Tuesday, May 31, 2016

There Are No Coincidences

Part 4 of Turning the Tables

Text: Esther 5:1-8; 6:1-14; 7:1-10




On that night the king could not sleep. And he gave orders to bring the book of memorable deeds, the chronicles, and they were read before the king (Esth. 6:1). 


What Are the Odds? 

When you look through old books in a used bookstore, you’ll often find interesting inscriptions inside.

While American novelist Anne Parrish was wandering through a bookstore in Paris in the 1920s, she found a book that was one of her childhood favourites: Jack Frost and Other Stories. She picked up the old book and showed it to her husband, telling him how she fondly remembered reading the book as a child. Her husband opened the book, and on the flyleaf was Anne’s name and address. It was Anne’s very own book! [1]

What are the odds of that happening? We call it a coincidence. The dictionary defines a “coincidence” as “a striking occurrence of two or more events at one time apparently by mere chance.” [2]

In the book of Esther, several coincidences result in the deliverance of the Jews. But were these coincidences really coincidences? Were these events the result of mere chance, or were these events directed by the unseen hand of God?


I Don't Need a Miracle

Sometimes Christians can feel like God is absent from their lives. They read about the miracles in the Bible, but their lives lack anything miraculous. If that’s how you feel right now, the book of Esther can be an encouragement to you.

  • Though God is hidden in the book of Esther, he isn’t absent. [3]
  • Though a miracle doesn’t occur in the book of Esther, God still does something amazing. [4]

What does the book of Esther say to people who are discouraged about not getting a miracle from God?

God doesn’t need to perform a miracle to do something amazing. 

The working of God in our lives without the use of miracles is called divine providence. The apostle Paul writes, “For those who love God all things [both good and bad things] work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). The ultimate example of divine providence is the cross. The apostle Peter declared to the people of Jerusalem, “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). The cross was something very bad, but God used it to do something very good.


Coincidences? I Think Not!

It’s been said that “coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” In Esther 6, a series of amazing “coincidences” take place.

  • It just happened that the king couldn’t fall asleep that night (v. 1). 
  • It just happened that “the book of memorable deeds” was read to the king (v. 1). 
  • It just happened that when the book was read, the person reading the book came to the part that told of how Mordecai had warned the king of an assassination plot (v. 2; cf. 2:19-23). 
  • It just happened that Mordecai had never been rewarded for his good deed (v. 3). 
  • It just happened that while the king was thinking about how to reward Mordecai, Haman walked into the palace (v. 4).
The turning point in the book of Esther is the King’s inability to sleep—a seemingly insignificant event. “By making [the turning point] an insignificant event rather than the point of the highest dramatic tension [i.e., Esther going to see the king (5:1-8)], the author is taking the focus away from human action.” [5] What might seem like an insignificant event to us could be something that God intends to be a turning point.


Capitalizing on "Coincidences"

In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus says that the priest “by chance” walked down the road where the man was injured (Luke 10:31). But the priest didn’t stop to help. When you “just happen” to meet someone, is it just a chance encounter, or did God want you to meet that person for a reason? 

This week, try to capitalize on the “coincidences” of your life. 

____________________

[1] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1932/07/30/reunion-in-paris
[2] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/coincidence
[3] God is not mentioned once in the book of Esther. This wasn’t an oversight by the author. The book teaches us that we shouldn’t interpret the hiddenness of God as his absence.
[4] A miracle is not merely an unusual and amazing event. A miracle is “a less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to himself” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 355). “Unlike God’s ordinary providence, his miraculous intervention involves a suspension or alteration of natural laws and processes in particular circumstances” (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 355). So a miracle, by definition, is a rare event.
[5] Karen Jobes, Esther, 158.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The One Whom the King Delights to Honour

Part 3 of Turning the Tables

Text: Esther 2:19-23; 5:9-6:14




So Haman came in, and the king said to him, “What should be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?” (Esth. 6:6). 


Do I Matter? 

One of our basic human needs is to have a sense of self-worth. The dictionary defines “self-worth” as “the sense of one’s own value or worth as a person.” [1] When people lack a sense of self-worthy, depression [2] and even suicide can be the result. Without a sense of self-worthy, life doesn’t seem worth living. [3] How can we gain a sense of self-worth without inflating our egos? 

Debra Reid describes Haman as “an egocentric megalomaniac bent on retaliation and destruction if his fragile ego is subject to the slightest provocation.” [4] In other words, he was self-obsessed.


The Great Sin

When Mordecai refused to bow down and pay homage to Haman (Esth. 3:2), Haman devised a plot to kill not only Mordecai but also “all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus” (Esth. 3:6). What caused Haman to want to commit genocide? Pride. Pride has been described as “the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self.” [5] The person filled with pride will always be looking for ways to get back at people who offend him or don’t give him the recognition he thinks he deserves.

When I mention pride, do you think, “That sounds just like so and so”? Pride is like carbon monoxide (the “silent killer”). It’s deadly, but we often don’t see it in our own lives—though pride is every easy to see in other people’s lives.

In Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, there is a chapter on pride entitled “The Great Sin.” In the chapter, Lewis writes,
We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If every one else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. [6]

An Inflated Ego

Haman occupied a powerful position in the kingdom (Esth. 3:1). But Haman wasn’t content with being powerful; he wanted everyone to know that he was more powerful than everyone other than the king. And when Mordecai wouldn’t show Haman the respect a person of his position was supposed to receive, he couldn’t stand it: “Yet all this is worth nothing to me, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate” (Esth. 5:13).

The life of Haman is a perfect example of pride coming before a fall. [7] The king asked Haman, “What should be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?” (Esth. 6:6). Haman became excited, thinking that the king wanted to honour him. But being honoured by the king would just have inflated Haman’s ego.


I Matter to God

There is a better King who “delights to honor” us. God honours us by making us his children. But this honour shouldn’t fill us with sinful pride. We are not children of God because we are better than others. We are children of God due to what Jesus did for us. Haman was humbled, but Jesus chose to be humbled (“he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” Phil. 2:8). On the cross, the tables were turned. Jesus reversed places with us. “For our sake [the Father] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

We will gain both self-worth and humility when we understand the grace of God. 

I am unworthy of God’s love, but he loves me. The cross proves to me that I matter to God.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride. [8]
“The praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.” [9] We don’t merely want to be valued by others; we want to be valued by someone we value. Or, as Tim Keller puts it, “We want someone we think the world of to think the world of us.” [10]


[1] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/self-worth
[2] One of the symptoms of depression is feelings of worthlessness (http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/cd-mc/mi-mm/ depression-eng.php).
[3] About 10 Canadians per day commit suicide.
[4] Debra Reid, Esther: An Introduction and Commentary, 111.
[5] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, page unknown.
[6] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 120.
[7] The book of Esther is about reversal of fortunes. The tables begin to turn when the king couldn’t fall asleep (Esth. 6:1). This is the first in a series of “coincidences” that lead to the downfall of Haman and the deliverance of the Jews.
[8] Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
[9] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, 291.
[10] Tim Keller, “The Man the King Delights to Honor” (sermon).

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

If I Perish, I Perish

Part 2 of Turning the Tables

Text: Esther 3:1-6; 4:1-17




“Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esth. 4:16). 


The God Who Didn't Speak

In the short story “The Adventure of the Silver Blaze,” one of the clues that helped Sherlock Holmes solve the case was “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Inspector Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.” [1]
The dog not barking was an important clue for Holmes. It told him that the crime was committed by someone the dog knew well. [2]

In the book of Esther, there is the curious incident of God. “But,” you say, “God is silent in the book of Esther. The author doesn’t even mention God.” That is the curious incident.

Karen Jobes writes that “the complete absence of God from the text is the genius of the book.” [3] The author of the book of Esther intentionally leaves out any mention of God to show us that even when God is silent, he is still working in the lives of his people. We shouldn’t interpret God’s silence as his absence.


What to Do When God Is Silent

Esther had to make a very difficult decision. She was asked to do something that would put her life at risk. Perhaps she thought to herself, “I wish God would clearly show me what I should do.” But God was silent.

Like Esther, we’re often unsure what we should do. Of course, we have the Bible (i.e., God’s word), but it doesn’t always give us the answers we’re looking for. God is silent. What should we do when God is silent?

Do what you’re convinced is best, and leave the rest to God. 


Haman's Genocidal Plot 

In chapter 3, we are introduced to a man named Haman. Haman was an extremely proud man. The King promoted Haman to an important position (3:1). Everyone who occupied a lower position than Haman was expected to bow down and pay homage to him. And everyone did, except for Mordecai (3:2).

Mordecai’s insubordination caused Hama to be “filled with fury.” Haman was so angry that we wanted Mordecai to be killed. But he wasn’t satisfied with executing only Mordecai. Haman had learned that Mordecai was a Jew (3:4). So Haman “sought to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus” (3:6). [4]


For Such a Time as This

Mordecai asked Esther to “plead with [the king] on behalf of her people” (4:8). But Esther told Mordecai that “if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live” (4:11). And Esther wasn’t sure that she would be granted access by the king. She said, “I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days” (4:11). Maybe by this time the king had lost interest in Esther.

Mordecai challenged Esther to act by telling her, “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14). She had not come to be queen by chance. Maybe “all of the previous circumstances of Esther’s life that led her to the Persian throne may have been just for this moment when she can intercede for her people.” [5] But even if Esther didn’t act, God would use someone else to accomplish his plan: “If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place” (4:14). [6]


The Right Inspiration

Finally, Esther said, “Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (4:16). She was going to do what she was convinced was best, and then leave the rest to God. After reading the book of Esther, many people will say, “I want to be like Esther!” But if Esther is our inspiration, our enthusiasm won’t last.

Our inspiration needs to be Jesus. Like Jesus, Esther saved her people by identification and mediation. But Jesus didn’t say, “If I perish, I perish.” He didn’t risk his life for us; he laid down his life for us. The cross was an absolute certainty. [7]


Why Are You Where You Are?

We were saved by God’s grace (Eph. 2:8-9) to be his “workmanship” (Eph. 2:10). In other words, God intends for us to do certain things. How would your life change if you believed that you are where you are for a purpose?

____________________

[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Silver Blaze,” in The Complete Adventures of and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 172-87.
[2] I got the idea to use this story from reading Iain Duguid’s chapter on Esther 4:1-17, “The Dog That Didn’t Bark” (Esther and Ruth, 45).
[3] Karen Jobes, Esther (NIVAC), 41-42.
[4] Haman’s plan to kill all the Jews in the kingdom reminds us of what Hitler attempted.
[5] Jobes, Esther, 134.
[6] Is “from another place” a euphemism for God? “This understanding is problematic, for it is not a choice between Esther’s delivering the Jews or God’s delivering them. Rather, it is a question of what human agency God will use to deliver the Jews…” (Jobes, Esther, 133-34).
[7] This thought was taken from Tim Keller’s sermon “If I Perish, I Perish.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Perfect God Works Through Imperfect People

Part 1 of Turning the Tables

Text: Esther 1:1-2:18




The king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti (Esth. 2:17). 


A Book About Reversal of Fortune

“The tables are turned.” The saying comes from board games. The tables are turned when you go from a losing position to a winning position (i.e., experience a reversal of fortune). The book of Esther is a book about reversal of fortune. In the NIV, Esther 9:1 says, “Now the tables were turned.” [1]

The book of Esther was written around 400 B.C. by an unknown author. It has been popular among Jews. (It tells about the origin of Purim.) [2] But it has been unpopular among Christians. (No Christian commentary on Esther was written for the first 800 years of the church.)

The story of Esther takes place during the reign of the Persian King Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes). It was a time when a man was judged according to his wealth and power, and a woman was judged according to her beauty—so in some ways, the world hasn’t change much at all.


Where Is God? 

Surprisingly, the book of Esther never once mentions God. Was it an oversight by the author? (“Oops!”) No, a Jewish author would not forget to mention God. It had to be intentional. But why? Karen Jobes writes that “the complete absence of God from the text is the genius of the book.” [3] The book of Esther shows how God—even when he seems to be absent—is working out his good will in and through the lives of his people. [4] Joyce Baldwin comments, “The unseen hand behind the events in Susa is no less active in guiding history today. The book of Esther is still relevant.” [5]

Debra Reid writes that God is “the ‘hidden’ God in the text [of the book of Esther] rather than the ‘absent’ God.” [6] God’s hiddenness is not absence. We believe that God’s isn’t absent, but we still struggle with the hiddenness of God. We say, “Why can’t I experience a miracle? Why can’t I see a vision?” But Esther never experienced a miracle or saw a vision.


Esther Wasn't Flawless

Up to this point in the story, what do you think of Esther? Esther was a beautiful woman (2:7), and she was given lots of cosmetics to make her look even more beautiful (2:9). But Esther wasn’t flawless. (1) She apparently broke the Jewish dietary laws since she didn’t refuse “her portion of food” (2:9). [7] (2) She slept with a man who wasn’t her husband (2:16-17). (3) Some would say that she became queen by just doing whatever the men in her life told her to do (unlike Vashti).

Though she wasn’t flawless, God was going to use Esther to save her people from destruction. [8] Maybe you’re thinking, “Why didn’t God choose to use someone who was more worthy?” If that’s what you’re thinking, then you really don’t understand the message of the Bible. The message of the Bible is that God is a God of grace.

God works his will through us, in spite of our failures and shortcomings. 

If you think that God can’t use you to do amazing things because of your past failures or your present shortcomings, you’re wrong. Iain Duguid writes,
Here is hope for all those who find themselves in difficult circumstances in the present because of their past sin and compromise. Here is hope for people who married a non-Christian husband or wife, even though they knew it was wrong. The person who chose a career based on all the wrong motivations, or who has wasted a lifetime in pursuit of the wrong goals can discover that God is sovereign even over those sinful choices and wasted opportunities. Perhaps he has brought us to where we are today so that we can serve him in a unique way. If so, that doesn’t make those wrong decisions and sinful actions right. But it should cause us to give thanks to God that he is able to form beautiful pictures out of our smudged and stained efforts. Past failures do not write us out of a significant part in God’s script for the future. [9]
We’re not flawless, but neither was Esther.


[1] The ESV has a more literal translation of the original Hebrew: “the reverse occurred.”
[2] The book of Esther must have a source of hope to Jews living during the days of the Nazi Holocaust.
[3] Karen Jobes, Esther (NIVAC), 41-42.
[4] Theologians call this the providence of God.
[5] Joyce G. Baldwin, Esther: An Introduction and Commentary (TOTC), 42.
[6] Debra Reid, Esther: An Introduction and Commentary (TOTC), 48.
[7] Esther is often compared to Daniel, another young Jew who lived in a foreign land. Unlike Esther, Daniel didn’t hide his Jewish identity and “resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food” (Dan. 1:8).
[8] The deliverance of the Jews was crucial for two reasons: (1) God kept his promise to bless Abraham’s descendants, and (2) the Christ was to be born a Jew.
[9] Iain M. Duguid, Esther and Ruth (REC), 29.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The First Church

Part 3 of Witnesses

Text: Acts 2:42-47



And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42). 


Learning from the Past

It’s fascinating to look back at how people lived in the past. Sometimes we can learn from them. For example, people of the past would avoid going into debt over things they didn't really need--like the latest TV we really can't afford.

In Acts 2, we read about how the first Christians [1] lived. They lived in a very different time and place, but they believed in the same gospel. And we can learn some things from how they lived.


How the First Christians Lived

Prior to the Day of Pentecost, there were “about 120” followers of Jesus in Jerusalem (Acts 1:15). Then on the Day of Pentecost “about three thousand” people [2] put their faith in Jesus and were baptized (Acts 2:41). In verses 42-47, we are given the activities of the earliest church.

1) It was a learning church. [3] “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (v. 42). Before his ascension, Jesus told the apostles to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). They had a hunger for God’s word.

2) It was a loving church. “They devoted themselves to…the fellowship” (v. 42). The basic idea of “fellowship” is sharing. [4]

3) It was a worshiping church. “They devoted themselves to…the breaking of bread and the prayers” (v. 42). It’s unclear whether “the breaking of bread” refers to the Lord’s Supper or a larger meal. “What makes the choice hard to decide is that the Lord’s table was part of a larger meal in the earliest church.” [5] Perhaps it refers to both.

4) It was an evangelistic church. Verse 47 tells us that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The good reputation of the church (“having favor with all the people,” v. 47) impacted their witness. Evangelism is something the Lord does through his people. 


True Fellowship

The first Christians were sharing people. They “had all things in common” (v. 44). The gospel wasn’t something these people merely believed with their minds; it changed their lives. They had “glad and generous hearts” (v. 46). Their sharing was not a duty; it was a delight.

Since Jesus—our Lord and Saviour—has given his life for us, we should be moved in our hearts to be sharing people. 

First, they shared their time. They were regularly spent time together (“all who believed were together,” v. 44; “day by day, attending the temple together,” v. 46).

Second, they shared their money. They “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (v. 45). Is this a command for us today? No, description does not equal prescription (cf. Acts 5:4). But we should not be quick to dismiss it. “How easy it is to justify our lifestyles and our attachment to things by writing off threatening texts.”

Third, they shared their food. They were daily “breaking bread in their homes” with one another (v. 46).
Darrell Bock writes, In our culture, our individual needs and rights come before any needs of the group. The biblical picture is not of what someone receives from the church, although one does receive a great deal, but of what one gives and how one contributes to it. 
What's the one thing you don't have to teach a child? Selfishness. It comes naturally to all of us. It's very difficult to teach a child to share. Most toddlers' favourite word is "Mine!"

Our motivation for being generous should come from the truth of the gospel. The gospel changes my motivation from "This is what I'm supposed to do" to "This is what I want to do."


[1] I believe that the NT church began on the day of Pentecost. I am defining “Christians” as followers of Christ who have lived since that day.
[2] Many of the three thousand were Jews from other countries, so verses 42-47 would not be describing them.
[3] This outline is taken from John Stott’s commentary on Acts (The Message of Acts, 81-87).
[4] Ajith Fernando, Acts, 120.
[5] Darrell L. Bock, Acts, 150-51.
[6] John Piper, “The Fear of God and Freedom from Goods,” desiringgod.org.
[7] Bock, Acts, 155.