Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Grass Season

It's lawn mowing season again. It's time for Dads everywhere to bust out their short shorts, dark socks, and white tennis shoes. It's time to do manly stuff in the yard while simultaneously showing the world that our pasty legs haven't seen the sun since last summer. There are a few things we can be certain of this time of year. 1) Our daughters will be mortified by our lack of fashion sense. 2) Our allergies will flare up mercilessly. 3) And the grass will grow endlessly. That means that this is a good time of year to consider what God's Word says about the wicked. Psalm 92:7 says, "Though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever."

It often appears that those who disobey God's commands are winning in the game of life. Their popularity, fame and riches increase and we're tempted to envy them. But we must remember that they are like the grass which is easily scorched in the heat of the summer. In ancient Palestine dry grass was even used as fuel for fires due to lack of firewood (ESV Footnote on Luke 12:28). So what Jesus says is true. The grass that is alive in the field today is thrown into the oven tomorrow (Luke 12:28). The psalmist uses this image of grass to remind us that God's judgment has already been pronounced on the wicked. They shoot up quickly like the grass, but just like the grass they will be mowed down in their prime.

Compare the wicked to what the psalmist has to say about the righteous. Psalm 92:12-14- "The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green." It appears that the palm tree the psalmist compares the righteous to is the date palm which has a long life and produces fruit (ESV Footnote on Psalm 92:12-15). These are two things that grass does not do. But why the cedar? Cedars of Lebanon were widely considered to be the best trees in the world for use in building. But there is more to it than this.

Though the selection of these trees may seem insignificant to you, they allow the psalmist to add a beautiful layer of double meaning for his original readers. I believe this psalm may have been written at a time when Solomon's temple was still standing because the author is drawing on images from that temple. The psalmist speaks of the righteous being "planted in the house of the LORD" and "flourishing in the courts of our God." According to I Kings 5 and 6, both of these trees played a key role in Solomon's temple. The temple itself was constructed out of cedars of Lebanon overlaid with gold while the inside of the temple was covered in carvings of palm trees. The psalmist ultimate point is that the righteous will enter God's presence but he pulls in a powerful image to accomplish it. In essence, he says the righteous are like the cedars used to make God's house, they are like the palm trees engraved on the walls of the temple. In Heaven they will get to spend every day in God's presence, watching what He is doing. What a beautiful image! How much better is the end of the righteous man than that of the wicked!

So when your progress in this life seems slow, when it appears that the wicked are passing you by, and when you are tempted toward despair or envy- remember the grass. Remember what the wicked man's end will be. They will be cast out of God's presence into outer darkness (Matthew 22:13). And remember the end of the righteous, dwelling in the midst of God's glorious presence forever. May this motivate us all to persevere in the way we should go.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Polycarp and Praise

I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations. For I said, “Steadfast love will be built up forever; in the heavens you will establish your faithfulness.”
Psalm 89:1-2

"Polycarp of Smyrna was a prominent pastor who had personally known the apostle John. When several Christians were executed at the arena in Smyrna- a city in modern Turkey- the crowd began to chant, 'Find Polycarp!' When confronted, the elderly pastor surrendered peacefully. At the judgment seat the Roman governor said, 'Have respect for your old age. Say "Away with the atheists!"' [Christians were sometimes called atheists by the Romans because they didn't believe in the Roman pantheon of gods.] Polycarp slowly surveyed the throng that surrounded him. Pointing to the very people who considered him to be an atheist because he rejected Roman gods Polycarp said, 'Away with the atheists!' Turning back to the governor, Polycarp declared, 'Eighty-six years, I have served Christ, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king, the one who has saved me? Polycarp was burned alive" (*Jones, Christian History Made Easy, p17).

More than 1800 years after his death Polycarp remains one of the most remembered Christian martyrs. Polycarp is remembered not because of the horrible way in which he died, but because of his admirable faithfulness and steadfast love for the Lord. He's remembered because in the face of certain death, he bravely and convincingly remained true to his God. 

Men like Polycarp are few and far between. Even our everyday interactions with people confirm that faithfulness is a rare human quality. Proverbs 20:6 says, "Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?" 

So let us take a moment to rejoice today that God is not like men. As the psalmist says God's faithfulness is established in the heavens and his steadfast love is built up forever. God will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). To this kind of faithfulness there are only two right responses. 

First, God's faithfulness merits our praise. As the psalmist says, "Sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with [your] mouth make known [God's] faithfulness to all generations." When was the last time you praised God for the fact that He is always on your side? When did you last brag on God's relentless, never stopping, never giving up love for His children?  

Second, God's faithfulness deserves faithful love in return. We should all emulate the steadfast commitment to God that Polycarp demonstrated so many years ago. Be unwavering in your love for the Lord! Be steadfast in your commitment to Him. And when you feel your feet beginning to slip, remind yourself (as Polycarp did) of God's faithfulness to you. May God's faithfulness inspire you to new heights of service to your King.   

Jones, Timothy Paul, Christian History Made Easy. Rose Publishing: Torrance, CA. 2009. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Don't Quit

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.
I Corinthians 15:58

Do you ever feel like quitting on God? Maybe you'll keep going to church, but you're ready to throw in the towel on everything else. You're tired of sharing the gospel with that family member or friend over and over again only to be rejected. You're tired of prepping Bible study lessons for hours on end only to teach it to people who don't get it and couldn't seem to care any less. You're tired of serving behind the scenes only to have someone else take the credit. You've reached the end of yourself and you're done, ready to give up.

It isn't just church staff members and missionaries who feel this way. I work with many believers who give hours to volunteer ministry every week. They don't get paid to minister but they do it on top of their responsibilities at work, at home, and within their extended families. They get discouraged just like me. I bet that sometimes you do too.

When we are tempted to give up we should consider Paul's encouragement in today's verse. We should strive to "be steadfast and immovable" in our service to the Lord. In the original language the word 'steadfast' could mean that a person was immovable, firm, or even sitting (Blue Letter Bible). In other words, we should persevere in doing good so resolutely that we are absolutely unchanged by the challenges and discouragements that come our way.

God acknowledges that ministry is hard. The verse says that we can know our "toil" is not in vain. That word 'toil' in the original language can mean "intense labor united with trouble and toil" (Blue Letter Bible). I have to admit that some days quote captures exactly how my ministry feels, but we shouldn't give up. Why? Because we know our toil is not in vain. It isn't fruitless. How do we know this?    

Our hope in the resurrection gives us the strength to endure and even press on. You see, Paul puts this verse at the end of a long section on our hope in the resurrection. This verse is the conclusion or application that he draws from the precious truth that all believers will one day be raised in victory. 

We may feel as though we are losing every battle now, but one day we will leave all of this toil behind. One day the seemingly endless struggle will give way to truly endless victory. Then we will receive the reward for all our labor. On that day even death will be swallowed up in victory. 

We dare not give in to discouragement now for fear of missing out on any of the reward later. So if you are discouraged, if you are thinking about quitting, or have already done so; take heart. Remind yourself of the coming victory and press on in faith knowing that your toil is not in vain. One day you will reap your reward. There may be no sign of the harvest now, but it is coming. In this world or the next your reward will come.

Father, help us to press on in faithful service. Give us the strength to walk in the good works You have prepared in advance for us to do. And sanctify our efforts to your glory, to advance your kingdom. Be pleased with us. May we be a blessing to You and Your children. In Jesus' name, Amen. 

For further reading...

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Cry Out and Be Silent

As Pharaoh drew near, the sons of Israel looked, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they became very frightened; so the sons of Israel cried out to the Lord. Then they said to Moses, “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us in this way, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”

But Moses said to the people, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent.”
Exodus 14:10-14 (NASB)

A person's first response often isn't their best. When we get surprised with bad news or feel attacked it's easy to lash out in anger by blaming others. This is why pausing before we respond to the situation at hand can be so helpful. It gives us the chance to talk ourselves off the ledge before we dive headfirst into the rant we really want to deliver. 

But sometimes a problem comes at us so fast that pausing doesn't seem like an option. I can only imagine that is how the people of Israel felt. God has just miraculously delivered them from 400 years in slavery. They leave Egypt and head off into the dessert, but before long they turn to see the Egyptian army bearing down on them. With their backs against the Red Sea, there is nowhere for them to run. 

But the children of Israel are learning because their first response was actually good. Instinctually, they cry out to the Lord for help. It's their second response that needs work. They blame Moses and give full vent to their anger which is obviously rooted in their lack of faith.

Moses' answer to the people is instructive and beautiful. God will fight for His people! Now it's worth noting that this is the biblical understanding of "holy war." Some in the Muslim world say that jihad or holy war consists of people fighting on God's behalf. That's not the Christian understanding. Throughout the Bible, we find God fighting for His people. He is a mighty warrior who comes to our rescue. He works mighty miracles to deliver us from the enemy. 

While it is true that He sometimes calls us to action (David did sling the stone that killed Goliath), often our role is to keep silent. As Moses says, "The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent." God fights the enemy. God fixes the problem. Our job is to keep silent. Cry out to the Lord for help, Christian, then keep silent. Wait and see what He will do.

I don't know what problems you're facing today, but I know that they're no match for God. I can't promise you that He will fix them all right away, but I can guarantee you that you can't fix them without His help. So cry out to God today. Then wait! Keep silent and see what He will do.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Imposing on God's Grace

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.
Ezra 3:11b-13

Have you ever had a friend who regularly takes advantage of your kindness? They impose on you all the time because they know you'll put up with it. They stick you with the check at dinner. "Oh, I forgot my wallet!" Or they drop by your house unannounced...for a week at a time! 

Some Christians try to treat God this way. They think, "God is going to forgive me no matter what I do. So why not do what I want?" This passage is a good reminder of why that never quite works out the way you think it will.

You need a little back story first. God's people had abandoned God and His ways. They had turned their back on Him to worship other gods. After hundreds of years, God's patience turned to judgment. In justice He repaid His people for their evil, sending them into exile for 70 years. Yet God is "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love... and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin" (Exodus 34:6-7). So after 70 years He miraculously restored His people to their land and they began rebuilding His temple. When they had laid the foundation of the temple they worshiped and celebrated, but some of the older men mourned. Why?

They knew how far they had fallen. They had seen the awesome splendor of Solomon's temple. For them the new temple foundation was symbolic of all that they had lost. They had seen God's people at the height of their prosperity and now were reminded of the full consequences of their sin. God had forgiven them and restored them, but they weren't the same. Their temple wasn't the same. Their lives weren't the same.

This is a good reminder for us. If we think we can live in sin and simply expect God forgive us, we should consider this passage. God never promises to protect us from the results of our sin, only to forgive those who repent in Jesus. Sin isn't just a matter of going to Heaven or Hell. It will destroy your life in the here and now as well. It is actually in your best interest to obey God's commands no matter what.

This is why the Bible so regularly talks about God's commands bringing life, joy, and peace while sin brings death, pain and trouble (For example: Proverbs 10:1610:27, 11:19, 12:28, 19:23, Psalm 34:11-14, 119:92-94).

I hope your love for Jesus and your appreciation for the forgiveness He has bought you with His blood is enough to motivate you to live for Him. But if for any reason you are wavering in that today and considering plunging headlong into that sin that appears so tempting, then I urge you to reconsider. Choose sin over God at you own peril. Even if forgiveness does come, the destruction our sin leaves behind is often here to stay. 

For further reading...
Romans 6- Paul makes a great argument for why believers should not continue in sin.