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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Open Study Discussion: Faith

Hi all,

For this study, please read Luke 18:1-30 and all of Hebrews 11.

In Luke 18:8, Jesus asked, “However when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”.  How do you interpret the intention of his question?  After all, there are many aspects and applications of faith — even superstitions are a form of faith.  Do you take it to mean that it’s likely that faith will not exist at all prior to the Lord’s return, or was Jesus concerned with a narrower focus on the subject? Consider your answer in light of verses 1-30.

Starting with the parable of the persistent widow, what belief(s) might she have had that could have motivated  and reinforced her persistence?

Now please turn to Hebrews 11 and analyze the examples of Cain and Abel, highlighted in verse 4.  Are there any parallels between them and the Pharisee and tax collector from Luke 18:9-14? If so, what are they?  Also, please consider the following questions:

  1. How can Abel still be speaking, even though he is dead?
  2. If he is still speaking, what is his message?

Returning to Luke 18, please discuss the faith demonstrated by the people in verse 15 and what we can learn from verses 16-17.

Next, what can be learned about the beliefs held by the rich ruler from his conversation with Jesus? What was the “one thing” he lacked?  Why is it hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God?  And to close out Luke 18 and segue back to Hebrews 11, what is the theme that ties verses 1-30 together?  What connection is there between Luke 18:29-30 and Hebrews 11:6?

Finally, Hebrews 11 recounts several individual examples of applied faith. Please isolate the specific action taken in each case and then discuss what the individual must have believed in order to take the action they did.

 

 

 

The Exodus and the Christian Journey out from Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. 

“Be still and know that I am God”

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

The transliterated sentence is Râphâh yâda’ ‘elôhîym.

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

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

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

Yâda’ means

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

‘Elôhîym means ‘God, the (true) God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

 

Why did Jesus have to die?

Why did Jesus have to die for our sins?  Because of the Holiness of God.  Death is God’s ultimate condemnation of sin; His pronouncement that sin cannot be allowed to continue.  This is made self-evident by the fact that the individual who has died ceases to sin.  But God did not create man to exist but for a fleeting moment, only to fade from memory upon death.  No, He desires for us to live forever; to be with Him for all eternity.  Yet if our Lord had not willingly sacrificed himself, the resurrection of man would have been rendered impossible because then the penalty for sin would not have been fully paid.  A sacrifice that costs little or nothing cannot truly be regarded as a sacrifice.  If an individual’s death was only temporary, and all men were to be eventually resurrected with no other sacrifice required, God would be merely winking at sin.  Death would be a token punishment — like giving a time-out to a murderer.  The fact that God’s only begotten Son had to die illustrates how seriously God condemns sin, and highlights His holy character.

 

By virtue of his sinless life, Jesus was without guilt.  Consider the offering he made by his willingness to die.  To offer means to present for acceptance or rejection.  When he offered himself unblemished to God and died upon the cross, our Lord was requesting that all guilt for sin be transferred onto himself, and petitioning that God would accept his death on our behalf as full payment for sin.  His sacrifice was and is the only perfect offering that exists; the only one God could accept — all others would, of necessity, be rejected.  If it were not so, the judgement against sin would be incomplete, imperfect and inconsistent with God’s character.  When He resurrected His Son, the Father showed that Jesus’s sacrifice was pleasing and acceptable to Him.  Because of this, men and women everywhere can have complete confidence that the way to eternal life now stands open for all who desire to be a part of God’s family.

 

Let all God’s children praise His Wisdom and Holiness; comprehend the full magnitude of what our Messiah did for us; and give thanks to the Father and His Son forever and ever!