBiblical philosophy, larger numbers of our society are having to be “corrected.”

But Solomon’s words to us – if they are followed – actually help us live satisfying lives, because they keep us humble. We don’t think “more highly of ourselves than we ought to think” (Rom 12:3). We recognize in these words that there is real life…satisfying life…fulfilling life…abundant life, not a pretense of life like we see in the characters on TV and the movies. That’s why Solomon tells us to “guard her.”

Primarily Solomon has the informal instruction of a parent to his child in mind, but it is not outside the meaning here to think of formal instruction. Some professions expect a certain amount of “Continuing Education” or “Professional Development” of their members. My own course in seminary is stretching me to read things that I might otherwise have set aside. In some cases I have read books that I had not known existed, books confirming certain convictions in me but which I had no idea had been put into print. The confirming of those convictions has been a great encouragement to me, in some cases delivering me from an “Elijah Syndrome,” the feeling of being all alone in my ministry.

I’m glad I “[took] hold of instruction.”

Testing Our Faith

At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth (Josh 5:2-3).

This is one of the places in the Biblical narrative where geography plays an important role in understanding what is happening in this passage.

Joshua has taken over for Moses in leading Israel. To confirm this God parted the Jordan River at flood stage so that Israel could to cross into the land. This would imitate the great miracle He did in the leadership of Moses – the crossing of the Red Sea – and remind the people that Joshua was indeed God’s choice to succeed Moses. After the nation crossed, the river returned to its natural state.

The place that Israel crossed and camped was not far from the place where the Jordan River feeds into the Dead Sea. Geographically, this is the lowest point in elevation on the face of the earth. Within about 5 miles, and, more importantly, within sight was the fortified city of Jericho. Joshua, Israel’s military commander under Moses and now the political leader, was looking up at the city, with no place of escape behind him – not the place a military commander would seek to launch an attack from. It was at this point that God tells Joshua to circumcise his army, effectively disabling his army for 2-3 days. Had the king of Jericho tried, he could have launched an attack just then and destroyed completely the army that was threatening him. He, of course, didn’t know this but it didn’t make it any less significant that Joshua was risking the safety of his nation by immobilizing is army.

Why didn’t God have them do this before they crossed the Jordan? Why did He wait until the River had returned to flood stage? It was simply and solely because He wanted to test the faith of His leader. Joshua passed.

There are times when God tells His people to do what is totally against the dictates of human reason, but to do it at His command and in dependence upon Him. Tithing is such a command. In an age when there is such financial pressure on families, He still calls upon us to give a tithe (see Matt 23:23 and Luke 11:42). The idea is not that we deplete our resources; it that we honor the One who owns it all. And this often goes counter to accepted practice in our society.

A related area is that God promises us that if we seek first His kingdom, all our material needs will be cared for. So, should a Christian mom take a job and put her kids in day care or should she stay at home and instill the values in them that she believes? Should a teen take a part-time job that will require him/her to work on Sunday?

There are other apparently irrational things that God calls us to do that we should do in obedience, just like Joshua (e.g., consider Isaiah 40:31). If we are fully devoted to Him, He will test our faith.