Spiritual gifts and love for God

In 1 Cor. 12, the apostle Paul told the Corinthians that each member of the church was to be one of the constituent parts of a unified whole. He told them that he didn’t want them to be without knowledge regarding spiritual gifts, and their function and operation within the body of Christ. As part of his instruction, he asked them:

“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (vs. 29-30)

The answer of course was, and still is, no. But then he said a very interesting thing: he told them to “eagerly desire the greater gifts” (v. 31). And in chapter 14:1, he told them they ought to especially desire the gift of prophecy.

That begs the question: can a man heal others or prophesy by an act of his own strength, or by desire alone? No, of course not. Although one might have the will to do so, the ability itself is a gift given by God and all such gifts are distributed according to His will alone. As John the Baptist observed, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven.” (John 3:27) So why, then, did Paul encourage the church to earnestly desire spiritual gifts? Is it possible that God chooses to distribute the gifts of His spirit based at least in part on how earnestly a person desires them?

As you consider that question, please turn in your bible to 2 Chr. 1:7-12, where you can read about an extraordinary occurrence. In those verses we are told that God appeared to Solomon at night and said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Imagine yourself in that position: having assurance from God himself that whatever you ask for will be granted to you. What would your request be? While you’re considering your answer, let’s look at Solomon’s response, in verses 8- 10:

“Solomon answered God, “You have shown great kindness to David my father and have made me king in his place. Now LORD God, let your promise to my father David be confirmed, for you have made me king over a people who are as numerous as the dust of the earth. Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?””

Solomon could have had anything. Have you ever wondered why he prized wisdom so highly that he asked for it above anything else? Solomon himself supplies the answer. In Proverbs 4:3-9 he wrote:

“When I was a boy in my father’s house, still tender, and an only child of my mother, he [referring to King David] taught me and said, “Lay hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands and you will live. Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or swerve from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Esteem her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you. She will set a garland of grace on your head and present you with a crown of splendor.””

What a beautiful example of a father teaching and training his son to love what is right and good! Through his instruction, King David planted the seed of desire for wisdom in Solomon. Because he had love and reverence for his father, Solomon heeded that instruction and fixed his heart upon it — and so when the LORD appeared to him he knew what he wanted most — and his earnest desire was rewarded.

For the next example, please turn to Gen. 32:24-30. It reads:

“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.””

If any of you have ever had an occasion to wrestle with someone, you would know that doing so for just 5 minutes can be physically exhausting. Jacob wrestled from night until early morning. Against an angel! (Hosea 12:4-5) As impressive as that is on its own, I would ask you to immerse yourself further into the account. When the angel saw that he could not prevail over Jacob, he gave him a demonstration of his power by dislocating Jacob’s hip, then commanded him to let him go. Can you adequately appreciate how imposing that experience would have been? Can you feel the hint of potential threat behind the angel’s command: as if he were saying, “Let me go, NOW, before I am forced to hurt you even worse.”

Some additional background on the pathophysiology of a dislocated hip might be helpful here. The hip is a modified ball-socket joint, bolstered by a fibrous joint capsule, and many strong muscles of the upper thigh and gluteal region, and so the joint is very stable. Because of that, a large force is required to dislocate it — a degree of force typically produced by a motor vehicle crash or a fall from height. Simply put, dislocating your hip would get your attention. How did Jacob respond to that physical trauma and the angel’s subsequent demand? He said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” In that moment, all of Jacob’s will — his energy, strength and focus — was centered on one thing, to the extent that even the intense pain of a dislocated hip could not distract him from the object of his heart’s desire.

What was it that Jacob was seeking as he wrestled with the angel? Wealth? A life of pleasure and ease? Fame? Adulation from the masses? No, he sought a spiritual blessing and because of his fervency he received his desire, his name was changed and, in spirit, he became greater than he had been before. I cannot think of a better physical example of how spiritual faith is supposed to work in our lives. Jacob knew in his heart what it was he wanted and needed most — which was to be blessed by God. He began with a right desire, he believed God could and would provide it, and then he set his will with all of his might and refused to let go until he received it. Oh, my brothers and sisters, if only we were all more like him!

Solomon and Jacob are only two of the examples that can be found in the Scriptures where individuals received spiritual blessings because of the integrity and earnestness of their desire. Now that we’ve discussed them, I’d like to return to my earlier question: Is it possible that God chooses to distribute the gifts of His spirit based at least in part on how earnestly a person desires them? Aside from personal stories, do the Scriptures have anything else to say on the matter? Jeremiah 17:10 states,

“I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.”

Additionally, Deuteronomy 4:29 and Jeremiah 29:13 both state that a person seeking God will find him if and when they seek him with all of their heart and all of their soul. The negative implication is that God will not reveal himself if you seek him with a divided heart. Nothing less than 100% integrity is accepted by him. Would not the same principle also apply to receiving spiritual gifts? Considering how exceedingly precious the gifts of His spirit are, do you believe that God would bestow them upon someone with a tepid interest in them? I have often heard the question asked, “Why don’t we see prophesying, healings and miracles today, like we read about in the Book of Acts?” If you simply accept as an answer that God just isn’t working in that way anymore, how earnest would you say your desire to receive those gifts is? Would Solomon have been so easily dissuaded? Could Jacob have been turned aside by such a pat reply?

More importantly though, spiritual gifts are given for the purpose of benefiting others, to draw them to a right relationship with God, and to bring honor and glory to His name — so if our words and our deeds show that our hearts are set more on the things of this life than for rendering service to God and our fellow man, why would we expect to receive them? If we don’t believe we’re incomplete and inadequate without them, and feel a deep need for them, like Solomon and Jacob did, it is unreasonable to expect to possess them. I say that because although God can supply what we lack, only the truly hungry beg to be fed. The simple truth that God has brought me to understand, then, is that His power is not more evident and on display in my life because my love of self is still too strong and my love for Him and for His service is still too weak. And if His power is not manifest in your life, the reason is the same.

Before moving on, there’s one more Scripture I’d like to turn to. Hebrews 11:6 states:

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Earnestly seek — there are those words again!)

The first part of that statement is self-apparent: no one seeks for God if they don’t believe he exists. But why is it impossible to please God without believing that he rewards those who earnestly seek him? One reason is that an earnest or diligent search implies that considerable effort is involved. A brief example to illustrate that point can be found in Proverbs 2:3-5:

“Indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.”

Unless a person is fully convinced the reward is worthwhile, they will be either half-hearted in their effort, or entirely unwilling to do the work. There is an opportunity cost involved in seeking God. We can only learn his precepts and judgments through prayer, bible study, and service to others. Doing those things requires time that is not spent on entertainment or other pursuits. For example, in Luke 9:57-62, we read:

“As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He said to another man, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-bye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

What then is the cost of following the Lord? Nothing less than everything. The question then becomes, “Is that a price I am willing to pay? We can read that Peter once remarked that he and the other disciples had indeed left everything to follow Jesus, and so Peter asked him, “What then will there be for us?” (Matt 19:27) In response Jesus said:

“I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, do you truly believe in your Lord’s promise? Remember then that he also said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21) If your treasure is truly in heaven, and you believe that the reward which awaits you there is far superior to anything that can be enjoyed on earth, is there any loss you could suffer in this life that would shake your faith or lessen your resolve to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness?”

The apostle Paul taught that “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) Could he and the rest of the apostles have persevered through all of the adversities they encountered in serving the Lord if their greatest hope and treasure did not rest firmly in God’s Kingdom? Their decision to follow Jesus required them to make a decision as to how they would use their time on earth — a decision that you and I are faced with as well. They gave the entirety of their life and devoted all of their energy and time to promoting the Gospel, which testifies to the love they had for God, and the value they placed on their promised reward.

This leads me to my next point. The last time I spoke, I concluded by mentioning that my next message would be about love for God. Have you ever thought about the fact that how we spend our time is one of the main ways we show our love toward God? The author of Psalm 84 had it in his heart to write:

“How lovely is your dwelling place, LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (vs. 1-2)

He also observed, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” Have you ever thought about what a day with God would be like? How would being in His presence alter your perspective and change the things you live for? Consider what the apostle Paul told the Corinthian church:

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know — God knows. And I know that this man — whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows — was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” (2 Cor. 12:2-4)

Do you think that experience was impactful? Do you think it would have been still vividly etched in his memory years later when he wrote to the Philippian church, saying:

“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him …” (Philippians 3:8-9)

So often, we live as though this physical life is the ultimate reality. Having seen paradise firsthand, Paul knew with certainty that such is not the case, and when he reflected on everything that he had once lived for in light of what he now knew, he considered all he had left behind to be garbage. So consider everything you currently live for — the goals and dreams you’re pursuing. If you had seen paradise, would you not have a burning desire to return to it? Is there anything on earth that would be capable of capturing and holding your interest? Would your goals remain the same? Paul said there weren’t words to describe what he saw there, and yet even as inexpressibly beautiful and wonderful as that experience must have been, it still cannot possibly equal being in the actual presence of God himself. Nothing can compare to the peace and joy that come from being at one with the Perfection of Holiness and Love — and yet how readily and willingly do we trade time spent with Him for pursuit of fulfillment in the temporary pleasures of life!

So far, I’ve given two examples of individuals who received spiritual blessings based on their earnest desire and also provided evidence indicating that serving God requires faith and consistent commitment to seeking Him. I’d like to move on now to expound on a passage that highlights the seriousness of the responsibility the Lord’s followers have with regards to use of time. Luke 16:10-13 states:

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest [or unrighteous] with very little will also be dishonest [or unrighteous] with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? 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 money.”

This is an exceedingly important passage for anyone who desires to serve God. The subject matter goes far beyond a mere discussion of money and its use. The focus is really about the correlation between service to God and entrance into His Kingdom. The principle behind Jesus’s statement that “whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much” is well illustrated in the Parable of the Talents, found in Matt. 25:14-30, so I won’t elaborate further on that point. Instead, I’d like to focus on the question he poses in verse 11: “if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”

There is clearly a contrast being made between “worldly wealth” and “true riches,” so what is the intended meaning of those terms? To begin, the translation “worldly wealth” is derived from adikos (ad’-ee-kos), which can mean unjust, unrighteous, sinful or deceitful, and mammonas (mam-mo-nas’). Thayer defines it as:

1. mammon
2. treasure
3. riches (where it is personified and opposed to God) — of Aramaic origin, signifying confidence.

With those definitions in mind, a fuller sense of “worldly wealth” could read: treasures or riches which are opposed to God, since man unjustly places his confidence in them, instead of trusting his Creator and Provider.

Next, the word translated as “true riches” is alēthinos (al-ay-thee-nos’), which Thayer defines as:

1. that which has not only the name and resemblance, but the real nature corresponding to the name, in every respect corresponding to the idea signified by the name
a. opposite to what is fictitious, counterfeit, imaginary, simulated or pretended
b. it contrasts realities with their semblances
c. opposite to what is imperfect, defective, frail, uncertain

This physical realm is imperfect, frail, and uncertain. It is only a semblance of the spiritual reality: so true wealth can never pertain to material things, it can only apply to things which are spiritual in nature. So now, I would ask you: do you think Solomon would have defined the gift of wisdom as “true riches”? Would Jacob tell you that to be blessed by God is to be truly rich? What testimony would the apostle Paul give? Would he counsel you to trade the gifts of the spirit for gold or treasure?

Now reframe the logic of the argument the Lord made in Luke 16:10-13, with time as the subject, instead of money. With regard to true riches, consider that time is more valuable than money, because time can be enjoyed without money, but money cannot be enjoyed without time. Even if all your other physical resources are exhausted, time continues on. Whether you are a follower of Christ, or you are a non-believer, we all have at least one thing in common — we are all given a limited amount of time. If you are a follower of Christ, you believe that God has called you to serve him — so is the way you are spending your time consistent with that belief? Time is a precious gift, yet it is wasted on many empty pursuits; and if you waste something, it shows a disregard for the value of the thing you are wasting. So if we have not proven faithful in using the little time we have been given, why would God entrust us with eternity?

At baptism we enter into a covenant with God and pledge to become slaves to Christ. (1 Cor. 7:22 and Romans 6:12) As he laid down his life for us, we also figuratively agreed to lay down our lives, subjecting our will to his, in the hopes that we might one day be called Sons of God. (John 15:13-14 and John 8:35) As his slaves, we are his property, and in truth, all things belong to God. So if we are not found faithful in dealing with His property in this life, how can we be entrusted to care for the eternal mansion he has prepared for his children? (John 14:2) If we will not willingly serve as slaves now, how will we inherit as sons? We cannot serve two masters. We either hate having to obey God and love exercising our free will, choosing to use our time as we please, or we are devoted to God and hate our carnal nature, which hinders us from knowing him more fully. We cannot serve God when we are more concerned with the cares of this life than we are with the interests of His Kingdom, or when we value physical blessings to be enjoyed in the present above spiritual rewards obtained in the future.

We are told to confess our sins to each other and to pray for each other (James 5:16), and so in conclusion I would like to acknowledge that when I examine my life in light of the Scriptures we’ve discussed, I have not consistently used my time in the ways that I ought to have. But there comes a time when anyone who desires to truly become like Christ must cease living for themself, and I believe that time is now, so I want to live differently. I want the way I use my time to truly reflect my love for God. I want my life to have meaning and purpose. I want the spiritual gifts Paul discussed because I realize I cannot adequately serve God without them. I want the eternal rewards God promises to those who faithfully serve Him. But just as a cat cannot will itself to become a lion, I cannot be more than I am, unless God changes me. My responsibility, then, is to maintain the desire to be more, for the sake of glorifying and honoring his name, and to continue to look to Him, trust in Him, and allow Him to complete His work in me. I shared this message today in the hope that each of you would be inspired with the same desire, and because I wanted to show that when the spirit and power of God is not at work in us, it is an indication of the weakness of our love for Him. Unless a person is willing to confront that truth, the door to change will not open.

Remember that Jesus once observed:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Many are called to work in the Lord’s fields, but few are chosen, because few are willing to put in the work it requires. It is far easier to be concerned with tilling our own field. May we therefore be ever mindful that how we approach the work we have been given to do reflects the value we place on the reward we expect to receive; and may God continuously work in each of us both to will and to do his good pleasure.

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The Love of God

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Humility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Exodus and the Christian Journey out from Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. 

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?