Bragging or Praying? (Part Two)

Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself:God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get” (18:11-12 CSB).

A person that lacks true humility is not truly right with God. Yes, he or she might be very religious, but that is different from being right with God (18:9, 14). Consider God’s desire. For the High and Exalted One, who lives forever, whose name is holy, says this: “I live in a high and holy place, and with the oppressed and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the oppressed (Isaiah 57:15 CSB). Contrast this with 1 Peter 5:5: Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (ESV, my emphasis).

People should evaluate themselves properly. We need to ask, “How does God view me? What is my true position before him?” To help, let’s look at the Pharisee’s mistake. He compared himself with sinners worse than he assumed he was. He did not compare himself with Samuel or Daniel or Noah. Worse, he did not compare himself with God, like Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-5) and Peter (Luke 5:8) did. He failed to consider that God is completely holy and righteous. The core issue is that the saved person has had a change of mind about themselves in relation to God. He is holy (set apart for his glory), while we are not (we’re glory thieves, trying to make ourselves look good or great).

When you have an eye exam and need to have prescription glasses, the eye doctor will try out various lenses to find out which combination helps you to see most clearly. To see ourselves properly, we need to see ourselves through three Biblical lenses: the lens of creation, the lens of the fall, and, in addition, the Christian must add the lens of redemption. The unsaved person has a distorted view of reality because they don’t want to see themselves as created by God and ruined by sin. They distort or refuse to wear the first two lenses. For this reason, when we witness, we must explain a text like Romans 3:23 (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God) and not just quote it. Make sure a person understands and kindly press it home to their conscience. What about you? Have you ever compared yourself with God?

The folly of self-trust happens when a person does not realize his or her true, desperate condition before God. One of the key happenings in a genuine revival is the humbling of people before God. “Lord, you are true and righteous; we are false and sinful!” In our day, we have Christians who run around and call themselves “Reformed” and toss around the Ten Commandments as “the moral law” and “the believer’s rule of life” as if they were some kind of test of true holiness. The Pharisee in this parable would have agreed with all that and it did him no good. And where is the burning concern and zeal for the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23-24)?

Think also of the inability of works to obtain salvation and God’s approval. The Pharisee’s reliance on works failed him. He was not right with God though he was outwardly pure (18:11). Though he did “extra works”, like fasting far beyond what God had commanded in the law (18:12). He did not understand that works fail because they cannot save. For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith” (Galatians 3:10-11 NIV; cf.  Ephesians 2:8-9; Galatians 2:14-16). Are you right with God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? Or are you under God’s curse?

Grace and peace, David

Elijah: A Man Like Us (Part Two)

1 Kings 19:1-11a

There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by” (19:9b-11a NIV).

We continue to look at the great contrast in Elijah as recorded 1 Kings 18 and 19. In chapter 18, we read of Elijah standing boldly before hostile false prophets, a wicked king and people that had walked away from the Lord to worship false gods; in chapter 19 he flees from a threat of one woman, Jezebel. What caused this? We can discern four reasons. The first was that he gave way to fear, and the second was physical and spiritual fatigue. He was worn out from the events. Now, let’s think on two other reasons.

Elijah had a false view of himself, an aggravated sense of importance (19:9b-10). He justified himself. “I have been very zealous….” Do we really know ourselves well enough to ever say this? We need the evaluation of the Spirit of God. Search me, God, and know my heart;     test me and know my concerns (Psalm 139:23 CSB). Who can measure up to all that God requires? Luke 17:7-10. For example, remember the rich young man (Mark 10:20).

With a high view of himself, Elijah blamed others. “The Israelites have….” These two actions usually go together. When we think too highly of ourselves, we look down on others. Let us not imagine ourselves better than Elijah.  There are various ways we can do this. “If only brother ________ or sister ________ would _________.” “If only the pastor would ___________.” And even pastors say, “If only the people would ________.” And so Elijah exalted himself rather than humbled himself. He assumed that he was the only one left to stand for God. It is easy to fall into the trap of imagining that we are indispensable to God. The Lord corrected Elijah on this point later.

Elijah failed to work out his theology personally and practically (19:11). This was his basic problem. Too often we concentrate on the effects and not the cause. Too many incompetent doctors treat the symptoms instead of the disease. (At this point, we could talk about how to talk with your physician, but that is another subject.) Sadly, Christians do the same thing when they talk with one another or evaluate themselves. For example, we might talk with somebody battling depression or discontentment. A quick answer fails to solve the problem, such as saying, “Get more involved” or “Come (to church) expecting a blessing”. I’ve heard such shallow “cures” offered to people. We need to ask questions and seek Biblical answers. We are too impatient and too lazy. Or think of those struggling with a lack of assurance of salvation. Some want a quick answer, such as “read the verses on assurance and believe them” or “pull out your decision card”. But we should examine ourselves. Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13:5 NASB).

This is where God begins to correct Elijah. Sometimes we need to return to square one. Remember how God corrected Job in his trials (Job 38:1ff). We need to remember what we are: “the best of people are but people at their best.” No one is invulnerable, including those who are most in prayer.

It is easy to get four “F’s” on your spiritual report card. Exercise fear instead of faith; overexert your body; become puffed up, and put your theology on the shelf. However, it is better to trust, to take care of our bodies, to see ourselves in the light of God’s word, and to realize that sound teaching produces healthy living. What can you learn from Elijah today?

Grace and peace, David

The Tarnished Silver Spoon (Part Two)

Genesis 37:1-11

Joseph’s problems originated in his family. People have family problems because families are made up of sinners. It can very be easy to write on this theme. In our day of hyper-individualism, people don’t feel the need to work through issues with their family, and strife accelerates. As we look at these verses, we will see how the conflict originated and developed. However, let us not forget that the Lord would use these problems to bring about a much greater good. If you’re in family conflict today, put your hope in what God can still do for you and your family.

Three circumstances aggravated hostility toward Joseph.

The first circumstance was his Father’s preference for him. Now Israel loved Joseph more than his other sons because Joseph was a son born to him in his old age, and he made a robe of many colors for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not bring themselves to speak peaceably to him (Genesis 37:3-4 CSB). How many problems can develop between siblings, because of their parents unwise attitudes and actions!

Two phrases are unclear, but the consequences of them are. The first is born to him in his old age. This doesn’t mean that Joseph was his youngest son, because Benjamin, his full brother was. The idea probably is that after all the trials that Jacob’s beloved wife went through to have a son, Jacob specially favored Joseph. Much ink has been spilled about a robe of many colors. Whatever it was, it loudly proclaimed that dad liked Joseph best.

It is fearful the harm that can come to children through the foolishness of their parents. Parents ought never to show favoritism for one child over the others. All should be equal objects of parental love. Exploring this situation would make this article book length; therefore, I can’t dive deeper into it. Please don’t do it. Instead, notice that children often have to bear the consequences of their parents’ sins. Again, the hope is that God’s grace is greater than our sins. Yet, Joseph bore the brunt of his brothers’ anger. Proud human hearts cannot stand to have someone else preferred before one’s self. We only have to say, “Teacher’s pet” or “boss’ son” to bring numerous examples to mind. Hatred in the heart will eventually work its way out through the tongue (Matthew 12:34). Then, many complicating problems arise.

The second circumstance arose from the report Joseph made about his brothers. At 17 years of age, Joseph tended sheep with his brothers. The young man was working with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought a bad report about them to their father (Genesis 37:2 CSB). This was a complex situation to be in, and for us to understand thousands of years later. We are not told many things:

  • Jacob’s intent in sending Joseph to work with his brothers. Was he sent to learn, to spy, or simply to help?
  • Joseph’s attitude toward his brothers.
  • Joseph’s skill level in interacting with his brothers. Did he complicate the problem? Is there something he could have done?

One lesson is to avoid “psychologizing the text”. Lacking more information, we cannot suppose that we can say what was actually happening. By the way, don’t give psychological evaluations about people when you lack skill and information. It only mucks up the situation.

So then, we can make a couple observations that should be transparent.

  • While Joseph worked with his brothers, he observed some disagreeable practices by his brothers. What these were has not been recorded. A person can imagine many things, but that brings us to another lesson: Avoid speculation. One evil that recurs among Bible teachers is when a teacher speculates about a situation and then draws countless applications from their own speculations. You can see this in the paucity of Biblical references in many “Christian” books.
  • Since we don’t know what his brothers did, it is impossible to blame or to vindicate Joseph. No wise parent wants to encourage a tattle-tale, for such talk leads to more strife. On the other hand, wise parents need to know if their children are involved in serious sin.
  • The problem was that the sin of Joseph’s brothers was exposed, and they did not like it (cf. John 3:20)

The third circumstance that aggravated their hostility was Joseph’s dreams. God willing, we will consider it in our next article. But as we think about hostility problems in physical or spiritual families, it is important for us to consider if we ourselves have aggravated situations that have happened in this fallen world. We will have conflicts with those we love the most. But are we ready to follow God’s way out, when we are tempted to escalate the problems (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13). May God help you this weekend!

Grace and peace, David

Restore Truthfulness

dscn0099Psalm 12:3-4

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, The tongue that speaks great things; Who have said, “With our tongue we will prevail; Our lips are our own; who is lord over us?” (NASB)

In our previous article on Psalm 12, we heard the Psalmist David’s cry to the Lord because of the steep decline of godly people in his land. Notice that the focus is on people and not merely the actions of people. Godliness and ungodliness, truthfulness and lying are not mystical characteristics floating around in society. All these manifest themselves in the thoughts, ideas, attitudes and actions of people. True Christianity does not dwell in the realm of abstract concepts. It looks at people and desires to see people change. It also knows that only the Spirit of God can produce real, spiritual change in the hearts and lives of people. Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 NASB).

In verses three and four, David prayed that the Lord would act against those were evil communicators. We hear such people speak evil constantly. David mentioned “empty talk, smooth talk, and double talk” in verse two (Kidner, Psalms 1-72), and in verse three, flatterers again. Lies, slander, malice, and oppressive pride abound among our people. How often have we heard of verbal abuse or been targets of the same? Our political process is poisoned by those who sin with their tongues. They speak “great things” in their minds, but it is only great evil flowing out of corrupt hearts. Brood of vipers! How can you speak good things when you are evil? For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart (Matthew 12:34 HCSB).

The Psalmist’s request might make us shudder. He prayed that the Lord would cut off all flattering lips. This is a prayer, not for grace, but for judgment. David, who lived under the law covenant, prayed according to the penalty of that covenant for those who broke it. We can easily adopt that same attitude. However, we must remember that our time is the day of grace. Look, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2 HCSB). If people do not repent, God will cut them off, but we ought to pray that he will pour out his grace and mercy on the people of our land. Abusive, malicious, lying words are destroying our people.

Verse four exposes the root of their problem: It is their pride. They assume that no one rules over them. They imagine that they can achieve their goals by their words, and that they can say what they please without consequences. We all can fall into this trap. We imagine that we can say and do what we want, and if we should run into problems because of what we’ve done, we will be able to talk ourselves out of it. How many marriages have been ruined by this twisted idea! How many people oppress their coworkers with cruel or arrogant talk, confident that they have the right to injure others! But the Lord knows, and he will act in his time. Let us pray that he acts in grace before it is his time for judgment.

What people say matters to the Lord. This includes you and me. While we may become upset and angry over the abusive, malicious language around us, let us not add to it. Lord, please help us to speak words of love, kindness, and peace. Begin to restore truthfulness by changing the words we say.

Grace and peace, David

The People of the Uncertain Journey

IMG_0949Ruth 1:1-5

Last time in Ruth, we learned of a family that decided to make a journey to leave the Promised Land and the covenant people of God. They assumed that they were making a good choice. (Don’t we all assume that our choices are good and wise when we make them? Even when our choices turn out to be poor, we thought they were good at the time.) What can we learn about these people? (1:1b-2)

The story begins with the family of Elimelech, whose name means “My God is King”. He was married to Naomi, whose name means “Pleasant”. This couple had two sons: Mahlon and Kilion, but the meaning of their names is very unclear. In ancient times, names were important. Their names should make us think. Did Naomi have a pleasant life? Did Elimelech live like God was his king? If I call myself a Christian, does Jesus Christ significantly influence my life?

Their family was from the clan of Ephrath in Bethlehem, which means “House of Bread”. So we encounter our first ironic contrast. There is a famine in the “house of bread”. What will Elimelech do to provide for his family during this famine? He has a couple of options.

  • He can stay put on the land God had given him and depend on the Lord to see them through the hunger and poverty that the famine would bring.
  • He can trust his own judgment and seek a better situation, where they will not have to struggle and may in fact prosper. At this point we must ask, “Did anything clearly point to the result that Elimelech and his family would suffer lasting hardship if they remained in Bethlehem?” The answer is clearly no, since as the rest of the story shows, most stayed and prospered in the long run. We are too quick to run from difficulties that might be God’s pathway into greater blessing.

Elimelech heard that Moab was not suffering through a famine, as Israel was, and so he decided to leave the Promised Land, and go to another nation, to a people that were committed to idolatry and wickedness. We are not told what input Naomi had in this decision. She might have been willing or reluctant or had mixed feelings. But a few facts about Moab will indicate that this was not a wise decision.

  • A former king, Balak, had hired Balaam to curse Israel, when Israel was nearing the Promised Land (Numbers 22-24). So then, there were deep roots of hostility between the two people groups.
  • The women of Moab had been a stumbling stone to Israel, having seduced them to sexual immorality and the worship of false gods (Numbers 25).
  • In the early days of the Judges, Eglon, the king of Moab cruelly oppressed Israel (Judges 3). This would have been recent history for Elimelech.
  • From Israel’s earliest encounters with the Moabites, the people of Moab were called the “people of Chemosh”, the cruel, vile false god (Numbers 21:29).

Yet Elimelech decided to take his family on an uncertain journey, which might offer short-term relief, but which could also involve them in long-term tragedy. Instead of keeping them among the visible people of God, he took them to live among worshipers of false gods. People usually ignore what I’m about to say, but I’ll say it again. Before you move, be very certain you have a faithful gathering of God’s people with whom you can worship!

Elimelech and his family evidently planned to move to Moab “to live for a while” in that place. Here we encounter the principle that you can make your choices but you cannot choose the consequences of your choices.

  • No human can really discern where even insignificant choices will end. Many people have chosen to get in a car to go to the grocery store or the movies, and that was their last journey! The point is not to live in fear, because you can die in your house in your favorite chair also. Instead, the point is to avoid pride, as if you are in control of your life.
  • Though we make significant choices, God does, too (Proverbs 16:1, 4, 9). He has a plan that he is working out, and he has chosen to make our choices a part of his plan, usually in unexpected ways. For example, have you ever been in a situation where one choice seemed to require you to make another choice and then a whole series of choices that you had no intention of making when you made your first choice? More is involved than circumstances. God guides the smallest events (Proverbs 16:33; Matthew 10:29).
  • What happens to Elimelech and his family? Do they stay in Moab for just a while? “Verse 2 literally says, ‘They went to the fields of Moab, and they were there.’” [Duguid] That is what happens in life. We reach a particular place, and we sort of get stuck there. For example, when our family moved to Rural Grove, I thought we might stay there four years. My reasoning was, “If a missionary can live in a foreign country for four years, then I can serve God in the country that long!” Before I knew it, the four years became ten, and then twelve and finally fifteen. Even if we have plans, God has a way of altering them drastically.

We all like to evaluate our decisions quickly. A short-term evaluation would say that Elimelech and Naomi were doing all right. That is a constant problem with our evaluations. Present circumstances can easily mislead us. “Everything is fine!” Or, “my life stinks!” This is why we need the word of God as our basis of evaluation. It is an objective standard far more accurate than how “good” our lives seem to be. What then is the good news? As noted, God’s gracious providence is not hindered by human foolishness, as we shall see from the rest of the story. God is able to act to bring good, even when we make wrong choices that produce many problems in our lives. God’s grace is greater than our situations.

Grace and peace, David