False Religion and Love for God

Our Lord and Savior, Jesus, the Christ, whose followers we were called to be, left a warning for his disciples of what was to come in the future.  He told them to:

 

“Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying I am Christ; and shall deceive many.”  (Matt. 24:4-5)

 

The greek word translated as “take heed” can mean to have the power of seeing, to perceive and discover by use, or know by experience. It can also mean to turn the thoughts or direct the mind to a thing, to consider, contemplate, to look at, to weigh carefully and examine.   

 

Next, the word translated as “deceive” means to cause to stray, or to lead away from the truth. When Jesus said take heed that no one deceive you, what was the deception he was cautioning his disciples to be on guard against? It was that many would come in his name, teaching falsely about him.  Those false teachings encompass not only his identity and nature, but also his purpose, his message and his second-coming. There have been many anti-christs in the world since the Lord departed, and they still exist and are currently at work in it today. An antichrist is not necessarily just someone who denies that Jesus was and is the Christ; it is anyone teaching in his name who superimposes their own doctrine over the Lord’s teaching.  For example, suppose someone taught that Jesus was the Son of God, who suffered and died for our sins so that we might live a life of peace and ease in this world. Would you accept that statement as fully true?  In recent history alone, we can observe that many have believed and embraced it — because there are several mega-churches which have been built upon preaching a gospel of “health and wealth”.  It may be somewhat of an oversimplification, but the essential premise of their teaching is that all that is required in order to have an abundant life filled with worldly success and the desires of the heart is that a person “accept Jesus” into their heart. These types of appeals to the flesh will always be popular, but did Jesus ever promise his followers a life of ease? What did he have to say about how his disciples should live, and the focus they were to have?

 

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. … Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Luke 9:23 and Matt.10:34,38)

 

That is but one simple example which I include to illustrate how a false theology can become pervasive, but it’s not the focus for my message today, so let’s return now to Matt. 24:4-5 and put it all together. Those two verses mean that we are to examine, consider and contemplate everything God has made known in his Word; putting it into practice so that we know by experience that it is true, in order that we be known as the Lord’s flock — those sheep who listen to his voice and follow him.  Although he is absent in body, he should be present with us in spirit, to the extent that we are figuratively able to “see” him alive and at work in our lives. And when we do so, he will keep us from all deception.

 

Regarding that deception, we can continue on with Matt. 24:6-11.  To summarize those verses, Jesus is describing what the by-product of the false teaching referenced in verse 5 will be. To whom did/does his warning apply, and when would/will these conditions become manifest? Did it pertain only to those few disciples who were present with him during his short time on earth? Were they intended only for those who would live at the time just prior to his return? Might it not rather be that he is explaining the conditions that will always exist whenever false religion grows strong in the world, which would indicate he is addressing anyone and everyone throughout history who would seek to be known as his follower? Those are important questions, because your answer to them determines how you interpret verses 12-13.  When the Lord prophesied in verse 12 that the love of most would grow cold, do you believe he is saying that most people in the world will no longer practice natural love — or does he mean that most Christians will lose the love that sets them apart and identifies them as such?  False religious teaching certainly can influence and diminish both, but verse 13 makes it clear that verse 12 is a warning intended for those true followers of the Christ, who possess the love of God dwelling within them.

 

If we desire to be amongst those who stand firm to the end, I believe it is important to understand why the love of most Christians grows cold.  Our Lord provided the outline in these very verses we’ve been discussing so far. First, false religion becomes prevalent, which leads to a general, societal increase in wickedness. Next, true Christians, those who labor against that tide of wickedness and call attention to sin and false teachings, become persecuted. And, finally, due to persecution, many tire of the fight and abandon the faith.  And the Christian calling truly is a fight.  We can begin to grasp the magnitude of what we are fighting against when we read the apostle Paul’s prophecy of the rise of pseudo-Christianity, as described in his warning to Timothy.  It’s found in 2 Tim. 3:1-5.  He wrote:

 

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.  People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous,  rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power.  Have nothing to do with them.”  

 

Why do I say this is describing a pseudo-Christianity?  Because verse 5 is very curious.  It would be reasonable to imagine that people possessing such ungodly attributes would be obviously, outwardly, atheistic and irreligious.  But Paul says they have a form, or semblance, of godliness.  The greek word used is morphosis, which conveys the sense of a shifting of form in order to take on another appearance.  In other words, who these individuals are outwardly, by creed or profession of belief, is very different from who they are at heart, by practice.  Paul is describing people who may believe they are living lives pleasing to God, but who, in actuality, are Christian in name only.  Figuratively, you could say these false-believers whom he is describing wear a mask to disguise their true self from the eyes of others.  And they may indeed succeed in fooling some, but masks like these, once put on, are difficult to remove: and the end result of wearing them is that when they look in the mirror, they are also unable to see themself as they truly are.  

 

A Christian must have the light of Christ, the light of truth shining out from within them and, when they encounter others stumbling in the darkness of deception, they must be willing to walk into that darkness to help others find their way out of it.  That’s what preaching the Gospel is: being a light.  It’s one of the ways that we show we possess the love of God.  In application, the love of God is not just some vague warm and fuzzy feeling toward people. It’s not the type of love that sends “positive vibes” to someone who is sick. It’s not even about being perceived as someone who is “nice” to everyone.  Those are simply a few examples of what natural human affection is, and even as corrupt as our present day is becoming, we still see many examples of this type of love being practiced in the world today.  But that’s not the love of God as it’s modeled in Scripture.  Jesus told his followers:

 

“A servant is not greater than his master.  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20)

 

Jesus was not persecuted for being “nice;” and people who consistently exercise human affection towards others are not generally persecuted for doing so either. Our Lord was put to death by the world because he revealed sin for what it is, and he exposed the guilt of the people — not to condemn them, but to bring them to repentance.  And many who came to him did acknowledge their guilt and repented.  But others resisted having their “masks” removed and, like Cain, they hated the Lord for confronting them with their guilt.   Why then are the Lord’s followers warned that they must and will face persecution? It’s because they have been entrusted with the responsibility of contending against falsehoods.  The apostle Paul spoke of this responsibility in 2 Cor. 10:3-5, which states:

 

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.  The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.  On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

 

In other words, he is saying that when a kingdom or nation of the world fights a war, they use the power and authority they have been given by God, which is administered through their governing bodies, in order to destroy their enemy’s physical strongholds.  But a Christian is to use the power and authority given to them by God, administering the words of God through the spirit of God, in order to deconstruct erroneous reasoning, overthrow lies and destroy falsehoods.  Christians need to care about that enough that they are willing to speak the truth of God to people so they can see sin for what it is.  A Christian strives toward the goal of freeing others from their slavery to the prince of the powers of this world – and continues to care despite being persecuted and hated for it.  (2 Tim. 2:24-26)  Isn’t that the example we have recorded for true followers of God throughout all of Scripture? So then, ask yourself: “If I died today, is that what I would be known for? Is that what I lived for?  

 

There is only one way we can love in such a way. The type of love that is required is that which is only available through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is something for which we must continually go to God. In my two previous messages, I spoke of the love of God.  Now I’d like to shift to a discussion of love for God.  To begin, consider the Lord’s admonition to the Ephesian church, found in Rev. 2: 4-5.  There he said:

 

“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first.”

 

What was the first love they had forsaken? What do you suppose it was that they were no longer doing?  The answer to those two questions might be found by asking another: Why does false religion exist in the world?  Simply because the world does not know God as He truly is.  All false religion arises from false conceptions about God.  Therefore, although the purpose of our Lord’s death was to atone for sin, the purpose of his life was to reveal the Father; and he has called all of his disciples to carry on that same purpose. (John 17:18)  But how is that to be done?  How do you show God to someone?  Certainly it requires that we be filled with His love in us and that we consistently function as models of that love.  And it involves many things beyond that as well — like preaching the gospel — all of which are to be done over the course of a lifetime.  But doing so requires an understanding and application of the entire gospel message.  Anything added to or subtracted from the Gospel of Christ leads to false concepts about God.  

 

Which brings me back to the warning for the Ephesian church.  Collectively, their love had grown colder in certain areas, which led to a decrease in their willingness to labor for the gospel, relative to what they had been doing previously.  Individually, they could have forsaken their first love for a variety of reasons: some to avoid persecution, some because they grew weary of a life of self-denial, some because they became ensnared by deceptions and distractions.  Their example is evidence that the Lord’s warning regarding love growing cold isn’t limited to some unknown future day where nearly all society will be evil to an historically unprecedented degree.  That is an important fact, both collectively and individually.  Collectively, because if they were susceptible to having their first love wane, when they had the apostles still living and teaching among them as first-hand witnesses of the life and resurrection of the son of God, we should be doubly vigilant that we do not stumble in the same way.  And individually, because if we, as individuals, are weak, it is impossible for us to be strong as an organization.

 

How do we show our love toward God?  One important way is by obeying his commands. One of the two greatest commandments is that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Therefore, as urgently as you desire to have eternal life and be a part of God’s family — as fervently as you desire to be a first-fruit in His Kingdom — the spirit of God in you ought to produce an equally powerful desire that everyone else partake of those indescribably wonderful blessings also.  In that regard, as far as my labor for others is concerned, I cannot say that has been true, nor can I say that it is now; and that is one of the ways I know that my love for God has not been, and is not, what it needs to be. If it was, my life would be significantly different than it is now.  Far too much of the time it’s only been true in an abstract way — a goodwill wish for others that has lacked the reinforcement of sufficient action — like the man who encounters someone without food and clothes and wishes them well but does nothing to address their need.

 

Passion always maintains a willingness to suffer for its object of affection. The Son of God willingly suffered many horrible things out of love for His Father and his love for us. Abraham was willing to suffer the loss of his son out of reverence for the will of God. Moses had to bear with the stubborn rebelliousness of nearly an entire nation and endure the ire of a people who, despite all the good he had done for them, were ready to stone him at one point. (See Ex. 17:4) And bear with them he did, out of love for God. Because of their love for God, all of the prophets suffered for speaking the truth. And there are many other examples like those, both in the Old Testament and the New.  Knowing that to be true, leads me to ask myself “What have I suffered for the sake of the Gospel?”  And if I haven’t suffered, have I really loved? Everyone wants to believe that they’re a good person, but the truth is that none of us are; so, if we are to “take heed that no one deceive us,” we should also be diligent to pray that God would keep us from being overcome by self-deception.  If you share my concern, here is another question which you can use as a litmus test of your own degree of love for God: as it pertains to the gospel, how big is the sphere of influence He has given you with others?  I believe that it is unavoidably true to say that as the love of God increases in you, so too will your power and influence in speaking the words of God.  

 

In conclusion, I  mentioned that the only way we can maintain love toward those who despise and mistreat us is by the power of the Holy Spirit — having the love of God dwelling within us.  And that love is something we must continually go to God in order to have it replenished.  Which brings me to my second point regarding love for God: in addition to showing our love for God by obeying His commandments, we also show our love in the same way we show love to anyone else — by spending time with him — and so that will be the topic for a future post.

 

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The “Mark” of a Christian

The topic of my last message was the love of God, and I put forward the idea that the purpose for the conversation that took place between Jesus and Peter, as recorded in John 21:15-18, was to reinforce the principle that human love alone is insufficient to serve God effectively.  I wanted to start off today by developing that idea a bit further.  Let’s begin by examining three of the Lord’s own statements, which establish that a clear distinction exists between the love of man and the love of God.  In John 15:18-21, he said:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.  Remember the words I spoke to you:  ‘No servant is greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.  They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.

Moving forward to chapter 17, in verses 25-26, he states:

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they (all believers) know that you have sent me.  I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them, and that I myself may be in them.”

The first point I would draw your attention to from those verses is that the world does not know God, and His love is not in them.  The second is that although the love of God is not in the children of the world, the world’s children still are capable of exercising love, which is evident from Jesus’s statement that the world loves its own.  For the third scripture, please turn to Matt. 5:43-48, where Jesus was recorded as saying:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven (as opposed to children of the world).  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Without further elaboration, those scriptures should be sufficient to establish that there is a natural love, common to all humanity, such as familial love and brotherly love.  Such love exists and is practiced even by those who do not believe in God, yet the various forms of human love are clearly distinct and separate from the love of God.  Why is that point important?  Because if you turn to John 13:34-35, you’ll read that Jesus has said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” What type of love do you think he had in mind when he said that?  Was Jesus saying that when someone practices natural, human love they are showing themself to be his follower?  Absolutely not!  Even pagans are capable of human love.  It is only having the love of God dwelling within oneself that marks a person as a true Christian!  A Christian is to love in the same way as Christ loved, and with the same type and degree of love.  Possessing and exercising this love is not only essential, it is the primary trait that distinguishes us from the rest of the world!  

We can stay in this same 13th chapter of the book of John, back in verse 12, to find an excellent example of this love in practice:

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.”

Before continuing with the passage allow me to make a brief side comment: Intellectually, we understand that foot-washing was a task relegated to the lowliest servant; but in our present day, this once common function has been rendered obsolete — and the hands of time have eroded much of the context which made the Lord’s example so poignant.  Every year at Passover we may wash one another’s feet, but it is exceedingly unlikely that the 5 or so minutes we spend in doing so would ever be able to adequately approximate just how a slave would feel in the performance of the same chore.  To attempt to get close, let’s change the scene.  Think how your attitude would be different if, instead of washing a fellow-believer’s feet, as we do by mutual consent here in this room, you were approached by some co-workers, who demanded, “Hey. You. Worthless. Get over here right now and shine our shoes.” You might bristle and refuse: the slave, however would be subjugated to accept the humiliation. With that perspective in mind, let’s return to the remaining verses:

“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.””

We should ask ourselves the same question Jesus posed to his disciples here.  Do I understand the full implication of what the Lord did here?  

Reflect again on his words “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.”  Our Lord’s rightful position is to sit enthroned at the right hand of his Father, the Almighty, Eternal God!  He is the King of Kings, and Lord of Lord’s!  He is the Only Begotten Son of God!  All praise and honor and glory are due to him — but did he insist upon any of those rights while on earth?  No.  Instead, he subjugated himself, and became the lowest of servants in obedience to His Father’s will.  He was willing to suffer greatly in order to teach us the right way to live. He consented to being hated, slandered, spit upon, beaten, even crucified.  He did everything, in service to God, for you. For me.  

But in doing so, he also said that he set an example that his disciples should follow.  It might be pleasing to human nature to believe that the alluded-to example in John 13:15 is restricted merely to the foot-washing; but the command, “as I have done for you” has the meaning of doing to the same degree, or proportion, and therefore carries the sense of encompassing all that Jesus willingly sacrificed during his transition from being ‘Lord’ and ‘Master’ to becoming the lowest of servants.

Human nature is opposed to being told, “no”.  If we desire something, we feel frustration if we are denied it.  But the lowest servant doesn’t get to live as they choose.  Their will is continuously frustrated, to the point where they become accustomed to carrying out the will of others, without considering their own.  No one asks or cares about what they would like.  That is their existence; and that was the attitude or spirit Jesus was demonstrating when he washed his disciple’s feet.  And you are called to be slaves to Christ in this life, so that you might inherit the Kingdom of God as free children.  With our Lord’s example before us, how can we ever be justified for demanding our rights, or for feeling disrespected if the world does not give us our “due”?  We shouldn’t be concerned with seeking worldly position or the esteem of men, and we shouldn’t be offended if we are judged to be a “nobody” by the standards of the world.  How different would the church be today, collectively, if we as individuals pressed beyond the letter of the law modeled in the physical activity of foot-washing, and truly embraced the spiritual attitude it was intended to teach?  What impact would we then have on a world that does not know God?  

Have we made progress in striving toward such a lofty standard?  In 1 Cor. 11:28-29, the apostle Paul was inspired to write, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”  In other words, when we take the Passover, we are acknowledging that Christ died for us, and we renew our covenant with him, indicating our willingness to die to ourselves, so that he might live in us.  So in examining ourselves, we should be asking, ‘Have I really been living as the Lord lived? I profess to be a Christian, so how well have I kept his example alive in the world by my thoughts, words and deeds?

Like our Lord, we are to go through life putting others above ourselves, in order to further the work of God’s Kingdom.  The sacrificial, selfless love modeled by the Messiah and manifested in the true Christian cannot be attained by human strength; it is only made possible through God’s Spirit.

In further support of that conclusion, I ask you to consider the following rationale, starting with a question: how was it that in verse 38 (still in John 13), Jesus was able to prophesy that Peter would disown him?  The amplified version of the Bible translates Romans 5:7 as stating, “Now it is an extraordinary thing for one to give up his life, even for an upright man; though perhaps for a noble and lovable and generous benefactor someone might even dare to die.”  So although it would be an extraordinary thing, Peter’s professed willingness to lay down his life for Jesus was neither unheard of, nor beyond the realm of possibility (and when we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we make the same profession as did Peter).  Therefore, if Jesus could foretell Peter’s denial, he had to have insight into something Peter was lacking that would make his action a certainty.  What was Peter missing?  When he was asked if he was one of Jesus’s disciples, was he suddenly stripped of his free will in that moment in order to bring Christ’s words to fruition?  Did he not still have a choice as to how he would respond?  Far be it from God to compel man to sin, so of course Peter had a choice!  Take those questions a step further now.  Since Peter had a choice, and still denied the Lord, does that mean he consciously, deliberately disowned him?  Do you believe that is the choice Peter willingly wanted to make?  I would argue it was not, since when the rooster crowed the second time and Jesus turned and looked at him, he immediately regretted what he had done and wept bitterly.  What phenomenon was at work here, then?  This was a perfect illustration of the truth of the apostle Paul’s words from Romans 7:18-19: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.”

Jesus knew Peter’s denial was a foregone conclusion because he was aware of the spiritual realities that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5); and when the shepherd is struck, the sheep will scatter (Matt. 26:31).   He also knew that the Holy Spirit had not yet been given, so when that moment of testing came upon Peter, he was inadequately equipped to meet it successfully.  He knew that although Peter intellectually, in his inner being, was willing to die with him, the natural inclination of concern for the physical body would also be warring within him; and a house divided against itself cannot stand.  Jesus knew that Satan desired to “sift” Peter (Luke 22:31), and because of all these things, he gave him counsel while they were in the garden of Gethsemane to “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Matt. 26:41)   It is noteworthy that Jesus had taken the two sons of Zebedee along with him, in addition to Peter, yet this admonition was directed solely to Peter.  What was the temptation he was to be on his guard against?  I think it reasonable to conclude that this was an allusion to the very denials which Christ had foretold, and which came to pass so swiftly after this warning.

The reason (at least in part, if not in totality) Peter failed was because when he was told to watch and pray so that he would not fall into temptation, his physical fatigue caused him to sleep instead.  Temptation can be understood to be a testing or proving of one’s integrity, or it can be any force that acts to oppose an individual’s accepted standard of right conduct: and in Peter’s moment of testing, he wasn’t able to do what he claimed he would do, or act consistently with how he believed he would act, because his thoughts weren’t anchored on what he should have been praying for — which is that God would deliver him from temptation and supply him with what he needed so that his faithfulness might not falter.  He temporarily lost sight of looking to God to uphold him in any situation and in doing so, he was left to rely upon himself, and the resources that were natural to him.  And although Peter could be considered an upright man even before he was given the Holy Spirit, even the best qualities he possessed as part of what made him who he was were not sufficient for him to overcome his adversary in the critical moment.  He was limited by his weaknesses — the same reality which confronts every single person who has ever lived.     

Consider that when God’s protection was removed and Satan was allowed to test Peter, he could not even acknowledge himself to be Jesus’s disciple, even though he had previously left everything to follow him!  Just like Peter, whenever we rely on our own strength to serve God, we will fail — but what is impossible for men is possible with God (Luke 18:27).  God is love and God is spirit.  One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to increase our capacity for love by giving us access to the power of God’s love.  But once we receive it, we do not automatically have it in an unlimited supply.  Although the spirit of God is inexhaustible, the love of God can grow cold and His Spirit can be quenched within us.  In my last message, I referenced Christ’s prophecy that prior to his return, the love of most would grow cold.  I anticipated that would be my topic today, but that message is built upon an understanding and acceptance of the principle just expounded on: that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit — apart from having God’s love dwelling in us — it is impossible to serve God.  Therefore, I thought it best to establish that foundation more firmly before moving forward, and because of that I will have to once again leave you until next time to ponder the question I posed in conclusion to my previous message: “How do we make certain that we will be among those who hold fast to the love of God and stand firm to the end?”.   

The Love of God

If you have been introduced to another person, you can rightly say that you know them, in the sense of being aware of their existence.  But if you never go beyond that introduction and don’t know anything else about them aside from the fact that they exist, you can’t truly claim to know them in the sense of understanding who they are.  This is a truism which applies to man’s relationship with God as well: just because a person professes belief in God, that does not mean they know Him.  So how does one come to know God, especially given the fact that, while we are physical, we do not have the benefit of a face to face introduction, and cannot converse with God in the same way we can with our fellow man?

 

Because God is an infinite spiritual being without limitations, He can never be completely and perfectly known and understood by flesh and blood.  But if an attempt to do so were to be made, one might begin by describing His character.  And I believe no single characteristic would be able to provide greater insight and understanding into who God is than the one found in 1 John 4:8, which states, “God is love”.  What an amazing statement that is!  It doesn’t merely say God loves, it says He is love.  Love is not simply an attribute or quality that God possesses; rather, His entire being is founded upon, and declared or made known through, love!  So we begin to come to know God through understanding His love — and I would argue that all sincere efforts to know God more perfectly should inevitably lead to a more accurate and mature understanding of what love is — but since no one has ever seen or heard God at any time, how is His love made known?

 

The Father is made known through His Son and His love was and is ultimately expressed through what the Lord did:

“…the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”  (John 1:18)

“And this is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us”. (1 John 3:16)

There is no action possible in this world that reveals more about God, the Father, than this sacrifice by His Son. The entire gospel message is built upon that singular foundation.  But the good news that Jesus died so we could have the opportunity to live with him forever also sets a lofty standard for love, and carries with it a daunting expectation — for all who profess Jesus to be their Lord and Master are required to live as he lived, and do as he did.  (1 John 2:6)

 

Because of that, it’s important for us to understand all that the Son of God did.  He did indeed die so that we might live, but he did much more than just laying down his life.    In truth, our Lord and Savior gave of himself, in service to others, without holding anything back for the full duration of his life.  His death only speaks to the sacrifice of his physical life, but there was also a spiritual sacrifice he had to make — one that is at least as poignant, if not more than, that which occurred at his crucifixion.  Before he suffered death, he first had to experience separation from God.  Those who love deeply in this life know the pain that separation can bring; but even the closest and best relationship you could imagine enjoying in this present world pales into insignificance when compared to the one shared by the Father and the Son.  Prior to his earthly incarnation, The Only Begotten One had spent a previous eternity enjoying perfect unity, harmony and communion with his Father, in His presence.  No two other beings in all of Creation will ever know so perfect a bond or experience that degree of closeness (John 1:18), yet our Saviour was willing to experience a temporarily diminished intimacy with God, as a means of expressing his love for us and the Father, by being obedient to His will.  Why was this necessary?  Partly because it was paramount that “… the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (John 14:31)

 

This act of obedience was for our benefit in many ways.  In addition to obviously being the way in which the penalty for sin was paid, which opened the way to eternal life, it also serves as a model and a lesson for us of one of the key ways we demonstrate our love to God.  Here are a few of the Lord’s own statements on the subject:

“If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15)

“Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.  He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” (John 14:21)

“If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.”

“You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:14)

“In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands.  And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.” (1 John 5:3-4)

 

From these and other statements, Jesus made it clear that unless we obey God, we cannot claim to love him, or even know him.  So another key way we come to know God better, and understand the nature of His love more perfectly, is to obey Him.  What then are those commands we are to obey, which John says are not burdensome?  We can turn to the Lord’s own words for the answer.  They are:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Regarding these commandments John wrote, “Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning [since the Law had already been known for centuries by that time].”  But he goes on to say,

“Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him [Jesus] and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.” (1 John 2: 7-8)

What was this new command, whose truth is seen in Jesus, applicable for all who accept the title of “Christian”?  It is still: “Love one another.”  But it is now to be understood in a new light, one which began to shine when our Lord and Savior bled and died on our behalf.  The fullness of the law’s requirement to love your neighbor as yourself, is only realized in the command: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.  As I have loved you (In the same way as), so you must love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)   The love that Jesus had was a self-less love — one that was always ready and willing to sacrifice on behalf of others — and so the love we are to have is also one that is put into practice without consideration of “self”.  How critical of an issue is this for those who seek to know God and serve the Lord?

 

Consider the challenge Jesus posed to Peter, after Peter’s denial.  He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?  Peter had previously made the statement, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will. … Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”  (Matt. 26:33 and Luke 22:33)  Peter had believed that his own love for the Lord was superior to the love the other disciples possessed for Jesus.  Yet three denials in rapid succession proved his boast to be false, and showed that the comparative estimation of devotion he had made between himself and his brethren was unwarranted.  In Luke 22:61 we read that as soon as the final denial issued forth from Peter’s lips, “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.”  Could any words communicate more powerfully than the understanding that passed between them when they locked eyes in that moment?  Clearly, Peter saw the truth about himself right then and there, because it is written “And he went outside and wept bitterly.”  So now, because of that experience, in response to Jesus’s question, Peter simply acknowledged that Jesus knew him better than had known himself, and said, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”

 

But Jesus doesn’t stop there — he asks him again.  The focus of the first query was on the comparative aspect of the question. Essentially he had asked Peter, Do you really love me more than anyone else does?  But now the heart of the question changes to ask, Do you really love me more than you love anything else?  Jesus used the verb agapao, which indicates an ardent, supreme love.  And just as he did in response to the Lord’s first question, Peter replies that he has phileo (affection denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling; while agapao has a wider connotation, embracing especially the judgement and deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety) for Jesus.  By this, Peter showed he understood his denials revealed that he had loved his own life more than he had loved his Master, and therefore, he could not truthfully claim to love him above everything else.

 

Jesus then used the same standard of phileo love Peter had professed in his two previous answers, once again slightly shifting the thrust of the question.  This time, it amounts to him asking, Are you even my friend?; and Peter was hurt that Jesus would ask him that.  Was Jesus being cruel by doing so?   Peter already knew he had failed, so why would Jesus press the issue like this?  Was it simply to rub Peter’s failure in his face, or was there still a deeper lesson he needed to learn?  I believe this last inquiry was intended to provide Peter with insight that would be crucial to his future success as the Lord’s servant.  In order to persevere in all that he would face in the future, he first needed to have a deeply reinforced understanding of why he had failed.  After Peter replies the final time, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you”, Jesus gives him the same instruction to “Feed my sheep.”  The message in John 21:15-17 essentially had been, “Even if you only have brotherly love for me, my command to you remains the same:  Feed my sheep.  That is how you will show your love for me.”  But notice what he says next:

“I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)

 

How was this relevant to the conversation they had been having?  Before answering that, I think it is worth mentioning that throughout this entire discourse Jesus addresses Peter as “Simon, son of John”.  Simon, son of John encompasses his identity more completely than simply calling him Peter.  It carries a more serious tone, and conveys the sense that he is speaking to the very heart and soul of the man, not just the body in front of him.   With that in mind, here is how I interpret what Christ was communicating in verse eighteen:

Simon, son of John, my dearly beloved disciple, brother and friend, since the day you were born you have always been strong-willed (insisting on dressing yourself and going where you wanted).  But in the days to come, what will be required of you will exceed what you are able to accomplish by force of will alone.  Of course I know that you love me, but just as human affection and brotherly love were not strong enough for you to remain faithful to me in Gethsamene, so too are they inadequate for the work I have yet for you to do.  The reason you failed was because you relied on your own strength, rather than seeking and trusting in that love which can only be supplied by God.  The reason I’m challenging you like this now is so you fully understand that the only way to truly follow me and walk the path that I have just trod is to seek the love from God which surpasses all that man can attain.  That is how you will have success in feeding my sheep.

 

We’ve already read the passage in 1 John 5, which states that everyone born of God overcomes the world.  Overcoming the world means triumphing over evil by vanquishing it.  It has both internal and external applications, because before anyone can overcome the world, they must first overcome themself by having their essential nature altered down to its very foundation.  A self-oriented nature never overcomes the world — it only joins with it.  Over-comers are those who set aside concern for self and never let their love for others grow cold, in spite of all the evil and wickedness that occurs around them.  Through their constancy and steadfastness in love, they exert a godly influence on others.  By what means are they able to do this?  Through faith that Jesus is the Son of God.  The only way to persevere and endure hatred without becoming tainted by it, is to look to the example put before us by the Messiah’s sacrifice.

Peter had to learn that human love is insufficient to serve God effectively, because it is a fickle love, one that alters in response to the treatment it receives.  His lesson is also our lesson.  No one can manufacture godly love from within themself: not Peter, not you, not me.  Godly love can only be obtained from God, and we must seek Him continually, in order to receive that which is to be our daily spiritual bread.  Peter had believed he loved Jesus more than anything else and more than anyone else did, but He who knows the hearts of all men confronted him with the truth about what he was lacking.  I cannot imagine that our Lord would hesitate to do the same with us.  It is far too easy to lapse into the thinking that we are doing well as servants of God if, as a general rule, we go to church and are nice to people.  But we can keep the Sabbath our whole life, we could become the world’s preeminent Biblical scholar, understand every prophecy, have faith to move mountains, even give everything that we have and earn the praise of all men — and yet if we don’t have the love of God dwelling in us, we are nothing, and all our service is mere self-deception.

 

Because of that fact, Christ’s propechy regarding the condition mankind will be in prior to his return is a chilling one to me.  In Matt. 24:12 he says, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”  I’m confident that he wasn’t using hyperbole when he said that, which means true Christian, agape love will be nearly non-existent in the world at that time.  Whether we have reached those days which will herald the end of the age or not, God alone knows, so we need not occupy ourselves with such questions.  But we most certainly should be concerned about keeping the love of God alive within us at any and all times.  So how do we make certain that we will be among those who stand firm to the end?  That is a topic that I will save for my next post.  Until then, may the love of God be in you, and actively at work in your life.

 

 

 

 

Humility

A few years ago, I was seeking to understand God’s will for my life, and I asked Him to show me the work he would have me to do.  Looking back, I now recognize that my question and concern had as much to do with my employment as it did with service to God.  At the time, I had a particular career path in mind, specifically the one most appealing to me, since I didn’t know of any other method of determining His will.  I wanted my life to have a meaningful, positive impact on others, so I was interested in starting, or at least working in, an orphanage.  I never received an answer in that regard.  Instead, the response to my inquiry, whispered by that still, small voice was, “Humble yourself.”  It seemed to me to be a very inadequate reply.  That’s not to say I saw no value in doing so, it’s just that I wanted to do great things for God, and I thought my time needed to be occupied by activities that would have a more practical benefit to others.  But laboring for God always starts with an internal process of refining, and I see now that even if humbling myself was the only job He ever gave me, the task is such that I will always have work left to do.  I now believe that any and all efforts to draw near to God, to know His will, and to serve Him, must start with humbling oneself.

Why is this so?  We are told in Hebrews 6:1 that repentance from dead works is the first foundational principle of the doctrine of Christ.  Consider that, when building, before any foundation is ever laid, it must first be established that the land is suitable for construction.  With that in mind, it can be said that humility is the spiritual ground into which all foundational doctrines are poured and accepted.  All godly characteristics are built upon having a right view of self in relation to the Holiness, perfection and power of God.  It stands to reason that humility must precede repentance, because without humility repentance is impossible, since pride always justifies itself and will not accept that it has done wrong —  and no one repents of an action they consider to be right. (See Psalm 36:1-2) But if I know myself to be a sinner who has fallen thousands of times in thousands of ways, and have seen time and again how my love for God has proven to be weak, frail and miserable in contrast to how much I love myself, then I will have taken the first step toward allowing the perfection that is found in Jesus to advocate on my behalf, as opposed to seeking to justify myself before God.  Although acknowledging that there is nothing perfectly good within us is not the natural way we like to see ourselves, it is an essential and truthful one.  It’s necessary because every path to repentance leads to Christ, and when we accept the Messiah’s sacrifice as payment and atonement for our sins, he opens the door to God’s Kingdom, making it possible to enter into a relationship with the Father, just as the Lord himself stated in John 10:7-9.  So from this we see that without humility it is impossible to even begin a true relationship with God.

The second foundational doctrine of Christ from Hebrews 6:1 is faith toward God.  As was the case with repentance, the cornerstone upon which faith toward God is built is also humility.  Humility is the end-result of thinking about yourself less and less.  It’s the natural product of trusting in God to provide for ALL of your needs with all of your heart, mind, soul and being.  To the extent that we are able to do that, we become freed to spend our thoughts and energy towards service to others.  But when a person believes that they will accomplish their personal goals through the strength of their own efforts, as they pursue those objectives they often become locked in a path of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion.  The fourth chapter of the book of James speaks to this when it states,

“What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You want something but don’t get it.  You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want.  You quarrel and fight.  You do not have, because you do not ask God.  When you [do] ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

Conflict arises because we want something, someone else wants the same thing, and there’s not enough of it for everyone — so we fight to see who gets to have it.  But when we do so, it shows where our interests ultimately lie.  The degree of humility James was elucidating here exhorts for a complete relinquishing of self — turning control of the direction of our lives completely over to God.  It entails consciously choosing to promote God’s glory rather than seeking to further our own agendas.  The Kingdom of God is spiritual, and spacious enough to accommodate all who earnestly desire to enter it.  In it there is no scarcity — so if seeking it is our focus, we need not quarrel over the things of this life.  We need to learn to make ourselves small and stop seeking personal greatness.  We should be content with what God provides, leaving concern for material blessings to the children of the world; because God’s children have a far greater inheritance.

A final point on this before moving on: life never works out according to our plans 100% of the time, because our plans aren’t consistent with God’s plans 100% of the time.  How do we respond when the two are not in unity?  If we should ever be displeased with the course God would have us follow, do we trust that God alone knows what is best?  Or do we insist upon having our own way, and seek to flee from His will, like Jonah did?   Are we humble enough to “allow” God to remain sovereign? If we truly desire to serve God with our life,  we must be continually willing to submit our will in order to bring it into alignment with His.

Returning back to Hebrews 6:1, we see that it is an outline of the doctrinal progression which forms the backbone of Christianity.  A doctrine is a teaching: and just as one does not begin to build upon quicksand, a teacher cannot teach successfully unless the student is willing to learn.  God is the ultimate teacher, and His lessons are intended to make us more like His Son; but it is only through humility that we are made capable of understanding His instructions.  And yet no matter how much God may open our hearts and minds to receive and understand the truth, there is still so little that we can truly, fully know.  It takes humility to accept that fact, and also to acknowledge God as the source of all of our talents and abilities; whereas pride reverences the gift above the Giver. Humility keeps our focus on God, from Whom every good and perfect gift proceeds.

As an example of one such gift, turn back to  James again, this time to chapter 1, verse 5, where we read, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”  Solomon is an excellent illustration of this, and his story helps to illuminate the difference between the natural abilities God supplies to all men via his general providence, and those which He bestows supernaturally, through His spirit.  When God appeared to Solomon and told him to ask for whatever he wanted, Solomon said, “Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?”  (2 Chr. 1:7-10)  It’s clear from his petition that Solomon already possessed wisdom.  He recognized that it was God’s people that he had the responsibility to lead, not his own.  He also had the wisdom to know what he ought to ask for.  But it was humility that enabled him to realize that the wisdom he already possessed was insufficient, in  view of the stewardship committed to his care.  And after receiving his request, he would have recognized within himself, that he had now been given something which could not have been obtained from any other source. As a result of Solomon’s humility, we are given this record of his life:

“King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth.  All the kings of the earth sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.  Year after year, everyone who came brought a gift — articles of silver and gold, and robes, weapons and spices, and horses and mules.” (2 Chr. 9:22-24)

And just as it was with Solomon, because God is first faithful to us in supplying our need, our faith in Him is built as we receive the answers to our petitions.

Another testament to the value and importance of humility can be found in the summary statement regarding the life of Moses from Deut. 34:10-12:

“Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt — to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land.  For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”

Moses, through his submission to the LORD, was empowered to show and display the mighty works of God.  He was entrusted with a service to God that has never been duplicated.  God’s mighty power and miraculous deeds are intended to showcase the love that he has for His children, and draw the hearts and minds of men to Him.   Is it reasonable, then, to assume that God would entrust the highest offices of His service to those who seek their own glory, rather than His?  I believe that it is no coincidence that it was also written that “…Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Num. 12:3)

These two accounts illustrate two principles pertaining to humility that tie in to and complement each other. From God’s dealing with Solomon, we see that when we are humble enough to acknowledge our deficiencies, and we look to God for aid, God is faithful to supply our need.  The person who desires to serve God must first recognize their own inadequacy for doing so, and must petition God that He would grant them the capacity to accomplish more for Him.  But the more pride a person possesses, the less they look to God for help because they lack a sense of need.   So, in addition to the characteristics already discussed, humility also keeps us diligent, because it allows us to recognize that our best will never be perfect in this life, and will always fall short of the holiness of God. The second, shown in the life of Moses, teaches that as we become more and more humble, we can be entrusted with greater and greater responsibilities.

Proverbs 16:18 states, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (And the landing is rarely soft!)  So to summarize, humility is like a fence restraining us from overstepping our boundaries. If we pick its locks, and trespass in pride’s territory, we will be walking in the same path that caused Lucifer to be cast out of the presence of God.  Humility impacts all aspects of a Christian life.  It is required in order to acknowledge the need for a Savior for sins — so enjoying a right relationship with God is predicated upon having it — it’s also what makes repentance possible; it stimulates faith; and it opens the door to being entrusted with greater responsibilities in service to God.

In conclusion, Jesus, the Christ, is King of kings and Lord of lords.  Though he is greater than all but the Father, He completely emptied himself of self-consideration, temporarily leaving His Father’s side to die for us, so that we might be able to enter back into the presence of God along with him.  Let each of us be ever mindful of that sacrifice and go forward putting into practice the type of humility which he so perfectly modeled for us, as it is written:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!   Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:1-11)

 

The Exodus and the Christian Journey out from Sin

The 33rd chapter of the book of Numbers details the stages in Israel’s journey to the Promised Land.  It lists every staging point where they stopped and camped along the way.  Why is this information important enough that God wanted it to be recorded?  To answer that question, it’s important to remember that God does nothing haphazardly; everything He does has a purpose.  It’s true that much of what could be learned from a physical study of the locations themselves may have been lost via the passage of time — and even that which remains today would mean little to nothing to one who has never personally visited the sites — but physical truths are under-girded by spiritual ones; so although the centuries may have eroded the evidences of the Exodus, the spiritual lessons we can learn from it remain eternally.  Therefore, it stands to reason that the relevance of this chapter is best discovered when it is framed within a spiritual context.  And since God has graciously preserved the truth for us in His Word, I’d like to start this study with an examination of words — specifically — exploring the meaning conveyed by the names of some of the encampments.  Let’s begin in Exodus 33:5.

vs. 5:  “The Israelites left Rameses and camped at Succoth.”

Israel had kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month, to celebrate their freedom from the bondage of sin.  The very next day they physically departed from Rameses.  Rameses means “child of the sun”, indicative of the fact that the sun was the chief god of the Egyptians.  So, in this sense, Israel was also symbolically leaving behind the false religious systems of the world, to worship the one, true God.  The first resting place on the journey was called Succoth, which means “booths”.  Booths, of course, were temporary dwellings, and the entire nation would live in them until they received their permanent inheritance.   If we accept the idea that the Christian church serves as the modern parallel to ancient Israel, then the lesson for us today is quite clear.  At the very beginning of our walk with God, as we begin to worship Him in spirit and in truth, we have attention drawn to the fact that our dwelling on earth is temporary; and a reminder that we are no longer to live for the things of this world.

vs. 6: “They left Succoth and camped at Etham, on the edge of the desert.”

Etham means “with them: their plowshare”.  A plowshare is the cutting part of a plow: the part that does the work.  The name communicates that the LORD would be with them, and He would be the one doing and accomplishing the work of bringing them into the Promised Land.  What a tremendous encouragement this provides for the believer today!

vs. 7: “They left Etham, turned back to Pi Hahiroth, to the east of Baal Zephon, and camped near Migdol.”

Pi Hahiroth means “Place where sedge grows”, so I researched the characteristics of sedge to see if any insight could be gained from doing so, and I came across the following description:

  1. “Sedges are herbaceous, dying back to the ground surface at the end of the growing season, but then re-growing the next season by sprouting from underground rhizomes or roots.”

Now this is purely speculative, of course, but that trait seems highly reminiscent of the fact that we all return to the ground from whence we came, but the Christian is born again to a new life in God; and is empowered to do so by the Heavenly Root, our Lord and Savior, Jesus, the Christ.  I leave it to the reader to decide upon the merits of the association.

Moving on more concretely, however, we arrive at Baal Zephon, meaning “lord of the north”.  Here is Strong’s definition:

“From ba’al (“lord”) and tsâphôn, which is derived from tsâphan; properly hidden, that is, dark; used only of the north as a gloomy and unknown quarter (in the sense of cold) — and according to others it is the Egyptian form of Typhon, the destroyer).”

Finally, Migdol means “tower” (representing strength and might).  If we accept the above definitions as valid and accurate, the message that materializes from verse seven could be loosely rendered as:

They left Etham (with the knowledge that the LORD, as their plowshare, was with them — for it was at Etham that the LORD first appeared in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night), turned back to Pi Hahiroth, which sits at the right hand of Baal Zephon, and camped facing Migdol.

It was here that they would face the full might of the Egyptian army in a final confrontation.  But why should the geographical reference points for Pi Hahiroth be mentioned?   Might it not be that these locations are included to allude to a spiritual force as pertinent and real to the Christian as the Egyptian army was to the children of Israel?  It seems clear that the “hidden destroyer” — the “lord of the north” — refers spiritually to the prince of the power of the air, Satan; but I shall table the thought for the time being, since a discussion of verse eight will allow this idea to be fleshed out more fully.

vs. 8: “They left Pi Hahiroth and passed through the sea into the desert, and when they had traveled for three days in the desert of Etham, they camped at Marah.”

How did they pass through the sea?  Exodus 14:21 states, “…the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.”  There are many correlations that can be drawn between how God led the children of Israel and how He leads His children today.  The waters they passed through were symbolic of baptism (1 Cor. 10:1-5).  As they walked, with the waters walled up around them on both sides, the path to the Promised Land stretched before them, while death, in the form of Egypt and its army, was behind them.  The people could not receive their inheritance by staying where they were; they had to fully depart Egypt and emerge on the other side of the sea.  This is also true of the Christian.  As the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me?  Tell the Israelites to move on”, we also are not to remain in the same condition we were in when God called us — we are to move forward and grow spiritually.  Nor are we to turn back again to the manner of living we had prior to being baptized; for should we chance to look back, we will find only death behind us.

The children of Israel, having been released from slavery, were granted a new life of freedom, but that does not mean they were free from responsibility.  They were to be a model kingdom, and were to serve as an example to the surrounding nations.  But before they took possession of the land, they would first need to dispossess its current inhabitants.  They were to destroy their enemies strongholds by acts of physical warfare, and were to rely on God to grant them the victory.  Allow me now to pick up the thought I previously abandoned.  God’s instruction to turn back to Pi Hahiroth has a different meaning for us, because the adversary we face as Christians, while no less real than the Egyptian army, is far more powerful.   We, too, have been lead out from the land of sin, and have become subjects of a new Kingdom.  But the battles we are to wage are spiritual ones, not physical.  Our responsibility is to live a life of sacrificial obedience to God in the midst of people who love what the world has to offer.  We must first be willing to allow God to accomplish his will in us, then we are to overthrow the fortresses and towers of Satan’s might by confronting sin in the hearts of men.

People have often expressed amazement, wondering how Israel could turn away from God and not believe Him, since they had experienced all of His miraculous interventions.  I would therefore like to leave the examination of Numbers 33 to turn instead to the account in Exodus, starting in chapter 15, verse 22.  After discussing the parallels between their Exodus and the Christian’s journey, you may judge if we, in reality, are very different from them, or not.

Exodus 15:22-24: Israel exited the Red Sea and went three days journey into the wilderness (which depicts uncharted territory — a land few had walked) of Etham, and pitched in Marah (meaning “bitter”).  They had been separated from the rest of the world, and the stillness of the desert presented the opportunity to draw nearer to God, in preparation for their first test — a trial they were not anticipating.  It was not a trivial one.  They encountered undrinkable water — a life-threatening issue in such an inhospitable environment.  Yet it was an experience with a figurative lesson at its heart — which was intended for their benefit.   Water often symbolizes spirit in the Scriptures.  In this instance, the water typified their old way of life — bitter waters of death they were no longer to drink from.  The nation had undergone a baptism, but they had not received the Holy Spirit, nor did they have the benefit of hindsight, as the reader of the account does today, and so they failed to view this occasion in the proper light.  The people’s question, “What are we to drink?” addresses a physical concern; for without water they would soon die.  So, in a sense, what they were asking was “How will we continue to live, without water?”

The Israelites saw only the physical deprivation of the moment, brought about by the realities of their new environment, and so they asked the wrong question.  The concern for the newly baptized believer, who also faces a new environment, containing a different set of realities, is spiritual.  Therefore, if we house their physical concern within a spiritual frame, the relevance to the Christian becomes more apparent.  Instead of crying out for water, we voice our plea for the gift of his spirit, and acknowledge that it is impossible to live a new life apart from it.  And we can rejoice in knowing that God will be faithful to supply it, just as he was in providing for the Israelite’s need.

But this passage also contains a warning.  Because they prioritized the physical over the spiritual, and because they viewed their circumstances apart from a confidence in the LORD’s provision, the joy the nation had felt as they exited the sea, and their delight in having their Deliverer traveling with them lasted a mere three days.  Yet how different from them are we?  Isn’t our enthusiasm for serving God also subject to the same entropy which so swiftly affected them, whenever our focus and priorities shift toward the physical realm?  I would therefore encourage you to go back and read 1 Cor. 10:1-22 again in its entirety, with these thoughts in mind.

vs. 25-26: The bitter waters were made sweet by a piece of wood.  I believe the wood represents the Lord’s sacrifice, which made the Holy spirit available to all: and the changing of the water represents both the converting power of his action and the transformative power of his spirit.  When His spirit is in us, we no longer drink from water that produces death, we have waters of life springing up from within us.  It is in this action that the people’s first test had its conclusion.  But God does not leave them in their failure, instead, he decrees His first covenant with them and promises to heal them, as he had done to the waters.

vs. 27:  Here I would only mention that I believe that the rest the people enjoyed as they camped here can be analogous to the time a new believer is given to study and learn God’s laws, prior to being given a more active work.

Ex. 16: 1-3: The Israelite’s arrive at the Desert of Sin.  Sin means “thorn” or “clay”, which conveys the idea of getting caught up or ensnared in the ways of man.  Physically it was a wasteland that stood between Elim and Sinai.  Elim means “palms”, indicating righteousness, and Sinai was the mountain where the law was given.  I believe the desert’s placement between these two locations is intended to portray the gulf that exists between man’s attempts at righteousness and the perfection and holiness represented in the Law.  In the face of the holiness of God’s law, all men stumble and fall, and only the sacrifice of the Lord can bridge this gap.

It was here that the people grumbled over a lack of meat.  In effect, their complaint was akin to saying, “We would rather die than continue to live like this — a life devoid of all the good and pleasant things of the world!”  Because they were lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, the majority were re-ensnared by the thorny concerns of the flesh and died without entering the Promised Land.  Allow me to make one small point of comparison, lest we feel ourselves superior to them: how many approach the Day of Atonement with weariness, and struggle to go one day without food — planning where to go and what meal to enjoy to break the fast with more anticipation and excitement than they had for the day itself?

I’ll share a final thought from verse four before drawing to a close.  God told the Israelites that he would rain down bread from heaven, and Scripture doesn’t record whether they believed him, or not.  If God had said he would turn the surrounding mountains into bread pudding, for them to enjoy dessert in the desert, they should have believed him and asked for spoons!  So too with us.  When we are presented with a difficult statement from God, we simply need to believe and obey.  But how often do we struggle with this, and put comprehension before compliance?  It’s true that understanding leads to increased wisdom, and wisdom is something everyone should strive to obtain, but wisdom is not righteousness.  Righteousness is believing God and acting on the belief.  Romans 3:21-31 and James 2:14-26.

There is much to learn from asking the question, “How could Israel have been so blind?”  But the reason for asking should only be so that we might avoid a repeat of their errors.  In addition to the inquiry we ought to include a petition: “Merciful Father, begin to make me less like them than I am this day, that I might become more like your Son.”  Our primary concern should be for God to strengthen our desire to serve Him, no matter the cost, that we might escape the same hardening of heart that led to their ultimate downfall.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)

The children of Israel eventually sent spies to scout out the land they were to inherit.  Although God had showed through the water, quail and manna that he would supply their every need, when they saw the might of the people they were to face, they lost heart, and would not walk where God would have them go.  They were unfaithful to their calling and died in the wilderness.  How have we responded to the labor God has committed into our care?  When we see the strength of the enemy, and face the reality that speaking out against sin brings persecution, do we subtly turn away from following God, preferring instead a life free from conflict and full of ease?  Let each of us remember the covenant we entered into at baptism, and re-commit ourselves to seeking and serving God with all of our heart, mind, soul and being; lest we become re-ensnared in the cares of the world and miss out on the wonderful promises of God, as so many of our predecessors did.

1. 

“Be still and know that I am God”

In Psalm 46:10, King David quotes from the words of God spoken to Moses, who had relayed them to the people of Israel: “Be still and know that I am God”.  The quote in Psalms is an allusion to Exodus 14:13; and the words speak to an exciting and powerful deliverance, brought about by the hand of God himself.  But were they only intended for the people of Israel, who died millenia ago, or do the words still have power today?  Have you ever thought that they not only can be applied to your own life, but must be?  Whenever you are buffeted by any spiritual trial or difficulty, I believe this one simple sentence provides the essential formula for overcoming the adversity.  To elaborate upon this idea, let’s first expand the meaning of each of the Hebrew words involved.

The transliterated sentence is Râphâh yâda’ ‘elôhîym.

Râphâh means ‘to abate’, with the following connotations: to cease, draw toward evening, be faint, wax feeble, forsake, idle, stay, be still, be slothful.  It is related to the word râphâ’, which means ‘in order to be healed’:

  1. of physical ills (literally)
  2. of personal distress (figuratively)
  3. of national hurts (figuratively)

It also carries the connotation of being restored to favor (figuratively).

Yâda’ means

  • 1. to know (in the sense of)
    • a. to learn to know
    • b. to perceive
    • c. to find out and discern
    • d. to discriminate, distinguish
    • e. to know by experience
    • f. to recognize, admit, acknowledge, confess
    • g. to consider
  • 2. (indirectly) to be made known, be or become known, be revealed (through others or things)
  • 3. to be instructed
  • 4. to cause to know
  • 5. (directly) to make oneself known, reveal oneself

‘Elôhîym means ‘God, the (true) God.

So while “Be still and know that I am God” is a good translation, a fuller understanding of what the words intend to convey would yield the following:

“Humble yourself, make your self weak — cease from your own activities, and forsake pursuing your own path — in order to be healed from any and all of your woes.  Pursue God, and seek understanding from Him.  When you do this, God will reveal himself directly to you, and in the process you will:

  1. learn to know Him
  2. perceive His hand in your life — that He has guided and directed you
  3. find out and discern His will regarding the present concern
  4. gain experience and learn how to distinguish His will for future concerns.

Once you have recognized these things, and have overcome the trial through applying the knowledge you have gained, you will then be able to admit, acknowledge, and confess what He has done for you, and accomplished in you.  Your confession will then prompt others to consider His works — and since you have been instructed by Him, you will be more adequately equipped to instruct others through their trials.”

Through His work in your life, God will be made known to others!  Is that not incredible? Trials are the Christian’s opportunity to render service to God!  When we remain willing to persevere as we suffer loss or hardship, and continue to seek God rather than seeking our own solutions, we show our love to God, and our commitment to His way.  This is why the apostle Paul was inspired to write,

“I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship (your reasonable service).  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world (which is: seeking to go your own way, pursuing your own objectives and agendas, to obtain your desires by the strength of your own efforts), but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (which occurs when we apply ourselves to seeking God’s will). Then (i.e., only after this) you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Rom. 12:1-2)

It would not be surprising to discover that Paul had Psalm 46:10 in mind when he penned these words, since they contain so many of the same elements.  Another parallel to the expanded meaning of “Be still and know that I am God” can be found in Hebrews 12:1-13:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. … Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. … No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.  Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.  ‘Make level paths for your feet’, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.”

Has the common theme in all of these Scriptures emerged?  The struggle against sin is the battle that is waged within each of us: the ongoing choice we face between doing whatever our human nature would like to do as opposed to submitting ourselves to allow God to direct our lives.  The only way we will emerge victorious from any test of faith, and thereby prove faithful in service to God, is to “Be still.”  Is that not completely contrary to our natural inclination?  When trials come, we feel a need to be doing something, as if we could wash the hardship away in a tidal wave of our own activity.  We even have the proverb, “God helps those who help themselves.”  While there is some truth in that adage, it is not a name by which God identifies himself — rather, he is known as “The Helper of the helpless” — He helps those who can’t help themselves.  “God helps those who help themselves” speaks to God’s general providence.  Such instances of His care rarely bring glory to God beyond the individual who is helped by them, since others commonly perceive the outcome to be the natural result of human effort, rather than an example of God’s intervention.  But the Divine Hand is evinced by all when the work accomplished could not have achieved by human strength or might, or any other means.  In reality, deliverance arrives, and the waters part before our very eyes, only when God is the one actively doing.  As it is written, “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD Almighty.”    (Zec. 4:6)

But being still does not mean we do nothing.  As the Scripture states, “When you are in distress, if you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deut. 4:29-30)  We must render to the trial the attention it deserves and requires, by seeking God.  Every trial in the Christian life has a purpose and reason behind it.  Sometimes we bring them on ourselves, sometimes they come to prune our spiritual branches in order to make us more fruitful in the future, and sometimes we are called to suffer them to serve as examples to others.  Whatever the reason may be, earnest prayer and diligent Bible study are to be our activities, if we wish to understand God’s purpose.  The only way we can expect to receive an answer from Him is to apply and commit ourselves to the search, and to be willing to patiently endure, trusting that God will provide deliverance when the appropriate time has arrived.

If our belief is that our difficulties will be solved as long as we remain busy and physically productive, our faith is in ourselves, not in God, and we will become spiritually unproductive.  An opportunity to grow spiritually and bring glory to the Father will have been lost.  This is why Hebrews 11:6 instructs, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”  No one who believes that a particular activity will be unfruitful would rationally invest time, energy and resources toward it.  The time we spend in seeking God could easily be used in numerous other ways; therefore, it is essential that we have faith that the resources we expend in our pursuit of God will yield a worthwhile outcome.

Trials are inevitable.  When they arrive, it is important to understand that the end result is determined by the approach.  If we desire to learn how to know God more intimately, and perceive His hand in our lives, we must view the tests we face in the proper context.  Remember the guiding principle, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Seek Him, and look forward to seeing His wonderful works displayed through you, and, in due time, God will grant that you emerge from the adversity as a conqueror.

 

 

 

The Vision of Prophets

When Miriam and Aaron opposed Moses, the LORD said to them, “If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream.” (Num. 12:6)

The Hebrew word mar’âh  is used in this passage, and transliterated into English as ‘a vision’.  It means ‘a mode of revelation; in the sense of a mirror’.  Mar’âh can refer to anything, either literal or figurative, that is seen or perceived, which reveals and reflects back a message from, and/or a characteristic or attribute of, God.

‘Vision’, in English, means ‘the act or power of seeing with the eyes’.  The term ‘a vision’, however, relates only to that which was seen, not the action itself.  vision is an experience of the mind that naturally begins with sight — for whether the vision’s image or scene is transmitted via the eyes, or is simply registered directly in the mind — of necessity something must first be seen.

In that context, consider the phrase frequently uttered by the prophets of the Old Testament: ‘and the word of the Lord came to me’.  It would be consistent with God’s statement in Numbers 12:6 to assume that the ‘word of the Lord’ often came in the form of pictorial representations (visions and dreams) of the message God wanted to convey.  Pictures are the simplest form of communication, and they precede words: because when learning a language, we are first shown pictures of objects, then we are given the word(s) that is/are associated with them.  Pictures and words both express meaning, but pictures are superior in that they can be understood universally, while words are language specific.  And to a certain degree, a prophet receiving a vision in this manner can be made analogous to a person watching a video presentation; so the value of this method of communication is readily apparent.

However, there are also instances of God sending an angel as a messenger to speak for him; and Hebrews 1:1 informs that God disclosed his thoughts to the prophets in many ways, at different times.  So, with all of the various ways that God can communicate, why are there seemingly no prophets among the Lord’s followers today?  Does Christianity have no need for prophecy anymore?  This can by no means be the case, for Romans 12:6 states, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.  If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.”  Furthermore, we are told, “And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.”  (1 Cor. 12:28)  Paul ranks prophecy as the second highest function within the body of Christ!!  He also says we ought to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy, and that he wishes everyone in the church prophesied. (1 Cor 14:1&5)  Should anyone reasonably assume then that a need for so important a role no longer exists?!  God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, so if the manifestation of prophesy is nearly extinct today, it is a reflection of our own failure and inadequacy — but that is a different subject that cannot be explored here, so I will simply draw attention to the implication of the words “earnestly desire” and move on.

At this point, it would be remiss to not return to and conclude the rest of the thought from Hebrews 1:1.  Picking back up in verse 2, “…but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”  This indicates that the means by which the Father communicates with man has changed.  Prior to the Lord’s first advent, communication from God came in diverse forms.  When Jesus was on the earth, God was then speaking directly through his Son, who was the preexistent Word.  Now that he has been resurrected, God speaks via the gift of the Holy Spirit, in combination with the revealed word of Scripture.  This change in the manner by which God communicates does not bring the need for prophecy to an end in the present day, it merely changes how prophecy is conveyed.

The Father’s disclosure of his plan for the salvation of man through his Son was completed with the Book of Revelation.   It would seem that all He intends to reveal regarding the end of days has already been spoken.  It would appear that visions and dreams have had their end — perhaps not on an isolated, individual basis — but at least as far they concern any messages intended to be delivered on a national or worldwide scale.  Yet although there are no new revelations regarding salvation, in the general sense of those conveyed by visions, it is still true that not all of the revelations from Scripture have been made clear: and this is why the gift of prophecy is still essential today.

Prophecy is not only predictive, it is also interpretive.  This can be shown by the statement found in Dan. 9:1-2, which says: “In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes… I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.”   The prophecy he refers to is from Jer. 29:1-24.  Its message was for the all of the exiles who lived in that time, and it retained its relevance to its intended audience up until the command to return to Jerusalem was given.  But a prophecy, whether it be given for guidance and instruction, or to serve as a warning, is without value unless it is understood — just like the gift of tongues is only useful when it is interpreted.  Therefore, Daniel, a prophet himself, was given understanding by God so that he could act in accordance to the dictates of a prophecy that had been given previously to another of God’s servants.

As a prophet, he was also given the power to interpret: as when he translated the king’s dark dreams.  Likewise, he received visions himself, that spoke of events far into the future — and angelic beings supplied the explanations in an obscure manner — not for his own benefit, but for the sake of those who would live during the age when the visions would attain their relevance and fulfillment.  That which was veiled would only be made plain at the appropriate time.  Since the events to which some prophecies allude have not yet occurred, and since all of their meanings have not been fully understood, it stands to reason that the interpretive component of prophecy still has relevance today.

The interpretive aspect of prophecy is essentially a process of converting something hidden — a meaning that is unseen and incomprehensible –into something that is now clear and readily understood.  This idea evokes a further discussion of sight, because understanding how light converts the invisible into the visible can aid in comprehending how the phenomenon of understanding a vision is made possible.  The eye sees, the mind reasons, and the heart understands, as stated in Isaiah 6:10 and elsewhere.  Sight is the action whereby the eyes take in whatever is reflected back and revealed by light.  The information the eyes receive is processed in the mind, and the brain then attempts to define what was seen, provide context from past experience, and attach meaning to it.  The mind then relays its analysis to the heart, submitting its conclusions for judgement.  The heart then renders its verdict as to whether the mind has determined accurately, or falsely — and the communication continues until the two are of one accord.

This process is common to all, both the believer and the unbeliever alike, but it is important to note that definitude of the heart’s judgment can only be had when it is given in the presence of the holy spirit, since God alone sees all things as they truly are — and it is only by His spirit that man can know the mind of God, and see as He sees.  The Lord Jesus, the Christ, is both the Word, who spoke in days past to the prophets in the light of visions and dreams, and the present Light of the world, who reveals the hidden things contained in the word of scripture.  He is the one who sends forth the holy spirit, which teaches righteous judgment to the hearts of all those into whom it is sent; and it is by this same spirit that the prophecies of old were uttered.  It should not be imagined that the passage of time has rendered the Lord’s spirit mute.

Based on the meaning of mar’âh, a prophet of the Old Testament would reflect back to the people what God had revealed by the vision.  The vision itself was always sharply impressed upon the prophet’s mind, even when its meaning was obscure.  It was rendered in such a way that it appeared to their mind with the same clarity and distinctness as that which is visible to the eye, so that they could speak with certainty and conviction.   In a sense, the vision acted as a light to the prophet’s mind, revealing the things of God that would have been otherwise imperceptible; since vision is impossible in the absence of light.  So, one could say the Old Testament prophet received the spiritual word by physical sight.  The prophet then functioned as a mirror, reflecting the light of that vision back to the people.  This is fitting because the Word of God had not yet been sent, and God’s word (Scripture) had not been completed.

Before the promised Messiah was revealed, visions and dreams served in his stead, but today the Lord is the Light of the world, by whom we are made to see.  A prophet of the modern era, therefore, is the beneficiary of revelation his predecessors did not have access to.  Therefore, they receive insight by the Light of the Word (as Christ dwells in them).  In contrast to the previous era, this would be a case of spiritual sight coming through the physical word of Scripture.

The prophets of old had faith in what they saw — they believed the vision — and thereby communicated new revelations to the people.  Today, the prophet must believe the word — and have faith in the unseen things of God — depending upon the Lord to provide insight into prophesies which are still not fully understood, though they were spoken of long ago.

The ability to see in a physical capacity is a gift given by God, which he provides to all but a few.  The ability to see in the spiritual sense — that which can be called insight, discernment, or wisdom — is also a gift of God, but its dispensation is far more rare.  Its treasures are only discovered by those who eagerly desire and earnestly seek them.  Those who truly ‘seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness’ will have such things added to them, and more.  The need for spiritual insight is more urgent today then ever.  Remember that the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.  (Rev. 19:10)  May God inspire the hearts of all those who love Him to set aside their concerns for the things of this life, and may He fill more of His children with an earnest desire to be granted the greatest spiritual gifts — which He makes readily available to those who seek.