Remember the Bitter; Enjoy the Sweet

When God called upon Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, the Scripture says that it was because Israel was groaning under the oppression of their Egyptian taskmasters. “Many years later the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Their cries for relief from their hard labor ascended to God: God listened to their groanings. God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw what was going on with Israel. God understood” (Ex. 2:23-25, MSG).

The importance of pain and affliction cannot be overstated. Without pain, few of us would see our doctors; without hard times, few of us would develop the endurance (physical or in any other form) to persevere; and without the pain that accompanies our sinful conditions, none of us would come to the Savior for His mercy and grace.

When the Hebrew people groaned under the Egyptian bondage, God saw their affliction from the very beginning. But, as with most of us, their condition had to become unbearable for them before they would consent to the hardships that would come by leaving. Even then, it only took them three days before they started complaining that God had not provided them any water (Ex. 15:22f).

A Jewish family at Passover remembers the whole experience of their ancestors. But the sweetness of freedom cannot be fully appreciated without remembering the bitterness of slavery, so the Passover table includes a few items to remind them of this bitterness. One item is a bowl of salt water in which the family will dip some of their ceremonial foods to remind them of the tears that were shed in their bondage. Various bitter herbs also bring back the memory of those tears, particularly the horseradish.

Horseradish is a strong bitter herb, too strong for some. But the sweetness of freedom becomes something that we take for granted unless we have something to compare it with. Likewise, none of us can enjoy the sweetness of the grace of God if we fail to remember the bitterness of sin.

 Our culture doesn’t help — it applauds sin as being fun, sweet, and satisfying. How quickly we forget the financial or familial destruction that usually accompanies alcoholism. How many children are horribly impacted by the pedophile that became addicted to sex through pornography? How many lives are in financial bondage through the debts incurred by the lottery or another form of gambling? These are just some of the more obvious bondage-producing sins that our world tells us are sweet, but all of us have experienced (or are experiencing) a slavery to sin. Just as there are no “victimless crimes,” there is no sin that does not lead to some form of bondage.

Deliverance from any kind of bondage is sweet, and that is what the Passover commemorates. It is also the purpose of the cross of Christ. Jesus said, “If the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). This was also the Apostle Paul’s point in Galatians 4 and 5 — having been enslaved by sin, we can experience true freedom through the redemptive work of Christ.

But there are two dangers that are described in these two New Testament passages. Like the Jews in John 8, we can proudly declare that we have never been enslaved to anything (see v. 33) and therefore do not need to be redeemed. Or, like the Galatians to whom Paul was writing, we can turn back to our old ways and trust that somehow our good works will merit eternal life for us. This too, is a form of pride. The truth is that redemption is all from Jesus. In other places Paul wrote that eternal life is wholly and completely a gift — something given, not earned (Rom 6:23; Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:4-6).

All who celebrate Passover rehearse the events that led from the bitterness of slavery to the sweet freedom of redemption. Until we come to the same point of the bitterness of bondage and the impossibility of deliverance that Moses and the Hebrews experienced, we can never fully appreciate the sweet redemption that is available to us in Y’Sua ha-Mashiach (Jesus, the Messiah).

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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.

Unwise Men from the East

You have abandoned your people, the house of Jacob. They are full of superstitions from the East; they practice divination like the Philistines and clasp hands with pagans (Is. 2:6).

As if God needed anything else to bring judgment, Isaiah identifies Eastern mysticism as one of the reasons for it. Since the 1960s America also has been filled with the influences of Eastern religions, some of which have come through the use of illegal drugs.  The series of movies known as “Star Wars” have introduced us here in the West to the Eastern idea that there are two equal “forces” at work in this world – one for good and one for evil. Yoga has become so common an exercise that many churches today sponsor classes, not to mention the Young Men’s CHRISTIAN Association (YMCA). This, despite the fact that it originated from and is an integral part of Hinduism. Some view the martial arts as merely a form of exercise, but it is clear that many others see a relationship between them and Eastern thought.

But these ideas stand opposed to the worship of the Triune God. People who practice the various Eastern religions in most cases set up shrines in their homes with gods of wood and stone, directly violating the commands to make no graven image and to have no other god but the Lord. The forces of good and evil are not equal in Christian thought – the Triune God is supreme and sovereign while the devil must seek His permission to afflict us (see Job 1:6). In addition, it is clear that the “Force” of Star Wars is just something to be used or manipulated while Christians are called to serve their God, not manipulate Him for their own ends.

Just as Eastern superstitions contributed to the judgment that God brought upon His people in ancient times, so it will contribute to judgment in our day as well. We in the West have drifted from the worship of the Triune God as revealed in our Scriptures and have set every other religious system on an equal footing. It is no wonder that the Lord who declared, “I am, and there is no other” (Is. 45:5) would be offended that we have entertained, and even set as equal, what is beneath Him. Truly we are worshiping “the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).

The call that Isaiah issued is the same for us – repentance. Nothing else will save us. The one He esteems is the one who is “humble, contrite and trembles at His Word” (66:2).

Weighed In the Scales

You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting (Dan 5:27).

I consider this to be one of the most tragic verses in all of the Scripture.

Belshazzar the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar was the co-regent of Babylon when this event took place. His father, Nabonidus ruled with him and was away from Babylon when Belshazzar decided to throw a party. At this party he thought it would be great fun to mock the Jews in his kingdom by using the fancy goblets that had been brought from the Temple before it had been destroyed. With these he toasted the wooden and stone gods of Babylon, elevating them to a position above the God of the Jews. After all, since the Jews were subservient to the Babylonians, their God must be as well.

What Belshazzar forgot – but the text makes clear that he knew about – was that his grandfather had been banished to the open field for a period of time – likely 7 years – until he acknowledged that the God of the Jews was the true God. Maybe it would be better to say that Belshazzar “chose not to remember” this incident, because despite his knowledge he flaunted his gods and his power in the face of his Creator.

His feeling of invincibility was understandable. The Babylonian Empire was at its zenith. The city was impregnable, with a major river running through it to keep the people supplied with fresh water even if someone tried to lay siege to it. But what Belshazzar didn’t know was that while he and his friends were partying, the Medes had dammed up the river enough to allow their soldiers to wade into the city without the Babylonian guard becoming aware of it. Daniel’s prophecy that Belshazzar would be killed that night came true.

Sadly – on a smaller, less dramatic scale – the judgment pronounced against Belshazzar is continually being leveled against men in this generation every day. Despite all the evidences of His existence, His power and His sovereignty men flaunt the gods of their own making before Him, declaring them to be greater than He is. The same declaration of judgment is theirs: “You have been weighed in the scales and found wanting.”

But it doesn’t have to be. This same God that Daniel and his people worshiped has revealed Himself in Jesus, proving countless times that He was and is God in flesh who went to the cross for us and for our salvation. Because He has clothed us in His righteousness, when we are weighed in the scales, they are tipped in our favor. We are no longer “wanting.”

But there is no “in between.” Either a man is found “righteous” or found “wanting.” I hope you have made the right choice.