An analogy for the effect of sin

The effect of unaddressed sin is like the effect of a gradual build-up of pressure being applied to a glass jar.  Up to a certain point the jar will tolerate the pressure, and the effect of the force upon the jar will not be discernible to the eye.  But once the limit of the jar’s strength / ability to resist the applied force has been reached, it will shatter.  If man is the jar, sin is the force applying the pressure.  We don’t always immediately perceive the affect our sins have upon us, but if they accumulate and remain unforgiven because we fail to repent of them, eventually we, like the jar, become broken.

Open study discussion(The Beatitudes)

Greetings, friends!  This study will be on Matt. 5:1-10.

The sermon on the mount begins with what are known as the Beatitudes.  What do you suppose Jesus’s reason was for starting his instruction with them?

What does it mean to be poor in spirit?

Verse 4 states that those who mourn are blessed.  Why?  The reason provided is the fact that they will be comforted.  But to mourn is to grieve deeply — and no one enjoys having things to be sad about.   Wouldn’t it be better to not have things to be grieved about than to be comforted after the fact?  What do you think this verse really means?  In the context of the sermon, might there be specific things we ought to be mourning if we are to be considered as blessed?  If so, what might they be?

How do you define meekness?  How does it differ from being poor in spirit?

What does it mean to be pure in heart?  What do you think Jesus meant when he said the pure in heart will see God?

Now step back from viewing each beatitude individually and examine them collectively.  Do you see a logical progression to the Lord’s train of thought?  Please elaborate on your answer.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Open Study Discussions

Hi all!

 

For this study, we’ll be  discussing 4 short sets of scriptures which, when the dots are connected, draw a picture of dueling perspectives.  The first passage for everyone to read is Ephesians 4:17-24, and the questions to discuss from it are as follows:

1.  What is “futile” or “vain” about the thinking of the Gentiles?

2.  How are their hearts hardened?  What does this mean, and what is the ignorance that is in them?

3.  What is the end result of this futile thinking and hardening of the heart?

4.  To what is Paul referring when he speaks of “the truth that is in Jesus”?

5.  Give examples of deceitful desires and how they can corrupt.

The remaining set is 2 Corinthians 12:1-6, Philippians 3:7-12 and Ephesians 3:16-21.

How might the experience Paul recorded in 2 Cor. 12 have informed his sentiments expressed in Ph. 3:7-12 and Eph. 3:16-21?

Putting it all together now, think about what your individual goals are.  What do you desire from the life that lies before you?  How should these Scriptures govern your way of life, and your expectations for it?

I look forward to the discussion!

Dear Christian, Why Are You Tested?

In my first post, we explored what it was that made the widow of Zarephath unique.  I wanted to revisit her story again, because although it was brief, I think there is still much that is worth examining further. When I was reading the account I thought to myself, “What if this had been me ?”  Unless God’s Spirit were guiding me during that encounter, I know my response would have been still far too carnal.  This was a very difficult test; I don’t know if I would have passed, even after knowing God for almost 19 years now. This woman wasn’t an Israelite — not “in the church”, as we might say.  What does it say about the quality of the condition of her heart that God would allow her to be tested in such a way?  The fact that He did so led me to ask why God tests His children at all — after all, He knows our hearts and thoughts better than we know ourselves. Why is testing necessary? Answering that question will be the focus of today’s post.

Let’s start with a quick recap of the story: the widow was instructed by God to provide for Elijah, and when they encounter each other Elijah conveys the word of the Lord to her. The widow complies with it and her faith and obedience is rewarded by God’s miraculous provision of food for the duration of the famine. Now I don’t know about you, but for me miracles are attention-getters. Since the widow’s needs could conceivably have been administered to via human agency, the fact that God chose to intervene supernaturally seemed to be an important point. Two possibilities present themselves to my mind. First, it may be that God sought for a human intercessor, but the hearts of the people were so
calloused (perhaps due to the privation of the famine) that none were found willing and capable of meeting the widow’s need. God loves a cheerful giver, and He does not violate the sanctity of His gift of free will; so given a lack of willing servants, an alternative solution may have been necessitated. The second is simply that God wanted to make His involvement in the widow’s life unmistakably clear, and that He sought an occasion to display His power and cause His name to be made known.

Personally, I think it’s fair to conclude that both reasons factored into God’s decision; but the paucity of details we are given would make it difficult to definitively prove the first. Fortunately, establishing the viability of the second is not dependent upon this account alone. There are many instances in Scripture where God has intervened to make His presence known, and studying them is the key to answering the question I posed at the beginning: Why is testing necessary? Let’s turn to one such instance which I found to be particularly instructive, located in Exodus 5.  The chapter begins with Moses and Aaron delivering God’s command to Pharaoh to let His people go.  Pharaoh’s response was to increase the burden upon the Israelites. The Israelite foremen were subsequently beaten for the people’s failure to meet the quota of bricks. They therefore appeal to Pharaoh, but realize the full gravity of their predicament when they discover he had been the author of
the command. We’ll pick up the story now in verse 20: “When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, and they said, “May the Lord look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

It says that Moses and Aaron were waiting to meet them, indicating they had a desire to have a conversation with the foremen. The foremen, however, appear disinclined to hear whatever Moses and Aaron may have had to say to them. As I envision the scene, they instead lock gazes with Moses as they continue to walk past, eyes brimming with contempt and a desire to exact retribution personally, while their words acknowledge their ultimate impotence to do so. Understandably shaken by this turn of events, Moses returned to the LORD and said, “O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” Notice that there was nothing factually inaccurate with Moses’ synoptic statement — Pharaoh had made life more difficult for the Israelites and God had not yet delivered them. The problem is that Moses could not see beyond the here and now — the reality of the moment — and this inability caused him to question the veracity of God’s previously stated intentions. But God “calls the things that are not yet, as though they are”, because when He gives His word, it is an absolute certainty that he will bring it to fruition.

Look at the Lord’s response in chapter 6, with all of the future tense “will” statements He uses. He says, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.” What proof did God offer that these things would happen? What argument does he employ to dispel Moses’ doubt? He says in verse two, “I am the LORD.”  Such a concise statement, yet one so pregnant with meaning! He is, in effect, saying, ‘I am GOD. I am not limited — I have the power to bring about what I have told you.  Moreover, I am not a man: I do not lie.’ He continues in verses three through five: “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they lived as aliens. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.” Again, to paraphrase the unspoken meaning behind His words: ‘I have revealed more of myself and my character to you than I did to your forefathers, and they believed me without needing to see it come to pass. What about you , Moses? Will you not believe me? Do you imagine that I would betray the trust your forefathers placed in me, or that I have no care for the suffering of their offspring? Will I not continue to show my love for them by remembering the promises which I swore to them, and by delivering their children?’  This is God’s perspective-shifting answer to the challenge inherent at the heart of Moses’ questions.

After He addresses Moses’ doubt, He gives him a message to deliver to the Israelites, detailing the events that had not yet occurred, but which would soon be made reality. “I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession.” He bookends His intentions by declaring ‘I am the LORD’, indicating there was no greater proof to offer as evidence of what He had in store than the holiness of His Name, and the perfection of character associated with it. His purpose behind this
message to the Israelites is explained in verse seven: He wanted them to know that He was the LORD their God. Moses reported this to the Israelites, but unfortunately they did not listen because of their discouragement and cruel bondage. They had become so disheartened by their circumstances that the sworn promise of God was insufficient proof to bring them to believe that He was, and would continue to be, involved in their lives.

Since we’re all familiar with the outcome, we know that not only were the Lord’s words eventually established in the sight of the Israelites, but the power God displayed in the process of their deliverance made His name known throughout the entire world of that day. When you consider that God could have just as easily raised up a different Pharaoh, one who would have simply let Israel go at Moses’ behest, instead of incurring all of God’s judgements and plagues upon his own people, it becomes patently clear that God had the larger purpose of making His name known in mind all along.

The same is true in the case of the widow — God could have delivered her in any number of non-miraculous ways. But He found in her an opportunity to showcase His care and provision, because just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob believed in the promises of God without needing to see them fulfilled, the widow showed herself to be their daughter in spirit, if not in blood, since she believed His words spoken by His servant. Her obedience had to be founded on a pre-existing condition of faith in the goodness of God, because her remaining flour and oil were not Providentially replenished until after she complied with Elijah’s command. It was not for naught that Jesus pointed out that Elijah was not sent to any of the widows in Israel, but only to this foreigner. As the Scripture says, “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of those whose heart is perfect toward him.” (2 Chr. 16:9)  And as His eyes run to and fro, He “…search(es) the heart and examine(s) the mind”, which enables Him to know us intimately.  Because He knows our hearts and minds, He knows how we will respond in specific situations.  Therefore, God knew the faith and humility this widow possessed was sufficient to endure the test, and that the condition of her heart in this regard was such that He would be enabled to show himself strong in her behalf. Because of her faithfulness, God was able to display that His care and concern over the affairs of men is not limited to involvement only on a global level, but that it extends to the individual as well.

In these accounts, we are presented with two examples of God’s desire to bring glory to his name, both on a macro and a micro scale. But why does God’s name need to glorified? Does He live for our adulation, or need our praise? He requires humility from His children — can it be that he, then, is a narcissist? Of course not! EVERYTHING God does is for the benefit of His Creation. What if God’s name wasn’t known or held in regard? We would live in a completely godless society — and today’s world is gradually sliding into that mire — but how much more corrupt would it become if all knowledge of God were expunged? And to whom, then, would people be able to turn to in times of adversity? Furthermore, God desires to enjoy a relationship with His Creation. Due to the false conceptions men hold regarding His character, the seeds of which are sown in the lies broadcast by Satan, the great deceiver and adversary of men’s souls, God seeks witnesses who will testify of His boundless Goodness. God uses the faithful to show himself faithful, so that those who harbor doubts regarding His character may be built up in the confidence that if they trust in Him with their whole heart, He can be fully depended upon to deliver them from any and all troubles.

Once we have established that the reason it is absolutely essential for God’s name to be known is so that more people might be persuaded of His Goodness, there remain seven links to be forged together in the chain of logic required to understand why God tests His children. They are:

  • 1. It is understanding and experiencing the Goodness of God that leads to repentance. (Romans2:4)
  • 2. Repentance leads to conversion.
  • 3. Conversion re-establishes a right relationship with God.
  • 4. Our newly established relationship is tested by trials. This is the pivot point upon which each Christian’s decision to continue in The Way swings.
  • 5. Persisting in trusting in God during trials leads to overcoming them and receiving the reward for faithfulness.
  • 6. Having gained the victory, the overcomer is provided with new personal testimony of God’s faithfulness, mercy, and love towards them, and has fresh occasion to praise and glorify Him.
  • 7. The glorification of God’s name leads to more children being welcomed to relationship with Him.

And so the cycle repeats, continually renewing so that the gates of hell never prevail. I call this the Circle of Spiritual Life.

In conclusion, testing is necessary and beneficial for Christians because when we are able to “count it pure joy to face trials of many kinds”, we demonstrate our reciprocated love toward God, and open the door for our fellow man to come to know Him in the same way. It truly is our reasonable act of service to Him. May God raise up more children willing to throw off the burden of self-will and bend their necks to receive the light yoke of the Lord’s service; and may His name be praised and glorified forever and ever. Amen.

The Widow of Zarephath: A Profile of Faith

” I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when… there was a severe famine throughout the land.  Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon…”  Luke 4:25-26

At the beginning of his earthly ministry, directly after his temptation in the desert, Jesus was in Nazareth, speaking in the synagogue one Sabbath, as recorded in the fourth chapter of the gospel of Luke.  As he is speaking to those in the assembly, he makes reference to a widow from Zarephath.  What is it that distinguished this particular widow and set her apart to receive divine intervention?  Why was Elijah sent to her alone?  Her story is told in a few verses found in 1 Kings 17:8-16, but what can be learned from this brief encounter could fill volumes.  The stage is set when the brook where Elijah had been receiving his sustenance during the famine dried up.  God commands him to go to Zarephath and dwell there, because he has tasked a widow there with the responsibility of supporting him.

The first thing that struck me was the brevity of God’s instructions to Elijah.  Consider all the logistic and practical questions left unaddressed — questions like, ‘How will I know who I’m looking for?’; ‘What should I say when I meet her?’; or ‘What do I do if she doesn’t believe me?’.  Perhaps given his prior experiences and relationship with God those type of questions were not entertained by Elijah.  All that mattered was to be obedient to the word of the Lord which came to him, and to trust God to work out the details.  I think that’s highly informative of how faith is to work in the lives of those who set their hearts on serving God.

And it is just that manner of faith that made Elijah such an effective servant and man of God — but this profile in faith concerns the widow he was sent to, not Elijah himself.  And for good reason, too, I think.  No one can take the mantle of an Elijah upon himself, it must be given to him by God; and the extraordinary nature of his calling may make it difficult for some to relate to his example.  But although she was not commissioned to work miracles or to confront spiritual wickedness on a national scale like Elijah, the widow was expected to believe God and act in accordance to that faith in order to experience His deliverance; and this requirement is common to all believers, which makes it easier to identify with.  And if we can relate to the example, we may be inclined to strive to emulate it all the more — which is good, since I would argue that the world would have no need for the work of an Elijah if only every professed believer put into practice the faith required of, and demonstrated by, this Sidonian.

Before turning our focus to the main point of what made this widow unique, I’d like to raise a side question: by what method was God’s command delivered to the widow?  One might imagine the Lord dispatching an angel to relay His word, or that the widow was shown a vision or a dream of herself feeding Elijah.  I concede these are possibilities, but I, for one, have never been visited by an angel, had a vision, or heard the voice of God audibly — nor am I aware of knowing anyone who has.  And so I offer as conjecture another possibility more relatable to common Christian experience: that the word of the Lord came to the widow in a still, small voice — a simple word spoken to her heart — “Provide for my servant Elijah.”.  While it is by no means a definitive proof that this is the case, it is interesting to note that the same Hebrew word ‘tsavah’, meaning to appoint or give charge to, is used in verse four, when God commanded or appointed the ravens to feed Elijah, as it is in verse nine, when it refers to the widow.  The implication of the word is that God commissioned each of them with the responsibility of supporting Elijah, not that He communicated to both parties in a direct way that would be easily recognized as emanating from Him.

Why is this an important point?  As Elihu said in Job 33:14, “For God does speak –now one way, now another — though man may not perceive it.”  The fact is that one may, as a pleasing self-deception, falsely attribute a thought or desire of the heart as having emanated from God.  Conversely, it is also possible to dismiss legitimate instruction from God due to failure to recognize Him as its originator .  The potential for doubt is a large part of what makes faith challenging.  But if God has clearly spoken, doubt as to what His will is has been removed, and faith is no longer required.  The issue becomes one of straight-forward obedience, which I think does the widow a disservice by diminishing the trying nature of this encounter.

With that backdrop in mind, we can now move on to what made this widow distinct from all the widows in Israel.  As the encounter unfolds, imagine yourself in her place.  Try to think of it as you are today, and with the current realities of the world as they are.  A stranger calls out to you in the street, asking for water.  You could easily go about your business and pretend as if you did not hear him, or that you imagined he was speaking to someone else, and turn to walk away.  And if you did, there are many today, even in the church, who would say you were simply exercising discretion as a single woman in a dangerous world, and justify you for doing so.  Given that she did not opt to follow this reasoning, we are provided a small glimpse into her character, even at this early juncture.

Now the biblical account only records Elijah asking for a little water and the widow going to get it, but the snippet of conversation we are provided with creates for me the impression of an internal dialogue being worked out between the two parties.  Elijah’s request has the sense of probing — as if he is indirectly seeking the answer to questions not yet given voice — ‘How tender is this woman’s heart to the needs of a foreigner?  Is she the one I’ve been sent to?’.  It seems unlikely the widow would simply drop what she was doing to immediately comply to a stranger’s request, with no questions asked, so let’s infer a dialogue occurred that we are not privy to.  A natural exchange may have been something along these lines:  Elijah calls out his request for water, to which the widow replies ‘Who are you, and what  brings you here, stranger?’.  Elijah responds, ‘I am a servant of the Lord, the God of Israel.  There is a drought throughout the land and the Lord has commanded me to dwell in this town.  The journey has been tiring and I am thirsty — would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?’  When she turns to comply, she passes Elijah’s litmus test for tenderheartedness, yet further clarification is still required to be certain she is the one to whom he has been sent.  Thus the follow-up, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”

And if the Lord’s command did indeed come as a mere whisper sown in her heart as postulated, it is plausible to conclude that she would have her own unspoken doubts needing to be addressed.  Perhaps the following thoughts occupied her mind as she is leaving to go get the requested water:

‘Is this man’s appearance and request simply a coincidence?  And if it is not a coincidence, and he has been sent to me by God, how am I to provide for him when I have almost nothing myself?  If he is a man of God, as he claims, shouldn’t he already know my situation?’

If these were not considerations being worked out within the widow’s mind, how else can the remarkable restraint she displayed in making nary a word of reference to her own dire need be explained?

One can see the unseen hand of God’s involvement in the matter becoming more evident when, with perfect timing, as the widow turns to leave pondering such things, He inspires Elijah to add to his previous inquiry.  His request for bread prompts the widow to disclose what she had heretofore not been inclined to reveal, and the door has been opened to put each of their doubts to rest.  She now lays all of her cards on the table:  12 “As surely as the Lord your God lives, I don’t have any bread — only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug.  I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it — and die.”

What a test we are presented with here!  Consider all the widow had already been subjected to prior to this encounter.  Her husband has died and she has been left to care for her child: alone, and with no means of support.  We find her now, down to her last meal, and no one has shown any concern by providing for her needs.  Surely her neighbors would have been aware of her situation after her husband’s passing.  Even if they were unmoved on her behalf, should not pity have been aroused for the sake of her child?  How confident would you have remained in the goodness of the Creator in an environment so devoid of compassion?  Yet, although she had already born all these burdens, it appears that they were merely quizzes and not her final exam.  For look at how Elijah framed his final challenge:

13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid.  Go home and do as you have said.  But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.  14 For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.’

Does not the carnal nature present within us all loudly and indignantly protest against the temerity of this command?  How speedily the following response presents itself to the mind!  “Let me get this straight.  I just told you I’m down to my last meal.  No one has helped me at all — and now you, a stranger I just met, want me to feed you before myself or my son!?!  Because my food will somehow magically replenish if I do as you say?!  Well sir, you obviously worship an amazing god if he can do that — but if that’s true, let me ask you, then: Where has he been for me all this time?!”

Hopefully, this imaginary dialogue conveys how easy it could have been for this widow to use her suffering as an occasion to accuse God, and to even feel justified for so doing.  But we see from her no protest at all.  Her actual response?

15 She went away and did as Elijah had told her.

Amazing.  In this simple act of humble compliance the widow becomes a witness establishing the veracity of the word of God, which says in Hab. 2:4, “The righteous will live by his faith”.  Her story perfectly accentuates both aspects of the duality of meaning encapsulated in this verse.  First, we see that the woman’s belief informed her action — she lived and was guided by, her faith; secondly she was delivered and lived because of her faith.  What belief could have prompted such swift and unquestioning obedience? Could it be anything other than an absolute confidence in the Goodness of God, rooted deeply in her heart ?  At this critical moment, when the rains came, the streams rose, and the winds blew, trying her to the very foundation of her soul, this belief must have echoed from within and called to her mind the certainty that even if all men should fail you, faith in the Lord is never disappointed.  How else could she have emerged victorious when given a responsibility that could only be accomplished by trusting in the One who gave it?

The question of what made this widow unique can be concluded by returning to the opening quote from Luke 4:25-26; this time with a different question in mind.  Why did Jesus direct his audience’s attention to her example?  Verse 22 of Luke 4 ends with those who were gathered in the synagogue asking, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  In answer, Jesus said, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!  Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.'”   He used the widow’s example to highlight a deficiency in their hearts and to contrast their continual demand for a sign with her ready acceptance.  Rather than requiring proof of God’s goodness, she stood firm in her conviction and refused to relinquish it even when all the evidence of her situation seemed to argue against it.  May all who seek God learn from and be inspired by her example.