Watching For Signs of Life


They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us (1 John 2:19, ESV).

Slowly over the past several months (now into a couple of years) I have been cleaning out a brushy overgrown area between my house and my neighbor’s. I have tried to preserve a few shoots that have started there such as a couple of small redbud trees and some small Rose of Sharon shoots that have grown up off of a common root. Amazingly, despite my very brown thumb, they have shown signs of life! Last summer, however, I noticed that one of the Rose of Sharon shoots was not upright. Apparently a deer had broken it.

I couldn’t tell if there was still some life to the shoot or not, so I took some string and tied it to the remaining upright shoots, hoping that any life still within it would help to heal the break, but I have my doubts. The real test will be this spring (if spring ever comes) when the leaves and blossoms appear.

In several places in Scripture the Bible describes the life of the believer with an illustration from horticulture (see Psalm 1; Jer. 17; John 15, et. al.). The life of the believer is nourished from a root system that draws vitality from the soil (usually). In some plants the inter-connectedness of the roots stabilizes the plant just as the believer feeds off of the common faith of other believers in the church. In other words, we need the other believers in the church to be strong in the faith. But what happens when a tender shoot is broken off, when someone leaves the fellowship because of a nuance in doctrine, a sin, or a conflict over something trivial?

The Apostle John describes such a scenario in which an apparent believer leaves a congregation in the passage quoted above. We are tempted to ask if they were really believers in Christ to begin with, but that is not John’s point and we are not privy to their inner thoughts. John’s point is that they appeared to be alive and connected to the same Root (Jesus), but they left. He says, “Let them go; they were really not of us.”

As fallen people, it is natural for us to proudly tug on our lapels and congratulate ourselves on our steadfastness, usually imagining that it is because of our righteousness. May the Lord guard us from this sin and humble us with a truly repentant spirit, helping us to recognize our own areas of doctrinal or interpersonal error. The righteous don’t always win a church conflict.

The enemy of our souls also recognizes that this same fallenness makes us susceptible to a false guilt where we condemn ourselves for communicating an attitude of condemnation toward the person who left our fellowship. Maybe we did; maybe we didn’t. Happily it is the same genuinely repentant spirit of self-examination that can deliver us from Satan’s condemnation (see Rom 8:1).

As believers in Jesus, it is our purpose to seek to bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted. Hopefully, if there is genuine life in the wounded friend, they will return to the Shepherd and Guardian of their souls, even if they don’t return to our fellowship. The real test, however, will be seen in the blossoms appearing in the spring as a demonstration of the life of Christ that produces genuine fruitfulness.

Too High of a Price

“You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them. You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples” (Psalm 44:12-14, ESV).

Jim Elliot was martyred for Christ on January 8, 1956 as he and four other missionaries in Ecuador were attempting to make contact with a warlike, stone-age tribe of Indians known as the Aucas. The story of their martyrdom is told in a book written by Elliot’s wife, Elizabeth (Betty), called Through Gates of Splendor. It is a classic that should be read by every earnest believer in Christ.

Betty Elliot also wrote about her husband’s inner spiritual life, gleaned largely through Jim’s journals. That book is called Shadow of the Almighty and is also a worthy read. At some point while he was a student at Wheaton College outside of Chicago, Elliot wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

At the time, this martyrdom made the national news here in the United States. The reporters assigned to this story (and even some church leaders) considered the deaths of the five missionaries to be a tragic waste of life. Human nature being what it is, there is no doubt that the wives and loved ones went through periods of grief, wondering about the high cost of reaching a tribe of a few hundred obscure Indians hidden in the jungles of Ecuador. It may surprise many to realize that the Psalmist felt a similar emotion in Psalm 44.

Those who question the martyrdom of these five men — including the church leaders — display a lack of understanding of the worth of the human soul. If men, made in the image of God, were worth redeeming at the cost of God’s own Son, what sacrifice is too much for even the most obscure people group on earth? Their grief, notwithstanding, the loved ones of these men understood this. But do we?

I have known many men who have left ministry because the cost was just too great. The headaches and heartaches of ministry just aren’t worth the relatively low pay, the constant stress, and the scorn of family and friends. Conflicts within the congregation take their toll on ministers’ marriages and children. It would be different if the Lord would demonstrate radically transformed lives as a result of our work, but that is not often the case — here or overseas. We often labor in obscurity, not seeing many results. For many who have left ministry, God has demanded too high of a price of them. In the words of the Psalmist, “[He] has sold [His] people for a trifle…”

Many people who consider themselves to be Christians have left the Church because the cost of being among God’s people (those to whom Jesus is committed) is too great. Humility and contrition are too high of a price to pay. The souls of pagan neighbors or coworkers or family members are just not worth the pain of not getting our way in a church decision. Certainly there are times when a principled stand must be taken in today’s Church, but are we really willing to stand before Jesus for something as trivial as the color of the carpet or which version of the Bible we prefer to read? We don’t want to be “a laughingstock among the peoples.”

Does God really require sacrifice from me? Does He really expect me to humble myself before someone with whom I have had a conflict so that — MAYBE — men might know Him? The wives of the five martyrs would say, “Yes.”

Pompous Men


Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish…Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish (Ps. 49:12, 20).

The ancients have described pride as one of the seven deadly sins. That is exactly right, as the psalmist attests. Twice in this psalm, the author compares the proud man to the beasts that perish and are no longer remembered.

When an animal dies, if it is a pet, we are sad for a while but we will get over it. Animal life, though valuable as part of the created order, does not have the same value as human life which is created in God’s image. Despite the suggestion of Disney and other animators, the deer family doesn’t conduct a funeral for a member that becomes roadkill or a hunter’s summer sausage. No one typically mourns.

That same plight is the end of the proud and pompous man. He may have enough money to have a headstone erected with his name on it so that ancestry websites can trace his descendants, but within a few weeks after the funeral, he has become a distant memory. But the psalmist points out that his wealth will not endure. Neither will his reputation.

On the other hand, the Scripture is replete with references to how the man WITHOUT his pomp will endure. Dozens of times, in a variety of ways and contexts, the Lord calls upon his people to humble themselves. Repentant humility softens the Lord’s heart to the most incorrigible sinner (reflect upon 2 Chron 33:10-13). The problem with most of us, as the Psalmist notes, is that we are not willing to truly humble ourselves, and He isn’t going to play our game of faking it.

According to the Apostle Paul, Jesus’ humility was His signature characteristic, exemplified at the cross (see Philippians 2:5-11). We are called upon to be like Him, to set others before ourselves. It works every time it’s tried. Show me a home where husband and wife are more concerned for the welfare of the other than they are their own, and I will show you a peaceful home. Show me a church where the members are more concerned with prioritizing the needs of others and I will show you a peaceful church. Humility is the recipe for resolving every interpersonal conflict. (May I step on a few toes by saying, “Politicians should take note!”?)

True humility cannot be imposed upon us from the outside; it is a function of our relationship with Christ. Non-Christian religions (and even some so-called Christian groups) merely manage the pride of their members. Secularism hides pride in its promotion of self-esteem; Christian legalists appeal to pride to get their members to follow their rules; non-Christian religious groups and cults claim to be pleasing God when their members simply want to claim some proud righteousness for themselves.

Only Christ can make us truly humble. Only when we see ourselves with all of our imperfections in the light of His purity can we experience true humility. Jesus’ humility to the point of being our Substitute on the cross led God to exalt Him to the highest place and we are commanded to have the same attitude. When we follow this command, we will endure while the men with proud and pompous hearts will perish with no remembrance.

 

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 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.

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.

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.

Solemn Assembly

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly (Joel 2:15).

Economic disaster was imminent when Joel prophesied to the nation of Judah. Locusts had come through and had wiped out the crops. Unlike our day where we have grain stored away for years and we even bid on the FUTURE price of those commodities, when their crops were destroyed they didn’t eat till the next year (at least not that food).

Richard Owen Roberts, a student of revivals throughout history and an author on the subject, identifies the “solemn (or sacred) assembly” as the answer prescribed by God for any kind of imminent appeal to avoid disaster. When the “Ark of the Covenant” was captured by the Philistines, Samuel proclaimed a fast and called the people together to repent before God (I Sam 7). When kings Asa and Jehoshaphat were threatened by nations mightier than they were, they each called upon the people to fast and repent at a solemn assembly (2 Chron 14, 20). When God declared judgment for the sins of his grandfather, Manasseh, King Josiah was moved to repentance himself and called the people to the same in 2 Chron 34:29.

Usually the solemn assembly was accompanied by fasting because throughout the Old Testament, fasting was a sign of self-humiliation, mourning and repentance. It is significant that historically the singular sign of a repentant spirit was the willingness to mourn through fasting. That’s why the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) has historically been known as “the Fast” (see Acts 27:9).

God responds to the Solemn Assembly – not because there is anything magical about an assembly – but because He responds to brokenness and contrition. When Christians mourn and confess and repent of their sin He takes notice because He sees that we understand the seriousness of sin. When Isaiah wrote that Jesus was “crushed” for our iniquities in Isaiah 53:5, that word is the same Hebrew word that is translated “contrite” in Psalm 51:17 – “a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” The power of a single Christian’s repentance is significant, but when a group of Christians – as in a local church – gather to genuinely mourn their sin, His heart is moved to action on their behalf.

In our day the Church has decided that His blessing must rest upon the mega-church because everyone strives for “bigness.” Pastors flock to the seminars or books of the most recent “success” story to learn their “secret,” which they are glad to share – for a price. (I even have a book in my library on how to use fasting to grow your church – apparently the author sees fasting as one of the tools in a pastor’s ecclesiastical toolbox!) But Isaiah tells us that if God wanted to build a BIG ministry, He wouldn’t need us. What He is looking for are those who are “humble…contrite…and who tremble at His Word” (Is. 66:2).

Forgetfulness

When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me (Hos 13:6).

Even though God was referring to Israel when He spoke to Hosea, He may have used the exact same words to describe the current generation in America. Ancient Israel’s history was sprinkled liberally with special provisions of God for this people: the parting of the Red Sea, manna in the wilderness, water from the rock, the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, Gideon’s miraculous victory over the Midianites, to name just a few.

So with our American history. In their excellent book, The Light and the Glory, David Manuel and Peter Marshall chronicle many of the clear provisions of God in the establishment of our country, provisions that only the hardest of heart could deny being an intervention of God Himself.

For a number of years both of these nations – Israel and America – enjoyed the clear blessing of God. Neither was perfect in its worship and practices, but as a whole, the people (often responding to the national leadership) embraced the God of Israel as their Creator and Redeemer.

But there came a time when Israel forgot Him and His deliverances. As Hosea said, “they were satisfied,” and the satisfaction begat pride – they thought they deserved His blessings. When He began to remove a few of the blessings to make the people remember that they had no real claim to them – they were all gifts – the people got angry with Him (He was acting like any good parent would). So He sent His prophets to warn them. Some repented, but it just made others angrier. After repeated warnings, He finally sent judgment – for Hosea’s Northern Kingdom of Israel, it was from the Assyrian Empire. About 150 years later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah ignored the warnings and was carried to Babylon.

We have entered that era of forgetfulness in America. Among others, God has sent us DL Moody (with his musical partner, Ira Sankey) and when they passed, Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver tried to stir this country to repentance. In recent years the baton has been passed to Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows. But with each succeeding generation, the number of people willing to listen to their calls for repentance decreases.

Israel’s history from inception to captivity lasted about 600-700 years, but we should expect God to be more patient with Israel. After all, He specifically called them His “chosen people.” The United States of America has never been called that (at least not by God).

How long do we have before judgment comes? That’s up to us. How long will we wait before we choose to repent?  Some people think (to their shame), “Perhaps we won’t have to repent if the right person gets elected in the next election.” But our hope is not a political one; it wasn’t for Israel and it won’t be for us. How quickly we forget!

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.