Just Say Yes! Part 1

In his book “Yes Man,” Danny Wallace wrote this:

Probably some of the best things that have ever happened to you in life, happened because you said yes to something. Otherwise things just sort of stay the same.

That could be a true statement, depending on what you said “yes” to in the first place. For me, saying “yes” to a spicy Italian foot long sub at 11 pm is most definitely not a good thing, the consequences being dire, indeed. But for the Christian, faith could be defined as saying “yes” to the Lord. Or put another way, obedience is the “yes” of faith to God’s Word. When we say “yes” in fulfilling the conditions of the Lord’s promises, He in turn says “yes” to our prayer requests.

Of course, saying “yes” the Lord often involves some kind of risk; the risk of embarrassment, for example. Or the risk of being let down. Back to Danny Wallace, he did get one thing right:

maybe sometimes it’s riskier not to take a risk. Sometimes all you’re guaranteeing is that things will stay the same.

In the New Testament, there are several people who said “yes” to the Lord and they got exactly what they needed and wanted. In saying “yes” to Jesus, the lives of these individuals forever changed.

And maybe that’s your problem; maybe you haven’t said “yes” enough to the Lord and your Christian experience has grown stale. God never intended the life of a believer to be boring, and yet so many of us find it so. If that describes you, then maybe it’s time for you to say “yes” to the Lord and allow Him to make your life into something meaningful and, yes, even exciting. One more quote from “Yes Man” to set the table as we turn to the Word:

The fact is saying yes hadn’t been a pointless exercise at all. It had been pointful. It had the power to change lives and set people free… It had the power of adventure. Sometimes the little opportunities that fly at us each day can have the biggest impact.

Jesus wants all believers to be “yes men and women” when it comes to serving Him. The blind man in Matthew’s Gospel never regretted saying “yes” to Jesus, and you won’t either.

When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. (Matthew 9:28 | TNIV)

Matthew and his Gospel

Nobody knows for sure when Matthew wrote his Gospel, but most scholars agree that it was written very soon after the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Like the epistles in the New Testament, Matthew wrote this Gospel to somebody, or a bunch of some bodies, probably Greek-speaking, Jewish-Christians. Anybody who went to Sunday School knows that Matthew presents Jesus Christ as “the King of the Jews,” the legitimate heir to David’s throne. And yet, when we read Matthew, Jesus comes across, not as royalty but more of a teacher. No wonder Matthew’s Gospel became the most popular of the Gospels once all four of them went into circulation, and when the New Testament began to take form, the Gospel of Matthew found its place at the head of all the other Gospels and epistles.

Matthew himself was a tax collector, chosen specifically by Jesus to follow Him. Oddly enough, “Matthew” means “the gift of God,” an interesting name for one whose career was taking money from others. Here was a disciplined disciple if ever there was one. And, because he was a tax collector, he was also despised by his fellows. Yet Jesus saw something in Matthew that He needed for the Kingdom:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. (Matthew 9:9 | TNIV)

As far as we know, Matthew had never met Jesus, although it’s hard to believe he wasn’t at least vaguely aware of this radical rabbi. What’s really interesting is that Jesus went to where this despised tax collector was. Nobody wanted to go near Matthew, sitting there in his toll-collecting office for fear that the few dollars they may have had in their wallets would be confiscated by this representative of Rome.

But Jesus walked right up to him and said two words: “Follow me.” Incredibly, without any hesitation at all, Matthew got up and simply followed Jesus. He did what Jesus wanted him to do. Bonhoeffer wrote about how big a step this was for this one-time tax collector:

The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus).

And in case you think Matthew leaped before he thought, the very next thing he did was throw a dinner party in honor of his new life:

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”. (Matthew 9:10, 11 | TNIV)

Matthew wasn’t afraid to invite his shady friends to a party and introducing them to his new-found friend, Jesus Christ. Of course, the Pharisees weren’t impressed. Jesus’ fraternizing with “sinners” – people with reputation problems, may have caused the Pharisees to be critical, but for Jesus, this was an opportunity to teach His disciples something very important: Followers of Jesus need to go where they are needed most. People in the dark need the light and followers of Jesus are the light-bearers. People who are sick need healing and followers of Jesus are agents of healing. People who are lost need to be lead and followers of Jesus are those who find the lost and lead them to Jesus.

A series of miracles

That’s the first half of Matthew 9. The second half of Matthew 9 concerns a group of miracles, all designed to drive home the point our Lord was trying to make. Here we see Jesus going to where He was needed the most.  The first two miracles are connected even though they don’t seem to be.

While he was saying this, a synagogue leader came and knelt before him and said, “My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.” Jesus got up and went with him, and so did his disciples. (Matthew 9:18, 19 | TNIV)

Mark tells us the synagogue leader’s name was Jairus and that his daughter was almost dead – she was about to take her last breath. Mark and Luke, filling in the blanks, tell us that while the group was on its way to the house, it got the bad report that the girl had passed.

So now it’s up to Jesus, not to heal the girl, but to raise her from the dead. No pressure there! But, wait! On His way, this happened:

Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.”. (Matthew 9:20, 21 | TNIV)

On His way to perform one miracle, an opportunity presented itself to perform another. What she wanted from Jesus is barely expressed in the word “healed.” The verb used here is sozo, and the KJV gets closer to its meaning when it translated it, “be whole.” It is used frequently in the Gospels and Acts of “physical healing.” But in the epistles, it is used almost exclusively for salvation. Here’s the interesting bit: The Greek words for “Savior” and “salvation” are from the same the root as sozo, emphasizing “spiritual health” or “wholeness.” So just what was this wanting of Jesus? Maybe both; to be saved spiritually and, if He would do so, healed physically.

What would Jesus do? How determined was He to get to Jairus’ home? Here’s the teachable moment:

Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed from that moment. (Matthew 9:22 | TNIV)

Our Lord took the time to respond to her faith – He gave her exactly what she asked for: sozo. But it wasn’t the touching of Jesus’ robe that healed her, it was her faith. But it wasn’t her belief that resulted in her healing, it was her faith (her belief) expressed in action. She did two things that demonstrated her faith: she sought Jesus out and she reached out and touched Him. Her actions manifested her faith. Put another way, she did something to show our Lord that she had an inner belief in His abilities to give her what she needed.

Meanwhile, when He finally reached the home of Jairus, Jesus was faced with quite a display:

When Jesus entered the synagogue leader’s house and saw the noisy crowd and people playing pipes…. (Matthew 9:23 | TNIV)

It must have been quite a contrast: Calm, cool, and collected Jesus walking among a gaggle of hired mourners. They were sure it was all over except for the mourning, but Jesus viewed death as a temporary thing, and taking the girl’s hand, He lifted her up and restored her life.

News of this miracle spread like wildfire. And while most people view the miracle of a restored life as the main point of this story, the disciples are learning not only what Jesus can do, but how He viewed the human condition. Not only did Jesus go to those who needed Him, but the disciples also learned that He is greater than a long-term illness and that there is life after death – a life brought about by an act of the Lord. They are also learning something of this mysterious thing called faith. The bleeding lady had it. Jairus had it. And even Matthew had it. And now we’ll meet two blind men who followed Jesus. They had faith even though they, for the moment, had no sight.

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. (Matthew 9:27, 28 | TNIV)

Right away I am struck by the faith these blind men had. Their faith, first of all, was in Jesus “the Son of David,” not Jesus the miracle-working rabbi. Somehow these two blind men saw something in Jesus that nobody else did at this time. The knew, somehow, His royal pedigree. And that is a very big deal, especially in this Gospel which presents our Lord as the King.

The other thing that strikes me is that they didn’t really ask for healing, they asked for mercy. Filsom commented,

They accept him as the expected Messiah leader who will do wonderful deeds of mercy mentioned in Isaiah 35:5.

In case you forgot what Isaiah 35:5 says, here it is:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. (Isaiah 35:5 | TNIV)

In crying out to Jesus for mercy, these unfortunate men were really asserting their faith, and in response, Jesus said this:

Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” But they went out and spread the news about him all over that region. (Matthew 9:29 – 31 | TNIV)

“According to your faith, let it be done to you.” If Jesus were to come up and say that to you, what do you think would happen to you? Anything? Would anything at all happen to you? This simple statement made to these men stands as a challenge for all Christians today. Since we can have what we believe for as we learn to say “yes” to Jesus, what would happen if Jesus said, “According to your faith, let it be done to you?” Sadly, many Christians would receive exactly nothing because they don’t have faith that says “yes” to Jesus. They’re content with knowing, however vaguely, that they are going to Heaven after they die, but beyond that bit of faith, they have nothing for Jesus. How unfortunate for them; they are missing out on so much. Consider what we’ve learned about the people that said “yes,” implicitly or explicitly to Jesus in this chapter:

Matthew. He said “yes” to Jesus by getting up and following Him. He became one of the 12 apostles, lived a life of serving the Lord and wroteaa a piece of literature that has endured two millennia.

Jairus. He said “yes” by seeking out Jesus to heal and restore his daughter to health. Jesus raised her from the dead because of her father’s faith.

The bleeding woman. She said “yes” to Jesus by reaching out to touch His clothing. He restored her health.

The blind men. They said “yes” literally and figuratively and they received their sight.

There’s a pattern here, if you’d take the time notice it. Learn to say “yes” to Jesus and see what He will do for you!

The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Part 6

Most Bible readers are familiar with the “heavyweights” of the early Church. We know about Paul and Peter, Barnabas and Mark. But these fellows didn’t do all the work in spreading the Gospel and building the Church. They had help. There were many men and women during the New Testament era that quietly went about doing the work of evangelism in the towns, cities, and hamlets where they lived and worked. We know the names of some of these relatively unknown servants of Christ. People like Julia, Persis, and somebody named Apelles. But there were countless individuals who were never named. In Ephesians 4, Paul wrote something that is very significant to the Christian:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1 – 3 | TNIV)

That’s an admonition all believers from all churches from any time in history need to keep foremost in their minds. The word “then” (or “therefore” in some other translations) points the reader to something Paul had been talking about. He had been dealing with certain doctrinal truths in the first three chapters of this letter, but he had also made it clear that he was a “prisoner for the Lord,” meaning that he was in prison for doing the work of Christ. He wasn’t looking for sympathy, but rather gently making the connection between the doctrines he had just written about and the Ephesians’ responsibility to “live a life worthy” of their calling as he has been doing even though he was in prison for doing just that. The modern Christian needs to understand that no matter what their circumstances, it is their obligation to live lives that proclaim their faith in word and deed.

Sometimes it’s dangerous to live for Christ. Sometimes it’s inconvenient to share your faith with others in public or to serve others in the Body of Christ. Your circumstances are absolutely irrelevant when it comes to pulling your weight as a servant of Christ. No matter what, Christians have been called to be “humble and gentle,” “patient with each other.” That may be hard for some of us during the best of times, but Paul says we all ought to be that way all the time! This how we have been called to live.

In Romans 16, Paul lists a bunch of Christians that had been living lives worthy of their calling.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. (Romans 16:1, 2 | TNIV)

We don’t know much about Phoebe. Her name means “radiant” or “bright,” and she certainly was as far as Paul was concerned. We don’t know all that she did for her church in Cenchreae, but for Paul, her hospitality was worthy of note and commendation. And because she extended hospitality to people like Paul – because she was thoughtful and considerate toward other believers – she deserved to receive that back in kind.

The ministry of hospitality, Acts 18:1 – 4

Then Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he became acquainted with a Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently arrived from Italy with his wife, Priscilla. They had been expelled from Italy as a result of Claudius Caesar’s order to deport all Jews from Rome. Paul lived and worked with them, for they were tentmakers just as he was. Each Sabbath found Paul at the synagogue, trying to convince the Jews and Greeks alike. (Acts 18:1 – 4 | TLB)

That paragraph doesn’t tell the whole story. By the time Paul got to Corinth, he was a beaten man. He was a discouraged man. His work throughout Europe didn’t go well. Philippi, Thessalonica, Berra, and Athens wore the apostle out. Here he was, a highly educated man, full time Bible teacher and preacher and pastor forced to make tents just to get by because so many of the Christians he came in contact with either too poor to help support the man in his ministry or, more likely the case, just to cheap and thoughtless.

But as is often the case, God took a lousy situation and made it work for His servant. Because he was forced to do some secular work to support his sacred calling, Paul met a couple of Jews who had been kicked out of Rome under the edict of Claudius in 49 AD. Their names were Priscilla and Aquila, and they were also tent makers and Paul worked alongside them for a time in Corinth, and he also lived with them. Their common occupation drew them together. But even more than that, Priscilla and Aquila were living exactly the way they had been called to live. They were being hospitable to a fellow believer even when it was probably difficult for them to be so. God noticed that though, and He honored the couple.

Back in Romans, we read this:

When God’s children are in need, you be the one to help them out. And get into the habit of inviting guests home for dinner or, if they need lodging, for the night. (Romans 12:13 | TLB)

Well, this couple in Corinth was doing just that with Paul. Being hospitable to fellow Christians is a fundamental obligation Christians have; it’s the very least we should be doing within the community of faith. This verse isn’t talking about picking up strangers on the side of the highway or taking risks like that. It’s about treating other believers within the Body of Christ with love, compassion, and understanding.

Don’t just pretend that you love others: really love them. Hate what is wrong. Stand on the side of the good. Love each other with brotherly affection and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy in your work, but serve the Lord enthusiastically. (Romans 12:9 – 11 | TLB)

Agape love is what Paul is talking about here, and one way to show agape love to other believers is simply being hospitable. The concept of “love” in the Bible is never vapid sentimentality; it is a vigorous moral action taken; it is something that is done.

Under less than desirable circumstances, this couple that had been kicked out of their home and forced to live and work in a strange town, surrounded by strangers, and having probably lost everything, showed agape love to a fellow believer, who was also in less than desirable circumstances. Neither of Priscilla, nor Aquila, nor Paul was at their best, yet they acted their best toward each other.

Ministry of discipleship, Acts 18:18, 19; 24 – 28

This New Testament Christian power couple did more than just open up their home and their hearts. They actually INVESTED in his ministry in a tangible way.

Paul stayed in the city several days after that and then said good-bye to the Christians and sailed for the coast of Syria, taking Priscilla and Aquila with him. At Cenchreae Paul had his head shaved according to Jewish custom, for he had taken a vow. Arriving at the port of Ephesus, he left us aboard ship while he went over to the synagogue for a discussion with the Jews. (Acts 18:18, 19 | TLB)

They not only traveled with Paul, but just as he worked with them when he first met them in their tent making business, now they would work with him in his sacred missionary work. In fact, when Paul left Ephesus, he left Priscilla and Aquila behind to continue the work he started there. What did this couple do after Paul left? These verses give us a clue:

As it happened, a Jew named Apollos, a wonderful Bible teacher and preacher, had just arrived in Ephesus from Alexandria in Egypt. While he was in Egypt, someone had told him about John the Baptist and what John had said about Jesus, but that is all he knew. He had never heard the rest of the story! So he was preaching boldly and enthusiastically in the synagogue, “The Messiah is coming! Get ready to receive him!” Priscilla and Aquila were there and heard him-and it was a powerful sermon. Afterwards they met with him and explained what had happened to Jesus since the time of John, and all that it meant! Apollos had been thinking about going to Greece, and the believers encouraged him in this. They wrote to their fellow-believers there, telling them to welcome him. And upon his arrival in Greece, he was greatly used of God to strengthen the church, for he powerfully refuted all the Jewish arguments in public debate, showing by the Scriptures that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. (Acts 18:24 – 28 | TLB)

Apollos was an Alexandrian Jew who had been converted to the faith, but his knowledge was very limited. Apparently he was an eloquent speaker and defender of John the Baptist’s teaching but not of Christ’s. This wouldn’t do, and it was up Priscilla and Aquila to gently set this remarkable man straight. Apollos was a stand up man and genuine believer, and thanks to the ministry of this couple, Apollos became a powerful evangelist for Jesus Christ.

Apollos and I are working as a team, with the same aim, though each of us will be rewarded for his own hard work. (1 Corinthians 3:8 | TLB)

Discipleship was what Priscilla and Aquila did so well. That coupled with their ministry of hospitality made all the difference in the lives of Paul and Apollos. Like the man who led Billy Graham to the Christ, behind-the-scenes-ministries cannot be ignored. There is NO unimportant work for the Lord; you never know the impact your hospitality or mentoring will have on a believer’s life and influence.

Pastoral ministry, Romans 16:3 – 5

Tell Priscilla and Aquila hello. They have been my fellow workers in the affairs of Christ Jesus. In fact, they risked their lives for me, and I am not the only one who is thankful to them; so are all the Gentile churches. Please give my greetings to all those who meet to worship in their home. Greet my good friend Epaenetus. He was the very first person to become a Christian in Asia. (Romans 16:3 – 5 | TLB)

The hospitality of Priscilla and Aquila was legendary among the early churches. But they didn’t just make tents and welcome traveling evangelists and Bible teachers into their home. They became missionaries who discipled other believers, but they also became a pastors of a church.

This couple, at great personal risk, served the Lord by working with Paul and others and established a church in their home. But it didn’t stop there. At some point, this couple that intersected so often with Paul, eventually returned to Rome and continued their ministry there. In 2 Timothy, we read this single verse:

Please say hello for me to Priscilla and Aquila and those living at the home of Onesiphorus. (2 Timothy 4:19 | TLB)

This amazing couple, that had been kicked out Rome, made the best of bad situations, yet served the Lord with grace and making the most of every opportunity, engaged in various ministries utilizing their spiritual gifts. When they returned to Rome, they experienced what they had offered Paul and so many other Christians: the hospitality of another. We don’t know a thing about this fellow named Onesiphoris, other than he, like Priscilla and Aquila, practiced Christian hospitality. And for his trouble, he is mentioned in the Bible, and believers have read his name for over 2,000 years.

The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Part 5

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The story of Stephen is the story of the first Christian martyr. He was the first, but by no means was he the last. Since the days of Acts, it is estimated that over 70 million Christians have died for their faith. It’s nearly impossible to get an accurate number, but historians seem to have glommed onto that number. That’s a lot people willing to stand up for Christ in the face of death.

If you can’t imagine 70 million lost lives, how about these numbers:

• The number of Christians systematically exterminated in Nazi Germany numbered about one million, while the number of Orthodox Christians and others murdered in Russia between 1917 and 1950 hit 15 million.
• In China, at least 200,000 Christians and foreigners were killed in the Boxer Rebellion of 1898 to 1900. Another 700,000 were killed in communist China between 1950 and 1980.
• The number of Catholics killed in Mexico from the late 1800s to 1930 is estimated at 107,000, while 300,000 Christians are believed to have been killed under Idi Amin in Uganda between 1971 and 1979.
• Todd Johnson, of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, puts the number of Christians martyred annually at 100,000.

There is talk today about a “global war on Christians,” but it’s always been that way. It may be true that the intensity of Christian persecution varies wildly from nation to nation and from century to century, but it’s always been perilous to stand for Christ in this lost world. Our Lord acknowledged this:

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10 – 12 | TNIV)

Even here in “the land of the free,” Christians really aren’t all the free anymore. We used to think it happened “over there,” with the distance acting as a kind of anesthetic. But in recent years, Christians here have experienced the mildest forms of persecution, Things like these tweets twittered by the likes of nutty Chris Matthews:

If you’re a politician and believe in God first, that’s all good. Just don’t run for government office, run for church office.

Or this piece of brilliance from Mike Dickerson, Democrat politician from Virginia:

Said it proudly! Want to decimate the Tea Party, The NRA, bible thumpers and Fox News zombies? Vote for me!

Even the gormless former President famously said,

It’s not surprising, then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Tweets and political ramblings are one thing, but when Christian bakers are sued and forced out of business because they take a stand for traditional faith and values, that persecution “over there” is starting to migrate over here.

Full of faith and power

Our introduction to the man who would become the first Christian martyr, Stephen, comes in the midst of an interesting time in the early church in Jerusalem:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”. (Acts 6:1 – 4 | TNIV)

The rapid church growth was exciting but it brought with it trouble that threatened to rip church from the inside out. The solution was to simply increase the number of church leaders, the only qualification at this early point was that they be “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” One of those men was Stephen:

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. (Acts 6:5 | TNIV)

Stephen was named first and would become the first martyr and the focus of the following segment in Acts. Philip would become a major Christian witness throughout the area, but the rest of the group are never seen or heard from again in Acts.

Stephen was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” And he was, first of all, a peacemaker, helping to resolve the dispute that led to a serious quarrel among the church members. He was so strong in the Scriptures that his Jewish opponents couldn’t refute him as he presented Jesus Christ as the Messiah.

But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. (Acts 6:10 | TNIV)

He not only knew the Word, but he also worked great “wonders” or “miracles.” Dr Luke, author of Acts, doesn’t tell us what those miracles were – we wish he would have – but we can assume they were miracles of healing and of casting out demons.  Little wonder, then, that some Jewish leaders took notice and challenged him. But nobody can stand against one who is standing for Christ and who is allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through them. So they did what scoundrels are wont to do:

Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”. (Acts 6:11 | TNIV)

Of course, he didn’t do that, but lies are all the enemies of God have to use against a sincere believer. Accusing Stephen of blasphemy was accusing him of a capital crime. To be precise, here’s what they accused him of saying:

For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”. (Acts 6:14| TNIV)

Just as the Jewish leaders had used Jesus’ words against Him in Mark 14:58, so now they ripped Stephen’s words out of context and twisted them all around. Jesus had previously talked about the destruction of the temple, so its likely Stephen simply repeated what he’d heard Jesus say. Taking things out of context is nothing new, but Stephen’s reaction to these false accusations was nothing less than stunning: No anger, only love.

All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6:15 | TNIV)

Here was indisputable proof that this man was literally “full of the Holy Ghost.” Moses’ face had shone when he came down from the mountain after spending 40 days in God’s presence. Jesus’ face was transfigured on the mount. And so Stephen’s whole countenance was lighted with the glory of another world.

Stephen’s “defense”

Almost all of Acts 7 is taken up with Stephen’s “defense.” I call it a “defense,” but that’s not really what it was. It was really just a positive presentation of Christian theology from a Jewish standpoint. There are two ways to look at Stephen’s apology. F.F. Bruce gives us his two main arguments:

1. God does not live in man-made buildings, He is not local to any particular jurisdiction, and God’s people are should not be confined to any particular spot.
2. The Jewish nation habitually rebel against God and God’s people. Previous generations had opposed and rebelled against the prophets from Moses onwards, and likewise his generation had killed “the righteous one.”

It would certainly be hard to dispute any points of Stephen’s “defense” any more than you could poke holes in Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. The Jews were obsessed with and proud of their great Temple, built for them by Herod. Stephen was absolutely correct in pointing out that God revealed Himself to, of all people, Abraham, not while he was in a Temple or a holy place, but in heathen land! God is not confined geographically and He doesn’t stay put in a building any man may build for him, even it that man was Solomon.

However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. (Acts 7:48 | TNIV)

Interestingly enough, Solomon, the man who built a massive edifice for God to dwell in, made the same claim in 2 Chronicles 6:18,

But will God really dwell on earth with human beings? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (TNIV)

What seemed obvious to Solomon and Stephen, and what seems so obvious to us, was completely missed by the proud Jewish leaders who actually believed that the glory of God was only to be found in their Temple.

So where does God dwell? Stephen quotes from Isaiah, so let’s look at the exact quote to see what Stephen was getting at:

This is what the Lord says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the Lord. “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” (Isaiah 66:1, 2 | TNIV)

That’s right. God doesn’t live in a building, He lives in the redeemed human heart. This profound, eternal truth struck at heart of Stephen’s listeners. And the last three verses see the defendant becoming the prosecutor as he turns the tables on them. In for a penny, in for a pound.

You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”. (Acts 7:51 – 53 | TNIV)

There could be no more offensive thing for these proud Jews to be told. The Greek word in behind “stiffnecked” suggests a stubborn ox refusing to receive the yoke on its neck. And to be called “uncircumcised” would be as bad as calling them “Gentiles” or “heathens!” In no uncertain terms, Stephen boldly spoke the truth about these men. They were as rebellious and as nasty as their forefathers who resisted the Holy Spirit as He sought to lead them and guide them.

A glorious home-going

It’s amazing to me that these smarmy Jewish religious leaders let Stephen go on for as long as they did. But, in the end, Stephen had sealed his fate just as surely as His Lord did. In a final twist of the knife, Stephen laid this on them:

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55, 56 | TNIV)

In response to the visceral hatred of the Sanhedrin, Stephen remained “full of the Holy Spirit” and was given a glimpse into Heaven. What should have been the greatest vision of Stephen’s life was really a prelude to his death. In the verses that follow, we see the depths Judaism had sunk to in Jesus’ day.

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:57, 58 | TNIV)

And so the first Christian martyr meets his end and a man named Saul was there, watching the sad spectacle. This Saul of Tarsus heard Stephen’s speech and I wonder how much of it stayed with him. Surely Stephen’s death stayed with him, for though he was a martyr, he died a victorious death. It may well be that Stephen was the human agent that God used to get Saul’s attention and conquer his rebellious heart.

Stephen was a man full of the Holy Spirit and full of the grace of God. Even as he died, he echoed His Savior’s words:

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59, 60 | TNIV)

The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Part 4

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The story of Jesus’ meeting with a Pharisee known as Nicodemus is, perhaps, one the most famous encounters in history. It is certainly a favorite of preachers and Sunday School teachers. And it’s a classic story. Here was man, whose very soul was in darkness, who came to Jesus in the dark of night to talk about spiritual realities. It was during this encounter that the well-known phrase, “you must be born again” is seen for the first time.

A private meeting

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. (John 3:1 | TNIV)

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, whose name means “conqueror of the people.” His name is in stark contrast to his seemingly timid character. John adds that Nicodemus was also a member of Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. He was a teacher and interpreter of the Scriptures. That he was a Pharisee shouldn’t be held against Nicodemus. Not all members of that group were hypocrites. Here was one who took his faith seriously.

And this man had everything: prestige, respect, power, and position. All that, yet he felt the need to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness.

He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:2 | TNIV)

It’s noteworthy that his first word to Jesus was “Rabbi.” Jesus wasn’t formally trained; He didn’t attend Rabbi College. But Nicodemus heard enough of what Jesus had been teaching and seen enough of His ministry to know that God was a part of everything this Rabbi was doing. The compliment that he paid Jesus was genuine, and apparently he wasn’t the only Pharisee that could tell there was something different about this itinerant rabbi.

Nicodemus cites the “signs” or “miracles” Jesus was performing as indisputable proof that Jesus was a man from God. What’s really interesting about that single sentence is that the people of that time, including the Pharisees, didn’t doubt the miracles of our Lord. As Dr McGee noted, you have to be a professor in a seminary today to do that. Neither the friends of Jesus or His enemies doubted His miracles.

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. ” (John 3:3 | TNIV)

When you read that verse, it seems like Jesus is talking to somebody else. Nicodemus came to Jesus and, so far, just paid Him a compliment. So why did Jesus say what He said here in verse 3? The key to this, and in fact the key to chapter 3, is something John wrote back in chapter 2:

But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need human testimony about them, for he knew what was in them. (John 2:24, 25 | TNIV)

Nobody knows any man like Jesus does. John made the observation in chapter 2, and in chapter 3 He gives Nicodemus as His example; His “Exhibit A.” He knew exactly why Nicodemus came to Him, even though Nicodemus himself wasn’t sure.

It should also be noted that what applies to Nicodemus applies to all people. The word John used in both 2:25 and 3:1 (translated as “people” and “man”) is anthropos, a general, all encompasing word. So what is said about this anthropos Nicodemus is said of all anthropos. This is just one of several “universalizations” that can be found in John’s Gospel. Salvation is for “whosoever” (3:16), but all people are in need of being “born again,” or “born from above.” But this isn’t something only John wrote about:

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23, 24 | TNIV)

Nicodemus was pretty sure Jesus came from God, but with a single sentence Jesus informed Nicodemus that only He (and no human being) can see God without being “born from above,” which was really God’s goal for Nicodemus and remains so for all human beings. Westcott made this observation:

Without this new birth – this introduction into a vital connection with a new order of being, without a corresponding endowment of faculties – no man can see – can outwardly comprehend – the kingdom of God. Our natural powers cannot realize that which is essentially spiritual. A new vision is required for the objects of the new order.

That statement from Bishop Westcott sheds a light on this exchange:

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. (John 14:8 – 11 | TNIV)

This is exactly what was happening this night with Nicodemus. The theologian whose natural eyes were unable to see God were able to see Jesus, and that brought him one step closer to the Kingdom of God. But in order to get this man into the Kingdom necessitated a “born again” experience. That phrase comes from the Greek anothen, a word that has several meanings, including “from above,” and “again.” However it’s translated, what Jesus meant couldn’t have been more clear. If a person – Nicodemus in particular but all people in general – is to have eternal life, that life must come into that person. Put another way, we receive our biological life from our earthly parents and that life enables us to live in this world, but God’s life can only come from Him and it’s a “new life” from “above.”

An explanation

Nicodemus seemed to understand Jesus’ admonition as being “born again,” as his response indicates:
“How can anyone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4 | TNIV)

The learned Nicodemus, for all his theological education and knowledge of the Scriptures, could not grasp what our Lord was getting at. Paul was somebody who would have understood exactly what was happening between the Pharisee and Son of God:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 19 | TNIV)

In order for Nicodemus to pass from being one of “those who are perishing” into one who is “saved,” he would have to experience this new birth Jesus was talking about, and at that moment, his spiritual eyes would pop open. But for now, what Jesus had said was, as Paul noted, simply “foolishness.” Nicodemus had no way to understand what spiritual rebirth was all about. He, like all unbelievers, didn’t have the capacity to comprehend it.

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5 – 8 | TNIV)

These verses are a restatement and explanation of what Jesus had just said. You can’t read verse 5 without wondering what in the world Jesus meant by the phrase, “being born of the water and the Spirit.” The “Spirit” bit is easy. Obviously Jesus is referring to spiritual rebirth – a regeneration initiated by the work of the Holy Spirit. But “being born of water” is a little more difficult to understand. It could be that our Lord is referencing water baptism, especially since the Pharisees understood water baptism and were familiar with John the Baptist’s baptism, a baptism of repentance. Or it may be that Jesus was talking about physical birth, contrasting it with being born of the Spirit.
We’ll likely have to wait to ask Him personally to get His intended meaning, but what is clear is that every human being must, at some point in his life, be born of the Spirit if he wants to enter into the Kingdom of God. Some kind of “conversion experience” needs to occur; our spirits need to be set free and our flesh brought into submission to the Holy Spirit. Again, Paul helps us understand why this must happen:

The sinful mind (the flesh) is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature (flesh) cannot please God. (Romans 8:7, 8 | TNIV)

There is no future for our flesh, that is, our old and sinful nature. God has no plan to fix it or improve it. That old nature must be done away with because it cannot get into the Kingdom of God.

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:6, 7 | TNIV)

That’s what Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus. And He used an illustration about the wind blowing. You can’t see the wind, but you can certainly tell when it’s blowing: You can feel it against your skin and you can see it moving tree tops and flags and so on, and you can hear it. What you can’t tell is where it started out from or where it will eventually end up. That’s Jesus’ way of saying nobody can control the wind; you can’t make it do what you want it to do, and you can’t really explain it or its behavior. The wind, as it were, has a mind of its own.

There’s a clever play on words here. The word Jesus used for “wind” here is pneuma, which also means “spirit!” The fact of wind is undeniable – even though you can’t see it or control it, you know it’s there. But there is also an element of mystery to the wind – there are things about it nobody can explain – yet that doesn’t stop people from noticing it or commenting on it or even making use of it, like in sailing a boat, for example. That also applies to the Spirit. Sure, it’s hard for anybody, even Jesus, to adequately explain the Spirit or things of the Spirit so that a sinful man may understand it. But that shouldn’t stop that same sinful man from experiencing what the Spirit can do for him. As one scholar noted:

The great mystery of religion is not the punishment, but the forgiveness of sin: not the natural permanence of character, but spiritual regeneration.

The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Part 3

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Does God have a plan for your life? Sounds like a simple question, but you’d be surprised how few Christians have ever thought about it. Truth is, a lot of us don’t even have a plan for our own lives, so it makes sense not to think too hard about whether or not God has one or not. Most Christians, like most people in general, let life happen to them; they react to things that are happening around them, much like a shirt blowing in the wind.

But life never just “happens” to anybody. God really does have a plan for you. He has a plan for everybody, by the way, not just for His people. Keith Green used to say this about the whole issue:

God has a plan for everybody’s life. If you’re an unbeliever, God’s plan for you is hell.

He wasn’t wrong about that. But for His people, God’s plan involves work for Him. Let’s take a look at Aaron. God had a plan for his life that had nothing to do with that whole golden calf thing, proving anybody can make a mistake.

Doing it the wrong way

Speaking of God’s plan for His people, that plan isn’t always sunshine and buttercups. Case in point:

The sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.” (Genesis 15:12 – 14 | TNIV)

That was some plan. But, after those four centuries had run their course, God revealed Himself to a man named Moses and God gave Moses His plan for that man’s life.

Now I going to send you to Pharaoh, to demand that he let you lead my people out of Egypt. (Exodus 3:10 | TLB)

As with all of God’s plans, God had involved himself with the plight of His people. He saw them, He heard them, and He knew what they were going through in Egypt. Why wouldn’t He? That they were even there was part of His plan! It may have seemed to them that He had abandoned them, but that was never the case.

God is constantly aware of what’s going on around us, and He is always acting in the world, as Paul taught in Acts 17:

His purpose in all of this is that they should seek after God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him-though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and are! As one of your own poets says it, ‘We are the sons of God.’ (Acts 17:27, 28 | TLB)

But, the Lord moves in history when He will, not when we may want Him to. And in this case, the Lord was moved to deliver His people and He was going to use Moses to do that. True, God could have delivered Israel by His word alone, but He chose to work through a man. Moses, though, wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of being drafted, and to say he was reluctant would be an understatement. He believed he lacked the abilities to do the work and he believed the task was all but impossible. God reassured Moses over and over and over, and Moses kept on bringing up reasons why he was the wrong man for the job. Had you or I been God, we likely would have passed on Moses altogether. But the Lord is patient, as evidenced by this exchange:

But Moses pleaded, “O Lord, I’m just not a good speaker. I never have been, and I’m not now, even after you have spoken to me, for I have a speech impediment.” “Who makes mouths?” Jehovah asked him. “Isn’t it I, the Lord? Who makes a man so that he can speak or not speak, see or not see, hear or not hear? Now go ahead and do as I tell you, for I will help you to speak well, and I will tell you what to say.” (Exodus 4:10 – 12 | TLB)

But even that wasn’t enough. Enter Aaron:

Then the Lord became angry. “All right,” he said, “your brother, Aaron, is a good speaker. And he is coming here to look for you and will be very happy when he finds you. So I will tell you what to tell him, and I will help both of you to speak well, and I will tell you what to do. He will be your spokesman to the people. And you will be as God to him, telling him what to say.” (Exodus 4:14 – 16 | TLB)

Doing the right thing in the wrong way?

If Moses tried the Lord’s patience, Aaron must have been a pleasant surprise. Apparently Aaron was on board from the get-go; at least we have no record of any hesitation on his part.

Now Jehovah said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So Aaron traveled to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, and met Moses there, and they greeted each other warmly. Moses told Aaron what God had said they must do, and what they were to say, and told him about the miracles they must do before Pharaoh. So Moses and Aaron returned to Egypt and summoned the elders of the people of Israel to a council meeting. Aaron told them what Jehovah had said to Moses, and Moses performed the miracles as they watched. (Exodus 4:27 – 30 | TLB)

There are rare people like Aaron; people who seem never to question or struggle with the will of God. But it should be noted that while Aaron didn’t go through the doubts Moses went through, and though he didn’t argue or debate with the Lord either, he did easily yield to the wishes of the people in forging the golden calf. It is possible to “leap without looking” when it comes to our service to the Lord. Even Jesus advised His followers to “count the cost” of following Him.

Together, these two brothers shared what God had told them and what God had done with the people, doing exactly what the Lord wanted them to do.

Aaron told them what Jehovah had said to Moses, and Moses performed the miracles as they watched. (Exodus 4:30 | TLB)

The response of the people was not unlike the response of Aaron:

Then the elders believed that God had sent them, and when they heard that Jehovah had visited them and had seen their sorrows, and had decided to rescue them, they all rejoiced and bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exodus 4:31 | TLB)

These folks were absolutely ready for the Lord to deliver them, but they had no idea the magnitude of the sacrifice they would be called to make; no idea of the self-denial, the self-control, and even the suffering that was to come. Yes, these people were desperate for their freedom, but wanting and admiring freedom in the abstract is very different from doing what it takes to get it and keep it. It’s the same way with people today. Sinners hear the gospel; they hear what Jesus can do for them and clamor for salvation, not realizing the life of discipline and commitment that lay ahead.

Fearless and faithful

So Moses told the people what God had said, but they wouldn’t listen anymore because they were too dispirited after the tragic consequence of what he had said before. (Exodus 6:8b | TLB)

Chapter 6 of Exodus is an interesting chapter. It begins on a kind of sour note. So far, the two brothers hadn’t had much success. The more they confronted Pharaoh, the harder he made things for the Hebrews in Egypt. The Living Bible says they had become “dispirited,” but that must surely be an understatement! All their hopes were pinned on these two brothers.

Yet just as the story takes off, it is interrupted by, of all things, a genealogy! And beginning with verse 14, we have to wade through yet another genealogy. And yet, it wasn’t just “another” genealogy. It begins with the three oldest sons of Israel, but the real purpose of this genealogy is to stress the priestly tribe of Levi. Kohath is the head of that particular line, and two of his sons are important: Izhar (father of Korah) and Amram (father of Aaron and Moses). Through Aaron, the family line carries on to Eleazar and through him to Phinehas – who served in the Tabernacle. Keep in mind Aaron and Moses are some four generations from Israel. It’s not insignificant that the line does not carry on through Moses but through Aaron. Moses was the prophet of his day, through whom the Lord spoke during the foundation of the nation. But it would be the priests, through Aaron, who would build upon that foundation.

That’s not to say Moses wasn’t an important figure in Hebrews history.  He was.  Dwight L. Moody quipped,

Moses spent 40 years in Pharaoh’s court thinking he was somebody, 40 years in the desert learning he was nobody, and 40 years showing what God can do with a somebody who found out he was a nobody.

That’s the truth! In Pharaoh’s eyes, Moses had become as God, due to the miracles he performed in the royal court. Moses wasn’t acting on his own strength, but he was trusting on the power of God.

But I will cause Pharaoh to stubbornly refuse, and I will multiply my miracles in the land of Egypt. Yet even then Pharaoh won’t listen to you; so I will crush Egypt with a final major disaster and then lead my people out. The Egyptians will find out that I am indeed God when I show them my power and force them to let my people go.” So Moses and Aaron did as the Lord commanded them. Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three at this time of their confrontation with Pharaoh. (Exodus 7:3 – 7 | TLB)

And the really amazing thing is that these two brothers were doing all this when they were over 80 years of age! Age is never, ever a factor is serving the Lord. And a servant of God never retires from that position!

Chosen and anointed as priests

God chose Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants to serve as priests.  Until this time, only Moses was the mediator between man and God. But now, that duty would fall upon Aaron’s family.

Consecrate Aaron your brother, and his sons Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, to be priests, to minister to me. Make special clothes for Aaron, to indicate his separation to God-beautiful garments that will lend dignity to his work. Instruct those to whom I have given special skill as tailors to make the garments that will set him apart from others, so that he may minister to me in the priest’s office. This is the wardrobe they shall make: a chestpiece, an ephod, a robe, an embroidered shirt, a turban, and a sash. They shall also make special garments for Aaron’s sons. (Exodus 28:1 – 4 | TLB)

The priests had special clothing that served to set them apart from all other Hebrews. This is holiness manifested. This is typical of the inner purity of all of God’s people. But these special clothes were also designed for glory and beauty. For anybody to go into God’s presence without taking the time to care for his appearance would be inconsistent, given the beauty of the Tabernacle. God, the author of all that is good and all that is beautiful, wants his people to reflect that glory and that beauty in their worship of Him.

The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Part 2

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Our first greatest story was the story of Noah and the Flood. In that story we read about the very first covenant God made with a man:

Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” (Genesis 8:21-22 | NIV84)

That was the first of many covenants God made with people over the centuries, but the greatest covenant in the Bible is the one He made with a fellow named Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:2-3 | NIV84)

Some ten generations had elapsed between those two covenants and both Noah and Abraham were men of distinction. Noah, of course, because was the only decent man alive on the whole face of the earth at the time, and Abraham remains one of the most important figures, not only in Scripture, but in the overall history of the earth. He was the father of the Israelites through Isaac and the father of the Arabs through Ishmael. He is the ancestor the Messiah and the spiritual father of all believer who share in his faith.

And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:11-12 | NIV84)

And God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17, etc.) is far reaching. It promises the preservation of Israel as a nation, the Millennial hope, and even the ordering of world affairs at the end of the age.

Hearing and obeying

The story of Abram, later Abraham, begins at the tail end of Genesis 11 –

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. (Genesis 11:31 | NIV84)

So verse one of chapter 12 was probably the second time God came to Abram to call him to leave his relatives and the pagan culture in which he was living.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1 | NIV84)

The first call came while he was in Ur, this second call while he was in Haran, after the death of his father, Terah. Some people find it amazing that God would actually speak directly to human being, but what’s truly amazing is that this human being not only heard God speaking to him, but did what he was told!

So Abram left, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. (Genesis 12:4 | NIV84)

Just like that, a 75-year-old senior citizen started life all over again, based on a covenant made up of three essential components. Two of those components sounded pretty good and would have made complete sense to old Abram: (1) Abram’s name would be great. Who wouldn’t want to be considered “great” among all the people of the world? Abram was already wealthy, but if he kept up his end of the covenant, he would become influential for all time; (2) God would make Abram a blessing to others. That’s a good thing too. It must have made Abram feel good to be told that he would a blessing to others! But it’s the first stipulation of the covenant that would have been a little hard for this senior citizen to swallow: (3) God would make Abram into a great nation. From the purely human perspective, that seems ridiculous. Now, it is true that Pierre Trudeau, a former Canadian Prime Minister, fathered a daughter in his early 70’s, but that’s an exception. Or exceptional, if you like. So the fact that God would think that Abram would go along with that part of covenant speaks volumes about how God viewed the man’s character. Abram was by no means perfect, but his heart was right.

Paul viewed justification by faith as the key blessing Israel has given the world. Yet wherever the Jewish people have traveled and lived, they have been a blessing to those around them. Think about this:

  • There are some 18 million Jews worldwide, or about 0.2% of the world’s population. Yet Jews make up 54% of the world chess champions, 27% of the Nobel physics laureates, and 31% of the medicine laureates.
  • In America, Jews make up a mere 2% of the population, but 21% of the Ivy League student bodies, 26% of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37% of the Academy Award-winning directory, 38% of those on a recent Business Week list of philanthropists, and 51% of the Pulitzer Prize winners for non-fiction.
  • Within Israel itself, Tel Aviv has become one of the world’s foremost entrepreneurial centers – a new Silicon Valley in the Middle East! For example, Intel is the number one employer in Israel, with more than 8,000 employees. The Israelis are responsible for much of the microprocessor innovation over the last two decades.
  • According to David Brooks: Israel has more high-tech start-ups per capita than any nation on earth. It ranks second behind the US in the number of companies listed on the NASDAQ. Little Israel, with 7 million people, attracts as much venture capital as France and Germany combined. During the most recent world-wide economic downturn, Israel thrived by raising some consumption taxes but lowering the rest. Barclay’s stated that: “Israel is the strongest recovery story in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
  • Finally, the nation of Israel is nothing short of astounding in terms of its creativity, scientific genius and technological savvy. For example, between 1980 and 2000, Egyptians registered 77 patents in the US. Saudis registered 171. Israel registered 7,652 patents!! The current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, argues that Israel will become the Hong Kong of the Middle East, with its economic benefits spilling over into the Arab world. There is indeed some evidence that this is already occurring in Jordan and in the West Bank. An astonishing example of this innovation is the Israeli company Netafim, a company that produced the world’s first drip irrigation system, which consists of a series of plastic pipes with small holes that lie on the ground. This system revolutionized the way Israel made its desert bloom so that it became a leading supplier of fruits, vegetables and flowers to the European market. Today, Netafim is the number one provider of drip irrigation to the world and conducts business in 110 countries spanning five continents. This highly efficient system has helped nations produce 50% more crop yield while using 40% less water. Nations such as India, Vietnam and Philippines all benefit from this technology. However, nations such as Iran and its terrorist allies, Hezbollah and Hamas, despise the success and innovation of Israel and seek to destroy it. (http://graceuniversity.edu/iip/2013/06/13-06-01-1/)

Israel, one of the smallest nations on the planet, has made incredible contributions to humanity. Is it because the Jews are smarter than the rest of us? Or is it because of the covenant God made with Abram?

Abram stepped out in faith, but it was an imperfect faith to be sure.

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit a my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:1 – 3 | NIV84)

It’s hard to believe the same man said this:

But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them have their share.” (Genesis 14:22 – 24 | NIV84)

Yes, Abram had faith but time was marching on and, at least in private, Abram began to have his doubts. But he did exactly right by confessing them to the Lord. It’s not unusual for God to delay an answer to prayer until a situation appears utterly hopeless; then a solution will have to be of God’s doing and all the glory will be His and His alone.

Confirmation

In chapter 15, Abram addressed the Lord as “Adonai Yahweh,” or “Master Covenant Keeper.” The NIV translates the name as “Sovereign Lord,” and it tells us that even though the man had doubts, he still viewed God as trustworthy and dependable. And yet, Abram’s faith was conditioned by what he saw, or rather, what he didn’t see. He still had no children. Given that, he reasoned that one of his servants would have to do. How often do we limit God by our own reasoning? When we do that, we really short change God because we limit Him, or we put limits on Him. God is so much bigger and so much more powerful than we imagine.

Instead of chastising Abram for what seemed like a lack of faith, the Lord did something astonishing:

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:4 – 6 | NIV84)

God would do something for Abram that the man could never conceive of: Give him natural descendants as numerous as the stars.

The patriarch trusted that God would keep His word and God considered that an act of righteousness – Abram was righteous because he simply trusted the Lord. This wasn’t the first time Abram exercised extreme faith in God. Here’s what Hebrews says:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8 – 10 | NIV84)

Abram, who later became Abraham, was a man of simple faith. He may have been had fleeting doubts which led to bad decisions, but his act of trusting the Lord’s word is legendary, and is considered righteousness, and as Paul would later write, an example of what justification of faith is all about (Romans 4 and Galatians 3). Salvation is an act of simple faith, just as Abram’s trusting God to keep His word was.

The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Part 1

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The Bible is not only the greatest, most influential book ever written, it contains the greatest stories ever told. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the greatest stories in literature all find their basis or inspiration in the Bible. Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at some of those stories you may know so well and hopefully you’ll learn some new things about the greatest stories ever told.

Our first story occupies four chapters in the Old Testament book of Genesis but is summarized over in the New Testament:

Noah was another who trusted God. When he heard God’s warning about the future, Noah believed him even though there was then no sign of a flood, and wasting no time, he built the ark and saved his family. Noah’s belief in God was in direct contrast to the sin and disbelief of the rest of the world-which refused to obey-and because of his faith he became one of those whom God has accepted. (Hebrews 11:7 | TLB)

The story of Noah and the ark is familiar even to people who have never cracked open the Bible. Every culture has it’s “flood narrative,” meaning that somewhere in the collective memory of every culture in the world, resides the story of one man who defied the odds and survived a catastrophe.

In the case of Noah, we’ll focus on his single-minded obedience to God. And that’s where the story begins.

The only just man

When the Lord God saw the extent of human wickedness, and that the trend and direction of men’s lives were only towards evil, he was sorry he had made them. It broke his heart. And he said, “I will blot out from the face of the earth all mankind that I created. Yes, and the animals too, and the reptiles and the birds. For I am sorry I made them.” (Genesis 6:5 – 7 | TLB)

Things were bad back then. How bad? These verses serve to illustrate how far the descendants of Adam and Eve had fallen. The story of Noah isn’t so much about Noah, although it is that, it’s really about God’s relationship with mankind, especially with the one who listens, pays attention to, and obeys Him.

The contrast between these verses and those of the creation narrative is obvious. In the beginning, God looked at the earth and all was “good,” but now all was wicked. Every impulse of man was continually evil. Nobody ever described man’s sinful condition better than Paul:

I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. No matter which way I turn I can’t make myself do right. I want to but I can’t. When I want to do good, I don’t; and when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway. (Romans 7:18, 19 | TLB)

In terms we understand, God “regretted” that He created man and He determined to wipe out all life on earth because of man’s evil. In some translations, it sounds as though God “changed His mind” that He had made man. Before you think He did, you should know this:

God is not a human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? (Numbers 23:19 | TNIV)

Man may indeed have been “rotten through and through,” to use Paul’s words, but the source of evil on the earth at this time was actually something even worse:

Now a population explosion took place upon the earth. It was at this time that beings from the spirit world looked upon the beautiful earth women and took any they desired to be their wives. In those days, and even afterwards, when the evil beings from the spirit world were sexually involved with human women, their children became giants, of whom so many legends are told. (Genesis 6:1,2,4 | TLB)

That’s how The Living Bible translates it, and it may or may not be exactly what the author of Genesis intended to convey (he may have been referring simply to intermarriage between believers and non-believers). Regardless, the corruption that entered the human race due to those relationships spread throughout the whole human race, touching almost every person.

Then Jehovah said, “My Spirit must not forever be disgraced in man, wholly evil as he is. I will give him 120 years to mend his ways.”. (Genesis 6:3 | TLB)

But, God did set up a grace period of 120 years, during which time Noah would act like a prophet, warning the people about the impending judgment. In spite of how evil people had become, God liked Noah – the man “found favor with God” according to the KJV – because Noah was a man of unimpeachable character. Apparently the only one on all the earth at this time. His family was also free of the spiritual corruption that had touched all the rest of mankind, and God established a covenant with Noah and his family:

But I promise to keep you safe in the ship, with your wife and your sons and their wives. (Genesis 6:18 | TLB)

Noah’s response to God’s covenant (which was expanded in 9:8 – 17) was to build the ark. In all, 120 years elapsed and all during that time, Noah was mocked and jeered as he built a boat on dry land with no rain in sight. It begs the question: How is it possible to obey God in a sinful world? Obedience to God is independent of your circumstances; regardless of what’s going on in your life or around the world, if you call yourself a Christian then you must do all you can to live in obedience to God’s Word.

The rains came down, the flood came up

One week later, when Noah was 600 years, two months, and seventeen days old, the rain came down in mighty torrents from the sky, and the subterranean waters burst forth upon the earth for forty days and nights. (Genesis 7:10 – 12 | TLB)

Old Noah was obedient right till the day the rains came. As far as we know, he never wavered in his commitment to get that boat built and get the word out. 120 years he preached and for 120 years his warnings went unheeded. You have to admire Noah’s devotion to God’s Word. The day came to bring the animals into the ark, which was quite a task.

Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female. (Genesis 7:2 | KJV)

This is the first time in the Bible we are introduced to the notion of “clean” and “unclean” animals. We don’t know how Noah knew the difference between the two; it wasn’t until the Tabernacle in the wilderness was built that the idea of this kind of separation was codified in the Jewish law (Leviticus 7:19 – 21). Somehow he knew which animal was which and the job got done.

The idea of separation is an important idea throughout Scripture. In the Old Testament, the stress was on separating clean and unclean animals, clean and unclean people, and Jew and Gentile. In the New Testament, the necessity of separation continues, but this time, it has nothing to do with food. Here’s an example of separation as expressed by Paul:

Don’t be teamed with those who do not love the Lord, for what do the people of God have in common with the people of sin? How can light live with darkness? And what harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a Christian be a partner with one who doesn’t believe? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For you are God’s temple, the home of the living God, and God has said of you, “I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people.” That is why the Lord has said, “Leave them; separate yourselves from them; don’t touch their filthy things, and I will welcome you and be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters.”. (2 Corinthians 6:14 – 18 | TLB)

It’s unfortunate that the people of Noah’s day didn’t have access to that paragraph! This whole catastrophe might have been avoided had they.

As He always does, God kept up His end of the covenant.

But Noah had gone into the boat that very day with his wife and his sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their wives. (Genesis 7:13 | TLB)

He held the rain off until Noah and his family were safe and secure within the ark.

When you read the account of Noah and his building of the ark, the faith and obedience of Noah are astounding. Look at these verses:

And Noah did everything as God commanded him. (Genesis 6:22 | TLB)

So Noah did everything the Lord commanded him. (Genesis 7:5 | TLB)

But at the same time, so were the sovereign initiatives of God:

And Noah did according unto all that the Lord commanded him. There went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female, as God had commanded Noah. (Genesis 7:5, 9 | KJV)

And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the Lord shut him in. (Genesis 7:16 | KJV)

And that’s the way it should be; Noah should serve as the perfect example of a faithful, submissive believer who does what God tells him to do. This was something the mother of Jesus understood:

But his mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you to.”. (John 2:5 | TLB)

God sealed the ark, the rains came, and flood waters rose, and all life on the earth perished. It may surprise you, but there is far more space devoted to the story of Noah’s flood than the creation of the universe – 56 verses compare to 81 verses. The theological significance of the flood is important to note because without it, we’re missing some important history. Over in the New Testament, we read this:

First, I want to remind you that in the last days there will come scoffers who will do every wrong they can think of and laugh at the truth. This will be their line of argument: “So Jesus promised to come back, did he? Then where is he? He’ll never come! Why, as far back as anyone can remember, everything has remained exactly as it was since the first day of creation.” They deliberately forget this fact: that God did destroy the world with a mighty flood long after he had made the heavens by the word of his command and had used the waters to form the earth and surround it. And God has commanded that the earth and the heavens be stored away for a great bonfire at the judgment day, when all ungodly men will perish. (2 Peter 3:3 – 7 | TLB)

The flood is seen as a foreshadow of a greater judgment to come; a judgment for essentially the same reason. And Noah and his family are seen as the faithful believers who will enter into a re-created world where Jesus Christ will rule and reign. The world as we know it today isn’t the same world Noah lived in before the flood. The flood began a new epoch of history, which was something Peter understood.

For God did not spare even the angels who sinned, but threw them into hell, chained in gloomy caves and darkness until the judgment day. And he did not spare any of the people who lived in ancient times before the flood except Noah, the one man who spoke up for God, and his family of seven. At that time God completely destroyed the whole world of ungodly men with the vast flood. (2 Peter 2:4, 5 | TLB)

So also the Lord can rescue you and me from the temptations that surround us, and continue to punish the ungodly until the day of final judgment comes. (2 Peter 2:9 | TLB)

 


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