Monday, September 18, 2017

How It All Began

Part 1 of The Gospel Gone Viral

Text: Acts 1:1-11




“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (v. 8). 


Gone Viral

Up until the last few years, when you heard the word “viral” you probably thought of a viral infection (e.g., the common cold). But now when you hear the word “viral” you might think instead of a viral video. A viral video is a video that quickly gets millions of views by people sharing it with others on the Internet.

In the beginning of the book of Acts, only a handful of people are aware of the gospel. But at the end of the book, thousands of people have heard and believed the gospel. The gospel went viral. How? By people simply sharing it with others.


Jesus Is Alive!

The Acts of the Apostles is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Luke states that in his “first book” (i.e., the Gospel of Luke) he wrote about what “Jesus began to do and teach” (v. 1). Now in the book of Acts Luke will tell us about what Jesus continued to do and teach through the apostles.

Luke writes that during the time between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, Jesus “presented himself alive to [the apostles]…by many proofs” (v. 3). The apostles were convinced that the gospel was true. Jesus had died for their sins and had risen from the grave! All who put their trust in Jesus will be saved!


Sharing the Gospel

Jesus says to the apostles, “You will be my witnesses” (v. 8; cf. Isa. 49:6). A witness is someone who tells others what he/she has seen. The apostles were witnesses in a unique sense. Unlike us, they had seen Jesus before and after his death and resurrection.

  • “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses” (2:32). 
  • “You killed the Author of Life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses” (3:15). 
  • “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:20). 
  • “God raised [Jesus] on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (10:40-41). 
Does this mean that v. 8 doesn’t apply to us today? No, all who receive the testimony of the apostles all become witnesses. We haven’t seen the risen Jesus, but we have seen what the gospel has done in our own lives. 

Many of us have probably heard the saying, “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” But the truth is that people need to hear (or read) words in order to be saved. Justin Taylor has said, “The Good News can no more be communicated by deeds than can the nightly news.” That’s not to say that how we live is unimportant. It’s incredibly important. (And we’ll see this as we go through Acts.) But the fact remains that being a witness requires a person to use words.


To the End of the Earth

Jesus tells the apostles that they are to be witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (v. 8). Verse 8 could be used as a table of contents for the books of Acts. It begins with a few witnesses in Jerusalem, and by the end of the book the gospel is taken all the way to Rome. And it eventually reached us!

Though they lived in a different time and culture, the apostles and the other followers of Jesus in Acts were people like us. They struggled with fear like we do. There is no valid excuse for not sharing the gospel. (Keep in mind that most of the believers in Acts did not speak to large crowds like Peter and Paul did.)

Wherever we are and whomever we’re with, we should look for opportunities to share the gospel. But not every moment should be considered an opportunity to share the gospel. Ecclesiastes 3:7 says that there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” There is a time to speak up and share the gospel, and there is a time to keep silent and pray. We need boldness, but we also need wisdom.


In the Meantime

“As [the apostles] were looking on, [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (v. 9). “While they were gazing into heaven” (v. 10), two angels two angels said to the apostles, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (v. 11).

Earlier the apostles had wanted to know when the kingdom of God would come to earth: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6). But Jesus told them that this wasn’t for them to know: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (v. 7). Too many Christians spend more time speculating about when Jesus might return than thinking about how they might share the gospel with a friend.

We are living in the time between two great events: the ascension and the second coming. Jesus went up to heaven, and one day he’ll return. In the meantime, we have are to his witnesses. We are to share with others what God has done for us—and what he can do for anyone—through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Right Paths Are Not Always Easy Paths

Part 5 of Summer in the Psalms

Text: Psalm 23




Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me (v. 4).


The Lord Is My Shepherd

Psalm 23 is the best-known psalm in the book of Psalms. The psalm begins, “The LORD is my shepherd” (v. 1). God is our shepherd, and we are his sheep. One of the jobs of a shepherd is to lead his sheep.

This summer my sister went with my family and I to New Hampshire. She claimed to know how to get to certain places, but she often ended up being wrong. Finally, I said, “Danielle is a great GPS. Just ask her which way to go and then go the opposite way.”

God always leads his sheep in the right direction. But sometimes the path he leads us on is difficult.


Never In Need

God’s sheep “shall not want” (v. 1). Our shepherd “makes [us] lie down in green pastures. He leads [us] beside still waters” (v. 2). In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul writes, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).

So we are never in need, right? Not exactly. Earlier Paul wrote, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:12). Paul says that there were times when he was in need. Does this contradict Philippians 4:19 and Psalm 23:1? No, sometimes we need to be in need. But, as Paul says, “[We] can do all things [i.e., face any circumstance] through him who strengthens [us]” (Phil. 4:13). We won’t get everything we want, but we will never lack what God knows is good for us. 


Right Paths

Sometimes we stray from our shepherd, and we find ourselves on a wrong path. The path is difficult because of our own sinfulness or foolishness. God “leads [us] in paths of righteousness” (v. 3). “Paths of righteousness” are right paths. God leads us to both “green pastures” (v. 2) and “the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4). Both the green pastures and the dark valley are right paths. The right paths are not always easy paths, but on every path our shepherd is with us. 

Notice in verse 4 that the pronouns change. In verses 1-3, David refers to God as “he.” But in verse 4, he says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Perhaps there is a switch from “he” to “you” because it’s in the moments of great fear and uncertainty that we most sense God’s presence with us. In a sermon on Psalm 23, John Piper says, “The crises of life draw us closer to God. We are more prone to talk about God when we are in the green pasture and more prone to cry out to God when we enter some fearful ravine.”


The Path to the Cross

We might question God’s love for us when we we’re on a difficult path, but we must remember that Jesus walked a difficult path that lead him to the cross. He said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Jesus was not like the hired hand who “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees” (John 10:12). Jesus was willing to give his life to save his sheep. The hired hand “flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:13). But Jesus, the good shepherd, loves his sheep. We can trust a shepherd whom we know loves us—even on the difficult paths.


A Restored Soul

David writes, “He restores my soul” (v. 2). “Restores my soul” probably refers to the refreshment or comfort of the soul. Lamentations 1:16 says, “My eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit.” Comfort is also mentioned in verse 4: “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Proverbs 18:14 says, “A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” Even in good times people can have a crushed spirit. How can we possibly have a comforted soul as we’re walking through “the valley of the shadow of death”? The presence of God comforts our souls. “Surely goodness and mercy [steadfast love] shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (v. 6). Jesus, the good shepherd, says, “I came that [my sheep] may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Entrusting Our Lives to God

Part 3 of Summer in the Psalms

Text: Psalm 31




Into you hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God (v. 5). 


Psalm 31 and Jesus 

Psalm 31 was written by David. It’s a psalm of an innocent sufferer. The Gospel of Luke tells us that just before Jesus died, he cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). These same words were written by David in Psalm 31.
It seems clear that it is not merely these few words that Jesus and the Gospel writer wished to bring to the reader’s attention, but the whole context of Psalm 31 in which they originally stood. In a position of public condemnation and shame, perceived by the surrounding community to have been a criminal, a charlatan, and a failure, Jesus made his last speech the words of this psalm. [1]
As you read Psalm 31, think to yourself about why Jesus—while he was suffering and dying—identified with David’s struggles in this psalm.


David's Troubles

David writes, “I hear the whispering of many—terror on every side!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life” (v. 13). David had enemies who wanted to take his life. People were believing all sorts of lies about him. He wants vindication, and he’s trusting God to eventually bring about that vindication.

He says, “Into your hand I commit my spirit” (v. 5). In verse 15, he makes a similar statement: “My times are in your hands.” He doesn’t believe that God will give him a life free from trouble and injustice. But he believes that in the end all wrongs will be made right. His enemies will be dealt with, and the truth will be known. Evil will not have the last word. 


The Ultimate Innocent Sufferer

Jesus was the ultimate innocent sufferer. Three times in Luke 23, Pilate declared that Jesus was not guilty of any crime: (1) “I find no guilt in this man” (v. 4); (2) “Nothing deserving death has been done by him” (v. 15); (3) “I have found in him no guilt deserving death” (v. 22). After Jesus died, the centurion said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (v. 47).

Jesus never committed a single crime, yet he was executed. On top of that, as he was dying on the cross, he was mocked and humiliated. Psalm 31 begins with David requesting, “Let me never be put to shame” (v. 1). Jesus was put to shame on the cross. And think of the true identity of the one who was dying on that cross! “In the Hebrew context of Psalm 31, shame is not so much a feeling (although feelings must have been involved) as it is an outward, visible circumstance of public disgrace.” [2] While suffering on the cross, Jesus’ enemies mocked him: “He saved others; let him save himself” (Luke 23:35).

The apostle Peter writes, “When [Jesus] was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Jesus was an innocent sufferer who had the power to destroy his enemies. Yet he “did not revile in return”; he “did not threaten.” He knew that in the end all wrongs would be made right.


Worth It All

There is also much in this psalm that Jesus could not identify with—especially verse 8: “You have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy” (v. 8). David was delivered, but Jesus was executed. The life of Jesus seemed to have a tragic ending. Was it a mistake for Jesus to put his trust in his Father? No! We know how the story really ends. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2, NIV). There would be a happy ending!

As Jesus died, we should live. We should commit our lives to God. We should say, as Jesus did, “Father, into your hands I commit my life.” This means to trust in God no matter what happens. Jesus didn’t stop trusting during his intense suffering on the cross. We must not stop trusting God when life gets difficult.

Why should I commit my life to God? First, I should commit my life to God because he loves me. Some people might ask, “What does God know about unjust suffering?” He knows a lot about it. God the Son became a man and suffered unjustly. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Why did he die for us? To save us from the punishment that we deserved because of our sins.

Second, I should commit my life to God because in the end it will be worth it. “One entrusts one’s spirit to God not merely in light of life’s imminent end but also in light of the conviction that life will continue.” [3] This life is not all there is. When we stand before Jesus one day, no sacrifice will be regretted.


A Happy Ending

Psalm 31 has a happy ending: “Love the LORD, all you his saints! The LORD preserves the faithful.... Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!” (vv. 23-24). There is a happy ending to all who say, “Father, into your hands I commit my life.” Today, Jesus does not regret His decision to endure the suffering of the cross. And if you put your trust in Him, you will not regret that decision when you stand before him in heaven. There will be a happy ending.

Have you said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”?

____________________

[1] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms: Volume 1, 541.
[2] Ibid., 528.
[3] John Goldingay, Psalms: Volume 1, 450.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Talk to Yourself

Part 2 of Summer in the Psalms

Text: Psalm 42




Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God (v. 11).


Are You Feeling Cast Down?

The book of Psalms is a book of poems that were meant to be sung. “Poetry and singing exist because God made us with emotions, not just thoughts.” [1] Sometimes we feel like the writer of Psalm 42 who twice says that he feels “cast down” (vv. 5, 11). He is “downcast” (NIV), “discouraged” (NLT), “in despair” (NASB). We might even say that he’s depressed.

For a Christian to struggle with depression is not an unusual thing. Charles Spurgeon is known as the “Prince of Preachers,” but many are unaware that he often battled depression. Spurgeon said that during one period of depression, when “my spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for…a kind friend was telling me of some poor old soul living near, who was suffering very great pain, and yet she was full of joy and rejoicing. I was so distressed by the hearing of that story, and felt so ashamed of myself….” [2]

Are you feeling cast down today? What should we do when we feel discouraged?


Where Are You, God?

Psalm 42 was written by the Sons of Korah. The Sons of Korah were temple singers: “…the Korahites, stood up to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice” (2 Chron. 20:19). The psalmist is far away from Jerusalem (“I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar,” v. 6), and he longs to be back at the temple where he is most able to feel God’s presence: “When shall I come and appear before God [see the face of God]?” (v. 2b). [3] He remembers how he “would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise” (v. 4).

The psalmist says, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (v. 1-2a). He compares himself to a deer thirsting for flowing water during a time of drought. “Streams of running water that continue to flow even during the dry seasons are often called ‘living waters’ since they are the source of life.” [4] To the psalmist, not feeling the presence of God (“the God of my life,” v. 8) is like dying of thirst. This is the reason why he’s “cast down.” This is the reason why he’s “in turmoil” inside. [5]

He says, “My tears have been my food day and night [i.e., continually]” (v. 3). He hears the taunting of his enemies: “Where is your God?” (vv. 3, 10). He feels abandoned by God. “Why have you forgotten me?” (v. 9). The psalmist also feels overwhelmed: “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me” (v. 7). Maybe you feel like the psalmist—overwhelmed and abandoned by God. You say to God, “Where are you?” You don’t feel God’s presence in your life like you once did.


Talk to Yourself

What should we do when we feel discouraged? We should talk to ourselves like the psalmist did: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” [6] What should we tell ourselves when we feel discouraged? We should tell ourselves to remember that God loves us with a steadfast love. 

Verse 8 says, “By day the LORD commands his steadfast love [hesed], and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (v. 8). Psalms 42-83 are known as the “Elohistic Psalter” because in these psalms God is usually referred to as Elohim, whereas the other psalms normally call God Yahweh. But in Psalm 42, when the psalmist mentions God’s “steadfast love,” he refers to God as Yahweh (“LORD”). “It is as if the two belong together; Yahweh and hesed cannot be separated.” [7] In the midst of all of his troubles, the psalmist remembers God’s steadfast love, and he begins to sing.


God's Steadfast Love

Remembering God’s steadfast soul can lift up a soul that is cast down and in turmoil. We can remember three truths about God’s steadfast love. First, because of God’s steadfast love, Jesus died for us. Jesus chose to die for us, but it wasn’t an easy thing for him to do. Before his arrest, he said, “My soul is very sorrowful [overwhelmed with sorrow, NIV], even to death” (Matt. 26:38; cf. John 12:27). On the cross he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Jesus endured feeling overwhelmed and abandoned by the Father in order to die for our sins on the cross.

Second, because of God’s steadfast love, there is salvation. The psalmist calls God “my salvation” (vv. 5, 11). The psalmist lived on the other side of the cross. When we refer to God as “our salvation,” we normally mean that he has provided deliverance from the punishment that we were due because of our sins. God’s love is seen in the cost of our salvation: Jesus’ life (John 3:16).

Third, because of God’s steadfast love, there is hope. We won’t be disappointed if we put our hope in God. Hope is “a patient but expectant waiting for God to act. Tell yourself that your day of praise will certainly come, though in God’s time, not yours.” [8] “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). Our hope causes our soul (“our inner self”) to be lifted up rather than cast down. “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).

Though Spurgeon did struggle with depression, he never stopped believing in God’s steadfast love for him (which I’m sure kept him going through his most difficult times). On June 7, 1891, in extreme physical pain from his illnesses, Spurgeon preached what, unknown to him, proved to be his last sermon. Here are his last words in the pulpit:
[Jesus] is the most magnanimous of captains. There never was his like among the choicest of princes. He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold he always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders. If he bids us carry a burden, he carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yea lavish and superabundant in love, you always find it in him. These forty years and more have I served him, blessed be his name! and I have had nothing but love from him. I would be glad to continue yet another forty years in the same dear service here below if so it pleased him. His service is life, peace, joy. Oh, that you would enter in it at once! God help you to enlist under the banner of Jesus even this day! Amen. [9]
____________________

[1] John Piper, “Spiritual Depression in the Psalms” (sermon).
[2] http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-29/anguish-and-agonies-of-charles-spurgeon.html
[3] One interpretation is that the psalmist is not actually far away from the temple but is expressing how he feels (i.e., far away from God).
[4] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms Volume 1, 671.
[5] Sadly, most Christians don’t long for God’s presence like the Psalmist does. We long more for the absence of problems than the presence of God.
[6] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, 20-21.
[7] Wilson, 673. Michael Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 1-72, 157.
[8] http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-29/anguish-and-agonies-of-charles-spurgeon.html

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Majestic God Cares About Us!

Part 1 of Summer in the Psalms

Text: Psalm 8




When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (vv. 3-4).


Star Gazing

Psalm 8 is a hymn of praise written by David. In the psalm, David talks about the stars that God has made (v. 4). In his younger days, David was a shepherd boy. And I’m sure there were many nights when David would lie on his back and gaze at the stars.

Today we know much more about the stars than David ever did. How many stars do you think there are? There are many more stars that the naked eye can see. In our galaxy alone, there are about 400 billion stars. And according to one recent estimate, there are at least 2 trillion galaxies. Other than the sun, the closest star to earth is Proxima Centauri—4.2 light years away. If you traveled in the world’s fastest spacecraft, it would take you 70,000 years to reach that star.

This isn’t science class, so I’ll stop there. But I think you get my point. We live in an immense universe. And when we think about the God who created the universe, we agree with the words David wrote 3,000 years ago: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” 


God's Bigness and Our Littleness

Psalm 8 begins and ends the same way: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (vv. 1a, 9). In the original Hebrew, “LORD” is Yahweh. Yahweh is God’s name. So we could read verse 1 this way: “O Yahweh, our Lord….” The meaning of the name is “I AM WHO I AM” (Exod. 3:14). God is unchanging. He is who he is and that will never change.

Yahweh will forever be a “majestic” God. The same Hebrew word that has been translated “majestic” is also found in Psalm 93:4, but in this verse it’s translated “mighty”: “Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the LORD on high is mighty!”

Verse 1 goes on to say, “You have set your glory above the heavens” (v. 1b). Psalm 19:1 states, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” The apostle Paul writes, “[God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). The heavens are glorious, but God is more glorious. 

Listen to Isaiah 40:25-26: “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and see: who created these [the stars]? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.”

David writes, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (vv. 3-4). God is big; we are little. We are nothing in comparison to God.

Psalm 8 was written to encourage God’s people to praise God. Why should we praise God? Here’s one reason: We are so little, but God has done big things for us! The God who made the stars is the same God who cares about us! This truth filled David with awe, and it should fill us with awe as well.

God Has Done Big Things for Us! 

What big things has God done for us?

First, God has “crowned [us] with glory and honor” (v. 5). We were created in God’s image: “Let us make man [male and female; see v. 27] in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Because we have been made in God’s image, we resemble God in some ways. This is what makes us different from the other creatures on earth. Like God, we have the ability to have relationships with one another that are characterized by love and commitment. We can even have this kind of a relationship [i.e., friendship] with God. This is one reason why he has given us his personal name Yahweh. It’s a great honour to be able to call God by his personal name. (None of us would say to the Queen, “Hello, Elizabeth!”)

Second, God has “given [us] dominion over the works of [his] hands [i.e., his creation]” (v. 6). God says in Genesis 1:26, “Let them [i.e., humans] have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” We were made to represent God on earth, to rule over the earth (not abuse it). 

Third, God became like us in order to save us. The big God made himself little. In Hebrews 2, the writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 8 and says that the psalm points forward to the man (i.e., Jesus): “We see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9).

When Jesus was on this earth, he called himself the “Son of Man.” Though he became human like us, he was still God. He once said to the Jewish religious leaders, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). He was saying, “I am Yahweh.” Though Jesus is Yahweh, he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8).


Such Big Love!

Think about who God is and what he has done! The big God made himself little! The majestic God cares about us! The maker of the stars loves us some much that he died on a cross for us!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Puppets on a String?

Part 4 of Chapter & Worse




The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps (Prov. 16:9). 


Absolute Control

The Bible says that God is in control of absolutely everything.

“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9).

“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Prov. 16:33).

God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11).

If God is in control of absolutely everything, are we just puppets on a string? [Read Genesis 50:15-21.]


Real Choices

The Bible rejects fatalism. The story of Joseph and his brothers illustrates this. Joseph said to his brothers who years earlier had sold him as a slave, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). God has a sovereign plan that will come to pass and he will accomplish that plan through the real choices of humans.

God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). But that doesn’t mean that we were forced to choose to put our trust in Christ. And it doesn’t mean that some people are unable to put their trust in Christ. God invites all people to be saved (“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” Rom. 10:13), and God allows people to reject the gospel—even though God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4; cf. 2 Peter 3:9; Ezek. 18:32).


We Can't Figure It Out! 

Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the word of this law.” John Calvin said, “When God closes his holy mouth, we should desist from inquiry.” We don’t know how God can have a sovereign plan that will come to pass that will be accomplished through the our choices. Don’t worry about figuring out what God hasn’t revealed to us, and do what he has revealed to us.


Good and Bad Choices Are Used to Accomplish God's Plan

God has given us the ability to break his commands, but he doesn’t approve of our sin. Joseph’s brothers were responsible for their evil actions even though God used what they did to accomplish his sovereign plan. The crucifixion of Jesus is the best example of God accomplishing his sovereign plan through the breaking of his commands.

“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23; cf. 4:27-28). Who was responsible for the death of Jesus? Both the enemies of Jesus and God the Father. “It was the will of the LORD to crush him” (Isa. 53:10).


Don't Make the Wrong Choice

Our ability to make choices leads to sin. God made a choice: the cross. Now we have a choice: accept or reject the gospel.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

No Shellfish?

Part 3 of Chapter & Worse

Text: Leviticus 11:9-12; Mark 7:14-23




“Anything in the seas or rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you” (Lev. 11:10).


Selective Obedience?

One of my traditions is to take my kids to John’s Lunch on their last day of school. I always get the clams. But according to Leviticus 11, clams and every other type of shellfish are not to be eaten. Why don’t I obey this command? Am I guilty of selective obedience—picking and choosing which laws of God I want to obey?


Not All of the Bible's Commands Are for Us

In Leviticus 11, certain animals are said to be “unclean” and are forbidden to be eaten by the people of Israel. [1] A person who ate an “unclean” animal would become “unclean.” [2] “Uncleanness” was meant “to instill an awareness of God’s holiness and of the reality of sin as a barrier to fellowship with God.” [3]

So why don’t Christians follow these laws today? It’s often argued that Christians are being inconsistent: “If you can ignore the Bible’s commands about not eating shellfish, why do you say that other commands (e.g., the commands regarding sexual behaviour) need to be followed?”

The Bible was not written all at once. It was written over a long period of time. Not all of the Bible’s commands are for us. For example, we aren’t expected to obey the very first command of Scripture—the command given to Adam and Eve forbidding them to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). It's not uncommon for laws to change over time. Margarine was banned in Canada until 1948. And it was illegal to sell buttered-coloured margarine in Ontario until 1995.

There were three kinds of laws given to Israel in the OT: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The laws regarding clean and unclean food were ceremonial laws. These laws were fulfilled in Christ’s death on the cross, which is able to take away all of the sin that makes us unclean. Jesus declared, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). 


What Really Defiles Us

In Mark 7, the Pharisees confront Jesus because some of his disciples hadn’t washed their hands before they ate (vv. 1-5). Jesus responded by telling the Pharisees that they have a heart problem: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the command-ments of men’” (vv. 6-7).

In verse 15, Jesus says, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” Mark interpreted Jesus’ words as meaning that all food is clean (v. 19). [4] What really defiles a person is not what goes into the stomach but what comes out of the heart (see v. 18-23).


Be Holy as God Is Holy

Why did God give the dietary laws to the people of Israel? He wanted them to be holy (i.e., different). After giving these laws, God says, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). This command is repeated in the NT: “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). We are to be different—not because of what goes into our stomachs but because of what comes out of our hearts.

____________________

[1] Jews and Muslims still refrain from eating “unclean” food (e.g., bacon).
[2] In Mark 7:14-23, the word “defile” is used.
[3] ESV Study Bible, 1907.
[4] This was a big issue among Christians in Marks’ day (Acts 15).

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Jealous God?

Part 2 of Chapter & Worse

Text: Exodus 20:1-6




“I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Exod. 20:5).


Why This Series?

In this series, we’re looking at a few of the Bible’s “worst” passages—passages that non-believers often criticize and that even believers sometimes wish weren’t included in the Bible.

What’s the reason for this series? There are two reasons for this series: (1) to make sure we’re not surprised by some of the common attacks on the Bible and (2) to help us better defend God’s word.


Good and Jealous?

If I were to ask you to list your top five favourite attributes of God, I doubt the jealousy of God would be in your top five. Oprah Winfrey has said that she was turned off to the Christian faith when she heard a preacher say that God is jealous. How can God be a good God if he’s a jealous God? 

The first time that God is said to be a jealous God is in Exodus 20. In this chapter, God gives the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel.


The Idol Factory

The first two commandments prohibit idolatry: (1) “You shall have no other gods before me” (v. 3); (2) “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything…. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (vv. 4-5). Idolatry is the worship of a God-substitute. [1]

We all know what pagan idolatry is, but there’s another kind of idolatry—an idolatry that could be called idolatry of the heart. In Ezekiel 14:3, God talks about people who had “taken their idols into their hearts.” The apostle Paul writes that a “covetous” person is “an idolater” (Eph. 5:5; cf. Col. 3:5). The covetous person’s god is materialism.

Tim Keller defines idolatry of the heart as “the making of good things into ultimate things.” [2] He writes that an idol is “anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” [3] The human heart is “a factory of idols.” [4]


A Good Kind of Jealousy

After prohibiting idolatry, God declares, “I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (v. 5). Is jealously always wrong? What if a man never got jealous no matter what his wife did? There’s a good kind of jealousy that could be defined as “zeal to protect a love relationship.” [5] This is a jealousy that’s caused by love, not by insecurity.

In the OT, God is described as the husband of his people, and idolatry is likened to adultery [i.e., unfaithfulness]. In Jeremiah 3:20, God says, “Like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me.” Paul asks, “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy?” (1 Cor. 10:22). 

God’s jealousy is his passion to protect his rightful place in our hearts. God expects exclusive devotion. Jesus said that the most important commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). [6]


First Place

Why does God deserve first place in our hearts? God said to the people of Israel, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (v. 2). Before God gave to Israel the Ten Commandments, he wanted them to remember who he is and what he had done for them.

God deserves first place in our hearts because of who he is and what he has done for us. What has God done for us? “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).


God Is What We Need

When people are devoted to an idol, they are looking to that idol for satisfaction. People who are devoted to an idol say, “If I only could [fill in the blank], then I’d be satisfied.” But idols always end up disappointing us.

God declared, “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). Some people will say that God is being selfish be demanding first place in our hearts. But that’s not true because God knows that our hearts will be empty until we give our hearts to him. 


It's Good That God Is Jealous

C. S. Lewis writes,
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, I would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. 
God’s jealousy is a good thing. He not only wants more of us; he wants more for us. If God weren’t jealous, it would mean that he really doesn’t love us.

____________________

[1] Romans 1:25 states that idolaters “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”
[2] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, 162.
[3] Keller, Counterfeit Gods, xviii.
[4] John Calvin, Institutes, I.II.8.
[5] J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 192.
[6] This commandment is stating positively the negative commandment “You shall have no other gods before me.”
[7] C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 26.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Kill Your Son?

Part 1 of Chapter & Worse

Text: Genesis 22:1-14




“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2).


Why This Series? 

We’re beginning a new series called “Chapter & Worse.” In this series, we’ll be taking a look at a few of the Bible’s “worst” passages—passages that non-believers often criticize and that even believers sometimes wish weren’t included in the Bible.

What’s the reason for this series? There are two reasons for this series: (1) to make sure we’re not surprised by some of the common attacks on the Bible and (2) to help us better defend God’s word.


An Immoral Command?

At the age of seventy-five, Abraham was given an incredible promise from God. Abraham and his wife Sarah would be given something that they’d desperately wanted for so many years: a son. And through the birth of this son, God would make Abraham’s descendants as numerous “as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13:16).

But some time later a shocking command came from God to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2). How could a compassionate God ask a father to do kill his own son?

Critics of the Bible argue that this is an immoral command. For example, well-known atheist Richard Dawkins describes Genesis 22 as a “disgraceful story” of “child abuse” and “bullying.” [1] Are the critics of the Bible right?


A Test of Abraham's Devotion

Genesis 22 begins by informing us that the command of verse 2 was a test (“God tested Abraham, v. 1). It wasn’t God’s desire for Isaac to die. But Abraham was given no hint that he was merely being tested.

When Abraham “reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son” (v. 10), the angel of the LORD, speaking on behalf of God, said to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (v. 11). The purpose of the test was to demonstrate whether or not Abraham feared God. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son clearly showed that he did. [2]

The command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was a test of Abraham’s devotion to God. Abraham might have been in danger of slipping into idolatry. Tim Keller defines idolatry as “the making of good things into ultimate things.” [3] We are to put nothing before God—including a very good thing like a son. The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Abraham had desperately wanted a son. Now that he had finally been given a son, whom did he love more: God or Isaac? In the end, Abraham’s obedience proved that he was most devoted to God. If ever anyone did truly love God with all his heart, it was Abraham in that moment when he was ready to sacrifice his beloved son.


A Willing Sacrifice

Isaac is often imagined as a little boy who was forced to submit to his father. However, Isaac was probably the stronger of the two. Abraham was an elderly man, over one hundred years old, and the text suggests that Isaac was at least a teenager, maybe even a young adult.

In verses 5 and 12, Isaac is called a “boy,” but the English Standard Version notes that another possible translation of the Hebrew word (na’ar) is “young man.” In verses 3, 5, and 19, the same Hebrew word is translated “young men” when referring to Abraham’s servants. So it’s possible that Isaac was around the same age as the servants. Also, verse 6 states that Isaac carried the wood for the burnt offering. This would probably be a task too difficult for a little boy.

If Isaac had been a young man, it’s unlikely that Abraham would have bee able to force him on the altar. In verse 9, we’re told that Abraham “bound” Isaac. Gordon J. Wenham writes, “That an elderly man was able to bind the hands and feet of a lively teenager strongly suggests Isaac’s consent.” [4]


A Foreshadowing of God's Sacrifice 

Readers of Genesis 22 usually focus on Abraham’s obedience, but the most important message of the story is God’s provision. In verse 14, Abraham names the place where he was about to sacrifice his son “The LORD will provide.” When Isaac had asked his father, “Where is the lamb?” (v. 7), Abraham had replied, “God will provide for himself the lamb” (v. 8).

Abraham’s willingness to give up his Son foreshadowed God’s willingness to give up his Son. There’s lots of evidence that the NT writers saw it this way. In Romans 8:32 the apostle Paul writes that God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.” Also, during the baptism of Jesus, the voice from heaven declares, “You are my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11; cf. 9:7). These words are reminiscent of how God described Isaac: “your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” (v. 2). For Isaac, there was a substitute—“a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns” (v. 13), but, for Jesus, there was no one to take His place on the cross. Jesus was the provided “Lamb of God” (John 1.29) who was “led to the slaughter” (Isa 53:7) to die for the sins of the world.

As Abraham and Isaac did the work of the servants—Abraham chopping the wood for the bunt offering (v. 3) and Isaac carrying the wood (v. 6)—so the Father and the Son served humanity. Jesus proclaimed that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45). In their service to humanity, the Father and Son’s love is revealed.

In Genesis 22, we can look below the surface and see something more. This story is not really about Abraham; it is about God. It was not Abraham who provided the sacrifice; it was God who provided the sacrifice. It was not Abraham’s son who died; it was God’s Son who died.


Amazing Love

From beginning to end, God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was a test. It was never God’s will for Isaac to die. But the question still remains: why did the test need to be so emotionally painful? Why didn’t God tell Abraham to give up his wealth instead? Wouldn’t that have been a suitable test? 

Perhaps God wants us to put ourselves in Abraham’s place—to think about how heart-wrenching it must have been to be told to put one’s own child to death. Yes, the command given to Abraham in Genesis 22:2 is disturbing. But maybe God wants us to be disturbed. Why? Because the more we are disturbed by God’s command to Abraham, the more we should be amazed by God’s love. 

What Abraham was told to do, God actually did. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

____________________

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 243.
[2] Why would an all-knowing God need to test Abraham if He already know what Abraham would do? John H. Walton in Genesis writes, “We must differentiate between knowledge as cognition and knowledge as experience. We can agree that God knew ahead of time what Abraham was going to do. But there is ample evidence throughout Scripture that God desires us to act out our faith and worship regardless of the fact that he knows our hearts” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p. 514.
[3] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), p. 162.
[4] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994), p. 109.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sweet "Our" of Prayer

Part 9 of Talking to God

Text: Matthew 6:5-6, 9a




“Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven…’” (Matt. 6:9a). 


I Need God

Some of us find it very difficult to ask others for help. Prayer is our declaration that we need God. But what about when we don’t pray? What does our prayerlessness say about us? None of us who are Christians would say that we don’t need God. So why do we sometimes not pray?


Showoffs Don't Impress God

Jesus tells his disciples, “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites” (v. 5). “‘Hypocrites’ originally referred to Greek actors who wore different masks to play various roles.” A hypocrite is a religious performer.

When hypocrites pray, “they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners” (v. 5). Why? “That they may be seen by others” (v. 5). Is it a sin to pray in public? No. It’s not wrong to pray and be seen; it’s wrong to pray to be seen. Real prayer is humble. God wants real prayer from us, not a performance.

Jesus declares, “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (v. 5). What is their reward? The admiration of people who can’t see the hypocrite’s heart. They are fooled, but God isn’t.


Go to My Room?

Jesus goes on to say, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v. 6). The Greek word (tameion) translated “room” usually referred to a “storeroom.” In those days, homes didn’t have multiple bedrooms.

Jesus wasn’t saying that we must always pray in private. This is an example of Jesus using hyperbole in his teaching. Hyperbole is obvious exaggeration (e.g., “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” Matt. 19:24). Jesus uses hyperbole to emphasize to his disciples that we should pray as if no one but God is listening (i.e., not to impress others). What’s important is not the location of the one who prays, but the attitude of the one who prays.


Praying Together

The Lord’s Prayer begins with the words “Our Father in heaven” (v. 9), not “My Father in heaven.” “Our” is plural. We use the word “our” when we’re praying with others. God wants his children to pray together. This is what the early church did: “They devoted themselves to…the prayers” (Acts 2:42).


We Need God

Not only do I need God, but we, as a church, need God. When we pray together, it is a church-wide admission that we need God. What can we do of significance without God? Nothing.