Up and Down

dscn37922 Chronicles 20:26-37

One day I took Shelby, our old cockapoo, to the vet. During the visit the doctor and his assistant asked me about my sermon title for the week. I replied, “It’s ‘Up and Down’.” And the vet quipped, what is that about—the economy?” And I responded in jest, “No, it’s about the stock market.” Actually, this article is about neither, for which I am glad. Nor is the intent to provide a segue to talk about the negativity in our culture. For example, why don’t we say, “Down and up”? We naturally say, “Up and down,” concluding with the negative. I will leave the topic for those so disposed to ponder such esoteric matters. Instead, the title simply reflects what happened near the end of Jehoshaphat’s reign as king of Judah. By God’s grace, some positive events occurred, but by yielding to wrong desires in their hearts, some negative outcomes happened.

The blessing of the Lord acknowledged and extended (20:26-30). The people responded in praise (20:26-28).

  • They gathered to praise: a deliberate, planned praise. Some wrongly suppose that real praise must be spontaneous. It can be, but the Lord also delights in praise that flows from in planning, rehearsals and artistic compositions. It is good to plan special events of praise, such as a Thanksgiving Praise Service, in which everyone is encouraged to stand and tell others what the Lord has done for them.
  • They gathered to praise: an intense time of praise. Imagine giving yourself over to praise the Lord for a whole day! There could be times of singing, reading praise psalms together, and sharing about how the Lord has kept you and blessed you. Where does praise like this come from? It comes from the heart, because out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). They knew that the Lord had given them cause to rejoice (20:27). The reality of salvation from their enemies sparked this desire for praise. It is that same reality that ignites true praise in the people of God today.

How does this happen for us? It flows out from hearts thrilled by redeeming, cross-centered love, resurrection hope, and ascension joy. It happens as the Spirit of God takes what is true of the Lord Jesus Christ and makes it real, very real in our souls.

The Lord gave them peace (20:29-30). The message about the Lord’s victory produced fear in the unbelieving nations around them. God rules in the hearts of people. As he defeated the armies by a panic, so here he kept Judah in peace by producing great fear in the hearts of the ungodly. From Jehoshaphat’s perspective, the peace came as a gift from God. Every enemy is defeated, and they could rest. How we long for such days! Most of my life has been filled with two tragic wars: the Cold War and the War against Terrorism, in addition to Korea, Vietnam, the two Gulf Wars, and endless conflicts and civil wars around the world. How quickly that brief period of peace after the Cold War passed. Yet that is the character of the last days: wars and rumors of wars. Jehoshaphat and his people had a special blessing from God.

So then, we ought to praise the Lord for greatest peace, which is peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1). But do you have peace with God? Or do you feel a deep unrest in your soul, wondering if God is really on your side? You may have peace by believing in Jesus who died and rose again, in order that people might be right with God.

Sadly, there were false steps at the end (20:31-37). One was the incomplete reformation of religion (20:31-34). Jehoshaphat lived rightly in many ways. He sought the Lord, kept himself from idols, and tried to lead his people into total commitment to the Lord God. However, he could not accomplish two things. He failed to remove the high places, where sacrifices had been offered prior to the building of the temple. This led the people from the purity of worship that God demanded. You see, we may not worship God as we choose. The old covenant people were required to worship in Jerusalem at the temple with the sacrifices that God required. We who are God’s new covenant people must only worship God through Jesus Christ, our better temple, perfect priest and spotless sacrifice. Christ and the gospel are the focus of our ongoing relationship with God, and not a place nor a system of rituals. Today, the Reformation is still incomplete. Far too many who call themselves Christians still focus on their own “high places”, instead of the reality of Christ. Far too many seek God through ritualistic forms, instead of according to the Scriptures alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—to God alone be the glory! Let us pursue an ongoing reformation of faith and practice.

The real problem was that the people did not have a heart for God. The law could not give this. It only comes by grace, as the Spirit takes the Word and breathes life into people, so that they have a change of mind and believe in Jesus. Has this happened to you?

Almost unbelievably, Jehoshaphat made another alliance with the ungodly (20:35-37). You almost want to cry out as you read these final verses about Jehoshaphat, “No, he could not have done this! Didn’t he learn his lesson when he allied himself with Ahab?” Clearly, he had not learned. Does Jehoshaphat remind you of anyone you know very, very well… I mean yourself? Why are we so stubborn? Why don’t we learn? It is because we still have sin in us, and we fail to put it to death and to walk in faith, following Jesus Christ as Lord. We ought to live better, since we have the finished Bible and the indwelling Holy Spirit and the fellowship of other true believers. But too often we don’t. Jehoshaphat’s example is written for our instruction. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:11 NIV).

So, what happened? The Lord sent another prophet who announced the Lord’s discipline on Jehoshaphat. His grand fleet would be destroyed by the Lord. And all his dreams of more wealth through trade disappeared! Why did he act so wrongly? This is a place where the Spirit doesn’t give us all the answers. He wants us to think. Instead of wondering why he failed, use this text as a springboard to think through the reasons that you fail.

What can we learn about such matters as persevering faith, submission to the Lord and his word, contentment with what God has supplied, and staying on mission? Look at that list and think about weaknesses on your life. Circle one of them. On your own, reread this entire account about Jehoshaphat and ask the Spirit to teach you what you need from your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace, David

Good Desires (Part Two)

img_11742 Chronicles 17:1-19

The Lord God has given people desires or longings. As we live in this world, we develop other desires according to our circumstances, abilities, etc. These desires can be either holy or wicked. In this article, we think again about the good desires that Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, had.

Jehoshaphat had a desire to seek the Lord (17:3-6). Notice how this godly desire worked out in his life.

  • He followed the good example of David. It is not clear if the text should be translated like the NIV does to refer to Jehoshaphat, or as the ESV does to refer to David (“because he walked in the earlier ways of David”). Regardless, Jehoshaphat sought the Lord like David did (cf. Psalm 27:8; etc.), and so he rejected the Baals. There were many false gods worshiped in Palestine with the title of Baal (“Master”). Each one was believed to be in control of some part of nature or some place. Baal worship was the attempt to gain the favor of these so-called gods, so that a person could have a happy, prosperous life. (Hopefully, that does not describe your motivation for worshiping the living God!) Worship of the Lord emphasizes his glory and goodness in redeeming his people from sin to eternal salvation. In true worship, we are not trying to buy something from God, but we are celebrating what he freely does. We need to remember Jehoshaphat’s rejection of Baal worship when we come to the next chapter.
  • His heart was devoted or “lifted up” to the Lord. In contrast, others might lift their hearts up to other gods, human wisdom or selfish ambition. But Jehoshaphat gave his heart or inner person to the Lord and his ways. (You simply can’t give your heart to the Lord and not to the Lord’s ways. True spirituality is according to God’s word.) The principle of the first great command was operating in his heart (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). When he realized that God was his covenant Lord, he gave himself to the Lord’s lordship over him. For Jehoshaphat, this required him to structure his life around the reality of God and his relationship to him, as mediated through the law covenant (Deuteronomy 4:23-24). For us, it means confessing that “Jesus is Lord”. Christ is the ultimate loyalty for the Christian, because God the Father has made him the ultimate Lord over everything. By his death and resurrection, Christ earned absolute lordship, and he exercises it (Romans 14:9-10; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Ephesians 1:19b-23). Sip on that strong coffee for a while! Yes, that is spiritual caffeine that will really wake you up!

Comment: Some people might say that evangelical Christians are professional liars, because we say, “Jesus is Lord,” while we live contradictory to our confession. My friends, we should not try to answer that accusation with words but with lives that are devoted to Christ’s lordship. How are our lives saying that Jesus has set us free to live for God? But first, do you confess that “Jesus is Lord”? Listen to Romans 10:8-13. But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

  • His devoted heart produced godly action. He worshiped according to the law covenant, and not according to the ways of false religion, like the practices of Israel invented by Jeroboam I (cf. 1 Ki 12), or the polytheistic practices of the Canaanites. He did his best to remove the religious perversions of Asherah (the goddess associated with Baal or even with God in false religious practice). The high places had sacred stones that were supposed to contain the Baals. We must worship the Lord in his way, which he has clearly revealed in the Bible.

This weekend, think about the way you worshiped. First, did you gather with other believers? Second, did your worship conform to the pattern set forth in the New Testament Scriptures? How do you know that it did? Third, what good results came from your worship? Did it transform you and others?

Grace and peace, David

Following a Good Example (Part One)

img_10002 Timothy 3:10

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness… (ESV).

Last week we thought about following bad examples (models, patterns). In our text from this week’s Bible reading, we read of a good example to follow. (A gentle nudge: please join us in our weekly Bible readings. Replace a half hour of television each day with the Holy Scriptures.) You will notice the dots above at the end of verse. Paul went on to talk about his example of suffering persecution, but addressing that now would make this article rather long. Let’s concentrate on the parts of his good example to Timothy and others listed above.

Every believer in God in this new covenant age is, of necessity, a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). Other verses make the same point. But as I have written other times, the Lord also provides other people to be good models for us. For this reason, Paul did not hesitate to affirm Timothy in following him, because Paul followed Christ. Timothy had rejected the evil examples of most people who live in the last days (3:1-9). Notice this. Timothy had been a faithful co-worker in the gospel for many years, since the early days of Paul’s second missionary journey. Yet Paul did not hesitate to encourage his friend. Life in the difficult times of the last days (3:1) requires us to build up and to encourage each other. Paul did not hesitate to encourage a minister of the gospel, which Timothy was. Well-meaning believers wrongly suppose that they encourage the minister in their local church or the leader of their small group by saying, “That was a nice message or good lesson!” That is part of the wrong thinking that pervades “edifice” or “institutional” churches. Fellowship (sharing of life) requires much more than saying pleasant phrases to each other, however kind the intent. Every believer needs to be encouraged in the ways of the Lord. We all need to be in small groups in order to share life and not mere clichés.

Paul commends Timothy for seven ways he followed him. Notice the repeated “my” that lays emphasis on each item he mentions. Each part is essential to the whole. The Christian way of life is not cafeteria or buffet style. It is comprehensive, which accounts for some of its difficulty and need for the Spirit’s power. It is relatively easy to persuade someone to make a few changes to his/her way of life where they recognize the need for change. But minimal, selective change is insufficient.  Such a person lacks understanding of what it means to follow Christ. Our Lord never says, “Pick a few items off this list that you feel you like or might be able to accomplish.” He demands that we follow him completely and from the heart. If you have halted in your growth in grace, it is not because you think what Christ is too hard. In fact, you have underestimated its difficulty. It is impossible (cf. John 15:5). You need to draw fresh strength from the Lord to follow him in every area. We’ll start with comments of the first two ways.

  • “My teaching” – The necessity of sound teaching is disregarded in our time. Many want what is inspirational, exciting, stern, humorous, chic, cutting-edge, traditional, or mysteriously spiritual (“it felt like God was there”). What each of the preceding doesn’t want is teaching that challenges and changes the way they think! It is part of the anti-God way of “the flesh”, which hates God’s words. There is far too much love of the opinions of the world. Paul’s teaching was built on and around the truth of the Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel (good news). Timothy grasped this and his thinking was transformed by the truth of Jesus and the gospel. God changes us as the Holy Spirit takes the teaching of Jesus and the apostles and uses it by his power to change the thoughts and ideas and attitudes of our hearts. Apart from this change, we easily drift back into our former ways. We must have teaching, not to accumulate information, but to develop practically the ways of Christ’s new kingdom in us. His teaching builds Christ-like character as we learn from him.
  • “My conduct” – The Greek word used occurs only here in the New Testament Scriptures. It has the idea of a kind of life or conduct that results from a particular upbringing. Paul was brought up in the gospel after his conversion and led by the Spirit to conduct himself in a gospel-formed way. Timothy followed Paul in that same upbringing. When we are “baby Christians”, we need to be brought up in new conduct. Yes, honest inquirer or new believer, a person’s conduct can change.

I often walk at Valley Forge Park. If I park my car in the parking lot nearest my house, the trail to the trails starts with a long, steep climb. It can look discouraging the first few times. But repeated walks help the walker to know that the trails are doable. Following Christ and the apostles and others following Christ might seem intimidating. But the Holy Spirit is the believer’s friend and uses these examples to transform us. Would you like to take a walk?

Grace and peace, David

Following a Bad Example

IMG_3122Genesis 26:7-11

The Lord provides his followers or learners with much instruction in his word. All of us need the teaching of God’s word in our daily walk with the Lord. The Spirit of God uses the teaching of the word to develop Christ-likeness in us. At times he uses the commands and exhortations of the word. At others he uses wisdom teaching (like in the Proverbs). He also uses the “big picture story” to provide clarity to our thinking and to help us understand life. The Holy Spirit directs us with good and bad examples that provide patterns that we should follow or avoid.

Isaac did not have the Scriptures, and so he lacked these forms of instruction. He had the traditions of what God had revealed to Adam, Enoch, Noah, and his own father Abraham. He also had the clear instruction that we considered in our previous article. However, that is the sum of what he had from God to direct his way of life. (The conscience is not a guide. It merely accuses or excuses according to what a person thinks is right or wrong. Compare Romans 2:15.)

We need to remember these things as we consider the reading for today. What did Isaac know? He knew God’s promise that the Lord would be with him and would bless the nations of the world through his offspring. This was a tremendous promise to Isaac. God intended that Isaac build his world and life view in conformity with this word from God. He had every reason to be very confident in every situation of his life. He could expect God to act for his good (cf. Romans 8:28). Yet Isaac was human and sinful like all of us. He did not trust God to protect Rebekah, his children, and himself, in what appeared to be a dangerous situation.

Isaac became afraid when the men of the area, ruled by the Philistines, asked about Rebekah. He knew that she was beautiful; in fact, she was very beautiful (24:16). Let us pause the story for a moment. God had given marriage between one man and one woman as a gift to all people. This was long before the teachings of the Bible about sexual morality and marriage. People across the world have honored marriage throughout human history, and have respected in some manner the relationship that a husband and wife have to each other; namely, that it is wrong to violate the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. Certainly, people have committed adultery through ages, and that is always sinful. Although people commit adultery, they know it is wrong, even if they might be unable to give a biblical explanation for its sinfulness. For this reason, Isaac’s thoughts went in another direction: “If they know that this beautiful woman Rebekah is married to me, they will kill me so that they can take her.” Violence as well as sexual immorality is part of mankind’s sinful story. Now, let’s resume the account.

Isaac came up with a plan, which was the same plan that his father Abraham had twice used when he and Sarah went to Egypt and when they returned to Canaan (cf. Genesis 12:1-20; 20:1-20). It was a wrong plan. Regardless of the fact that the Lord had twice rescued Abraham and Sarah from evil consequences, Isaac had no right to follow his father’s poor example. We all need to act godly and boldly to break “generational sin patterns”. Isaac told people that Rebekah was his sister, instead of his wife. This was a sin against God, his wife, and the Philistines. He lied before God and to the Philistines, he disrespected his wife and failed to protect her chastity, and acted in fear rather than in faith.

At first, Isaac’s plan seemed to “work”. Sinful plans can seem to work. Wicked people can prosper in their ungodly ways. But God’s word warns us that they do not “work” forever (Psalm 73:15-20). Isaac thought he could pull of his deception while having secret getaways with his wife. But one night the Philistine king discovered Isaac and Rebekah having a rather amorous rendezvous.  He came to the quick and correct conclusion that they were married.

The Philistine ruler confronted Isaac with the deception and demanded an explanation. Isaac did the right thing and told him. To his surprise, Abimelech protected Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac discovered he had nothing to fear, and that his deception of the Philistines was needless.

Let us learn from Isaac’s mistake of following bad examples, including those we have “inherited” from our parents. Our Lord expects us to follow him, and not be blind followers of parents, or friends for that matter. The word of God is the standard for the Christian’s behavior and not what others appear to get away with doing. If others have set you an evil example of anger or lying or gossip, by God’s grace in Christ, you can walk in new ways of righteousness. May the Lord help all of us to avoid bad examples!

Grace and peace, David