The “Mark” of a Christian

In my last article the topic 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 statements Jesus made while he was on the earth.  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.”

Those scriptures should be sufficient to establish that there is a natural love, common to all humanity, such as familial love and brotherly love.  Both exist and are practiced even by those who do not believe in God, yet these types of love are clearly distinct and separate from the love of God.  Why is that so important a point to understand?  Because the Lord himself 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.” (John 13:34-35)  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 of love.  Possessing and exercising his type of love is not only essential, it is the primary trait that distinguishes us from the rest of the world!  An excellent example of his type of love is found in this same chapter of the book of John, picking up in verse 12.  We read:

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.  “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?  Every year at Passover we wash one another’s feet.  It’s good that we do so, but the activity itself is just compliance with the letter of the law, and even the Pharisees and Sadducees were willing to obey God in that purely mechanical way — yet they were the ones who denied God’s Son and ultimately had the Messiah crucified.  Jesus, however, was always concerned with the spirit of the law, and his physical action here communicates a tremendously important spiritual lesson.  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?  No.  Instead, he took the role of the lowest of servants.  He wasn’t just setting a physical example for us to follow, he was modeling an internal attitude and value system.  He subjected everything to his Father’s will, and was willing to do whatever was necessary to demonstrate the love that God has for His children.  He was willing to personally suffer in order to teach us the right way to live.  He did everything for you. For me.  With such an 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.  Like our Lord, we are to go through life putting others above ourselves, in order to further the work of God’s Kingdom.  That is the type of love, the only love, that identifies a Christian.  “And if you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

Turn with me now back to verse 33, still in the 13th chapter of the book of John.  Jesus tells the disciples, “My children, I will be with you only a little longer.  You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going you cannot come.” We know that Jesus was about to be put to death, but it would not have been impossible for someone to follow him into death, so when he says “Where I am going you cannot come”, he has to be referring to his imminent return to his Father’s side, enthroned in the heavens.  But then in verse 36, right after Jesus laid down the identifying mark of a Christian in verses 34 and 35, Peter asks, “Lord, where are you going?”  Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.”  Was he simply reiterating what he had just said in verse 33, or did he intend a different meaning this time?  I believe that he was not referring to his death here, but the path that led to it, which he was about to walk.  The road that the Messiah took to the cross was paved with complete and absolute self-abnegation.  It was not self-concern that inspired the Lord to submit to being crucified, rather, it was his desire to obey his Father’s will, in addition to the love which he had for you and me.  I believe the reason the disciples could not follow Jesus in that moment was because they were not yet ready to fully embrace his life of  perfect self-denial and obedience to God unto death.  I also believe it was not yet even possible for them to do so.  

In 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.  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 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 consistent 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 the walls of that message are 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 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.

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Open Study Discussion

Hi all,

The first passage for this study is 1 Cor.  2: 6-16.

1.  What is the “wisdom of this age” in verse 6?  What type of counsel and instruction might a person with this sort of wisdom impart to you, if you were their protege?  List the attributes and qualities that an individual would develop if they embraced this wisdom.

2.  What does “God’s secret wisdom”, or the wisdom of the Spirit, found in verse 7 refer to?  List the character attributes and personal qualities you would expect to be produced as a result of this type of wisdom.  Compare the lists and contrast the teachings of these two groups.  Are there any similarities?

3.  Can you paraphrase verse 11 in your own words?  What is Paul’s meaning, and what is the implication of it?

Next, please read all of Numbers 13 and 14:1-38, then read 1 Sam. 17: 4-11; 32-37; and 45-50.  Contrast the perspectives of both Israelite armies with that of Joshua, Caleb, and David.

4.  The way we view the world and the events that occur in it is shaped by our belief system which, in turn, is influenced by the perspectives of the people we interact with, and vice versa.  Within that context, use the two preceding accounts, along with the implication of 1 Cor. 2: 11, to construct an argument advocating for the benefits of baptism.

As always, I look forward to your input!