Monthly Archives: June 2014

Jonah

Imagine going to a theater and watching a play, and seeing one of the bit players—someone with a mere couplet to recite—who attempts to upstage the star of the show. He stands in front of the lead actor, and says much more than he’s been given to say. He frolicks and jumps and makes a complete buffoon of himself in a sordid attempt to be the star of the show. Eventually, security escorts him off the stage and the play goes on, uninterrupted. If Shakespeare was right that all of life’s a stage and we are merely players, the star of this show is the love of God. Why do we bit players always insist on making it about ourselves?

 

1This displeased Jonah greatly, and he became very angry.

2And he prayed to the LORD and said, “Ah, LORD! Was this not my word when I was in my land? Therefore I acted before to flee to Tarshish because I know that You are merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love, and Who relents of calamity.”

3And now, LORD, take my life from me, because it is better to die than to live.

4And the LORD said, “Are you really so very angry?”

5Then Jonah left the city and sat down east of it. He made a shelter for himself there and sat down under it in the shade to see what would happen to the city.

 


 

6And the LORD God appointed a little plant and caused it to grow over Jonah to be shade over his head, to rescue him from his misery. Now Jonah rejoiced greatly about the little plant.

7The LORD God appointed a worm at dawn the next day, and it struck the little plant, so that it dried up.

8When the sun began to shine, the LORD appointed a hot east wind. So the sun beat down on Jonah’s head and he became faint. So he despaired of life, and asked said “It is better to die than to live.”

9And the LORD said to Jonah, “Are you so very angry about the little plant?” He said, “I am as angry as I can be!”

10The LORD said, “You had pity on the little plant, for which you did not work, nor did you make it grow. It grew overnight and died the next day.

11Should I not pity Ninevah, that great city that has more than 120,000 people in it who do not know right from wrong—and also many animals?”

 

Jonah is an earlier prophet; he is writing just prior to the Assyrian captivity, and consequently still has a homeland. His story is interesting on many levels, but perhaps the most forgotten one is his own ego. This is not really a story about redemption, although he and the Assyrians receive it. It is not really a story about miraculous deliverance, though he and the Assyrians receive that. It is a story about one man’s narcissism and how God was able to demonstrate His love to mankind despite it. We note that God calls Jonah to warn the vicious foreigners, the Assyrians, in chapter 1. As a Jew, Jonah would no doubt have loved to have seen this people destroyed by God. For whatever reason, he refuses God’s call and runs away. God is not Someone Who can be escaped, so He gets Jonah’s attention through a harrowing experience in the deep (2). Jonah’s poem after being spit out on dry land is telling inasmuch as it is a confession of his own weakness and God’s sovereignty and strength. He praises God for rescuing him from the depths of Sheol, and he is fired up about going to preach God’s word to the Assyrians. A surprising thing happens, though: the Assyrians repent of their sins after hearing his preaching, and they become YHWH-fearers. This is too much for Jonah: he had thought that he was going to be powerful prophet of destruction and a violent representative of the frightening Creator. His anger and disappointment in chapter 4 represent the most anticlimactic ending to any story in the Bible; there is no easy resolution to Jonah’s attitude problem. But the overarching theme of all scripture shines through as the reader sees God’s love for mankind—even a bitter, Gentile enemy of God’s people. God demonstrated His love toward the Assyrians despite Jonah’s prejudice and hatred. The point of the prophecy exercise was to save the Assyrians, not destroy them. Jonah wanted the story to be about him, and it was really about God.

 

We know about as much of God’s plan as Jonah. We don’t’ understand much of what He is doing, and the more we try to figure it out the worse our attitude can frequently get. What is often forgotten in the ego-driven haze of our own personal rescue is that God feels that way about everybody. He wants everyone to be saved. He has kept you alive on this side of eternity to help bring others to Him. It’s true that He loves you, and pursued you even though He needn’t. It’s true that His great love for you rescued you from a terrible fate. But it’s also true that He feels that way about those around you. The lost people in your life need Jesus, and your existence here on earth is all about that. It’s not about the work you do to provide for yourself or your family. It’s about the love He has for your neighbors.

 

Chapter 4 tells us that Jonah sat down and pouted angrily. How are we any different when we bury ourselves in our own lives while the lost continue on, Savior-less? This show wasn’t about you after all; it was always about Him and His great love. You’re not the star; you’re merely playing a bit role that He’s given you. Play it and demonstrate His love to others. His love is the real star of the show.

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Obadiah

The prophet Obadiah, writing around 587 B.C., delivers a blistering message to all those who stand against Israel. The nation of Edom is a representative of pagan, anti-Semite nations. The time-bomb of anti-Semitism will, according to Obadiah, eventually explode in the faces of the enemies of Israel. This includes blood relatives who rise up against God’s people. This is the theology of the Abrahamic covenant; God is keeping His word to Abraham, even all these years later. He may have allowed these nations to punish or correct Israel’s apostasy and idolatry, but He’s not about to let them get away with it, so to speak. Obadiah speaks in verse 15 of the “Day of the Lord,” which we’ve seen in the previous two books, as well. He speaks of it as a day of judgment for Edom and salvation for Israel. Of course, we 21st-century folks are familiar with such an animal as “Israel,” because she now has a homeland and has defeated multiple nations who have come against her in the last 60 years. We also know that the Day is coming when the Judge of the all the earth will return and make things ultimately right, including judgment on those who opposed His people—whether the literal nation of Israel or the Church.

 

Be encouraged today. We’ve seen the back of the book. We know who wins. The mission you’re on right now is undefeatable, because it is His mission and He leads it. The same God Who hadn’t forgotten His promise to Abraham in Obadiah is also watching after you. He will make smooth that which is crooked, and will make right that which has been so long wrong. Trust Him and His timing today in this “in-between” phase.

 

Joel, Amos

In the time of the Assyrian captivity, the nation of Israel has fallen into disrepair and needs prophets of the living God to rise up and instruct her in the way that she should go. Her path needs correction, and these prophets aid in that process. Among them is Joel, who reminds her that God is ultimately the God of mercy Who seeks to reconcile her to Himself: “rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious sand merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness…” (2.13). The emphasis here is on the authenticity of repentance being greater than the outward show of it. He promises a vast filling of mankind with the Holy Spirit in the last days (2.28-32)—a prophecy that began to come true in Acts 2 when the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. Joel also reminds God’s people that the ultimate great reckoning will one day take place: the Day of the Lord, which will NOT be a happy time for mankind. Throughout all of history, man has set himself up against God. At that time, God will swat down that rebellion once and for all (3).

 

Writing just prior to Joel was Amos, a shepherd from Tekoa (1.1). He is quite humble about his beginnings, and gives us a glimpse into his call, giving the credit for his ministry to God Almighty (7.14-15). Once again, he reminds God’s people to not disdain the word of the prophets (3.7); God speaks to and through them. He reminds them that the Day of the Lord will be no cakewalk, and should not be looked forward to as an event to attend. It will be a day of great darkness and judicious retribution (5.18-20). Most disturbing is the prediction that the day will come when there will be a famine of God’s word…people will lose their appetite for His word (8.11-13), and will seek it elsewhere.

 

Even today, God is moving in the midst of His people, and He has given them prophets and apostles and encouragers and exhorters who remind His people of His word. These people do not say anything that does not line up with the word of God as it has been given to us through the Bible—or else they’re not prophets. We are not to disdain them, for that would be like the eye saying to the ear, “I don’t really need you….I have a nose already!” Neither do we need to overemphasize the contribution of such folks; we need, rather, a balance in the church between the established word of God and the word spoken through His prophets (which agrees with the Bible). We should understand that the time is short and that we need to make disciples before it is too late.

 

Perhaps most confounding is the prophecy in Amos about the famine of God’s word. People have no appetite for His word any more. It’s boring. They’d rather see a slick production that boils it down for them. If they’re Christians, they don’t even want to bring their Bibles to church any more—they think they’re more “relevant” if they just read the scripture on a power point screen. The contempt and disdain that we have shown God’s word shows up in our neo-Pentecostalism—the belief that the subjective and mystical “word” of knowledge that comes to an individual is capable of standing alone as spiritual inspiration. It has shown up in our atheistic culture that minimizes the significance of the Bible. It shows up in our pastoral ministries where pastors prefer programs to quiet meditation and reflection on His word. Most egregiously, it shows up in God’s people—who often never crack open the Bible during the week at all.

 

I watched a show the other night about people who had escaped famous cults. I was struck by how many of them were in California, and it was a particularly head-shaking experience to hear people talk about how they had wandered into the cult because they had been “seeking truth.” The truth has been on every nightstand in America for 200 years, but these people had disdained it and gone searching for it elsewhere. The postmodern Millennials in college are doing the same thing—disdaining His word in favor or existentialist philosophy.

 

So “eat up” while you can. The famine is upon us, and you may be responsible for feeding another His word soon.

Hosea 7-12

Once again, God desires to show חֶסֶד to His people. She has been unfaithful to Him, yet He desires to be faithful to her. The Hebrew term חֶסֶד is a word that means “mercy” or “tender mercy” or “loyal love” or “faithfulness.” This is the key word of the entire book: in the face of horrific unfaithfulness, God yet shows faithfulness. He tells His people “sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you” (10.12). If they will turn their efforts to exhibiting the same loyal love to Him, that will serve as a sort of “tilling” of the ground—into which is planted His righteousness that will sustain them. He goes on to tell them that “I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him” (12.4). One of the things that makes God God is his חֶסֶד; it takes divine agency for us to demonstrate an ounce of it, but He freely gives it to us.

 

I am alive today because of His חֶסֶד. I can love others because of His חֶסֶד. How dare I not show others some semblance of the love that He’s shown me? Today, let us not stand in defiance on the tiny hill of “but I’m right and the other person is wrong,” and let’s retreat to the mountain of חֶסֶד. Love others as He has loved you.

 

 

 

Hosea 1-6

I had a professor many years ago who gave me a special assignment to research the meaning of love. She insightfully had realized that I had a poor understanding of love, and that it had caused me to be harmed—and to harm others with my self-centeredness. It wasn’t until many years later, when my family fell apart and my marriage hovered on the brink of divorce that I learned what love was. It was the moment that my exasperated wife suggested that I give up my apartment and come home—not because we felt anything positive toward each other, but because she wanted to behave like a person who loved. She had taken this advice from C.S. Lewis in one of his works: “when you find it hard to love someone, act toward them as though you do…and then you will.” That action on her part initiated the reconciliation that resulted in the rebuilding of our marriage. I’ve since counseled many couples, and one of the things I hear the most from lesser-experienced people is the stubborn insistence that there are biblical and legal grounds for divorce. Jesus Himself put this view in the trash heap of history when He argued that Mosaic legal exceptions were granted to assuage the hardness of the human heart (Mk 10.5)—in God’s plan, mercy and love trump “being right” and “moral high ground” any day of the week. It’s all right there in the book of Hosea.

 

[6.6]

For I delighted in mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

 

Hosea is a prophet during the Assyrian captivity, and his time of ministry is roughly from 750-715 B.C. He has a unique problem: God has instructed him to be an object lesson. God tells him to marry a prostitute (1.2), which would have been the ultimate humiliation for any Jewish man. He marries Gomer, and she has a son named Jezreel (“God scatters”). Then she has a daughter named La –Ruhamah (“No Compassion”). The spiritual adultery of apostasy is front and center during the real-life example of adultery that Gomer represents in this story. Despite her “whoredoms,” as the KJV puts it, Hosea was told to love and forgive her, and take her back to him. We learn the valuable insight from God that “my people perish from lack of knowledge” (4.6), and in chapter 6 we learn what kind of knowledge has truly been lacking: the knowledge of God. They have forgotten their first love, their Divine Rescuer. They have conflated the rituals of worship with the true faithful worship of the living God. He tells them that His desire was always for mercy and not burnt offerings, and this will become a touchstone of New Testament teaching later when Christ rebuts the Pharisees’ legalism with God’s mercy.

 

Just like Gomer, we’ve been unfaithful to God—yet He’s forgiven us and reconciled us to Himself. He had the legal “right” to divorce, but He tells us in Malachi that He hates divorce (2.16). He loves reconciliation. He loves mercy. He loves forgiveness and true active love. And that’s why He paid whatever price was necessary to reconcile us to Himself. There are two applications of this reading today:

 

First, if you have not yet been reconciled to God, do so. He extends the offer of mercy and forgiveness and growth to you today. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, as long as you can admit your fallibility and your sinfulness and trust in His Son for righteousness, He wants to forgive you and make you His.

 

Second, it is instructive to those of us who have been reconciled to God. We have been forgiven—through no merit of our own—and therefore should pay less attention to legalistic ritual in our dealings with others and more attention to replicating the kind of mercy, forgiveness and love that God extended to us. Reconcile with your enemies and opponents today. Our first priority is to love as He loved, and to that end when we hold grudges we fail to follow His model. We are Gomer, who was wrong. Why is it so important to us to be right?

 

It’s easy to appreciate love when you’ve been Gomer. Show it to others today.

Daniel 7-12

[12.1-3]

At that time Michael shall stand up, the great prince, the protector of the sons of your people, and there will be a time of distress such as has never occurred since there was a nation to that time. And at that time your people will be delivered—all whose name is found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake—some to eternal life, and some to eternal shame and contempt. But those who are wise will shine brightly as the brightness of the sky, and those who turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever.

 

The book of Daniel is an example of apocalyptic literature. It is highly figurative, contains symbolic and metaphorical imagery, and concerns itself with end-time (eschatological) themes. Apocalyptic literature typically is written in a sort of “code” against some tyrannical authority of the time; that’s why this book is so closely aligned with Revelation, also written during a time of pagan persecution. The first part of Daniel is largely historical, but the second half is eschatological. There is a large emphasis on predictive prophecy, which causes no small discomfort to liberal scholars. This discomfort with the accuracy of predictive prophecy causes them to find fault with the dating of Daniel, and the trend among many liberal scholars is to give it a late date—so that the details of many of these prophecies will be “past” and not “future.” But all real scholarship that remains objective about its pursuit for truth places the date of this book between 530-535 B.C. Larry Waters writes that the entire reason for mis-dating Daniel is that it allows liberal scholars to continue to see the Bible as a mere book—this is hardly objective scholarship: “The widely held view is that it is largely fictional rests on the modern philosophical assumption that long-range predictive prophecy is impossible. Therefore they date Daniel’s predictions to be composed no earlier than the Maccabean period (2nd century B.C.) after the fulfillments had taken place.” Ultimately, eschatology should not be something frightening, but something hope-infusing. Both Daniel and Revelation are written to give hope to a crushed peoples—a lasting hope that the Creator YHWH will ultimately set things right in the end. Daniel speaks twice in this book of a list of kingdoms, and correctly predicts the identity and order of known-world dominion for the future: Babylon, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman. Daniel writes of “70 weeks” and there are two ways of looking at this. One can either take the 70 weeks quite literally, as does Dr. Waters in this chart:

Picture1

The first 69 weeks are documented history that leads to the triumphal entry of the Messiah into Jerusalem. There is an interval of time before the 70th week begins, and that 70th week takes place at the Second Coming of the Messiah. Or one could see the 70 weeks figuratively, without having to be nailed down on a historical specificity. In either way, orthodoxy can be preserved. The ultimate truth to be gleaned from this is that The Good Guy does win in the end. An enemy raises himself up against Christ, and is defeated (8); this enemy is called antichrist in the New Testament. Most interestingly is Daniel’s specificity regarding the resurrection of the dead. Note that he predicts eternal life and eternal damnation, and that it is physical. Neither the righteous nor the damned are disembodied spirits, but are resurrected body-soul beings like you and me. The damned will be resurrected to eternal shame (), and this Hebrew word specifically carries the connotation of shame or disgrace or one who is unmarried or uncircumcised. Considering that the righteous are always referred to as the bride of Zion (Old Testament) or the Bride of Christ (New Testament), to be part of the “unmarried” is to be rejected. Considering that circumcision was the mark of the faithful in the Old Testament, and that Paul argues that spiritual circumcision is now that same mark in the New Testament, to be uncircumcised (spiritually) is to be outside of the community of Christ. The shame and disgrace of having rejected God and His Son Jesus Christ will belong to those who were too prideful to admit their sin, repent and accept His gracious gift of eternal life. On the other side of the ledger, there is great reward for those who “turn many to righteousness.” One final note: Rob Bell and other universalists have tried to make a cottage industry out of explaining that “olam” in Hebrew does not mean “forever.” Daniel 12.1-3 is one of several places that it cannot be translated otherwise; therefore, either Bell is right about there being no eternal punishment or Daniel is right about there being exactly that. My money’s on Daniel.

 

Our hope is resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15 lays this out specifically, and no orthodox Christian should doubt this. There will be a resurrection of the dead. If you have trusted Christ for your salvation, you will be resurrected to eternal life. If you trusted only yourself, then you will have rejected Him—and will be resurrected to eternal shame and disgrace and separation from God in eternal punishment. You’re backing someone’s play: either Christ’s or Antichrist’s. Make your choice—but remember who wins in the end.

 

Daniel 1-6

I was disheartened and depressed in January 2010. I had moved my family from their comfort zones in south Texas to come to Dallas and attend seminary. Now, by January, having been unable to secure a job to support my family, many bills were being unpaid. Among them was my tuition bill. Despite our plans and the direction of God, I had just had to drop out of seminary. It was a crushing blow, and not the last we were to endure before God sent a job and scholarship my way. But as my wife and I prayerfully considered the meaning of this terrible moment, we both made up our minds that no matter what happened—we were still faithful to Him. Even if He didn’t rescue us when and how we felt He should have—nothing changed about our allegiance to Him. It was a difficult but exhilarating moment.

[3.16-18]

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, saying, “We do not need to be careful to answer you in this matter. If it is so, our God Whom we serve is able to deliver you from the furnace of blazing fire, and from your hand, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods, or worship the golden image you have set up.

 

 

It is somewhere around 580 B.C. The exiles have been dragged to Babylon, and many of them are made slaves in the court of Nebuchadnezzar. Among them are four young men who would become famous for their faith in the midst of adversity: Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The story begins with the young men doing something so simple that many overlook it: blooming where they were planted. They were servants of the living God, and the Babylonian customs and food were foreign to them. Just because they were ensconced in a foreign culture didn’t meant that they would give up on worshipping their God. Even in a simple dietary matter of chapter 1, they quietly took a stand, and the result was a special type of favor they were granted in the court. By chapter 2, a real crisis has swept through the kingdom: Nebuchadnezzar has had a dream that requires interpretation, and he doesn’t trust the prophets and seers in the kingdom. Daniel is among those who have been separated out and developed for his gifts of knowledge, wisdom, and prophecy. As the crisis unfolds to a tragic conclusion, Daniel blooms where he has been planted: he simply employs the gift he’s been developing. He is calm, patient, and 100% convinced that God provides the answers he needs. The result: he and his friends are elevated to a special place in the court, and their God is honored by Nebuchadnezzar (2.47). Next, Nebuchadnezzar sets up the golden image of himself to be worshipped by all. In the polytheistic Babylonian culture, this wouldn’t have been a big deal, but to a Jew this was the ultimate apostasy: the violation of the very first commandment. And so Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to go along. Particularly noteworthy is their rebuttal to the furious king: “we do not need to be careful to answer you in this matter” is another way of saying that there was no reason to build any kind of defense case for themselves. If God wills it, He’s able to deliver them from Nebuchadnezzar’s hands. In fact, they say in verse 17, He WILL deliver them—somehow, some way. The next sentence is interesting: “But if not…” indicates that they understood full well that their God was able but not necessarily willing to rescue them from this situation. And their allegiance to Him was unswerving, even in such a terrible instance. How frightened they must have been as they realized that they faced being burned alive for this allegiance! They knew God could do it, and perhaps they imagined any one of a hundred ways He might swoop down out of heaven and do it. But they were equally prepared to die for this allegiance, and to die horribly and painfully. When Nebuchadnezzar looks into the furnace of blazing fire and sees the fourth person—one “like unto the Son of God” (3.25)—he once again gives glory to their God (3.26-30). We’ll see the paradigm played out again when Daniel—by now old, during the time of Darius—is thrown into the lions’ den for refusing to cease his praying to YHWH. Once again, a pagan king follows through with a death sentence of the faithful, who have done nothing more than bloom where he is planted and be obedient to God. And once again, a divine rescue takes place that results in the pagan king glorifying YHWH (6.26).

 

Daniel’s credibility as a servant of YHWH was established in chapter 1 with his faithfulness and wisdom there. Like him, we have been planted in a pagan culture that does not recognize God Almighty or His Son, Jesus Christ. Normally, when pastors share the fiery furnace story, we love to emphasize the nonconformist aspect of it—the stubborn faith of the young men in the face of adversity. I think this is significant, as well—but I want to draw your attention to those terrible words:

 

“But if not…”

 

We all know that God can deliver us from financial crisis, health problems, or anything else we can imagine. We know that He is able, and we trust that He will. Many of us have remarkable stories of divine rescue that cannot be repeated enough—they are encouraging reminders of who the Lord is and what He does. But occasionally, just like with our family in January 2010, we run into a situation in which we have to face the terrible possibility that He won’t behave in the way that we’ve assumed He will. His divine rescue of us won’t take place—at least the way we would have imagined.

 

“But if not…”

 

Are we still committed to Him? Does He still have our allegiance? If our destiny is the furnace of blazing fire, do we still remain committed to a faith that hasn’t magically produced some extra money, or more people in church, or tuition costs, or divine healing? The fiery furnace and the lions’ den are both very lonely places: there, we are alone with the God Who has seemingly abandoned us. It is the place where our faith derives its greatest strength. Ultimately, the end result of all of these episodes is glory to God’s name: if the pagan kings can’t help but acknowledge Him, those around you will also do the same.

 

Stand still and see the deliverance of your God today. He will deliver you, somehow. But if not….trust Him anyway. You exist to glorify His name. Just remember that there is no spectacular rescue until there is a fiery furnace.