Monday, December 5, 2016

A Christmas Love Story

Note: The following article was originally published in The Prophetic Round-Up, Abilene, Texas, November-December, 1987, edition. My thanks to Editor, Sam "Shmuel" Peak for permission to reprint articles I have written for the Round-Up. I have slightly edited this version to tighten some parts and to clarify others.  May the Lord use it to encourage and edify many. (All Scripture references in this article are from the King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)

Valentine Michael Smith came from Mars with a whole new idea about love and inter-personal relationships. When he tried to explain his idea to earth people, he developed an almost cultic following. And he incited a great deal of opposition. Particularly since his idea was not too different from many of the modern group sex philosophies. Robert Heinlein tells about Smith's cult and its influence in his revolutionary novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. (1961, 1991)

Another stranger in a strange land reveals a deeper, more profound, more lasting concept of love. A young woman named Ruth, a worshipper of the Moabite god Chemosh, left the only homeland she knew to come to Israel. There she became a noteworthy ancestor of Jesus Christ Himself. Ruth did not bring a new concept of love with her. Instead, in her experience in the house of Naomi and in the grain fields of Boaz, Ruth discovered a new kind of love and a new kind of life transcending all boundaries--racial, ethnic, geographic. And ultimately her love story is the story of God's love revealed in Christ Jesus. Check out some of the similarities.

For example, in the last chapter of the Book of Ruth, the author describes her marriage to Boaz. Among the characteristics similar to the story of Jesus there is first the focus on the divine activity surrounding the birth of her child. Before Ruth and Boaz even consummated their marriage, the people prayed for a special offspring, and openly acknowledged that her seed would be a gift from God. Repetition in the text reinforces the conviction of divine activity surrounding the conception and birth of Obed. "Let thy house be like the house of Pharez...of the seed which the Lord shall give thee..." (Ruth 4:12, italics mine), the people cried out to Boaz. Later, when Boaz "went in unto [Ruth], the Lord gave her conception and she bare a son." (Ruth 4:13, italics mine) While the conception of Obed was not a miraculous virgin conception like that of Jesus, yet it did result from a direct act of God within the womb of Ruth. God had  intervened to assure a male offspring that became an ancestor of Jesus; and as a result, significant in the Messianic teaching of God's Word.

A second characteristic is the significance of the offspring. In the hope of Israel, Ruth's seed had to be a son so he could "raise up the name of the dead...that the name of the dead be not cut off from his brethren...." (Ruth 4:10) The Hebrew Scriptures which we call the Old Testament contain little teaching about immortality and eternal life as we understand them. The patriarchs believed in a literal resurrection, as Job 19:25-27 indicates, but knew or understood little about it. To them, immortality meant perpetuating one's name and inheritance through one's offspring. And for this kind of immortality, only a son would do. This explains the prayer of Boaz in Ruth 4:10. It further explains the gravity of Onan's sin in Genesis 38:8-10, because unlike Boaz, Onan essentially cut off his brother's name. It was not a "sexual sin" as such, but rather a willful refusal to honor the inheritance of his dead brother. Boaz, on the other hand, intentionally chose to continue the name of Mahlon, Ruth's dead husband by marrying Ruthann producing a child in the name of Mahlon. More important in the history of Israel  is the fact that any son born to a household might in fact be the promised Messiah. As the last few verses of Ruth indicate, Obed was not the Messiah; but he kept the line alive in the providence of God and became an ancestor of Christ. Thus he insured, or rather God insured through him, that the "son that is given" (Isaiah 9:6) would eventually appear.

The place of Obed's birth provides yet another important analogy. "Do thou worthily in Ephratah," the people said to Boaz, "and be famous in Bethlehem." (Ruth 4:11) As the first part of the book shows, the home of Boaz as well as the home of Naomi lay in the little village of Bethlehem. So, although the text does not explicitly say so, it implies through this blessing of the people on Boaz that Obed was born there, too. Bethlehem, five miles southeast of Jerusalem, held fond memories for all Israel. Jacob buried Rachel there. David held his coronation there. Here Ruth and Boaz settled there to raise their family. And later the prophet Micah would proclaim of Bethlehem, " though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting." (Micah 5:2) Not only was Bethlehem to become famous, but Boaz's son was to become famous in Bethlehem, meaning he would receive great acclaim, renown, or appellation. Nowhere does the Scripture reveal Obed achieving renown. But from Bethlehem, his grandson David rose to become the most famous king of Israel. And from his seed came Jesus, the most worthy character in all history. And both these ancestors of Jesus were born in Bethlehem (see 1 Samuel 20:4; Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4)

Fourthly, surrounding the birth of the child were two items of vital significance in redemptive history. The women of Bethlehem said to Naomi, "Blessed be the Lord, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman...." (Ruth 4:14) In Old Testament theology, the term kinsman is one of the most important terms. It refers to more than just a relative of any kind, but to one who is a close relative. Robert Strong translates it "next of kin" to stress its importance. Some commentaries note that in many contexts the writers combine the ideas of relationship and redemption and indicate the kinsman is a "kinsman-redeemer." It is used in the Book of Ruth this way; and in subsequent Jewish theology, ga-al (the kinsman-redeemer) is one who buys back the property of a relative who may have lost it through negligence, debt, or some other means. The ga-al buys it back to keep it in the family. He delivers his relative from danger, from judgment, or from his enemies. So, in Ruth, the people blessed the Lord because he has provided Naomi with a redeemer. And He has provided us with a Redeemer in the ancestor of Ruth, Jesus Christ, who adopts us into His family so He can actually be our "Kinsman- Redeemer."

The second aspect of redemption history in the story of Obed is the effect of redemption. The kinsman-redeemer becomes "a restorer, and a nourisher of... old age." (Ruth 4:15) These terms indicate that God has caused life to strengthen as it aged, or more literally to "turn back" as though becoming youthful again. And "to nourish" means to maintain and to guide. In Jesus Christ, we have one who redeems life, restores its power, maintains its vitality, and guides it unto Himself.

Finally, the child of Ruth and Boaz contributed to building up of the house of Israel (Ruth 4:11). God had promised Abraham a seed that would number as the sand of the sea. Not only was Israel to grow in number, but also to develop a quality of life surpassing that of the surrounding nations. God had commanded them to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2). Obed, whose name means "worshipper," was to aid in the development of Israel along these lines, lines of holiness and quality of life. And since he fell into the lineage of the Messiah, he contributed to the greatest building up of Israel spiritually. He was the grandfather of David to whom God had made the promise of an everlasting kingdom. And of his descendant, Jesus, the wise men from the East came to Jerusalem inquiring "Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him." (Matthew 2:2) Jesus, the Son of David (Matthew 1: 1) inherited that everlasting kingdom; and even before His birth, the angel told Mary, "the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end." (Luke 1:32b-33, italics mine)

At this Christmas season, let us, too, worship Him who in love came to Bethlehem to inherit that everlasting kingdom and to be the Kinsman-Redeemer of all who trust Him for life.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Just a Closer Walk with Thee

Can Christians caught up in the rush of modern life really enjoy the presence of God?  Can they enjoy fellowship with Him, the pleasure of getting to know Him better?  Can they really experience the pleasure of His company as believers of previous generations have?

Yes, they can.  You can.  If you really want to, you can walk with God as Enoch and Noah and Levi did centuries ago.  Or as D. L. Moody or G. Campbell Morgan or Chuck Swindoll or others of this century.  Let's take Enoch again as our model.  Enoch built a life characterized by walking with God in intimate fellowship.  He could do this because God desires fellowship with human beings.  Some would even say He pursues it.  As a result, He provided the way for us to respond to Him in faith and to walk with Him by faith.  All we have to do is learn what it means to walk with God and get in step.

As we have already seen, a walk with God begins with reconciliation to God.  Remember the words of Amos 3.3:  "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" (KJV)  Agreement with God requires reconciliation.  Sin brought alienation, isolation, and enmity.  Enoch inherited these qualities just as we all have.  For him to walk with God, the sin must be cleansed and the enmity removed and the man reconciled.  Only God can do all three, and we know He did it for Enoch because Hebrews 11.5 tells us that Enoch "obtained the witness before his being taken up he was pleasing to God."

To walk with God requires a correspondence of nature; it requires godliness.  To walk with Him, we must be like Him.  The two go hand in hand; as Matthew Henry expressed it, "What is godliness but walking with God?"  But to be godly, to walk with God, we must "become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1.4).  We must be "conformed to the image of His Son" (Romans 8.29).  For, you see, godliness is very much also God-like-ness.  And we can't become God-like all by ourselves.  Only after the Lord has placed His Holy Spirit in us can we obey the command to "consecrate yourselves...and be holy; for I am holy" (Leviticus 11.44).  With His Spirit empowering us, we then cease taking our own way.  We abandon the way of the world.  Instead, we walk with God, following the divine way, because the divine nature He's given us enables us to look at life the way the Lord looks at life, desire what He desires, enjoy the company He provides.  We learn how He looks at things and what He desires by getting close to Him, by getting to know Him.  And we get to know Him by walking with Him and by fellowshipping with Him through His Word and His indwelling Spirit.

To walk with God is to make God's Word our rule and His glory our end in all our actions.  Enoch had a word from God in his day: the promise concerning the seed of the woman, probably passed on through Seth from generation to generation until it came to him.  To believe God's Word brings glory to God.  To live by God's Word brings even more glory to Him.  And Enoch believed it and lived by it.  He obeyed God's Word and proclaimed it faithfully to his generation (Jude 14-15).  He preached God's judgment on the ungodly and pursued a godly life because only a godly life would please God.  And Enoch, remember,  "obtained the witness before his being taken up he was pleasing to God" because he walked with God by faith.  His faith was not given to him to improve the world or even to improve himself but just to walk with God.  God gives us faith by His Holy Spirit so we can walk with Him and His Word as a guide to show us how

To walk with God means we set God always before us.  It means we make it our constant care and endeavor to please Him in everything and to offend Him in nothing.  It means we surrender our will to His will.  We submit ourselves to be workers together with Him.  To walk with God means we become more and more like Him in holiness and righteousness and moral fitness.  Oswald Chambers said, "Holiness means unsullied walking with the feet, unsullied talking with the tongue, unsullied thinking with the mind--every detail of the life under the scrutiny of God.  Holiness is not only what God gives me, but what I manifest that God has given me."

We manifest what God has given us by walking with Him before the world as Children of God.  Because we are His children, we walk before Him in sincerity as Abraham did (Genesis 17.1).  We walk after Him in obedience to His leadership and commands (Deuteronomy 13.4).  As the Apostle Paul taught, we also walk in Him revealing our union with Him that has been rooted and established in faith (Colossians 2.6).  Finally, we walk with Him, as the saints of old did, in fellowship and love.  This is life's ideal and the culmination of God's glorious purpose for man--no, for you and me.  No wonder the hymn writer prayed
                                                "Just a closer walk with Thee.
                                                 Grant it, Jesus, is my plea!"

Friday, October 21, 2016

"Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God's grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God's grace."     ~~ Jerry Bridges
Disciplined by Grace

When I was a freshman in college, I signed up for an introductory course in philosophy.  I'd read somewhere that a good liberal arts education is a good basis for proper interpretation of the Bible, especially an education rich in studies in literature, history, and philosophy.  So, I took my first step toward that kind of education with philosophy 1101.  But what made this philosophy course so interesting was not the subject matter, but the professor.  Dr. Charles Lovett had an unusual philosophy of education.  When he gave an exam, he believed his students should be exposed to more truth than error.  Because of the size of the class, he mostly gave multiple choice exams.  But, unlike the usual multiple choice exam where you identify the correct answer out of four or five possible answers, Dr. Lovett's exams offered three or four correct answers and one incorrect answer.  The student had to spot the error, identify the incorrect answer.

How like the Spirit of God!  He fills our hearts and minds and lives with truth, equipping us to identify and avoid error in the world around us.  He even provides a teacher to guide us through this truth. He gives us Grace, who teaches us first to identify and to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions.  But Grace also teaches us how to live --- "sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age." (Titus 2.12)  In a nutshell, to live a life pleasing to God.  And to  please God, we need to do all three: think right, do right, live right.

First, Grace teaches us to think right, to live sensibly.  The King James Bible translates this word as soberly.  It comes from a Greek word that means with sound mind, sober-minded, self-controlled.  According to W.E. Vine, the word suggests "the exercise of that self-restraint that governs all passions and desires, enabling the believer to be conformed to the mind of Christ."  To live sensibly means we exercise our minds.  We use our minds to make sound judgments concerning the situations of our lives.  Sound judgments that enable us to distinguish between good and evil, even in the subtle situations or gray areas.  Sound judgment that enables us to determine what we should do, how we should act, how we should respond to the influences and temptations we encounter every day of our lives.  You see, the  battle with worldly passions and ungodliness, even the battle with the devil himself, is lost or won in our minds.  That's why, when Paul pleads with us to present ourselves, body and all, to God as a living, holy sacrifice, he adds the admonition " not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is...." (Romans 12.2, italic mine)

When confronting ungodliness and worldly passions, we should exercise self-control over our body as well as our mind.  Jerry Bridges says that self-control of our bodies "should be aimed primarily at three areas of physical temptation:  gluttony (in both food and drink), laziness, and sexuality or impurity."  The Apostle Paul offers sound advice on how to do this, sensibly.  He says, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things." (Philippians 4.8).  Let your mind dwell on godly things, bring your body under the control of your mind, and live your life accordingly.

Next, Grace teaches us to do right, to live righteously.  Righteous means to be just and upright, without prejudice or partiality, according to God's standard.  It means to live so that the judgment of God approves the life we live.  To do this, we need to be God-like in our character; and that means first to be righteous, to be holy, because God's standard says, "Be holy, because I am holy." (1 Peter 1.16)  Let's look at an example.  When Paul wrote to the Ephesians to stop living like the Gentiles and to start living a life of holiness, he addressed three general areas of morality:  Honesty, peaceableness, and purity.  He said, "...laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you....  Let him who steals steal no more [honesty]....  Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice [peaceableness]....  But do not let immorality or any impurity...even be named among you [purity]...."  (Ephesians 4.25,28;5.3)

Finally, Grace teaches us to live right, live godly.  In the Bible, godly means to exercise piety characterized by a Godward attitude, to be devout.  A godly person lives a life characterized by devotion to God, a devotion so intense you can almost see it on their faces.  Such devotion is found in the cry of David to God: "I shall seek Thee earnestly." (Psalm 63.1)  The Lord Himself reminds us in Jeremiah (29.13), "And you will seek Me and find Me when you seek for Me with all your heart."  If ungodly means to not regard God, godly means to have regard for Him, for His glory, for His will in every aspect of our lives, doing everything out of love and reverence for Him.

At the Alamo in San Antonio, on a wall near the main entrance is a portrait with the following inscription:  "James Butler Bonham --- no picture of him exists.  This portrait is of his nephew, Major James Bonham, deceased, who greatly resembled his uncle.  It is placed here by the family that the people may know the appearance of the man who died for freedom."  No literal portrait of Jesus exists either.  But by His Holy Spirit, each of us should "greatly resemble" Him. The likeness of the One who makes us free should be seen clearly in the lives of everyone of His true followers. And, by the discipline of grace, it can be seen.

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Declaration of Dependence

One look at those eyes, dark, alert, brimming with life, and I was hooked. M'Kala looked so tiny and fragile in my arms as she dropped her head against my shoulder. Then she dribbled on my jacket lapel. She didn't even smile at me afterward. Just raised her head and nonchalantly gazed around. Her cheeks held the faint blush of pink so characteristic of infants. And as I stroked her chin, she paused, scrunched up her nose as if preparing to cry, then smiled and began to gaze around again. Tiny fingers wrapped around my thumb and would not let go. She never blinked nor made a sound even when I gently pried her fingers free and returned her to her mother.

As she turned to rest her head against her mother's breast, I thought, what a gentle picture of our relationship with the Lord. Like little M'Kala snuggled in her mother's arms, safe and warm, we lean on the Lord in simple trust. A wise man once said, " Trust in the Lord with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight." (Proverbs 3:5-6) What does it mean to trust in the Lord? Solomon uses the Hebrew word batach, one of two words in the Old Testament expressing trust and dependence. Franz Delitzsch says it means to "lean  with the whole body on something, in order to rest upon it." Trust in the Lord, then, equals "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms."

It begins with life itself, life that comes from the Lord and depends on Him for its endurance. M'Kala, before emerging from the womb, received life from her parents. Her mother's body nurtured that life as she grew and developed. Now, at three months, she still depends on her mother for life and sustenance. For every breath we take, for every cell that grows in our bodies, we depend upon the Lord, "for in him we live, and move, and have our being...." (Acts 17:28a, KJV) Job said, "The Spirit of God has made me, And the breath of the Almighty gives me life." (Job 33:4)

M'Kala is still resting in her mother's arms. What a sense of security this must give a little child, to calm her fears and to assure her of protection and safety. "I will say to the Lord, the Psalmist cried, "'My refuge and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust!' For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper.... He will cover you with His pinions, And under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark." (Psalm 91:2-4) With all these resources to protect us, who can harm us? When we feel threatened, we can run to our Father for safety. You see, batach is a child-like, unwavering confidence in our Father's wisdom, faithfulness, strength, and love (2 Chronicles 20:15). It just means I can depend on Him for all my needs.

We also depend on the Lord for guidance. As M'Kala grows, her parents will teach her to walk and to talk, guiding her growth along the way with their wisdom. They will show her how to dress herself, how to behave properly, how to treat others. If we trust in the Lord as Solomon advises, acknowledging Him in all our ways, He "will direct [our] paths" (Proverbs 3:6b, KJV). He will show us what we need to help us grow up in Him. The Lord  "will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail." (Isaiah 58:11)

The ancient Hebrews knew a God whose chief characteristic was faithfulness, trustworthiness. (Deuteronomy 7:9) They knew themselves to be utterly without resources, personal or otherwise. How much better to be utterly dependent on a dependable God!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Theology of a Thief

Let's talk about theology.  Now there's a heavy word for you.  But every one of us has one, you know.  Sometimes we shy away from the subject because we think it's difficult or we just don't understand it.  Or we don't think it's important.  So, let me start by sharing with you Cooper's definition.  Theology is basically what we believe about God.  And what we believe about man and what we believe about relationships between God and man.  It's a simple definition.  Yet it comprehends all the intricate and complex facets that theologians have constructed over the centuries.  Put simply, all the formal "branches" of theology can fit into this definition and amplify its meaning.

With this in mind, let me introduce you to a conversation in which a convicted thief expresses a simple theology.  When Jesus died on the cross, His biographers tell us that two thieves died with Him.  At first, they both joined with the crowd around the crosses in reviling, mocking, and cursing Jesus.  "The robbers also who had been crucified with Him were casting the same insult at Him" (Matthew 27.44).  Then something happened - we are not told just what - that changed the heart of one of them.  While "one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him..., the other answered, and rebuking him said, 'Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.'  And he was saying, 'Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!'" (Luke 23.39-42).

In less than fifty words, this thief expressed a whole realm of theology.  Not a collection of theories or abstract ideas, but a vital expression of faith in the living God, who was dying with him and dying for him only a few feet away.  In these few words, we can find ten or twelve facets of theology.  Let's look at two or three.

The first recorded words from the thief reveal that he believes in God: "Do you not even fear God...?"  While he may not have understood it fully, he knew the man on the center cross was God.  And in that man Jesus, he saw at least a few attributes of the infinite God.  Just in mentioning the name of God, he touches the eternal (Psalm 90.2).  From what he said to Jesus, he indicates he expected Him to last beyond His final breath into eternity.  Furthermore, God is sovereign (Revelation 19.6) and omnipotent (Isaiah 44.24).  The penitent thief believed Jesus had the power to come down from the cross as well as the power to summon legions of angels to destroy His enemies if He chose to.  This insightful thief seemed, however, to know there was something more important at the moment than any visible display of power.  He believed Jesus knew what He was doing, and trusted Him to handle the circumstances.  Looking at his present situation, the penitent thief inferred God is just (cp. Acts 17.31).  "We indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds...." 

Evaluating his deeds in this way, the penitent thief also saw himself as a sinner, worthy of condemnation.  His relationship with God was obviously impaired.  Sin does that.  It began as rebellion against God, and God continues to decribe sinners as rebels (cp. 1 Timothy 1.9).  Sin is a violation of God's law, disobedience of the divine will, moral failure.  "Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3.4).  Just a few paragraphs further, John adds, "All unrighteousness is sin...." (1 John 5.17).  Sin is missing the mark of God's standard.  Lewis Sperry Chafer once wrote, "Sin is any want of conformity to the character of God, whether it be in act, disposition, or state."  The ultimate revelation of sin is faithlessness, refusing to believe God, refusing to trust Him to do what He says.  "Whatever is not from faith," Paul said, "is sin."  (Romans 14.23)  The thief agreed, because he said, "we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds...."

But...  This thief also believed he could be saved.  The one thief railed on Jesus to deliver them all from the condemnation of crucifixion.  The other thief saw beyond the cross to the eternal Kingdom of God and believed Jesus would take him there.  "Salvation is of the Lord," the Bible says (Jonah 2.9).  God Himself takes the initiative in providing salvation.  Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, declared, "Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel, For He has visited and accomplished redemption for His people, And He has raised up a horn of salvation for us...." (Luke 1.68-69)

In the early days of the American frontier, an Indian chief heard the gospel and was saved.  Later, another chief visited him and asked him about this Jesus.  Who was He?  What did He do?  The first chief made a circle of wood chips on the ground and put a worm in the center.  Then he set the chips on fire.  The worm vainly tried to escape the ring of fire.  Then the chief suddenly reached in and lifted the worm out of the ring, out of danger.  Then he turned to the second chief and said, "Me that worm."  The penitent thief saw God's horn of salvation on the center cross, saw himself as the "worm" in danger on his own cross, and cried out, "Jesus, remember me!"  And Jesus said, "Today you shall be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23.43).  Simple but vital theology.

Monday, August 22, 2016

    The Dedication
Thanks to Thee, God,
Who brought'st me from yesterday
To the beginning of today.
Everlasting joy
To earn for my soul
With good intent.
And for every gift of peace
Thou bestowest on me,
My thoughts, my words,
My deeds, my desires
I dedicate to Thee.
I supplicate Thee,
I beseech Thee,
To keep me from offence,
And to shield me tonight,
For the sake of Thy wounds
With Thine offering of grace.
Carmina Gadelica
Celtic Invocations
Waving the White Flag

The following is a revised version of a message I wrote for the College & Career students at my church in a newsletter called emmaus report, in February, 1984. It's message is still relevant today for those of us who wish to follow Christ as disciples. Read and heed.

And the king of Israel answered and said, My lord, O king, according to thy saying, I am thine, and all that I have.  I Kings 20:4, KJV)

Can we learn anything good from a wicked king? Sure we can. In 1 Kings 20, Benhadad, King of Syria, decided to attack Samaria, take all the silver and gold, and all the women and children. Ahab, the cowardly King of Israel, surrendered without a whimper. After all, all he had to depend on was Baal, and Elijah had shown him how dependable Baal was. So, when Benhadad said, "Give up!" Ahab gave up. He gave in to an earthly king rather than commit his life to the King of kings.

Although he was wrong to surrender to Benhadad, Ahab still provides us with an excellent example of how we should commit our lives to God. He does this by the way he yields to the Syrian King. His answers to Benhadad's messengers contain four phrases that reveal how we should respond to God:

            "My Lord, O king...."

Ahab acknowledged the superior position of Benhadad. He revealed respect for the other ruler's power and authority. The phrase, "My lord," in this case, merely indicates respect for the other person; but "O king," refers to his exalted status. Likewise, when we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, we must begin by acknowledging Who He is. Submission to His Lordship is not required for salvation. Salvation is a gift. But we are talking about submission to Christ as a disciple to his Master. As you read through the New Testament, you will notice a number of references to Jesus as "Lord and Savior." Whenever you see these two terms together, you can be certain of two things:

1. They always appear in this order--first, Lord; then, Savior. Jesus is always Lord. It's Who He is. He became Savior when He sacrificed Himself for our sins. So, now He is Lord and Savior.
2. They inseparably go together.

In other words, you cannot acknowledge Jesus as Savior without eventually submitting to Him as Lord. Note: eventually. Lordship is a relationship that comes after salvation, sometimes long after. You may wonder, "I never heard of this before. I was only told I had to receive Him as Savior. Since I did not even acknowledge Him as Lord at that time, does that mean I am not saved?" Absolutely not! Submission to His Lordship is not required to become a child of God. But to follow Him as a disciple does mean submission. Remember what Jesus said to the rich young ruler, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." (Matthew 19:21, NAU) Perhaps you need to do the same in much the same way Ahab did to Benhadad. First, acknowledge His Lordship. Jesus is Lord. Then acknowledge His claim. This was Ahab's next step:

            "According to your word...."

Ahab based his commitment on the word of the Syrian king who subjugated him. He did not make up his own mind either on what to surrender or how much to surrender. Furthermore, he did not consult his advisors, priests, prophets--or even his wife in this case. In his situation, Ahab might have been wiser if he had consulted someone else. Still, he didn't; but rather committed himself according to the word of Benhadad. In other words, his conqueror determined the terms of surrender. Here again, in spite of himself, Ahab reveals a good example for Christians. How often do we decide for ourselves how much of our lives we are going to turn over to Jesus? In a pamphlet entitled, "My Heart, Christ's Home," Robert Munger likens the heart of a Christian to a house with many rooms. Say it has six rooms, and you tell Jesus He can have five of them, but you reserve the playroom for yourself. This will never do! First, it means you have not submitted to Him at all. You are still in charge of the entire heart because you have decided which rooms Jesus can have and which He can't. Second, and perhaps more important, you have ignored His Word. He hasn't left us in the dark as to what He expects of us. His Word clearly spells out the terms of surrender; and if we intend to fill our lives with His fullness and blessing, we must submit to His terms. "According to [His] word," we must, like Ahab, respond first with

"I am thine...."

Before we commit our substance to God, before we give Him either one day of our time or one tenth of our money, we must surrender ourselves to Him. Turn to the Apostle Paul for the classic detailed passage on Christian stewardship and giving. You'll find it in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. Before he gets too far into his discussion of giving, Paul commends the believers in Macedonia because they "first gave their own selves to the Lord, the will of God" (2 Corinthians 8:5, KJV). This is ever the Biblical order. Substance comes later as a token of your commitment. But God wants you first. What difference does it make if you give Him a tenth of your money and then give the other nine-tenths to the devil? Or if you give God one day of the week, and live for the devil the other six days? God doesn't want your money or your time nearly as much as He wants you! Your first commitment to God must, therefore, be as Ahab's to Benhadad--"I am thine...." Then, you can legitimately add...

"and all that I have."

Here, Ahab presents a supreme example. Unlike Abraham and the other patriarchs, Ahab does not offer only a portion or a proportion of his goods. He turns it all over to the king. And God wants you to acknowledge His Lordship over all that you have. It's a principle of ownership and possession. You may have possession, but God has ownership. He has only given you the use of the things He has entrusted to your care. He may require you to give a portion of it back to Him, but He certainly expects you to recognize that it all belongs to Him. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul asks them, "What do you have that you did not receive?" (1 Corinthians 4:7, NAU) God gave us everything we have. And there are strings attached to these gifts. He insists that we use them according to His Word for His glory to accomplish His purpose. We do that by first  submitting to Him completely, all that we are and all that we have. Surrendering ourselves and our possessions to be used for His glory.(cp. 1 Corinthians 10:31; Philippians 1:11)

Submission is not a popular subject. Yet it is a reality we all must face. Daily, we submit ourselves to our employers, to the rules and regulations of our jobs, as well as to the laws of our community and our country. Why, then, do we find it so difficult to submit ourselves to the Lord Jesus? Let's overcome that difficulty. Let's turn our lives over to Him by saying to Jesus what Ahab said to Benhadad: "...according to your word, my Lord, O King; I am yours, and all that I have...."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"It's the events in our lives that shape us; but it's the choices that define us."     ~~ Detective Mac Taylor (Gary Sinese), CSI New York, "Where There's Smoke" Episode (10-05-2012)
"I would sooner possess the joy of Christ five minutes than I would revel in the mirth of fools for half a century."
                                 ~~ Charles Haddon Spurgeon
His Joy....Lingering On

"This is the day which the Lord has made." The words came from the Bible. But that morning in late autumn, I heard them from the lips of my high school senior English teacher. As she closed the door of the classroom, she leaned her back against it, clutching our research papers to her breast, and finished the verse, "Let us rejoice and be glad in it." (Psalm 118.24) I guess she had reason to rejoice. After the entire class had failed the outlining assignment three times, we'd finally gotten it right. Quoting Scripture was, for Dr. Jordan, a classic way of expressing her delight in our accomplishment.

And isn't that another meaning of real joy? An expression of delight. A response to the Lord whose very presence fills our spirit with joy. Real joy is a deep, abiding sense of the presence of God in your life. But who can keep such an awareness to himself? When we sense His presence, we frequently respond to it with praise and delight. And we frequently share with others that which brings us delight, that which we love with more than a passing devotion. "Joy is not just the experience of God...," Lewis Smedes observed, "though being with Him in the sight of His beauty will be the ultimate joy.... There is an earthly joy, a joy of the outer as well as the inner self." This joy of the outer self is a visible expression of the joy of the inner self. It is the active rejoicing in God's presence and in His creation that we often associate with praise because praise is an expression of our delight in the Lord. "Let us rejoice and be glad!" Or as the Apostle Paul expressed it, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!" (Philippians 4.4) Or "Let the heart of those who seek the Lord rejoice!" (Psalm 105.3b)

Furthermore, we know joy not only as God's presence and God's praise, but also as God's pleasure. On more than one occasion, God said to Jesus, "This is My Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3.17; 12.18; 17.5). Why was He well pleased with Jesus? For at least two reasons. First, naturally, because Jesus was His Son; and in the very relationship, God found pleasure. Our own joy, the joy of the Christian life flows from our relationship with Jesus, and overflows into our relationships with others in Jesus Christ.

In John 15, Jesus taught the parable of the vine and the branches, stressing that such a relationship with Him is both foundational and vital. Flowing from that relationship, His joy fills our spirit and our life. He said, "These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15.11). He focused on two necessary features of this relationship: first, we must abide in Him (John 15.4). Basically, this means to take up residence, to continue to be present, or not to depart from Him. If we, as branches, are attached to Him, we must stay there. Second, we must abide in His love (John 15.9); and as a result of abiding in His love, we must "love one another, just as I have loved you" (John 15.12). You see, the dynamic of the relationship is mutual, Christ-like love. In fact, joy, to exist, depends on that love. God delights in His Son because He loves Him. Jesus delights in us because He loves us. We delight in Him and in each other because we love Him and we love one another.

Joy is a flower that grows only in the soil of love. Love gold, and gold will give you joy for a season. Love God, and God will fill you with His joy.

Jesus also found pleasure in His Father's eyes through obedience. And the same applies to us. Jesus said, "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father's commandments, and abide in His love" (John 15.10). Obedience to His commandments deepens our love which in turn deepens our experience of His joy. Eric Liddell, winner of the gold medal in the 400 meter race of the 1924 Olympics, told his sister, "I believe that God made me for a purpose. For China. But He also made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure." When we do what God created us to do, we, too, will feel His pleasure; and we will sense His presence. In both, we will know His joy. And remember, it is His presence, His praise, His pleasure.Therefore, His joy! And we will express that joy in praise and rejoicing through His name. "This is the day which the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Whole of Man

I love a good mystery!  When I was growing up, I cut my teeth on Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason. In fact, I still love an occasional Perry Mason rerun. But there is a mystery in the universe that makes a Sherlock Holmes adventure look like a child's puzzle. That mystery is the Lord Himself. He is inscrutable (Isaiah 40.28).  He is incomprehensible (Job 37.5). He is unknowable (Job 36.23).  He is awesome, majestic, full of wonder (Exodus 15.11). He is limitless (Job 11.7).  His ways are beyond us (Isaiah 55.9). Great minds, past and present, have tried to penetrate the mystery of God, to fathom its depths, to comprehend His ways. Scientists have tried to explain His ways while philosophers have treated Him as a quaint idea. But after centuries of inquiry, God is still a mystery.

God is far too complex for the scientist and far too deep to satisfy the philosopher.  By now, you have probably sensed some of my own struggle with this mystery. Larry Crabb said men inevitably have difficulty handling mystery; and he's right. So please bear with me as I consider once more the question how then should we respond to Him?  The wisest man in history suggests the only appropriate response a finite person can give to the infinite God:  "Here is the  conclusion, when all has been heard: fear God and observe His commandments, because this is the whole of man" (Ecclesiastes 12.13, my translation).  We have already seen a little of what the fear of the Lord means [See the chapters "Never Alone," "The Beginning of Wisdom" and "The Grace of Fear," in my book Candle Drippings-Meanwhile, continue reading.], but what does it actually involve?  How does it become a reality in our experience?

In his conclusion, Solomon focuses not on fear and obedience, important as they may be, but rather on God and His commandments.  The Hebrew is more emphatic, reading like this: "God fear and His commandments keep!"  When we focus our attention on the Lord Himself, our response follows spontaneously. And that response is essentially one of fear and trembling.  Albert Martin suggests several ingredients that comprise the fear of the Lord. Let's look at two of them.  One is a pervasive sense of the presence of God. And this is perhaps the most important one. If you are conscious of the presence of God manifest around you and in your life, you will naturally respond with fear. Let me suggest (if we are not too proud to receive it) a modern example from Kenneth Grahame's delightful tale, The Wind in the Willows.

Rat and Mole are approaching the mythical creature Pan on some island in their world, speaking to each other about him as if he were God. "'Rat,' he found the breath to whisper, shaking, 'Are you afraid?'

'Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love.  'Afraid?  Of Him?  O never, never, never.  And yet---and yet---O Mole, I am afraid.'"

When we enter the presence of God, our response is much the same.  We are not afraid and yet we are. A.W. Tozer calls this one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith, to fear and not to be afraid. We enter His presence in fear and we walk with Him until our fear matures into fellowship. But ultimately the fear lingers when we're in His presence.  Remember Jacob?  When he awoke from his dream, he said essentially, "The Lord is here and I did not know it.  I'm scared." (cp. Genesis 28.16-17).  The presence of God alone generates godly fear of the Lord.

Martin offers a second ingredient, a correct concept of the character of God.  Even a brief glimpse of Who God is should send us trembling to our knees. When King Uzziah died, Isaiah experienced the presence of God and a glimpse of His character at the same time. His response to both was to fear the Lord. He saw the Lord sitting on a throne, surrounded by angelic beings. The temple was filled with smoke, the doors trembled on their hinges, the seraphim covered their faces with their wings and cried to one another, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory" (Isaiah 6.3).  The entire scene radiates the holiness of God.  As a result, Isaiah feared for his life.  He fell on his face and cried out, "Woe is me, for I am ruined!  Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts" (Isaiah 6.5).

You see, God is a God of holiness, a God of majesty.  A God of transcendent glory.  Our God is an awesome God.  Perhaps the greatest title of honor we can place upon the Lord, however, is that of holiness.  God is a God of love, no doubt.  The Bible says so.  He is a God of light and of wrath.  But holiness reflects the majesty of His very name.  Holiness reflects the venerableness of His name.  The beauty of the Lord glows through His holiness.  Over three hundred years ago, Stephen Charnock said of all the attributes applied to the name of God, holy is the most frequently used.  The holiness of God, he adds,  is "the glory of every perfection in the Godhead; as His power is the strength of them, so His holiness is the beauty of them; as all would be weak without almightiness to back them, so all would be uncomely without holiness to adorn them...." According to Charnock, God's purity is the splendor of every attribute in the Godhead. The majesty of God stands for His purity, His truth, His holiness, His justice, and every expression that indicates the moral supremacy of the Lord. And it is the moral purity, the holiness of God that moves us to fear Him.  And Solomon said this is the very essence of our being ---to fear the Lord is "the whole of man."
"You know it ain't quotin' the Bible that makes a man. It's livin' it."     ~~ Will Sonnett (Walter Brennan), The Guns of Will Sonnett, "Chapter and Verse" Episode.
Our God Reigns!

Did you know that these words are really a part of a proclamation of salvation?  Does that mean I have to recognize that God is Lord before I can receive Him as Savior?  On the other hand, how can I receive Him as Savior without recognizing Him as Lord?  A. W. Tozer answers, "Nowhere are we led to believe that we can use Jesus as a Savior and not own Him as our Lord.  He is the Lord and as the Lord He saves us."  Several weeks ago, I learned that fact again when I heard my pastor say, "When you meet the Savior, He stands before you as Lord."  When you search the Scriptures, you find the same thing.  You see, these titles are more than theological labels.  They are descriptions of who He is!  He is Lord, as we have already seen.  But also, He is Savior!  From the beginning, it is the Lord who redeems and delivers and saves.  And He redeems because He reigns supreme.

In the Garden of Eden, Satan started with Eve, telling her that if she ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, she would be just like God; and as a result, she and Adam would be lords of their own lives.  Why let God run your life when you can run it yourself with the same wisdom and knowledge that He has?  Eve bought the pitch.  So did Adam.  He was right there with her.  He heard the temptation.  All of it.  And he evidently believed it, too.  With one bite, the appointed lord of God's creation abdicated.  But the real Lord of creation didn't abdicate.  Instead, He came searching for Adam and Eve.  When He found them, the Lord made coats of skin to cover the nakedness of their sin, clothing them with His special robes.  The Lord also provided the promise of a future deliverer who with royal power would destroy the enemy serpent.  The Creator became the Redeemer without relinquishing His lordship.

In the Old Testament, Isaiah is the prophet of salvation.  More than once, the eloquent prophet identifies the Lord of Israel as their Savior.  Quoting the Lord Himself, Isaiah declares, "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! ...for I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior...." (Isaiah 43.1-3).  "I even I, am the Lord; and there is no savior besides me" (Isaiah 43.11).  In another place, He said, "Then you will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob" (Isaiah 60.16; cp. 49.26).  He is Lord and Savior.

In the New Testament, the message is the same.  Hear the praise of Mary: "My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior" (Luke 1.47).  The first proclamation of the gospel by Jesus Himself was "the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel" (Mark 1.14)  George Ladd defines the kingdom of God as "the authority to rule, the sovereignty of the king."  In other words, in the Word of God, a kingdom is primarily the act of reigning rather than a geographical realm over which the king reigns.  Ladd also indicates that  the phrases "the Kingdom of God" and "the Kingdom of Heaven" are interchangeable with each other, as well as interchangeable with eternal life. This simply means that to receive eternal life is to receive the Kingdom of God at the same time, or rather to receive eternal life is to receive the reign of God in your life at the same time.  To believe the gospel, to receive Jesus as Savior is to recognize Him also as Lord.  "The Lord will not save those," says Tozer,  "whom He cannot command....He would not be who He is if He saved us and called us and chose us without the understanding that He can also guide and control our lives."  He is Lord and Savior.

As previously noted, the words "Our God Reigns" are an essential part of a proclamation of salvation.  Isaiah, again quoting the Lord, declares, "How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, 'Your God reigns.'" (Isaiah 52.7)  In Romans 10, the Apostle Paul discusses salvation in detail, quoting this passage as part of his Biblical support (verse 15).  He says, "if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation" (Romans 10.9-10).  The confession that results in salvation is Jesus is Lord!  In verse 13, he adds, "whoever will call upon the name of the Lord, will be saved."

Finally, the words Lord and Savior appear together only four times in the Bible, all of them in 2 Peter (1.11; 2.20; 3.2; 3.18); but in all four places, they appear in that order: Lord and Savior.  He was Lord before He was Savior.  When He became Savior, He did not cease to be Lord.  Our great joy comes not only in recognizing Him as Lord and Savior, but in declaring to the world and to each other in song, "Our God Reigns!"
"If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants."          ~~ William Penn

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Cup of Praise

This article was the 100th Issue of the original newsletter Candle Drippings, and was issued on April 24, 1998. For some reason that escapes me at this time, it did not make it into the book. So, I share it with you here. Enjoy! And, as one of my fictional heroes (NCIS New Orleans  Agent, Dwayne Cassius Pride) is fond of saying: "Learn things."

Although we naturally grieve the loss of a loved one, for Christians, the time of their departure is really a time for celebration.  As an example, I recently attended the funeral of my brother-in-law, Slim Fulton, in Pennsylvania.  So many people had gathered at my niece's house afterward to grieve his death and to glorify God, I was amazed.  But my mind lingered on the words of the minister when he reminded us all that "while, indeed, we have sorrow over his earthly departure, we also have the joy of knowing that the real Slim--the one you know and love--has never been more alive."  That is why we celebrate.  Our loved one has entered the presence of the Lord to share in His life.

The Lord Himself set the precedent.  Just before His death, He initiated a ceremony for celebrating - of all things, His death.  Why not His resurrection?  Maybe that's included.  Let's check it out and see.  In 1 Corinthians 10.16, the Apostle Paul says, "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ?  Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?"  From just these words, it's clear he's talking about communion, the Lord's supper.  But since both his expressions suggest the death of Christ, how does the resurrection fit in?  And how does this reflect blessing much less a cause for celebration?

By focusing on the cup and its meaning, I believe I can answer these questions.  When Jesus initiated the Lord's supper, He was right in the middle of the Passover celebration.  He took both the cup and the bread from the Passover table during the Passover observance.  The cup of the Passover became the cup of Communion.  But which cup of Passover?  there are at least four.  Let's look at all four for a minute.  From them, we may learn about the one cup and why Paul calls it the cup of praise!

The first of the cups is the Cup of Remembrance.  As they drink it at the Passover, the participants remember the mighty acts of God on their behalf as well as the mighty God who acts on their behalf.  Remember that you were once slaves to the world and its powers (Deuteronomy 15.15).  Remember the name of the Lord your God (Psalm 20.7), its majesty, its beauty, its glory, its power, its gentleness.  Remember the Lord who is great and terrible (Nehemiah 4.14).  Remember the day of deliverance when He brought you out of bondage (Deuteronomy 16.3).  Remember the marvelous works of the Lord (Psalm 105.5).  And when He first took the cup, Jesus blessed it and said, "This do in remembrance of Me." (1 Corinthians 11.24)

The second cup is the Cup of Redemption.  It naturally follows and is inextricably linked with the first cup because it, too, focuses on remembering, in this case remembering the redemption of the Lord.  First, there is focus on the Redeemer Himself.  The Lord is our Redeemer (Isaiah 43.14).  The Holy One of Israel is our Savior (Isaiah 43.3).  Then there is the need - yea, the requirement of the redeemer to be a kinsman (cp. Ruth 4; Deuteronomy 25.5).  So much of Biblical society revolved around the family unit, the extended family to include all who were related by blood.  Before He acted as our Redeemer, Jesus became one of us, one of the sons of Adam (yet without sin), becoming our kinsman so He could make us one of the kinsmen of God (Hebrews 2.14, 17).

The third cup, the Cup of Salvation, is closely linked with the second cup, because it is the cup of salvation.  It, too, reflects on the redemption of the Lord in its effects.  It is filled until the wine flows over the rim of the cup onto the table, so we could say with the Psalmist, "My cup runneth over...." (Psalm 23.5).  It reveals God's salvation, so great there is no vessel on earth that can contain it.  Like the Lord Himself who is our salvation, of whom it is said, "if the heaven, even the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee, how much less this house [the temple, Solomon's or even the temple of our body]."  (1 Kings 8.27)  Like the wine in the cup, the presence of the Lord in us should so overflow from our lives that it spreads to the "table" around us (cp. Matthew 5.16).

The fourth cup looks forward to the coming of the Lord.  It is the Cup of Messiah.  This cup focuses on the return of the Lord to complete His conquest of the enemies of His people and to establish His reign over the whole earth (Daniel 2.37; 7.13-14; 1 Corinthians 15.23-25).  It brings the message of the cups full circle, drawing our attention to the completion of the glory of God in His final redemption of His people (Revelation 11.15).

But which cup is the cup of Communion?  Actually, the one I believe He took was a fifth cup known as the cup of Elijah.  When each of the other cups was filled, some of their substance was also poured into the cup of Elijah, so that in a very real sense, this cup contains the substance of all the cups.  Thus the message of each is summed up in this cup.  When we drink it, we show the Lord's death (for redemption and salvation) until He comes (as Messiah of Israel and Redeemer of the world).  When this cup is drunk, it is the only time in the service that Gentiles are invited to share in the celebration of deliverance, in the worship of and praises to the God of Israel.  So, this cup is for all the nations, for all mankind, just as the blood of Christ was shed for the deliverance of all mankind.  No wonder, Paul calls it the cup of Praise!