Tag Archives: Jesus

God’s Will Here and Now

Knowing God’s will is something we all struggle with. But I think we too often approach the problem from the wrong end. We want to know the final will of God—or at least the will of God far enough down that we know a major route to take. We want to know if God wants us to be history majors or theology majors. We want to know the big picture of God’s will. Is it God’s will for me to spend my life as a pastor? Is it God’s will for me to spend my life in business? Is it God’s will for me to marry and raise a family? However, we get so wrapped up thinking of these questions as being so important we forget to discern God’s will in the moment by moment. Far more important than these is knowing God’s will now, here, where I stand, in the situation I currently face.[1] I need to know if obedience requires me to go right or left, hand out or withhold, speak or remain silent.

I have over the last couple months developed a practice which I now look forward to each week. I take Monday morning as a special quiet time with God. I get up, do whatever correspondence from the night before needs done, check some quick news, then shower, dress and get away to a quiet place. I take my bible and good Christian devotional books and nothing else—no phone, no computer. During that time (usually about two hours) only God is permitted to speak with me. He can speak directly to my heart, through his Word, or through the writings of good Christian authors. I allow no interruptions, even from myself. This gives God a chance to speak to issues and allows me to get my focus back where it belongs as I start each week.

Yesterday was my special time with God. After some prayer, I was reading the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. This left me a strong impression about the moment by moment will of God. Allow me to explain. Why was Jesus at the well? Was he there because he expected to meet this woman and minister to her? No. The passage tells us that, while his disciples went into the town to purchase food (John 4:8), Jesus sat by the well because he was tired from the journey (John 4:6). Jesus was not there for a known appointment. He was not there because he knew someone in need was coming. Jesus sat there resting, because he was tired. Likely he assumed, because it was not the early morning hour when people would usually come to the well, that he would not be disturbed and could find some quiet rest. That is his situation. While there a woman came to him and he took the opportunity to speak with her. At the end of the conversation (which I’ll speak about another time), Jesus spoke to his disciples, who had returned, telling them that the conversation with the woman was the Father’s will and as such was his assigned work (John 4:34).

This means Jesus was simply looking for a time of peace and rest, but recognized in the moment that God had another plan. He saw a need and responded to it. How did he know this was God’s will? Nothing in the passage says exactly, but there is a way for us to know. Jesus knew it was God’s will for two reasons: God had given him the opportunity to help this woman, and the ability to help her. Since God had allowed this woman into his presence and since he had the ability to help her, he knew exactly what God wanted him to do. God’s will was obvious. All he had to do was accept it as such, and obey.

In the same way, we might know moment by moment God’s specific will for us. Often, we find ourselves in situations and wonder if God would have us help. Should we give money to this person? Should we feed that person? Learning from Jesus’ experience with this woman can help us understand exactly what God would have us do.

We see two criteria in knowing God’s will for us to help or not: opportunity and ability. By opportunity I mean the place where we are currently standing or our proximity to the person in need. I see you in need, because I see you. I do not have to wonder if you exist somewhere. Neither do I need to find you. For example, a person walks up to you with his or her hand out asking for change. The only question to ask is “Should I help this person?” It would be silly, in such a situation, to ask, “God is there someone, somewhere you want me to help?” There is a person standing in front of you—the opportunity to help someone is there. This is also a very different question from whether God wants us to seek out and help those we have never met. Does God want me to seek out the poor and help them? This is a question of calling, not one of God’s will for this moment. The only thing to discern, at the moment, is whether God has placed this person in your path to give you the opportunity to help. This is known by the second criteria.

The second criteria for knowing God’s will is ability. Has God given you the ability to help this person? If we look back at our example of the individual coming asking for our pocket change, we have the opportunity to help (the person is in our presence), but do we have the ability? In other words, do we have what they need? Do we have any change to give them? There are three parts to this answer. The first part is whether I have any change, whatsoever. If I have no change (many people carry no change or cash, but only credit cards), and have no reasonable way to get some, then can I help them? If I am just unable to help them (for whatever reason) then it must not be God’s will for me to do so. Had he wanted us to help them, he would have given the ability along with the opportunity. I mentioned there were three parts to this answer of ability. While I may not have what the individual needs upon my person, I may be able to secure it for them. Let’s look back at the person asking for change. Suppose I have no change, but have a $20 bill. Perhaps I can step into a store, make change and give some to the person asking. Here I have the opportunity and the ability. We have not addressed whether this means I must do so yet. That will come later. However, we must admit we could help them. The third part of this answer is a bit more finely tuned. Imagine I am walking in downtown San Antonio (where I currently live) and a person asks me for a quarter. Suppose all the money I have on me is one quarter. I have the opportunity and the ability to help. However, what if this happens while I am running to my car to put my last quarter in the meter to keep it from getting ticketed, booted or towed. Do I really have the ability to help that person? No. I don’t.

So, when discovering the answer to the second question (Do I have the ability to help?), we must know if we can reasonably help that person. Yes, there may be times when we should go way beyond reasonable means to help one in need. However, this is an example of going beyond one’s duty. Such actions are praise worthy and bring much blessing, but they are not morally obligatory (that is what makes them praise worthy).

I know it is God’s will for me to help another person when he gives me the opportunity to help and the ability (within reason) to help. If these coincide, then I must help. It is his will for me to do so. Jesus had the opportunity to help this woman at the well, and the ability to do so. He interpreted this as meaning doing so was the will and work of the Father.

Before I end, allow me to show how this works through an illustration that happened to me within an hour of my quiet time. After I had my time, I drove over to check the church building. I wasn’t planning to, but we have a refugee group using our building for worship on Sunday afternoons, and I wanted to go make sure everything had been secured properly. When I arrived, I found a homeless man sleeping on our front porch trying to stay out of the rain. I had an opportunity to help him, but did not yet know how much help I had the ability to offer. I brought him into the church to have coffee and talk. He told me he was a veteran. Two weeks ago, I had met with a group who help homeless veterans. They have shelter in place for them and get them into the system to for permanent housing. So, I knew I had the ability to help, but still needed to know the reasonable way to do so. If I called the organization, they would send a driver to come and fetch the man. However, part of the reason I almost didn’t come to the church was because I was going to visit a friend on the East Side of town. It would have been quicker to take the southern route around downtown from my house, but since I needed to check the church I decided to go the other way. Well, this meant that on the way to visit that friend, I would be passing right by the organization this man needed. Obviously, God had set up a divine appointment for me to drive this man to the very place where he could get exactly what he needed. I had the opportunity and the reasonable ability to help this man. It was God’s will for me to do so. There was not need to do anything else, but obey and thank God for allowing me to serve him by serving this homeless man.

I don’t share this story to brag, or make you think I am somehow “holier than thou.” I share it to show that more often than not, the will of God in a situation is very obvious. We may wish it was less obvious because we do not want to help. But if God has given you the opportunity to help, and the reasonable ability to do so, how can refusal not be disobedience?

Now, some will say, “Yes, but what about…” and list all kinds of situations. One commonly asked is, “Well, what if the person asks for money, and they plan to use it for drugs? Or alcohol?” Actually, this is answered already. I said that you must have the opportunity and ability to help. If you know the person plans to do that with the money, then giving it would not be helping, but hurting. However, this is more often an excuse not to help than an actual reason. How do you know what the person will actually do once they are out of your sight? You can make assumptions. But you can assume wrong. Years ago, when I lived in Ashland, Montana, an Indian[2] man I knew, met me outside the grocery store and asked for $20. I was just leaving and had to get somewhere. It looked like he was about to walk in the store, so it was reasonable for me to assume he was getting food with the money. I pulled out a $20 bill and handed it to him (I had opportunity and ability). He thanked me, turned on his heels and ran across the street into a local bar. How did I respond? I simply prayed, “What I gave him was given to you God. He is responsible for how he chooses to use what is yours.” I went on about my day. I made a reasonable inference, and it was wrong. I gave it no more thought. Had I not been in a hurry, I probably would have taken him in the store and bought him food, but because of my schedule I did not have the opportunity.

If I know the person is going to harm themselves with what they request, then I would not give it. But often we use this as an excuse to refuse help. I’ve met homeless people who do not smoke, drink or do drugs. Yet, people look at them and assume any money they give will go into a bottle or a needle. Why? Because this assumption gets them off the hook to help. If you think they will drink up the help you give, can you help another way? Have you considered other ways to help, or simply refuse without any further thought because of how the person looks to you? If you do that, then you are deciding if the person is worth helping. It’s a good thing Jesus didn’t do that with you, when you needed salvation.


[1] This desire to know what God’s will is for our whole future is often misguided. When we struggle with this, we are often doing so because of fear. We fear spending the next twenty years doing something only to discover we have missed God’s will and will not be blessed. We fear that if this happens too late in life we will find our lives have been wasted and we will never be able to return and do the will of God. Doing this, we fear, means going our whole life without the full blessings of God. When we realize this, it is easy to see this desire to “know God’s will” is really a desire to know the future (What career or life direction will God bless in the future?). It is little different from a Christian version of going to a psychic for career advice. God can and will make his calling for your life known. There is no need to struggle with it.

[2] I use the term Indian here, instead of Native American, because the former is the term this man himself would have used. The latter term is an innovation seldom used on the reservations, in my experience. They referred to themselves as “Indians.”

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Nathanael and the Fig Tree

It’s been a while since I’ve read one of the gospels in my devotional time. I’ve been reading through the prophets for the last few months. Today, I decided to return to an old friend, the Gospel of John. I think I like it so much because it does far more than any other to demonstrate the divinity of Christ. When reading John it doesn’t take long to get me thinking. This morning it wasn’t the discussion of the logos, but Christ’s exchange with Nathanael that got me thinking.

In John 1:44-51, we see Nathanael brought to Jesus. After a brief exchange, he quickly responds to Jesus (John 1:49 ESV), “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” This passage often confuses. I must admit to spending many years wondering just what it was about this exchange that so quickly convinced Nathanael.

Allow me to outline it before delving into it:

  • 1:43, Philip was found by Jesus, who said “Follow me.”
  • 1:44, We learn Philip was from the same town as Andrew and Peter, whom Jesus previously called.
  • 1:45, Philip found Nathanael, telling him they had found the one promised by Moses.
  • 1:46, Nathanael expressed skepticism that the promised one would come from Nazareth.
  • 1:47, Jesus upon seeing Nathanael, described him as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
  • 1:48a, Nathanael asked how Jesus knew him.
  • 1:48b, Jesus claimed to have seen Nathanael:

o   before Philip called him, and

o   while he was under a fig tree.

  • 1:49, Nathanael responded by confessing Jesus as the Son of God and the King of Israel.
  • 1:50, Jesus promised to show Nathanael far greater things.
  • 1:51, Jesus promised to show Nathanael heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

 

So, what was it about Jesus initial statement to Nathanael that was so powerful? Part of the problem is that we imagine Philip finding Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. However, Jesus says he saw him under the tree before Philip found him. Also, if you look back you will realize there is no mention of where Philip found Nathanael. The fig tree is first mentioned by Jesus, after Nathanael has been brought to him. Apparently, Nathanael had some personal experience under a fig tree. We aren’t told when it happened? what happened? how it happened? We are told nothing about it.

However, the exchange is only mildly interesting because of this mysterious reference to a fig tree. It is most interesting because of what Jesus said to Nathanael. When first meeting him, Jesus refers to Nathanael as a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit. He then ends by saying Nathanael would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (Jesus most common self-reference). In other words, you (the true Israelite in whom there is no deceit) will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon me (the Son of Man).

This entire exchange is full of allusions to Genesis 28 and the story of Jacob. Jacob was the son of Isaac and bother of Esau. It was Jacob who deceived his brother and father, then ran away to live with his uncle who deceived him. It was this same Jacob, who after years of serving his uncle returned home with his wives and children. On the way, while expecting to die at his brother’s hand, Jacob wrestled with a mysterious figure (Genesis 32:24) and is said to have wrestled (striven in the ESV) with God (Genesis 32:28). It was during this wrestling match that Jacob was renamed Israel (Genesis 32:28). So hold that story in mind as you consider Jacob’s experience in Genesis 28. While fleeing his brother, Jacob lays down to sleep with a stone for a pillow. During the night he had a dream of a ladder extending to heaven and the angels ascending and descending upon it (Genesis 28:12).

With all that in mind, consider now the words of Jesus. Remember that Jacob, in Hebrew, means Deceiver. Jacob, the deceiver, was renamed Israel. He was no longer the deceiver but was one who had striven with God. Jesus calls Nathanael a true Israelite in whom there is no deception (he used both references to Jacob: Israel and deceiver). He ends by saying Nathanael would see what Jacob saw—except that instead of a ladder, the angels would be ascending and descending upon Jesus. This exchange between Jesus and Nathanael is from beginning to end a reference to the story of Jacob.

In the story of Jacob’s ladder, Jacob concludes that he had discovered the house of God, the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:17). Jesus takes that and applies it to himself. Jesus is telling Nathanael that he is the gate to heaven.

So, what did Nathanael experience under the fig tree? We don’t know. We aren’t told. I’ve heard many teachers speculate, and I don’t want to do that. If God wanted us to know what Nathanael experienced, he would have told us. But we do know that something in the exchange with Jesus, and the reference to seeing Nathanael previously along with the double reference to Jacob was enough to convince Nathanael of Jesus’ authority as the King of Israel and as Messiah (the Son of God).

If we can’t know exactly what happened with Nathanael under the fig tree, if we can’t know all the details, then how do we make an application of this to our lives? Well, there are two primary applications to make. One is for ourselves and our own doubts. The other is for our loved ones we wish to bring to Christ.

For Our Own Doubts

Don’t bury doubt. Doubt is actually a friend of faith. One who has never doubted does not have faith, they have assumptions. Faith involves believing even when what we see seems to contradict. That is why Hebrews 11:1 describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (ESV). When we do not see it, our senses lead us to question it. It is faith that tells us it exists. When we hope for things we do not have, we understand we might never have them. It is faith that assures us that we will have them someday. If you have never doubted, then you have never had faith. But we do not simply sit there wallowing in our doubts. Instead we take them to God and seek assurance. We seek a boost to our faith. We seek an experience of assurance. Ask God to give you faith and to assure you that your faith is not misguided. Just like Nathanael, Jesus can use something in your life to give that assurance. It may make sense only to you; be meaningful only to you. Then, when the next doubt comes, ask for assurance again. Even better, never stop asking for such assurance. Allow him to work in your life such assurance that the doubts are swallowed up in a strong abiding faith. The doubts will still be there. But you can be so filled with the Word and so reminded of the assurances he has given you that the doubts are quickly overcome.

The Doubts of Your Loved Ones

When Philip came to Nathanael, the first response was a snide comment. Nathanael did not accept the word of Philip. Your friends will not simply become Christians because you tell them they should do so. Neither will you convince them. Many people do not witness because they are afraid of not having enough answers, or enough debating skills to convince their skeptical friends. But Philip didn’t argue. Philip didn’t debate. In John 1:46, Philip simply responded, “Come and see.” He simply invited Nathanael to have his own experience with Jesus and trusted Jesus to show himself. We can do the same. When your friends don’t believe, ask Jesus to show himself to them—and to do so convincingly. Then trust that Jesus can and will do it. You may never understand how that person’s experience of Jesus was so powerful. But you don’t see the work the Holy Spirit has already done on that person before you ever approached to witness to them.

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Every Good Blessing

It’s just after midnight and I find myself unable to sleep. Things keep flowing through my mind about my church, the Lord, things I want to say and things the Lord wants to change in me. I decided to go to my desk and journal a bit, while also reading the Word of God for a bit and spending some intimate time with God. As often happens, I struck upon a verse where God spoke to me and I feel a driving compulsion to share it. The easiest way for me to do it is with a blog post.

I simply opened my Bible to Ephesians 1 and was dumbstruck by verse 3, even though I’ve read and studied it a thousand times. The verse says (ESV) “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,…” It goes on to say that this was done “even as he chose us” and predestined us (verses 4f). The “even” in that passage (Greek: καθὼς) means “just as,” or “inasmuch as,” or it can also mean the two happened at the same time (Mounce, 2006). So, our being blessed in verse 3 is very closely related in manner, degree and/or time to our being chosen and predestined. The blessing is not severable from these. Just as from the foundation of the world he chose me to be blameless and holy and predestined me to be adopted as his son, he blessed me with every spiritual blessing and did this through Christ.

Now, let’s dig deeper into this blessing. When Paul speaks of “every spiritual blessing” the word for blessing is εὐλογίᾳ. This is the word from which we get our “eulogy.” This is from the same root as earlier when Paul says, “Blessed be the God and Father…” He is telling us the Father is worthy of blessing (literally: good speaking). He deserves our praise, our blessings for what he has done for us. Just as he deserves our “good speaking” about what he has done, “good speaking” is a fitting description of what he has done for us. Don’t forget that Jesus is the Word (λόγος) of God. God’s Word (Jesus) was powerful and when he spoke the world into being, it was the Son (the Word) who created (John 1:3). In the same way, when God “speaks good” into our lives and upon us, it is a creative and active event. He has spoken all good into our lives.

Don’t take that last sentence the wrong way. This does not mean He has determined that I will have all things I consider good. This is not some backdoor magical Name-it-and-claim-it prosperity atrocity. This is not saying that He has declared I am to have everything I ever desired. This means everything he knows to be good, he has spoken into our lives. He has made pronouncements in our lives, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, these pronouncements are all sure and irrevocable as our being chosen and predestined.

It does say “he has blessed us […] with every spiritual blessing.” So, there are no spiritual blessings he has withheld from us. To use the word “every” is to create a container into which all items which are defined by God as a blessing are placed. None are withheld. “Every blessing” means there are none he is yet to declare. He never said, “This is a blessing, but I will withhold this from them.” Of course, as I write this I know some will claim, “Well, there is one blessing he has withheld. He has not revealed to me the time of the return of Christ since scripture says he has even withheld that knowledge from the Son.” This assumes such knowledge would be a blessing—a good thing spoken into our lives. I contend that such knowledge would be far too great for man and, in this way, would become a curse. He withheld no blessing from us. If you feel he has withheld one from you, then check your definition of blessing.

Finally, he says he has spoken these good blessings into our lives, he has given us these blessings—all of them—“in Christ.” No blessings, no “good speaking” of the Spirit, no active, creative pronouncements of God come through any other route but the Son of God—Jesus Christ. He gives us all blessings. He holds none back. The only restriction to them is that they will all be given through (in) Christ Jesus. We are to look for them nowhere else. We are to expect them from no other source. They are found in no other place. They are offered in Christ and Christ alone.

 

References

Mounce, W. D. (Ed.). (2006). Mounce’s complete expository dictionary of Old & New Testament words. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan.

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Forgiveness is hard!

forgivenLately, I’ve been thinking about the concept of forgiveness. I won’t share why, but let it suffice to say that pastors need forgiveness just as much as anyone. Funny thing is that we are best prepared to teach the things we have hardest learned. One who truly understands forgiveness, has both forgiven others much and been forgiven much by others—there is no other way to learn these lessons.

Often when counseling someone to forgive, there is one most common reaction. When hurt by another or slighted in some way, we are often unwilling to forgive the person because it would mean they got away with what they did. We can find ourselves thinking, “Once that person pays for what they did I will forgive them.” Another form of this would be “Once that person reverses the results of their actions, then I will forgive their actions.” The problem is that this is not forgiveness.

According to Dictionary.com, the word forgive comes from the Old English forgiefan, which is a compound of the prefix for meaning “completely” and giefan meaning “to give.” It literally means to give up completely. You see, if we require any rebalancing of the scales prior to forgiveness, it is not forgiveness we practice. This is because we would not be giving it up completely. In effect it would be saying, “I will not give up that much, but if you act to bring the line back this far then I can work with you by giving that up.”

Another reason a requirement for restitution does not constitute true forgiveness is because it is, instead, a demand for justice, or at least a more just outcome. Forgiveness is not interested in justice, it offers grace and mercy. Forgiveness is, in effect, to declare the scales balanced. If one demands the scales be actually balanced, then there is no forgiveness necessary.

One can only forgive if one gives up completely the right to be recompensed. One truly forgives only when one declares the scales of justice to be balanced.

So, how best can we do this? One thing to do is keep in mind that this is exactly what God did for you through Christ. God did not demand you make up for your sins, or work some of them off so there was less to forgive. No. He met you where you were, in the midst of your darkest sins, to forgive you. He declared the scales balanced. When he did this he gave up any right to demand justice against you. Think about that for a moment. The God of the universe, creator of all, the most holy and righteous judge gave up any right to demand restitution for your sins. He declared the scales balanced, meaning he declared you as not guilty of the sins—he declared that you did not do them. You see, one reason we cannot require restitution when forgiving is because we are in effect declaring the forgiven action never happened—if it never happened there is nothing for which to make restitution. We are, in effect, justifying that person in our own eyes and hearts. So, was this act of God a divine fiction—God winked and pretended you were not guilty? No. God did this by placing your sins upon Christ. The sinless Christ was declared, willingly taking it upon himself, to be guilty of your sins. We often gloss over this because we know that Christ is sinless and never sinned. We are willing to say he bore our sins (1 Peter 2:24). We are willing to see his parallel in the scape goat. We forget that this means the guilt itself was placed upon Christ. Folks, understand! This means you are not guilty of your sins. Christ has been declared guilty of them! I know this sounds too harsh, but it is the reality of the transaction to which Christ submitted. We are forgiven because Christ took our sins and he is righteous enough to balance any scales of justice.

We are commanded to forgive and should do so, because that sin committed against us was also placed upon Christ. Now this assumes the person to be a Christian. What if that person is not? Then all that person has to do is come to Christ and that sin will be placed upon Christ. So, when we refuse to forgive, we are declaring the sacrifice of Christ as insufficient to cover that sin. If Christ’s sacrifice is insufficient to cover that sin, then there is no hope for our own sins. We find ourselves caught in a trap when we refuse to forgive.

There is one more thing to remember about forgiveness. If we are truly declaring the person who has sinned against us as not guilty (as we do when giving up their offense completely), then can we ever bring that back up? If we bring it up against them later, then we show that we have not actually forgiven them. We do this because bringing it back up says, “You are guilty of this,” which is the opposite of forgiveness which declares, “You are not guilty of this.” How can we say we forgive when we then hold the forgiven act against the one we claim to have forgiven?

As you read this understand that I rebuke myself in this far more than anyone can know. There are things I have not forgiven people for. I thought I had done so, simply because I had decided to not demand restitution. However, by continuing to see them as guilty of the transgression shows I did not truly forgive.

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The Lord’s Servant

This morning, my devotional reading was in Isaiah 42. I was struck with the following (vv1-4 ESV):

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my Spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,

and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be discouraged

till he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his law.

 

It is important that we understand this passage is a description of Christ. However, keep in mind it also points to another. Hebrews 10:1 tells us that the law was a shadow of the good things to come. The law established Israel as a servant of God. Israel was a shadow of the true good servant to come. Israel, in this capacity, serves as a shadow of Christ. So this passage refers to Christ as the good servant who would peacefully and faithfully seek justice, but it also refers to his Old Testament image—Israel. Now, after the coming of Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit the church fills this role as the image of Christ upon the earth. We must keep this in mind. The servant mentioned in Isaiah 42:1-4 was, in their role as the Old Testament shadow of Christ, Israel; was Christ who came in the flesh; and, is applicable to the Church who displays Christ today. If Christ is seeking Justice in the world—as Isaiah says he will do—then he does it through his church.

Notice something about this passage. It says the servant would not cry aloud or lift up his voice, would not break even a bruised reed, nor extinguish a faintly burning wick. This is an image of someone working, but doing so peacefully. It is not the image of an activist screaming in a bullhorn. It is not the image of a rebel taking up arms to throw off a tyrant. It is the image of one who quietly and peacefully sets his shoulder to the work of establishing justice around him.

This image is to be a description of our own work in the world. We are to be about the business of establishing justice and these efforts should be marked by two qualities: peacefulness and faithfulness. We are to seek justice in a way that encourages the peaceful transformation of society from unjust to just and we are to do so no matter how long it takes and regardless of how many oppose our efforts.

The faithfulness is easy to understand and difficult to misapply. This means doing it without stopping and without discouragement. Actually, the passage goes on to say that the servant will not grow faint or be discouraged until his work of establishing justice is complete. This helps us to understand exactly what is meant.

The problem comes when trying to understand the peacefulness quality. Does this mean we must always be quiet and malleable? Does this require having a milquetoast quality? Well, if we follow Christ’s example we have to conclude that this is not what is intended. Christ opposed strongly. He stood for the weak and he spoke for the voiceless. He insulted the spiritual leaders of his day (What else is meant by calling them “whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones” or a “brood of vipers”?) He flipped over tables, and drove away the merchants with a hand fashioned whip. He stood before a king and contemptuously refused to answer any questions.

So, what does this mean? How do we fulfill this quality? Actually, the passage itself makes it clear.

First, how we speak:

It says he would not lift up his voice or make it heard in the street. This doesn’t mean we never shout or be loud in support of justice. But it does mean we do not draw attention to ourselves. When we shout it is not to put ourselves forward, but to put forward the cause and the need for justice and to draw attention to the victims. If we raise our voices, it is so the world is informed of the injustice. We speak to publicize the need, rather than our efforts.

Second, how we act:

Notice that the unbroken reed was already bruised. For those who do not understand this means that it is previously damaged and weakened. Notice that the unquenched wick is already burning faintly—nearly extinguished on its own. In other words, he will not do more harm to what has already been damaged. The servant of God does not destroy what is already broken, nor does he tear down what is already falling. The servant of God seeks to build up, to encourage, to mend.

Unfortunately, we often do exactly the opposite. When we see Christians screaming in people’s faces or practicing scorched-earth politics the world sees a twisted image of Christ. Believers responding to sin with judgment rather than forgiveness mistake Pharisaism for Christianity. When we are more interested in being loved by the powerful than lifting up the weak we are not acting as Christ.

Christ had an Old Testament image which was embodied in Israel. Christ was the physical manifestation foreshadowed by Israel.

Peacefully seek justice—justice for our fellow believers, justice for our neighbors and even justice for those who oppose us.

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Building the Kingdom with Kingdom Tools

Isaiah 30:1-2 (ESV):

“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord,
“who carry out a plan, but not mine,
and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit,
that they may add sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt,
without asking for my direction,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh
and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We as a church want to reach our community. We want to draw people in and disciple them to be followers of Jesus who truly live like him, demonstrating his character in our community. Only in this way will we transform our community and bring peace to those around us suffering under the weight of sin. However, this passage reminds me of an error that is far too easy to fall into. It’s easy to default to the ways and methods of the world and overlook reliance upon the Spirit of God.

In the geopolitical setting of Isaiah, it was natural when threatened by one country to approach another country for protection. If a small weak people could find protection in stronger people most would see this as common sense. God is warning his people about seeking security using the ways of the world. They should turn to him for protection. They should repent of their sins and trust in his Spirit. Instead they found it easier to trust in Pharaoh.

The reason this so struck me is the knowledge that we as a church can easily be tempted to neglect prayer and dependence upon God by replacing these with the world’s tools. Marketing and branding are a part of our world today. They are also important considerations for the church. In a way they are just secular terms for essential spiritual practices. We want a positive name and testimony so the world thinks of us positively. This, the world calls ‘branding.’ We also want the community to know we exist, where to find us and what we have to offer. This, the world calls ‘marketing.’

Such terms are not evil. Neither are the methods they describe—so long as they are honest, giving an accurate portrayal of Christ. What is wrong is leaning upon these worldly tools while neglecting the spiritual tools: prayer, witnessing, loving. We can create radio and print ads, for example. Yes, they are outreach tools and can draw in people. Some will be believers seeking a church home; others will be nonbelievers, giving us a chance to reach them. However, we must remember limits of these. They must be kept in their proper place.

We do this through prayer. Everything we do as a church must be bathed in personal and corporate prayer. Prayer can give power and impetus to the tools we use, even those of the world. However, if the tools of the world replace prayer we should expect the world’s results—and the world can deliver no one from sin.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Prayer is only part of our communication with God. We must expect God to answer. His way of answering is to speak to us through his Word. We must be a people who seek God’s direction coming to him in prayer and then digging into his Word expecting him to speak to us. Both sides of the equation are necessary.

By keeping both in our focus we communicate with God, seeking his will and receiving guidance.

We also must keep the tools we use in their proper place. We must remember the world’s efforts are meant to undergird not replace the more spiritual methods. Personal friendship evangelism is still the best tool for reaching the world. The best evangelist to reach a person is one who already loves them—one approaching without judgment, simply desiring to spend eternity with them. Personal sacrificial service is still the life which we are to model. Nothing touches the heart more than another human giving of themselves without expecting anything in return. No ad; no website; no social media post can replace this.

As we move forward, let’s remember to rely on God’s tools—without throwing away any worldly tools that can be effective. We must market and brand the church—these are important. However, we must first of all be a praying people. Second we must be people of the Word. Third, we must be a loving reaching people serving the hurting and seeking the lost. Finally, we must live out our testimony so the world sees an accurate image of Christ. When they see us, they must see Christ. It is only if built upon this foundation that the world’s methods will be of any use. Better to lay them aside than to build only upon them. But even better is to use whatever works to reach the lost and love them into the kingdom.

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Shelter for our Enemies

Isaiah 16 demonstrates an interesting dimension of Judeo Christian ethics. In this passage, God is punishing Moab for past sins against God’s people. Yet, God commands his people in verse four, “let the outcasts of Moab sojourn among you; be a shelter to them from the destroyer” (ESV).

It’s often imagined that compassion for one’s enemies is a purely Christian commandment first given by Jesus. Of course, Jesus takes it to a new level by telling us to love them. We imagine because Jesus said, Matthew 5: 43f, “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ but I say to you, Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (ESV). Because of this many have claimed the Old Testament taught hatred for one’s enemies. Actually, no such command is found in scripture. Jesus, in this passage, is directly referencing the extra biblical teachings of the Pharisees.

Actually, Jesus command in Matthew 5:43f is very much in keeping with the tenor of Old Testament on behavior towards one’s enemies. Jesus took it farther by commanding active love towards them, but the Old Testament includes several admonishments to act toward them in a loving way (Ex 23:4f; Pro 24:17; 25:21; 29:10 to name but a few).

Yes, there were times the people of God were commanded to kill their enemies in warfare. However, we must be careful to discern two things, (1) these were directly commanded by God, or in response to active enemy attack, and (2) these were commands for the nation and not the individual. The duties of the individual were often very different from those of the nation. It was often the actions of the nation that made it possible for the individual to live to a higher ethical standard. Think of it today as our government leaders have the duty to punish the evil doer, and my individual duty is to forgive that same evil doer.

In Isaiah 16 God commands us not to gloat over our enemies. It also commands us to actively shelter our enemies from the outpouring of God’s wrath. Think of it this way:

“Moab has harmed you and attacked you. Moab has taken advantage of you when you were smitten. Now, I will smite Moab and punish them severely. But when they come among you to escape the destroyer I send among them, you must shelter and protect them. You must not do as they have done, but must behave as my people should.”

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God’s Will Over World’s Praise

I love John 3:30, which reads (ESV), “He must increase, but I must decrease.” I’ve spoken many times about how the English translations, for some reason, all fail to notice that “decrease” is passive, while “increase” is active voice. This means He increases himself, but I do not decrease myself—that is his action as well. The Lord’s increase of himself in my life, necessitates a decrease of my own value and importance, even in my own life. When his interests come to the fore in my life, my own interests are pushed to the rear. However, this is not what this blog post is about. That is a discussion I’ve had before and will have again another day.

Today, I want to consider the similarity between John 3:30 and Isaiah 2:11. In that passage, God says (ESV), “The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.”

When John the Baptizer speaks in chapter three and verse thirty of the gospel of John, he is responding to those who sought to defend him. They believed John was being disrespected by Jesus, whom John had baptized. Jesus was now drawing more people after himself for baptism. Remember this was a day where the Patron Client relationship ran through all areas of human interaction. It was natural for them to see the obligation of Jesus to defer to John, who had after all blessed him. In their world view Jesus was usurping John’s place and was being disrespectful. Of course, we know this was not the case, because this was exactly what God had created John for. This was John’s telos, his purpose, to baptize Jesus, give testimony about him and then to fade into the background.

John’s friends wanted him to demand his rights. They wanted John to be honored above one who had received ministry from him. They believed they had his interests in mind, but they did not understand one important thing—the divinity of Jesus. As Lord, Jesus deserved all honor and praise. Jesus as redeemer deserved far more honor than one who served as a sign pointing to that redeemer. As creator incarnate, Jesus deserved the awe and respect of his creation. Any man insisting on being honored above Jesus was, at best, laughable.

What John’s friends failed to realize was that they were encouraging John to be the exact sort of person rebuked in Isaiah 2:11. They wanted John to raise himself up and insist on his rights; insist on his honor. In their effort to protect and honor their friend, they failed to realize they were encouraging him to rebel against the very purpose for which God had created him.

We too easily get the idea that we deserve certain things; certain treatment; certain returns. However, we have to remember that, as subjects of the King of Heaven and Earth, we receive what he intends for us. Our lives are determined and directed by God’s interests, not our own.

If his will for us appears to the world as success, then we must remember it is his blessing that brought it. If his will for us appears to the world as failure, then we must find joy in knowing we are living his will.

What matters is not worldly success, wealth or privilege. What matters is knowing we are right where God wants us; knowing we are doing what God has called us to do; knowing we are living the life God has laid out for us. Seek alignment with the Lord’s will rather than exaltation in the world’s eyes.

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Disagree but Respect

In Romans 2:17-24, Paul accuses some of hypocrisy. He asks if those who denounce adultery and stealing are themselves guilty of adultery and stealing. He speaks of those who boast in the law while breaking the law. Most of this passage is quite clear, but one part can be confusing. In the latter half of verse 22, Paul asks: “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” It’s confusing because the two are not an apparent contradiction to us. In our minds, robbing temples would contradict our denunciation of stealing, but an expression of abhorrence of idolatry. However, Paul treats them in way showing he intends this to be contradictory: you abhor idols, in keeping with the law, but then act towards them in a way that violates the law. But the behavior towards them is not worship of idols. Paul’s meaning would have been evident had he said, “You who abhor idols, do you worship idols?” But he didn’t. He actually uses a negative treatment of idols (robbing temples) as the moral antithesis of a negative opinion of idols.

This passage, like many, is best understood by keeping it in context. Verse 24 says, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” The word literally translated ‘rob temples’ is also used to describe any act of blasphemy or sacrilege. Paul is decrying those who abhor idols and then act in a way that turns away and offends those who worship the idols. When we act disrespectful to those holding another belief we do not inspire them to adopt our beliefs. Too often such blatant disrespect causes people to shut down and turn off. Few are convinced into the faith. Most are modeled into the faith. By this I mean that few will adopt our faith simply because it is explained to them. Most will come because the faith is explained while being modeled. Paul is saying that just as we should not steal if we are against stealing, we should not live out our opposition to other faiths by being disrespectful to those who practice those faiths. This ill treatment of them is itself equivalent to violation of the law. We must love the person trapped in idolatry. This includes respecting them enough to not blaspheme (or ridicule, or misrepresent) their beliefs. We must take their beliefs seriously, if for no other reason than to respect those holding those beliefs.

Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand what I mean by this. This is not to say we should see all beliefs as relative and therefore true. The idea that whatever you believe is true because it is true for you is laughable at best. Some beliefs are right and some are wrong—holding to a false belief strongly does not make it true. That is simple logic. The opposite is…well…illogical (said in my best Spock voice). Let me give you an example of two beliefs:

Christian: Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God (John 3:16).

Muslim: He (God) neither begets nor is born (Quran 112:3).

It is impossible for these two beliefs to be true because it would violate the Law of Noncontradiction (Av~A). This is because God begetting a Son contradicts the premise that God does not beget. They are mutually exclusive. This means either both are false or one is true and the other false. It is impossible for both to be true.

Respect for another’s faith does not mean accepting it as truth. Likewise, pointing out the facts and even errors of another’s faith is not disrespectful—unless you do it in a way which disrespects the person. This is dialogue and discussion. Actually the issue itself is not even about having respect for the other faith. The passage is warning about treating the other’s faith in a way that drives away the other person—that is, therefore, disrespectful of the other person. While we must stand against false beliefs and share the truth, we must always remember we are dealing with people and not just impersonal premises.

To paraphrase Paul’s question in Romans 2:22b, “Do you who abhor idols drive people away from God and closer to their idols by how you treat them?”

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Being Like Jesus

I often find myself praying to be more like Jesus. I want to learn to respond to the world as he did. I want to feel for the lost as he did. I want to mourn sin as he did. And if I’m honest, I expect a certain amount of honor for all of this. After all, Jesus was honored. Right? We forget that other than a small ragtag group of disciples (varying from a dozen to perhaps around a hundred), Jesus was despised. Most of his opposition came from the religious leaders, who should have recognized him as Messiah. As I was praying this morning, it dawned on me that truly being like Jesus means being attacked, harassed, insulted and crucified by the most religious among us.

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