Acts 1-8: A Pattern of Spiritual Growth

What’s wrong with the church?
What should it be like?
What was it originally like, in the time of the apostles?

Have you ever pondered these questions? 
It seems to me that this sequence of three questions, or something like it, has probably entered every thoughtful churchgoer’s mind at some point.  When things seem to be going wrong, at least from our view, we wonder what we’re missing, and our thoughts go back to the early church.

Kenneth J. Stewart, an author to whom I am related, has noted that many evangelicals are looking to Catholic and Orthodox churches for more “authentic” or “original” experiences of Christian worship.  However, he argues that it is not tradition, form, or succession of leadership that defines the true church, but biblical doctrine.  Staying true to the authority of Scripture, the need for personal faith, and the practical living out of that faith is what has historically separated the true church from its variants.  Ever since apostolic times, there has always remained a stream of faithful believers who hold to these convictions.

Ok, but what would this look like today?
How can a church gather and worship, practically living out their faith in a way that is faithful to Scripture?

Many people look to the book of Acts for answers, trying to find a formula to follow, or a model to replicate.  Acts 2:42 might be the most popular verse to be used for this purpose:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Of course, this list of activities are to be recommended and practised by churches today.  But this verse was not meant to be a complete blueprint for the church of all ages.  Acts 2:42 is actually one of many point-in-time snapshots of the early church, as it developed.  Using this as a timeless model would be like trying to replicate Martin Luther’s lectures, John Wesley’s “holiness groups,” or the Azusa street revival in our present time without any regard for our particular context.  Moreover, viewing this point-in-time as ideal would be ignoring the process of how the church developed to that point, and how it developed from there. 

When you read Acts as it was written – as a narrative – you can see a fledgling group of Jesus-followers develop into a united fellowship, then into a mature organisation, and then into a global movement.  It is this pattern, I believe, which we have seen repeated in other places and other times over history; it is this pattern that we can hope to replicate in our own context, in its own way.

I’ve reflected further on this in a short sermon series.
Or, here are some brief thoughts, below:

Acts chapter 1 may be one of the most forgotten chapters in the New Testament.  Readers and preachers may be eager to get to the story of Pentecost in chapter 2 – but what led up to this?  After Jesus resurrected, and before He ascended, Jesus instructed His followers to wait for the Holy Spirit, Who would empower them for their mission (Acts 1:1-8).  So, the apostles and other followers of Jesus, numbering 120, gathered in an upper room to pray.  And as they continued to meet, we see something completely ordinary happen – they open the Scriptures, and seek God’s will together.  This, it appears, is the seed of the church – a “small group Bible study & prayer time.”  Before any public gatherings, programs, or missions developed, these 120 disciples of Jesus committed to meeting together, united in worship of their Savior and Lord.

How much effort to churches and church planters put in to attracting large gatherings?
Didn’t Jesus shy away from these sort of things, in order to prioritise time to disciple the few? 

He knew that He would never physically reach every single person – so He started a multiplying movement, commissioning His disciples to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).  And as the story in Acts continues, we’ll see how this worked.

In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descends, fills the disciples, and empowers them to proclaim the good news to a multicultural crowd in their own languages.  The result is an instant mega-church – three thousand new believers were baptised, having repented of their sins and believed in Jesus.  This is where we arrive at the famous snapshot in verse 42, mentioned earlier.  And certainly, it could be seen as a description of the pristine, ideal church gathering:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Devotion to Scripture (the New Testament is the apostles’ teaching), to fellowship, eating together/celebrating communion, praying – these, of course are essentials, and serve as a good model to follow.  But the description of this early church goes on – the church also had miracles, communal possessions, daily worship gatherings and meals, favour in the community, and daily conversions.

How did they have time for this?  What motivated them to such a courageous and committed lifestyle?
The closest I’ve come to this is youth group, where I was part of a community of people with a lot of time for each other, and a lot of energy to spend on behalf of others.
Acts 2 was a special time.  Pentecost had just happened, which was a one-time event, birthing a new era among God’s people.  It’s not that we shouldn’t expect these things in our church, but we must recognise this as a step in the journey – a journey that can be taken again and again by God’s people, but never exactly the same at every time or place.

By Acts 6, the church had grown by the thousands, and the apostles were beginning to bend under the weight of the practical needs that came with such a large flock.  Offerings were being given, and needed to be redistributed fairly – particularly to the widows among them.  The church had become culturally diverse since Pentecost, and conflict emerged between Hellenist and Hebraic Jews.  Note that at this point, the church is still basically Jewish – those are the people who had come to the Pentecost celebration, and that is the nation who had been awaiting the Messiah, Jesus.  But some Jews, especially those who were dispersed around the Roman Empire, had adopted some Greek customs and certainly spoke the Greek language.  It was these newcomers who were feeling neglected by the widow-relief program that had begun.

People complaining in a church about favouritism …sound familiar?  What to do?
This is a point where we see the church grow and mature as an organisation.  The apostles create a new level of leadership – a sort of middle-management.  The congregation nominates Hellenistic “deacons” or “ministers” to oversee this practical need, and the apostles affirm them, so that they can be freed up to focus on prayer and Scripture (remember how it all began?)  So the apostles keep the main thing the main thing, and the church is beginning to run its own ministries.  Finally we have a healthy, fruitful church…

And then Acts 7-8 happens.  Stephen, one of the new ministers, is martyred.  The church scatters.
All is lost…or is it?

Just as we can overly-idealise the organic, pristine, ideal fellowship of Acts 2, we can also fall into thinking that when you get to Acts 6, you’ve arrived – big numbers, functioning programs, appointing leaders – this is the dream of every church leader, right?

But what was their mission, again? 
Why did the Spirit come, again?
Acts 1:8 tells it pretty plainly:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Just when the church was getting comfy, enjoying growth, stability, and favour among the people, it gets scattered.  But as the believers scatter, they begin to fulfil the mission to which they were called in the first place:

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. (Acts 8:4)

And as the story continues, we see the gospel spread from Judea to Samaria, and the ends of the earth – embracing all peoples into God’s family.  We see that God saves people to send them; He calls people to commission them; He blesses people to make them a blessing.

In light of the whole story, we see the purpose of each step along the way.  The church begins with a gathering of worshippers; that grows into a thriving community; that develops into an organised ministry; and that multiplies into a global movement.
I believe we can see this process in individual people’s lives, as well as in the development of churches (see how Rick Warren described church ministry in The Purpose Driven Life, below).

Does it relate to you and your church?
If so, what stage might you be at? 
What step might God be leading you to take?

 

 

Gospel of Luke: There are 2 Kinds of People

This past Sunday, we just finished a 6-week journey through the Sermon on the Mount together.  Jesus says all kinds of startling, earth-shaking things in that famous address, re-defining how His followers would view the world, their lives, and Him.  But, He is not just giving some food for thought.  He closes His remarks with a challenge to respond: we must pick a side – are we in or out?

In Matthew 7:13-27, Jesus makes a similar point in four different ways: There are two kinds of people.  People can take broad path with the crowd, or the narrow path with Him.  They can listen to false prophets, or to fruitful, faithful teachers.  They can say they believe, or they can live it out.  They can build their house on the sand, or on the Rock of His words.

Jesus wasn’t just a nice teacher, or even a miraculous healer – to be accepted  as much or as little as we’d like.  He is the Son of God, Who calls us to believe in Him.  While this makes Him the greatest source of unity we could ever hope for,  this also makes Him extremely polarizing:
Based on their response to Jesus, people are divided into two categories.

Perhaps nowhere else have I seen this point more clearly than in the Gospel of Luke.  When our church traveled through the entire narrative of the Bible together in 2017, we spent a month in Luke.  That’s not a lot of time for such a “thorough account” of the life of Jesus, so I knew I needed to focus on a theme.  Having already reflected on the “Words of Jesus” from the Gospel of Mark, I approached the book of Luke from a different angle – examining Jesus’s impact on the people He encountered.  It was these “Encounters with Jesus” that really illustrated His polarizing effect on humanity.

Early in His ministry, Jesus clearly states that His purpose is to preach the good news of the kingdom (Luke 4:43) and call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32).  The immediate response is remarkable: Matthew, a tax collector, the worst of sinners, responds to Jesus’s call, and holds a great banquet at his house to celebrate. The religious leaders notice that the banquet is full of sinners and, rather than celebrating along with Jesus, they complain.  Jesus is moving the goalposts, redefining righteousness as something based on repentance of sin and faith in Him, rather than outward appearance.  In response to this encounter with Jesus, sinners throw a party, and religious leaders complain.  Sinners are entering the kingdom ahead of religious leaders (Matthew 21:31).

Perhaps even more surprisingly, we see a similar contrast between the Jewish elders and a Roman centurion.  The centurion’s servant is gravely ill, and he sends some Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come and heal him.  A Roman ordering around Jews – so far, it sounds pretty normal for the occupier-subject relationship.  But then, the situation is turned upside-down.  The Jewish elders plead his case, claiming that the centurion “deserves” this favor because of his good deeds.  The word in Greek is axios, literally meaning “equal in weight,” and often translated as “worthy.”  But as Jesus approaches, the centurion sends friends to ask Jesus to not trouble Himself to come – but to simply give the word, and the servant will be healed.  The centurion actually considers himself undeserving of a visit by Jesus (hikanos = insufficient) and unworthy (axios) to approach Jesus, Himself.  In response, Jesus is amazed (thumazo).  Nowhere else in the gospels is this word used to describe Jesus, other than Mark 6:6, when He is amazed at the unbelief of His hometown, in response to His miracles.  Here, Jesus is amazed at this centurion’s faith – which was greater than any He had seen in Israel.  This foreigner, who considered himself unworthy, was actually more worthy than any of God’s chosen nation.

Moving on, Jesus later visits some friends – Mary & Martha, who were sisters of Lazarus.  Martha gets busy preparing a meal, while Mary sits at Jesus’s feet and listens to His teaching.  Martha gets upset, but Mary is affirmed.  This well-known story continues to irk well-meaning Christians, who find that they relate to Martha’s work ethic rather than Mary’s more passive demeanor.  But is this story merely about two different personalities?  No.  When Jesus says “Mary has chosen what is better,” He is talking about a conscious decision on their part.  He is not saying that one personality type is more holy than the other; He is saying that “only one thing is needed,” and we need to decide what that “one thing” is for us.  Martha was “worried,” and she took it out on everyone around her.  This was not an example of joyful, overflowing, or humble service; she may have been trying to earn Jesus’s favor.  In contrast, Mary offered her eyes, ears, and implicitly, her heart.  She acknowledged that she needed to receive from Jesus, not vice-versa.  And this would not lead to passivity; surely, practical service would result from whatever she heard and received from that encounter.

Noticing a pattern, here?  As people encounter Jesus, they are distinguished by each other not by their religiosity, culture, or good works, but by their faith in Him.  A child of God is simply someone who believes in who Jesus is and receives what He has done for them (John 1:12).  He calls us to repent, believe, and follow Him – acknowledging our need for forgiveness,  trusting that His death and resurrection takes care of that, and committing our lives to His leadership and care.
Notice what these requirements exclude?  Outward religiosity, cultural background, impressive works…get the idea?  No wonder He was so polarizing.

Take a look at the rest of Luke,
and notice also how, in Jesus’s parables, people are divided into two groups.  At God’s great banquet, there will be those who respond to the invitation, and those who don’t (Luke 14:15-24).  There are those like the Prodigal Son, who repent and return to the Father, and those like the older brother, who judge others and stay out of the celebration (Luke 15:11-32).  There are boasters who will be humbled, and the humble who will be exalted as righteous (Luke 18:9-14).  There are those who leave everything and enter the kingdom like humble children, and those who hang onto their wealth (Luke 18:15-30).

As Jesus’s birth drew near, a priest was muted for lack of faith, while a young virgin was commended for hers (Luke 1:1-38).  As Jesus’s death drew near, one disciple betrayed Jesus and met his demise; another denied Him, regretted it, and was reinstated (Luke 22:47-62).  One ruler acknowledged the innocence of the King of the Jews, and the other mocked Him (Luke 23:1-38).  One criminal on a cross beside Him joined in the mockery, while the other repented, believed, and was saved (Luke 23:39-43).  The final chapter tells of His resurrection when, finally, two people are together and agree!  Jesus encounters two men on the road to Emmaus, and reveals to them that His life, death, and resurrection have fulfilled what the Scriptures promised.  Before long, His followers will be given the Holy Spirit and sent to the world with this good news! (Luke 24:13-49)

Who do you relate to, in these encounters with Jesus?
How do you respond to Him?  Who is He?  What does He mean to you?

Gospel of Mark: 3 Simple Steps

Where do you go to find healing?

Last spring, I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous gathering nearby in my city.  The group was looking for a new place to meet, and one of their members invited me to check them out.  I watched as 40-50 “Gen-X” young adults shared from the heart about their struggles, failures, hopes, and milestones on their journey to recovery.  There was an atmosphere of safety, acceptance, and openness.  They held fast to the teachings in their “Big Book,” and religiously followed its 12 steps, of which the first three are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

I was impressed by the mutual support between the members, and the personal drive each of them showed to climb out of their addiction.  I was filled with hope for these people, who sought so eagerly for a “higher power,” but couldn’t help thinking as Paul thought in Athens when He stood up and proclaimed:

People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. 

The Aeropagus in Athens, where Paul spoke in Acts 17.

Paul went on to explain that God was not out of their reach, and wanted them to seek Him.  They were trying so hard to worship and seek God in the right way, and just needed to know that God didn’t need their help – He was ready to help them! (Acts 17:22-23)

Our church happily welcomed the AA group to use our building twice a week, and looked forward to developing a cooperative and healthy relationship.  After 9 months, it has been great, and a few of their members have sought for the “Higher Power” with us on Sundays too!

Last fall, several months after AA came under our roof, our church launched Freedom Session – a Christian 12-step program that explicitly names Jesus as the Higher Power who will bring us healing and growth.  This was for two reasons – first, so that we could offer the good news of Jesus to people of the recovery community who were seeking answers.  Secondly, because we as a church had a lot to learn from the recovery community – about opening up and becoming more authentic with one another.  Freedom Session would be a step in that direction.  Perhaps both sides could learn from one another!

Freedom session is designed for people to deal with any issue (abuse, addiction, behavior, etc.) and its corresponding coping strategies and “drugs of choice.”  It also follows the same 12 steps as AA, with some slight changes in wording.  Here are the first three:

  1. We admitted that, in our own strength, we are powerless to rise above our hurts, resentments, unhealthy behaviors and attempts to control.   Our lives have become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that God exists, that He loves us deeply and that, through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we can be healed and fulfill the purposes for which we were created.
  3. We made a conscious decision to turn our lives, our pain and our will over to the care of God and the leadership of Jesus Christ.

Coincidentally, as we trained and prepared to launch Freedom Session, I was preaching through the Gospel of Mark in September.  With only 3 Sundays to work with after the Labour Day weekend, I decided to focus on identifying the main message of Jesus.  This I found in His opening remarks in Mark 1:14-17:

  •  Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”  As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.  “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”

In this summary of Jesus’s Gospel message, He begins by stating the fact that the kingdom has come.  God’s promise to come and save His people was coming true.  Jesus’s name meant that He would save people from their sins.  He was also called “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us.”  God’s kingdom was being launched on earth – a movement of people who trusted and followed Jesus.

Jesus then asks for a response in 3 simple commands: Repent, Believe, and Follow.  We are to have a “change of mind,” as the Greek word for “repent,” metanoia means – and this should result in a complete reorientation in our life.  We must turn from our wrong ways, and turn toward a new way – believing in Jesus as our Savior.  And for believing to bear fruit, it must translate into action – following Jesus.   This will result in us becoming able to “fish” for others – to share what we have.

I couldn’t help but notice that these 3 simple commands corresponded with the 3 steps of AA and Freedom Session.  It is well-known that AA has Christian roots – and we can see it today!  One must confess that there is a problem, come to believe in a source of hope, and then decide to follow through.  If only it was clearly understood who that Source of Hope was, who originally gave us these 3 steps!

Going on in Mark, I preached on the Parable of the Sower.  I hadn’t planned it this way, but it was fascinating to see how this parable illustrated the same 3 steps!  The seed is the good news of Jesus, and the soils are the hearts of different people:

  • The hardened soil on the path failed to take step 1 – to confess/repent, and be open to receive the message.
  • The shallow, rocky soil failed to take step 2 – to believe and endure through adversity.
  • The thorny soil failed to take step 3 – to follow through and set aside distractions.

Only by taking all 3 steps can we expect “fruit” – change, recovery, and healing!

My last message was Jesus’s encounter with Blind Bartimaeus.  Here, we have a real-life example of someone taking these steps.  Bartimaeus admits that he is blind, and calls out for help: step 1.  Then, Bartimaeus demonstrates faith by specifically asking Jesus to restore His sight: step 2.  Finally, having been healed, Bartimaeus uses his newfound eyesight to get up and follow Jesus: step 3!

I share this as an encouragement to all – God is not far off or out of reach – in fact, He has been reaching out to us all along!  He has sent Jesus as our Savior, Who calls us to 3 simple steps: Repent, Believe, and Follow! 

May we find hope and healing in Him.

 

 

Seeing People with God’s Eyes

I remember the fascinating and ground-breaking 1999 movie, The Matrix.  Neo, the protagonist, is living in an artificial reality – a dream-world created by robots who’ve conquered the earth.  Most humans have been reduced to dormant power-generators for their mechanical masters.  At some point, Neo is awakened from his slumber, and comes into contact with a few humans who have been liberated from the blindness to reality.  Their leader, Morpheus, enlightens him, beginning with the now-famous question:

“What if I told you everything you knew was a lie?”

Actually, no, he didn’t say that.  That line summarizes the main idea of the story, but much ink has been spilled in discussing and clarifying that this now-popular meme did not exactly originate in the matrix.  See discussions here and here and the movie clip here.

But this just strengthens the point.  Neo was deceived into believing in a false reality, and so were many of us.  I was one of many who, before writing this post, would have agreed that the quote above was spoken by Morpheus.  But it turns out to be a fairly common phenomenon – we often fail to see things as they truly are.

If there’s one thing I could say about Jesus’s teachings, it would be this:
More thank correcting our doctrine, deeper than cleaning up our behavior, Jesus is interested in completely transforming our entire worldview.

Jesus calls for repentance.  In Greek, the term metanoia literally means to change one’s mind.  We need to understand things differently.  When He says that He is the Light of the World, He means that He is the Source of truth, the embodiment of Truth, the One Who can reveal how things really are.  C. S. Lewis put it this way:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Many of Jesus’s teachings were difficult to accept.  He repeatedly turned people’s world upside down, affirming returning prodigals over self-righteous servants (Luke 15), affirming repentant sinners over prideful religious leaders (Luke 18:9-14), and assuring all that our reward from God is a result of His grace, not our work (Matthew 20:1-16).  He affirmed attentiveness over busyness (Luke 10:38-42) and indicated that earthy fortunes may be reversed in the afterlife (Luke 16:19-30).  In light of this different worldview, He began His Sermon on the Mount this way:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10)

Wow, what a different way of viewing the world!

Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that Jesus’s earthly brother, James, should teach along a similar vein.  In a previous post, I’ve already shared how James seeks to give us perspective in the midst of trials.  In 1:9-11, he reminds us that the current state of both rich and poor is transient.  Therefore, we should learn what we can from present trials, and realize that God is the solution, not the cause, of our problems.

Now, in chapter 2:1-13, James addresses a practical issue: showing partiality.  For those who hold faith in Jesus Christ, there should be no partiality shown.  Then, just as Jesus illustrates a deeper point by giving practical instructions on how to throw a party, James illustrates his point with instructions for seating at an assembly: do not distinguish between rich and poor when you gather to worship.

Why not?  

Because showing partiality does not correspond with the new reality that we see in Jesus Christ.  No doubt remembering Jesus’s words from Matthew 5 quoted above, James reasons:

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?

The truth of the matter is that the poor may actually be rich, and the rich might actually be poor.  As became quite evident in Jesus’s ministry, it is the “poor in spirit” who tend to receive the kingdom of God (His reign in their lives).  It was the Rich Ruler who rejected Jesus’s invitation, prompting Jesus to remark,

“How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! (Luke 18:24)

It is difficult because the rich are tempted to trust in their things, rather than God.  Their things might be financial savings, educational credentials, social reputation, dwellings, life insurance, etc.  To the extent that they give in, they are cheated from experiencing the joy of growing in faith through trials (1:2-4), and knowing God as the Giver of everything good (1:16-17).  in chapter 2, James is even harsher, claiming that it is the rich who oppress you and blaspheme the Name by which you were called (2:6-7).

After denouncing what is wrong, James points us to what is right: the “royal law” of loving our neighbour as ourselves.  Showing partiality is antithetical to this simple and all-inclusive law to love.  A person who keeps the whole law, but fails at this point is as guilty as someone who broke the whole thing (2:9-11).

So, what should we do?  James concludes with this exhortation:

12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Verse 12 summarizes how we are to operate in this world.  If we view the world through worldly eyes, we will operate under worldly laws of how the world works.  We will pragmatically show partiality, in order to win the favor of powerful friends.  We will judge others to raise our own profile.  But if we view the world through God’s eyes, we will operate under the “law of liberty” that sets us free from the trappings of backstabbing competition, working for everyone’s approval and grasping for security.

When we realize that “every good and perfect gift is from above,” and we receive His “word of truth,” we are “brought forth” as “firstfruits of his creatures” (1:17-18).  Born again.  New Creation.  Believing and receiving the truth makes us children of God – adopted into a new family, with a new identity.  Old lines of division are wiped away, and we are united together as we are united to Him.

When we operate under the “law of liberty,” we are putting our faith in Jesus Christ, who set us free from the guilt and power of our sin.  We are believing that “mercy triumphs over judgement.”

So, James says, if you view the world this way, then “so speak and so act” like it!  Show the mercy to others, that you’re counting on receiving from God!

 

Two Ears, Two Eyes, Two Hands, Two Feet, One Mouth

As a teenager, I took a trip to some northern First Nations reserves, where my youth group planned to work with a local missionary and serve the community there.  During a training session, our instructor shared with us a proverb from the local tribes:

You have two eyes, two ears, and only one mouth.

The point was obvious – we should approach the people as humble learners, earning the privilege to speak.  Jesus, in coming to earth as a baby, took His time to relate to humanity before beginning His ministry.  In fact, 90% of His life could be considered to be preparation!

As our Bible sharing & prayer group read through James 1:19-27, it seemed that James seemed to be describing us in a similar way, to make a slightly different point.  To James, the present concern is living a righteous life, or practising “pure religion” – and the way to accomplish this may be surprising.

19-21 – First, we are to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  Here, we’re reminded of how many ears and mouths we have.  Speaking quickly is associated with anger, which “does not produce the righteousness of God.”  What an understatement!  What a gentle, Canadian way of telling us what a bad idea it is to speak quickly, in anger.  Rather, we should put away evil, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”

This “word” is the Good News of Christ, Who lived to show us God’s love, Who died for our sins, and rose to reign over His followers, dwelling in them and working through them by the Holy Spirit.  In 1:18, James calls this the “word of truth,” which essentially makes believers reborn as a new creation, and a foreshadow of the great renewal to come.

While speaking in anger does not produce God’s righteousness, hearing the Word can save our souls, and make us a new creation – making us righteous in heart, and increasingly in deed.  But the word must not just be heard, but we must receive with meekness the implanted word.”  The Word must be humbly received, with a silent mouth, open ears, and open hands.

22-25 – But, having heard the word, which saves us, we must also be “doers of the word.”  Using our two ears should lead us to activate our two feet.  For James, this involves using our two eyes.  We are called to “look into the perfect law, the law of liberty,” and not just hear and forget, but respond with action, and be blessed.

James offers an analogy – if you hear without acting, you’re like a person who looks in the mirror, and forgets his own appearance.  This analogy is appropriate, because the law functions like a mirror – its purpose is to show us our sin, and our need for Christ.  But, James doesn’t just say “law;” he says “perfect law, the law of liberty.”

What’s the difference?  While the Old Testament Law showed us our sin and pointed forward to our Savior, James is here referring to God’s “perfect” law – in Greek, that word is teleios – meaning finished and complete.  Jesus fulfilled the law, just as He said He would.  In His life, He interpreted the heart of the law – that it is all about loving God and one another – and then He fulfilled it perfectly.  In His death, He paid for our sins, freeing us from the law which condemns, to serve in His grace. And having  resurrected, He reigns over all, living in us by His Spirit – to fulfil the law through us.  By faith, we receive Christ’s righteousness, and become “instruments of righteousness.”

This “perfect law, the law of liberty: (25) is the same as the “implanted word, which can save your souls” (21).  It is the good news of Jesus Christ which, when believed and received, brings us new birth (18) as a sort of firstfruits of the coming harvest – a redeemed creation, reconciled with God!  As John says in 1:12 of his Gospel account:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

And what is life, as a child of God, like?  Here, we go full-circle – having heard God’s word of truth, having looked into God’s perfect law of liberty, we are called to put the words into action.  For James, belief necessarily leads to action.  If belief results in a new birth, a new beginning, and a new identity, then a new way of life should follow: pure religion.

26-27Religion has become a dirty word in our language and culture.  It is often associated with rigid, restrictive rules that suffocate our lives and leave us feeling inadequate or worse, condemned.  But, strictly speaking, religion simply refers to one’s order, system, or way of life that flows from their beliefs.  In other words, it is faith applied.

James begins by asserting that anyone who cannot bridle their tongue, but rather deceives their heart – their religion is worthless.  Being “quick to speak” is associated with anger, and not with God’s righteousness.  Rather, righteousness comes through hearing and receiving God’s word of truth.

Then James delivers one of the most memorable phrases in his entire letter: That, in God’s eyes, pure and undefiled religion looks like this:

  • visiting orphans and widows in their affliction
  • and keeping oneself unstained from the world

Visiting orphans and widowsdo you know any?  You may or may not.  But, it might be more likely than you think.  In Biblical times, when there was no old age pension or social welfare system in place, people would rely on family  when in need.  Those who lacked family would hope that there’d be help in their community – especially their religious community.  Today, do you know anyone who has lost a spouse or their family?  This can happen through death, divorce, estrangement, abuse, etc.
How many people do you know, who’ve been through the foster care system, or through divorce?  They may lack a lot of the relational support that others may take for granted.  Pure religion calls us to give to others what we have received from our generous Father.

Remaining unstained from the world.  Here’s where it begins to sound really difficult.  Usually people tend to succeed at either the former requirement, or the latter.  It’s hard to do both!  While offering great compassion and understanding to those in need, we run the risk of falling into temptation – to conform to the lifestyle of others, or enable their unhealthy behavior.  On the flip side, by focusing on remaining “unstained,” we run the risk of being cold-hearted, aloof, and neglectful toward those in need.  We are saved to be sent; we are blessed to bless.  Pure religion involves holding your tongue, and offering a helping hand – while “keeping them clean”.

What could this wholistic religion look like?  Look to Jesus for an example.  And continue with me in this Letter by the Apostle James!

 

3 Words of Wisdom to Help with Trials

Temptations.  Suffering.  Persecution.  Hardship.  Waiting.  Sickness.  Unemployment.  Relational Strife.  All of these, and more, may fall into the category of what the Apostle James calls “trials of many kinds.”  That’s the topic with which he begins his letter to the early church – a very relevant topic for Christians living in the Roman Empire, and perhaps for you as well.  After hearing from the life stories of people at our prayer & sharing time on Thursday, I could see why they chose to read this book of the Bible together!

From the first 18 verses, I’d like to share three words of wisdom that James offers for those experiencing trials:

1. Attitude

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

One word stood out from the verses, above: “consider.”  James acknowledges that “trials of many kinds” will come, but his instruction does not pertain to action.  He does not tell his readers to strive to change their circumstances; rather, they should “consider.”  James is speaking about their attitude toward their circumstances, not their actions in response.  Before they react in frustration, they should “consider it joy.”

Notice the difference?

It’s easy to complain, to get down on life, comparing our circumstances to others, to our past, to our ideals – and to consider ourselves short-changed.  But, we are to consider it joy – to recognise the good in the midst of trials.  It is actually through these trials that we can persevere and mature in our faith!  If faith is “the conviction of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1), then our decision to “consider it joy when we face trials” is a great exercise of faith!  Our perseverance in trials will actually work toward our maturity; this is a reason for great joy!

Another reason for joy is that we have a God Who generously provides wisdom to those who ask!  Whether we are at a crossroads, in a quarrel, or going about our everyday tasks, we desperately need wisdom in order to do the right thing, and do it well.  But, similar to how we view trials, our attitude toward prayer can make all the difference.  God generously and freely gives, but He does ask for something from us – our faith.  We need to consider Him faithful, Who we ask – as it says in Hebrews 11:6: “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.”

2. Perspective

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.
12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

While approaching our trials with the right attitude gets us on the right track, sometimes we also need to step back and gain perspective.  It’s nice to know that our difficulties will result in the maturing of our faith – but is that really what you want to hear in the moment of suffering?

Perspective removes us from the immediate circumstances, and helps us see the bigger picture – closer to how God sees it.  In verses 9-12, James reminds the reader that our circumstances are fleeting; in fact, in many ways, they are an opposite indication of the eternal reality.

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position” because, as Jesus said so many times and in so many ways (Matthew 5:3-12Matthew 19-20), “the last will be first.”  Jesus promised to raise the humble, esteem the servant, and reward sacrifice.  We are to do good things in secret (Matthew 6:1-18), seek places of lesser honor, give to those who can’t repay – and expect a reward at the resurrection (Luke 14:7-14).

James provides us with perspective – a window into the future, to help us in our present trials: while the rich “will pass away like a wild flower,” those who persevere under trial “will receive a crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”  The rich have great resources at their disposal – which certainly don’t hurt, at times.  But, in the bigger picture, it is a love for God that will carry someone to the end – not wealth, which is fleeting.  As David said in Psalm 62:

Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from Him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

3. Belief

13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

Finally, while we need the right attitude in the moment and the right perspective toward the future, this all stems from a right belief in God.  Trials can lead to all sorts of doubts and questions:

Why did God do this to me?  What is His purpose in this?
Why did God allow this?  Where is He?  Did He abandon me?  Does He care?

James reminds us of two things: the source of our temptations, and the Source of all good gifts.

We have already seen that God allows trials to come, which result in our growth when we persevere in faith.  He is ready to generously give us the wisdom that we need, when we approach Him in faith.  But, He is not the source of our troubles – that would be sin.  Though God made everything good, He also made us in His image, with a personality and ability to love.  This ability necessarily involves a certain amount of freedom, which we’ve all used in rebellion against Him.  We live in a world that is scarred by sin, full of trials and temptations – including our own inner desires.

But the good news is that God is there to help – He “does not change like shifting shadows” of our circumstances; but remains ready and available, with “every good and perfect gift.”  He is not the source of our problems, but the Source of our solution.  Do we believe that?   Do we blame God for our trials, or do we look to Him for help, trusting that He is good? 

James tells us the good gift that God gives: “birth through the word of truth.”  The good news of Jesus Christ – revealing God in His life, reconciling us in His death, reigning as the resurrected king – gives us birth into a new life.  Believing in Him changes us from the inside-out, completely re-orienting our way of thinking.  We see that God’s love comes first, which results in our love.  We see that we can only give what we receive, and that we must humble ourselves to become great.  We see that all the glory belongs to Him.  When we believe and receive this and become His child (John 1:12), then we become a sort of “firstfruits,” a sampling of the future renewal of all things (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).  God is in the business of reconciling all things to Himself through Christ, and those who are reconciled now are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20) – a small indication of the “New Heaven and New Earth” (Revelation 21:1-5) to come.

I hope that these three words – attitude, perspective, and belief will help you in whatever trials you face.  Recognise what God is doing in the moment, what He will do in the future, and how good He is – and it’ll make all the difference!

Exodus 19 & Numbers 14: God’s Special People for a Special Purpose

I recently had a fascinating conversation about predestination.  The issue always seems to come up at some point in a Christian’s journey – Does God show favoritism?  Do we really have free will?

Throughout the book of Genesis, we’ve observed how God would initiate relationships with individuals – Abraham and His chosen offspring.  He would call them to follow Him, and act specially on their behalf while using them as His instruments.  In Exodus, we see God acting specially on behalf of an entire nationIsrael (descended from Abraham).  He saves them from Egypt and brings them safely to Mt. Sinai, where He explicitly defines this special relationship with them:

‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (Exodus 19:4-6).

What?  Why are they so special?  Why does Israel receive this privilege?
God later makes it clear that it has nothing to do with their own merit.  It is also well-known that God does not show favouritism.
So, what is the meaning of this?

This is actually consistent with God’s purpose, all along.  Remember that God specially chose humans to bear His image and be stewards of creation.  He specially chose Abraham to be a blessing to all nations.  Now, He specially chooses Israel to be a kingdom of priests.  They are to be holy and set apart – not for their own sake, but as mediators between God and all people.  Their salvation would serve as a witness of God’s power, their obedience as a witness of God’s wisdom, and their presence as an inviting light to all nations.  It is primarily through Israel that God would work in the world, reveal Himself, and bless other nations.  Eventually the promise of blessing all nations would be fulfilled in Jesus Christ, a descendent of Abraham.  Jesus would also serve as the perfect High Priest  and Mediator, dying for the sins of the world:

But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

But God’s plan isn’t complete, yet.  His purpose is still to work through a chosen people, to bring about the redemption of the world.  Jesus calls His followers the light of the world who will be sent out as “fishers of men” to invite all people to follow Him .  Now, Jesus’s followers compose the new People of God – united and identified through faith in Christ – not race, class, or gender.  Through faith in Christ, they are reconciled to God and to one another – many nations made into one new humanity – a family of God, a new Temple in which the Spirit dwells.  Believers are also collectively referred to as Christ’s Body – the instrument through which He still works on earth.  Christians are also called a New Creation, and ambassadors who bring God’s message of reconciliation to the world.  In fact, Peter refers to the Church in the same wording that we see in Exodus 19:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)

But again – why the favoritism?  How is it fair that God would choose some?  Does He predestine some to be saved, and others not?
If it is not clear yet, I will state clearly now: God’s overarching purpose is the redemption of all things.  That is the end of the story – heaven and earth uniting and everything being made new – God and humanity together, again.  God is reconciling all things to Himself and entrusting to believers, the beginning of His New Creation, the message of reconciliation.  Yes, He actively calls certain people to follow and serve Him; He actively chose a certain nation to be His own; and He has called and chosen His Church to be set apart.  Yet, these people are no one special.  If anything, weakness is their best quality , which shows God’s strength to the world.  But God calls His people to pray for the world, wanting everyone to be saved, patiently waiting for all to come to repentance.  To put it succinctly, Paul explains God’s purpose in one, long sentence:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight, making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:3-10)

So, God specially calls people to follow Him – for the purpose of reaching out to others.  He has plans to unite all under Christ, reconciling the world to Himself – and He plans to do it through His chosen people.  N.T. Wright says this about our salvation:

“the work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us.”

Paul claims to have been called to ministry before his birth – but, before call this “favouritism,” see what Jesus says about him at his point of conversion:

he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name. (Acts 9:15-16)

Being God’s instrument is no cake walk.  It’s not just a free pass.  It wasn’t for Abraham, and it wasn’t for Israel.  God tests and disciplines His children, wanting to work with willing participants who trust Him.  Though God called Abraham and promised to make him a blessing, this plan was not confirmed and fulfilled until Abraham’s faith was confirmed.  Likewise, though God called Israel to be His people, and promised to give them rest in the land of Canaan, this plan was not fulfilled until Israel learned to trust Him and receive the promise by faith.  When Israel on the verge of entering the promised land, the majority of them lost faith and decided to turn back to Egypt.  Though God had saved them from slavery and sustained them in the desert, they did not believe He could overcome their opposition in Canaan.  In response, God was ready to wipe them out and start a new nation with Moses – He could accomplish His plan through anyone, and didn’t particularly need Israel.  But, see how Moses interceded on their behalf:

But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ (Numbers 14:13-16)

See Moses’s reasoning?  Israel should not be saved for their own sake; they were undeserving, and not essential to God’s plan.  But, for the sake of God’s reputation, He should save Israel.  In light of His plan to show His power to all nations, He should follow through with His commitment to Israel.  For the sake of other nations, God must use Israel’s weakness to show His strength – so that all nations might put their faith in Him.  Moses continues:

And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”

Not only would God’s power be called into question if Israel was destroyed, but so would His love.  God had claimed to be loving and forgiving, and had treated Israel accordingly up to this point.  Moses calls Him to remain faithful to His promise, despite Israel’s unfaithfulness.

And God relents.  He pardons Israel, but also disciplines them for their instruction, and as an example for us.  Yet, God does not change.  His change of course actually reflects His persistence of purpose, and His consistency of character.

  • Despite Israel’s wavering faith, God continued to pursue His purpose of blessing all nations through Israel.  Through saving them, He would show Himself to be the One, true God.
    Like a spouse who remains in a troubled marriage for the sake of the children and home, God would remain faithful to Israel for the sake of His greater purpose – the redemption of the world.
  • Despite Israel’s change of heart, God remained faithful in His commitment to love, forgive, and care for His chosen people.
    Like a neglected spouse who continues to do their part, patiently waiting for the other to change, God would remain faithful to Israel because His love is perfect and patient.

Through this episode between God and Israel, we see clearly that God treats people according to His purpose and character.  His plan does not depend on our success, nor does His love depend on our worthiness.

  • Despite the blunders of His people, God persists in His purpose to bless and redeem the world.  So, He shows His power by accomplishing His will through our weakness.
  • Despite the resistance of His people, God’s character remains consistent.  He shows His love by forgiving and pardoning us simply because He has promised to do so.

Isn’t it comforting to know that God’s plans are bigger than us?  

  • His faithfulness to His people is for His purpose of reaching the world.

And isn’t it comforting to know that God’s love doesn’t depend on us?

  • His faithfulness to His people comes from Who He is, not what we do.

Psalm 116:5-7 says:
Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
    our God is merciful.
The Lord preserves the simple;
    when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest;
    for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

Online messages available here.

Easter Week: Remembering with God’s People

Has God done some great things in your life?
Does this have an enduring effect on your life, or is it too easy to forget?

Over the years, God’s people were called to remember the wondrous works that he has done” (Psalm 105:5).  Entire Psalms (105-107) were written to help them with this endeavor, as they sought to “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done…that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God (Psalm 78:4-7).

Israel was called to always look back and remember their salvation from Egypt and entrance into the promised land – when they passed through the waters of the Red Sea and River Jordan.  The work was complete, and they were called to live in light of this new reality.  Likewise, a Christian is given the experience of baptism – as a milestone to mark the death of their old self and rebirth as a Christian.  The work is complete, and we are called to live out the new life that we’ve been given.

On Sundays at Parkdale, we learn from the stories of God’s people in the Bible – but we also invite people to share testimonies – to help us remember what God has done.  There are always parallels between our stories!  Yesterday, as the AA group met in our church building, I observed a similar dynamic – people being encouraged as others take time to look back and see how far they’ve come.

This Sunday, we enter the week of Easter.  I look forward to kicking it off with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper – followed by a Potluck!  Jesus instituted this special meal among His followers as a way to remember His body and blood – given as a sacrifice for our sins.  Just as Israel would slay a lamb at Passover (Exodus 12) to remember how God spared them from the plagues in Egypt, so Christians celebrate with the bread and cup to remember how God spared us from our sins – through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ (Luke 22:15-20).  But that’s not all – the meal is also a time to look forward to the Great Banquet that we will again enjoy with Him when He returns, to complete His kingdom! (Luke 14:15-24; 22:28-30)

May your Easter season be a time of both solemn remembrance, and joyful anticipation, in light of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Online messages available here.

Exodus 1-18: Seeing God in a New Way

What is God like?
Is He all-powerful?  All good?
Apart from us?  With us?
For us?  Against us?

Distinct answers to these binary questions form the basis of worldviews, philosophies, and religions – it all comes down to what you think about God.  In light of the problem of evil, Atheists and agnostics will view God’s power and goodness as mutually exclusive – while Christians will trust that God is working to pursue, convince, and redeem His lost, but free people.  Many eastern religions (polytheist, pantheist, mystic) emphasize God’s nearness, while western philosophy from the enlightenment (Deist) emphasizes God’s separation from humanity.  In contrast, Christians will embrace that both are made possible through the work of the Trinity, as revealed in the stories of Scripture.

If you’ve read through Genesis, I hope you can say that you’ve learned a lot about God’s character.  I hope you have observed the manner in which He relates to people.  And I hope that you’ve gained a sense of His purpose for humanity.  I’ve argued that our purpose in reading Genesis should be to get to know God.  He is the Protagonist of the story Who ties it all together.  We’re not looking to other characters for an example to follow; rather, we learn through the context of their stories about how God interacts with people.

God specially created humans to bear His image, to be fruitful and multiply – exercising stewardship over the earth on His behalf.  When people persisted in rebellion, God specially chose Noah to re-start humanity.  When people united in their pride, God scattered the nations and specially called Abraham – a man with apparently limited potential – to father a nation that would bless all others.  God entered into a personal relationship with Abraham and his descendants, making promises and inviting them to respond in faith.  So, Genesis was all about God’s personal interactions with individuals, who He used to reach out to others.
Four centuries pass
between Genesis and Exodus, and Abraham’s descendants have been “fruitful and multiplied” in Egypt.  They have now become a great nation – just as God had promised to Abraham – and a threat to Egypt.  The time is right for Israel to leave there, and the time is right for them to enter Canaan, where the people have been given their allotted time (Genesis 15:13-16).

Again, the time has come for God to act – to intervene in world affairs, and reveal Himself in a new way.  His purpose and methods are still the same – choosing people to use for His glory – but His chosen instrument is different.  In Genesis, God related directly to individuals – especially the patriarchs; in Exodus, God now acts on behalf of their descendants – the nation of Israel.  After the setting is described, the story of God’s action begins as follows:

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. (Exodus 2:23-25)

God heard…remembered…saw…knew.   A new side of God is being revealed.  In fact, in the very next chapter, He personally reveals Himself to Moses in the form of a burning bush.  In this one moment, we see that the Angel of the Lord Who is seen in the bush is also the same God Who is speaking from it – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Finding himself in God’s holy presence, Moses removes his sandals and hides his face in fear (Exodus 3:1-6).  Yet, this holy God is not aloof and unapproachable.  He tells Moses:

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land (Exodus 3:7-8)

This same God Who created the world, called Abraham, and appeared in a burning bush is the Lord who sees, hears, cares, and comes to the rescue.  In Genesis, we see references to “God” and “the LORD” interspersed.  The generic term, “God,” or Elohim is often used when referring to God’s Almighty, macro-level activity.  The personal term, “LORD,” or Yahweh, is used when God personally interacts with humans.  It is here, in Exodus 3, that God formally introduces Himself to Moses as Yahweh, the LORD, the I AM.  The true, living God of Creation is the One Who is with the nation of Israel.  He explains to Moses:

God also said to Moses, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself fully known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they resided as foreigners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant. “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. (Exodus 6:2-6)

And indeed, God brings them out, and saves them.  Egypt is devastated by plagues, the sea is parted, and the nation is miraculously fed.  God fulfils His promise to Abraham (Genesis 15:13-16), and also to Moses – that Israel would worship God at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 3:12).

In the early chapters of Exodus, we see more clearly than anywhere else (until Christ’s coming) that the Almighty God above is also down with His people.  Centuries later, God says in Isaiah 57:15:

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
    who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
    and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
    and to revive the heart of the contrite.

Praise God, who is Big Enough to save, and Near Enough to care!

Online messages available here.

Genesis 23-50: God’s Unlikely Heroes

If you’re following along through the book of Genesis, I hope you’re enjoying this fascinating story.  In these later chapters, things get quite…interesting.  From here on, the pages of Genesis are filled love stories, sibling hatred, rivalry between wives, rape, scandal, God’s promises and, through it all, God’s blessing.

For quite some time, the book of Genesis focuses on the development of the relationship between Abraham and God.  God calls him to start a new life in a new land, where He will be blessed and become a great nation to bless all nations.  Through the twists and turns, conversations and silence of their relationship, Abraham proves his faith, while God remains faithful.

But, after Abraham’s death, a new phase in the story begins.  New questions emerge: Will God be faithful to Abraham’s descendants?  Will they, in turn, remain faithful to God?  If so, how will they be blessed, and become a blessing to others?

One cannot assume anything.  Just as a billionaire’s children may not manage their parents’ estate well, so it is uncertain whether or not the children of Abraham will “walk in the footsteps” of their father’s faith (Romans 4:12).

We begin with Isaac.  Unlike his father, he appears to be a timid man – rather than routing his enemies in battle (Genesis 14), he chooses to retreat from neighboring shepherds.  Yet, like his father, the LORD blesses him (Genesis 26:2-5), and others recognize it (Genesis 21:22-23; 26:26-29).  Yet, Isaac had his own strength – he seemed more loving and affectionate toward his wife, Rebekah.  The first mention of “love” in Genesis is spoken by the Angel of the LORD, in reference to Abraham’s love for Isaac.  There was no reference to marital love, up to that point; it is said that Sarah obeyed Abraham as her “lord” (1 Peter 3:6).  In contrast, upon meeting his newly arranged bride-to-be, it is immediately said that Isaac loved Rebekah (Genesis 24:67).  While his father was able to successfully pretend that he was not married to Sarah when they travelled, Isaac could not keep his hands off Rebekah (Genesis 26:6-9).  He also takes an active role in praying his wife when she is barren – something that could not be said of Abraham (Genesis 25:21).

Yet, love can have its dark side.  Isaac and Rebekah had twins, and each favoured a different one.  Yet God, in His wisdom, chose to pass on His blessing through the younger one – through Jacob (Genesis 25:22-23).  This would be His pattern throughout all time – displaying His power through weakness.  And, not only was Jacob younger, but his character offered little redemptive quality.  While Isaac lacked his father’s courage and strength, the apple may have fallen even farther from the tree, for Jacob.

Jacob was known to be a swindler.  He traded food for his brother’s birthright.  He disguised himself to steal his brother’s blessing.  Before long, he was fearing for his life, and fled to take refuge with his mother’s family.  There, he fell in love with his cousin, Rachel, and worked for 7 years in exchange for her hand in marriage.  He thought he had met his match, but was actually mistaken!  Rachel’s older sister, Leah, stole their first night through disguise, and later traded food with Rachel obtain further marriage privileges.  God had initiated a relationship with Jacob (Genesis 28:15), and now He was working on him.  He provided Leah, who’d teach Jacob a lesson and confront him with his faults (as many good wives do).  He would continue to “wrestle with God” until He had a new name, and was reconciled with his brother.  Leah, for her part, also needed a personal transformation – which happened through childbearing.  Though, at first, she was obsessed with finding affirmation from her husband, by the time she had her fourth son, she had learned to put her hope in God.  She named him “Judah,” meaning “praise (Genesis 29:31-35).

From here, people usually think that the story focuses on Joseph.  But, it’s more of an interplay between the two contrasting stories of Judah and Joseph.  Just as Judah’s birth brought transformation to her mother, so his life would bring transformation to his family.  And, just as God promised in a dream to bless and use Joseph, so would it come about – helping to fulfill God’s original blessings: for His people to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) and to be a “blessing to all nations” (Genesis 12:3).  The sons of Jacob are introduced in Genesis 37, where it is revealed that Joseph is not only his father’s favorite, but possibly God’s too.  He dreams that, one day, his whole family will bow down to him.

But, the story quickly turns to Judah.  When his brothers throw Joseph down a cistern and plot his death, Judah quickly takes charge, and convinces them to sell him as a slave to a passing caravan (Genesis 37:26-27).  Being the fourth-born, he seems to have supplanted the place of his older brothers, who had perhaps lost legitimacy because of their major sins (Genesis 34:25; 35:22).  However, after his father is grieved, Judah leaves the family and starts his own.  His first two sons die, due to wickedness, leaving his daughter-in-law, Tamar, a widow.  Though she is entitled to marry the third son, Judah refuses, fearing that his third son will die, as well.  When Judah’s own wife dies, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute, seduces Judah, and becomes pregnant.  Judah is ready to have Tamar put to death for immorality, until he learns that he is the father.  This serves as a turning point for Judah, who repents (Genesis 38:26).

Joseph’s story then follows, in parallel, showing a strong contrast (Genesis 39-41).  He also leaves his family, though not by choice.  He also encounters a seductress, but refuses her, and is blamed for it, anyway.  In prison, God is with him, and be is a blessing to others.  He eventually interprets a dream of Pharaoh, and is promoted to second-in-command for the whole kingdom.  Joseph maintains his integrity, and God blesses him.Sometimes, people think of the story ending there.  Judah and his brothers were bad, and got punished.  Joseph was good, and got rewarded.  But the story continues:

Joseph is bitter.  When his family experiences a famine, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt for food – all except his new favorite, Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin.  When the other ten brothers arrive in Egypt, they bow before Joseph, not recognizing him, nor that they were fulfilling his dream from years ago.  Joseph treats them harshly, accusing them of being spies, and tells them to never return unless Benjamin is with them.  The brothers show remorse for their former sin, and Joseph is brought to tears (Genesis 42:21-24).  The brothers return home, and Jacob refuses to send Benjamin.  Reuben offers the lives of his first two sons as insurance – an offer that is refused by his father.  Finally, Judah takes charge, and personally takes responsibility for Benjamin, convincing his father (Genesis 43:8-14).  When they return to Egypt, Joseph is brought to tears at the sight of Benjamin, but again hides his emotions.  This time, he frames Benjamin of theft, in an attempt to keep him in Egypt (Genesis 43:29-44:15).

Can we still acquit Joseph of doing any wrong?  After his brothers have repented of their sins and obeyed his wishes, will he still insist on punishing them, sending them away, and grieving his father?

Again, Judah takes charge.  Judah was the one who got them into this mess.  Judah was the one who had first repented.  Judah was the one who took responsibility, and convinced his father to send them, saving the family from starvation.  In Genesis 44:16-34, he delivers a long speech to Joseph on behalf of his family, reiterating their guilt, his father’s grief, and his willingness to serve as a substitute, in place of Benjamin.  This finally melts Joseph’s bitterness, and he reveals his identity to them.  He also openly acknowledges God’s good intentions in everything that had transpired.  He releases them from responsibility, seeing that God was behind it all.  He weeps, kisses his brothers, and reconciles (Genesis 45:1-15).

This may be one of the most underrated episodes in all of Scripture.  Judah, whose birth transformed Leah into a God-worshipper, who had been reformed from rebel to family leader, offered himself as a substitute, bringing reconciliation to his family, God’s chosen people.  But what is he remembered for?  His scandalous escapade with his prostitute-daughter-in-law.  Why do we like to keep record of sins, rather than chart a person’s journey of transformation?  When did the life of faith become a life of comparison and competition?

While Joseph has rightly been called a “Christ-figure” for his role in blessing all nations (Genesis 50:20-21), Judah could be an even better example.  Joseph is often the fan-favourite, because of his apparently flawless character.  He fits into our religious formulas: go good, and be blessed.  He also fits into our cultural formulas: work hard, and find success.  But, underneath that facade was a deep bitterness that could only be healed by the loving sacrifice of Judah.

Judah’s transformation is a more powerful story, and his role in Christ’s genealogy should not be overlooked.  Judah, who substituted himself for the sins of another, would proceed to become leader of the family, and father of kings (Genesis 49:10), leading to David, and Jesus Christ (Micah 5:2-5) – the ultimate, perfect sacrifice and substitute for our sins.  As Jesus said in Mark 10:45:

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Jesus’s genealogy was full of scandalous situations.  The women (let alone the men) mentioned in Matthew 1:1-17 were: Tamar, a foreign, incestuous prostitute; Rahab, a foreign prostitute; Ruth, a foreigner; Bathsheba, an adulteress; and Mary, a pregnant, unwed virgin.  God isn’t trying to keep up appearances.  He is on a mission to call and redeem a people for His glory.  And, in many ways, the rougher the material, the more beautiful the finish.  The darker the night, the brighter the light.

He says about His people, Israel, in Deuteronomy 7:6-8:

“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

 

And about His people, the Church, in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

May the stories, in Genesis, of relationships between God and His people, encourage you to know and follow after this loving God who welcomes all to Himself.

Online messages available here.