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The Master Multiplier, Part 3

We serve a God who gives. And gives. And gives. He gave us Jesus, who is our salvation. He gives us blessings that cannot be counted; so many they often go unnoticed or unappreciated. God gives us answers to prayer. He gives us life and He sustains our lives. God gives and He miraculously multiplies His gifts to us. That’s why what He provides for us goes further than what we provide for ourselves. And why when we give to Him in the form of offerings or service, our gifts seem to do so much – He multiplies them to accomplish His will! The way God works is, in a word, amazing.

In 1 Corinthians, we discover that God gives His people something in addition to what we’ve already looked at: God gives victory!

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57 | NIV84)

What could be more exciting than than “free victory?” God gives it to us! And yet, your experience has probably demonstrated that most victories are either hard fought or elusive. So what was Paul getting at here? Let’s take a look.

The central fact of Christianity

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central fact of the Christian faith. Had it all ended with His crucifixion, Christianity would be indistinguishable from virtually any other belief system on earth. The Resurrection IS what Christianity is all about. Had our Lord not risen from the dead, there would be no Gospel to preach, no church to start, no hope for the future. It’s hard to imagine a Christian who would seriously doubt or question the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and yet during the very early days of the Church, the Resurrection was doubted and questioned and the question as to whether or not it actually happened threatened to rip apart the Body of Christ.

1 Corinthian 15 is Paul’s brilliant defense of the Resurrection, and though volumes could be written about what Paul taught in this chapter, I’ll just barely glance at the highlights. The first thing Paul wanted his friends to understand was that the Gospel they received; the one they believed in by faith; the one that proclaimed the Resurrection, was the one that changed their lives.

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:1, 2 | NIV84)

No matter what other teachings these people may have heard after they received the Gospel, it’s the Gospel Paul wanted them to “hold firmly to.” And why would anybody believer hold any teaching above the Gospel when it was the Gospel that saved them in the first place? Let’s face it, teachings come and go, man’s philosophies wax and wane with generational changes, but the Gospel is constant. The Gospel doesn’t change. A culture doesn’t effect the truth of its teachings. And it’s the Gospel that changes lives.

The Corinthians heard it, they received it by faith, and by that Gospel they took their stand in the world. If a teaching, say a teaching that questions or denies the Resurrection, came along and they believed it, then they wasted their time with the Gospel. In other words, the Corinthians had to accept all the Gospel or none of it. This is not an insignificant concept. A lot of people like parts of the Gospel but hate other parts of it, and they foolishly think believing in some of it is better than nothing at all. Not according to Paul, though. Christianity is an all or nothing proposition; you believe it all or you walk.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 | NIV84)

Instead of getting all metaphysical, Paul makes it clear the the Resurrection is a historic fact, and he makes three statements in order of importance:

• Christ died for our sins.
• Christ was buried, which means He was dead; He wasn’t pretending to be dead. He wasn’t putting on an act. Jesus Christ’s death was real – it was an accomplished, historical fact that is provable.
• Christ rose again after three days. Interestingly, Paul notes that these three elements of the Gospel are all “according to the Scriptures,” meaning these three points are not made up fables or tall tales told by himself and other apostles.

But with this third point, Paul adds something: Proof positive that the Resurrection took place.

and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:5-8 | NIV84)

Eyewitness, many of whom were still alive at the time he wrote this letter, could attest to the reality of the Resurrection. Skeptics today may balk at this, but in Paul’s day, this was a huge deal. All those eyewitnesses, Paul estimated 500 in all, saw Jesus alive after He had died. And he named names!

Reduction ad Absurdum

Paul used the Scriptures and eyewitness accounts to prove Jesus rose from the dead. Now the apostle goes negative.

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:12 | NIV84)

Since the evidence for the Resurrection is overwhelming, Paul reasons, if even one person has indeed been raised from the dead, how can anybody say that there is no resurrection of the dead? To question this basic fact is to start a chain reaction that in effect nullifies the entire gospel.

For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:16-19 | NIV84)

And that’s the crux of the matter; this is why the Resurrection is so important: Without it, we have no hope for the future. Christ’s Resurrection shows that: (1) it is possible for the dead to rise again; (2) Christ will be the first of many who will rise from the dead; (3) that is our hope – that just as death wasn’t the end for Him, it won’t be the end of us, either.

By the way, this is exactly how liberals destroy the Word of God, even today. They deny parts of it – the parts they don’t like; the parts that don’t fit into their particular world-view – but in denying one part, eventually all the parts are called into question. That’s why the Bible in it’s entirety must be accepted, on the basis of faith, to be the complete, true and accurate Word of God.

It’s evident that Paul looked at the doctrine of the Resurrection of Christ as a hopeful thing. I’d wager not many of you look at it that way. Most modern Christians in the West, especially, have it so good and are so comfortable, the idea of being raised from the dead never enters their minds. But these Corinthians didn’t have healthcare. They didn’t enjoy good health. They died young. Yes, even just the mere possibility of resurrection would have given those with a bleak outlook, HOPE.

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19 | NIV84)

Without the Resurrection, there is no forgiveness for sins because after all, if the Resurrection is a fable; a mere invention of man’s over-active imagination, then so is the idea of forgiveness, for if you can’t trust the Word of God to be truthful about Resurrection, how can you trust it for anything else? Worse, without the Resurrection of Christ, there would be no resurrection of believers, and that means there’s no future – no hope for any of us.

Christ’s Resurrection and Ours

But, because of His Resurrection, ours is guaranteed:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20 | NIV84)

That’s right, and that’s the hope of every believer; that we won’t die; that we will live on after this life is over. Part of that “living on” has to involve our bodies. Man is a spirit, he has a soul, and he lives in a body – all three parts of man are eternal and God has made provision for all three to live on. The Resurrection (Christ’s and ours) is as certain as death. As death had entered the world through Adam, resurrection entered through Christ. As Adam opened the door to death, so Christ opened the door to resurrection life. But there’s an orderly process to this whole business:

But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:23-26 | NIV84)

Death still reigns today. You might have noticed people are dropping dead all over the world. But we have the hope that until Death is destroyed, God has made provision for His people, as He made provision for His Son. Death may come to you, but the joke is on Death. You’re coming back! Just as death couldn’t hold our Lord, it can’t hold you either. Death is, we might say, an inconvenience; something we have to put up with because of what sin had done to human beings and the world in general.

A special kind of victory

Earlier I said that your body is eternal. It is, yet it isn’t. Paul clarifies the issue of your immortal body beginning at verse 50:

I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed–in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:50-53 | NIV84)

God’s people are special people, and in keeping with their special place in the Kingdom, they will be given a body that is able to enter into the eternal, spiritual Kingdom of God. Your mortal body would be no good in Heaven. Just like you can’t exist in the water without SCUBA gear, so you can’t exist in Heaven without the appropriate body. And whether a body is in the grave (or in the belly of a lion or at the bottom of sea), or living at moment in the future when Jesus returns, all believers will be able to exchange their flesh-and-blood bodies for new ones – perfect ones that will last forever.

Paul called that “a mystery,” and it was in his day. He was the first person to talk about it. It’s not a mystery to us, thanks to Paul’s profound teaching here in 1 Corinthians 15.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55a | NIV84)

The death of Death will occur when Jesus returns and we receive our new bodies. At that time and not before, Death will forever come to an end on planet Earth. And that gets us to the verse that started this whole thing:

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57 | NIV84)

The victory He has given us is the victory of death and sin. It may seem like Death is winning, but Death is a defeated enemy. If it were not for sin, Death would have no sting. If it were not for the law of God that shows us how sinful we are, Death would have no power over us. But Death doesn’t have the final word! God has the final word and, and that word is VICTORY. Victory over death, hell, and the grace has been won by Jesus Christ and He shares that victory with all of us. Because Jesus died and rose, Death’s back has been broken, and you and I never need to fear it. That’s the victory – multiplied millions upon millions of times.

The Master Multiplier, Part 2

God is a mathematical genius. He is the undisputed Master Multiplier. As we began this series, we discovered that God is able to supernaturally take His gift to us, whatever it may be, and multiply it so that it not only meets a need we may have, but actually meets needs we didn’t know we had or that other people may have. He is able to take our gift to Him – like He really needs anything from us in the first place – and multiply it. He is the Master Multiplier.

This time, we’ll discover another aspect of this quirk of God’s character, and the verse comes from a sermon Paul preached, some would say to unspectacular results, at Athens:

And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:25 | NIV)

Paul told the brainy Athenians, “God gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” Why did he put it like that? That’s a curious way to phrase a simple statement, so let’s take a look at why Paul said what he said and what it means to us, and to all the eggheads who heard him firsthand.

Starting churches all over

In Acts 17, we see three intrepid church planters traveling from Philippi to Thessalonica, a thriving, hustling and bustling seaport metropolis, for the purpose of starting a church there. It would be a perfect location for an evangelical church. God may be the Master Multiplier, but He wants His servants to be as well, and He has called us to be “little multipliers.” By having a church strategically located in a place like Thessalonica, the Gospel could be taken around the known world by the various merchants, travelers, and tourists who stopped over there.

Paul’s custom was to start out preaching and teaching at local synagogues. He had become a sort of “rogue Jew,” but was still a highly respected Bible teacher out on the frontier. He had some very good results early on in Thessalonica:

Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. (Acts 17:4 | NIV)

But it wasn’t all sunshine and buttercups. As is frequently the case, when God moves in a substantial way, the Devil does too, trying to quash the good work of the Lord. Unfortunately for us, he is also a “multiplier” of sorts: A multiplier of evil, You’ve probably noticed that in your own life. When you begin to make progress in your faith – maybe you’re reading the Bible more and praying more; perhaps you’re more faithful than ever at church – pretty soon you face some discouragement or other spiritual roadblocks. You suddenly have issues with your kids or with coworkers or maybe even with somebody at church. Do you think those things are random? Do you think that bad things just coincidentally happen the moment God starts moving in your life? The Devil is smart; he knows the right psychological moment to throw a monkey wrench into the inner workings of your spiritual life.

Here’s what happened to Paul and his pals:

But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. (Acts 17:5 | NIV)

That’s what they do, people who don’t like what you say, they get the “Rent-a-mob” and demonstrate. Nothing’s really changed in 2,000 years, has it? How about that poor schmuck, Jason? He put Paul and Silas up for the night and for his trouble he got hauled out of the house and dragged before the rulers, and charged with harboring people who talked treason by speaking of another king by the name of Jesus. To add insult to injury, he had to post bail to get out of jail and apparently had to agree that Paul would not return to Thessalonica any time soon.

For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. (1 Thessalonians 2:18 | NIV)

Paul knew his problems weren’t a coincidence.

On the lamb now, Paul ends up in Berea, where he did what he did best: Started another church. Of the Bereans, we know this:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11 | NIV)

There’s not a pastor or evangelist out there who wouldn’t love to preach and teach the Bible to such a receptive audience! For people like Paul, this would be dream assignment. What could go wrong? Plenty! Remember that Rent-a mob from Thessalonica?

But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. (Acts 17:13 | NIV)

Sometimes you just can’t win for losing! That’s an interesting saying that goes back to a 1955 issue of the Postal Supervisor, a journal of the National Association of Postal Supervisors:

You can’t win for losing, it seems. Who are our friends, and who is the snake in the grass in Congress. There must always be a villain in the plot. Will it be the outer-space missile this time?

Well, for Paul the villain in the plot, the snake in the grass, took the form of those trouble-making Jews from Thessalonica. They were determined, it seemed, to make life miserable for Paul no matter what. But really it was the Devil trying to undo the work Paul had done.  However, there’s no stopping God’s people from doing God’s work. All of this got Paul, in a round-about way, to the center of thought in the ancient world, Athens.

Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible. (Acts 17:15 | NIV)

Reasoning with smart people

While Paul was cooling his heels in Athens, waiting for his Silas and Timothy to arrive, he must have been taken by the sights and sounds of that very pagan city. Idols and temples were everywhere, and opportunities to share the truth of Jesus Christ were also everywhere.

So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. (Acts 17:17, 18 | NIV)

For as long as he was in town, Paul had a two-fold ministry in Athens. First he did what was his custom: He preached Christ in the local synagogue. Second, he “debated” with the Gentiles in the marketplace. It wouldn’t have been an organized thing all the time; frequently Paul would have debated a handful of high IQ Athenians with shoppers and merchants gathering around, listening in. Paul was very adept at using the local customs to get the Gospel message across.

As he was doing his thing, he caught the attention of two groups of philosophers. The Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans were the pleasure-seekers; pleasure at all costs. They tried to live free from any and all stress and entanglements of any kind. The Stoics were not interested in pleasure so much as knowledge and rational thought. Paul managed capture their attention by his teachings. Considering his recent encounters, Paul may have been a little worried when this happened:

Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) (Acts 17:19 – 21 | NIV)

No, these were not bullies. No Rent-A-Mob troublemakers here. These were men who were intellectually curious; they wanted to know more about Jesus. They were very religious people, these Athenians, and Paul respected that. He didn’t care much for men like Agrippa and Felix, well-known Greeks, but he respected the people, and he spoke with respect.

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. (Acts 17:23 | NIV)

That’s a fascinating verse because it not only described the ancient Greeks, but modern Americans, too. You can see objects of our worship strewn all over the place. When Paul walked into Athens, he saw their objects of worship; temples and idols. But if Paul were to walk into your home, what would he perceive to be the objects of YOUR worship? What object or objects are given prominence in your home? More to the point, what thing or person do you think most about? Like the Athenians, we may not ever be aware of what we are worshiping.

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. (Acts 17:24 | NIV)

This is a far reaching verse simply by its implication: Because God made everything in the material universe – EVERYTHING – He needs nothing – NOTHING – from any one of us. We bring nothing into the relationship; He brings everything. Our buildings, our seminaries, our theologies can’t contain Him. We exist simply because He allows us to.

That’s a very big pill for some people to swallow. The proud, arrogant, self-important, ego-centric person today is the center of his universe. But whether he knows it or not; whether he acknowledges God or not, he is responsible to that God.

And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:25 | NIV)

That’s the verse that drives the secular Leftist crazy. His life comes from God Himself. He didn’t create himself and he has no right to himself. God gives life and breath to every man, meaning God sustains every human being – He keeps us alive. Somewhere, deep inside man, this truth lies. Paul quoted from one of their very own philosophers, Epimenides:

For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:28 \ NIV)

The last phrase comes from the poet Aratus, referring to Zeus. Man’s heart and mind are totally corrupt by sin to the point where they ascribe to made-up gods truths that apply only to the one true God! But truth is the truth no matter who sais it, and though they didn’t know it, Epimenides and Aratus had no clue they were uttering the most profound truths any man could ever stutter out his mouth: In God we live and move and have our being. We are His. And because of that, God has ever right to call those whom He created to REPENT.

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:30 | NIV)

Repentance is necessary because one day God will judge all men by Jesus, whom He raised from the dead.
Regardless of what a man thinks or how he lives or what he thinks of God, God gave that man life and keeps him alive. But one day, God will judge that man. Until then, it’s on that man to repent. God is the Master Multiplier – giving life  to all and judging all.

 

The Master Multiplier, Part 1

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:7 | NIV84)

God is a giver. The most famous verse the Bible confirms this fact:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 | NIV84)

It’s an amazing thing, this grace of God. We sing about it. We talk about it. And we thank God for His amazing grace. God, in His grace, gave us a Savior. But even after we’re saved, God just keeps on giving:

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:16, 17 | NIV84)

Every good thing in our lives comes from our heavenly Father. He gave. He keeps on giving through all the days of our lives. But God is also able to do something else very interesting: He multiplies the good things in our lives and He multiplies the good things that we do in His Name. God is the “Master Multiplier” Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at this idea of God as the Master Multiplier and what that means for us.

A church in trouble

Paul founded the church in Corinth, the church to which this letter was written. It was a struggle from the very beginning for Paul. He had to support himself by making tents with a Jewish entrepreneurial couple, Priscilla and Aquilla. They had been kicked out of Rome when Claudius’ edict requiring all Jews to leave came into effect. While Paul’s reputation as a first-rate teacher of the Scriptures got him into the local synagogues to preach and teach, the more converts he won, the harder it got. Doors began to close. Opposition within the Jewish community began to grow. Not one to be told what do to, Paul simply turned his attention to the Gentiles in Corinth with Gospel. For two years, Paul and his business associates built up a strong, large church made up of both Jews and Gentiles.

Think about this. By the time Paul wrote this letter, the church was still very young, with no member in the faith for more than six years. With so many immature Christians, it’s no wonder the Corinthian church had so many problems. The Jewish-Christian members of the congregation were morally and ethically grounded in their Judaism, but they were in the minority. Most members of this large church were Gentiles who came straight out of paganism and were, essentially, starting all over again. These believers had NO relationship with the kind of morality and ethics that Judaism and, now, Christianity preached. For these Gentiles, immorality was the norm. Questionable business practices were expected. Their idea of marriage was not even close to the Judeo-Christian concept.

There wasn’t a lot of persecution going on in Corinth, and while that may have been a welcome change, the big problem in Corinth was one of ignorance. And make no mistake, it was a huge problem. Just think about how much of the Christian faith you knew about before your conversion. Most non-Christians have a pretty good idea what a Christian looks like; how they conduct themselves; even how they speak – the words they use and, of course, the words they don’t. The genuine Gentile believers in Corinth had no idea about Christianity, from either a cultural, linguistic, or theological standpoint. They were really struggling to “get it right,” in a very sensual, materialistic society, which is why Paul took so much time to pray for them and to write a series of letters to them, of which we have these two preserved for us in the New Testament.

Worldly Christians

As honestly ignorant as many members of the Corinthian church were, there were others who did get some things about the faith right.

Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. (1 Corinthians 1:7 | NIV84)

Even in their immaturity, the Lord blessed these people with the full gifting of the Holy spirit. But the problem was, as you might expect, their ignorance. They thought themselves very spiritual people, and because they had such an exalted view of themselves, they had actually begun to shun God’s wisdom and were just beginning to fall back into their worldly ways. They hadn’t grown in their faith.

Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:1 | NIV84)

There’s an important lesson here for Christians in any church, in any age. Maturity doesn’t automatically happen to any believer. God saves you, and He gives you all the tools you need to grow in grace and in the faith, but it’s up to you to use the tools at your disposal. You need to become a good steward of what God has given you. God has given you His Word, the Bible, for you to read and study; that’s your job. God has given you the Church, a place where you can go and be taught and to learn, not only from Bible teachers and pastors, but from other members as you fellowship together. This is so important to grasp: Growing in the faith is YOUR responsibility. And if you’re not becoming a mature Christian, then shame on you. You’re no better than these lazy, deluded Corinthian Christians who thought they were “all that” just because God had blessed them with the Holy Spirit.

I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men? (1 Corinthians 3:2 – 4 | NIV84)

For the two years he had been with them, Paul gave them “milk, not solid food,” as he should have done. New believers aren’t ready for hard teaching. But now, after the passage of even more years, they were still on the milk! They hadn’t progressed to the solid food yet and he was disappointed. They were still acting like worldly people – like the people they were before – and this worldliness had manifested itself in jealousy and strife. It was because of this worldly behavior that they were not mature enough for the “solid food” he was hoping to give them.

Here’s another lesson for the Christian today who is the member of a church: Problems in the church are always – without exception – caused by immature, worldly members. They don’t know how to behave; they are not becoming Christlike. They are still worldly. We today use the word “worldly,” but the word Paul used looks like this: sarkikos, which previous generations of Bible translators translated as “flesh,” because the Greek word as Paul used it means, “under the control of the fleshly nature instead of being governed by the Spirit of God.” How strange a situation was this in the Corinthian church? These believers had been filled with the Holy Spirit, yet they weren’t paying attention to God’s Spirit; they were bypassing Him and listening only to their sinful nature. None of them had to live like this, they chose to. They were worldly – fleshly – by their actions, which were determined by what they wanted to do.

Part of this worldly behavior was choosing sides: Some were all in for Paul and his teaching, others were wanting more of Apollos and his teachings. These were false loyalties brought on by the fact that these worldly, immature Christians had no clue about leadership in the church or how God works through His servants. In fact, Paul and Apollos were not gods to be served. They were servants of God, just like all Christians are. They were the instruments God was using, not the objects of anybody’s faith. And the truth is, what God gave to Paul and Apollos He has given to every believer: a witness to the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Are you a good steward of that? Paul was. And so was Apollos. Both men were saved by grace and took their stories to the lost; to people they used to be like. And that’s really all every believer is supposed to be doing. Being a good steward of our salvation is sharing it with others; it’s telling the lost and dying of what Jesus has done for us.

But, we can’t do that if we’re immature, baby believers. Over in Ephesians 4, we read something very interesting:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13 | NIV84)

That brief paragraph gives the purpose of the Church, which is essentially to build up its members, helping them to become mature in the faith. That word “mature” comes from a Greek word that has the idea of “complete, lacking nothing.” That should be the goal of all believers. Sadly for the Corinthians and for so many believers today, that’s not the goal at all.

God makes us grow

The controversy in the Corinthian church was over Paul or Apollos and who was the better servant of God. Sounds ridiculous to us today, but then all church controversies are ridiculous. The modern “cult of personality” continues to exist in the church today and is manifested in various ways but it all boils down to the same, immature behavior of members. Paul used an agricultural example his readers would have understood:

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6 | NIV84)

There are a couple of very important aspects to that verse. First, the obvious one: God’s servants all work together. That reminds us of this famous passage:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. (1 Corinthians 12:4-6 | NIV84)

Some people in the Church are gifted Bible teachers. Some couldn’t teacher their way out of a kindergarten classroom, but they’re generous to a fault. Others may be hospitable to the point where there are no strangers to them. The Church needs members with all kinds of gifts if it is to do its work in the community. So Paul and Apollos were two servants of God with differing gifts but God was working in and through both of them. That’s important: Men come and go, but God is the One working through all of them to the benefit of the Body of Christ.

And the second point is the key point: God causes each man’s work to increase. That’s a very comforting thought. As we work for God, God makes us successful. We do what God tells us to do, and He’ll do the rest. Some of us are prone to discouragement because we think we are doing the work of God in our own strength. We aren’t. All we can do is all we can do, but all we can do is enough because God will take our best efforts and make them do even more.

That’s what stewardship is all about. We take what God has given us, whether it’s our talent or our time or our money, and if we use it for His glory, He multiplies it; He makes it do more and go further. He makes our talents touch more lives. He somehow makes it possible for us to do more in an hour for Him than what we can do in an afternoon for ourselves. He can take a $10.00 dollar donation and make it do the work of a $100.00. God is the great multiplier. All we have to do is be good stewards of what He has given us, and He will do the rest. It’s what stewardship is all about.

The Minor Prophets, Part 5

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 | TNIV)

Micah prophesied to very religious people; the kind of people who never missed a service! In his day, throngs of people streamed into the Temple to be a part of the worship services. Whatever the divinely appointed occasion, the people were there.

While Micah’s people were very religious, they weren’t at all godly. You can be religious but not godly; our churches are full of people like that. People who behave one way in church on Sunday, but another way outside the church during the other six days of the week. These very religious people, like the people of Micah’s day, don’t think that it might be important to the Lord how they conduct themselves in the world outside the church.

The behavior of his people troubled Micah. And that’s his main message and the main message of this book of prophecy that bears his name.

Micah lived and ministered in the last half of the eighth century B.C. Micah is frequently compared to Isaiah, who was prophesying at roughly the same time, and the messages of these two men of God are in harmony. Some have suggested that Micah was a disciple of Isaiah, and while there are similarities in their writing, the two prophets are very different. Isaiah was a member of the upper classes while. Micah was a commoner. Isaiah was polished, and moved in royal circles. Micah was a rough man of the countryside, a prophet of the regular folks.

His background made Micah familiar with the problems of the poor and lower classes of society, and at the same time he was well acquainted with the political corruption of Judah and royal palace. He also knew about the corruption of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and was a contemporary of Amos and Hosea. While the political corruption of his day was rampant, Micah’s biggest concern, and the burden of his heart, was the treatment of the poor and most disadvantaged of his society.

God rebukes sin

The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah—the vision he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem. Hear, you peoples, all of you, listen, earth and all who live in it, that the Sovereign Lord may witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple. (Micah 1:1, 2 | TNIV)

From the get-go, the divine origin of Micah’s message is made obvious – it’s “the word of the Lord” the prophet will speak, not his own word. As Walter Kaiser noted, Micah’s calling is both the source and the authority of what he is about to speak. The Lord’s word is directed to two great cities: Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdon of Israel, and Jerusalem, the capital of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Lord has an axe to grind against these capital cities, and He’s calling the whole world to listen to the moral and spiritual failure of His people. Sin is never a private thing; no believer can hide his sin for long. God essentially called all creation to stop and listen to His words against His people. One scholar put it this way:

Where God has a mouth to speak we must have an ear to hear; we all must, for we are all concerned in what is delivered.

Indeed, God’s Word is for all people, even for those who don’t think they need to hear it.

Micah’s message was a fearsome one, but this prophet was prepared and empowered to give it:

But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin. (Micah 3:8 | TNIV)

A personal God

Verse three gives us some very important information about God:

Look! The Lord is coming from his dwelling place; he comes down and treads on the heights of the earth. (Micah 1:3 | TNIV)

First, God is transcendent for He has a heavenly dwelling place. But, second, God is also immanent, He comes down from that dwelling place to be among people. Those who think God is living afar off and uninvolved in the affairs of His creation are dead wrong. And the appearance of God causes creation to respond.

The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys split apart, like wax before the fire, like water rushing down a slope. (Micah 1:4 | TNIV)

In this instance, God enters the human sphere for judgment, but there are other reasons for His coming to “tread on the heights of the earth:”

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18, 19 | TNIV)

For now though, God is coming not to pardon and forgive, but to render judgment:

All this is because of Jacob’s transgression, because of the sins of the house of Israel. What is Jacob’s transgression? Is it not Samaria? What is Judah’s high place? Is it not Jerusalem? (Micah 1:5 | TNIV)

The sin of idolatry was at the root of God’s judgment of both Judah and Israel. Because of the influence of the Canaanite cults, Israel (Samaria) was giving only the barest of lip service to Yahweh. Meanwhile, the ethical and moral aspects of the Law were also being ignored. Society was breaking down in both Kingdoms, although in the Samaria and the Northern Kingdom, the slide away from the Covenant and the God of the Covenant was happening at a much quicker pace than in Judah to the south.

It’s interesting that how a society treats its own descends from what it thinks of and how it treats the Lord. When a society has a God-centered world-view, or a world-view that takes seriously Biblical teachings and admonitions, it will treat its citizens with dignity and respect.

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 | TNIV)

This is what God expects from His people, and this single verse is probably one of the most memorable in the Old Testament. Let’s take a look at what this verse says. First, there is an expectation on God’s part. He is right to expect a certain type of behavior from the people He created. Man is not ignorant and he knows right from wrong. Even sinful man is expected to maintain a certain level of ethical and moral behavior, but more so from people that are in covenant relationship with Him.

And even though these verses were written to and about Hebrews, Christians are expected to go along with these admonitions because we are in a covenant relationship with God in which the laws of God have been placed within our hearts.

It’s not that God didn’t want His people to be offering sacrifices, even though that’s what it sounds like in verses like this one:

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:7 | TNIV)

The people of Micah’s day had got the sacrifices down pat – they were scrupulously religious. But their behavior didn’t live up to their religion. As far as God was concerned, if your behavior is boorish and if you can’t be bothered to live right, then don’t waste your time offering a sacrifice. You’re not only wasting your time, but God’s as well.

Society breaks down

Here what society looks like when that society ignores God and the teachings of Scripture:

Do not trust a neighbor; put no confidence in a friend. Even with the woman who lies in your embrace be careful of your words. For a son dishonors his father, a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—your enemies are the members of your own household. (Micah 7:5, 6 | TNIV)

When God isn’t in the picture, all restraints against bad behavior are tossed off. Kay Arthur made an interesting observation about our society today:

Our society is filled with runaways, dropouts, and quitters. We have seen others faint or walk away and we have followed in their weakness. We have fainted when we could have persevered by exchanging our strength for His.

She’s not wrong when she writes, “We have seen others faint or walk away and we have followed in their weakness.” Why wouldn’t we follow the bad, horrid example of the majority? Our generation has been told that being in a real, strong relationship with God through Jesus Christ is a myth or is dangerous and that being a person faith is to be a “religious extremist.” Christians today have become just terrible at taking a stand for Christ because it’s been politically incorrect to have that kind of objective faith.

So not only has secular society broken down, Christian society is also circling the drain.

God restores the humble

And that’s the world in which Micah lived and preached. It was a world filled with very religious people whose religion was all show; it was not life changing; it didn’t change the lives of its practitioners or anybody else’s . The people of Micah’s day weren’t serious people, they were people who were playing with their faith and because they didn’t take seriously the covenant they had entered into with God, they were forcing God’s hand of judgment to literally slap them down.

Yet, it’s not all bleak.

But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me. (Micah 7:7 | TNIV)

There’s always hope. Micah knew God and he knew God was a God of mercy who had more than enough power to protect him and meet his needs even while judgment was falling on everybody else. The prophet was sure that God wold vindicate the faithful, after all, not everybody in Israel or Judah was committing idolatry. There is a remnant, and that’s who speaking in verse 8:

Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light. (Micah 7:8 | TNIV)

Over in the New Testament, we learn that the remnant of believers in any age may have complete confidence that God hasn’t forgotten about them and God will help them and will eventually vindicate and restore them.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:18 | TNIV)

That’s really a stunning verse. Nothing, not even the gates of death, can stop the church. The “gates of death” or “gates of hell” is the extreme, meaning that if something as extreme as the “gates of death” can’t stop the church, then nothing else can. Ultimately the remnant of the faithful will triumph.

Because I have sinned against him, I will bear the Lord’s wrath, until he pleads my case and establishes my right. He will bring me out into the light; I will see his righteousness. (Micah 7:9 | TNIV)

Micah knew God was right in judging His people. They deserved it. But the remnant would sit and wait patiently to be restored. The punishment would only last a little while; the true believer would be vindicated and restored, if not in this world then certainly in the next.

The Minor Prophets, Part 4

The Old Testament prophetic book written by Jonah is a favorite among Christians because it’s easy to understand and, let’s face it, who doesn’t like a story about a man swallowed by a huge fish who lives to tell about it? Reading Jonah’s experiences brings to mind a quote from another story about a man, Captain Ahab, whose quest was the great whale:

Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.

Mellville understood people – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we all need mending. Jonah needed mending, but in spite of that, God still used him to accomplish His purposes. And the process of doing the will of God while “dreadfully cracked about the head,” was part of the mending this rebellious prophet needed.

Probably the best commentary on Jonah’s four chapters is a single verse found over in Psalm 103:

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. (Psalm 103:8 | TNIV)

W.W. Sloan, who was professor of Bible at Elon College, wrote this about the book of Jonah:

The book of Jonah comes closer to New Testament teachings than any other book in the Hebrew Scriptures. Its central theme is that God is interested in all people whatever their nationality or race and expects those who know him to dedicate themselves to sharing that knowledge.

To that task the prophet Jonah was called. He was a real man and a prophet by profession, unlike some of the other minor prophets. He lived in Gath-hepher, the son of Amittai. He preached in the Northern Kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II about 786-746 B.C. (II Kings 14: 25) and was an early contemporary of Hosea and Amos. What Jonah did after preaching in Nineveh the Bible does not say. Tradition tells us that he was buried in Nineveh on a site now marked by a mosque.

A surprising call

Even though Jonah was a prophet in Israel, God called him to leave Israel and go to a heathen nation to preach a message. Specifically, God wanted Jonah to go to a city called Nineveh, which was the second-largest city in the region, and was located some 500 miles from Israel. Actually, Nineveh was located near modern-day Mosul, in Iraq. It would have take our prophet almost a month to get there.

Go to the great city Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord. (Jonah 1:2, 3 | TNIV)

It wasn’t the month-long journey that caused Jonah to run away from the Lord. It was the fact that Jonah didn’t like the assignment God had given him. Nineveh was a godless city, full of godless people and Jonah didn’t want to have anything to do with it. To understand Jonah’s reasoning, you have to understand how the Hebrews understood their covenant with God. To them, Jehovah was their God and nobody else’s. His covenant was with them, not with the people in Nineveh. Yet here he was, being charged with delivering a message from his God to a violent, oppressive people. In person, to make matters worse! Jonah’s response was a knee-jerk one, for sure. It’s hard to imagine a man of God thinking he could actually outrun God simply by going in the opposite direction. But rebellion against God never makes sense.

Obviously God wasn’t at all happy with Jonah’s blatant rebellion:

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. (Jonah 1:4 | TNIV)

There was always bad weather, but this storm was unprecedented; it was caused by God, brought on by one man’s bad decision. The question that might be entering your mind, Why would God threaten the lives of all those sailors because of one man’s rebellion?, is a valid one. The answer is found over in the New Testament:

God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. (Romans 11:29 | TNIV)

God had called Jonah to be a prophet and He’s not going to let Jonah go and He’s not going to let Jonah call the shots. To the credit of these sailors, they understood something was up and they knew Jonah was the cause of this bad weather.

This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.). (Jonah 1:10 | TNIV)

You have to hand it to these sailors; they had more faith in God than the prophet Jonah did! Sailors were well-known for tossing overboard people they didn’t like or people who broke the rules, but they seemed to be cut Jonah some slack. Soon, though, they had no choice:

Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. (Jonah 1:15, 16 | TNIV)

Verse 16 is a remarkable verse. Because of what Jonah did, these me found the Lord! There’s no other way to read it: These men “feared the Lord and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.” These hardened men, superstitious sailors who had no relationship with God whatsoever, found faith through the actions of a rebellious man of God! That’s how God works. No, the Lord didn’t condone what Jonah did, He didn’t cause Jonah to bolt and run, but He did make something good come of it. These men found God when they otherwise wouldn’t have.

A surprising response

We know the story well. A giant fish swallowed up our wayward prophet. What a fall from grace: from prophet to fish bait! Jonah, sinking like a rock surely thought he was descending to his judgment, ended up in the most unlikeliest of places. It seems crazy, but here’s what happened next:

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. (Jonah 2:1 | TNIV)

Dwight L. Moody once remarked that if we could send all young preachers to hell for a while, they would all come back better preachers. Here, God was trying to make a better preacher out of Jonah. Half-stunned, scared to death, Jonah examined his surroundings and came to the right conclusion: He decided to pray. He was wrong to run, but right to pray. While Jonah did the right thing in praying, nowhere does it say that God was pleased that he prayed. God was with Jonah in the belly of the fish, but we know the whole story: This really didn’t change Jonah that much. Sure, he came out of the fish and did what God wanted him to do, but he was still stubborn and rebellious. Sometimes it takes hell to get some people to pray, but you have to wonder how genuine the person really is.

If you read the whole prayer, you’ll notice something very interesting. Notice what’s there:

• Praise is there.
• Worship is there.
• Thanksgiving is there.
• Sacrifice is there.
• Vows are there.
• God’s sovereignty in salvation is there.

But nowhere does Jonah repent. Nowhere does he say he’s sorry for what he did. Yet, we read this:

And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. (Jonah 2:10 | TNIV)

Jonah went from prophet to fish bait to fish vomit all within three days. By now, covered in slime and feeling pretty low, this one-time prophet was probably regretting buying that boat ticket to Joppa. God came through for Jonah and, as God is wont to do, picked up right where He left of:

Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”. (Jonah 3:2 | TNIV)

God was determined to get His man to Nineveh to preach what He wanted him to preach, and so Jonah, the reluctant prophet, was given a second chance. God could have left him in the fish or saved his life but moved on to some other prophet, but God saw in Jonah something worth the trouble. However, if you look at the sailor’s response and compare it Jonah’s, you can see the difference in how each responded to the Lord.

Our God is definitely good at giving second chances to people who mess it up the first time. Over in the New Testament, for example, there was Peter. He was first commissioned in the early chapters of Mark and Luke, but fell from grace and washed up as an apostle. By the end of John’s gospel, he had been recommissioned by the risen Lord, restored to service.

Too bad we followers of Jesus aren’t as good at emulating that part of our Lord’s character. I sometimes think we’re much harder on our fellows than God is. When Mark fouled things up on a missionary trip, Paul didn’t want anything to do with him. Now, to Paul’s credit, he did later patch things up with Mark and recognized the younger preacher’s abilities and value.

Speaking of responding to God, the response of the people of Nineveh to Jonah’s preaching was nothing less than spectacular!

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. (Jonah 3:3 – 5 | TNIV)

And because the people, from the lowliest citizen to the king, believed the Word of God and repented, God’s wrath was stayed and the great city was spared. One could say that Jonah was one of the most successful preachers – if not the most successful preacher – of all time. An entire metropolis heard his sermon and responded to it the right way! This was surely the greatest revival ever.

Jonah’s anger and God’s compassion

Instead of reveling in his success as a preacher and rejoicing that lives had been spared, Jonah’s actions were quite the opposite:

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. (Jonah 4:1 | TNIV)

The contrast between the prophet and his God is stark. While God was more than pleased with the response of the Ninevites to His Word, Jonah was not. This prophet is not about to recognize these new converts as his spiritual brothers and sisters. Recall what Jonah had said from the belly of the fish:

But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’ “. (Jonah 2:9 | TNIV)

In other words, God saves whomever He wants, whenever He wants, and wherever He wants. God is absolutely sovereign when it comes to salvation. Jonah understood this and declared it and here, now when he disagrees with God, he backtracks.

He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. (Jonah 4:2 | TNIV)

Not only was this man unhappy with what God had done (or not done), he actually left the area without God’s permission. He left when his new converts needed him the most. He was only concerned about himself; his own comfort and reputation. But God was going to teach this prophet a lesson.

Then the Lord God provided a gourd and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the gourd. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the gourd so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”. (Jonah 4:6 – 9 | TNIV)

It’s all about Jonah now. And yet the point of the story goes way beyond one Israelite prophet and strikes at the problem with the nation of Israel in general. Jonah was a product of his time and culture. Israel was an arrogant, petulant nation who thought they owned God; they thought they had His ear and attention to the exclusion of all other nations. And they had deluded themselves into believing that no matter how they behaved, God would always bow to them. Jonah was the embodiment of his entire society.

Jonah’s name means “dove,” but he was just another angry bird thinking he knew more than God did.

We don’t know what became of Jonah. Did he learn his lesson? Did he return to Israel to live out his years serving God? History is silent. But we do know what happened to Nineveh: They squandered the chance they had been given. Some fifty years later, Nineveh, as part of the Assyrian Empire, invaded Israel and destroyed it, taking the people captive. From that point on, the ten northern tribes ceased to exist as nation. Jonah had no idea how high the stakes were in saving Nineveh; in bringing those godless people to salvation.

Dr Dean Cook’s observations on the prophet Jonah are worth reproducing:

But who is he really? Could Jonah be that little worm that eats God’s vine? It is certainly interesting that God places this little creature in the story at the critical moment when He is appealing to Jonah to change his attitude and join God’s holy mission. Jonah would certainly not be the first or last “worm” that harmed or destroyed God’s work, rather than build on it. Jonah either cannot or will not see the big picture God places before him. His god and his heart are far too small.

 

 

The Minor Prophets, Part 3

All we know about the prophet Amos is what his book of prophecies tells us, which is precious little.

Amos was a herdsman living in the village of Tekoa. All day long he sat on the hillsides watching the sheep, keeping them from straying. (Amos 1:1 | TLB)

But Amos replied, “I am not really one of the prophets. I do not come from a family of prophets. I am just a herdsman and fruit picker.” (Amos 7:14 | TLB)

And that’s about it, as far as the Living Bible is concerned. This man Amos was not a prophet by training. He was just a herdsman who tended to his sheep and a fruit picker who looked after trees.. The man’s character and ideals were forged by the rough Judean wilderness in which he lived and worked.

Turning to another translation, verse 1 is slightly different:

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel. (Amos 1:1 | TNIV)

Amos’ prophetic word concerned Israel. This may refer to both Israel and Judah, but most scholars are convinced Amos is dealing with the Northern Kingdom. His work as a prophet took place during the reigns of Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam of Israel. The mention of these two Kings tells us a little about the world in which Amos lived, the 8th century BC.

Historians tell us this time period was somewhat unique for both Kingdoms. During the late 7th century BC and early 8th century BC, Israel fell into a deep depression and was for all intents and purposes subjugated by a foreign power. Judah would have certainly collapsed had King Hezekiah not come to power to reverse it’s regression to ruin.

Yet at the same time, it was during this century that the “writing prophet” rose to prominence in both Israel and Judah. They came from very diverse backgrounds but they spoke and wrote with great authority. These men of God denounced the sinfulness and rebellion of their nations and wrote about the near and far futures. Their often stunning visions concerned both Jew and Gentile alike.

In spite of the horrible economic and spiritual shape of Israel and Judah, the 8th century BC brought a renewed sense of hope to each Kingdom. Israel’s subjugation to Damascus came to an end thanks to the Assyrians, who decimated Damascus in 802 BC. The political and religious problems that plagued Judah vanished when King Uzziah ascended to the throne. His rule saw Judah prosper both economically and spiritually.

Meanwhile, in Israel under Jeroboam II, Israel prospered along with Judah. Thanks to the sturdy leadership of both kings, Israel and Judah enjoyed a kind of second golden age, second only to the time of Solomon. But even as their economic well-being and national strength grew and brought about a sense of security to citizens, the internal, spiritual decay was eating both kingdoms alive. The biggest problem for both Israel and Judah was a long lasting, almost continual violation of the great covenant established by God at Mt. Sinai.

This was Amos’ world.

Judgment is inescapable

One day, in a vision, God told him some of the things that were going to happen to his nation, Israel. This vision came to him at the time Uzziah was king of Judah and while Jeroboam (son of Joash) was king of Israel-two years before the earthquake. This is his report of what he saw and heard: The Lord roared-like a ferocious lion from his lair-from his Temple on Mount Zion. And suddenly the lush pastures of Mount Carmel withered and dried, and all the shepherds mourned. (Amos 1:2 | TLB)

Amos means “burden,” and surely what he saw was a terrific burden. To make his burden even heavier was the fact that nobody wanted to hear it. Times were getting good. Both nations seemed to be roaring back to economic, military, and cultural strength in spite of their sin and rebellion. Here comes this shepherd with his talk of judgment from God. He was, to his people, all bark and no bite. As Longfellow observed,

Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.

Whether the people realized it or not, and whether they cared to acknowledge it or not, judgment from God was coming. Amos mentioned an earthquake that the people would have remembered. It wasn’t part of God’s judgment, but Amos brings it up as he begins his message of judgment. The people may not have been able to get their minds wrapped around a coming divine judgment, but they would remember how devastating that earthquake was! Assuming Amos gave this word around 762 BC, then Israel would have had 40 years to repent or face the onslaught of the Assyrians.

This is what the Lord God showed me in a vision: He was preparing a vast swarm of locusts to destroy all the main crop that sprang up after the first mowing, which went as taxes to the king. Then the Lord God showed me a great fire he had prepared to punish them; it had burned up the waters and was devouring the entire land. Then he showed me this: The Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, checking it with a plumb line to see if it was straight. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” I answered, “A plumb line.” And he replied, “I will test my people with a plumb line. I will no longer turn away from punishing. The idol altars and temples of Israel will be destroyed, and I will destroy the dynasty of King Jeroboam by the sword.”. (Amos 7:1, 4, 7 – 9 | TLB)

The coming judgment would prove to be unrelenting. In chapters 3 – 6, Amos gives the reasons for this judgment. Essentially the people had habitually ignored God’s covenants. God was a faithful partner, but they were not. In chapters 7 – 9, God describes the results of His judgment.

Before facing the Assyrians, Israel would first face a locust invasion unlike any other. Locusts figure prominently in the Minor Prophets, and while Israel faced dreadful locust invasions regularly, one was coming that would be unprecedented and it would be a mini-judgment foreshadowing a much greater one.

What’s worse than the locusts was the threat of fire, in verse 4. There would be an all-consuming fire that would hit the land. Amos interceded and the Lord relented.

In the third vision, Amos saw the Lord holding a plumb line in His hand. In the old days, a plumb line was used to make sure walls were built straight up and down. God would check the nation He built; the one that used to be true to plumb – straight up and down – but was now out of line and needed to be torn down. Unlike the other visions Amos saw, there was no recovering from this judgment and God would not relent. God’s people would soon find out the truthfulness of something Leonard Ravenhill wrote:

Our God is a consuming fire. He consumes pride, lust, materialism and other sins.

God can also be a wrecking ball; smashing down the walls we build around our little kingdoms.

Woeful life of a prophet

Amos was preaching a series of sermons to people who had no interest in hearing what he had to say. Even the religious leaders of his day despised the prophet.

But when Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, heard what Amos was saying, he rushed a message to Jeroboam, the king: “Amos is a traitor to our nation and is plotting your death. This is intolerable. It will lead to rebellion all across the land. He says you will be killed and Israel will be sent far away into exile and slavery.” Then Amaziah sent orders to Amos, “Get out of here, you prophet, you! Flee to the land of Judah and do your prophesying there! Don’t bother us here with your visions, not here in the capital where the king’s chapel is!” But Amos replied, “I am not really one of the prophets. I do not come from a family of prophets. I am just a herdsman and fruit picker. But the Lord took me from caring for the flocks and told me, ‘Go and prophesy to my people Israel.’ “Now, therefore, listen to this message to you from the Lord. You say, ‘Don’t prophesy against Israel.’ The Lord’s reply is this: ‘Because of your interference, your wife will become a prostitute in this city, your sons and daughters will be killed, and your land divided up. You yourself will die in a heathen land, and the people of Israel will certainly become slaves in exile, far from their land.'” (Amos 7:10 – 17 | TLB)

This group of verses interrupts Amos’ visions and they give us some interesting information about the prophet himself.

Amaziah was the chief priest at Bethel, which was one of the state-sanctioned sanctuaries established by Jeroboam when he split from Jerusalem. It was designed to copy the religious system of Judah (the Southern Kingdom) and bring stability to Israel (the Northern Kingdom). This priest had accused Amos of conspiracy, and I love his attitude. He declares that he “wasn’t a professional prophet,” hired to say things against the king, but just a man of humble circumstance who simply heeded the call of God.

Furthermore, he did not “conspire against” the king, as Amaziah as he had been charged. The prophet who condemns the evil is not the cause of the evil, or of the punishment that follows the evil, and Amos wasn’t the first prophet of God to be held responsible for the judgment to come. Evil king Ahab had his run-in with Elijah, and Elijah’s reply is classic:

So it’s you, is it?-the man who brought this disaster upon Israel!” Ahab exclaimed when he saw him. “You’re talking about yourself,” Elijah answered. “For you and your family have refused to obey the Lord and have worshiped Baal instead. (1 Kings 18:17, 18 | TLB)

The people hated him and his prophecies of judgements because they knew he was right and that God was indeed justified in taking action against them.

A sad end

That Israel’s days were numbered was obvious to Amos and other prophets. The people, though, high on a return to prosperity and military soundness had no interest in what Amos was saying and didn’t believe him. Here were people who grew up surrounded by the Word of God. In fact, any time they wanted to, they could return to their roots of pure faith. The Assyrians were at the door, but something something else – something unexpected – was about to befall Israel:

The time is surely coming,” says the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land-not a famine of bread or water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. Men will wander everywhere from sea to sea, seeking the word of the Lord, searching, running here and going there, but will not find it. Beautiful girls and fine young men alike will grow faint and weary, thirsting for the word of God. (Amos 8:11 – 13 | TLB)

These people who didn’t want to hear the Word of God one day would be UNABLE to hear the Word of God. God would give them their desire: A life without a single word from Him. The Assyrians would take away their homes, their jobs, their lands, and everything they held dear. God would remove His Word from their lives.

So it was that when they gave God up and would not even acknowledge him, God gave them up to doing everything their evil minds could think of. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness and sin, of greed and hate, envy, murder, fighting, lying, bitterness, and gossip. (Romans 1:28, 29 | TLB)

It musn’t have been easy for Amost to preach sermons like he did to people he knew and grew up around. But it was God’s own word for them, nonetheless. And God’s Word is, after all, as sharp as a double-edged sword.

The Minor Prophets, Part 2

Joel is like a caricature of what most people think the minor prophets are all about. His ministry, like most prophets, took place during a terrible crisis: a locus plague and a drought. It was an extraordinarily bad time for Judah; the food stocks were running low and the outlook was bleak indeed.

In the locust invasion, Joel saw something else: the coming of the fearsome Day of the Lord when the Lord would lead an army against His own people in judgment. It sounds monotonous, but the the biggest problem with Joel’s people was that they were outwardly religious but inwardly far, far from God.

Nobody is sure when the locust plague took place or the drought. There are no references anywhere in Joel’s book to help us pinpoint a date. The fact that it is sandwiched between Hosea and Amos is irrelevant. Yet even with a shroud of mystery around it, Joel is an important piece of writing for modern Christians to take note of. God’s people always face one crisis or another and Joel’s words speak to us as much as they spoke to the people of his generation.

Call on God

The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel. (Joel 1:1 | NIV84)

Here’s about all we know concerning Joel. His father’s name was Pethuel, a nice name which means “openheartedness” or “sincerity of God.” And that’s it. But the value in verse 1 are the opening words, “the word of the Lord that came to Joel.” This tells us that Joel’s words – the next three chapters, weren’t his idea, they were God’s. Joel was just a spokesman for the Almighty.

What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten. (Joel 1:4 | NIV84)

The locust plague was bad – the worst ever experienced by Israel. These insects came in waves, upon unrelenting waves, leaving nothing in their wake. Joel addressed the elders of the community first because they held positions of responsibility and influence. He challenges them to look at what was going on and compare it with past events, and to recognize that what was happening to them was unprecedented.

While the elders were his main audience, Joel wanted all citizens of the land to think about the plague and devastation and to pass on what they’ve learned to their children. This is important for modern Christian parents to take note of. It’s important to develop a Biblical worldview; to view the events and circumstances of the world and be able to put them into a perspective that has God and His Word at the center.

The destruction caused by this locust infestation was not unique, but that wasn’t Joel’s point. It was the degree of the destruction that made the locust attack in Joel’s time an extraordinary event and it was primarily what the locust plague exposed about the people’s relationship to God. They had drifted from Him and were consequently unprepared to face the crisis. That’s not an unimportant lesson. When God is at the center of your worldview, life is seen in perfect perspective. That goes for a locust plague.

This is something children need to be taught, hence Joel’s admonition.

Mourn like a virgin in sackcloth grieving for the husband of her youth. Grain offerings and drink offerings are cut off from the house of the Lord.The priests are in mourning,, those who minister before the Lord. The fields are ruined, the ground is dried up; the grain is destroyed, the new wine is dried up, the oil fails. (Joel 1:8-10 | NIV84)

The locusts had ruined the national economy, but far worse was the state of the spiritual lives of the people. The worship of God had been compromised. Why weren’t they concerned about that? In response to that – the fact that offerings couldn’t be made, not the plague itself – the people were to mourn like an espoused virgin whose intended was taken just before the wedding.

Mourning over what a ruined economy does to the Church of Jesus Christ is the proper perspective for a Christian to take, but how many of us have that perspective? When the downturn occurs, all we think about is how it affects us, rarely do we think about how it affects the Church. A Biblical worldview demands all the events of your life be viewed with an eye to their connection to the Lord.

Alas for that day! For the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. (Joel 1:15 | TNIV)

Joel made that connection. He rightly viewed the locust plague as sort of “mini day of the Lord.” The proper day of the Lord refers to the end times when the world is a complete mess just before Jesus Christ returns in glory and judgment.. In our lives, crises invade like a plague of locusts sometimes and produce that kind of “mini day of the Lord,” too. God uses the circumstances of our lives to remind us that we are accountable to Him for the way we live and to remind us that He is there, watching.

Repent

Chapter 1 looked at events that were happening in the here and now. But in chapter 2, Joel looks to the future. The events of chapter 1 served as a warning of things to come and now with a new chapter, Joel wanted his readers to know for sure that a real day of the Lord was coming.

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come. (Joel 2:1, 2 | TNIV)

The “mighty army” Joel sees here is the Assyrian army, an army so large and all-consuming, it will be “locust-like.” Now we know that the locust plague of the first chapter was a precursor of the plague-like Assyrian army. And the judgment wrought by the coming Assyrian army would be in turn a precursor of a greater judgment to come at the end times. The prophet Isaiah described this period of time this way:

Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. See, the day of the Lord is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. (Isaiah 13:6, 9, 10 | TNIV)

And another minor prophet, Amos, described the day of the Lord like this:

Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? (Amos 5:20 | TNIV)

The coming day of the Lord will be a time of great distress, destruction, and judgment. Remarkably, we read this in Joel 2:11 –

The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty is the army that obeys his command. The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it? (NIV)

It was the Lord who was calling the shots, not the Assyrians. God is ultimately in control, and in the case of Israel, He used the Assyrians to judge His wayward, rebellious people. But, all is not lost:

Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing—grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God. (Joel 2:12 – 14 | NIV)

So severe will be the coming judgment (“Who can endure it?”) that God provides an out. Judgment is coming; there is no escape. But, a person can prepare for it: Return to God. Repentance is the only way out of a bad situation. In light of the coming judgment, Joel wanted his people to respond the only way that made sense: Pray. The prophet saw a broken and contrite heart as the only response to a holy God. As important as outward acts of worship may be, the condition of the heart is more important to God. Joel’s people had the acts of worship down to a “T,” but their hearts had strayed far from Him. It was essential for them to get their hearts back to the a right condition in light of the coming judgment.

God’s Mercy and Judgment

Then the Lord was jealous for his land and took pity on his people. (Joel 2:18 | NIV)

When people turn to God in repentance, His promise is clear: He will have pity on them. He would restore them (verse 19), and would take away the threat of invasion (verse 20). There you have it. Israel need not have been destroyed. The destruction caused by the Assyrians need never have happened had the people repented and changed.

But there’s more yet:

I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm—my great army that I sent among you. You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed.” (Joel 2:25, 26 | NIV)

This is God’s continued response to the repentance of His people. Should they truly repent, God would restore them and more. Of course, what we’re reading here is completely conditional on the people. Will they truly repent? If so, then God would fulfill His promises. Of course, we know they didn’t.

In between verses 27 and 28 is a gap of many centuries.

And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:28, 29 | NIV)

Peter referred to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts as the fulfillment of these two verses. Up to this point, God’s covenant people are in view, but here God widens the scope of blessing: All people would be blessed by the coming of the Holy Spirit, not just the Jews. Young and old, male or female, regardless of social status, all believers would be filled with God’s Spirit personally.

And in between verses 28 and 29 is yet another gap of an indeterminate number of years:

I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (Joel 2:30, 31 | NIV)

Eschatologically speaking, these things will take place during the future day of the Lord, beginning with Daniel’s 70th week, a period of time known as the the Tribulation.

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls. (Joel 2:32 | NIV)

Both Peter and Paul take this verse in a universal sense, but Joel had in mind a faithful remnant who would call upon the name of the Lord. This is one of many examples of Bible prophecies that meant one thing when originally spoken but in light of the New Testament, have come to mean something more. Of course, Joel had no idea how Peter or Paul would apply his words, but the Holy Spirit did.

The promise is forever established in Heaven. Everyone who calls upon God will be saved. Period.


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