Saturday, February 28, 2015

Laws and the Babysitter

Good morning!

How do you react to the concept of "laws"?  Some folks appreciate good laws because they are comforted by the order and relative safety that laws bring to our lives.  Other folks immediately bristle at the thought of laws, because anything that constrains their own desires is an enemy.  We all fall somewhere along that continuum.

Today's verses are Galatians 3:21-25.  The apostle Paul was fond of tying the old and new testaments together (of course he wrote most of the latter), and I'm so glad that he did this.  The new Christians were so entrenched in the laws and practices of Judaism, it was vital that Paul explain to them thoroughly the "new way" which came through Jesus Christ.

21 Is the law therefore opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22 But the scripture imprisoned everything under sin so that the promise could be given—because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ—to those who believe.  23 Now before faith came we were held in custody under the law, being kept as prisoners until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 Thus the law had become our guardian until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

To briefly recap (and spare you an extensive exposition):  Adam enjoyed full communion with his Creator God, until Eve sinned and Adam followed suit.  (At this point, I began to research how many years passed from Adam to Moses, thinking {foolishly} that I could share some kind of real-time chronology.  However, I discovered that that study is way beyond the scope of today's post.  All kinds of strange answers out there...)  At any rate, a good general answer is "a few thousand years" passed from the time of Adam to the time of Moses.  During this period, God destroyed all life on earth via The Great Flood, except for Noah and his fellow refugees in the ark.  The way that God revealed Himself to humankind during this period was by speaking strongly to individual people, who obeyed Him and carried forward His grand plan.  Noah, Abraham and Moses are striking examples of this. In general, the depravity of the human heart demonstrated that this approach was ineffective to redeem mankind, to buy us back from our sinful captivity.

Through Moses, whom Paul refers to as a "mediator" (NIV) in Galatians 3:20, came the Mosaic Law, a new approach, a new revelation of God. In His infinite all-knowingness and wisdom, God saw fit to reveal Himself more fully and in a more widespread fashion, via the Law.  He had made promises to Noah and to Abraham, which He used the Law as a tool to partially fulfill.  Paul uses a contemporary analogy in our passage for today (vs. 24) to explain the role and purpose of that law.  

In Paul's day, the wealthy freeborn Greeks assigned a trusted servant to their sons.  This babysitter (Greek-"paidagogos") accompanied the boy wherever he went.  This slave was a guardian to the boy, in charge of his welfare.  Paul compares the Law to the servant in this scenario, with the boy representing God's chosen people.  Paul rightly points out however that the Law itself was insufficient to redeem humankind.  Instead, it appeared to have the opposite effect:  driving men further and further from God.  Although many tried to achieve righteousness through obeying it, righteousness only comes by faith.  The Law served to time after time after time drive the Hebrew people into idolatry.  Paul describes this in verse 23 as being a "prisoner of the law", locked up by it. Once again, God had demonstrated that there was only one remedy for mankind's sin.

Then, to bring about another layer of order, God established ruling judges over His people for a time. That approach did not bring about righteousness either.  His people clamored for a king; so, he gave them Saul, David, Solomon and a whole procession (if you'll pardon the pun) of kings, some godly, but most heinously evil.  Again, no dice.  These approaches to call mankind back to God mostly failed.

In our pride we are so prone to rely on our own "righteousness" to achieve our salvation.  Indeed, of all the world's "religions", Protestantism/Christianity is the only one that claims a living Savior and the only one that claims that its adherents do not have to "work" to "earn" their salvation.  Do you not have to constantly check your spirit for the presence of sinful pride?  God knew that this would be the tendency of each of us.  He had to show, over several generations, the futility of this approach.

Only one thing can irrevocably take care of our sin problem:  the spilled blood of a sinless sacrifice, that blood which will wash our sin away.

Jesus Christ, in His earthly ministry, affirmed Paul's words here.  Jesus said that He had not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament Scriptures), but to fulfill them.  Jesus came to fulfill the promise made to Abraham (Abrahamic Covenant - - Genesis 12:1-3), who the Scriptures declare (Romans 4:3; Hebrews 11:8) lived his life and earned God's favor by faith.

The Law could not fulfill the Promise.  The judges nor the kings could bring about the promise. Jesus Christ IS the one and only fulfillment of the Promise.  All these precursors merely lead us to Jesus so that we are no longer imprisoned by the Law or under its supervision, but are free to live and walk by faith...resplendent!

1.  Free from the law, O happy condition,
Jesus has bled and there is remission,
Cursed by the law and bruised by the fall,
Grace hath redeemed us once for all.

Once for all, O sinner, receive it,
Once for all, O brother, believe it;
Cling to the cross, the burden will fall,
Christ hath redeemed us once for all.

2.  Now we are free, there’s no condemnation,
Jesus provides a perfect salvation.
“Come unto Me,” O hear His sweet call,
Come, and He saves us once for all.

3.  “Children of God,” O glorious calling,
Surely His grace will keep us from falling;
Passing from death to life at His call;
Blessed salvation once for all.
         (word/music by Phillip P. Bliss, late 1800s)

Dear Father, thank you for Your glorious revelation of Yourself to us.  You have amply demonstrated that, apart from You, we can do nothing of worth.  All our so-called self-righteousness is like filthy rags in your eyes.  I am so grateful that I don't have to depend on my own efforts to achieve my salvation.  It is given to me through Jesus' finished work, free and clear.  I am only responsible for living that certainty, walking in it.  May I never use this eternal gift as a permission to sin, for sin is as offensive to you as ever it was, whether found in the unbeliever or in the saint.  Please fill me with Your Spirit, so that all who see me today, see You.  In Jesus' name, amen.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Praying for Our Enemies

Good morning!

The other day I saw a post on Facebook about the wife of one of the 21 Coptic Christians, recently slain for their faith by ISIS.  In that article the writer was marveling at the woman's ability to forgive the murderers who took her husband's life.  A picture showed her holding her infant, now fatherless.

If you are like me it is extremely repugnant to pray for my "enemies".  Who are our "enemies" anyway?  There is a continuum, it seems to me - - - on the one end is "he/she hurt my feelings" and on the other is "he/she robbed me of my dearest friend/possession".  Then, there are those who actively oppose the cause of Jesus Christ.  The Bible calls the latter group our "enemies", if we are Christ's.  When we, in our sin, consciously or unintentionally frustrate the will of God, we act like His enemies as well.

You are probably familiar with Job, the most prominent man of the East in his day.
In Job 42, the last chapter of that oldest book of the Bible, we see Job restored.  Part of his restoration involves praying for his friends, who had acted like enemies during the course of his trouble.  Grab your Bibles, and let's walk through this chapter.

Job begins by affirming (vs.2) that God's plans are going to "roll on", regardless of Job's desires to the contrary.  Job is acknowledging the sovereignty of God.

No plan of yours can be thwarted.

There is a mysterious (to me, unfathomable) relationship between the will of God and our prayers.  I truly don't understand how our prayers can affect His will; but, we see later on in this chapter that they do.

Job then tries to explain his sins by stating in humility and wonderment:

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.

Haven't we all been guilty of this?  Sometimes, my sons say things that cause me to roll my eyes, either flagrantly, right in front of them, or figuratively, in my own mind.  I'm sure that nothing surprises God, but that He does more than his "fair share" of eye-rolling.  Here, Job is confessing that he has spoken things about which he had no clue.  There was a lot of that going on in this book.  A lot of that goes on unintentionally in my study of the Scriptures and blogging too, I'd imagine.  We all think we have it so right, don't we?  When confronted by God concerning His error, Job rightly repented.

Then, we have an interesting passage, verses 7-9:

After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, 
"I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.  So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves.  My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly.  You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has."
So, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite did what the Lord told them; and the Lord accepted Job's prayer.

One commentator pointed out that all four men spoke erroneous things about God's intentions and works.   However, Job focused on his relationship with God, knowing God, while the others spoke out of their arrogant assumptions/knowledge about God, divorced from any real relationship with Him.

Still, the focus this morning is on the fact that God directed Job to pray for his friends, so that they, too, would be restored.  This was after the three friends demonstrated their desire to be forgiven and restored, by their acts of sacrificing the animals.  It was not their sacrifice that restored them, however; it was their submission to God and Job's prayer on their behalf.

As Christians involved in a thriving community, we are often asked to pray for someone.  I think that we often take that lightly.  It is not a trivial thing, to intercede for someone else.  My friends often tell me that they are interceding on my behalf, and that means more than the world to me!  It is rare, though, that our "enemies" ask us to pray for them.  That is irrelevant.  We are still commanded to do it.

Jesus issues this command, carrying forward the principle found in Job 42,  in Matthew 5:43-44 - - -

But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you...

And Paul echoes this in Romans 12:14.

What do we often do instead?  We talk about our enemies to our friends, rant and rave about the injustices done to us.  That is our flesh talking, and this type of venting accomplishes nothing productive in the spiritual realm.  But, when we pray for them - - - oh, we have no idea!

Look at what happened to Job after he prayed for his friends (vs. 9c-10):

...and the Lord accepted Job's prayer.  After Job had prayed for his friends the Lord made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before.

Truly, we have no understanding of the potential power of our prayers, if we would just pray them.

Dear Lord Jesus, you prayed for us, for whom you were about to lay down your life.  At that time, we were God's spiritual enemies.  Because of You and Your holy sacrifice of Your life, ...through You, we can become God's friends.  May we, following Your example, pray for our enemies, regardless of their behavior toward us.  "By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:35)  In Jesus' name, amen.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Nahum's Good News and Bad News

Good morning!

Here's a quiz question for you:  where is the verse that speaks of "how beautiful are the feet of them who bring good tidings of peace"?  If you said, "Isaiah 52:7" you would be right.  I've expounded upon that passage before.  If you said "Nahum 1:15", you would be close.  Isaiah lived just prior to Nahum; in fact, Nahum was probably a youth when Isaiah lay dying.  This might explain why Nahum paraphrased Isaiah 52:7; it might have been something he had heard in his youth, from Isaiah. Maybe Nahum counted himself as one of those with beautiful feet, because he was bringing good news to the people of the southern kingdom, Judah.

Nahum, Zephaniah and Jeremiah were contemporary prophets, having their ministries during the time of the good king, Josiah, of Judah.  Nahum wrote his book sometime between 662 B.C. and 612 B.C. We know this from a reference in the book itself (the fall of Thebes - - Nahum 3:8-10) and also from historical records from when Nineveh was conquered.

Nahum's prophecy concerns the evil city of Nineveh, the capitol of the Assyrian Empire.  Earlier, in 722 B.C., the Assyrians had conquered Israel, the northern kingdom, and hauled them off to various parts of the empire.  Now, the Assyrians were threatening Judah, the southern kingdom.

"But, wait a minute," you say, "Jonah received a prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed; but then, they repented, and God spared them."  Yes, that is true.  Unfortunately, after their repentance, the city of Nineveh plunged back into the heathenism of their former lives, thereby once again earning God's wrath.  When they threatened to overwhelm Judah, the apple of God's eye, that was the last straw.

In Nahum 1:15, God speaks to Judah through the prophet:

Look, there on the mountains,
the feet of one who brings good news, who  proclaims peace!
Celebrate your festivals, O Judah and fulfill your vows,
No more will the wicked invade you;
they will be completely destroyed.

And, this time, there was no reprieve for Nineveh which, when Nahum prophesied, was at the height of its power.  The city was utterly overthrown in 612 B.C.  Its fall precipitated the waning of the Assyrian Empire, which made room for the Babylonian Empire to rise.

Because Nineveh was at the height of its power, Nahum's message was especially bold.  The Judeans must have thought his message impossible.

There are two basic themes to the book of Nahum, and they can be found in Nahum 1:2-3 and 1:7.

The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;
The LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies.
The LORD is slow to anger and great in power;
The LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished.

The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble.  He cares for those who trust in him.

King Ashurbanipal was the last great ruler of the Assyrian Empire.  In the palaces and temples of Nineveh, the Assyrians created relief sculptures depicting their great conquests and their endless cruelty.  They were famous for torturing their captives, their "endless cruelty" (3:19).  One example of these is now housed in the British Museum, the relief depicting a mighty battle of 633 B.C., the campaign against Teummann of Elam and Dunanu of Gambula.  Nahum boldly references these reliefs in verse 14:

I will destroy the carved images and cast idols that are in the temples of your gods.  
I will prepare your grave, for you are vile.

His prophecy was a bold stand against both the king and the false gods of Assyria.  What courage!

Do you think that, in America, we are as prone to complacency as were the Assyrians?  They believed that they could not be overthrown.  Nineveh was a tremendously wealthy city; when the kings conquered a people group, the resulting treasure was brought to and stored in Nineveh.  Hence the references in Nahum 2:9-10.

America is also a very wealthy country, one of the wealthiest, if not THE wealthiest in the world. We tend to think that neither ISIS/ISIL nor Iran nor North Korea, nor Russia, nor China, nor any other invader can "touch us".  We would be wrong.

As a Christian, I read about the wrath of God, His divine retribution on this evil enemy of His people, and I tremble.  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry, omnipotent God.  Inconceivably, various governments local, state and national are turning against the people of God in this country. God will not allow this to go on indefinitely.  No, I am not Nahum, nor have I had a vision.  But, I do know this:  the word of God stands forever.  What He promises, He will do.  Since He destroyed places like Nineveh, Sodom and others for their iniquities, He will be consistent to bring down others who practice evil, especially those who do their dastardly deeds against His Chosen Ones.

"He cares for those who trust in Him."  Isn't it a blessing - - - this precious promise?  We do not need to fear what may come, if we trust in Him.

Father God, the popular preaching proclaims that You are Love and Mercy and Forgiveness and Grace; and, so You are.  Not so popular is the preaching that proclaims Your other, equally important attributes of Justice and Holiness and Changelessness and All-Powerfulness.  I pray for forgiveness, for my own sins, and those of my fellow Americans.  Every day I hear of another Christian who is being persecuted by our American governmental agencies.  This persecution is escalating and will continue to escalate unless and until we, the Church first and then the people as a whole, repent and turn to You.  We know though, precious Father, that You love and care for Your own, and that if we trust You, You will see us through any or all circumstances.  In Jesus' name, amen.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Heirs and Birthrights 3: One Stick and the Israel of God

Good morning!

We have been studying the past couple of days about the tribes of the ancient Hebrew nation.  Today, I want to share with you some Scriptures which pertain to the present plight and the future restoration of this chosen people of God.  Grab your Bibles and turn to Romans 11.

I have friends who are both Jewish in heritage and also Christian in their faith.  These are some of the happiest and contented people I've ever known!  They beautifully marry the promises of the Old Testament and the sacred feasts that God instituted with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Paul describes such people in Romans 11:5-6 - - -

So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.  And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.

By and large, however, people of Jewish heritage reject Christianity without even giving it a hearing. It is as if they have been blindfolded and cotton stuffed into their ears.  Paul also describes this present-day reality in Romans 11.  Note, in particular, verse 8:

“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
    eyes that could not see
    and ears that could not hear,
to this very day.”

Paul also says in this chapter that the Church of Jesus Christ, His Bride, is God's instrument of this present day. Romans 11:26 says that this situation will continue "until the full number of Gentiles" has been added to God's kingdom.  In fact, in Galatians 6:16, the Church is referred to as "the Israel of God", not because of their human lineage/genealogy, but because of their faith in their Savior, Jesus Christ.

But, what about the future of God's chosen people?
The next passage I invite you to examine is Jeremiah 50:4-7.  In this passage God is speaking to Jeremiah about the future of the two nations of Israel and Judah.

“In those days, at that time,”
    declares the Lord,
“the people of Israel and the people of Judah together
    will go in tears to seek the Lord their God.
They will ask the way to Zion
    and turn their faces toward it.
They will come and bind themselves to the Lord
    in an everlasting covenant
    that will not be forgotten.
“My people have been lost sheep;
    their shepherds have led them astray
    and caused them to roam on the mountains.
They wandered over mountain and hill
    and forgot their own resting place.
Whoever found them devoured them;
    their enemies said, ‘We are not guilty,
for they sinned against the Lord, their verdant pasture,
    the Lord, the hope of their ancestors.’
"In those days" refers to some of the last days of this present-day earth, when all kinds of wickedness and chaos are unfolding.  These verses occur in the midst of a prophetic passage about judgment on "Babylon".  I believe that they refer to the aftermath of the great, future battle of Gog and Magog, described in Ezekiel 38-39.  During that great war, "Babylon" will have been utterly destroyed, to the point that no animals will choose to live there.  With great weeping and mourning, the people of Judah and Israel will turn their faces toward Zion (Jerusalem), and the present-day nation of Israel will become even more populated with returning "lost sheep".

Here is another relevant passage: Ezekiel 37:16-22  - - -

16 “Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, ‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, ‘Belonging to Joseph (that is, to Ephraim) and all the Israelites associated with him.’17 Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand.
18 “When your people ask you, ‘Won’t you tell us what you mean by this?’ 19 say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph—which is in Ephraim’s hand—and of the Israelite tribes associated with him, and join it to Judah’s stick. I will make them into a single stick of wood, and they will become one in my hand.’ 20 Hold before their eyes the sticks you have written on 21 and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. 22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms.

This passage takes place after the period known as The Great Tribulation, which culminates with a huge, world-wide battle between Satan and Jesus Christ.  After this cataclysmic battle (not to be confused with the earlier battle of Gog and Magog) Jesus will return visibly in the heavens (Revelation 19) with His saints (the one, true Church) and "the armies of Heaven".  He will make short order of Satan in that battle (Revelation 20) and immediately afterwards, He will set up his world-wide kingdom, which will endure for 1000 years.  He will rule over all the peoples of the earth. This will fulfill Ezekiel 37:22.
God directs Ezekiel to uses the visual of two sticks becoming bound together to illustrate that in the future, He is going to re-unite the members of the various Hebrew tribes into one kingdom and that kingdom will be geographically located "on the mountains of Israel".  The reunited people will have a king, who will reign from Jerusalem.  He will be King Jesus.

Lord Jesus, truly I look forward to the day when all of Your children will fall down and worship You. It grieves me that so many of the children of Israel and Judah are in a spiritual stupor.   I thank you that my Father God is faithful, that His call is irrevocable (Romans 11:29), that although Judah and Israel have stumbled, they have not fallen beyond recovery (Romans 11:11).  In Jesus' name, amen.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Heirs and Birthrights 2

Good morning!

Yesterday, we began looking at the 12 tribes of Israel.  Let's continue that exploration today.  To briefly review, Jacob had 12 sons, and one son, Joseph, had two twin grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh.  In Genesis 48, Jacob pronounces blessings upon all of his sons, and also a double-blessing on Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:5). This meant that, literally, there were now 13 tribes.  (Some even say 14, listing Joseph still as a separate tribe.) However, most still refer to 12 tribes, because the tribe of Levi is not numbered in the line-up because this priestly tribe was not granted land in the Promised Land.

Before going on, I want to emphasize a point about the other tribe which received the dominion/rule portion of the birthright:  Judah.  King David was of the tribe of Judah.  In Psalm 78:67-68 and in Psalm 60:6-8, we find the following information about Judah's position and future:

Then he rejected the tents of Joseph,
    he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim;
but he chose the tribe of Judah,
    Mount Zion, which he loved.

Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine;
    Ephraim is my helmet,
    Judah is my scepter.

Ultimately, although Ephraim and Manasseh were greatly blessed by God, He had foreordained that Jesus Christ would come from the line of Judah, which is why one of His names is The Lion of the Tribe of Judah.  You can see in these verses references to the dominion and reign of this pre-eminent tribe.

Okay, so what happened to these tribes?  When they entered and conquered the Promised Land, the real estate was apportioned out to each tribe, (again, except for the Levites).  The height of influence of the people of Israel occurred during the reign of David and of Solomon.  Unfortunately, during the reign of Solomon's sons, the united kingdom of Israel split into a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom.  The southern kingdom followed Rehoboam, Solomon's legitimate heir, and included the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (and the Levites); the capitol of this country remained Jerusalem.  The remaining tribes, including Ephraim and Manasseh, followed Jeroboam and formed the Northern Kingdom, of which such cities as Shechem and Sychar, and areas of Gilead, Samaria and Bashan are mentioned.  The two kingdoms fought with each other and with neighboring peoples, bitterly over the years, until the northern kingdom was taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.  The southern kingdom, whose people learned nothing from what happened to their northern brothers, were themselves taken captive by the Babylonians nearly 150 years later.

What about the tribes today?  What are God's plans for Israel (the name given to Ephraim and thereby to the northern tribes and to Judah (the name given to the southern tribes) in the future?  Despite their captivities and dispersions all over the world, we find in Jeremiah 51:5 a prophecy made over a century after the northern tribes were taken into captivity, affirming that these tribes, although dispersed, would not be forsaken by God.  He always keeps His promises.

For Israel and Judah have not been forsaken
    by their God, the Lord Almighty,
though their land is full of guilt
    before the Holy One of Israel.

Judah was not "a perfect child".  Under the reign of Jehoram, a wicked king of the southern kingdom, the people went astray.  In light of this and despite this, we find God's promise in 2 Kings 8:19 - - -

Nevertheless, for the sake of his servant David, the LORD was not willing to destroy Judah. He had promised to maintain a lamp for David and his descendants forever.

When we trace the history of the Jews, we are mainly following the line of the southern kingdom. This is where the word "Jew" originates!  It is sort of a nickname from the formal name, "Judah". You may have heard the expression, "the 10 lost tribes of Israel".  The reason for that is because, after they were taken captive by the Assyrians, very little is known about them.  Some remnants of the people continued in the area of the northern kingdoms, which came to be known, in Jesus' day, as Samaria.  But a tremendous amount of intermarrying had occurred and the people's former Jewish traditions were almost unrecognizable.  One of the last references to the northern tribes is found in 1 Chronicles 5:26 - - -

So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria (that is, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria), who took the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh into exile. He took them to Halah, Habor, Hara and the river of Gozan, where they are to this day.

Amos 9:8-9 contains a promise specific to the tribes of the northern kingdom:

Surely the eyes of the Sovereign Lord
    are on the sinful kingdom.
I will destroy it
    from the face of the earth.
Yet I will not totally destroy
    the descendants of Jacob,
declares the Lord.
For I will give the command,
    and I will shake the people of Israel
    among all the nations
as grain is shaken in a sieve,
    and not a pebble will reach the ground.

So, now, the Jews from both kingdoms and all tribes have been dispersed all over the world.  An interesting verse of prophecy is Isaiah 49:12 - - -

See, they will come from afar—
    some from the north, some from the west,
    some from the region of Aswan.

This verse speaks of the Jews and their promised return to the Promised Land.  Bible scholars do not agree on the location of the land of Aswan, but generally agree that it is somewhere in the middle east.  However, many Jews ended up in Europe and even more found safe haven in the United States of America.  According to, it is estimated that there are about 13-14 million Jews in the world today.  Of those, 5-6 million live in the rather recently created (1947) nation of Israel.  Another 5-6 million live in the United States.  An additional 1.5 million live in Europe, with the remainder (750,000) living in Latin America or Canada.  Where are all those nations in relation to the land of Israel?  To the north and to the west.  God is faithful.

We may look at more prophetic promises to the Jews tomorrow.

Father, thank you for your faithfulness, not only to us Christians, but also to your chosen people, the Jews. At present, you are revealing Yourself through Christians, who bear the name and the gospel of Your Son, Jesus.  We are "the grafted-in branch" and "the adopted ones", in the family of God.  Oh how grateful I am for that!  Yet, I am also so glad that you have not forgotten your "original children" and that you will once again unite and raise them up to worship You in the future, in "the last days".  If I don't live to see that in this earthly body, I look forward to it when I am with my Lord.  In Jesus' name, amen.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Heirs and Birthrights 1

Good morning!

Having finished 1 Thessalonians, I decided to study about the 12 tribes of Israel this morning, this being a topic about which I am rather ignorant.  In my defense, it is a rather confusing topic.  But, let's take a look.

One of the early Old Testament patriarchs was Jacob.  He was the son of Isaac and Rebekah.  Isaac was one of the sons of Abraham, a name you should recognize.  Jews often call themselves "children of Abraham."

Some of you may remember that Abraham, due to trying to take control of God's plan, produced another (illegitimate) son, Ishmael, through the servant girl of Abraham's wife, Sarah.  Ishmael, in fact Abraham's firstborn, went on to have several sons, which formed 12 tribes also.  These people groups are today those of Arab descent, who inhabit the countries of the middle east, and who are the Jews' arch-enemies.  Isn't it odd that they share a common ancestor, yet the Ishmaelites hate the descendants of Isaac with a vitriolic hatred.  Eventually, God's plan, in God's timing, came to pass, and Isaac was deemed Abraham's legitimate heir.  He inherited the birthright.

In the next generation, we see a similar birthright reversal (Genesis 27).  Isaac's second son, Jacob stole the birthright from his older brother, Esau, by tricking him and playing to his weaknesses. Esau, for his part in the matter, made a foolish decision to disdain his birthright.  At any rate, the birthright passed to Jacob.

What did "receiving the birthright and blessing" mean?  The birthright was automatically given to the oldest son; it guaranteed two things:  1) family dominion/rule over siblings and 2) that the oldest son would receive a double portion of his father's estate when the time came for such matters (Deuteronomy 21:17). The birthright was conferred formally by the father just prior to his death via a verbal blessing.  This blessing was very powerful.  It not only acted as a verbal "last will and testament"; it also was a potent avenue for revealing God's will.  Once conferred, it could not be rescinded.  In the case of Jacob and Esau, for example, we see that Isaac, their father, could not change the blessing once it was revealed to him that he had been deceived by Jacob as had Esau. (Genesis 27:33).

Jacob had 12 sons:  Reuben was the firstborn.  Then, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin followed.  But, some interesting things happened among these sons, and their descendants.  Here are a few interesting facts.

1.  Reuben, to whom the rights of the firstborn should have automatically passed, lost his birthright, because of sexual sin.  He defiled his father's concubine and because of this, was judged not to inherit the rights of the firstborn (Genesis 49:4).  Sexual sins stain a family indelibly.  Though they can be forgiven, the consequences are usually irreparable.  So, Reuben's family was dishonored, but not totally disinherited.
2.  The birthright then was split (an unusual occurrence), passing to both Judah's and to Joseph's tribes.  The "dominion/rule" aspect of the birthright passed to Judah's tribe (Genesis 49:10 - - - "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.")
3.  For whatever the reason, Jacob skipped over Joseph in the blessing department and conferred the blessing and the "double portion" of the birthright on his twin sons, Ephraim and Manasseh.  Genesis 48 is so fascinating!  Joseph got word that Jacob was near death.  So, he took his two sons, Manasseh (the first-born) and Ephraim to see their dying grandfather.  When Jacob indicated he was ready to bless these two grandsons, he reversed the blessing!  Yes!  Jacob was practically blind, but even though Joseph placed his sons in the right place so that Jacob's right hand would bless the elder, Jacob crisscrossed his arms to confer the greater blessing on the younger.  Joseph saw this and tried to point out that Jacob was making a mistake.  But, Jacob affirmed he was not making a mistake.  He was acting in accordance with God's will revealed to him.  (See also Hebrews 11:21.)
There is a most interesting aspect of this blessing revealed in Genesis 48, verses 5-7:

“Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine. Any children born to you after them will be yours; in the territory they inherit they will be reckoned under the names of their brothers. As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath” (that is, Bethlehem).

Remember that Reuben and Simeon were Jacob's first- and second-born sons.  Here, Jacob was giving Ephraim and Manasseh equal status with those sons!  It was as if he was declaring that Ephraim was his first-born and Manasseh his second-born.  Very powerful!  Jacob makes it clear that he does this to honor Rachel, as Joseph was Jacob's and Rachel's firstborn son together.

4.  Levi:  the tribe of Levi is generally not numbered in lists of "the twelve" because they were designated to be treated so very differently from the other tribes.  The Levites were to be the priestly tribe.  Therefore, there was no land grant awarded to them, and they were cared for/provided for by the other tribes so that they could be free to minister God's word and will to the people.

There is much more to say on this topic, and I do want to explore it further.  But, this is enough for today; I'm sure you'd agree.

What can we glean from this?  What hits home to me is that we so often think we have it all figured out, especially where our children are concerned.  And, when things don't go according to "our plans" for them, we freak out.  At least, this is what I do.  Nothing is dearer to most parents' hearts than his or her children.  Yet, when we read the Old Testament stories of moms and dads and children, SO often things don't go "according to plan"....not the parents' plan, that is.  Things always go according to God's plan.  We must continually pray for Him to reveal Himself to our children and to bless them with His presence and grace.  And then, ... oh, here's the hard part!  We must trust Him with them.

Dear Father, only You can parent with perfection!  Nowhere else am I continually reminded of my inadequacies more than in my role as a parent.  Please give us the grace to trust You in all things, whether parenting, loving our spouses, loving our parents, our siblings, our spiritual family members or our neighbors.  We so greatly need your wisdom, to love others more like You love us.  In Jesus' name, amen.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Gotcha" Salvation

Good morning!

I've been thinking yesterday and today about Christian sects that preach a "gotcha" salvation.  There are many fine Christians - - - yes, I believe they truly are Christians - - - who love Jesus with all their hearts yet believe erroneous theology.  There are several isolated scriptures that, taken separately, appear to teach that God is a "gotcha" God and that we must work as hard as we can to "keep ourselves saved".  I was thinking about all this because yesterday I met via Twitter an unusual combination in a person - - - a man who is both a Jew and a devout Catholic. Clicking around on his website, I discovered the following, various "kinds" of grace described:

actual grace
habitual grace
gratuitous grace
sanctifying grace
sacramental grace
sanating grace

It appears that the reason he describes all these different kinds of grace is that the terms are used to describe one's own efforts at maintaining one's own salvation.   I do not find all these kinds of grace mentioned in Scripture.

Let me tell you something:  I can't keep myself saved.  I know the depravity of my own flesh.  If I had to be responsible for holding on to my own salvation, I'd be just as lost today as I was before accepting Jesus as Savior.

It is not a Church nor its rules/traditions which preserve my eternal security (keep me His) either.

Look at what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 - -

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

And a couple of chapters earlier, in 1 Thessalonians 3:13, we see the word "blameless" again where Paul affirms that it is GOD who strengthens our hearts and produces in us "blamelessness" - - {Greek: "amemptos" - - free from fault or defect; sinlessness; perfect.}  It is not we who do this. A Church does not do this. We are incapable of accomplishing this perfect work in ourselves, of ourselves.

Friends, do you ever wonder why some Christians put their faith on the shelf and just give up?  They have no peace, because they wear themselves out trying to sanctify themselves!  Look at those verses again.  Who does the work of sanctification?  It is God himself, through His Holy Spirit at work in our lives.  Although He calls us to obedience and submission, His sanctification, His sanctifying grace is His free gift, not something we manufacture by our own actions.  Our salvation can never be attributed to our own good works, because God knew we would be prideful and boast over them, were He to design our salvation in such a way.

On the cross, Jesus cried, "It is finished." (John 19:30) He finished the work of our salvation. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is in charge of our sanctification.  Sanctification (and mercy!) are further manifestations of His grace to us.

Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us!
Titus 3:5

Or, as The Message version puts the larger passage (Titus 3:3-8):
It wasn’t so long ago that we ourselves were stupid and stubborn, dupes of sin, ordered every which way by our glands, going around with a chip on our shoulder, hated and hating back. But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life! You can count on this.

Oh hallelujah!  Praise Him for that!  Rest in that assurance today, as you yield to His beautiful work in your life moment after moment.  If you have proclaimed Jesus Christ as Your Savior God, yield further to His lordship over your will today.  Embrace and enjoy the peace that is yours in Jesus.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
1 Thessalonians 5:28

"Thank you, O my Father, for giving us Your Son, and leaving Your Spirit 'till Your work on earth is done."  (from There is a Redeemer, by Melody Green)  In Jesus' name, amen.

Friday, February 20, 2015

If It's Doubtful....

Good morning!

The text for today is 1 Thessalonians 5:22.  Here it is, in several versions:

Throw out anything tainted with evil.    {The Message}
Separate yourselves from all appearance of evil.  {Jubilee Bible 2000}
Abstain from every form of evil.  {New American Standard Bible}
Stay away from every kind of evil.  {Holman Christian Standard Bible}

Getting the message?  If it looks like evil, run the other way.

The late wife of the chancellor where I got my undergraduate degree taught home economics classes.
She became famous for this saying:  "If it's doubtful, it's dirty."  This admonition was applied to the decision of whether to launder something or not.  But, it is also pretty good advice about whether or not something is "evil".  If you are not sure, it's best to assume that it is, and act accordingly.  The Holy Spirit will testify to us, if we will listen to Him.  As the writer of Hebrews said - - -

I have a lot more to say about this, but it is hard to get it across to you since you’ve picked up this bad habit of not listening. By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one—baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago! Milk is for beginners, inexperienced in God’s ways; solid food is for the mature, who have some practice in telling right from wrong.
Hebrews 5:11-14  {The Message}

Some things are obviously evil.  Those are the easier decisions because flagrant evil greatly offends our spirits.  Other temptations look to be somewhat evil, but we rationalize in our minds, convincing ourselves that "it's not really all that bad".  Still other times, something evil looks to be good!  Those are the situations that are the most difficult to discern.

This morning my older son left to go to the mountains with a group of friends on a pleasure trip.  He is a fine young man!  Before he left, I gave him the "mama admonitions" - - - you know, those things we say to our children when they are plunging us into a test of our faith in God!  One of the things I basically said to him was this verse.  I reminded him that he knows what is good and right; and, he should abide by what he has been taught.  Still, I'm praying and praying.  Please pray with me!

Discernment is a difficult thing.  The writer of Hebrews points out that discernment results from maturing in the faith, which comes about from spending time in the Bible and in prayer.  This is how we get practice in "telling right from wrong."

Paul issued this warning right after talking about false teaching.  So, its most immediate application is that, when we encounter false teaching, we should call it what it is, and get away from it.  There are currently some "big names" in the very broad name of Evangelicalism who have recently demonstrated that they are false prophets, by the words of their own testimony.  One of them had my curiosity, until I watched a prime-time interview of him on TV.  When directly asked, he refused to name Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation, the only way to God.  That is false teaching, and since that time, I have avoided listening to that man, have not read anything he has written, etc.

Some people use this verse to justify leaving a church or excoriating a pastor.  The decision to leave your church should not be made lightly, and only when "false teaching" concerns a major doctrine of the faith.  I've written on this before and so will not "plow that row over", as we country folk say.

To me, the Bible character who exemplifies the behavior we should emulate, in light of 1 Thess. 5:22 was Joseph, the chief household steward of a rich man named Potiphar.  It was a position of great responsibility.  The story is recorded in Genesis 39:6-15 - - -

6-7 Joseph was a strikingly handsome man. As time went on, his master’s wife became infatuated with Joseph and one day said, “Sleep with me.”
8-9 He wouldn’t do it. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master doesn’t give a second thought to anything that goes on here—he’s put me in charge of everything he owns. He treats me as an equal. The only thing he hasn’t turned over to me is you. You’re his wife, after all! How could I violate his trust and sin against God?”
10 She pestered him day after day after day, but he stood his ground. He refused to go to bed with her.
11-15 On one of these days he came to the house to do his work and none of the household servants happened to be there. She grabbed him by his cloak, saying, “Sleep with me!” He left his coat in her hand and ran out of the house.

We could argue that he should have gotten himself out of that situation as soon as Potiphar's wife began to put the moves on him, and perhaps we'd be right.  But, at least, when the push came to the shove, he hightailed it out of there.  :)  Even though this action did not deliver him from future troubles, it certainly kept him from committing a heinous sin.

It is so important that we not quench the Holy Spirit and that we listen to what He tells us!  We may not like it; we may not want to do it.  But, if we will be obedient, and flee from evil, He will deliver us from the potholes and the ditches of sin.

Dear God, this world is so seductive, so deceitful, promising all types of pleasures if we will abandon what we have been taught from Your Holy Word.  Please speak to us through the Bible and Your Holy Spirit, and please "deliver us from evil"  (Matthew 6:13) or as The Message puts it, "keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil" In Jesus' name, amen.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

More Meat and Potatoes

Good morning!

One of my nieces has a gift for drawing and calligraphy.  Recently, she surprised me with a rendering of these verses:  1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.

Rejoice always!

Pray constantly.

Give thanks in everything,

for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I liked her work and the words so much that I bought a frame, and it now hangs in my bathroom vanity area.  (I tried to paste in a picture, but am having "technical difficulties".  I'll try to send it to Facebook around the time I post this blog to FB.)

Three verses, less than 20 English words, much impact!  Paul has been admonishing the believers in Thessalonica about how to live like Jesus, in a pagan land.  He writes, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these last words before the benediction in verses 23-28.

Christians, especially young Christians, talk about "finding God's will for my life."  God, through Paul, has revealed His will in these verses. Although these are "the meat and potatoes" of following God's will, I often find doing these three things difficult, don't you?

Be glad at all times...ALL times.  God knew that we would find it challenging to be joyful in every circumstance, particularly the unexpected, the unpleasant, the grief-filled.  That is why the next command is to pray about everything.  When we are faced with all kinds of pain, we are to pray.

And, what are we to pray?  What was the example that Jesus gave us?  (Matthew 6:9-13)
"Our Father, in Heaven, may your name be reverenced and honored (hallowed)."
We are to first of all give thanks to the Father for His changeless character and attributes.  Even in the middle of abject horror, we are commanded to give God the glory, to worship Him and to "re-frame" our perspective.  God is in control. When we have an attitude of worship, submission and thankfulness, we are re-aligning our wills with the Father's will.  "Your will be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven."

Paul goes on with his final instructions in verse 19:

Don’t stifle the Spirit.

What does that mean?  to stifle or suppress the Holy Spirit?  There are several applications of this:

  • Some non-believers stifle the Holy Spirit by rejecting Him, when He is drawing them to salvation.
  • Believers stifle the Holy Spirit when He is urging them to become more like Jesus, and they say "no way", choosing instead to follow their own, sinful desires.
  • Believers can also stifle the Holy Spirit by frustrating His work in others by exhibiting negative, defeatist attitudes, instead of encouraging their brothers and sisters in Christ.  Some bible translations use the word "quench" in place of the word "stifle".  The image there is of "stamping out a fire with your feet" or "pouring cold water on a burning flame".  We need to be careful about telling others how the Spirit is speaking to them, unless, of course, the fellow believer is hearing a message that runs contrary to the Word of God (the Bible).  In those cases, they are not hearing from the Holy Spirit and need our mentoring on the matter.
And finally, verses 20 and 21:

Don’t despise prophecies,
but test all things.

Hold on to what is good.

This admonition simply means to hold all preaching, teaching and other forms of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ (including Christian music) up to the standard of the Bible, the unchanging, without-error Word of God.

I've mentioned this personal anecdote in this blog before, but it's such a good lesson I'll draw on it again.  I once worked for a church as a musician.  This necessitated me attending worship services. One Sunday, the preacher stated from the pulpit that the Bible is not "infallible" (without error).  In fact, the Bible testifies about itself that it is "utter truth" - - - it tells the perfect truth about a perfect God and His relationship to sinful man.

If we believe that God "breathed out" the words of the Bible upon the writers, that the Bible is God-inspired, then we must also believe that it is free from error.  This belief is in keeping with the character of God:  if He is true, and He is (Romans 3:4) and if God breathed out all Scripture, which He did (2 Timothy 3:16), then, by extension, all His words are true.  The psalmist states, "The entirety of Your word is truth, and all Your righteous judgments endure forever."   (HCSB)  It would be a severe digression for me to expound further on this topic this morning; but, in the coming days, I will make a blog post from this topic, as it is foundational to the Christian faith.

Why is it important for the Bible to be the standard against which we measure all words of teaching, preaching and "prophecy"?  Because there must be a standard of truth.  How else are we to "test all things and hold on to what is good"?  By our own whims?  By the whims of the society that surrounds us?  No!  God forbid!  That is how the heathen live.

There is one more admonition in this passage; we'll look at it tomorrow.

Dear Father, I am so grateful that you did not leave us comfortless, but You sent the 3rd Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to live in those of us who call Your Son, Savior and Lord.  And, your same Spirit breathed out the words of the Bible so that we could be comforted and guided in our Christian walks by Your very own words of truth.  Thank you!  In Jesus' name, amen.