Our Prayer

Then Rabshakeh said to them, “Say now to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria, “What is this confidence that you have? You say (but they are only empty words), ‘I have counsel and strength for the war.’ Now on whom do you rely, that you have rebelled against me? Now behold, you rely on the staff of this crushed reed, even on Egypt; on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him. But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the LORD our God,’ is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and has said to Judah and to Jerusalem, ‘You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem’?  Now therefore, come, make a bargain with my master the king of Assyria, and I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them. How then can you repulse one official of the least of my master’s servants, and rely on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen? Have I now come up without the LORD’S approval against this place to destroy it? The LORD said to me, ‘Go up against this land and destroy it.'”‘” (2 Kings 18:19-25).

Remarkably the descendants of these ancient Assyrians are the ones who are currently oppressing God’s people (Christians, this time) in Syria and Iraq. World politics have changed enough that Egypt is no longer the hope for rescue, but the same ultimatum is being given – submit to us or die. They even justify their destruction by declaring that it is the command of their god.

As Hezekiah prayed for his people, so we need to be praying for the Christians in Iraq and Syria today. Earnest prayer for them will lead to earnest prayer for ourselves.

“Father, You are the Sovereign Lord Whose plans for this world will ultimately be fulfilled. As You revealed Your glorious power when Hezekiah and the city of Jerusalem were threatened, so we ask You to reveal Your power in this time.

“These infidels have scoffed at Your power no less than their ancestors did nearly 3000 years ago. They are intent upon establishing their rule and displaying their god as the supreme deity in this world. But You make it clear that You had/have no rival (then or now), that all who dare to exalt themselves to Your position will be cast down. In ancient times You destroyed their army by killing 185,000 in a single night so that they limped back to their home where their leader was assassinated. How You choose to protect Your reputation and show Your glory this time is Your own decision. We simply cry out that You will do it soon.

“We grieve the martyrdom of many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the persecution others are enduring for Your Name. Sustain the families of the martyrs by the comforting ministry of the Holy Spirit. One of the early Church Fathers observed that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” and so we ask that this would be true in this day as well, that the persecution of Your Church will be a blessing to Your Kingdom.

“Open the eyes of many in our world who have shown no interest in Your Truth so that they may see the assured confidence of those who die with Your name on their lips. Make clear to them that the persecutors are the deceived and the cowardly while those who stand with Jesus to the death will receive the ultimate reward.

“Open the eyes of those for whom the Christian faith is merely a form without substance. Don’t let them straddle the fence; bring them to the point that they must decide to reject You or follow You wholeheartedly.

“Finally, Father, renew in each of us who bears Your name the resolve to follow You to the death, if it is Your will. We recognize that in this world the name of Jesus is increasingly being denounced, and the pressures to turn from Him are growing stronger. Diminish the attraction of this world; magnify the world to come in our hearts.

“We ask this for Jesus’ glory and with His authority. Amen.”

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.

Spiritual Warfare

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12).

Apparently my life is too entrenched in the physical world that surrounds me, because this verse always strikes a chord with me. Reading this, along with Ephesians 3:9-10, I am reminded that there is an unseen spiritual presence that somehow impacts the affairs of men that I can see. What the connection is between the spiritual world of “principalities and powers” and our physical world of personal survival, caring and rearing our families, standing for Truth in the political world and promoting Christ is impossible to understand. Perhaps one day when this life is over, we will understand it.

In the verses that follow Ephesians 6:2, Paul speaks about the spiritual armor that we are to don as believers in this battle, but there is another passage that speaks about the weapons that we are to use. That passage is II Cor. 10:4-5 which tells us that our weapons are spiritual and can pull down the strongholds (in the spiritual world) that are impossible if we only see this as a world of space and time. The weapons to which Paul refers are, of course, prayer and fasting. Some might include giving since Jesus included this in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6).

Both of these “means of grace” (to use the term employed by the Reformers) are mysteries to most of us. Why does God need us to pray when He already knows what He wants done and has the power to accomplish it? Why did the ancients consider fasting to be a way “to make your voice heard on high”? Isn’t that what prayer itself does? If our Lord owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” and “the wealth of every mine,” why does He command us to give?

The answers to these are bound up in the reality that “our warfare is not against flesh and blood…” Somehow, what we do when we pray, fast and give impacts the spiritual world in ways that we will never completely understand while we are in this life. Certainly the practice of these disciplines creates a growth component for our lives here that will be satisfying while we remain on this side, but God’s purpose is much greater even than that. Somehow we make a difference in the unseen world, and the unseen world affects what happens around us. That’s why Psalm 149 can say that it is the glory of God’s people to pray and to impact the political world in far-away places (see vss. 6-9).

These spiritual disciplines can become wearisome to us at times, but we must continually feed on the Scripture to keep the truth before us that even if we cannot see visible results from these disciplines, they are effective in the unseen world.

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.

Fools in High Places

There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler:  Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones (Eccl 10:5-6).

 One of the important characteristics of the Hebrew language (from which this passage is translated) is “parallelism.” Rather than rhyming words such as we use in English, Hebrew poetry uses similar or opposite thoughts to draw out the meaning of the phrase. In this passage, then, the noun “rich” is to be seen as being antithetical or the opposite of the word “fools.” It is not a customary usage of the Hebrew term, but the meaning is pretty clear. The “rich” in this case are rich in wisdom.

 I happened to read this while our United States Congress was embroiled in the battle over raising the debt ceiling for our government. (Note I said, “government,” not “country.”) I concur with Solomon, “Fools are put in many high positions…” I always hesitate to criticize in this way because I know that there are many good and decent men and women who are trying to do the right and responsible thing to keep our country solvent, but they are out voted by the “fools” who simply want to buy their votes to win reelection. This was not what our Founding Fathers envisioned. (Incidentally, while I am being critical here, I also regularly pray for them.)

 It is not rocket science to understand that we cannot spend more than we take in perpetually. It is also not rocket science to understand that we already take in ENOUGH. However, bringing money back home is one of the main considerations when a politician is seeking reelection.

This is why a Balanced Budget Amendment makes sense – it’s what we must do as a family, what our church must do and what every business must do as well. Even “lower” governments – municipalities and states – must balance their budgets or lose services totally. That’s a choice some communities have opted for over exorbitant taxation.

 Since, as some say, “reelection is the principle job of any politician,” perhaps we are at the point where we need to establish term limits for the House and the Senate. After all, the Presidency has a limitation of two terms. By limiting them to a certain number of elected terms in office, perhaps it will be an incentive for them to serve the people rather than perpetuate their reelection.

I also think that someone other than these elected officials should establish their salaries. Perhaps this could be the annual, collective job of the Lieutenant Governors of each state (In our technologically rich era, this could be done quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively through a Conference Call). Perhaps they could use the same standard for Congressional raises that is used to determine cost of living increases for Social Security recipients. Or, since these people represent their respective states, take their salaries from the coffers of the individual states to remind them who they are really serving.

 Solomon had it correct that the people in low positions (we would call them “grassroots”) often are rich in wisdom. The question in each generation is, “Will we be heard?”

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.

In Demonstration of the Spirit’s Power

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Cor 2:4-5).

             There are times when, despite my best efforts and thorough study, my delivery of the sermon just doesn’t go well. I feel out of synch and imagine that my hearers are having as much trouble following my thoughts as I am in communicating them. Recently when that happened, I was grateful that God answered my regular prayer that He would speak despite me. The responses I received were significant.

             The preacher is to be the Lord’s mouthpiece. In the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, the preacher is to declare with authority, “Thus says the Lord…” to this generation. We cannot do this unless we have an authoritative text from which we are working. I have often wondered how those who reject the Scriptures find something to say week after week. My words and ideas are not that wise, creative or important.

             But when that sure Word is clear from my study; when I have understood the text of Scripture and am prepared to apply its truth to this generation, it is terribly frustrating to come to that place in the service and be distracted either by my physical circumstances or by something external in the environment – like the air conditioning malfunctioning or the powerpoint presentation not working or some other distraction. It is in these times when I am reminded that this is a spiritual work, and that it is the Holy Spirit who is speaking, not me. No part of the Worship Service – if it is really a WORSHIP service – should be characterized as a performance, especially the sermon. I want people to think well of me because I want them to think well of my Savior, but like Paul, I want my people’s faith to rest upon God’s power not my “wise and persuasive words.”