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.

 

 

 

 

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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. 

Baptism

Baptism is understood to be an action, undertaken by an individual, which is intended to represent that they are entering into a covenant relationship with God.  Complete submersion into the baptismal waters symbolizes the grave (for a person who is fully submersed in water cannot remain alive for long — they soon drown).  It typifies the death of the sinful nature, and indicates the person’s willingness, nay even desire, for self-ishness to have an end.  It speaks to both the transition that is about to happen, and the change of state that is to be made by it.

The transition is going from life (the pre-baptismal condition), to death (symbolized by the submersion), back to life again (represented by the emersion from the watery tomb).  The change of state indicates the man or woman is no longer going to be who they used to be, or live in the same manner as they had previously lived.

The pre-baptismal condition, is a life, but it is only a dead life, because it is a life of sin; and although there are many roads which lead to sin, the only road that sin leads to is death. Self-ish-ness literally means “One who is about themself”, indicating a person who only looks after their own interests.  Is there a life more lonely or dead than one such as this?  This is the life the individual is to die to, leaving their own will behind.  The old self lies at rest in the waters, where the transition is made.  Coming up out of the water, he or she has now been symbolically raised from the dead and born again into a new life, a living life, a self-less life.  As this is the only sustainable life, continuing to walk according to this new state and manner of living is the only path which leads to Eternal life.

But baptism is merely symbolic: it has no power to actually affect a change within the person, in and of itself.  In order to walk a new Path, one must have a Guide to show the Way; and in order to be made capable of living in accordance with the will of God, the man or woman must first be granted a new, spiritual nature.  This is accomplished by God’s gift of his Holy Spirit, which now is made to dwell within, and grow along with, the newborn child of God — to be his Teacher, Comforter, Counselor, and Friend.  Without the power of God’s Spirit to instill a new nature, the only possible outcome of baptism would be a continuation of, and return to, the old, pre-established ways.

The terms of the transaction, or the agreement being made between the two parties could be written up as follows:

I (the individual being baptized), by this action do hereby acknowledge before God:

  1. That He is absolutely Sovereign.  By my entrance into these waters, I signify my willingness and desire to follow and obey your will alone, O Father, as you are my Creator and the Sustainer of my life.
  2. That prior to entering into this covenant, the life I had lived was one of sin.
  3. That sin should not and cannot continue to exist; and therefore you are justified in pronouncing the judgment of death as your condemnation of sin.
  4. That I repent and no longer wish to live in the same sinful ways as I have done previously; but I am powerless to change my nature.  Just as no cat can will itself to become a lion, I cannot but be anything other than what I am, unless You, O God, make me into something more.
  5. That just as I am powerless to change my nature, I cannot atone for my sins by my own virtue — I need a Savior. (For more on this, see the article Why did Jesus have to die?)
  6. That your only begotten Son was and is that Messiah, who was and is the only perfect and acceptable sacrifice for sin.
  7. That from henceforth I will look to Him for the strength necessary to walk in Your ways and carry out your will and to forsake my own.

God, for His part, promises:

  1. To forgive all sin by an act of grace, which was supplied by the death of His Son.
  2. To place His holy spirit within the believer to supply their every need.
  3. To be faithful, even when we are unfaithful.
  4. To never leave or forsake you as you attempt to walk the path of righteousness
  5. An Eternal reward for continued obedience.

 

Having now discussed the nature of baptism as a covenant existing between God and man, have you ever considered that the earth itself has undergone a baptism, and indeed will do so yet once more?  A man’s baptism is undertaken voluntarily; the earth however, was and will be, subjected involuntarily.

The earth’s first baptism was the Flood; which was a baptism by water.  It occurred to wash away the corruption from the sins that had taken place in it, and it represented a physical cleansing.

The second will occur at the Lord’s return, and will be a baptism of fire.  It will not only wash away corruption — it will completely consume it.  It represents a spiritual cleansing — the removal of all that can be corrupted, so that only that which is spiritual and eternal remains.  It will be the end of the physical universe.

The baptism by water, as it was the earth’s first, had but one witness — Noah — who both testified of its imminent arrival, and survived the judgment it proclaimed.

The baptism of fire, being the second baptism, has two heralds — known as the two witnesses — who are the two olive trees spoken of in Zec. 4 and in Rev. 11:4.  They currently stand in the presence of the Lord; one to His right, and the other to His left.  As they have been in the heavens, they have witnessed all that has been transacted below.  When they appear, they will be pronouncing the imminent arrival of the Lord, testifying of the Righteousness of the coming Judgment according to all that they have been witness to, and proclaiming the need for repentance; just as Noah had done in his day.

They are Enoch and Elijah, the only two men Scripture records as having been translated; and the purpose of their translation was to serve as the end time witnesses.  Enoch is the scribe of the righteous, recording all that is good; and he will be sent to testify of the blessings prepared by God for those who love and obey Him.  Elijah is the scribe for the wicked, recording all that has merited Judgment.  He will testify to the destruction that awaits all those who hate God and reject His Son.  He called down fire from heaven during his time on earth, and Scripture informs he will command it to fall again, upon all who oppose him.

 

Finding Joy in Trial

To all who believe in the Goodness of God,

When you encounter adversity in your life, whether it comes through no fault of your own, or because of your own words or actions, rejoice!   Your Heavenly Father is treating you as a son or daughter, and you are being perfected for the Kingdom of God!

Consider that gold and silver must first be melted in a furnace before their impurities can be removed.   The more thorough the refinement process is, the more perfect the end product becomes; and the purer the gold, the greater its value.

The same is true of trials.  Adversity is the process through which we must go in order to come to know ourselves more perfectly.  Life’s trials draw out our inconsistencies — the conflicts which exist within us between what we profess to believe versus what we actually do when put to the test.  For example, if we say we believe that we are to love our neighbor to the same degree and with the same strength as we love ourselves, do we then add conditions and disclaimers to that belief?  Rather than doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, in practice do we actually only do unto them as they do unto us?  Are we warm only to those who are kind to us, but cold to everyone else?

All trials are potential learning experiences, so the first thing we ought to do when we encounter adversity is look to God, as the source of all wisdom, and ask Him for understanding: “Father, what is it that you have for me to learn from my present circumstances?”.  Ask — and believe without doubting that you will receive — and you WILL be given your answer.  For why should you doubt?  Do you not believe that God intends ALL things for your benefit?  If we ask Him for things that are not only beneficial, but essential for our spiritual purification, do we imagine that He would ever possibly withhold them?  “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

But we must also be cognizant that the answers we seek won’t always arrive immediately.  Having believed, we must also persist in the conviction.  If the answer seems delayed, far off on some distant horizon, perhaps patience is part of the lesson.  We receive from God that which we expect from Him, so if our faith falters and our minds settle on uncertainty, we can rightfully expect that we will receive nothing.  God does not operate according to our timetables and schedules, so hold fast, persevere, and don’t let go until He answers!

Then, after we receive what we have asked for, the next step is to take the newly gained understanding, apply it, and begin to put it into practice consistently.  When we do this, we will have taken a significant stride towards perfection; and our value as servants of God will have grown.

Finally, remember also that the more fiery the trial, the greater its refining power.  Therefore let us welcome adversity into our lives as an honored, albeit temporary, guest: one who visits to unburden us of those things within which are false, so that only that which is true remains; and so we may become people of integrity, suitably equipped for service to God.

 

Open study discussion

Hi all,

During his time on earth, Jesus had much to say about the cost of being his disciple and the responsibilities inherent to being a Christian.  For this study we’ll be exploring some of the passages relevant to these themes.  The first three relate to the cost of following Jesus.  They are:

Luke 9:57-62

1.  Why do you think these short snippets of conversation are included in the gospel account?

2.  What connection does the Lord’s response in verse 58 have to the statement which prompted it?  What is the take-away of the entire passage for would-be Christians today?

Luke 14:15-35

1.  Why do you think Jesus chose to answer the statement made in verse 15 with the parable in verses 16-24?

2.  Think of the responses given by those who were invited to the banquet, and then read Matt. 9:37.  Do you think there is a connection?

3.  In verse 27, Jesus states, “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  This is a hard statement, isn’t it?  What does “carry his cross and follow him” mean to you?

4.  Pair verse 27 with John 12:25-26.  Compare the standard outlined in these two short scriptures with the modern view of what being a Christian means.  In your opinion, are the standards consistent?  Why or why not?

5.  What is the point Jesus is making by following the pronouncement in verse 27 with what he says from verses 28-35?

and Matt. 10: 34-39

1.  Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), so why would he ever make the statement found in verses 34-36, and how can it be reconciled with what he says at the end of Mark 9:50?  How should we properly understand this passage?

2.  Based on this passage, should a Christian be at peace with the world?  Why or why not?

Let’s conclude with two passages that address the responsibilities inherent to the Christian calling:  Matt. 5:13-16 and Mark 4:13-29.

1.  List as many qualities and attributes of salt and light as you can.  How do these qualities correlate to the attributes the Lord expects his followers to possess?

2.  In the context of Mark 4:21-23, and also in the larger context of this study, what do you think verse 22 refers to?

3.  When you combine Mark 4:13-19 with another parable Jesus gave regarding a wedding banquet, found in Matt. 22:1-14, what is the message you come up with?

Self-deception and Service to God

King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them.  While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them.  So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them.  As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.  Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace.  The king watched the hand as it wrote.  His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.  Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.  So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale.  This is the inscription that was written: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin.  Tekel means, ‘You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.’  

What relevance does this story of a pagan king have for you or I as a Christian?  Simply this.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard someone utter the words, ‘I am a good person.’  Raise your hand again if you would apply that statement to yourself.  Despite the fact that even our Lord, who was without sin, acknowledged that ‘No one is good but One, that is, God.’ — I say despite this, it is natural for men to hold such an opinion about themselves.  And given that the tendency to think of oneself in this light is so pervasive, it’s reasonable to conclude that King Belshazzar also imagined that he was a “good” person.  But regardless of how the king perceived himself, God’s assessment — which is the only one that truly matters — is that his character was lacking in redeemable qualities.  So return with me to his reaction to the materialization of the ethereal hand.  Although he knew not what it wrote, he was shook to the very foundation of his being by its appearance, because at some tenuous level of his awareness, he perceived that it was not sent as an omen of good tidings.  That is an understatement.  Reading further into the account, we’re informed that his time in this world ended that very evening.  Try to imagine what it would feel like going to your grave with such a testimonial of your life and its value being recorded by the finger of God.  Does it make you shudder, as it did the king?

So how is it that he could be so blind to the reality of his condition, until it was too late?  Daniel, the servant who God used to read and translate the inscription to Belshazzar, pointed out that the king’s ignorance was without excuse, because he had full knowledge of how God had humbled his father, Nebuchadnezzar.  He chastises the king, “But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.  Instead you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven.  You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them.  You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand.  But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.  Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” (Dan. 5:22-24) So I ask again, how could he have failed to see “the handwriting on the wall”?  What prevented him from seeing himself as God saw him?  I believe the answer is he was blinded by human nature.

Human nature is self-oriented.  The love of self, woven into every fiber of our being so deeply as to be inoperable, instills us with a desire to be esteemed by others, and frequently causes us to view ourselves through the most flattering of lenses.  Love of self skews and distorts our judgement.  It makes us over-valuate our “good” actions, and shields our sins from our view.  We are, so often, our own greatest apologists.  Since rationalizing and justifying whatever it is we want to do comes so naturally, it is not difficult to picture Belshazzar consoling himself after Daniel’s rebuke with the thought, ‘I was just celebrating with my family and loyal supporters.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It doesn’t make me a bad person.’  Whether he did so or not is not something Scripture concerned itself with, and so neither shall I.  However, we should be concerned with the harvest this condition of the heart yielded in Belshazzar’s life — and yet as tragic as it proved to be for him, for professed Christians the ultimate danger of the deceitfulness of our nature is made evident in the Lord’s warning delivered at the close of the Sermon on the Mount.

The entire sermon is recorded in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the book of Matthew, but in 7:21-23, Jesus states, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!’”.  So what connection is there between the Lord’s admonition and Belshazzar’s demise?  As Christians, we are called to serve God.  It should be our highest purpose, and the number one priority of our lives.  But if we were to look through the microscope, and assess honestly, how closely does the reality of how we live align with the demands of our calling?  What if, right now, it doesn’t measure up?  What actions would we be willing to take?  If we are unconcerned, and do nothing, will there be anything more terrible for the supposed Christian than to have the Lord say, on the Day of Judgement, “I never knew you”?  Lest we feel secure that this pronouncement will apply as the exception, rather than the rule, bear in mind that Jesus said it will be directed to many.

Warnings such as this are intended to give us pause, and to cause us to take personal inventory of our spiritual life.  The bible is full of many such exhortations.  But God’s word also tells us that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?”  The heart, that which blinded Belshazzar and represents who and what we are in our central-most being — our very nature —  can blind us as well. So if the heart is so deceitful, how do we proceed to take an honest inventory of it?  We have to begin by asking God to show us our faults — to teach us what we cannot see — because it is only the working of the Holy Spirit, which gives access to God’s perspective, that enables a person to see themself as they truly are. 

I’ll share a personal example to show how God’s spirit works in us to direct our focus toward the corrections He would have us make in our lives.  A few years ago, I was seeking to understand God’s will for my life, and I asked Him, “What service would you have me do at this present time?”  I wanted my life to have a meaningful impact on others and, at the time, I was interested in starting, or at least working in, an orphanage.  In retrospect, I suppose I was looking to serve God through a particular career path, specifically the one most appealing to me, since I didn’t know of any other method of determining His will.  I never received an answer in that regard.  Instead, the response 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 service to God always starts with an internal process of refining.  I believe that any and all efforts to draw near to God must start with humbling oneself (which was the very thing Belshazzar was disinclined to do), and I see now that even if I occupied myself with nothing other than this single labor of service, the task is such that I would never be faced with a shortage of work to do.    

Why is it that service to God should start with humility?  One important aspect to understand regarding humility is that it correlates proportionally to the degree of faith a person has in God.  How so?  The more pride a person possesses, the less they look to God for help because they lack a sense of need.  The humble person however, recognizing their own inadequacy, depends upon God; and their faith is built as they receive the answers to their petitions for aid, which they directed to Him.  Humility is also the end-result of thinking about yourself less and less, so if an individual were to trust in God to provide for ALL of their needs with all of their heart, mind, soul and being, less thought and energy would be unnecessarily spent on self-considerations and could be re-allocated towards service to others.  And in the process, faith would grow and flourish: so we can see a link between humility, faith, and service to God (which is a reflection of our love, both for Him and our fellow man).

Another component of humility is being willing to submit our will in order to bring it into alignment with God’s.    When the Lord’s half-brother wrote about submission to God in James 4:1-10, he was speaking of a complete relinquishing of self — turning control of the direction of our lives over to God.  That entails consciously choosing to promote God’s glory rather than seeking to further our own agendas.  For indeed, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”   Conflict arises because we want something, someone else wants the same thing, and there’s not enough 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 Kingdom of God is spacious enough to accommodate all who earnestly desire to enter it, and it knows no scarcity — so when obtaining it is our focus, we need not quarrel over the things of this life.  In order to promote God’s Way, we need to first forsake our own.  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.   And when we set our sights on the heavenly abode and allow God to direct our path to it, we acknowledge that we cannot serve Him in the way of our own choosing — that which suits us best.  At least not if our Christianity is to be something other than a nominal one.  

If one desires proof of this, they need look no further than Luke 16:13.   It states, “No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and mammon.”  Mammon is commonly translated as money, or material wealth.  I believe this misses the mark; the meaning is too narrowly defined.  Money is only a resource — one that provides a means to pursue and obtain one’s own self-interests.  I believe the true intent of the passage is to convey the reality that it is impossible to serve God and the self-interests of the natural man at the same time.  Our time, energy, and resources are going to be spent doing one, or the other.  There exists no third alternative.    

With that in mind, I’d like to ask a different question now, but in order to frame it properly, allow me to draw the discussion of humility to a close with one more observation.  Humility is an essential safeguard to protect us from the danger of self-deception; a critical ingredient in equipping us to overcome it.  It requires that we be willing to embrace the truth about ourselves, so here is an honest question to reflect upon: What percentage of our time is expended upon laboring in our chosen careers, simply to obtain the necessities of life?  How much do we then further exhaust ourselves to ensure our ability to procure all the additional luxuries we might desire?  Extend the examination a bit further.  What percentage of our “free” time is used in the pursuit of enjoying these comforts?  How much is required for the passive activity of simply “decompressing” from the stresses of the day?  I’m not saying these things are bad, or wrong, in and of themselves, brethren.  We are not machines.  Life needs to have its enjoyments, even for the most dedicated servant of God.  But when we add it all up, what is left for God?  Go a step further: in our labor for Him, are the efforts we do make truly the best we could give?  Even if they are, who can rightfully claim to be offering their all?  If we take an honest inventory of how we have stewarded the spiritual wealth and truth given to us by our Father, and the amount of time we have spent using those resources in His employment, how true does our claim to be His servants still ring?

Food is good, drink is good, owning homes and cars is fine — but if they cost me entrance into God’s Kingdom because I worked harder to have them than I did for God, I would curse the day that I ever enjoyed them.  “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)  If we find that our focus has drifted towards seeking our own pleasure, and our desire is to relax and enjoy “the good life”, does that awareness cause us any concern?  It should, my brothers and sisters, it should.  If it does, James once again supplies the counsel we ought to follow.  He says, “Come near to God and he will come near to you.  Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Grieve, mourn and wail.  Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”   

Grieving, mourning and wailing isn’t a fun list of things to do, and denying ourselves isn’t easy — it’s contrary to our nature.  But if we want to serve God, it is what’s required of us. If we feel it’s too difficult, bear in mind that we have not resisted sin unto the shedding of our blood.  If we are tempted to walk our own path, because it’s the path of least resistance, we should remember the example of Esau: who despised his birthright because of the responsibilities that came with it, and valued so little the blessings he would have received that he sold it for a single meal.  Because of this the scriptures testify that he was a godless man, and that he could find no place for repentance (Heb. 12:16-17).  

So then, how genuine is our desire to serve God?  How diligently have we sought out His service?   Our lives are a mirror that will always reflect back what we are really living for.  What are we willing to sacrifice to further God’s Kingdom?  It’s easy for men to praise God when all their needs and wants are satisfied; to serve others from a position of overflowing personal abundance, like the rich young man from Matt. 19:16-30, and to feel good for having done so.  But suppose all the blessings were taken away.  Would deprivation diminish your enthusiasm for the Lord’s service, or is our mentality like Job’s, who viewed the loss of all he possessed within the following context: “Shall we accept good from God, and be unwilling to accept adversity?”  Sacrificing the tangible enjoyments of the present life for celestial reward in a future age is a trade too many are unwilling to make.  The choice between living for this life or for the Kingdom of Heaven is presented to each of us, as it was to the rich young man.  Are we willing to forego our own aspirations whenever they fail to align with God’s purpose?  Have we drawn any unconscious lines we are unwilling to cross to serve Him — things we refuse to give up?  Jesus told the disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”  (Luke 10:2)  His statement has not lost any relevance in our present day.  Why are the workers few?  Because few are willing to forego the pursuit of their own interests in order to take up a new life of sacrifice and service to others.

How eager are we to suffer to serve the Lord?   Would we be willing to go through what Ezekiel did?  Take the time to read the fourth chapter of Ezekiel.  He had to lie in the streets for 430 days, and was told Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself.  …Weigh out about [8 ounces] of food to eat each day and eat it at set times.  Eat the food as you would a barley cake; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement[!] for fuel.”  He replied, “Not so, Sovereign Lord!  I have never defiled myself.  No unclean meat has ever entered my mouth.”  The Lord answers, “Very well, I will let you bake your bread over cow manure instead of human excrement.”  

… Oh!  Well then … Awesome!  Thank you!  Thank you!  … Seriously, who wouldn’t fight to be first in line to be selected for such an opportunity?  Of all the various ways one might while away fifteen months, surely in all the history of man a more pleasant time has never been had, or even imagined!  Now, obviously, I’m having a little fun here, but in reality, it wasn’t a laughing matter.  Such are the lengths God’s servants are called to go to at times — and it is but one example.  

“Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.  They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them.” (Heb. 11:35-38)  

So how are we doing, individually and collectively?  I am here to ask the questions, not to supply the answers.  But I ask because I am convinced that there will be a Day when the Lord himself asks them of all who would seek to be identified by His name.  Far better to reflect upon the matter now, while we still have the opportunity to make any necessary course corrections, than to find that, in the final Judgement, our service was mere self-deception, and that, being weighed in the balances, we have been found wanting.  I can imagine no delusion more dreadful or tragic.